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).

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(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!

#FtBCon Review and More Secular Things

We survived FtBCon2! There were tech disasters and no-show panelists and not enough food or sleep, but it was, like last time, a really fun weekend during which I learned a lot (and hope you did too). If you saw our final session, you know that we’re already thinking about the next con, so stay tuned for announcements about that within the next few weeks.

There were a few moments for me this weekend that were especially rewarding: our two-hour-long panel on polyamory on Friday night, hearing all the criticisms of the mainstream atheist movement (in panels like this one with young women of color, and this one with atheists who deal with chronic illness or disability), getting to play Cards Against Humanity online with people, and helping amplify the voices of people who otherwise might not reach an audience. Some other panels/talks I particularly enjoyed were godless parenting, sexual harassment law, Jewish atheism (that was one of mine!), and the secular support movement.

I’m also just really impressed, as usual, by the amount and quality of the work that was put into this. Stephanie, Jason, and Brianne worked their asses off, and all the non-FtB friends we had organizing panels, such as Courtney Caldwell, Benny, and all the folks from Secular Woman, put an incredible amount of work into this so much. Thank you to all of them, to everyone who helped out in the chatroom, to everyone who spread the word, and to everyone who watched.

Here, for your edification, is a playlist of ALL THE TALKS:

Last year, FtBCon helped spur the creation of the Secular Asian Community on Facebook. This time, it prompted a friend of mine to create a Facebook group called Secular Exchange NYC. It’s for New York-area atheists/agnostics/nontheists to exchange job postings, apartment listings, goods, services, and other needs, in recognition of the fact that as atheists, we don’t have ready-made communities like churches and synagogues that can provide us with these things.

If you’re a nontheist who lives in or spends a lot of time in the NYC area, you’re welcome to join the group. It’s still new and really small, but the bigger it gets, the more benefit there will be from it.

In other secular news, SkepTech is just two months away and they’re raising money! SkepTech is a technology-/skepticism-themed student conference. I went to the first one last year and had an amazing time. They had “safe zones” where people could get some quiet time and unwind, their speakers were diverse and awesome, Zach Weinersmith drew me a picture, and hijinks ensued. The IndieGoGo page also boasts that last year’s conference features “1,000,000,000+ salacious postures,” so you should go and see them for yourself. If you can, please help out their fundraising campaign and/or attend. Registration is already open (and free!), and the speaker lineup will be released later this week. From what I know of it already, it’s going to be really, really good.

Finally, here’s a cool documentary called Hug An Atheist that’s raising money to go to festivals. The documentary is important because it exposes people to the views and lives of actual atheists and does a lot to dispel the stigma that lots of people still feel towards atheists and atheism in general.

That’s it for now. I hope to write some more soon. I’m going to a polyamory conference in Philadelphia this weekend, so maybe that’ll provide some inspiration.

Don’t forget to join Secular Exchange NYC if it applies to you!

What This Depression Survivor Hears When You Call Religion A Mental Illness

[Content note: mental illness, suicide, abuse]

Some atheists love to compare religion to mental illness, or directly call it one. I won’t link to examples; it’s pervasive and has probably happened on this network.

While there may be some useful parallels between mental illness and certain types of religious experiences, calling religion a mental illness in the general sense is a clumsy, inaccurate, alienating thing to say.

This is a list of things that go through my head, things that I hear when I hear atheists calling religion a mental illness. I’m speaking only for myself here. My experience of having depression informs some of these opinions, but so does my knowledge of psychology, my experience working with people who are struggling, and my understanding of what being religious is like and what draws some people to religion.

Some of these may seem contradictory. That’s because they are. Atheists who compare religion to mental illness may do it in various ways and with various meanings. They may do it in a “logical,” intellectualizing sort of way, or they may do it in a spontaneous, ridiculing sort of way. It can be “Religious people are victims of mental illness and need our help” or it can be “LOLOL go see a shrink for your stupid sky daddy delusions.” What I hear when I hear you calling religion a mental illness depends on the context.

“Nobody in their right mind would ever choose to observe a religion.”

Calling religious people mentally ill suggests that they do what they do because they’re “crazy.” I get that religious beliefs and rituals may seem bizarre to atheists who have never had any desire to hold those beliefs or perform those rituals. Sometimes when I’m at religious Jewish functions I sort of look around myself and feel like a bit of an alien. This is so weird, I think. Why would anyone do this?

A major component of mental illness is that it is maladaptive. People with OCD sometimes can’t function because they can’t stop performing their rituals or thinking about their obsessions. People with depression sometimes can’t get out of bed, shower, talk to people, go to work for weeks or months at a time. People with schizophrenia sometimes lose all sense of the distinction between reality and fantasy.

Religion can be maladaptive when taken to extremes, but that’s a problem with the manifestation, not with the core component: believing in a god. In and of itself, believing in a god can actually be very adaptive. When people feel like they have no control over the universe, when they lose someone they love, when a grave injustice happens, it can be comforting to believe that there’s someone up there pulling the strings. It’s not comforting to me, personally, but to many people it is. That doesn’t make their beliefs accurate, but it does make them understandable. You don’t have to be “crazy” to want to believe in a religion.

