[#wiscfi liveblog] The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress

The WiS2 conference logo.

I’m liveblogging Rebecca Goldstein’s talk, “The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress.” Goldstein is a novelist and professor of philosophy at Barnard College. Follow along!

4:18: “Amanda just said in her wonderful talk that she wasn’t going to bore you with philosophy. That’s my job.”

I agonized over this talk. Should I publicly address the gender issue for the first time? [Audience: yes!!!]

4:21: Criticism of literary criticism can be used to unearth biases. For instance, that it’s okay for women to write certain kinds of books that are mostly read by other women, but those books are then dismissed as being “for women.” Subconscious gender biases undermine women and make them unwilling to enter the fray–though that doesn’t seem to be an issue at this conference.

In preparation for this talk, I polled some very prominent women and asked them if they ever feel that their gender undermines them professionally. Virtually all of them reported saying something in a discussion or meaning and being completely ignored–until the comment is picked up and reported by a man. Then, suddenly everyone jerks to attention.

Obviously it’s true that compared to more violent manifestations of misogyny, being ignored/interrupted/talked over is easy to dismiss because it’s an experience of privileged women. We privileged women can feel petty and ashamed voicing complaints about these things.

Psychologists call these experiences “microaggressions,” and they cite evidence that for women (and other marginalized groups), these small attacks take a greater toll than the more outright expressions of misogyny.

Derald Wing Sue, a researcher on microaggressions, says that it’s easier for marginalized people to deal with the more outright expressions of bigotry because there’s no guesswork involved. You can easily dismiss them as bigotry.

4:26: As secularists with strong scientific orientations, we’ve concentrated almost exclusively on the way religions exploit the “will to believe.” We’ve used science to argue against this. And that’s important, but we’ve largely ignored another issue: the “will to matter.”

I first thought of this idea through one of my fictional characters. I was invested in being “rigorous” and these ideas seemed to lack rigor. My editor said, “I don’t really understand Renee [the character].” Renee, like me, was a rigorous philosopher. She started coming up with these ideas about “mattering.” We’re invested in “mattering” and will give up our lives to causes for the sake of “mattering.”

Her other idea was “the Mattering Map.” A person’s location on the Mattering Map is determined by what matters to them and their perception of people–who the somebodies and nobodies are, who the heroes are, who should never have been born. We differ on who we think the heroes are because we differ on what matters. If what matters is intelligence, then the heroes are the geniuses. (In fact, Renee, the character, married a genius and regretted it.)

4:31: The idea of the mattering map has become a working theoretical concept in certain areas of psychology. The idea of my fictional character has been incorporated into actual theoretical work! I Googled it and got tens of thousands of hits, more than I got for me. [audience laughs]

It was even written about in the Harvard Business Review: an article called “How Mattering Maps Affect Behavior.” The article even quotes Renee herself.

4:35: What is it that keeps intellectually sophisticated people clinging to propositions about the world so improbable that they can be described–if you’ll allow me to use the technical terminology of epistemology–as crazy-ass shit?

These beliefs extend at least 30,000 years to Cro Magnon man, whose cave paintings are interpreted as expressions of spiritual beliefs. But the religions that still resonate with people were all originally forged during the period called “the Axial Age“–between 800 and 200 BCE. At the same time, secular philosophy and tragic drama emerged in ancient Greece. This period is called “the axial age” because these traditions still extend into our own age, including among the secularists who are the inheritors of Greek tradition.

What they have in common is a preoccupation with the issue of mattering.

Some lives achieve mattering and others don’t. Perhaps there’s something a person can do that will make the difference when it comes to his or her mattering. The question is, what is the human life that matters?

The belief that you might mess up and have a life that doesn’t matter, that you might as well have not even had, erupted during the Axial Age.

4:38: Why did this preoccupation emerge in this age? One possibility is that it was spurred by the emergence of cities, and the greater anonymity and choices that they provided. Markets and money, which provide an impersonal measure of wealth, could also have provoked this development.

The ancient Greeks had religious rituals to ward off evil, but when it came to the issue of what makes a human life matter, the Greeks did not really use religion. They used human terms. This is what allowed philosophy to develop in ancient Greece.

The belief is that life must be extraordinary in order to matter; ordinary lives are not worth living. It’s not immortal attention you need to attract, but that of other mortals.

In The Apology, Plato has Socrates compare himself to Achilles, who chose a short extraordinary life over a long ordinary life. Of course, Socrates was already 70 years old…so it was too late to have a short extraordinary life. But still, this shows that Socrates/Plato bought into this general Greek idea of the “ethos of the extraordinary.”

4:45: On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Hebrews were grappling with the same issue. They approached the problem of mattering in divine terms, not human terms.

But only one of these approaches has been self-correcting, and that is secular moral reason, initiated by the Greeks.

Back to microaggressions. What do they do? They undermine a person’s sense that they matter. And they’re even worse when they come from someone who matters to you, who can’t be dismissed as the ranting bigots and slobbering misogynists.

4:50: Without sensitivity to the will to matter and how it gave rise to religion in the first place, we fail to understand the secular ethical progress to which we are the heirs, and upon which we wage an assault, macro or micro, every time we undermine a person’s sense that he or she matters.

4:54: Audience question: What about the tendency to matter by notoriety rather than popularity? When people like negative attention, is that because they feel like mattering by something positive isn’t an option?

Goldstein: The various ways that people want to matter are interesting. The Greeks had a concept of celebrity too (having poets fawn over you). Maybe when you’re a secularist and you think that this life is all you have, the attention of many people becomes all the more important. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to lead to a satisfactory life, though, and that’s an empirical question. That’s something for the psychologists to figure out.

4:56: Audience question: How do you justify the claim that we secularists are the heirs to the Greeks when there’s such a strong aversion to philosophy and the liberal arts in the atheist movement?

Goldstein: I think there should be a correction to that. A lot of times when we make points in the atheist movement, we’re relying on philosophy whether we know it or not. The idea that science is the best way of knowing is an epistemological claim. People are always wondering into philosophy without realizing it, and I think philosophers should be given some credit.

4:58: Audience question: Can you comment on traditional gender roles in terms of mattering?

Goldstein: One can become convinced of these things because they’re so rigidly imposed. They’re often just handed down to us–men/women, slaves/owners, adults/children. The empirical question is, do they work? Do they make people feel as though they really matter? Is it conducive to the greatest good of the greatest number of people? But throughout history, these roles break down. The suggestion is that they don’t work. It took so long to realize that slavery is wrong, that racism is wrong, that sexism is wrong, but after that you never go back. People never start owning slaves again. They never become racist again. It’s progress. It’s just as much progress as scientific progress, and the two are linked together.

5:01: Audience question: Can you bring your ideas on mattering and your ability to develop complex characters to understand the psychology of the reviled misogynist?

