Carnivals of Liberals #57 and Skeptic’s Circle #79

CarnivalCarnivals of Liberals #57 is up at World Wide Webers. My piece in this Carnival: All I Really Need To Know I Learned From Porn — Or Not. My favorite other piece in this Carnival: The Zombie of Trust Betrayed, at Trusted Advisor.

GretachristinalolAnd Skeptic’s Circle #79 is up at Podblack Blog. Podblack has very thoughtfully made LOLCats for all the contributors to this Circle; hence the cat with the microscope. Hey, anything for a weird life. My pieces in this Circle: What’s the Harm in a Little Woo?… and Oscarology: The Readings. My favorite other piece in this Circle: the totally fucking brilliant WHY Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence, at Skeptico.

If you blog about liberalism or skepticism and want to participate in the blog carnivals, here are the submission forms and guidelines for the Carnival of the Liberals and the Skeptic’s Circle. Happy reading, and happy blogging!

Defensiveness, Rationalization, Mulishness… What Does That Have To Do With Religion? Mistakes Were Made, Part 2

Mistakes_were_madeIn yesterday’s post, I talked about the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts — a book on cognitive dissonance, and the ways we unconsciously rationalize and justify mistakes, misconceptions, and harm we do to others. I mentioned this book’s relevance to both atheists and religious believers several times, and ended the post by asking, “So how does this apply to religion?”

Defending_your_faithThe most obvious relevance is this: For those of us who don’t believe in it, religion clearly looks like a prime example of rationalization and justification of a mistaken belief. Religious apologetics especially. Since there’s no hard evidence in the world to support the beliefs, the entire exercise — all the explanations and defenses, all the “mysterious ways”es and “this part isn’t meant literally”s and “you just have to take that on faith”s — it all looks from the outside like one gigantic rationalization for a mistaken belief. It looks like a well-oiled mechanism for refusing to accept that you hold a belief — and have based your life and your choices on a belief — that is illogical and unsupported by evidence.

Church_serviceAnd it looks like a classic example of a social structure built to support one another in maintaining these rationalizations: supporting one another in rejecting alternatives, and repeating the beliefs to one another over and over until they gain the gravitas of authoritative truth.

(This is what I was trying to get at when I called religion a self-referential game of Twister. I dearly wish I’d read this book when I wrote that piece; it would have given me much clearer language to write it in.)

Jerry_falwell_portraitAnd the more contrary a belief is to reality, the more entrenched this mechanism becomes. The non-literal, science-appreciating, “God is love” believers are usually more ecumenical, better able to think that they don’t know everything and that different beliefs may have some truth and validity. It’s the literalists, the fundamentalists, the ones who deny well-established realities like evolution and the sanity of gay people and the geological age of the planet, who have the seriously entrenched rationalizations for their beliefs… and the powerful institutional structures for deflecting questions and evidence and doubt. (“Those questions come from Satan” is my current favorite.)

So that’s the obvious relevance.

But there’s a less obvious relevance as well. This is an important book for believers… but it’s also an important book for atheists. And not just as a source of ammunition for our debates.

Cheshire_regiment_trench_somme_1916It’s an important book for atheists because of its ideas on how to deal with people who are entrenched in rationalization — and how really, really not to. One of the most important points this book makes is that there are useful ways to point out other people’s rationalizations to them
 and some not-so-useful ways. And screaming at someone, “What were you thinking? How could you be so stupid?” is one of the not-so-useful methods. In fact, it usually has the exact undesired effect — it makes people defensive, and drives them deeper into their rationalizations.

Emperors_new_clothesNow, many atheists may decide that screaming, “How could you be so stupid?” is still a valid strategy. And in a larger, long-term sense, it may well be. If religion is the emperor’s new clothes, having an increasingly large, increasingly vocal community of people chanting, “Naked! Naked! Naked!” may, in the long run, be quite effective in chipping away at the complicity that religion depends on, and making it widely known that there is an alternative. Especially with younger people, who aren’t yet as entrenched in their beliefs. And it’s already proven effective in inspiring other atheists to come out of the closet.

In one-on-one discussions and debates, though, it’s not going to achieve much. And we need to be aware of that. If we’re going to be all rational and evidence-based, we need to accept the reality of what forms of persuasion do and don’t work.

But it’s not just important for atheists to read this book to learn how to deal with believers’ fallibility. It’s important for atheists to read it to learn how to deal with our own.