“Your religious friends may seem happy and well-adjusted, but they’re actually sick just like you are.”

We often hear about people who are restricted, cut off, or even abused by their religion. These cases are tragic and deserve every bit of the attention that they get. But what about all the people living happily with religion?

Atheists who claim that religion is a mental illness seem to be saying that these people are just kidding themselves. Sure, they’re happy, but that happiness can’t be real because it’s the product of a mental illness. Or they think they’re happy, but they’re really not.

If this is what you believe about religious people, ask yourself why you think you know more about their mental state than they themselves do.

“I consider myself qualified to diagnose millions of people I’ve never met with a mental illness.”

Armchair diagnosis is a bad idea. It promotes the idea that mental illness is whatever we feel on a whim that it is, and that random internet commenters are qualified to determine whether or not someone has a mental illness despite never having even spoken to them, let alone spent time with them in person as a diagnosing psychologist would.

“Whether or not I think someone is mentally ill is more important than whether or not they think they’re mentally ill.”

And in addition to that, the fact that probably zero religious believers think that their religion qualifies as a mental illness is a good indication that you should stop saying that it is. Of course, you can and should disagree with them on other things, external things, like whether or not god exists or whether or not religion is a net good in society or whether or not people can be ethical without religion. But what goes on in their own minds is something they know much more about than you ever will.

“People who say their faith helped them deal with their mental illness are just kidding themselves.”

Can’t fix a mental illness with another mental illness, right?

This is a tricky area because I do think it’s very fair to question the presumption that religion helps people with mental illness in general. First of all, people (religious and not) with mental illnesses are often told that they need to pray or “have faith” or repent or whatever, because some religious people believe that mental illness is a sign of insufficient faith or a punishment from god or both. Second, some religious people find that religion actually makes their illness harder to cope with, whether because of these responses or other factors. Some people may even become more vulnerable to mental illness as a result of something their religion taught them, such as shame or a preoccupation with doing things a certain way.

However, there are also many people who say that religion helped them cope with their mental illness, whether it was the faith itself, a supportive religious community, or both. I do not feel comfortable claiming that these people are lying to themselves or to us.

I wish that people didn’t need faith to cope. I wish we had foolproof treatments for mental illness. I wish everyone had access to those treatments. I wish we never had to send patients home saying that we don’t know what else to do for them. I wish we knew exactly what–which genes, which environments, which neurotransmitter deficiencies–caused mental illness, so that nobody ever had to feel like it was either a random accident of chance (terrifying) or an act of god (slightly less terrifying, for some people).

But right now, we don’t have any of that. So it makes sense that some people would cope by telling themselves that it’s part of god’s plan and that they can’t possibly comprehend that plan.

I want people to be happy and alive. That’s my first priority. Once they’re happy and alive, I can think about trying to get them to think more rationally and scientifically. If thinking irrationally and nonscientifically is what keeps someone from suicide (or from a miserable life), I accept that.

And as far as the community aspect goes, having a strong support system can be both a protective factor against mental illness and also a mechanism that helps people cope or recover. Building humanist communities is extremely important for all kinds of reasons and this is one of them. We’re making progress, but humanist communities still don’t have the scope or resources of religious ones. There are also still plenty of atheists publicly decrying these projects and boasting about how they don’t need them and such things are useless and pseudo-religious and for the weak-minded. That’s harmful. If a religious person feels that their church or synagogue is the only source of support they have for their mental illness, they might not necessarily be wrong.

“Religious beliefs are inherently bad and harmful to the individual, just like the distorted thoughts associated with mental illness.”

Some people, such as Greta Christina, have made powerful, compassionate arguments for the idea that religious belief is universally, intrinsically harmful to society, separate from the harmful effects that organized religion can have. I’m not sure yet how I feel about these ideas, but I’m still much more comfortable with the opinion that religious belief does harm to other people and to society as a whole than that necessarily does harm to the individual who holds it.

Most religious people would probably say that their religion helps them be happy, charitable, kind, and strong. I may feel skeptical about this, but they know better than me.

On the contrary, the symptoms of mental illness are very, very clearly harmful in a way that is undeniable. While people with mental illnesses may sometimes deny that there is anything wrong, they are often clearly unhappy, and their denial is often caused by fear of the stigma of mental illness. (All the same, though, if someone tells me they are not mentally ill, I would never argue with them.)

“All mental illness means is having irrational thoughts or believing something without evidence, and it is possible to completely stop having irrational thoughts.”

I hate to break it to you, but irrationality is probably part of the human condition. Everyone is, to some extent, subject to cognitive biases. Almost everyone at one point or another engages in superstitious, fantastical thinking. Clearing your mind of irrational beliefs that aren’t based on evidence is something that can only be accomplished intentionally, with effort. Even then, you will never be perfect. There’s a reason the popular rationality site Less Wrong is called Less Wrong, not Perfectly Right or Not At All Wrong.

