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.

[#wiscfi liveblog] Sexism and Religion: Can the Knot Be Untied?

The WiS2 conference logo.

I’m finally up and watching Katha Pollitt speak! Pollitt is a poet (say that five times fast) and a columnist for The Nation.

10:10: I chose the topic of my talk today because I didn’t know the answer: can religion be disentangled from the misogyny in its texts and its practices. I asked a random selection of people what they thought. My cousin Wendy (an observant Jew) said no. My daughter, a militant atheist since kindergarten, also said no.

The world’s religions are all deeply shaped by patriarchal ideas of a woman’s place. For some, that extends even into the next world. For Mormons, men in the afterlife can have many wives, but a woman can only enter the afterlife if her husband calls her by her “secret name,” which only he knows. Also, she will be perpetually pregnant in the afterlife to produce people to populate her husband’s planet, because he gets a planet after he dies!

In the Islamic afterlife, men also get a bunch of wives. Meanwhile, in Christianity, men and women are supposedly equal before god. But regardless of whether or not that’s true, the society Christianity establishes on earth is not egalitarian at all. (See: St. Paul on women.)

There are no female prophets in the bible, no female founders of a major new faith (except Christian Science), very few female religious leaders with independent power. To find a woman-centered religion, you have to go back to prehistory, and we don’t even know much about those religions. In any case, men are quite capable of worshipping a female god (i.e. Athena) while repressing women.

10:16: What about the bible? It’s full of misogyny, of attempts to control women’s sexuality (evidenced by the obsession with prostitutes).

The atheist in me wants to answer my question with a resounding “no.” The subordination of women has historically been one of the main purposes of religion. It’s the rulebook of patriarchy.

Today, priests and rabbis tend to talk in terms of complementarianism: men and women are equal; they’re just different!

Up until 100 years ago, there was none of this separate-but-equal stuff. Women’s sexuality was considered dangerous and potentially polluting. Today, though, you’d have a hard time finding a rabbi who’d say that the reasoning behind the menstrual taboo in Judaism is just that menstruation is disgusting. Instead, they say that the ritual bath “honors” women and is empowering and whatnot.

10:19: Orthodox Jews claim that men refusing to shake women’s hands has nothing to do with women being taboo; it’s just about “modesty” and “respect.” “We just think the sexes shouldn’t be so quick to touch each other.” They’re reframed it as no longer about a specific resistance to women, but a general thing.

When American Muslim women talk about why they wear the hijab, they invoke it as a simple of religious identity, not as something to keep men from being lustful. Some Muslim women choose to start wearing it even though their mothers didn’t. After 9/11, some well-meaning liberals suggested that non-Muslim women wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women who were being harassed. My suggestion was, maybe men should wear the headscarf. That did not go over well.

10:23: You can historicize away and reinterpret away anything that doesn’t fit modern liberal values. Some Muslim feminists argue that everything objectionable in the Koran is applicable only to Mohammed’s time, and everything good in it is inherently true.

“I don’t know what the difference between a skeptic and an atheist is…” [audience groans] The question is, why did god put his word in such a way that, up until the day before yesterday, it was understood for certain that it meant a certain thing, but now we claim that it was all misinterpreted? In terms of literary criticism, this is interesting, but people actually try to dictate their lives and social policy by their holy books.

God could’ve given the Ten Commandment to Miriam and said, “Thou must have equality between men and women.” But he didn’t. He spent four of the commandments demanding that he be worshipped. Somehow, he sounded exactly like the patriarchal society in which he was made up. But “God didn’t have to write like an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.”

So feminist theologians have their work cut out for them.

10:28: People today are hungry for a Christianity that is woman-positive and sex-positive. That’s why The Da Vinci Code, a terrible book, was such a huge success. We like the idea that the church was originally an egalitarian place and that this history was erased by sexists. This requires a lot of historical revisionism.

For instance, Mary and Miriam were fairly marginal figures in the bible, but some try to elevate them to mean more than they actually did.

10:30: Christianity still has its obsession with virginity and hostility to sex. This probably originally made it stand out as a religion. But you can’t derive our contemporary sex-positive gay-friendly culture from the New Testament. But some theologians try to do it anyway.