Goldstein: I feel like I do understand reviled misogynist. I’ve had quite a few in my books. I’ve never created a character that I don’t in some sense sympathize with, understand what’s motivating them. I think the explanations for misogyny are fairly well-understood. How wonderful it must be to be born and think that everything is coming to you, and that even if you don’t matter very much, you can be sure that there are people who matter less than you. That’s why, again, social justice is the answer to all of these questions. One has to make all people feel like they matter and don’t need to put down some group to feel like they matter.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

[blogathon] Top Ten Reasons I Can’t Wait for Women in Secularism 2

The WiS2 conference logo.

This is the second post in my SSA blogathon! Don’t forget to donate! This post comes from a reader’s request.

In less than two weeks, I’ll be off to Washington, DC for the second Women in Secularism conference, to which I get to go primarily thanks to the generosity of an FtB reader who gave out a bunch of grants. Yay!

Check out WiS2’s awesome schedule here.

Here’s why I’m really excited:

10. Cards Against Humanity. It’s not a secular con without it. It’s always the first thing to go into my duffel bag.

9. Washington, DC. I rarely have occasion to travel there, but it’s a beautiful city. Last time I was there it was December, which was slightly unpleasant, but this time it won’t be. Maybe I’ll have a bit of time to just walk around and explore, too.

8. Using my new business cards! I didn’t really give them out at Skeptech because I basically knew everyone there. But I’ll probably find a use for them at WiS2. Check them out, I designed them myself!

7. Seeing Susan Jacoby speak. I laughed out loud numerous times while reading her book The Age of American Unreason recently, and that rarely happens while reading nonfiction. I disagreed with her on some things, primarily relating to technology, but for the most part reading the book made me want to shout “fuck yes” periodically. She’ll be speaking about the history of women in secularism and I’m sure it’ll be similarly awesome.

6. Getting out of Evanston for three days. Every time I do this, I feel refreshed and destressed. There are great things about living at a university campus, and there are not great things about it. I look forward to sleeping in a comfortable bed and without drunk students yelling beneath my window (and now that I’ve said that won’t happen, just watch it happen anyway :P).

5. Friends!  I’ll get to meet a bunch of lovely people with whom I correspond online but have never actually seen in person–Tetyana of Science of Eating Disorders, Ania and Alexander of Scribbles and Rants, and Melody of CFI-DC (who just might be involved in this conference somehow…). I’ll also get to see people I’ve already met: Kate and Andrew, obviously, Sarah Moglia, and tons of other people I’m probably forgetting.

4. Getting to see Stephanie, Greta, Rebecca, and Amanda speak–again. While seeing and meeting new speakers is always exciting, seeing the ones that I already know will be awesome is arguably even better.

3. Blogging! Lots of blogging! I’ll be doing it. I might even liveblog if I can get good enough wifi access. Taking notes/writing about talks is not only helpful for those who end up reading it; it also helps me better remember what I’ve learned, which is often a problem for me since I’m not an auditory learner at all. So sharpening my liveblogging skills will be great.

2. I know I already mentioned Amanda Marcotte, but her talk seems so cool that it warrants its own list item. It’s called “How Feminism Makes Better Skeptics: The Role Rationality Plays in Ending Sexism.” I think this is extremely important because there are so many people who still believe that feminism and skepticism are incompatible. There are also many feminists who take a very anti-skeptical stance to both feminism and other issues, which is why you sometimes see extreme science denialism and adherence to pseudo-religious dogma in the feminist movement. So I’m very curious to see what Amanda has to say about feminism and rationality.

1. Spending a weekend with a bunch of fantastic secular activists. Although I always enjoy the actual talks and panels at conferences, the best part by far is the feeling of being around so many people with whom I can fit in. There’s no other feeling quite like that.