So if being irrational is a sign of mental illness, then we are all mentally ill, atheists included. But more likely, (extreme) irrationality is only one component of mental illness. Others might include engaging in behaviors that are harmful to oneself, behaving in ways that are not considered normative in that particular cultural context (a problematic criterion, but a useful one when used in conjunction with others), being unhappy with one’s mental state, and not being able to function properly in one’s daily life.

“My desire to make a point is more important than what the psychological evidence says about religion and mental illness.”

To put it simply, the processes that lead people to be religious are not the same ones that lead them to be mentally ill. As I mentioned above, religious belief is a subset of the sort of irrational thinking to which all humans are prone. Humans look for patterns in the world and easily form superstitions on the basis of those patterns. Humans also generally enjoy the feeling of being part of a group or having a community, and religion is an easy way for a lot of people to experience that feeling. Many people who are religious were born into religious families and were taught that god exists and [insert religious tenets here] from birth, so it sticks.

On the more abusive end of things, people may stay in harmful religious sects or communities for similar reasons as they stay in abusive relationships. They are made to feel by their abusers that they will never be complete without the faith. They are taught that they will go to hell forever if they leave. They are made to feel worthless and powerless. They are told that people outside of the religious communities are bad people.

Being affected by abuse does not mean you’re mentally ill. It means that someone who knows how to take advantage of people took advantage of you. Furthermore, religion is but one of many props people can use to abuse and control each other.

On the contrary, mental illnesses have substantial genetic and biological components to them. Studies on identical twins, including ones reared apart, have demonstrated fairly high concordance rates for some disorders. While the chemical-imbalances-cause-depression theory has now been shown to be drastically oversimplified, mental illnesses clearly do have some sort of neural causes, triggers, and effects. Mental illnesses are often (but not always) triggered by major stressful life events; they can occur when an individual goes through hardship with which they are not psychologically equipped to cope.

Unlike religion, mental illnesses are not taught to people by other people; they tend to occur when genetic/biological susceptibility lines up with stressful environments or adverse life circumstances. Unlike religion, people do not try to remain mentally ill so that they do not lose their support systems or because they are afraid of what would happen if they stopped being mentally ill. They remain mentally ill until they receive proper treatment, or until the illness remits on its own. Unlike (non-abusive) religion, people do not have a choice whether to stay or leave. Those who suffer from eating disorders, substance abuse, or OCD may claim or genuinely feel that they have a choice, but they actually don’t, and that becomes evident as soon as they try to stop. Yet countless people voluntarily leave religion every day. That doesn’t sound like a mental illness to me.

“You chose to have your mental illness, just like people choose to be religious.” 

Some atheists who make this comparison believe that having religious beliefs is a choice (and abandoning them would also be a choice). If having the symptoms of a mental illness is a choice, what does this say about the rest of us?

“Mental illnesses (like religion) can be cured by making fun of people’s irrational beliefs and shaming them on the internet.”

Normally recovering from a mental illness requires therapy, medication, a strong social support system, or some combination of those. I rarely see atheists agitating for better mental healthcare services for religious people to help them deconvert. In fact, providing people with the resources they would actually need to leave religion (as opposed to simply telling them they’re wrong over and over again) is not a major focus of very many atheists. Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the work done by groups like Recovering From Religion and the Clergy Project. But I also haven’t personally witnessed anyone associated with these groups claiming that religion is a mental illness.

“Religious people can’t be held responsible for their beliefs; they’re just victims of an illness.”

If you do agree that mental illness is not a choice, however, that implies that being religious is not a choice either. That implies that religious people do not have agency over any part of their religious belief or observance. Not only is this offensive to religious people, but it actually suggests that we shouldn’t hold them responsible for their beliefs. You wouldn’t blame a person with anxiety for feeling anxious, would you?

“I don’t care about mental illness unless it’s religion.”

Relatedly, better mental healthcare is not a major concern of many atheists (the ones who don’t have mental illnesses, that is). It really should be. Mental healthcare is stymied by both religion and pseudoscience, and advocating for more research, funding, and concern in this area is a project that I think would be of great relevance to the secular movement. But the only time I see most atheists bringing it up is when the “illness” is religion. What about the 25% of American adults who will suffer from an actual mental illness (or more than one) at some point in their lives?

“Mental illness is bad and shameful; that’s why I’m using it to disparage religion.”

Sometimes when I see the religion-mental illness comparison being made, it’s being done in a way that is clearly meant to ridicule and put down. Atheists frequently employ language that stigmatizes mental illness to refer to religious people, such as “crazy,” “insane,” “nutcase,” and so on. Even when you’re not using such clearly hurtful language, though, you can still be perpetuating stigma by saying that such-and-such Islamist “belongs in a mental institution” or that such-and-such fundamentalist Christian “needs to see a shrink.”

