How Christian Privilege Shows Up During the Holiday Season

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, Happy Chinese Food Day to those who don’t! I’ve got a piece up at Everyday Feminism about how this time of year makes Christian privilege easier to spot and understand.

As a kid growing up in a secular Russian-Jewish family in a particularly Christian part of Ohio, I dreaded Christmas.

It was the day all my friends and classmates got dozens of presents from all their family and relatives while I sat at home with no one to hang out with and nowhere to go.

Although my family celebrated our own holidays – Hanukkah, Purim, New Year’s Eve, and others – it was hard not to feel left out of the most wonderful time of the year.

As I got older, I got over my Christmas envy and started to take a lot more pride in my own celebrations, traditions, and rituals. But the experience of growing up as a religious and cultural outsider in my community stuck with me, and now I use it as a lens through which I can understand and analyze Christian privilege.

Like other forms of privilege, Christian privilege is the idea that Christians are afforded unearned benefits in our society that other religious groups and atheists do not receive.

These unearned benefits can be subtle, such as seeing their beliefs portrayed positively in the media, and not-so-subtle, such as being safe from the bullying and violence many non-Christians experience as a result of their beliefs (or lack thereof).

Non-Christians experience marginalization differently depending on their particular identity. Atheists are subject to certain stigmas and prejudices because they do not believe in a deity at all, while Muslims face Islamophobia, which intersects with racism.

Though my own experiences as a Jewish atheist have shaped my understanding of Christian privilege, they are not at all universal.

While examples of Christian privilege abound throughout the year, they can be especially easy to notice during the holiday season.

Here are five ways Christians and Christianity are privileged at this time of year that I’d like to highlight in order to help us understand how we can be more inclusive of people of other or no religions.

1. Christians Are Much More Likely to Have Their Holidays Off Work

Before I get into this, it’s important to note that getting paid time off work at all is a form of class privilege. Many people work jobs that don’t allow or guarantee paid time off for holidays.

Those are the people working long hours to make sure that you get your Black Friday deals and last-minute Christmas turkey from the supermarket, and we shouldn’t leave them out of this discussion.

But those workplaces that do close on holidays tend only to close on the Christian ones.

Christians with class privilege get to spend their holidays with loved ones; the rest of us often don’t, class privilege or not.

2. Christians With Hearing Privilege Encounter Music Celebrating Their Holiday Everywhere They Go This Month

Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas music. I’m not entirely sure why – maybe it just brings positive memories of winter break and school band concerts and playing in the snow.

For many other non-Christians, though, the prevalence of Christmas music at this time of year is a constant, grating reminder of the fact that our traditions and celebrations remain largely invisible.

You’ll hear plenty of songs about baby Jesus and Santa Claus, but you won’t hear much about ancient wars in Jerusalem or about the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

And, sure, maybe there aren’t nearly as many songs out there about non-Christian holidays (though I’m sure there are more than we realize).

That’s why the ubiquitous Christmas music isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but rather a very visible symptom of the deeper issue: the fact that one particular religion pervades American society so completely.

Read the rest here.

“You’re in my prayers.”

[Content note: mentions of grief, loss, illness]

I follow The Best of Tumblr on Facebook for the cat photos and pop culture jokes, but recently I saw this:

[Text version here.]

I’ll admit that I used to subscribe to this way of thinking, even as an atheist. But a few things changed my mind: 1) understanding more about what it means to comfort someone, 2) learning about the dynamics of Christian privilege, and 3) listening to the experiences of those who found religion abusive.

First of all, the point of comforting someone who’s going through some shit is to help them. To help them, not yourself. While that doesn’t make intent totally irrelevant–I’ll get to that in a bit–it does mean that you need to at least try to help them in the way that they would want to be helped, not in the way that you would want to be helped. The Golden Rule is a nice thing to teach children but eventually we need more nuanced and empathic ways of looking at things.

That’s why, as I discussed in my previous post, “How can I support you?” and variants thereof is a great approach. But many Christians don’t even pause to consider that the person they’re speaking to might not be religious, and that–as I’ll also get to in a bit–is an example of Christian privilege. Much of the time, they’re not going out of their way to alienate and irritate atheists; they just conveniently forget that atheists even exist. The idea that someone might not pray, or care about your prayer, is simply invisible.

Where does intent fit in? Well, it can make a difference, but not a huge one. As I’ve written previously:

Not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them. If someone accidentally breaks my nice vase, I might be glad in the back of my mind that they didn’t do it on purpose, but I might still be annoyed that they weren’t being careful around my nice vase, especially if they are often clumsy and break people’s things by accident. The analogy holds up for saying/doing bigoted things, too. People who say/do them rarely do so just once.

I’m not going to respect you just for not meaning to say hurtful things. That’s one of those bare-minimum-of-being-a-decent-human-being things. Actively seeking information on how not to be hurtful, on the other hand, is a rarer and more important habit to have.

The intent of phrases like “You’re in my prayers” can be especially difficult to parse. For many atheists, intentionally manipulative deployment of such phrases by Christians is a really common microaggression. They say it to us not because they don’t realize we don’t believe, but because they know we don’t. It’s a power move: “I know this means nothing to you [or even hurts you], but I’m going to say it anyway.”

That doesn’t mean that all (or even most) Christians say it for that reason, obviously. It does mean that almost all atheists have had it said to them for that reason, though. It shouldn’t be surprising that many atheists really don’t want to hear it anymore.

At this point, someone usually puts forth that, yes, sometimes referencing religion in these situations can be self-serving or even passive-aggressive and manipulative, and sure, it’s not ideal, but can’t we just assume good intent and force out a smile and a “thank you”?

Well, assuming good intent and being polite are definitely things I generally encourage because they make social interaction smoother and less stressful, but it’s a heavy burden to place on someone who just lost a loved one or got diagnosed with a terminal illness. I’m glad we seem to have all this empathy for socially awkward Christians who just want to comfort you the best way they know how, but how about some empathy for the person going through the fucking trauma? Maybe they’re not at their best when they’re burying their mother or lying in a hospital bed. Maybe that’s okay.

