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.

Flipping the Social Justice Script

Read enough opinion pieces and you’ll quickly begin to notice the tactic of script flipping. This is when someone takes a term or a type of language used by someone they disagree with and flip it to serve their own political agenda. They may appropriate terms directly and subtly shift their definitions, such as Christians who claim to have lost “religious freedom” when another group is gaining theirs. Or, they may create new terms that parallel others, such as “creep shaming” and “offense culture.”

Script flipping is a way to capitalize on the popularity of certain ways of analyzing particular issues in order to be taken more seriously or to provoke an emotional reaction in readers or listeners. For instance, “rape culture” has become a powerful way to express the complex tangle of factors that lead to high rates of sexual assault among disadvantaged groups. So, people who want to talk about something totally unrelated to rape culture (and probably not even real) may simply append “-culture” to the thing they’re criticizing, presumably hoping that that might cause more people to take it seriously.

The problem with script flipping isn’t necessarily the lack of originality, though some might take issue with that too. The problem is that the script flippers often don’t understand the original script very well, so they flip it in a direction that makes no sense, sometimes for the purpose of ridiculing the original script. As I’ll discuss, people who use terms like “female privilege” and “creep shaming” in earnest don’t seem to understand what is meant by “privilege” or what is meant by “creep” or “shaming.” The analysis falls flat, and everyone who hears the flipped script before understanding the original one ends up with a shallow conception of what people were trying to say in the first place.

The other problem is that it’s simply a bad argument most of the time. It’s an appeal to emotion, whether meant to irritate and hurt the creators of the original script, or to horrify and galvanize the target audience. What if I told you that free speech is being severely threatened on the internet, or that a particular religious group is being steadily denied the freedom to practice their religion in America? That sounds pretty bad. Well, what if I told you that the threat to free speech is bloggers moderating their comments, or that the religious group being denied freedom is Christians who are upset that classroom holiday celebrations must now mention Chanukah and Kwanzaa in addition to Christmas? Sounds a lot less dire now.

Social justice terms seem especially likely to be targeted by script flippers, perhaps because they can be difficult to understand (especially to those with the motivation to avoid understanding), they may sound silly to those unfamiliar with them, and, well, many people oppose social justice ideals.

These are just a few examples of script flipping:

[Read more...]

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.

How the Purity Myth Perpetuates Rape Culture

[Content note: sexual assault, racism]

I was thinking about the source of all the problematic ways in which our society views and responds to sexual assault–the victim-blaming, the simplistic construction of “real” victims and “legitimate” rape, the erasure of certain social groups of victims–and I realized that much of it comes down to antiquated views of female sexual purity.

I don’t doubt that there’s much more to it, obviously, but this is a piece of the puzzle that isn’t discussed as often as it should be. The purity myth, as Jessica Valenti calls it in her book of the same name, includes several interlocking beliefs about women and sexuality that are enforced by many religions and ideologies and continue to inform many Americans’ views of sex–even those who consider themselves liberal or even progressive.

Some components of the purity myth include:

  • There is such a thing as “virginity,” especially for women, and once you “lose” it, your value as a partner decreases
  • Having sex makes women, but not men, “dirty”
  • “Good” women don’t “really” want sex, so men try to persuade and coerce them into it
  • Even if you’re not actually sexually active, there are things you can do that suggest that you are, and therefore make you seem “dirty”
  • The only type of sex that is not “dirty” is that between a husband and a wife

In case it’s not immediately obvious how any of this relates to rape, here’s how: traditionally, in many cultures, rape was construed not as a crime against the women who was raped (only women could be raped in those legal definitions), but against her father (if she was unmarried) or her husband if she had one. The rape of a virgin was often seen as worse than the rape of a non-virgin (whether because of marriage or less socially acceptable choices), because it meant that something–namely, purity–had been “spoiled.” Some women, such as sex workers, were not “rapeable” at all. Some sources, such as the Old Testament, suggest that the proper thing to do if a virgin has been raped is to force her to marry the rapist; then it’s sort of retroactively not a big deal anymore, because all that happened was that she had sex with her husband shortly before marrying him. And, of course, there’s no way a husband can rape his wife, because marriage involves the privilege of sex-on-demand, and the wife’s “purity” is long gone anyway.

Although the laws regarding sexual assault have been steadily reformed over the centuries, many of these attitudes about rape and sexual purity remain. Here’s how they play out in some common myths about sexual assault:

1. Rape is “the worst thing that can happen to a woman.”

This probably seems like the least harmful of all the myths, so I’m starting with it. This idea originates from the fact that a woman who has been raped (and was presumably a virgin before) loses her “chastity,” and thus the bulk of her value as a potential partner. This essentialization of sex and sexual purity frames sexual violence as necessarily the worst type of violence a person can experience, to which all others pale in comparison.