If you think religion is horrible and then you compare it to the condition I have, how am I meant to think you see me?

“You are a rhetorical prop for me to use to disparage religion.”

And that’s why I feel like people with mental illnesses are being used as convenient stand-ins when someone wants to diss religion. I feel like our suffering is just a tool for you to pull out of the antitheist toolbox when you need it. “Look how stupid religion is! It’s just like a mental illness!” you say. My depression is not at all like a religion. Unlike a religion, I didn’t choose it. Unlike a religion, it has never provided me with rituals and communities. Unlike a religion, it was not something taught to me by people, not something I could’ve avoided. Unlike a religion, it can’t go away no matter how many times you tell me I’m wrong. Unlike a religion, it has no positive effects, ever. Unlike a religion, my depression didn’t just make me empirically wrong about certain things; it broke my entire life into pieces and took away my ability to enjoy anything. Please stop using that awful legacy to score cheap points against religious believers.

“Attacking religion is more important to me than being inclusive and supportive of atheists with mental illness.”

I tell other atheists over and over again that this is hurtful, inaccurate, and completely pointless. And over and over again, despite the massive support I get in these comment threads from other atheists with mental illnesses, they insist on using this stigmatizing, alienating language. They ignore our knowledge of psychology and mental illness and continue to claim, against the evidence, that religion can be categorized as a form of mental illness. Rather than diving in and learning more about how mental illnesses are defined and which mental processes contribute to religiosity, they refuse to let go of this rhetorical tool.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think that deep down many people think so poorly of people with mental illnesses that they know how effective it can be to compare anything you think is bad to a mental illness. It happens all the time.

But considering how many people I know in this community who are diagnosed with a mental illness, I would cautiously say that maybe you shouldn’t keep alienating us. I’m just one person, but I have serious qualms about working with an atheist leader or organization that holds the view that religion is a mental illness. I doubt I’m the only one.

Find a better argument. Find one that is accurate, first of all, and that stomps on as few already-marginalized people as possible.

~~~

Moderation note: I have finals this week and am unlikely to be around to answer every single question and argument I get. I will moderate strictly for comments that stigmatize mental illness, though. If this piece sets off lots of debates in the comment section, hopefully they can flow smoothly and somewhat productively without much input from me.

Open Letter to the CFI Board of Directors

This was sent to the CFI Board of Directors today as they prepare to meet this week to discuss the controversy surrounding Dr. Ron Lindsay’s opening remarks at the Women in Secularism conference. It was signed by 33 of the conference attendees. If you have something to say about this, the CFI Board of Directors can be reached via the Corporate Secretary, Tom Flynn, at tflynn@centerforinquiry.net.

To the Board of Directors of the Center for Inquiry:

As attendees of the recent Women in Secularism conference, we are writing to express our disappointment with Dr. Ron Lindsay’s opening remarks and his subsequent behavior. We support the recent letter written and signed by thirteen of the conference speakers and would like to add our voices to theirs.

Dr. Lindsay’s comments about the misuse of the term “privilege” to “silence” men miss the point of the term. It is not that men must “shut up and listen” to women forever; it is that, historically, the voices of men have been heard the loudest, and perhaps it is time for them to make more of an effort to listen to the voices that have been drowned out.

Dr. Lindsay’s remarks were addressed to an audience of activists for women’s rights, both within the secular movement and beyond. Rather than allowing us to defend that activism, Lindsay chose to lecture us about “taking it too far” while betraying a serious misunderstanding of what it is we’re fighting for.

Dr. Lindsay spoke about the supposed silencing of men, but he did not speak about the silencing of women. The reason many of us attended this conference is because the position of women in secularism is currently a tenuous one. In response to their advocacy for increased inclusivity within the secular movement, women activists have been subject to a divisive campaign of bullying, harassment, and threats. Several prominent activists have dropped out of the movement or decreased their involvement in it due to this ongoing silencing campaign. But rather than expressing support for these activists, Lindsay cautioned us to avoid taking our activism too far and “silencing” men. In fact, during the conference, he chose to personally welcome one of the harassers who was in attendance.

To be clear, Dr. Lindsay is entitled to his opinions about feminism and the concept of privilege. But if he had concerns about these issues that he wished for the conference organizers and speakers to address, he could have done so before the conference and in private. His decision to do so during his opening remarks was particularly inappropriate given that merely weeks before, Dr. Lindsay used his position to advocate discussing objections privately and, of all things, listening more.

As secular activists, we welcome discussion about feminism and its role in the secular movement. But a condescending lecture is not a discussion, and the opening remarks of a conference are a time to welcome and thank participants, not to air grievances against them.

We are asking Dr. Lindsay to apologize in full for his behavior at the Women in Secularism conference. While we appreciate that he has apologized for his incendiary blog post about Rebecca Watson, we would like to see him acknowledge that his opening remarks were inappropriate given his position within CFI. In addition, we are asking Dr. Lindsay to make every reasonable effort to ensure that there will be a third Women in Secularism conference, because we believe that the secular movement cannot move forward without standing up for women’s rights.

Signed,

Miri Mogilevsky

PZ Myers

Nathan Hevenstone

Catherine Fiorello

Monica Beck

Nicole Harris

Stacy Kennedy

Mark Waddell

Mai Dao

Michael X

Corinne Zimmerman

Lotte Govaerts

Bogdan Cvetkovic

Virginia R. Brown

Shaun McGonigal

Jason Thibeault

A. L.

Kate Donovan

Andrew Tripp

Daniel Samuelson

Alexander Gonzalez

Ania Bula

Adam Lee

Steve Croker

Peggy Clancy

Yukimi

Caitlin Quinn

Zachariah Pidgeon

Xenologer

Alicia Kuhl-Paine

J. Bradley Emery

Amy Cook