Atheists get mad when it looks like the goalposts are constantly moving. Now you say there’s nothing wrong with women wearing pants. That’s not what you were saying when you were burning Joan of Arc at the stake.

But in reality the goalposts have always been moving. When Europe was ruled by kings and queens, the Church underwrote monarchy and Jesus was described as the “king of kings.”

Religion changes when society changes. Well, maybe 50 years after society changes.

That process only looks dishonest if you think religion is a set of fixed rules and decisions. That’s how many of us atheists tend to see it. But you can also see it sociologically: it’s not really about the proper analysis of texts, it’s a social practice that reflects the society in which it is practiced. As society changes, people sift through the grab-bag of religion and pick out the bits that make sense.

Religions themselves don’t put it like that. They have to make it seem like there’s a direct line going back to the beginning, because that’s where their authority comes from.

This constant rewriting of history while never admitting what’s happening is how religions claim moral weight and power.

Some people believe that Judaism is inherently socialist, that Jesus was a pacifist, that Mohammed was a feminist, and that we need to get back to this original vision. But others believe that the “original vision” is that it’s okay to cut thieves’ hands off.

The bible used to be cited as a justification for slavery and Southern Baptism was invented to justify it. But nobody nowadays claims that the bible justifies slavery and we should really get back to that. Witchcraft was always condemned with the bible, but Pagans believe that witches are actually considered good in the bible. In any case, most people in the West don’t believe in witches, so nobody really cares.

10:36: The modernization theory would predict that, as human society progresses, people abandon religion or it becomes a shadow of itself. But reactionary religious movements are gaining strength while resisting modern roles for women. We see this in many faiths around the world. Does this prove the modernization theory wrong? Does it prove that the knot cannot be untied?

I’m still fond of the modernization theory. I see reactionary movements as a testament to the lack of modernity.

Fundamentalism is a vehicle for patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that if people dump religion they will become feminists. The French revolution was made by men of the Enlightenment who were hostile than religion, but it did nothing for women’s rights. In fact, they were slightly worse-off legally. Ditto for the Soviet Union and Communist China. When the Soviets wanted to increase the birth rate, abortion was outlawed.

You can be good without god, and you can be sexist without god. We’ve seen plenty of secular justifications for inequality–evolutionary psychology, for instance.

10:40: When we do have gender equality, religion will be reinterpreted to support it. The bible will be said to have always supported feminism.

10:43: Religion is comforting to some women because it gives them a measure of power. For instance, a wife has to be her husband’s helpmeet, but in return the husband has to come home at a reasonable time at night.

The knot between sexism and religion will be untied when feminism becomes the norm, but religion will get all the credit.


Previous talks:


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)

[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.

If Your God Condones Forced Pregnancy, Get a New God

[Content note: sexual assault]

I mean, I realize it’s not that simple, but could you at least consider it?

Richard Mourdock, a Republican senate candidate from Indiana, thinks we should be praising the Lord if we get pregnant from rape:

The only exception I have to have an abortion is in the case of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

Then of course the outcry began and Mourdock tried to apologize:

I said life is precious. I believe life is precious. I believe rape is a brutal act. It is something that I abhor. That anyone could come away with any meaning other than what I just said is regrettable, and for that I apologize.

What he seems to be saying is that rape itself is abhorrent, but the pregnancy that may result from it is not. This is puzzling. The two processes are not completely disjointed from each other. Pregnancy is a response that most female-bodied people are capable of having to sexual intercourse. If rape is awful, how can pregnancy resulting from rape be a gift?

And on that note, Dictionary.com defines gift as such: “something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance.”

If the way your god honors, shows favor, or gives assistance to women who have survived a traumatic and possibly violent crime is by forcing them to carry an unwanted baby and then raise that child for 18 years, you need to find yourself a new god.

Oh, and if your politician supports forcing these religious beliefs on all Americans, you need to find yourself a new politician.

But incidentally, Mourdock has not only failed at being a decent human being and at understanding the U.S. Constitution. He has also, according to at least one writer, failed at interpreting his own religion. A Chicago Theological Seminary professor writes:

Rape is sin by the perpetrator and God does not cause sin. Conception following rape is a tragedy, not part of “God’s will.” The capacity for tragedy to occur in human life, and indeed in what we call “natural evil” like earthquakes, is a result of what Christians call “the fall” from perfection as described in Genesis.