If you’re going to WiS2, let me know and come say hi! :D

~~~

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I’m Blogothonning for the Secular Student Alliance!

It's SSA Week! Yay!

This may be naive given my recent recovery from a spell of writer’s block, but this Sunday, I’ll be doing a blogathon to raise money for the Secular Student Alliance with fellow badasses Kate Donovan, Chana Messinger, and Mike Mei. SSA Week is the organization’s annual fundraiser, and this year two supporters have pledged a $250,000 matching donation.

There are many reasons to support the SSA, such as the excellent training it provides for young activists and the support it gives to secular students in parts of the country where atheism is extremely stigmatized.

I love the SSA for these reasons and also for much more personal ones. The SSA is the reason I’m involved in this movement to begin with. It’s indirectly responsible for most of my fantastic friends and partners, for the success of my writing, and for the fact that I’m here on FtB now. Some of my best memories from the past year or so have been of SSA events, of people I met through the SSA, and of conferences I’ve traveled to thanks to my involvement in the movement. And the awesome things that have happened to my life because of all this have helped me mostly avoid depression for almost a year.

SO. That’s quite tangential to why you should support the SSA, but I wanted to share it anyway because it’s not entirely irrelevant. It’s not just any organization that could create such a supportive, welcoming environment, that could bring such cool people together to do activism. There are many organizations that are important and that I donate to regularly, but few have been so important to my own life and personal development.

Now, the blogathon! Here’s how it’s going to work.

1. I’ll be publishing a post every hour from 10 AM to 6 PM central time this Sunday, May 5. No, they will not be as long as my normal posts. :P
2. If you pledge at least $10 to the SSA, I will do my absolute best to write a post about anything you choose! It can really be anything, even personal stuff about me (fuck knows I’m not modest about that). So, if you donate at least $10, let me know that you did so and tell me what you’d like me to write about! You can donate here. (Also, I know I said anything, but please for the love of cheezits don’t make me write about thermodynamics or British politics or something. Nobody wants to see that.)
3. If you cannot donate at least $10, you’re still welcome to submit suggestions for posts! I’m going to need them.

This is my first blogathon ever, so we’ll see how it goes. My writing style is usually more like, sit on an idea for days until I’m thinking about it so much that I can’t focus on anything else and sit down and suddenly produce a 1,500-word post, so this will be quite different.

Wish me luck, and please give me post suggestions and, most importantly, donate!

Not All Beliefs Deserve Respect

“I’m not trying to be ‘that douche’ but it kind of pisses me off that people here accept other’s beliefs only if they’re liberal. What if I tried to post advertising all over about why ‘I’m not an ally’ or why I think abortion is about the most disgusting crime someone can commit? I hate that I feel like I have to hide who I am, because I know I will be judged. Probably won’t even get this posted for that reason exactly.”

This is from a Facebook page at my partner’s school where people anonymously submit confessions. In the comments, people trip over themselves to assure the OP that they respect conservative beliefs and that it’s “ironic” how closed-minded some liberals are towards conservatism.

It’s definitely not the first time I’ve come across this sort of sentiment. Many people of all political orientations seem to think that being a liberal means “respecting” and “accepting” everyone regardless of their beliefs or actions. I can see how they might get that impression, given that liberals sometimes try to frame themselves as more caring and accepting than conservatives (hence the “bleeding-heart liberal” stereotype).

However, liberalism actually has nothing to do with accepting anyone’s beliefs. Traditionally, it meant valuing ideals such as liberty and equality, replacing monarchy and feudalism with democracy and private property, and so on. (Note: this is intentionally simplistic.)

Nowadays liberalism admittedly has a broader meaning. At least in the United States, liberals tend to see a role for the federal government in ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed and that vulnerable people receive assistance, and they tend to be associated with the Democratic Party.

When it comes to the opinions and beliefs of others, American liberals (like most Americans) tend to believe that everyone should have the right to express their opinions. The government may not infringe on that right, and while others are not required to listen to your opinions or allow you into their private spaces in order to express them, most people would agree that a healthy society encourages the expression of all sorts of differing views.

But none of that means that I, an individual, am required by virtue of my political orientation to respect and accept everything you think and believe.

Now, it’s important to draw a distinction between respecting/accepting people and respecting/accepting opinions. Political orientations, like all labels, take on a lot of value for us, and sometimes when someone rejects your labels it feels like they’re rejecting you. But that’s not necessarily the case. I reject conservatism but I do not reject my conservative friends and family; I reject all religion but I do not reject my religious friends and family. The reason I am able to keep up relationships with these people despite our vast disagreements is because I am able to see them as more than just their labels, and they are able to see that my rejection of their beliefs and opinions does not constitute rejection of them as people.

At this point a hypothetical conservative might ask why “rejecting” homosexuality doesn’t work the same way. Here’s why. I don’t reject conservatism and religion because I find them icky and weird; I reject them because I think they’re harmful to society. Politics and religion affect us all, so it’s reasonable that we might have opinions about the political and religious beliefs of others.

But someone else’s homosexuality does not affect you in any way. If you find yourself having strong opinions about what someone does in their bedroom with consenting adults, that’s a problem with you, not with those people and their behavior. If anyone ever managed to present a strong argument based on evidence and reality for why homosexuality is harmful, I’d reconsider that position, but I’ve yet to see one. In contrast, there are strong arguments based on evidence for why conservatism and religion are harmful. You might still disagree that they’re harmful and find contradictory evidence showing that they’re helpful, but you can’t deny that good arguments against them exist.

I can divide opinions into three general categories: the ones I agree with, the ones I disagree with but can still accept as valid, and the ones I disagree with and cannot accept whatsoever. The latter category includes opinions such as these: same-sex couples should not have the right to marry. Racism is no longer a thing. Women who dress revealingly or drink alcohol are “asking” to get raped. There is no climate change currently occurring. Homeopathy works. Abortion is murder. People with mental illness should just snap out of it. I refuse to “respect” or “accept” these opinions because they are either barely-concealed attempts to impose religious ideology onto a supposedly secular society, and/or because they are contradicted by all of the available evidence.

That middle category, though, are opinions that I definitely disagree with, but I can sort of understand where they come from and appreciate the thought process that led to them. For example: the government should not mandate insurance coverage. People shouldn’t eat animals or animal products. Government intervention is inherently problematic. That soda ban in NYC was a good idea. We should ditch the Constitution. We should ban third-trimester abortions. Libertarianism and socialism tend to fit into this category for me, except when taken to extremes.

The reason I mention this is just to illustrate that disagreeing with an opinion doesn’t necessarily mean finding it ridiculous and dangerous. It’s entirely possible that someone would look at different evidence, or look at the same evidence in a different way, and come to conclusions that I disagree with but can accept and even respect. But you can’t just throw out any opinion, no matter how ridiculous, and demand that it be taken seriously and respected, not even by liberals who you think are supposed to be “open-minded” and “accepting.”

To bring it back to the anonymous comment that spurred this post, I cannot respect someone who wants to proudly state that they’re not an ally to LGBTQ people. (You don’t have to be an ally, sure, but that’s nothing to shout from the rooftops, you know?) And as for abortion, if you really think that’s “the most disgusting crime someone can commit,” you need to check your priorities. What about sexual assault? What about child abuse? Sorry, I do not “respect” those two opinions. I refuse to.

It’s worth noting, too, that it’s much easier to “respect” dissenting opinions when they do not have an immense detrimental effect on you personally. As I wrote in my post about ending friendships over political differences, sometimes what someone considers “just an opinion” hits too close to home. A straight person may be able to disagree but still respect the opinion that marriage should be between a man and a woman only, but a queer person may not be able to respect that. A neurotypical person may be able to disagree but still respect the opinion that mental illness is a sign of weakness, but a non-neurotypical person may not.

With this issue, as so many others, the difference often comes down to privilege.

I have complete sympathy for anyone who is bullied, harassed, or made to feel subhuman because of their political beliefs, even if I disagree with them. (Not only do I think that treating people this way is morally wrong, but it’s also a terrible way to get them to change their minds.) It’s difficult to be a minority of any sort, including political. I know because I’ve been that awkward conservative kid at a liberal school, wondering if everyone’s going to judge me the second I open my mouth about politics.

I have sympathy for those who feel that way, but I do not have sympathy for those who expect others to “respect” and “accept” their beliefs no matter how ill-considered, dangerous, hurtful, and unrelated to actual reality they may be.

On “Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs” and Being a Counselor

Via JT, here’s a new bill that recently passed in the Tennessee State Senate Education Committee by a 7-2 vote:

Republican state Sen. Joey Hensley encouraged fellow senators to pass SB 514 to “prevent an institution of high education from discriminating against a student in the counseling, social worker, psychology programs because of their religious beliefs.”

Hensley’s bill would protect any student who “refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief.”

Here’s another relevant quote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

I don’t have to cite this one, right?