HumansvgAtheists, oddly enough, are human. And we therefore share the human tendency to rationalize and justify our beliefs and behavior. No matter how rational and evidence-based we like to think of ourselves as, we are not immune to this pattern.

And of particular relevance, I think, is one of the book’s main themes: the human tendency to reject any and all ideas coming from people we disagree with. The more entrenched we get in a belief, the more unwilling we are to acknowledge that our opponents have any useful ideas whatsoever, or any valid points to make.

And I’ve definitely seen that play out in the atheosphere. I’ve seen an unfortunate tendency among some atheists to tag all believers as stupid; to reject religion as having nothing even remotely positive or useful to offer; to explain the widespread nature of religious belief by saying things like, “People are sheep.”

MuleI don’t exempt myself from this. I think I’ve mostly been good about critiquing ideas rather than people; but I have gotten my back up when I thought someone was being unfair to me, and have refused to acknowledge that maybe I was being unfair as well. And I’ve definitely fallen prey to the error of thinking, “give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile”; of thinking that any concession at all is the first step to appeasement, and I have to stick to my guns like a mule. A mule with guns.

But this tendency isn’t helpful. The issue of religion and not-religion is already polarizing enough on its own, without us artificially divvying the world into Us and Them.

Boat1If I’m right, and religion really is (among other things) an elaborate rationalization for hanging on to a mistaken belief… well, that doesn’t make believers ridiculous and atheists superior. It puts us all in the same human boat. It puts religion in the same category as hanging onto ugly clothes and shoes that gave me blisters, for years, because I didn’t want to admit that I’d made a mistake when I bought them. It puts it in the same category as going through with a disastrous marriage, because I didn’t want to admit I’d made a mistake when I got engaged. It puts religion into a particular category of human fallibility… a fallibility that we all fall prey to, every day of our lives.

GoddelusionI’m not saying religion is okay. Let me be very clear about that. I think religion is a mistake; I think it’s a harmful mistake; and I’m not going to stop speaking out against it. And I’m not asking anyone else to stop speaking out against it.

But for my own peace of mind, I’m making a sort of New Year’s Resolution about cognitive dissonance. I’m resolving to be better about acknowledging when I make mistakes, and correcting them. I’m resolving to be better about acknowledging when people I disagree with make good points. And when I’m in one-on-one debates with people, I’m resolving to think, not just about why I’m right and they’re wrong, but about what kind of argument is likely to persuade them.

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts — A Review

Mistakes_were_madeI am totally having fits about this book. Everyone reading this blog has to read it. Everyone not reading this blog has to read it. I was already more or less familiar with the concepts in it before I started reading… and I am nevertheless finding it a life-changer.

And in particular, anyone interested in religion has to read it. It doesn’t talk much about religion specifically; but the ideas in it are spot-on pertinent to the topic.

For believers… and for atheists.

Excuses_for_dummiesA quick summary. Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts is about cognitive dissonance: the uncomfortable-at-best feeling you get when things you do, or things that happen, contradict your beliefs — about yourself or the world. It’s about the unconscious justifications, rationalizations, and other defense mechanisms we use to keep that dissonance at bay. It’s about the ways that these rationalizations perpetuate and entrench themselves. And it’s about some of the ways we may be able to derail them. The book is fascinating and readable; it’s clear, well-written, well-researched, loaded with examples, and often very funny.

Im_with_stupidThe basic idea: When we believe something that turns out to be untrue, it conflicts with our concept of ourselves as intelligent. When we make a decision that turns out badly, it conflicts with our concept of ourselves as competent. And when we do something that hurts someone, it conflicts with our concept of ourselves as good. That’s the dissonance.

And what we do, much if not most of the time, is rationalize. We come up with reasons why our mistake wasn’t really a mistake; why our bad deed wasn’t really so bad.

“I couldn’t help it.” “Everyone else does it.” “It’s not that big a deal.” “I was tired/sick.” “They made me do it.” “I’m sure it’ll work out in the long run.” “I work hard, I deserve this.” “History will prove me right.” “I can accept money and gifts and still be impartial.” “Actually, spending fifty thousand dollars on a car makes a lot of sense.” “When the Leader said the world was going to end on August 22, 1997, he was just speaking metaphorically.”