When you make God the author of conception following rape, you make God the author of sin. This is a huge theological error, and one that Christian theologians have rejected since the first centuries of the faith.

Not being a Christian (much less a theologian) myself, I can’t necessarily vouch for this interpretation, but it certainly makes more sense to me than Mourdock’s.

What this suggests to me is that Mourdock, and others like him, aren’t actually interpreting their religious beliefs objectively and then coming to the conclusion that abortion is still wrong even after rape. Rather, they are reinterpreting the religion post hoc so that it supports their desired conclusion–that abortion is wrong no matter what.

Of course, religious beliefs should have exactly nothing to do with public policy, and I don’t understand how this is still up for debate. However, the fact that these politicians aren’t even expressing genuine religious ideas, but rather manipulating religion to make it seem like it supports their twisted morality, somehow pisses me off even more. Surely (whines the atheist) this is not what religion is about?

The thing about gifts is, they can be politely declined or flat-out refused or returned to the store or given to someone else. If god has so kindly offered you the “gift” of a pregnancy following a rape, you should be within your rights not to accept the gift.

A gift that is forced on someone without their consent is, by definition, not a gift at all.

A Texas Republican (Who Else?) Thinks Schools Need Mandatory Bible Reading

Hey, you know what will help teens avoid pregnancy? Comprehensive sex education, right?


Here’s Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Republican in the Texas state house:

What I think is that that’s unconstitutional. Apparently many other readers of Rep. Riddle’s Facebook page thought so too, and told her in no uncertain terms, because she followed up with this:

OK, enough already. My friend Mary – a teacher – not as conservative as I am – has mentioned how many of her students have no foundation of faith and are having babies at 15 – plus so many more problems. She has stated that with no foundation of faith these kids are a drift [sic]. Knowing how sensative [sic] folks are about prayer and ect. [sic] I thought a simple reading of Proverbs – a book of wisdom – would be helpful. I certainly did not intend to offend – I was just throwing out an idea.

She then waxes Jeremiac (I made that word up) about “the level of disrespect in today’s world” (as opposed to yesterday’s world, when rather than posting a mean comment on someone’s Facebook, you challenged them to a duel and possibly killed them) and the importance of “open discussion” (except, apparently, when people disagree with you).

Several things.

1. Apparently you don’t have to understand basic grammar, spelling, and writing style in order to be elected to public office. Seriously, I know this is a nitpicky point compared to the rest of what I’m about to cover, but most of us learned to spell “sensitive” in elementary school.

And to think that Riddle wants to take time out of every school day to read Proverbs. Clearly, there are more pressing problems with Texas education.

2. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Republicans seem to only focus on the second part of that inconvenient part of the First Amendment: “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But that first part is pretty damn important. Our Supreme Court has determined that forcing children to observe religion in public schools violates the establishment clause. In Engel v. Vitale (1962), school-mandated prayer was struck down; in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), school-mandated Bible reading was struck down as well.

So, although Riddle has now had nearly 40 years to get used to the latter ruling, she apparently has failed to do so. And no, school prayer was not “tossed” because it’s not “politically correct,” but because it violates our Constitution. There’s a difference.

3. Jesus does not prevent teen pregnancy. Comprehensive sex ed does. It also does a lot of other cool stuff, like help prevent STI transmission and sexual assault, but that’s besides the point.

Here’s another interesting thing. According to Gallup, the most religious state in the U.S. is Mississippi. According to the CDC, the state with the highest teenage birthrate is…Mississippi.


Even supposing that this is a fluke, it’s a well-known fact that other states with high levels of religiosity tend to have high rates of teenage pregnancy and birth, as well. Of course, this is all correlation and not causation–except for the fact that religious states tend to have abstinence-only sex ed, which does not work.