~~~

If you’d like, feel free to send this letter to the CFI board in your own name, with or without modifications.

[#wiscfi liveblog] What the Secular Movement Can Learn from Other Social Movements

The WiS2 conference logo.

After just four hours of sleep, I’m back to blogging. This is a panel with Debbie Goddard, Carrie Poppy, Desiree Schell, and Greta Christina, and moderated by Soraya Chemaly.

9:08: Soraya: We’re going to compare the secular movement to other social movements, expanding secularism through social justice, and the marginalization of women in social movements.

Greta gets cheers and applause just for introducing herself!

9:12: Soraya: Let’s talk about the life stages of social movements.

Greta: I think the reason I’m here is that I’ve been involved in the LGBTQIA-etc. movement for many years. I do think there are parallels between the atheist/secular/skeptical movement and that one. I think we’re about 35 years behind it; I think we’re where that movement was in the 1970s, after Stonewall. We’re learning the importance of coming out and visibility; I think that’s the most important thing you can do. It’s about making atheism a safe place to come out. It’s also about not quibbling about nomenclature; the LGBT movement had a lot of arguments about that. Letting firebrands be firebrands, letting diplomats be diplomats. The LGBT community has sort of learned to play good cop, bad cop.

One thing we can learn from the LGBT movement comes from one of its early failures: diversity. They sucked at racial diversity, class diversity, etc. That continues to harm the movement. It set patterns into place that are hard to get out of and created resentment. There are a lot of things about not being inclusive that are self-perpetuating. If you’re wondering why many of us are so passionate about inclusivity in atheism, talk to anyone in the LGBT community and ask if they’d get into a time machine, go back, and fix the diversity issue from the beginning.

I’m upset about the fights we’re having now, but I’m grateful that we’re having them now because it means we won’t be having them as much in 10 years.

Desiree: One of the things that’s interesting about the labor movement is that we were so effective that y’all have forgotten. The 8-hour work day, occupational safety, weekends–those came from the labor movement. What the secular movement can learn from the labor movement is the importance of celebrating your successes, because when you don’t, you forget those successes. Celebrate your militancy, current and past. I call myself a militant unionist and I haven’t blown anything up.

Carrie: Thank you Desiree for the weekend. [applause] In all social movement there’s a period where men running everything. Then you get to a stage where women are engaged and are the foot soldiers. That’s the do-or-die moment. This conference is especially well-placed because we are in the women’s stage and it’s do-or-die time.

Debbie: When I was in college I got involved with LGBT activism because I joined groups and was like, “Oh I want to hang out with these people” and ended up doing rallies, etc. Realized that if we promote secularism and critical thinking, we won’t have to fight for gay marriage because everyone will just be like, duh. Eventually they hired me at CFI as a field organizer. I didn’t even know organizing was a thing you could do.

It’s not about getting everyone to join an atheist group. It’s about representation.

I was really impacted by Greta’s talk about how when we succeed, people will just be atheists. They won’t be badasses for being out atheists. They’ll just be atheists, who cares.

There are a lot of young atheists; it’s hip now. But they’re not necessarily doing activism.

9:25: Greta: That’s what you see in the LGBT community. Early on, if you were out you were an activist by definition. That is to some extent true for atheism. Now you see a lot of gay people just living their lives. In 20 years maybe we’ll be seeing that with atheists. That is still to some extent activism. Being an out LGBTQ person is very powerful. It’s a huge part of why that movement has succeeded.

Soraya: My daughter’s class was talking about difference and her teacher, who was gay, asked her what it’s like to be an atheist. Before this wouldn’t have happened; that’s a huge change. Can you talk about the downsides and benefits of alliance-building?

Greta: We’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t do alliance-building. Sometimes there’s this resistance because we think it’s mission drift. But there’s a lot of overlap. I was talking to Teresa MacBain about someone in the Clergy Project who can’t come out because his wife has a chronic illness and he needs the health insurance. Is there an intersection between atheism and healthcare? Yes. Religion oppresses people and perpetuates poverty.