PropagandanazijapanesemonsterIn fact, we have entire social structures based on supporting and perpetuating each other’s rationalizations — from patriotic fervor in wartime to religion and religious apologetics.

More on that in a bit.

I could summarize the book ad nauseum, and this could easily turn into a 5,000 word book review. But I do have my own actual points to make. So here are, IMO, the most important pieces of info to take from this book

Brainlobessvg1) This process is unconscious. It’s incredibly easy to see when someone else is rationalizing a bad decision. It’s incredibly difficult to see when we’re doing it ourselves. The whole way that this process works hinges on it being unconscious — if we were conscious of it, it wouldn’t work.

Crowd2) This process is universal. All human beings do it. In fact, all human beings do it pretty much every day. Every time we take a pen from work and think, “Oh everyone does it, and the company can afford it”; every time we light a cigarette after deciding to quit and think, “Well, I only smoke half a pack a day, that’s not going to kill me”; every time we eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s for dinner and think, “It’s been a long week, I deserve this”; every time we buy consumer products made in China (i.e., by slave labor) and think, “I really need new sneakers, and I just can’t afford to buy union-made”… that’s rationalization in action. It is a basic part of human mental functioning. If you think you’re immune… I’m sorry to break this to you, but you’re mistaken. (See #1 above, re: this process being unconscious, and very hard to detect when we’re in the middle of it.)

Circle_of_two_arrows_23) This process is self-perpetuating. The deeper we get into a rationalization, the more likely we are to repeat the bad decision, hang on to the mistaken belief, continue to do harm to others.

This is probably the scariest part of the book. When we hurt someone and convince ourselves that they deserved it, we’re more likely to hurt them — or other people like them — again. Partly because we’ve already convinced ourselves that they’re bad, so why not… but also, in large part, to bolster our belief that our original decision was right.

PrisonThe most chilling examples of this are in the justice system and international relations. In the justice system, cops and prosecutors are powerfully resistant to the idea that they might have made a mistake and put the wrong person in prison. As a result, they actively resist revisiting cases, even when new evidence turns up. And the justice system is, in far too many ways, structured to support this pattern.

As for this process playing out in international relations, I have just three words: “The Middle East.” Any time you have a decades- or centuries-old “they started it” vendetta, you probably have one of these self-perpetuating rationalization processes on your hands. On all sides.

Mean_girlsBut this happens on a small scale as well, with individuals. I know that I’ve said snarky, mean things behind people’s backs, for no good reason other than that friends of mine didn’t like them and were being mean and snarky about them… and I’ve then convinced myself that I really couldn’t stand that person, and gone on to say even more mean things about them. And I’ve more than once tried to convince my friends to dislike the people that I disliked… because if my friends liked them, it was harder to convince myself that my dislike was objectively right and true. All unconsciously, of course. It’s taken time and perspective to see that that’s what I was doing.

Commitment4) The more we have at stake in a decision, the harder we hang on to our rationalization for it.

This is a freaky paradox, but it makes a terrible kind of sense when you think about it. The further along we’ve gone with a bad decision, and the more we’ve committed to it, the more likely we are to justify it — and to stick with it, and to invest in it even more heavily.

History_of_the_end_of_the_worldA perfect example of this is end-of-the-world cults. When people quit their jobs and sell their houses to follow some millennial leader, they’re more likely to hang on to their beliefs, even though the world conspicuously did not end on August 22, 1997 like they thought it would. If someone doesn’t sell their house to prepare for the end of the world — if, say, they just take a week off work — they’ll find it easier to admit that they made a mistake.

Helter_skelterAnd this is true, not just for bad decisions and mistaken beliefs, but immoral acts as well. Paradoxically, the worse the thing is that you’ve done, the more likely you are to rationalize it, and to stick to your rationalization like glue. As I wrote before when I mentioned this book: It’s relatively easy to reconcile your belief that you’re a good person with the fact that you sometimes make needlessly catty remarks and forget your friends’ birthdays. It’s a lot harder to reconcile your belief that you’re a good person with the fact that you carved up a pregnant woman and smeared her blood on the front door. The more appalling your immoral act was, the more likely you are to have a rock-solid justification for it… or a justification that you think is rock-solid, even if everyone around you thinks it’s transparently self-serving or batshit loony.

Icepick25) This process is necessary.