Now, Rep. Riddle’s friend Mary, who is of course a credible source because she is “not as  conservative” than Riddle (and because this isn’t anecdotal at all) claims that it’s specifically the godless heathens who are getting themselves pregnant. Leaving aside the question of how Mary manages to divine the religious beliefs and observance level of her students–and avoid confirmation bias–the information I have just presented about teenage birthrates in religious states seems to refute her point. Why would nonreligious teens only get pregnant en masse in religious states, but not in nonreligious states? And if they do, what does that say about the environment these states create?

4. The United States was not “built on Christian and Jewish values.” While most of the Founding Fathers identified at least nominally with Christianity, that does not mean that they based the entire nation upon it. Many of them were either deists or anti-clerical Christians, so it’s hard to imagine them supporting state-mandated religious observance. Historian Gregg L. Frazer, meanwhile, argues that the Founding Fathers subscribed to a belief system he calls “theistic rationalism,” which combines religion with reason (a feature mostly lacking in Christian fundamentalism).

Interestingly enough, despite our nation’s supposed “Christian foundation,” the Constitution contains not one mention of the words “God” or “Christianity.” The only time it uses the word “religion” is in the First Amendment, which provides for freedom of–and from–it.

On a side note, can we stop lumping Judaism in with Christianity? These two religions are really quite different. And to suggest that anyone had the Jews in mind when establishing the United States is simply laughable, given how long it took for institutionalized antisemitism to find its way out of our country.

5. Proverbs is hardly the harmless book of “wisdom” Riddle thinks it is. Here are some quotations:

  • “Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.” (Proverbs 20:30)
  • “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.” (Proverbs 23:13-14)
  • “Give beer to those who are perishing and wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” (Proverbs 31:6-7)

The first two certainly make sense given the Texas GOP platform‘s ringing endorsement of corporal punishment. As for the latter, I was under the impression that religious Republicans think that people who drink alcohol when they’re under 21 are sinners too.

Overall, an admittedly cursory reading of Proverbs reveals it to be mostly gibberish. I can think of many better things to require schoolchildren to read if you want to teach them about wisdom and morality. I’m personally a huge fan of Nietzsche. But you’re free to disagree.

Also, the idea of Nietzsche ever being taught in a Texas public school is sadly unlikely.

Chikin With a Side of Homophobia: Why You Should Boycott Chick-Fil-A

The president of Chick-Fil-A, Dan Cathy, recently confirmed what most of us have known for a while–the company is virulently homophobic.

I mean, he didn’t come right out and say, “We’re a homophobic company.” But he did say, “Well, guilty as charged” when asked about Chick-Fil-A’s position on LGBT rights. He went on:

“We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that…we know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”

There are several interesting things about this statement. First of all, Cathy claims to support “the biblical definition of the family unit.” The Religious Right seems to believe that the Bible defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. But in fact, as this graphic humorously points out, there are various other configurations that the Bible deems acceptable, such as men having multiple wives or keeping concubines in addition to their wives. In addition, rape victims and female prisoners of war can be required to marry their rapists/captors, and a childless widow is required to marry her late husband’s brother.

So if we’re going to support “the biblical definition of the family unit” in this country, why aren’t we going all-out?

Second, Cathy proclaims that “we are married to our first wives.” Does the company discriminate against divorcees in hiring decisions? What would happen to an employee who decides to get a divorce? Is Cathy aware that divorce is a legal, accepted facet of American culture? On that last question, apparently not.

Third, Cathy seems to at least recognize that his position will draw a lot of ire when he says that “it might not be popular with everyone.” But I despise the use of the word “popular” in this context. Denying rights to people on the basis of their sexual orientation–which is what the organizations to which Chick-Fil-A donates promote, as I’ll discuss later–isn’t merely “unpopular.” It’s, you know, discriminatory. Unpopular is tie-dye and ponchos. Unpopular is crappy 70s music. When people like Cathy claim that they’re doing something “unpopular,” they make it sound like they’re bravely going against the grain, flaunting their nonconformity, in order to…deny rights to people on the basis of their sexual orientation. Edgy.

Finally, it is interesting to note that, up until now, Chick-Fil-A has denied its anti-gay position. As I’m about to show, these were just blatant lies, which ought to make you even angrier. If you’re going to be a homophobe, at the very least own it. And then, you know, change.