It’s certainly true that for many survivors of all genders, sexual assault is a traumatic experience that may cause or exacerbate mental illness and change the individual’s life forever. (Although it’s hard to tell what’s caused by the assault itself and what’s caused by society’s fucked-up response to it.) For others, however, sexual assault is not significantly worse than other crimes they may have experienced, and being expected to be traumatized can be harmful, even a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When rape is viewed as “bad” only to the extent that it traumatizes its victims, it can prevent people from taking sexual assaults seriously when they do not cause trauma. For example, an actual university professor argued last year that raping an unconscious person might not be such a bad thing because they won’t feel a thing.

2. Rape can only be committed by a (cis) man against a (cis) woman.

If the problem with rape is that it “spoils” a woman’s “purity,” then it doesn’t make sense to conceive of nonconsensual sex involving any other combination of genders as sexual assault. A man has no “purity” to lose, and a woman can’t take away another woman’s “purity” because only a man can do that.

The repercussions of this view should be obvious: rape between same-sex partners is routinely ignored, rape of men is routinely ignored, and laws are only now starting to recognize the fact that men can be raped at all.

3. A woman who has had sex before, especially with the alleged rapist, can’t really be raped.

Most people can probably grok the idea that having wanted to have sex in the past does not necessarily mean you want to have sex in the future, even with someone you’ve already had sex with. Yet female rape survivors’ sexual histories are still being trotted out in court proceedings to attempt to discredit their claims. Why?

One convoluted argument that people make to defend this practice is that “Well if she’s had sex before how could he possibly have known that she didn’t want to have sex this time?” It’s actually pretty easy: you ask. This idea that once a woman has been spoiled by a penis, she’s fair game for all links up easily to the idea that such a thing as sexual purity exists.

4. A woman who belongs to a group considered “impure” by definition can’t really be raped either.

At least in the United States, sexual “purity” is a concept that largely applies only to middle-/upper-class white women. Many women of color, for instance, aren’t thought to be “pure” regardless of whether or not they’ve even had sex before. They are immediately suspect as rape victims because they don’t fit the profile that we imagine rape victims to fit: innocent, chaste, white.

Throughout American history, white people have focused on the specter of Black men raping innocent white women, while ignoring entirely the actual reality of Black women being raped by white men. As Black women aren’t assumed to have any “purity” to lose, their rapes are not nearly as tragic as those of white women. This is what happens when two terrible ideas–racism and sexual purity–combine.

5. If a sexual act doesn’t make a woman “impure,” it can’t really be sexual assault.

While women can and do get shamed for engaging in behavior other than sexual intercourse, it’s only intercourse that can supposedly “take” your virginity (and therefore your purity). Definitions of rape have historically specified vaginal penetration, although they’re now starting to expand a bit. But if sexual assault were framed in terms of consent rather than in terms of sexual purity, it would make no sense to minimize forms of sexual assault that don’t involve vaginal penetration. Violating someone sexually is violating someone sexually regardless how you do it.

To make things worse, this framing of sexual assault is part of the reason male victims and women who are assaulted by other women frequently get erased from the conversation, since their experiences are presumed, at best, unfortunate events that have little to do with capital-R Rape.

6. A survivor who was behaving “provocatively” when the assault happened wasn’t really assaulted.

Insert standard victim-blaming tropes here. Of course, just about anything gets classified as “provocative” when it’s expedient to do so: drinking, flirting, making eye contact, dressing a certain way, dancing, wearing makeup, discussing sex. The implication is that once a woman has behaved in a way some would consider “unchaste,” she may as well have already had sex, and any subsequent assault doesn’t really “count.”

7. Sex workers cannot be sexually assaulted.

Since they have already been “spoiled” even more than typical sexually active women. Some people will refer to the assault of a sex worker as “theft,” which I consider degrading and dehumanizing in the extreme. A sex worker doesn’t sell or give away their right to bodily autonomy; they sell a specific and agreed-upon service. If I walk into a store, take a package of cheez-its off the shelf, open and eat it because I’m starving, and then pay for it as I walk out, I haven’t stolen anything. But even if you sexually assault a sex worker and then pay them, you’ve still assaulted them, because you still violated their consent. It’s pretty simple.