This may be the hardest part of all this to grasp. As soon as you start learning about the unconscious rationalization of cognitive dissonance, you start wanting to take an icepick and dig out the part of your brain that’s responsible for it.

Long_dark_teatime_of_the_soulBut in fact, rationalization exists for a reason. It enables us to make decisions without being paralyzed about every possible consequence. It enables us to have confidence and self-esteem, even though we’ve made mistakes in the past. And it enables us to live with ourselves. Without it, we’d be paralyzed with guilt and shame and self-doubt. Perpetually. We’d never sleep. We’d be second-guessing everything we do. We’d be having dark nights of the soul every night of our lives.

Mistakes_were_made_2So that’s the gist of the book. Cognitive dissonance, and the unconscious rationalizations and justifications we come up with to deal with it, are a basic part of human consciousness. It’s a necessary process… but it also does harm, sometimes great harm. So we need to come up with ways, both individually and institutionally, to minimize the harm that it does. And since the process is harder to stop the farther along it’s gone, we need to find ways to catch it early.

That’s the concept. And I think it’s important.

It’s important because, in a very practical and down-to-earth way, this concept gives us a partial handle on why dumb mistakes, absurd beliefs, and harmful acts get perpetuated. And it gives us — again, in a very practical, down-to-earth way — a handle on what we can do about it.

Wicked_witchWe have a tendency to think that bad people know they’re bad. Our popular culture is full of villains cackling over their beautiful wickedness, or trying to lure their children to The Dark Side. It’s a very convenient way of positioning evil outside ourselves, as something we could never do ourselves. Evil is Out There, something done by The Other. (In fact, I’d argue that this whole cultural trope is itself a very effective support for rationalization. “Sure, I set the stove on fire/ shagged the babysitter/ gave my money to a con artist… but it’s not like I’m Darth Vader.”)

Osama_bin_ladenBut reality isn’t like that. Genuine sociopaths are rare. Most people who do bad things — even terrible, appalling, flatly evil things — don’t think of themselves as bad people. They think of themselves as good people, and they think of their evil acts as understandable, acceptable, justifiable by the circumstances. In some cases, they even think of their evil acts as positive goods.

EyeIf we want to mitigate the effects of foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts, we need to look at the reality of how these things happen. We need to be vigilant about our own tendency to rationalize our mistakes. We need to be knowledgeable about how to effectively deal with other people’s rationalizations. We need to create institutional structures designed to catch both our mistakes and our rationalizations, and to support us in acknowledging them. (The scientific method is a pretty good model of this.) And especially in America, we need to create a culture that doesn’t see mistakes as proof of incompetence, misconceptions as proof of stupidity, and hurtful acts as proof of evil.

And this book offers us ways to do all of that.

OptimismThe book isn’t perfect. There are, for instance, some very important questions that it neglects to answer. Specifically, I kept finding myself wondering: What’s the difference between rationalization and simple optimism, or positive thinking? What’s the difference between rationalizing a bad decision, and just having a silver-lining, “seeing the bright side” attitude? And if there is a difference, how can you tell which one you’re doing?

Journey_outAnd, as a commenter here in the blog asked when I mentioned this book earlier: What’s the difference between justifying why your bad behavior wasn’t really bad — and genuinely changing your mind about what is and isn’t bad? Think of all the people who believed that homosexual sex was wrong and they were bad people for even thinking about it
 until they actually did it, and spent time with other people who did it, and realized that there wasn’t actually anything wrong with it. How do you tell the difference between a rationalization and a genuine change of heart?

ThinkerSomewhat more seriously, the section on “What can we actually do about this?” is rather shorter than I would have liked. The authors do have some excellent practical advice on dealing with cognitive dissonance and rationalization. But while their advice on dealing with other people’s rationalizations is helpful, and their ideas on creating institutional structures to nip the process in the bud are inspired, their advice for dealing with one’s own dissonance/ rationalization pretty much comes down to, “Just try to be aware of it.” Problematic — since as they themselves point out, rationalization and justification are singularly resistant to introspection.

But it’s a grand and inspiring start, an excellent foundation on an important topic. It’s been a life-changer, and I recommend it passionately to everyone.

So what does it have to do with religion?

(To be continued tomorrow.)

Democrats, Horse Races, and John Edwards

VoteI’ve stayed away from “Democratic primary” stuff in this blog until now. Mostly because the election in California is just over a week away and I still have no freaking idea who I’m voting for. But I’ve been seeing a pattern in progressive writing about the Dem primary; it’s a pattern that’s bugging me, and I want to talk about it.