Now, as for Chick-Fil-A’s actual anti-gay advocacy, the facts are quite condemning. In 2009, WinShape, the charitable arm of the company, donated nearly $2 million to anti-gay groups like Marriage & Family Legal Fund (started by Chick-Fil-A senior VP Donald Cathy), Focus on the Family, and Eagle Forum.

In case you need any convincing that these are really terrible organizations, I will provide some evidence. The founder of Focus on the Family, James Dobson, supported the Federal Marriage Amendment, which, had it passed, would have made same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Besides its stance against LGBT rights, Focus on the Family also supports school prayer, corporal punishment, and creationism, and opposes abortion (duh). It also donates to the campaigns of anti-gay politicians, and it started a ministry called Love Won Out, which supports scientifically-discredited gay conversion therapy, and sold it to Exodus International, another one of Chick-Fil-A’s charity recipients.

Eagle Forum is a conservative interest group founded by noted anti-feminist and professional asshole Phyllis Schafly. Eagle Forum does way too much terrible creepy stuff for me to list here, but you can read all about it on the wiki page. Its (and Schafly’s) main claim to fame, though, is that they led the effort to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. Although the ERA is mainly known as a women’s rights amendment, Schafly believed that it would pave the way for legalized same-sex marriage:

“ERA would make all federal and state laws sex neutral. If two men show up and say we want a marriage license and [the person] says ‘you’re both men, I’m not giving it to you,’ that would be discriminatory.”

So, two things are clear: Chick-Fil-A has given a LOT of money to these organizations (probably more in that single year than I will earn in a lifetime), and these organizations do plenty of tangible things that prevent LGBT rights from being fully realized in the United States. And not only gay rights, really–in virulently opposing abortion and supporting corporal punishment, for instance, these organizations also seek to infringe upon the rights of women and children. Actually, given their anti-divorce claptrap, they’ve managed to do the impossible and infringe upon the rights of straight white men, too. They’re equal-opportunity rights infringers!

All of this is why I think that you–yes, you–should never set foot in Chick-Fil-A again.

Now, I’m generally quite skeptical about boycotts. Unless it’s very well-organized and happens on a large scale (see: Montgomery Bus Boycott), it’s unlikely to work. One individual withdrawing their business from a company won’t make it improve its labor practices, stop stocking an offensive product, and so on.

Indeed, if we boycotted every company that does shitty things, we’d probably have to live off the grid. I buy Apple and Coca-Cola products even though I have much to criticize them for, because honestly, refusing to buy them wouldn’t do anything, and you have to pick your battles.

However, with Chick-Fil-A we have a very different situation. This is a company that gives large sums of money–money provided to it by consumers–to organizations that actively work to oppose social justice, full stop. So when you give money to Chick-Fil-A, you can be certain beyond a doubt that some of that money is going to these organizations. Collectively, we as a nation helped Chick-Fil-A send nearly $2 million to these organizations in a single year. If you support equality, you should not be okay with that.

I haven’t eaten at Chick-Fil-A in years. In high school, I wasn’t old enough to care about things like this, and besides–embarrassingly enough–my high school band had a monthly fundraiser night there. As I was raising money for my own band, I was also raising money for wingnut politicians’ campaigns and for harmful conversion therapy.

I don’t miss eating there. The food was pretty good, but the knowledge that not a cent of those two million dollars came from me is better.

P.S. If you need any more incentive to ditch Chick-Fil-A for good, I present you with this:

*Edit* This is just too good not to link to.

We're Not Lost: An Open Letter to Campus Crusade for Christ

Northwestern’s chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical Christian organization otherwise known as Cru, has an edgy new campaign.

It’s called “I Agree with Markwell” and consists of the following: students wearing bright orange shirts that say “I Agree with Markwell,” covering the campus with chalk writing and posters that say “I Agree with Markwell,” and making videos in which they explain why they agree with Markwell.

Who’s Markwell? He’s a senior here at Northwestern who was asked by Cru to be the face, so to speak, of this campaign. His first name is Matthew.

The purpose of the campaign is ostensibly to convince people that, like Markwell, they too can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And the way to do this is by placing this quizzical phrase all over campus so that people will be compelled to look it up and find out what it’s all about.