Further, being able to assume good intent is a privilege. It’s a function of your position in society and the experiences you’ve had as a result. That doesn’t mean it’s bad! It’s great! But not everyone can do it and it’s unreasonable and small-minded to demand that they do.

(This applies along all axes of oppression. When you see a police officer approaching, do you worry that you might die? If not, you’re probably not Black.)

Why might an atheist be unable to assume good intent from a Christian? Religious folks and more-fortunate atheists often erase or disregard the fact that many atheists have had coercive and abusive experiences with religion. Some consider their time in religious spaces to have been traumatizing.

And when you’ve experienced a trauma, little reminders of it can be overwhelming.

Before you rush in with #NotAllReligiousSpaces, remember that it doesn’t matter. Not all religious spaces, but theirs was. It would be good to see more religious folks and more atheists acknowledge this reality. Many are still dismissive or openly contemptuous of the idea that religion can be traumatizing.

Viewed through this angle, a certain amount of snappiness or impoliteness from an atheist being told that “At least your mother is smiling down on you from heaven” makes much more sense. But there’s another way in which Christian privilege plays out in this situation, and that’s in our (yes, atheists’ too) perceptions of tone and “politeness.”

Look at that post again. “Some egotistical shit about being an atheist” often, in my experience, refers to comments like “Actually, I’m an atheist.” Not “fuck you I’m an atheist,” not “take your religion and shove it up your ass,” but “Actually, I’m an atheist.” This is what’s so often perceived as “some egotistical shit” and people who say it are apparently viewed by some as “emotionally inept morons.” (Sorry, the ableist wording was not my choice.)

And while it’s apparently “egotistical” to reference one’s atheism in response to an explicitly religious comment, it’s somehow not “egotistical” to reference one’s religion in response to someone else’s trauma. It’s somehow not “egotistical” to offer unsolicited help that’s not what the person needs, without bothering to ask what they need, and then getting offended when that help is rejected as irrelevant.

This sort of double standard pervades all oppressive dynamics, and religion/atheism is no exception.

When a person with a marked/stigmatized identity does something someone doesn’t like, that identity often gets dragged in to explain it. That’s why an atheist getting snappy about a religious comment following a tragic loss is obviously snappy because they’re an atheist, not because they just lost a loved one and don’t have a lot of emotional energy left to micromanage their responses and perform politeness.

And, look, getting snapped at is an occupational hazard of interacting with someone who’s going through a ton of pain, whether it’s physical, mental, or some combination. If you want to support someone in pain, you need to set a bit of yourself aside and be prepared for some rudeness. That doesn’t mean you have to put up with it indefinitely, and it certainly doesn’t justify anything abusive, but you also don’t get to demand that they be impeccably polite and patient with you while they’re in pain, especially if you’re (unintentionally or otherwise) making that pain worse.

Just as people often try to help others in order to satisfy their own needs, people often reference religion to those going through bad things for the sake of their own coping. Watching someone go through a terrible illness or a painful loss is difficult, and praying or thinking about God’s Ultimate Plan can be comforting for those who believe in such things. So naturally they’d verbalize what they’re thinking. It’s not necessarily the grand selfless act this Tumblr post makes it out to be. Neither is it necessarily a cruel and manipulative act (though it can be); it’s very human to assume that others’ minds work the way ours do.

That it’s human doesn’t make it empirically accurate. It also doesn’t make it kind, let alone the kindest sentiment someone could possibly express. It doesn’t obligate someone who’s suffering a trauma or tragedy to put on a good face to spare that person’s feelings.