A lot of people think they have abandoned the idea of female sexual purity simply because they are liberal and/or nonreligious. As a person who runs in liberal and nonreligious circles, I can tell you that this is not necessarily the case. People just find other ways to justify the purity myth, or they don’t bother trying to justify it at all. Atheisty types love to use evolutionary psychology (or unscientific permutations thereof) to draw conclusions about what men and women respectively value in their (obviously opposite-sex) mates, claim that women just aren’t “as sexual” as men (a convenient way to vilify women who have lots of sex while high-fiving men who do), and, in the most extreme cases, justify rape as an adaptive evolutionary mechanism.

Once you hold a belief strongly, perhaps because your parents or your erstwhile religion taught it to you, it’s difficult to let go of the belief even if you’ve let go of the overall ideology that originally spawned it. So it’s easy to twist science or “folk wisdom” to maintain the idea that women are, or should be, or can be more “pure” than men, however you happen to define “pure.”

The idea of female sexual purity is as nonsensical and irrational as the ideas atheists and skeptics criticize every day, and it’s about time it got more attention as such. Not only does it mess with people’s sex lives and give them all sorts of unnecessary anxieties and guilts, but it also feeds into the myths surrounding sexual assault and ensures that they continue to harm survivors. It’s long past time to let it go.

~~~

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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!

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.

[#wiscfi liveblog] Secularism: A Right and Demand of Women Worldwide

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Next up is Maryam Namazie, a blogger and activist who’s been involved with tons of secular organizations: Equal Rights Now, the One Law for All Campaign against Sharia Law in Britain, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, and Iran Solidarity.

5:00: Namazie is talking about secular activists in the Muslim world who are being persecuted for speaking out. At the end of her talk, she will ask us all to write them a message.

5:04: There have been protests over the treatment of Malala Yousafzai, Amina Tyler, and others. You can see the immense resistance taking place day in and day out in response to Islamism, US-led militarism, and cultural relativism. Today as an era or revolutions and uprisings in the Muslim world, and many of them are women-led.

It may seem that Islamists are making gains in the area, but change is palpable. Yet many feminists, cultural relativists, and others are on the side of Islamists and believe that any opposition to Sharia law is tantamount to racism and cultural imperialism. But they’ve bought into the notion that Muslim communities are homogenous–Islamic and conservative. But there is no homogenous culture, and those in power determine the dominant culture. These relativists claim that Islamists represent authentic Islam.

5:07: A professor received death threats for posting this cartoon on his office door:

BKk7wNaCIAAze1b.jpg-large

Conflating Islamism with Islam is a narrative that is peddled by Islamists to prescribe the limits of acceptable expression.

The demand for secularism is no more imperialist than the demand for women’s suffrage. Post-modernists who demand “respect and tolerance for difference” no matter how intolerable that difference is are siding with oppressors.

5:12: Islamophobia is used as a tactic to scaremonger critics into silence. It’s made not out of actual concern for Muslims, but out of a desire to support Islamism. If you really wanted to support Muslims, you would oppose Islamism, which kills more Muslims than anything else.

5:14: Everyone has a right to their religious beliefs. But Islamism isn’t just personal beliefs. Saying that people have a right to Islamism is saying that women’s liberation is only for white American women.

The idea that islamism is just a “misinterpretation” of the religion is inaccurate. The Koran and the Hadith are full of anti-woman laws and principles. Stoning to death for adultery is a Hadith; Mohammed himself stoned a woman to death for adultery. In the Koran there are suras on wife-beating.

5:17: Is  there a “good” interpretation of religion?  [audience: "No!"]

For instance, a Sharia court said that it’s ok to beat women as long as you do it “lightly” and don’t leave any marks. But no violence against women is acceptable.

Women are freer the lesser the role religion plays in the public sphere. Secularism is a precondition for the improvement of women’s status. All women, not just those who are Western.

5:20: If people really wanted to live under these rules, Islamists would not need to enforce them with such brutality.

Of course there are some people who prefer Sharia law to secular law, including some who are born in the West. Some people support racial apartheid, too. But there is no right to oppress. Post-modernists who suppose Islamists say that our demands are Western, but since when is secularism a Western demand?

When it comes to women’s right, when it comes to freedom, these rights suddenly become “Western.”

5:24: Reader question: How should those of us who are not of Middle Eastern/African descent walk the fine line of criticizing this? How should a progressive secular organization approach bigoted anti-Muslim activists like Pamela Geller?

Namazie: It doesn’t matter where you come from. If you think something is wrong, you should be able to say it. The Islamists have made it impossible to speak up and criticize because of this label of racism, which we should rightly fear. But they will also tell me that I don’t have the right to speak about Islam because I’m an ex-Muslim, or that I wasn’t a “real Muslim” because I was Shia. There’s always an excuse for why you’re not allowed to speak. But we have a right to speak about any injustice anywhere.