Once they find themselves on the campaign’s website, they’ll learn a bit more about Markwell’s beliefs:

I believe in God. Not just any god, but the God who loves us more than we can imagine. I believe all people are sinful, messed up, jacked up, broken, whatever you want to call it. We intentionally rebel against God and choose to do our own thing, separating us from God and leading us toward death.

Well then.

As someone who vacillates between Judaism and agnosticism, I can say that this is definitively against my beliefs and I find it disempowering, depressing, and completely contrary to what I believe human nature to be.

However, that’s just my belief, and both Markwell and I are entitled to our own beliefs. And if that were all there was to it, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post right now.

The reason I am writing this blog post is because our campus magazine interviewed Markwell about this campaign. Here’s what he had to say:

When I see people here at Northwestern who don’t believe in God, I see them as lost, and that’s not probably how they would identify themselves. But from this side looking out, the best thing I can do to care for people is to show them why I believe what I believe. If anybody were to step into our shoes — step into my shoes — and see the people at Northwestern the way that I see them, then I think that the most loving thing you could do in that scenario is tell them about this opportunity to know the God of the Universe.

So, to rephrase: Markwell sees it as his loving duty to help us all find our way to Christ, because otherwise we’re “lost.”

Now, nothing I’m saying here is meant to apply to most Christians, because I’m hoping that most of them don’t see us non-Christians this way. But those Christians who do insist on proselytizing in such intrusive and condescending ways need to realize that, not only are they completely failing at being decent human beings, but they’re also pushing away the very people they’re trying to reach out to.

Cru is pretty well-known for their invasive tactics. As soon as I posted about this on Facebook, several Christian friends pointed out that they disagree with Cru. One said:

I remember last year they were handing out surveys and if you filled it out they gave you Play-Doh. And being a naive freshman, I was like “Yay! Play-Doh!” Little did I know they would use the information I gave them to show up at my door unannounced and harass me. While I was slightly creeped out, I actually kind of liked what they had to say and I was exploring my religious beliefs so I agreed to go out to coffee with this girl and talk some more. But after I did that she just kept calling me and texting me and emailing me and I tried to be polite by just telling her I was busy but she wouldn’t take the hint. If they really want to spread their message, this is not the way to do it. And they need to accept that not everyone is going to share their beliefs and that that’s okay.

Cru also realizes that people wouldn’t actually check out this campaign if they knew off the bat that it was about Christianity. From the NBN article:

The Christian faith is pretty well-known…[s]o if people just see a bunch of people wearing shirts that say ‘I Agree with Jesus’ then we probably won’t get as many conversations as ‘I Agree with Markwell’ and ‘Who is Markwell and why do you agree with him?’

Does anyone know why that is? It’s because people tend to already know whether they’re interested in Christianity or not. So tricking them into going to this website to learn more about it seems a bit disingenuous to me.

Supporters of the Markwell campaign attest that it’s their right to express their beliefs, just as I’m expressing mine right now. They say that their belief that we’re “lost” is equivalent to our belief that we’re not.

But it’s not the same at all. Because our beliefs about not being lost concern only us, whereas Markwell’s beliefs about us being lost concern someone else. Someone else who may want absolutely nothing to do with Jesus.

These supporters also pull out the argument that we’re just getting offended because they’re expressing those beliefs, which they have the right to do. But this campaign isn’t offensive to us because it’s religious. It’s offensive to us because it’s telling us that we don’t have the capability to choose our own beliefs, for ourselves. It’s offensive because it refuses to acknowledge that not everyone must believe in Jesus.

It’s telling that the organization sponsoring this campaign has the word “crusade” in its name. (Granted, it’s tried to rebrand itself as “Cru” to escape that.) I’m not suggesting that Cru is in any way equivalent to the actual Crusades, but I don’t think the use of that word was arbitrary. I think it says something about how much–or rather, how little–the members of this organization understand the fact different people choose different beliefs for a reason.

And no, that reason is not because we’re “rebelling against God.”

I don’t agree with Markwell. We’re not lost. We’re not “sinful, messed up, jacked up, broken” either. We just don’t believe in Jesus Christ. Can Markwell please get over that?

Edit 4/18: Here is a response to this post from a Cru member, and here is a post from an awesome friend of mine.