The kindest thing you could do for someone in pain is to set aside your own opinions on how they ought to be helped and help them the way they want to be helped.

~~~

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Secular Students Week Guest Post: Benjamin Karpf

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Here’s my last Secular Students Week post! Student activist Benjamin Karpf talks about the importance of building community for secular people–something that we sometimes overlook in favor of the “bigger” issues we face as nontheists. 

My name is Benjamin Karpf. In my freshman year at the University of Central Florida, I started looking into various organizations to try and get involved. Of the ones I looked into freshman year, I am only still an active member of one: I am the president of the Secular Student Alliance at UCF.

I had become familiar with the group through my older brother, who was one of the club’s first members and earliest officers.  So when I found the time, I started attending the meetings, then the potlucks, and by the end of the semester I was a regular presence at the table that gets set up three days a week in front of the school’s Student Union.

I became more and more active in the club as time went on, meeting more of the local secular community. I became closer with people in the club and have felt very active in the group’s work in making sure people of all beliefs get treated fairly.

The more time I spent with the club, the more I realized how important organizations like the Secular Student Alliance are. A lot of members of the group had never really had a secular community before coming here. A lot of them had trouble with their faith and needed the support. Some of them had been ostracized from their family and friends, while others had been keeping it a secret out of fear they would be similarly ostracized.

The Secular Student Alliance at UCF is constantly doing things, such as weekly meetings, social events, tabling, volunteering, raising awareness for secular issues, hosting support groups, going to community events, and hosting events of our own. That list may make it seem like a bit of boasting on my end, but the reason I wanted to list those things is because none of them would’ve been possible without the support of our national affiliate, the Secular Student Alliance. Since we formed, the national organization has provided us with funding, community resources, and helped us organize large scale events, such as this year’s Openly Secular Day where the sent us speakers from around the country. With their support the community has managed to thrive on campus, and I know that because of them, these communities are growing on campuses across the country.

That is why any support you can give to the Secular Student Alliance is so important: to help the students around the country who need their work to finally feel accepted.

If you’d like to donate to the SSA’s campaign, today’s the last day! Every little bit helps!

Secular Students Week Guest Post: Tim Kolanko

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Continuing Secular Students Week, I’ve got a guest post from Tim Kolanko, a student activist who was able to use the SSA’s support to bring a speaker to raise awareness of intersex issues and medical malpractice.

I’m Tim Kolanko, President of the Northern Illinois University Secular Student Alliance. A few weeks ago, the national Secular Student Alliance gave my group a grant so we could hold an awesome event, “The Gender Binary and LGBTI People: Religious Myth and Medical Malpractice.” Thanks to their funding, we were able to bring in Dr. Veronica Drantz and two intersex activists to talk about how LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) people have been and continue to be victims of medical malpractice purely because they are neither Adams nor Eves.

Psychiatrists, surgeons, endocrinologists, pediatricians, and other medical experts have subjected LGBTI people to bogus and horrific treatments with reckless disregard for patient health and well-being―all the while ignoring the basic tenets of medical ethics and the ever-growing scientific evidence showing LGBTI people to be natural variations. This talk contrasted the scientific evidence with the ongoing medical (mis)treatment of LGBTI people to vividly illustrate the insidious effect of the biblical creation myth.

The event included an hour-long presentation of Dr. Drantz laying out the scientific evidence having to do with sexual development, sexual orientation, and gender identity, arguing that LGBTI people are natural variations. Her presentation was followed by the emotionally powerful personal testimonials of two intersex people that have been harmed by the medical community and society because they are viewed as disordered, not different.

The Project Grant we received from the Secular Student Alliance allowed us to fund not only the speakers, but the video recording of the event! With the help of two on-campus co-sponsors, we were able to put on a successful event. We worked with the my University’s Gender & Sexuality Resource Center and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program.

Around 40 people took part, despite the severe weather in the area, and we were so excited to be able to network with two large on-campus organizations, which will definitely help for future events!

This event wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the national SSA. Their grant, and their support of our organization, lets us explore the world from a naturalistic point of view, combat the negative connotations associated with being non-religious, and promote critical thinking, reason, and skepticism over faith-based worldviews.

Not only did the SSA give us a grant, but they also provide us with so many free resources and services, like our tabling supplies! They are only able to do this because of the generosity of people just like you.

This week is Secular Students Week, when the SSA is highlighting activism of students like me and my group members. If they get 500 donations this week, they’ll unlock a challenge grant for $20,000!! This money would have a huge impact for groups like mine: help us out by giving today! Even a gift of $5, $10, or $20 can make a big difference: give to the SSA today!

Secular Students Week Interview!

Hey folks! As you may know, I was recently elected to the Board of Directors of the Secular Student Alliance. I’ve been involved with the SSA for almost three years; it was the first secular conference I ever went to and basically the reason I got involved in the movement. I probably wouldn’t be here blogging on this network if not for the SSA.

June 10 – 17 is Secular Students Week, when content creators from around the movement are sharing stories of the fantastic work secular students are doing. The Secular Student Alliance has a goal to get 500 donations this week: if we reach this goal, we will unlock a $20,000 challenge grant! You can help us reach that goal here.

Secular student activist Lauren HinerAs part of Secular Students Week, I’m interviewing Lauren Hiner, a secular student activist at Clarion University. Along with her campus SSA, Lauren organized a really amazing National Coming Out Day event that brought her group together with the campus LGBTQ group to show support for those who are unable to come out. Participants made handprints on a large banner and thus created a visual representation of solidarity with students who are queer, secular, or both.

Tell us a little about yourself–what you’re studying in school, what you’re hoping to do after graduation, what you’re up to this summer, whatever else you want to share.

I’m Lauren Hiner, I will be returning in the fall to Clarion University as a sophomore Psychology student with a minor in Social Work. I hope to move out of state, maybe even out of country upon graduating from grad school. This summer I am keeping up with the Secular Student Alliance by attending a conference in July in Ohio, which I am excited for. A few other club members will be attending as well, we are all looking forward to it very much!

How did you get involved with the Secular Student Alliance? What motivated you to join?

I got involved with the Secular Student Alliance my freshman year when I saw an advertisement for the club written in chalk on a sidewalk. I’ve always been secular but in my hometown almost everyone is very religious and it’s looked down upon if you do not believe in what the majority believes in. My mother always assumed it was teenage angst or rebellion but I knew it was not, I was not a very rebellious kid growing up. I decided that I wanted to go meet people who had the same beliefs as me and hear how they have dealt with opening up about being secular. Everyone was so welcoming, it was amazing to be able to be so open about what you do or do not believe in and not be judged for such.

Tell us all about your National Coming Out Day event! What made your group decide to partner with your school’s gay/straight alliance? How did you decide what to do for this event?