The downside is, it’s hard. You have to do things that aren’t comfortable. You have to do things differently, you can’t just do the same kinds of events. You have to acknowledge when you screw up. It is really, really hard. I have been on the receiving end of it. It’s really hard to try to be an ally with people and suddenly 100 of them are piling on you telling you you screwed up. It’s hard,  but too bad, you have to do it anyway.

Desiree: I don’t think it’s just that it’s hard. If you look at feminism, there was definitely a point in women’s suffrage when it was considered a wealthy, educated woman’s pursuit–until they got working class women involved. Many historians say they wouldn’t have won women’s suffrage if they hadn’t included working class woman. It’s not just this idea that we should be inclusive; sometimes that’s the only way to win.

9:31: Carrie: It’s so apparent to me that you have to ally yourself with social justice movements because that’s already your goal–to promote happiness and end suffering. It’s inherent in any movement that you’re heading towards social justice. This may not be a popular opinion, but I think interfaith work is a great place to ally yourselves. I grew up a believer and for me, there was a stepping-down process and becoming a liberal religious person was a very important part of that process. Our liberal religious friends are very important allies in finding common goals. We won’t find that often among conservative religious people.

The downside is that it’s really hard to get people to listen to you when you’re proving more than one point at a time. It’s hard for me to talk about being an atheist vegan if you’re none of those. But it’s good to think about what you guys have in common and use that as a base point.

As far as mission creep goes, I used to work with someone who would often talk about it. And my response was, YOU’RE a mission creep.

9:35: Debbie: I think sometimes the goals are different and the interest other groups have in working with us is different. Even with interfaith people feel like they have to swallow their integrity. Sometimes it feels like we have to hide a part of ourselves if we can’t say, “I think you’re wrong about Jesus.” A lot of us feel strongly about that. I can’t just hang out with religious people and not tell then how wrong they are all the time. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but I see why people are uncomfortable.

Trying to ally my atheist and freethought groups with LGBT groups, they didn’t want us. They didn’t want us saying that Jesus hates them. We have to swallow some of our ego to accomplish our goals.

Desiree: This is a good time to talk about diversity of tactics. It just means you have a variety of tactics in your arsenal and you use them based on the situation, the political atmosphere, who you have in your group, etc. When we’re talking about interfaith work, diversity of tactics means that we support each other in those endeavors. Even if we don’t agree exactly with the way they do this. We have to stop snarking on each other every time someone does something we personally wouldn’t do, because it’s all really really valuable.

Greta: One challenge is, as Debbie said, do they want to work with us? In the LGBT movement, some have tried to distance themselves from the view of gay people as godless. How do we make that case that we are worth allying with? I don’t know that I have an easy answer, but there are a lot of us and we’re also on the internet and raising money.

9:39: Soraya: That to me is a really key question. I think the question of branding these words and how we communicate goes beyond just coming out and talking about it. It requires a much more systematized method of communicating. If we could talk about the language of it and the stigma of some of these words.

Debbie: The Outreach department at CFI talks about this a lot. We like the word “secular” because it allows us to work on both political and social issues. But one of the downsides is when we say secular and mean atheist, then the Religious Right doesn’t want to support a secular agenda because it’s anti-religious, it’s atheist. Maybe 10 years ago that should’ve been a consideration. I subscribe to some right-wing newspapers and they use “secular” as a dirty word.

I saw Gloria Steinem speak. Someone asked her if we should be using feminism given that people think it means hating men. And she said that with the agenda that we have, any word would come to mean that.

I do think it would benefit us to have alliances with groups that are willing to support a secular agenda.

Carrie: I personally have always preferred the word atheist because it’s the most honest. Anything else, people just see through anyway and think you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes. But organizations can have very different tactics from individuals. They can try to destigmatize the word atheist, but in your personal life you can choose not to use that word.

Desiree: I work with primarily women of color, most of them are new Canadians working in low-wage jobs. We have a lot of conversations. I do talk about the fact that I’m an atheist, but I don’t say “I’m an atheist.” I say that I don’t have a god, and that seems to resonate with people. If you can build a personal relationship with someone, after they already think you’re great, bring up the fact that you don’t believe in god, and they’re much more likely not to care or even be interested.

Greta: Some of us are going to be more comfortable being softer, doing interfaith work, and some of us are going to be more comfortable being more in-your-face and using stronger language. I think all of that is useful. Those of us who are more in-your-face move the center. In the LGBT movement, we’re been talking about same-sex marriage for 20 years and now it’s become the mainstream position. But building bridges and using softer language is important, too.

It’s not about the word we pick. It’s not the word they don’t like; it’s the fact that we don’t believe in god. In that sense it’s different from other social movements. There’s no way to say you don’t believe in god without implying that you’re wrong, so there’s always going to be a bit of tension when working with believers.

9:47: Soraya: Sometimes it seems from talking to people that there’s something unique in what’s happening with women in the secular movement. But I don’t think that’s really true; there are parallels to other movements.