Racism exists. As an ex-Muslim I face racism. There are lots of people who aren’t Muslim who face racism. Racism doesn’t stop if you stop criticizing people’s beliefs; that’s a cop-out. You’re not going to deal with racism against Muslims by stopping free expression. These are bogus arguments to stop the debate from taking place.

Far-right European/American movements against Islam attack all Muslims because they blame them for Islamists’ crimes. And Islamists attack innocent people on buses and in discos because they blame them for American militarists’ crimes. If we don’t criticize Islamism, we leave the space open for far-right racists to attack it. They seem to be the only ones speaking, but we have to stand up and speak from a purely rights-based perspective–everyone should have the same rights. It’s not anti-racist to demand different rights for different people; it’s actually racist to do that. Secularism is good not just because you’re white and Western, but because it’s better for women. Not all Muslims want the laws that Islamists want.

5:30: Reader question: What percentage of the population in Iran is secular or atheist?

Namazie: I don’t know because it’s a crime to be an atheist in Iran. I would say it’s a large percentage. The Iranian Revolution wasn’t an Islamic revolution; it was a left-leaning revolution and the Islamic movement appropriated it and has ruled with sheer terror for the past several decades. Iran is the center of a mass anti-Islamic backlash.

The problem is, though, that it’s hard to gauge who’s who. I met a woman who was an atheist but she was wearing a burka. It’s hard to know the real numbers.

5:33: Reader question: There are people who make statements that because Muslim women have it so bad, Western women should just be quiet about their own experiences. How do these statements strike you?

Namazie: I don’t agree with those statements. You can always find a situation that’s worse. When I discuss women’s rights in Iran, people say, “Oh, but it’s so much worse in Saudi Arabia.” Women can drive in Iran. Yay. Of course there are degrees of oppression. For instance, some people want to call honor killings domestic violence. But that’s a very different thing. So it’s good to be able to name it, label it, and speak of the differences.

But the situation of women in the West is not perfect, either. And this is a fight that is global. I don’t find the comparisons very helpful.

5:35: Reader question: Revolutions in the Muslim world may be initially led by women, but how long do they remain positive towards women?

Namazie: What have secularists here done to support those women-led revolutions? Not very much. Both Western governments and Islamists want Islamic regimes because they’re a great way to control the population. What greater oppressor than a theocratic state? In Iran, the West supported the Shah’s regime, but when the revolution happened, Western leaders decided that they preferred the Islamic regime.

This happened during the era of the Cold War, when the U.S. was trying to build a green Islamic belt around the Soviet Union. They supported the Taliban and an Islamic regime in Iran. Some of the greatest allies of the West are now Islamic states, such as Saudi Arabia.

[#wiscfi liveblog] Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today

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Susan Jacoby is up! She is a journalist and author who’s written a bunch of awesome books, including The Age of American Unreason, which I recently read.

1:50: Susan Jacoby opens with a poem published in 1837 about the trend of women speaking publicly about political causes. Oh, the humanity:

1:53: The reason we’ve been having all this debate about whether or not the government should pay for contraception is because people have forgotten what it was like before women could control their own reproduction. They don’t know the history of women’s struggle, beginning at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.

The forgetting of the history of marginalized groups is both a cause and an effect of their marginalization. If you’re marginalized, you may not have the power to have your stories included in schools and what we teach about history.

Every brand of religion is a mechanism for transmitting ideas and values, whether or not you agree with those values. Secular organizations, which have loose and non-hierarchical structures, can’t necessarily transmit their histories so efficiently.

1:57: Most men of the Enlightenment didn’t give much thought to women’s rights; not all Enlightenment thinkers were feminists. But all feminists born in the 19th century were descendants of the Enlightenment.

Women who were agnostics/atheists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were largely written out of history after the 19th century by women’s suffrage organizations because they “could not afford” to be “identified with ungodliness.” Stanton was largely unknown until the revival of American secularism in the 1970s, but there was a similar trend then to downplay the influence of secular feminists. But secular feminists, especially secular Jews, played a large role in the new feminist movement.

As a Jew, it’s difficult to support feminism given that Jewish men say a prayer every morning in which they thank god for not having been born a woman. Similarly for Catholic women.

The fact that feminism has become a part of religion to some extent is part of an accommodation by religion to secular values.

The difficulty for feminists to embrace feminism’s connections to secularism is part of the belief that there can be no morality without faith.

2:04: There have been no secular activists who have made women’s rights an issue, except insofar as they are threatened by radical Islam. Telling the truth about radical Islam and women is important, but we need secularists to understand that discrimination and violence against women are hardly confined to the Islamic world.