National Coming Out Day as an amazing event for our club. We read on the national SSA page about how National Coming out Day was approaching and it sounded like something we would want to be a part of. I am also a member of the Clarion Gay/Straight Alliance (Allies), so I attend their meetings as well. Both clubs wanted to do something for this day so we took advantage of that and collaborated. We thought that “coming out” does not necessarily just mean as LGBT, but as a minority with beliefs in general. Atheists/Agnostics etc.. also have to sometimes come out to their family or friends who do not agree with it. We wanted to make everyone feel proud to be themselves instead of scared to be who they really are.

The clubs brainstormed together and thus our event was born! We had a giant banner where people could paint their hands and place a handprint on it to show support.

National Coming Out Day banner

 

National Coming Out Day banner

 

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I heard that you had a huge amount of participation–over 80 students contributed. What do you think your group did to make the event so successful?

We had an amazing turn out with over 80 students coming to support us! I believe that just having a good cause and a friendly environment contributed to that. We had upbeat music, paint and an actual “closet” people could “come out” of if they wanted. It was all together a fun environment. Not to mention a wonderful cause.

What’s something you would do differently if you could do it all again?

We plan on doing the event again in the following years, it was such an inspiring thing! The only thing I would change is more time to plan, which we will have this upcoming year.

How has your involvement in the SSA impacted you?

My involvement with SSA has impacted me in such positive ways. I was nervous my freshman year and had social anxiety about making new friends. SSA gave me a place to be myself and make friends who are just like me! I owe a lot to the club and the other members. If I wouldn’t have attended that meeting I would not have met such wonderful people that I consider to be some of my best friends now. Now as president, I want to get our name out there more so others feel like they have a place as well. I hope to help students be more comfortable with who they are, and get involved with the campus more.

If you want to support awesome students like Lauren, please donate to the Secular Student Alliance here. Even if you can only give a tiny amount, you’ll still count towards our goal of 500 donors!

What Stops Atheists from Violence?

This was originally supposed to be a Daily Dot piece (hence the un-blog-like format), but that didn’t work out. So instead, here’s a post in which I interviewed a bunch of cool atheists about how it is that we manage to have morals. Yay!

Phil Robertson, controversial star of A&E’s Duck Dynasty, recently chose a bizarre way to try to prove that atheists have no morals. He concocted a brutally violent rape scenario and shared it in a speech at a prayer breakfast:

Two guys break into an atheist’s home….they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot ’em and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

While many have criticized Robertson’s graphic speech, plenty of his fans defended him, even starting an #isupportphil hashtag on Twitter. But whether you believe in god or not, there is nevertheless something bone-chilling about the apparent glee with which Robertson relays his story, especially considering that the group he targets is still subject to social marginalization, legal discrimination, and even physical violence, especially outside of the United States. How can we be trusted as members of society if Christians, who are the majority, expect us to rape and murder whenever we can get away with it?

Let’s indulge Robertson’s claims. While it’s easy to dismiss him as being on the fringe — and many do — atheists are often asked by religious believers what could possibly stop us from being violent. At a workshop that I once facilitated, I asked a room packed with atheist students how many of them have ever heard this question from a religious person. Almost every hand in the room went up.

Clearly, whether through willful ignorance or in-group isolation, many people don’t understand what secular morality is. Dan Linford, an adjunct professor of philosophy, does not believe that morality requires religion. He says, “Most ethical theories are (a) objective and (b) do not involve God.” He explains that some things, like being healthy and having control over your body, are intrinsically good. Other things, such as pain, are intrinsically bad. Forcing people to experience bad things and denying them good things is wrong, and rape denies autonomy and causes suffering.

Sarah Jones, a writer and church/state separation activist, draws her morality directly from her secular beliefs. “I believe that rape is a significant moral evil because I’m a secular humanist, not in spite of it,” she says, adding that her humanist views emphasize respecting the dignity of others. Blogger Niki M. says, “The concept of bodily autonomy doesn’t require religion. That is why rape (and murder and kidnapping) are wrong all the livelong day.”

Further, according to author and blogger Greta Christina, Robertson’s comments deny the fact that it is in our nature to try to treat each other well. “Compassion and a sense of justice are a fundamental part of what makes us human, part of how we evolved as a social species,” she says. “To deny our ethics is to treat us as less than human.”

Most people feel a sense of empathy, which includes not only being happy when others are happy, but also feeling pain when they are in pain. In fact, research shows that watching someone experience something activates some of the same brain cells as experiencing that thing ourselves. These mirror neurons, as they are known, may be the source of our capacity for empathy.

Maybe this can help confused people like Robertson understand how it is that atheists are no more violent than anyone else. “It has never occurred to me to go out into the world and rape or murder people because I’m an atheist,” says Kelley Freeman, Communications Associate for the Secular Student Alliance. “I don’t want to murder people because I am capable of basic human empathy.”

Some atheists would like to flip the question and ask Robertson how he knows that rape is wrong. “It’s interesting that someone would use the Bible as a source of morality, especially when it comes to treatment of women,” says Amy Monsky, Executive Director of the Atheist Alliance of America. “This is a book that says victims of rape should be stoned to death, after all.”

Yet it is atheists who are accused of condoning rape and expected to defend their morality–a hypocrisy that is keenly felt by those who have survived sexual assault. “I’m curious what Mr. Robertson would say to the man who sexually assaulted me,” says Courtney Caldwell, a blogger for Skepchick. “My assailant was a good ol’ boy, a Christian, an avid hunter. He was someone who would probably really enjoy Mr. Robertson’s show.”

Sarah Jones adds that, as a survivor of sexual violence, she knows quite well that rape is wrong. “I lived it,” she says. “I don’t need a sermon to tell me how to think about it.”

Perhaps some religious believers, who have grown up learning about the Ten Commandments and other faith-based morals, haven’t given much thought to where morality comes from if not god. It can be difficult to relate to and trust people when you have no idea what motivates their behavior, and it doesn’t help that vocal atheists are fairly rare when it comes to positions of power in America.

But atheists and believers aren’t as different as we think. Most people feel at least a little bad when they hurt someone, and most people feel good when they help others or give back to their communities. I trust people when I can feel pretty confident that they’ll avoid hurting me if they can.

That’s why statements like Robertson’s worry me and many others. Religious belief can wane or even disappear; many atheists were once believers. If belief in god is all that’s stopping people like Robertson from heinous acts of violence, that’s concerning, to say the least. “This is the kind of speech you would expect from a serial killer, not an educator or TV role model to tens of millions of impressionable Americans,” says Danielle Muscato, Communications Manager for American Atheists.

On the other hand, I doubt that Robertson and all the other religious believers who echo his sentiments would actually commit violence if they lost their faith. More likely, they are convinced that their religion is what keeps them acting morally because that’s what they were taught. People who conflate religion and morality may feel pain and guilt when they do something unethical, but may attribute those feelings purely to their religious beliefs and not to the fact that they are human.