Forcing public universities to allow their graduate students to use their religion to avoid doing what they’re supposed to do is absolutely “respecting an establishment of religion.” And, contrary to the apparent opinions of the seven senators who voted yes, allowing public universities to require their graduate students to do what they’re supposed to do does not constitute “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion unless you view your counseling work as a form of religious worship. Hopefully, nobody does.

All of this relates to the larger problem of people believing that the First Amendment gives them the right to do a crappy job at work without being fired. When you’re choosing a career path, you should consider, among other things, whether or not you are willing to do the things that your chosen job requires. For instance, I started out college planning to be a journalist, but I realized that pestering people (especially survivors of traumatic newsworthy events) for interviews went against my personal ethical code. Rather than expecting the profession of journalism to adjust itself to my ethical code, I found a different field.

If you are unwilling to help people simply because of who they love, don’t become a counselor.

If you are unwilling to drive a bus simply because it has an ad about atheism, don’t become a bus driver.

If you are unwilling to give someone their prescribed medication simply because it will prevent them from getting pregnant, don’t become a pharmacist.

If you are unwilling to perform an elective surgery on someone simply because it will change their assigned sex, don’t become a plastic surgeon.

If you are unwilling to teach actual science simply because it includes evolution, don’t become a science teacher.

When I was applying to my social work program, I read through the list of requirements for acceptance. I needed a B.A. from an accredited college/university, at least 60 credits in the liberal arts, a decent GPA, and so on. There was also a list of attributes that social work students should have: empathy, interpersonal skills, and a bunch of others. On the list was also this:

The social work student must appreciate the value of human diversity. He/she must serve in an appropriate manner all persons in need of assistance, regardless of the person’s age, class, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), gender, ability, sexual orientation and value system.

There you have it. It’s a requirement. If I’m unwilling to do it, I shouldn’t go into the field.

Of course, with counseling things can get a bit tricky. If a counselor realizes that their personal bias may prevent them from working appropriately with a given client, it is their responsibility to refer the client to another counselor. Not to just say, “Sorry, can’t help you,” but to try to ensure that they get the help they need somewhere else.

Furthermore, counselors should not attempt to practice outside of their expertise, so if a client shows up with problems that you have no idea how to work with, you should also refer them to someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should refer out every LGBT client who comes your way, of course, but if they’re struggling with issues like coming out, dealing with homophobia, or trying to have children, and you have no experience counseling LGBT individuals facing such issues, this is probably not the client for you and you are probably not the counselor for this client.

But there’s a fine line between being unable and being unwilling to do something. There’s a difference between lacking the training or experience you’d need to work with someone and simply not wanting to work with them because you disapprove of their “lifestyle.” There are plenty of “lifestyles” of which I suppose I “disapprove,” but all that really means is that I wouldn’t want to do the same thing and don’t necessarily understand why someone would. That doesn’t mean I can’t still affirm that person as a human being worthy of sympathy and help.

I don’t know how it is everywhere else, but in the programs I’ve looked at, graduate psychology students who are interning tend to work with clients on a sliding scale, which means that these interns are often the only type of counselor that some people can afford. The silver lining of a bill like this is that these clients, who may already be disadvantaged, will be spared from homophobic counselors.

However, the bill’s language does not suggest that it was written to protect LGBT clients, but rather homophobic counselors. And crucially, the bill contradicted advice from psychologists, social workers, and those who oversee graduate psychology programs. They noted that programs could lose accreditation, that part of the job of a counselor is to put their “sincerely held religious beliefs” aside when they do their work. But no, the Religious Right won out again.

Quotes from some Tennessee senators are very telling:

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, couldn’t understand why psychology departments aren’t teaching their students how to pray away the gay with homosexual clients.

“So if someone were to, say, come in and—I’m just going to throw an example out there—say they were a homosexual and a person did not believe that was a natural act and they suggested, say, change therapy?” Campfield asked. “Would that be something you could allow a student to do?”

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said, “I would think that you should be up front and truthful and tell them if they are doing wrong and try to counsel them to do what’s right. That really disturbs me.”

I have sympathy for people whose sincerely held beliefs, religious or otherwise, make it difficult for them to do what they need to do. As I said, I’ve been in that boat. And a certain amount of accommodations for religious people at work and school is, I believe, reasonable. It’s not a huge deal for professors and employers to allow people to occasionally miss a day for a religious holiday or to wear religious garments. It is a big deal for them to exempt students and employees from a crucial part of their training or job.

Allowing people to freely observe their religion does not necessitate bending over backwards to allow them to keep doing jobs with which their religion clashes. Sometimes you just gotta get another job.

Besides, such counselors are free to go practice at any of the many religiously-affiliated counseling centers that exist in this country, which is a topic for another post.

[Liveblog] Real World Atheism Panel at DePaul University

In a little under two hours, my friend Andrew Tripp and his student group, the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, is hosting a fantastic panel called Real World Atheism: A Panel on Godless Activism and Cultural Relevancy. I’ll be liveblogging! The panel starts at 7 PM CST.

Some of the panelists should be familiar to you:

So, watch this space. (Unless I fail to get internet, in which case, womp womp.) It should be a really great discussion.

7:06 PM: We’re starting a bit late because Stephanie has not arrived yet. #ruiningeverything

7:18 PM: Stephanie’s still not here, but Andrew’s opening it up to questions. Ian’s introduction is up first! He says not to throw things at him, by which he of course means to throw things at him.

7:20 PM: Ashley’s introducing herself. She is studying Honey Boo Boo and the representation of poor white trash on television. Cool.

7:23 PM: Ian: “Atheism operates like other social justice topics. It intersects like other social justice topics….They are one and the same. They cannot be separated.”

7:25 PM: Sikivu is connecting the anti-abortion movement of the Religious Right with the commodification of Black women’s bodies throughout history; as slaves they were forced to bear children for their masters. Humanism, social justice, racial justice, etc. are all linked.

7:27 PM: Ashley came into atheism from the perspective of other social justice movements, such as women’s and LGBT rights. In LGBT and women’s activism you see that religion is a major factor, so she was initially surprised to see that many atheists didn’t see these issues as going hand-in-hand. “Atheism is necessary to have these discussions…having an awareness of religion and the problems that it brings” is necessary for these movements.

7:30 PM: Anthony is discussing African American humanism and the idea that this life is all you have, so you have to make the most of it–for instance, by doing activism. “We tend to think that atheism and humanism involve an embrace of everything that is modern,” but with African American humanism, you can actually deconstruct atheism and modernism. It’s a way for African Americans to say, “We’re human and we matter.”

Sikivu: There’s a contradiction in that we’re living in a state of first-world exceptionalism, and yet there is still such extreme racial segregation in America in terms of class, neighborhoods, etc.

7:34 PM: An audience member asks Ian about exceptionalism and racial inequality in Canada. Ian on exceptionalism: “America is not exceptional in doing that.” Canada does it too, but America does it bigger!

But there are elements of it that are unique to America. For instance, the KKK made it up to Canada but they basically got “laughed out of the country….Everyone kinda went, ‘Seriously guys, bedsheets?'” The way Americans from the North think of Americans from the South, that’s how Canadians think of Americans. I think everyone in the room just winced.

Ian thinks that’s not quite right, though. Canadian exceptionalism manifests as Canadians thinking of themselves as “the nice ones.” Americans were Mean and Evil and had slavery, and then the Black people escaped and went to Canada and everything was great! That’s what’s taught in schools. But not really though. Evidence: you hear the same awful stereotypes about First Nations people in Canada as you hear about Black people in the U.S. “Canadians are ‘nice,’ but only because nobody’s talking about it.”

7:39 PM: For a while, Canada’s immigration policies were “explicitly racist,” then they were “implicitly racist,” then they were “quasi-racist,” and now, Ian says, people think they’re too liberal and “let’s make them racist-er!”

Ian: “Because Christianity is such an integral part of colonialism…atheists can take it back in a way that non-atheists cannot and say that the founding principles are false.” But until we start listening to those who criticize colonialism and until we learn to look at how atheism fits in, we’ll only be repeating the same problems.

7:41 PM: Stephanie’s finally here, y’all! She’s talking about how we as atheists tend to keep seeing ourselves as “the reasonable ones.” Ashley: many atheists blame everything on religion and think that if it went away, everything would be fine. Blaming the South is wrong, too. Racism doesn’t just happen there. (Although, as a South Carolinian, she admits that, of course, it happens there too.) In some ways, the Enlightenment and the idea of empiricism can contribute to the problems.

7:43 PM: Sikivu points out that this framing of atheism is very narrow. Unbelievers of color see it differently. They know that religion has everything to do with white supremacy, the legacy of slavery, and global capitalism. She mentions that when she was growing up in South L.A. and it was predominantly white, there were almost no storefront churches. Now that it has so many more communities of color, there are many more. Why? Because of de facto segregation in business practices.