Robert Ingersoll is the only male secularist who is an exception to this. Ingersoll’s 20th century biographers failed to recognize this, however, perhaps because they were writing before the emergence of second-wave feminists in the 1970s. Ingersoll sided with Stanton in viewing religion as the main cause of women’s oppression and, along with Stanton, disagreed that giving women the vote would be enough. In this sense he resembled second-wave feminists as opposed to his contemporary suffragists.

He also understood that compulsory childbirth was used both by the Church and by individual men to stymy women’s goals. “Science must make woman the owner and mistress of herself.” Women would always be oppressed as long as they had to “rely on the self-control of men” to prevent pregnancy. He criticized the idea that fear is superior to knowledge and that virtue stems from ignorance (or slavery).

Think of the comments of Rush Limbaugh regarding Sandra Fluke, who he claimed wanted the government to “pay” for her to have sex.

2:10: Ingersoll noted that women were more religious than men. But unlike religious leaders, he attributed this not to women’s superior virtue but to the fact that they were so uneducated compared to men.

I’m not suggesting that secular women need a man such as Ingersoll to speak for them. Rather, that the secular movement needs more people, men and women, who have a passion for what was once considered exclusively “women’s issues.” Just issuing press releases is not enough. This is the case for all social causes that have relevance to secularism, even if that relevance is not immediately obvious.

2:12: The reason demographics show fewer female than male atheists is because atheism is a social pejorative, and women may be more sensitive to this than men. Some women worry that being out atheists will affect how their children are treated.

But we need more women involved. That’s why it’s important to recognize this historical connection between feminism and secularism.

2:16: McCollum v. Board of Education is a case that many people sadly don’t know about because it’s not taught in schools. But the case concerned whether or not schools can set aside time for religious instruction. The case was brought by Vashti McCollum, a mother whose son was being ostracized for skipping the religious classes. The family’s cat got lynched. It’s understandable that women would worry about speaking out about atheism.

2:21: Audience question: Can you tell us more about Helen Gardner?

Jacoby: She’s another one of those lost women secularists. She wrote Men, Women, and Gods, which sided with Stanton and Ingersoll in calling out religion for its role against women’s rights.

Audience question: Where are some good starting points to learn about women in secularism?

Jacoby: Look up the writing of women like Gardner and Stanton. Don’t go to the New Yorker article about Shulamith Firestone, though. That article took a disturbed person who did write some important things and used her to represent all feminists of the 1960s and 70s. It serves the purpose of people who oppose feminism and secularism to present portraits of feminists as unhappy, bitter women.

2:26: Audience question: Frederick Douglass was also a secularist and a feminist, but that’s never recognized. Is this due to racism?

Jacoby: Maybe. But how much of a feminist was he really? He did support women’s right to vote, but he didn’t speak out much about women’s issues. But he definitely had a lot else on his plate [audience laughs], so we can give him a pass for not being more vocal about women.

Audience question: What about Susan B. Anthony?

Jacoby: She was an agnostic but kept it private. She and Stanton were good friends, but she actually begged Stanton not to publish her book about secularism.

2:29: Audience question: How will history look on those who have stifled the concerns of women in this movement becuase they’re not “as bad” as those in other countries? I assume you are a psychic.

Jacoby: It depends on who writes the history.

Audience question: Can you talk about Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex?

Jacoby: Do I have to? [audience laughs] It’s not a book I ever liked that much because I felt it was dishonest in a way. While it explored the psychological roots of women’s oppressions, she did not draw from her own life and her own relationships, this brilliant women who subordinated her own intellect to that of men. It’s certainly a foundational work, but it doesn’t go far enough.

2:31: Audience question: What about the role of women in anti-war activism? Does military culture support sexism?

Jacoby: What better example do we have of this than sexual assault in the military? The idea of a culture in which superior physical strength is what prevails is certainly not good for women. And yes, I know, somewhere in the past there was Xena Warrior Princess. But in fact we know that warrior cultures have not been good for women. Is it worse in the military than in any government department? Sure it is, because the military is something in which physical abilities is highly valued and war is thought to be a separate state in which ordinary rules do not apply. Nazi Germany, for example–women were to be the child-bearers. Warrior culture is not good for men. It’s not so great for men, either.

2:34: Audience question: Are we going to have to fight this battle every 50 years?

Jacoby: I would hope not. But I was taken aback by how many emails I received from women who didn’t know that as late as the 1960s, a married woman would’ve had great difficulty getting birth control. One might say that that’s a good thing because nothing bad’s going to happen along those lines anymore, but that’s not true. Bad things are happening.

~~~

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)

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

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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:

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)

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

The WiS2 conference logo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)