But if ignorant people like Robertson really do believe that atheists are all potential rapists and murderers, so what? Unfortunately, that has consequences. Melanie Elyse Brewster, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, believes that opinions like Robertson’s have measurable, harmful impact on atheists in the United States. Citing research that suggests that atheists are highly mistrusted in our society, she says, “How are we supposed to be accepted in our communities, hold positions of power, raise families, collaborate with coworkers when some of them genuinely believe that we would rape or murder if it benefited us?”

I am an atheist whose stomach turned when I read Robertson’s speech. The atheists profiled here, who are all activists and leaders in the secular community, feel the same way. The only reason we are still constantly asked to prove that we oppose senseless violence — and the only reason I am writing this now — is because Christian worldviews are privileged in our society, and because the few atheist voices that get heard, such as that of Richard Dawkins, speak more about why religion is wrong than about why secular ethics are right.

Without a god telling us what to do, what’s left? Grappling with ethical questions on our own. But between the rich tradition of secular philosophy and our own neurobiological capacity to feel pain at the pain of another living creature, atheists have plenty of solid reasons not to commit violence. What we lack is the trust and respect we deserve as members of a society still dominated by Christianity.

[guest post] A Purpose-Driven Life – Is God Required?

My friend Gleb Tsipursky wrote this guest post about a secular approach to finding a sense of purpose in life.

We need God for a sense of purpose in life, at least according to the vast majority of mainstream perspectives in American society. Moreover, research confirms that people with a strong religious belief generally have a stronger sense of meaning and purpose than those who do not. But is it really necessary to believe in God to have a purpose-driven life? Based on my research on meaning and purpose, and my experience in helping people find life purpose in my role as President of Intentional Insights, I will illustrate some science-based strategies that we as reason-oriented people can use to find a deep sense of life meaning without a God.

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(Graphic created by Cerina Gillilan)

 

In a way, the American mainstream opinion is not surprising – after all, religious dogma generally gives clear answers to the question of life’s purpose. Moreover, it provides the main venue for exploring questions of meaning and purpose in life. According to faith-based perspectives, the meaning and purpose of life is to be found only in God. An example of a prominent recent religious thinker is Karl Barth, one of the most important Protestant thinkers of modern times. In his The Epistle to the Romans (1933), he calls modern people’s attention to God in Christ, where the true meaning and purpose of life must be found. Another example is The Purpose Driven Life (2002), a popular book written by Rick Warren, a Christian mega church leader.

But some thinkers disagree with the notion that religion is the only way to find meaning and purpose in life. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Existentialism and Human Emotions, advances the notions of “existentialism,” the philosophical perspective that all meaning and purpose originates from the individual. The challenge for modern individuals, according to Sartre, is to face all the consequences of the discovery of the absence of God. He argues that people must learn to create for themselves meaning and purpose.

Another prominent thinker is Greg Epstein. In his Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, he advocates striving for dignity as a means of finding “meaning to life beyond God.” According to Epstein, “we are not wicked, debased, helpless creatures waiting for a heavenly king or queen to bless us with strength, wisdom, and love. We have the potential for strength, wisdom, and love inside ourselves. But by ourselves we are not enough. We need to reach out beyond ourselves – to the world that surrounds us and sustains us, and most especially to other people. This is dignity” (93).

Likewise, Sam Harris, in his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014), states that “Separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is riven by dangerous religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit” (6).

Are they correct? Can we have meaning and purpose, which fall within the sphere that Harris refers to as spirituality and Epstein terms dignity, without belonging to a faith-based community?

In fact, research shows that we can gain a sense of meaning and purpose in life from a variety of sources. The classic research on meaning and purpose comes from Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who lived through the concentration camps of the Holocaust. He described how those who had a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives were most likely to survive and thrive in the camps. He conducted research demonstrating this both during and after his concentration camp experience. His research suggests the crucial thing for individuals surviving and thriving is to develop a personal sense of individual purpose and confidence in a collective purpose for society itself, what he terms the “will-to-meaning and purpose.” Frankl himself worked to help people find meaning and purpose in their lives. He did so by helping prisoners in concentration camps, and later patients in his private practice as a psychiatrist, to remember their joys, sorrows, sacrifices, and blessings, thereby bringing to mind the meaning and purposefulness of their lives as already lived. According to Frankl, meaning and purpose can be found in any situation within which people find themselves. He emphasizes the existential meaning and purposefulness of suffering and tragedy in life as testimonies to human courage and dignity, as exemplified both in the concentration camps and beyond. Frankl argues that not only is life charged with meaning and purpose, but this meaning and purpose implies responsibility, namely the responsibility upon oneself to discover meaning and purpose, both as an individual and as a member of a larger social collective (Frankl).

Image 2

(Graphic created by Cerina Gillilan) 

Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy came to be called logotherapy, and forms part of a broader therapeutic practice known as existential psychotherapy. This philosophically-informed therapy stems from the notion that internal tensions and conflicts stem from one’s confrontation with the challenges of the nature of life itself, and relate back to the notions brought up by Sartre and other existentialist philosophers. These challenges, according to Irvin Yalom in his Existential Psychotherapy, include: facing the reality and the responsibility of our freedom; dealing with the inevitability of death; the stress of individual isolation; finally, the difficulty of finding meaning in life (Yalom). These four issues correlate to what existential therapy holds as the four key dimensions of human existence, the physical, social, personal and spiritual realms, based on extensive psychological research and therapy practice (Cooper; Mathers).

So where does this leave us? Religion is only one among many ways of developing a personal sense of life meaning. One intentional approach to gaining life meaning and purpose involves occasionally stopping and thinking about our lives and experiences: we can find an individual sense of life purpose and meaning through the lives we already lead. A great way to do so is through journaling, which has a variety of benefits beyond helping us gain a richer sense of life purpose – it can also help us deal with stress, process sorrows, experience personal growth, learn more effectively, and gain positive emotions through expressing gratitude.

Here are some specific prompts to use in journaling about meaning and purpose in life, as informed by Frankl’s research and logotherapy practice:

  1. What were important recent events in your life?
  2. Which of them involved stresses and adversity, and how can you reframe them to have a better perspective on these events?
  3. What did you learn from these events?
  4. What are you grateful for in your life recently?
  5. What was your experience of life meaning and purpose recently?

Try journaling about these topics for a week, and see what kind of benefit you get, what kind of challenges you run into, and what you learned about how this journaling can be adopted to your own particular preferences and needs.