Greta: There’s a lot of pushback against feminism in the atheist movement. It’s everything from, “Why can’t we just get along?” to “Stick a knife in your cunt.” Seriously, I’ve gotten that. Some people ask why we’re “blaming” atheism. But these conversations are happening everywhere–in the gaming world, in the tech world. This happens whenever men are dominating a movement. We’re not saying that atheism is special. But we have the opportunity to do something about this in our movement. It would be like a Chicago police officer saying, well, murder happens everywhere. Why do you want to focus on murder in Chicago?

Desiree: I agree with most of what you’re saying. But I do expect more of the atheist movement. We talk so much about how smart we are. Why is status quo ok for this, but in every other area we’re supposedly better?

9:52: Carrie: Usually it’s helpful to see a broader concept, but in this case it’s actually not. It’s like saying that your family is just as bad as the family down the block. If your mom is beating you up and saying, “Well Sally’s mom beats her up too,” my response would be, “Fuck you mom.”

Debbie: The Human Rights Campaign uses shiny white dudes living in suburbs, not the dykey lesbian types. Movements use certain people who will be accepted and listened to. I was reading about the role of churches as organizing spaces for African Americans in the 1950s and 60s; the ones who were organizing a lot of those meetings were women. They couldn’t put themselves in top-level position, but they were bringing people together. A lot of times women have been the organizers more than the men.

I don’t know how that works with the feminist movement but I see some reflections of hierarchy and structure there.

Is it new and how do we change it. We have to think of ourselves as a movement like these others ones, not that we came up with this whole new idea. We should learn from the way these over movements have incorporated people and stayed relevant.

Soraya: During the Second Great Awakening, there was great diversity–people of color, women. Thanks to secularism in our country, these religions could explode. Today, when I look at religious media, which is incredibly successful, I wonder what we can learn from their success.

9:59: Debbie: There are a lot of people who rail against the fact that Black atheists organize; “I don’t see color” and all that. One of the things with the Christian mass communication is that people aren’t that kind of arrogant about how they think.

Greta: I saw a talk once on the differences between liberals and conservatives. It said that conservatives are really good at following authority and working in lock-step. But if liberals aren’t so good at that, and we can’t do that or else we’ll fail at our goals. We should play to our strengths. I don’t think we’ll ever be a movement that marches in lockstep.

The demographics of this country are changing, and getting a diversity of genders, races, classes, sexual orientations front and center plays to our strengths.

10:09: Reader questions: How can we address class if we hold meetings in luxury? What about global secularism and regional issues?

Greta: re: the luxury thing: That’s important. That’s why I’m really happy to see free, student-run, regional conferences. There’s also a lot of organizations that use conferences as fundraising, and I get that, but I do think that we’re not going to get diversity of class at a conference unless we find some way to address that, whether it’s scholarships or having more free conferences.

Desiree: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Class is a great gateway oppression. If we’re talking about intersectionality, people have a hard time thinking about race or gender issues. But everyone gets class because everyone can vaguely understand what it’s like to be vaguely broke. So if we’re going to talk about different kinds of oppression, it’s great to start with class.

Back in the day, the left-wing movement was a collection of the upper class and academics working together. There’s a lot of progressivism now that doesn’t speak to working class people. It’s an academic pursuit. If we don’t speak to people’s personal interests on a day-to-day level, we’ve got nothing.

Debbie: There’s a lot of this attitude that people who are poor must be lazy. A lot of people can’t conceive of not having a safety net or support structure, where one bad illness in your 20s can wreck everything for 15 years.

There’s a lot to be learned from looking internationally. Class is a big aspect of it.

10:22: Reader questions: Can you touch on some specific examples of allying with other groups?

Carrie: There’s a great group called Interfaith Youth Corps and they’re very accepting of atheists and agnostics. When I’ve gone to their events people come up to me and want to know why I don’t believe, and I’ve never had them push their beliefs on me. The conversation is immediately about how we can work together to help people in the community.

Debbie: I think all around we don’t do service much, and that is a class issue in the first place. A lot of the Black churches would do a bunch of service stuff, whether that was volunteering at soup kitchens or collecting clothes or help build houses. I don’t often see atheist/secular groups doing this.

Desiree: Single issue campaigns. You don’t have to agree with the majority of what someone thinks. You only need to agree with what they think about one specific issue and use that to build relationships.

20:28: Soraya: Closing statements?

Carrie: I’ve been thinking about how a lot of people here feel ostracized by people in the community who don’t support the issues they care about. It reminds me of how in high school I used to write letters to this boy I liked about why he should like me. And it didn’t work. Instead he went around and told everyone how I was fat and stupid. I realized that he’s the idiot, not me, but I wasted all that time trying to get him to like me. These people who don’t like you and think you’re an idiot and a waste of time? They’re a waste of time.