7:46 PM: Anthony on the idea that science is the answer to everything: “Science takes place in the context of cultural worlds.” The proof is things like the Tuskegee Experiment, scientists who claim that you can scientifically prove the inferiority of Africans, etc. So, science isn’t enough. If you still believe that atheists could never do this, talk to some people of color.

7:47 PM: Stephanie’s introducing herself belatedly. She’s been associate president of Minnesota Atheists for exactly 8 days now! (Congrats!) Stephanie grew up in Minnesota and Georgia. “In Georgia, everyone looked like me.” Her graduating class had one person of color, who was an adopted Asian man. She says she had a lot to learn in this subject.

7:48 PM: Debbie Goddard is here and she says she’s glad she came! She’s asking about the idea of “scientism” and the idea that African American humanists are poised to deconstruct it–how can people actually do this? How can they help educate the rest of the atheist movement?

7:50 PM: Ashley makes a disclaimer: “I’m obviously not part of the African American atheist movement. [audience laughs] Sorry! Spoilers!” Ian: “I don’t see color.”

She says that the critique of “scientism” is starting to move beyond the African American humanist community, though, even though it can be a tough sell for self-described “skeptics,” who make up a lot of atheists.

Sikivu: Prisoners of color are still being used for scientific experimentation, without consent. So science is continuing to use the bodies of people of color just as it did in the past.

7:54 PM: Ian: “I am a scientist. I science all day long.” He says he is able to deconstruct religion, sexism, racism, etc. by using his scientific training: recognizing where there is likely to be bias, where something might be explained by something else that we’re not seeing, and so on. When someone says that “women are just more nurturing than men,” he says that that’s just one explanation. Could it be something else? Ditto for Asians dominating at school because they’re “super smart,” for instance. So, maybe it’s not that science or skepticism are the problem; maybe it’s that we call something “science” and consider it infallible, and that’s not actually a scientific view.

7:58 PM: Ashley is pointing out, though, that there’s a difference between the process of science itself and the history of the scientific enterprise. Science creates hierarchies about which knowledge “matters,” such as quantitative over qualitative, empiricism over other methods of inquiry. The idea that you should look for alternate explanations and use the scientific method is a good one, but you’re doing it in the context of that hierarchy.

8:00 PM: Stephanie: We might be talking about two types of hierarchies. AHHHHH A;LSDF;ALKSDF.

Ashley: There are valid reasons for those hierarchies, but it means that there are some people and some types of knowledge that “don’t count.”

Ian agrees that we shouldn’t throw out everything that isn’t a randomized control trial. He refers to a survey of women who went to atheist conferences, asking them whether or not they felt safe. There are methodological problems with the survey and it’s not a randomized sample, but it still has useful data as long as we acknowledge the bias. But apparently some YouTube guy disagreed with him and basically said NO EVERYONE’S LYING. Well then.

8:02 PM: Anthony: Most of the invitations he gets to speak are about “diversity in the movement.” But we need to actually change the structure of these organizations. Who’s on the board, for instance, determines what they think is important. Make sure that people you think have the right agenda are holding positions of leadership. “We’re always talking about diversity, but the look of these organizations with respect to leadership doesn’t change.”

8:04 PM: Stephanie: Back to science for a bit. Apparently she’s writing a book. OOOOOO. Anyway. She has a question for the panel: Do those of you who are in leadership positions feel hampered by the constant need to address diversity?

Anthony: What’s important is when other people in leadership positions start talking about diversity, not just us.

8:06 PM: Audience member: Back to science. We idealize it. It’s very elitist; articles are not accessible to everyone, and all we see in the New York Times is “science has found…” Researchers have to compete a lot for funding and are under pressure to publish. So we end up talking about the findings that are “popular,” even if they’re not necessarily the best science.

Sikivu: African American girls are very eager to be involved in science at the middle school level, partially because they’re involved in civic and religious activities where they get a lot of encouragement. But when they get into their classes where they have white/male instructors who don’t perceive them to be as analytical, intelligent as their white male counterparts, it disabuses them of the notion that they can be scientists. And in the media, all you see in terms of scientific achievement are white males. Humanists/nonbelievers of color recognize that it’s not necessarily religion that prevents people of color from exploring science: it’s educational apartheid, institutional racism, etc. in secondary and higher education.

Anthony: This movement needs an appreciation for a diverse range of knowledges, not just science.

8:11 PM: Kate is asking about the fact that STEM education gets so much more attention/funding than other types of education, especially in terms of standardized testing. How does that play in?

Sikivu: Rigorous learning when it comes to science is getting closed out, in part because of Obama’s Race to the Top (or Bottom) initiative. You need college prep classes to get into college, and that’s not necessarily there.

8:12 PM: Debbie is asking about the idea that we need to do social justice work as atheists. When we try to work with others on topics like feminism, etc. because we’re threatening to them and critical. “Part of the atheist identity is, ‘Hi, and I’m an atheist and I think you’re wrong.'” It’s not like, say, a Jew and a Catholic working together, who can apparently bond over their mutual love of god. “How can we get into things like feminist activism and LGBT activism when the idea of being an atheist itself is so offensive?”

Stephanie: part of it is persistence. Minnesota Atheists has worked with the LGBT community for a while, so there’s a relationship. Finding a speaker about abortion rights was more difficult because there wasn’t a relationship like that already. Part of it is the need for destigmatization of atheists.

Ian marched with the BC Humanists in the Pride Parade, which is a really big deal in Vancouver. They carried a huge banner that said, “There’s probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The religious groups were all in front of them, though (“There were a whole bunch of Christian groups, cuz they can’t just be Christians!”). He was expecting pushback but Vancouver is one of the most atheistic cities in the country (which is already pretty atheistic), and people were actually cheering out loud. Awww, brings a tear to my eye! But that didn’t happen in a vacuum; it happened after a long process. There were a lot of people who are very involved in the LGBT community and out atheists marching with the BC Humanists. Granted, atheists don’t have the same stigma where he’s from.

Sikivu: Black Skeptics has experience working with the faith community. “That’s been a long, arduous process. We’ve had to meet them on their own terms and on their own turf.” They’ve also been partnering with an LGBT African men’s group to address issues like suicide, homelessness, etc. and develop some sort of mentoring or other resources in the school system. You do have to be able to reach across the aisle and really listen to where people are coming from.

Debbie: “Maybe not using the word atheist sometimes?”

Sikivu: “We use the word atheist!”

Stephanie: Minnesota Atheists obviously does as well.

8:24 PM: Andrew made a face and I’m trying not to burst out laughing, dammit.

An audience member just asked a question about science and culture that took a very long time and I can’t really parse what he’s saying, but let’s see where the discussion goes!

Ian: “Unethical science is bad science. Ethics is part of scientific education, part of scientific process.”

Anthony: People who do unethical science think they’re being ethical…

Sikivu: Who determines ethics?

Audience member: “Without science, society is lost. Without heart, it is doomed. Without science, we are in the dark. But we have to be careful to understand what science means.”

Ian: “Oppression makes empirical sense from some people’s standpoint.” You want something that someone else has, so you’re going to take it. But that’s not a universal value system. Someone made the point that gender oppression creates benefits for men, but actually it doesn’t. You can use scientific inquiry to demonstrate that, and that it benefits everyone–men included, if you eradicate sexism. “Destroying systems of oppression also benefits the oppressor. Only in a very narrow sense does oppression benefit those at the top.”

Audience member disagrees. He doesn’t think oppression hurts the oppressor at all.

8:30 PM: Another audience member: We seem to be separating the hard science from soft science. If you say that we shouldn’t deify hard science, fine. But if you’re saying we shouldn’t deify all science, then you’re ignoring sciences that do take cultural context into account. We should be encouraging people to think scientifically. “We should push back against 73% of people saying Adam and Eve are real.”

Anthony: There has been no deification of the humanities and the social sciences; that’s not the problem.

Sikivu: “You have people waltzing around saying ‘We are all Africans’ without recognizing the offensiveness of that totalizing statement vis-a-vis the conditions of Africans on that continent and here in the United States.”

Ashley: That hierarchy of “some sciences are better than other sciences” is part of the problem. Your question demonstrates that this hierarchy exists.

Audience member: This relates to capitalism. The hard sciences drive profit, so they get the funding/attention.

Stephanie: There’s also the appeal to rationalism. It’s easier to understand physics than biology than sociology. UM I DISAGREE. But she’s got a point. Sciences like sociology are very complex, whereas “hard sciences” are more simple.

Ian: It’s easy to refute religious claims with “Fossils!” “But to understand how ‘Fossils!’ is part of a larger structural system that is subsumed within Christiano-capitalist histories…that takes a lot of work.” Ian cribs stuff other people wrote about capitalism (like Sikivu and Anthony!) because he just doesn’t have time to read all of that. There are purists out there who say “we can’t have these conversations” and who think that we can only talk about atheism, not social justice. “But until they clamp something over my mouth—well, over my fingers, because I blog–until they clamp oven mitts over my hands,” he’s going to keep talking about what he wants to talk about.

You have to use different methods for different questions.

8:38 PM: Stephanie: changing the topic a bit. Do we value people with social intelligence and leadership skills, or do we value the people who are able to stand up in front of the room and talk for an hour?

Ashley: There are definitely organizations who look towards those social things, but individuals in the movement are probably less drawn to that than people who are looking for leaders for an organization.

Stephanie: “If we want to act in the real world, is this something we need to value?”