There are a wide variety of additional strategies to gain meaning and purpose in life without belief in a deity. To help you learn and practice additional strategies, I developed and videotaped a workshop freely available online. I also created a free online course, which combines an engaging narrative style, academic research, and stories from people’s everyday lives with exercises to help you discover your own sense of life purpose and meaning from a science-based, humanist-informed perspective. I am also writing a workbook on this topic These are part of our broader offerings at Intentional Insights, which aims to help us as reason-oriented people use scientific evidence to live better lives and achieve our goals. I hope you can find our offerings helpful for your life, and am eager to hear any feedback you have to share about your experience!

Gleb Tsipursky, PhD, Co-Founder and President at Intentional Insights. Intentional Insights is a new nonprofit that provides research-based content for reason-oriented people to help us improve our thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns and reach our goals. Get in touch with him to learn more: gleb[at]intentionalinsights.org

Secular Solstice and the Importance of Ritual

Secular Solstice cover art.I wanted to write a little bit about secular ritual and tradition and why it’s important.

To me, that is. It’s important to me. It’s not important to a lot of other people, some of whom politely shrug and say, “Not my thing,” and others of whom sneer condescendingly at those of us who need it, claiming that they’re above such silliness.

I think people leave or avoid religion for a number of different overlapping reasons. Some just don’t believe in god. Others don’t believe in god, and also resent the communal aspects of religion. I’m not a huge fan of singing in groups, either, so I can relate to that somewhat.

But mainly, my issue with religion is the superstitious and unscientific thinking, and also the frequent presence of political conservatism. Ritual is something I always loved, and still love, which is why I attended Jewish religious observances often when I was in college and wish I had the opportunity to keep doing it. Despite my atheism. Despite the fact that I disagree that I have any obligation to avoid eating meat and dairy products in the same meal.

What I continue to yearn for despite all these years of atheism is that togetherness, the feeling of being part of a larger whole, of participating in ceremonies that have existed virtually unchanged for centuries, of feeling that I could go to services on Friday night in San Francisco or London or Tokyo or Cape Town and be welcomed in virtually the same way, with the same greetings and food and songs. They will say Shabbat shalom and there will be challah and red wine, in America and in Great Britain and in Japan and in South Africa.

I don’t think there is anything like that outside of Judaism, and can’t be for decades or centuries more. I’m trying to make my peace with that.

Ritual and tradition feel good. There doesn’t have to be a rational reason and there isn’t. Chocolate feels good, too, despite being harmful in large quantities. I don’t care that there aren’t Valid Logical Reasons for loving ritual (or chocolate). There is a lot of stress and pain in life and if I can spend a Friday night feeling cheerful and whole, I will do it.

But I also know that non-secular Judaism can’t be a home for me anymore, so I’m looking for other ways to get even a fraction of that feeling. One such way is a project run by my friend Raymond Arnold, called the Secular Solstice.

Although groups of humanists/rationalists/atheists have presumably been running their own winter solstice celebrations for a while now, this particular event is an attempt to actually create a new secular ritual, a set of traditions for celebrating a winter holiday that usually goes unnoticed in the Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/New Year’s Eve pandemonium.

And it’s too bad that it does, because it’s an interesting holiday. Unlike most holidays, the solstice marks an astronomical phenomenon. People have known about it and observed it for thousands of years. From the simple physical fact of the winter solstice, people can (and do) draw all sorts of meaning.

The Secular Solstice, for instance, celebrates science and progress. It’s all about how humans overcome darkness and winter, literally and metaphorically. It’s about how even on the longest night of the year, we can look forward to the days growing longer and longer again. It’s about a lot of things, really.

The first Secular Solstice was held last year, in New York. I went with a bunch of people I care about and had one of the best holiday experiences I’ve ever had. The celebration was set up as a sort of concert with both music and short readings. Some of the songs had a sing-along component, though, for the first time possibly ever, I didn’t feel pressured or expected to actually sing (which, naturally, means that I felt comfortable enough to sing). The songs and readings were about winter, humanity, science, space, planet Earth. Not all of them resonated with me, but most did. (You can listen to them here.)

There were a few reasons I especially liked this particular event. One is that, on a psychological level, winter is just hard for me. I don’t know if I have Seasonal Affective Disorder necessarily, but I’m sensitive to extreme temperatures and to light (or lack thereof) and I find that winter saps me of physical and mental energy. Some of my favorite things–long walks, outdoor photography, swimming, reading outdoors in the sun, wearing the clothes I like–become difficult or impossible. The Secular Solstice, in a weird and possibly unintentional way, validated how much I hate winter and how much of a “big deal” it is for me to get through it without some of my favorite distractions and coping mechanisms. Unlike the other winter holidays, the Solstice doesn’t frame winter as a happy cheery beautiful time with family, snowball fights, kissing under the mistletoe, Santa Claus, and Jesus. It frames it as a challenge, but one that we nevertheless get through every year.

On a related note, the Secular Solstice also differs from a number of other humanist events in its avoidance of faux (at least to me) cheeriness. In this way, I’d contrast it with Sunday Assembly, another event I’ve started regularly attending. I do enjoy Sunday Assembly a lot, but I find myself generally unable to produce the amount of happy singing/dancing/clapping it seems to demand of me. I like my communal observances, secular or otherwise, to be a little more…I’m not sure what the word is. Solemn, maybe.

That’s something that Jewish ritual does particularly well. Most Jewish holidays (with a few notable exceptions) commemorate joyous events or concepts, but the rituals themselves often have a sort of gravity, a seriousness to them. Not every song is loud and cheerful. There is an opportunity to acknowledge adversity, loss, and melancholy.

Perhaps those who lead secular observances worry that people will be pushed away by too much solemnity, that it’ll be too much like religion. Many some people would be, which is why I understand why events like Sunday Assembly are the way they are. But the Secular Solstice differs in that it has so many quiet, beautiful, powerful moments, some of which might even feel quite sad. This, too, was an integral part of the experience for me.

But it had joyful and funny moments, too, as well as plenty of hopeful ones. I felt like I experienced pretty much a full gamut of emotions throughout the concert. Moreover, when it was over, I felt like I had actually observed something, in the sense of observing a holiday or a tradition. I had connected with the other people in the room, as well as with ideas that I believe in–the hope that we can overcome challenges, the ability of scientific progress to improve our lives, and the fact that it is okay to feel sad and scared.

Traditions, including new ones, help me mark the passage of time and find some sort of meaning in it. They also help me connect with people who share my values. While religious values serve a similar function, the values themselves are obviously quite different.

Unfortunately, unlike religious observances, secular ones appeal to a small minority of people and do not have the financial and social capital that theistic congregations can provide. That’s why, if you want to see secular traditions and communities flourish, it’s important to support them.

If this is something that matters to you too, I urge you to support the Secular Solstice through their Kickstarter campaign.

Mocking Versus Understanding Religion

Today a friend* posted this on Facebook:

I’m here at the Detroit airport waiting for my flight back to New Jersey. There’s a Jewish fellow here who was just doing his morning prayers, complete with the little boxes strapped to his head and arm, and the strap coiled around his arm, bobbing back and forth and talking to himself.

I’m not trying to make fun of him nor mock him but doesn’t he feel silly? He should. I don’t want to be mean to him but I just want to ask him, “Why are you doing that? What do you think that actually accomplishes? Do you feel silly when you do it in public?” I understand ritual as a part of how humans make sense of their environments, especially in unfamiliar places, it can be comforting. But I have no respect for this type of behavior. It’s so obviously manmade and cultish.