John_edwardsThe pattern is this: The progressive writing about the Democratic primary is completely buying into the narrative that this election is between Clinton and Obama. Not all of it, but a lot of it. And when Edwards is mentioned, the theme that keeps coming up is, “I like him, but he’s behind in the polls, and I don’t think he’s electable.”

And I want to shake these people and scream, “If you would fucking well endorse him, maybe he’d BE electable.”

The San Francisco Bay Guardian was the most recent one of these — and it’s the one that pissed me off the most. They’re the big progressive alterna-weekly here; their politics are sometimes wacky but are generally good. I really wanted to see what they had to say about Edwards, who I’m seriously considering voting for. And I wanted more information about him than, “We might endorse him if we thought he was electable.”

Bill_clintonI understand the need to be pragmatic in an election. I’ve held my nose and voted for the least repulsive candidate more than once. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of candidates for major elective office who I actually felt unqualified excitement about. I get it. Really I do.

And in the general election, I completely get it. Come November, I will vote for whoever the Dems come up with. The Dems could nominate Lyndon Johnson again, and I’d vote for him.

But in a primary, it’s different.

In a primary, it seems to me, you’re supposed to forget about the horserace. In a primary, you’re supposed to vote for the person — brace yourself — who you’d most like to see win.

John_kerryAnd the fact that people don’t vote for the person they most want to win is, I think, one of the main reasons the Democrats have traditionally coughed up such a pathetic succession of hairballs. I think the horserace mentality, the “Is he/she electable?” mentality, is what keeps the attention focused on such a narrow field… and what keeps attention off of anyone outside that field.

It’s not 100% different in a primary, I get that. I probably wouldn’t vote for Kucinich, after all, even if he hadn’t already dropped out of the race, and even if it hadn’t been for the UFO thing. I’m enough of a pragmatist to not vote for someone with less than 5% in the polls, even in a primary.

John_edwards_wga_strikeBut Edwards is not Kucinich. Edwards could stand a chance, if people acted like he stood a chance. And I like him. So far, at least. I like what he’s saying about poverty, and I like what he’s saying about the war. I want to know more about him; and it bugs me that the people whose job it is to find out more about the candidates are ignoring him. It bugs me that he’s not being scrutinized, solely because of the self-fulfilling prophecy that he’s not electable.

Now, I’ll be honest. There is a part of me that’s thinking, “I really, really don’t want Clinton to get the nomination — so maybe I should just just suck it up and vote for Obama. I don’t love him, but I like Clinton even less.”

HorseracingBut I hate that. That horserace mentality is a huge part of what’s wrong with our electoral system. It’s such a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re not supposed to be voting for the person who we think can win. Especially when you consider that the election experts, the ones who are telling us who can and can’t win, consistently have their heads up their asses.

It’s a democracy. We’re not supposed to vote for the person who we think can win. We’re supposed to vote for the person who we want to win.

Humanist Symposium #14

CarnivalThe Humanist Symposium #14 is up at Countries Beginning with I. The Symposium is probably my favorite blog carnival; it’s the atheist carnival that focuses on the positive aspects of atheism, rather than the negative aspects of religion. (And this particular Symposium is making me especially happy, since the host said such nice things about my blog.)

My piece in this Symposium: The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises. My favorite other piece in this Symposium: Hard to say, a lot of them are very good indeed. But the one that jumped out at me was Atheist Spirituality at Atheist Revolution. I’m not personally crazy about the word “spirituality,” since I think of it as meaning “metaphysical” (which I don’t believe in), and I associate it with woo (which annoys me). But if you go with Vjack’s definition of “spirituality” as meaning “vitality, connectedness, transcendence, and meaningfulness,” then he makes some really good points. Check it out — and check out the rest of the Symposium. It’s all good.

If you blog about humanism and want to participate in the Humanist Symposium, here’s the submission form. Happy reading, and happy blogging!

True Love Waits… And The Rest Of Us Get On With Our Sex Lives

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

In my last Blowfish column, I linked you to Scarleteen, the sex information website for teenagers. When I was at the site, I found this letter, “We waited for marriage… but it wasn’t worth the wait”. It completely broke my heart, and I had to write about it.