Ian: Different situations require different skills. In some organizations there’s a huge turnover of leaders because people have different skills, and the needs of the organization change. He doesn’t think this is an answerable question.

Ashley: The Secular Student Alliance does a good job at this, at putting people in roles where they have to learn skills. (YAY!)

8:42 PM: Debbie: “I’m sorry. I have so many questions though!” It seems that at atheist/skeptic conferences, a lot of the people on stage were often scientists/researchers, not organizers/educators/activists, which may be why there was little diversity. But now there’s more of the latter group, and they are more tuned into what’s going on with the grassroots. Blogging helps. Wait, what was the actual question.

8:50 PM: Audience member: There isn’t just one atheist movement, but if there is one, what is the main goal?

Ian: “I would draw an analogy between the atheist movement and the Black community. What is the Black community? There is and there isn’t one.”

Audience: You didn’t answer the question.

Ian: I’ll let someone else answer the question.

Ashley: equality for nonbelievers, and critique of religion as an institution. The goal of critiquing religion fails if you’re unwilling to recognize all of these other things (social justice).

8:52 PM: Audience member: Is there a concern among atheists that instead of deifying a god, people will deify government, think that someone’s smarter than them and should make choices for them?

Ashley: “I don’t think any atheist thinks anyone’s smarter than them.”

8:53 PM: Stephanie: What common missteps do people make regarding social justice issues? For instance, telling you some fact they learned during Black History Month that shows they have no idea what’s going on?

Sikivu: People think that African Americans are so religious because they’re not educated or because of “failure to be enlightened by the science god,” and that’s something to push back against. So is the idea that science is going to be the “silver bullet” against Black religiosity.

Ashley: People wonder “How do I make people want to be a part of what I’m doing?” not “How do I reach out and do something for them?” Ian: “with them.”

Ian: “One thing I really despise is laissez-faire anti-racism.” The idea that if we just stop treating people like they’re different, then we’ll all just be equal! Yay! It’s not a liberal vs. conservative thing. The problem is that racism requires more attention, not less. You have to actually understand how it works. “Whenever someone says race doesn’t matter or race isn’t important, I immediately know they have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Anthony: One problem is the idea that what will produce the society we want is the complete eradication of religion. Rather, we should ask, “what can we do to lessen the impact of religion?” What can we do to prevent the most tragic consequences of it?

Stephanie: We have five minutes left, is there anything anyone wants to leave us with?

Ian: Everyone should read my blog.

Ashley: No, everyone should read my blog.

Ian: After you read my blog.

Stephanie: They’re all really close to each other.

Read all the FreethoughtBlogs!

AND IT’S A WRAP. Thanks, everyone! What an awesomesauce panel.

[guest post] Sorry, You Don’t Own Marriage

My friend Seth, who’s becoming somewhat of a regular around here, returns with some observations about the same-sex marriage “debate” (if you could call it that).

I don’t know how many of you reading this right now have read any other of my limited contributions to the blogosphere, but if you have, you’ll know that I’ve been hopelessly indoctrinated into the gay agenda. So, unrepentant heathen that I am, you can imagine my reaction when this little gem of a quote from the debate over the Illinois same-sex marriage bill floated across my news feed:

“It is not a civil right, and marriage was created by God and not be modified by anybody except God.” (Source: Equality Illinois, corrected for grammar and punctuation because GAH)

Naturally this kicked the snark center of my brain into full gear. Gay people can’t get married because the Christian God holds the patent on marriage? Who else does this affect? Are all those poor Hindu couples technically unmarried because they didn’t go through the proper (i.e. Christian) procedure? What about me? I’m a Buddhist and an agnostic, does that mean that the children I father are doomed to be bastards born out of wedlock? What about my cousin, who just went up to a county courthouse and signed a paper with her fiancee—does that have the Divine Stamp of Approval?

That’s when a legitimate thought broke through the sarcasm. What about my cousin? She’s married in the (for lack of a better phrase) bare-bones legal sense, with no religious ceremonies or oversight. But she’s still married. I dare anybody to try and challenge that. They’d get laughed out of court.

And that’s what this is all about, because whoever supplied the above quote was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Certainly, marriage can be closely associated with religion: see every fictional depiction of it ever, which almost always involves it taking place in a church unless there’s a particular reason for it not to. But in this day and age, marriage is not controlled by religion. If it were, the entire institution would be an unmanageable clusterfuck—look at the sheer amount of religions we have in this country, and how many different interpretations of marriage they present. Rather, marriage is a way of legally acknowledging that two people have decided to live cooperatively, and to make that arrangement more convenient for them. Like my cousin, all you really have to do to be married is to sign a paper saying that you are; everything else is window dressing to make you feel like you’re square with your god and your family.

So marriage actually has nothing to do with religion as far as the law is concerned, and this is the law we’re talking about here, being, you know, legislation. And for a polyreligious country like ours, the law has an obligation to apply in equal measures to all citizens regardless of the proscriptions of any one particular religion. In other words: yes, the bible does say that homosexuality is a sin. No, that doesn’t give you the legal right to keep them from marrying, any more than you have the legal right to burn a priest’s daughter for being unchaste (Leviticus 21:9) or execute an adulterer or a child who curses their parents (Leviticus 20:9-10).

Your religion says gay marriage isn’t okay? Fine. Don’t let them get married in your church. That’s your religion’s domain and therefore your prerogative. But when it comes to the legal right to sign that piece of paper? Nobody gets to touch that, not you, not the Jews, not the Hindus, not the Pagans, and not us Buddhists. If you still want to claim that your God has exclusive rights to marriage, then you’d better get cracking on a bill that keeps us nonbelievers off of his turf. Go ahead. See how it goes.

Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.

Why You Should Talk To Your Kids About Death

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great because, having been an atheist for a long time and through no particular effort of my own or anyone else’s, it’s important for me to understand what the arguments against religion actually are. (Well, and also, that book is hilarious.)

Reading Hitchens’ description and critique of Pascal’s Wager brought back some memories from my childhood, and I realized that as a kid, I actually used a sort of Pascal’s Wager without knowing what it was or how notorious it is.

In a nutshell, Pascal’s Wager states that it’s “better safe than sorry” to believe in god. If you believe in god but he turns out not to exist, you’ve (supposedly) lost nothing*. But if you don’t believe in god and he turns out to exist, then you get to burn in hell for all eternity. Yay!

For a significant amount of my childhood–I don’t remember when it started or ended–I did believe in god. I don’t know exactly why, except that I thought it was part of being Jewish. In addition, I was terrified of hell, of my parents dying and going to hell–in short, of what would happen to me if I didn’t believe.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: my parents never taught me about hell. I did not attend a religious school or Sunday school (until much later, and even then we only discussed Jewish history and ethics). My parents did nothing to encourage my religious beliefs, though they did encourage my ethnic Jewish identity. I attended the occasional prayer service, but the rabbis were more concerned with making jokes and encouraging friendships than teaching us to fear the torment of hell.

Rather, my view of hell and my resulting fear of it probably came from the Christian culture in which I grew up. As I did with Christmas, I kind of passively absorbed all the stuff I heard about hell from classmates, friends, and pop culture. I was also always interested in art and literature, which are both brimming with biblical allusions. A large chunk of my knowledge of Christianity comes from them. I accepted all the propaganda about “Judeochristian ethics” or “Abrahamic traditions” and assumed that the Christian and Jewish views of death and the afterlife must be identical.

Ultimately I discarded all religious or “spiritual” conceptions of the afterlife (and I’ve run through many) and decided that when you die your consciousness dies too. But I guess I’ll see when I get there.

As others have already pointed out, the idea that atheists have nothing worthwhile to contribute about death is insulting and false. Yes, everything we say about it is based on the premise that there is no life after death, so if that concept is completely reprehensible to you, I suppose you don’t have much of a reason to listen to us.

Otherwise, though, I agree with Susan Jacoby that atheists should speak out about their views, including their views on death. Greta Christina has already done so beautifully. But I will take it one step further and say that parents should help their children understand and deal with death rather than trying to shield them from that reality.

You should talk to your kids about death because if you don’t, they’ll learn about it anyway. Maybe they’ll be lucky and learn something helpful and reassuring, but more likely they’ll pick up whatever poisonous and disempowering ideology their surrounding culture supplies to them.

This doesn’t just apply to atheists, by the way. I know plenty of religious people whose parents told them that they don’t believe in hell, which I believe is the ethical thing to do. If an adult wishes to attend religious services and be informed that they will suffer forever after death if they fail to follow a certain set of rules, that’s their choice. But teaching that to a child is cruel.

I’ll be honest–I don’t know how to talk to kids about death. I’m not (yet) a parent, and I won’t condescend to you by providing concrete child-rearing advice. But I think this is worth thinking deeply about and I’ll keep doing so. This is a post about “why”; someone else will have to supply the “how,” if they haven’t already.

I do know, both from my personal experience and my research, that shielding children from dangerous or “scary” ideas and realities–death, drugs, sex, illness–doesn’t work. They learn anyway. And, chances are, they’ll learn from similarly misinformed and probably insensitive peers, or from television, or other sources that aren’t going to be nearly as compassionate and experienced as their parents hopefully are.

So talk to your kids about death.