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tefillin

This predictably started off a long discussion, in which some people implied that asking the man, “Don’t you feel silly?” is a form of mockery. The OP and others insisted that there’s nothing mocking about such a question, to which I responded:

Some questions aren’t just questions. They carry assumptions within them. Asking someone if they feel silly doing something presumes that there’s a reason for them to feel silly doing that thing. Plenty of people do “odd” things in public, for religious reasons or cultural reasons or mental health reasons or just they feel like it. Why single out an “odd” religious thing for this line of questioning?

Further, what does it matter? Why are you so curious how he feels about this? He almost certainly does not feel silly about it, and I know this because I’ve actually spoken to many Orthodox Jews for reasons other than to mock them in front of my Facebook friends. They are very aware of how others perceive them, but it doesn’t matter to them very much because they’re used to it. In fact, if you approached him and asked about his religious practice, he would probably calmly and politely answer all of your questions, because Jews in this country are so used to being interrogated about our practices, beliefs, and culture all the damn time by random people who don’t know very much about us. I include myself in this “we” because, as a Jewish atheist who grew up in an area where there were almost no Jews, I was always treated as the sole representative of an entire culture to whom all questions could reasonably be directed, and I answered them patiently because the alternative would be to allow these people to continue believing all sorts of stereotyped, bigoted rubbish.

I’m not saying you, personally, believe stereotyped, bigoted rubbish, but your response to this person comes across as ignorant and callous, like you’re gawking at an exotic animal at a zoo. Worse, like you’re doing it in order to score political points on Facebook. If you’re genuinely curious and interested in starting off a discussion about religious practices in public and how people feel about them and why they do them, I would be happy to suggest some language that could’ve started this discussion without alienating so many people (mostly atheists).

I wanted to hash out some of the points I made there because it’s an interesting topic.

About the questions that aren’t just questions: the OP themselves specifically stated that the Jewish man “should” feel silly, which is a judgment. (Right or wrong, it is a judgment.) So there’s no way to ask the man whether or not he feels silly in a vacuum. As I said, asking someone that usually implies that you think the answer ought to be “yes,” and this is no exception.

I’ve met many people who stubbornly insist that everything they say be taken in the most literal manner, without any implicit content. This is facile. The majority of the time, someone who says, “Don’t you feel silly?” or even “Do you feel silly?” is implying that they think there’s a good reason for the person to feel silly. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that a given person who asks such a question is including that implication in it.

Often, questions like these are merely a passive-aggressive way to say, “I think you look silly,” or “You should feel silly.” But these things are very inappropriate to express in our culture, so we’ve developed other ways to express them–ways that have plausible deniability. “I wasn’t saying I think they’re silly! I was just asking a question!” Yeah, right.

Ditto for the OP’s other questions, such as “What do you think that actually accomplishes?” If you really, earnestly have to ask a religious person this, then you don’t know much about religion. If you earnestly ask it, they will probably say, “It helps me feel a connection with god,” or “It helps me feel good,” or “It allows me to ask god to keep me and my family safe.” That’s why I think the question is not earnest, and it’s not really a question. It’s a statement, and the statement is, “Prayer doesn’t accomplish anything, you know.” You should say what you mean.

This whole post is weirdly presumptive. Why should a random person care that the OP thinks they “should” feel silly, or that they “have no respect for this type of behavior”? Plenty of people think I “should” feel silly because I like games, and even more people “have no respect” for the fact that I dress the way I do, have sex the way I do, and interact with people the way I do. If you’re hoping to change people’s behavior, expressing an opinion about it that they aren’t likely to care about isn’t going to do it. (Neither is attacking the extremely low-hanging fruit of “silly”-looking public prayer, but that’s a separate issue.) Jewish people in particular are very accustomed to non-Jews expressing judgmental, ignorant, and rude opinions about their practices, religious and otherwise. This has been happening for millennia. If ridicule hasn’t deconverted them yet, it’s not going to.

Some atheists think of religion and religious privilege in very stark terms: religious people are privileged, atheists are oppressed. Even if this is true in the strictest sense, Jews do not command religious privilege comparable to that of Christians. I don’t think I need to try to provide a catalog of the ways in which Jews have been oppressed, including in the United States, including today. I have personally experienced anti-Semitism, despite being an atheist.

In fact, a number of people in the thread said that they would be scared to fly in an airplane with someone that they had just noticed openly wearing tefillin and praying. I’m not sure how this is anything other than a grossly bigoted thing to say. While the OP did not themselves say such things, neither did they call out in any way the people who said it. That’s how discussions like these allow anti-Semitism and other bigoted attitudes to flourish. I’m sure the OP did not cause the people who said these things to have those opinions, as they probably had them before, but their unremarked upon presence in the thread normalizes the idea of presuming a religious person to be dangerous simply because they prayed in public. While this is a type of bigotry more dangerous to Muslims (and people perceived as Muslims), I’m not exactly happy to see it spreading to Jews.

I mentioned that I’d be happy to offer some language for asking people about their beliefs and practices (religious or otherwise) that is less likely to be pointlessly hurtful. The OP has not taken me up on that offer, but I will include it here:

  • “I noticed you praying in public. I’m curious about it. Do you mind telling me about why you do that?”
  • “What’s it like being a member of a minority religious group in such a visible way?”
  • “Do you ever feel self-conscious when you pray in public? How do you deal with that?”

Notice how all of these questions get at the issues that the OP claimed to be curious about, but in a way that communicates interest and curiosity rather than judgment and scorn. And maybe the OP really does feel judgment and scorn (at least, that is the impression I got from the post), but most people understand that there are times judgment and scorn can get in the way of learning and understanding. Even if you’re looking to ultimately change their mind, you’re going to be more successful if you don’t make them feel shamed and judged from the get-go. Shaming is actually not a good motivator.

Of course, if your actual goal is to mock religion, that’s different. That doesn’t interest me at all, but some people do it for personal reasons or political ones or some combination. Whatever, I’m not interested in telling people what to do so much as in telling people when their stated goals are not compatible with their actions. The OP said they wanted to understand, not mock. To me, it seemed like a bunch of statements with plausible deniability, and very little attempt at understanding.

But I suppose the real source of disagreement here is that I can’t bring myself to care about the mere fact that some person is religious and prays. If that’s all the information I have, I don’t care. I care about the ways organized religion harms its adherents, other people, and society. This is why I argue with people about things like abortion, sex education, separation of church and state, coerced prayer, science education, homophobia, and so on. If a religious person has views on these things that I disagree with, then I will argue with those views. The religious belief itself is something I also disagree with, but doesn’t harm me, so I don’t care about it. I don’t believe that religious belief somehow necessitates sexism, homophobia, or anything else, and I don’t believe that sexism, homophobia, or those other bad things can be fought simply by fighting religious belief, and I do believe that people will continue to believe in supernatural entities until we find a way to provide what they’re looking for without religion. We haven’t done that yet.