WeddingThe gist, for those who don’t have the patience to link: The couple in question (not teenagers, late twenties in fact) had decided for religious reasons to abstain from intercourse until after they got married. The woman had a high libido, and had been very excited about being able to have sex whenever — and wherever, and however — they wanted.

Sexstarved_marriageBut the marriage was a big disappointment sexually. Their sex life was less frequent by far than the woman wanted… and more seriously, it was intensely unsatisfying. Their sexual encounters lacked passion, spontaneity, and fun, and were depressingly brief. Hubby eventually admitted that he just isn’t that sexual a person… to which wifey, the person writing the letter, was responding, not unreasonably, “You couldn’t have told me that before we got married?”

It broke my heart. Especially since their religious beliefs, and religious community, will probably make them feel pressured into sticking with the marriage, even if they both decide it’s an unsalvageable failure.

BrideThere are so many directions I could go with this. I could talk about the ridiculous over-emphasis our society places on marriage: the absurdly high expectations we place on it, the idealistic glow we place around it, the assumption that it will magically transform everything, including and especially sex. (And that’s speaking as someone who is herself married — ritually, if not legally — and who does think that her marriage has changed both the relationship and the sex for the better.)

Church_2And of course, I could get on my atheist high horse, and talk about the fucked-up effect religion so often has on sexual happiness. That would certainly be a fruitful direction. Of all the dreadful sources of sexual misinformation and general bad sex advice in the world, religion has to take the cake — because it can’t be argued with. It isn’t based on evidence, it’s based on scripture and religious authority and personal faith… and it’s therefore singularly resistant to change, to adaptation in response to evidence or data. About sex, or anything else.

But I want to go in a different direction here.

I want to express my gratitude for the fact that I — and most of us — don’t live in that world anymore.

Sex_tips_for_girlsI want to express my gratitude that in my world, having sex with someone, lots of times, before you settle down with them for the long haul, is generally considered, not only normal and acceptable, but sensible, obvious, and even self-evident.

Sex_and_the_single_girlI want to express my gratitude that in my world, premarital sex, never-marital sex, multiple sexual relationships, living together before marriage, living together without ever getting married, and so on, are all commonplace and generally accepted in much of the country, and indeed much of the world.

Sex_for_oneI want to express my gratitude that in my world, masturbation and oral sex are generally considered normal, mainstream, not even all that interesting… and things like anal sex, spanking, and bondage are generally seen as mildly kinky thrills at most, somewhat outre but really not all that wild compared to all the other freaky stuff people are up to.

Birth_control_pillsI want to express my gratitude that in my world, birth control is widely and easily available, and even advertised on national TV.

Adventurous_couple_guide_to_sex_toyI want to express my gratitude that in my world, sex toys, sexual information, and sexual entertainment are widely and anonymously available, and even joked about in sitcoms.

Same_sex_weddingI want to express my gratitude that in my world, gay sex is no longer a crime anywhere in my country… and gay relationships have a fair amount of social and legal recognition in large parts of the country and the world.

DivorceEven divorce. Unhappy as it is, I’m grateful for divorce. I’m grateful that unhappy marriages that don’t work for anybody can be ended, without bringing ruin and disgrace to the couple and their family. I want to express my gratitude that in my world, it was relatively easy, and almost entirely unstigmatized, for me to get out of a marriage to a guy who was decent but a disastrous choice for me… so I could spend some time getting my shit together before I settled down with a partner who it actually made sense for me to settle down with.

It’s easy to take all this for granted. It’s easy to forget how different things were in my parents generation… and how radically different they were in my grandparents’.

AmericanpieIt’s not like things are perfect now. Trust me, I get that. We have, among other things, a world with a glut of sexual imagery and a relative dearth of sexual information. We have a world in which there’s a lot of pressure to be an amazing sexual performer… at an increasingly young age. We have a world in which the mere mention of the word “penis” can be effectively used in the movies to generate enormous laffs. We have a world that’s still fairly uncomfortable with sex, and that often doesn’t know how to deal with it.

BurqaWhat’s more, we have a world where even these basic sexual freedoms and privileges are limited to very specific people and regions. Large numbers of people and extensive regions, but still very specific. We have a world where, in large parts of it, gay people are still being put in prison, and women are still being executed for adultery.

And of course, we have a world filled with plenty of people who are working like crazy to turn back the clock to the good old days… the days of sexual ignorance and secrecy and shame.