~~~

*I will include a caveat that, in my opinion, Pascal was wrong that you’d lose nothing by believing in a god that turns out not to exist. What you lose is the ability to create your own life, relationships, and moral code as you see fit. That, I think, is a pretty big loss.

Christmas From The Outside

Just some personal reflections on Christmas from an outsider.

It is impossible to be a person living in the United States, of any ethnicity, religious affiliation, or national origin, and not understand the meaning and significance of Christmas.

It’s a religious observance. It’s a sparkling monument to consumerism. It’s a celebration of family, of charity, of miracles, of food, of childhood, of living ethically–depending on who you ask. It is the only holiday I’ve ever heard of that has an entire genre of music dedicated to it, that requires over a month of preparation via that music playing in every public space, hours of shopping, and decorations covering trees, roofs, walls, doors, countertops, bathrooms.

Growing up as an immigrant and a secular Jew in a particularly Christian and conservative part of the Midwest, I grasped all of this so early on that I don’t even remember learning it.

It’s bizarre and a bit unsettling, having such a detailed understanding of a set of traditions, beliefs, and principles that I have never participated in. With absolutely no effort, I learned about jingle bells, advent calendars, stockings, Santa Claus, coal, elves, milk and cookies, chimneys, Christmas Mass, eggnog, nativity scenes, reindeer, holly, mistletoe, and more. It’s not like I ever had to ask a Christian friend about their observances or attend one on my own. I just absorbed all this information passively by virtue of living in the United States.