Debbie: I was really excited to come to this. I’m really excited that we’re talking about these issues. I want to see people do stuff. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it when people think about stuff or write about stuff–I was a philosophy major, I like that stuff too. But I also like doing stuff. I would like to see us all do more stuff in person, get involved in service projects, get involved in tutoring. Help schools with crappy science classes.

Desiree: Scandinavian countries have the lowest rate of religious adherence. They also have the highest union density. You have to look at atheism from different perspective–race, class, etc.

Greta: When social change movements get the “woman thing” right, they flourish. When they don’t, they fail. We have to get this right. Stop telling me to stick a knife in my cunt, stop telling me this doesn’t matter. Stop telling us not to feed the trolls, stop telling us to think about something happy like bunnies. If we do this right, we win. So, let’s win.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Gender Equality in the Secular Movement (Panel)

Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today (Susan Jacoby)

How Women’s Concerns Can Best Be Advanced within the Context of a Secular Agenda (Panel)

The History of Atheism, Feminism, and the Science of Brains (Jennifer Michael Hecht)

Secularism: A Right and Demand of Women Worldwide (Maryam Namazie)

[#wiscfi liveblog] The History of Atheism, Feminism, and the Science of Brains

The WiS2 conference logo.

Now up: Jennifer Michael Hecht, a poet and author of three books about history. She has a PhD in the history of science from Columbia, and teaches at the New School and Columbia.

4:05: The first thing we can do to forward the goals that we have is to show up. To do what you’re doing right now. From The Happiness Myth: “It’s great to come out of the closet, but you also have to leave the house.”

Also, it’s important to remember that we’ve been here for a while. There have been atheists/secularists throughout history, including women. I’ll be focusing on one story, but I had a smorgasbord of women doubters, atheists, secularists to choose from. Even in the bible: Job’s wife says, “Curse god and forget him.”

4:14: Margaret Sanger was an atheist–“no gods no masters” comes from her. But she brought birth control to women in the U.S. Of course, there’s the whole thing with the eugenics…

4:16: Today I want to talk about someone you’ve never heard of. Her name is Clémence Royer. She translated Darwin’s work into French and claimed (unlike Darwin) that it proves atheism. Because she wrote an introduction to the French translation in which she connected Darwin’s ideas to atheism, she had a profound effect on how evolution was perceived in France–as atheist and anti-religion.

It’s not just building on Darwin, though, but also on Paul Broca’s work. Broca basically founded anthropology and neurology and discovered that a lesion on a certain part of the brain–the third left frontal convolution of the brain–you will have trouble speaking, even if your intelligence is perfectly intact. This came to be known as Broca’s area, and the affliction as Broca’s aphasia. The Catholic Church was troubled by this because the belief was that the brain has nothing to do with thought.

4:21: Broca was an atheist, and he and his atheist friends decided to form the Society of Anthropology based on Royer’s interpretation of Darwin. At first it’s men only, and Royer petitions to join and is denied. But she appeals to Broca and he lets her in.

The members later formed another group: the Society of Mutual Autopsy. It was intended to annoy the Catholic Church. For 30 years, as they died, these scientists dissected each other’s brains to try to find more phenomena like Broca’s aphasia. In her last will and testament, Royer states that she wants to donate her body to science. These scientists were lending meaning and ritual to their deaths while also advancing science.

4:26: The 1893 Freethought Convention was dedicated to the rights of women, and Royer was celebrated there. But we’ve forgotten that this is part of the history of secularism.

Royer believed a lot of the things people said at the time, and believed that she’d been born with a man’s brain.

4:29: The idea of science being on our side comes up a lot and people love to talk about who’s brains are like this and whose are like that. Maybe we should ask them why they never study the difference between the brains of tall men and the brains of short men. They have all sorts of social differences, too. But only certain differences are politicized.

Atheism used to be much more respectable. Edison was an open atheist and declared so right on the cover of the NYT. He got some backlash, but he survived. But the Soviet Union was atheist, and so it became treasonous to be an atheist. The 1950s were when god went into our money and into our pledge.

But our most murderous enemy is no longer the atheist Soviet Union, but rather places that are more religious than us.

4:31: Just by showing up, we see each other and see the crowd and encourage each other. Even if you don’t see exactly how you’re helping each other. Learn your empowering history. The knowledge of it may have been lost, but the change in the culture persists. We don’t remember these French anthropologists anymore, but at the beginning of the 20th century France separated church and state for the first time.

4:33: Know some feminist theory, even though it can be dense reading. It teaches us the subtle ways we take advantage of our privileges, such as where we live or our skin color or our money. You have to give away a little bit.

4:38: Audience asks Hecht to spell all the French names. lolz

4:41: Audience question: :What’s the best way to repopularize the atheist-ness of these historical figures?

Hecht: Micro histories tend to include atheists, but the larger, more general accounts leave them out. I have no doubt that there have been more nonbelievers in history than believers.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Gender Equality in the Secular Movement (Panel)

Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today

How Women’s Concerns Can Best Be Advanced within the Context of a Secular Agenda