Good_vibrations_guide_to_sexBut things are better now. A lot better. We’re beginning, I think, to see sex as a normal part of a happy life… and to see sexual experimentation, with different partners and different kinds of sex, as a natural and sensible way to figure out who you are and what you like and whether you and your honey are compatible.

And I’m never reminded of that more vividly than when I hear about people who still live, for all intents and purposes, in the old world, the world of my parents and grandparents… and who are being made miserable by it.

A Moment of Atheist Sentimentality

I had this kind of sad, kind of sentimental thought a little while ago, and I haven’t been able to shake it.

Scarlet_aI was thinking about the so-called “new atheist” movement. About atheist books on the bestseller lists. About atheism being widely and hotly discussed in magazines and newspapers and TV talk shows. About atheists coming out of the closet in ever-increasing numbers. About the atheist blogosphere, with hundreds of blogs on the atheist blogrolls.

And I was thinking:

Douglas_adamsI miss Douglas Adams.

(The “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” author, for those who aren’t instantly familiar with his name.)

He would have loved all this. He would have been so excited, so proud, so happy. He was a big atheist, proud and angry and fierce, and he would have loved all this. Maybe he would have written his own atheist book. I want to read that book. It would have been smart, and hilarious, and totally devastating.

And he was a big techno-nerd. He would have loved the blogosphere, and he would have completely loved the atheist blogosphere. He would have had the best atheist blog ever.

Dammit to hell. I want to read Douglas Adams’ atheist blog. Right now. I want it in my blogroll. I want to comment on it, and to get into silly comment threads on it that never seem to end. I want to check it obsessively every day to see if there’s something new.

I miss him something awful.

Lesbian Sex With Men: The Blowfish Blog

Note to family members and others who don’t want to read about my personal sex life: This post, and the post it links to, talks about my personal sex life and my sexual history. If you don’t want to read about that, this would be a good post to skip.

Whole_lesbianI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about the first time I had sex with a man after I’d started having sex with women. And a little more generally, it’s about how being bisexual, and especially the experience of having sex with women, changed the entire way I experienced sex — with everybody. It’s called Lesbian Sex With Men, and here’s the teaser:

Before I’d started having sex with women, my reaction to a guy’s premature ejaculation had been pretty traditional: disappointment, frustration, embarrassment on his behalf, attempts to soothe his ego, feeling like I’d done something wrong.

But this time, my reaction was to say, casually and matter-of-factly, “Oh. Well, is that any reason to stop?”

To find out more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

“A corner of their minds…”

Corner“Even though the vast majority of believers apply rational thought processes in most areas of their lives, there is a corner of their minds, especially for religious conservatives, in which they refuse to shine the light of reason.”

The Chaplain has completely hit it out of the park with this one. Her recent post at An Apostate’s Chapel, What’s So Bad About Religion?, is a must-read. It lays out the case clearly, succinctly, and eloquently. It’s one of the best short critiques of religion that I’ve read.

In particular, I was struck by the apt examples in her “second problem” argument, her argument against “Why do you care what other people believe?” I think this is a point that needs to be made more often and more clearly: If religion were purely a private matter, very few of us would care about it very much. But it isn’t. Religious beliefs affects how people act in the world, how they treat other people. Especially when it’s a powerful mainstream religion. It affects all of us. And therefore, as The Chaplain says:

“The moment they open their church doors and let their ideas drip all over the pavement is the moment they invite me, regardless of whether they intend to do so, to examine those ideas.”

Just go read it.

Carnivals: Godless and Feminists

Ferris_wheel_2Carnival of the Godless #83 is up at Tangled Up in Blue Guy. My pieces in this Carnival: The 100% Solution: On Uncertainty, And Why It Doesn’t Matter So Much, and What’s the Harm in a Little Woo? My favorite other piece in this Carnival: The Religious Right vs. Young People at Letters from a Broad.

And Carnival of Feminists #52 is up at Figure: Demystifying the Feminist Mystique. My piece in this Carnival: All I Really Need To Know I Learned From Porn — Or Not. My favorite other piece in this Carnival: High School, Hair Color and Choices, at Me, My Kid and Life.

If you blog about godlessness or feminism and want to participate in the Carnivals, here are the submission forms for the Carnival of the Godless and the Carnival of the Feminists. Happy reading, and happy blogging!