~~~

*I intentionally left this person’s name out of this thread even though the post was public. That’s because I want this to be a discussion about these ideas (and my ideas), not about this person and what else they may have said before and who they are as a person. There’s nothing wrong with discussing that, but I’m not interested in hosting that discussion here. I will delete or edit comments that name this person, or go off-topic. If the OP wants to identify themselves in the comments, they are welcome to.

Religion vs. Mental Illness, A Bit More Concisely This Time

Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist and blogger at the Religion News Service, asked me to comment on why atheists should stop calling religion a mental illness for a piece he published today. I ended up giving him a way longer comment than he necessarily wanted or needed (#bloggerproblems), so I thought I’d publish the full thing I sent him since it’s nevertheless a way more concise explanation of my views than my huge post on this was.

Equating religion with mental illness is harmful for a number of reasons. First of all, when done to make fun of or put down religion, it also puts down by association people struggling with problems like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or schizophrenia. People with these serious mental illnesses already face plenty of stigma and discrimination, so derogatory remarks about how religious people are “all crazy” or “belong in a mental institution” are harmful.

Second, this comparison ignores the fact that religion and mental illness are different psychological processes. Religion largely stems from cognitive processes that are essentially adaptive, such as looking for patterns, believing in things that are comforting, and getting joy out of connecting with others and feeling like a part of something larger than oneself. Mental illnesses, by contrast, are fundamentallymaladaptive. People who cannot leave the house without having a panic attack, who feel a compulsion to wash their hands hundreds of times a day, or who are convinced that everyone hates them and they are better off dead, are experiencing symptoms that interfere with their ability to go about their lives. Except in extreme cases, religion does not operate this way. It is important to point out when religious beliefs and observances reach a level at which people cannot function normally, but we do the secular movement no favors by focusing on these instances to the exclusion of the vast majority of religious people who are healthy, happy, productive members of our society.

Third, calling religion a mental illness keeps us from asking serious questions about what actually does attract people to religion. Often, it’s the sense of community, the support available to people who are struggling financially or emotionally, the quick way to make friends, and the opportunity to mark important life occasions such as births, marriages, and deaths using traditions that feel meaningful. Although some of us are trying, atheists are still not that great at providing these types of communities. Many refuse to even acknowledge that most people value–even need–such communities. Calling religion a mental illness is a convenient way to avoid thinking about what we could actually be doing to make the secular community more welcoming and inclusive, and what sorts of resources we are lacking that people can find in religious communities.

Finally, claiming that religion is a mental illness obscures the fact that we all–yes, atheists too–regularly engage in irrational thinking. Religion is a type of irrational thinking, but it is not the only type; introductory psychology textbooks catalog dozens of biases, fallacies, and other ways in which our minds trick us. While it’s impossible to become entirely free of cognitive bias, we can become more free of it by learning to notice it. If thinking irrationally is a mental illness, then we are all mentally ill, and the term loses its meaning. As a survivor of mental illness myself and as someone who plans to work as a therapist, I think we should save that term for situations in which people are truly suffering and having trouble going about their lives.

Don’t forget to go read Chris’s piece!

And incidentally, I’ve been quoted by journalists a bunch of times and it has almost always come out sounding weird and out of context and not like what I meant at all. Chris avoided this issue entirely and even let me see a draft of the piece to make sure he wasn’t misrepresenting what I said or getting anything wrong. If he ever asks you for a quote, say yes!