This, to me, is part of what it means to live in a Christian country. Christianity is the default here, which is how I came to be so knowledgeable about its traditions while few of the people I meet know anything about my traditions.

This isn’t in itself a “bad” thing. If you live in the places I’m from, you’ll experience the same thing. It’s impossible to live in Russia without understanding what New Year’s Eve means to us. It’s impossible to live in Israel without knowing exactly how we observe Shabbat, Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Chanukah, and many others that you probably haven’t even heard of.

The truth is, though, that I have to understand Christmas. If I didn’t, it’d be kind of weird, don’t you think? Friends would tell me they can’t leave the house and go do something on the 25th and I’d wonder why. We’d be asked to sing Christmas songs in class and I wouldn’t know any of the words. When asked what I did for Christmas, I’d say that I sat around at home and read a book rather than understanding that I’m supposed to say that I spent it with my family.

I have to understand Christmas in order to interact with people normally at this time of year. But they never have to understand the things my family and I do for holidays in order to interact normally with me. It’s standard for people to ask me why I’m shopping for “New Year’s presents,” or why Chanukah lasts eight days.

My little brother’s teacher once asked someone from our family to come to their class and give a presentation about Chanukah, so I showed up with a menorah and a bunch of dreidls and gelt, explained the history of the holiday to the class, and showed them how to play the game. It was fun and they seemed to have a good time, and it occurred to me that nobody ever had to give me a presentation about Christmas.

Some of my earliest memories of living in the United States have to do with Christmas. I remember singing Christmas songs in school in kindergarten. At first I was jealous, naturally, of the other kids. I’d pass by my neighbors’ houses and see the glowing Christmas trees through their living room windows. Although in Russian culture we have “New Year’s trees” (or novogodniye yolki, I guess you would say), my parents abandoned that tradition. I think they realized that people would pass by on the street and assume that we celebrate Christmas just like everyone else. The fact that a decorated evergreen tree could have any other significance probably doesn’t occur to many people.

Anyway, I grew up and stopped feeling jealous, instead growing proud of my own holidays, traditions, and language. But it stings sometimes to have our observances roped into this amorphous Holiday Season when, in fact, the similarities end with the fact that our holidays happen at the same time of year. Chanukah is nothing like Christmas, and neither is New Year’s Eve (except for the fact that the Soviets stole some of those traditions from Christmas).

These days it has become politically correct to acknowledge non-Christian wintertime holidays as part of the Holiday Season. Grocery stores now carry dreidls, gelt, and menorahs; people celebrate winter solstice; kids in school sing a song about Chanukah in addition to all those Christmas songs. Kwanzaa, a holiday observed by the African American community that the majority of Americans might not have otherwise heard of, is often given an obligatory shout-out. “Happy holidays” is often considered more appropriate to say instead of “Merry Christmas” if you do not know which holiday(s) someone observes.

It’s nice that people are finally recognizing that not all Americans celebrate Christmas–and, hell, not all of us are even Americans. But nevertheless it feels like, in a strange way, we’re still being asked to conform by participating in The Holiday Season even if we don’t have such a thing. (In fact, the Jewish version of the “holiday season” are the High Holidays in the fall.)

Despite these well-intentioned concessions, it’s still quite clear that Christmas reigns supreme among wintertime holidays. It feels weird knowing so much about something that has never been part of my life and never will.

Why Homosexuality is Not Analogous to Murder

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is clearly very worried about the pervasive immorality that’s taking over America these days. First gay sex will become okay, then murder.

Yes, he really said that. “If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?”

Here’s the context: Scalia was speaking at Princeton University and a student asked him about his decision to dissent in the landmark ruling of Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down that state’s ban on sodomy as unconstitutional. Scalia believes that the Supreme Court has no place in this “culture war” and that the activists who wanted to overturn anti-sodomy laws were advocating a “homosexual agenda” (his words, not mine).

When asked about this decision, Scalia used a slippery slope fallacy to suggest that if we can’t have “moral feelings” about homosexuality, then we can’t have them about murder, either.

Yes, yes, I get it. He’s not really saying that homosexuality is like murder. He’s making an analogy. But it’s a terrifically bad one.

Scalia, like many people who enthusiastically infuse their political opinions with religion, seems to think that murder is morally wrong cuz god said so–and, therefore, so is homosexuality. He seems not to realize that most people nowadays think that murder is wrong not because they’ll go to hell for it but because an innocent person is being deprived of their life. 

Who is being hurt by someone having gay sex? Who is being hurt by a same-sex couple getting married and living out their lives together? Who is being hurt when kids are discouraged from (and disciplined for) bullying a classmate for being gay?

Honestly, I think this is why religious conservatives started spouting all that stuff about gay people “converting” children to homosexuality. This is the reason for all those initiatives there used to be to ban openly gay people from teaching in public schools, and the reason why, even today, organizations like the Florida Family Association accuse Office Depot of turning kids gay by selling products saying things like “Be Yourself.”

Even though there is no evidence for the theory that homosexuality is some sort of infectious disease, religious conservatives insist that it is, because that allows them to claim that it actually harms people. And that makes the morality argument a very different one.

I’m also shocked that Scalia (and so many other people) really don’t see any difference at all between having “moral feelings” and legislating those moral feelings upon the rest of the country. These are probably the same people who go around wailing about “Christian persecution” because, guess what? You have the right to say and believe whatever you want, but that doesn’t mean you have the right to force others to live by it. Making sure you don’t have the latter right doesn’t mean you’re somehow being discriminated against.

In short, yes, you can have “moral feelings” about homosexuality. And murder. And whatever else you want. We just don’t have to live by your moral feelings.

I’ll grant that when someone says something like, “I don’t care if the gays can get married or not but I still think homosexuality is Bad/Unnatural/Gross/Sinful/Wrong,” I will argue with them. I still think they’re wrong. But I care a lot less about these people than about the ones who do care whether or not same-sex couples can get married, and especially the ones who by some twisted logic claim that there is anything at all acceptable about laws banning sodomy.

And, of course, in these debates, someone who thinks they’re really smart always shows up and asks things like, “But aren’t you legislating your morality upon others by saying that they can’t legislate their morality upon others?”

No; this is asinine. The default in a free, just society should be having rights rather than not having rights. So if you’re going to take away someone’s right to do something, you’d better have a damn good reason.

So why can we ban murder but not gay sex?

Well, even if homosexuality were wrong, it would still be wrong in a completely different way than murder. If homosexuality is wrong, it’s wrong because we (or god) just don’t like it. Murder is wrong because it infringes on the rights of others to live.

And, really, if we’re going to base our legal system on religious scripture, I’m still waiting for the laws banning gossiping, lying, speaking ill of one’s parents, working on Sundays, and refusing to love thy neighbor.