Debating the Invisible, Arguing the Emotional: Religion and Politics, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I discussed the question of religion in the political arena… specifically when it comes to Prop 8, and banning same-sex marriage. I discussed the problem of how religion — a belief system based on authority, tradition, and personal feeling, a belief system that’s essentially uninterested in reason or evidence and is often uniquely resistant to it — makes for a frustrating force in politics. Today, I try to answer the question, “So what do we do about it?”

As a pragmatic, political, “what do we do about this/ how do we address this/ how do we organize around it” issue, I’m really not sure where I’m going with this.

Scarlet letter
As a hard-line atheist, my reflexive response is to say, “What we need to do is to keep working on deconverting believers into non-belief. Religion is a mistaken idea, it’s an idea that does more harm than good, and when religion reveals itself to be this strongly and stubbornly against the cause of social justice, we obviously need to keep working to uproot it from the human mindset.”

But even I have to accept that, as a realistic middle-term strategy for winning same-sex marriage in the next couple/few years, that’s not very practical.

So what do we do about it?

When traditional organized religion — with its unique power to inspire and mobilize, and its unique lack of interest in facts and arguments — gets involved in the political arena, how do you engage with it?

God hates fags
I know we’re not going to reach the hard-core true believers. Pretty much nothing reaches them. But not all believers are hard-core true believers. Not even all people who go to church once a week are hard-core true believers. And yet religion still exerts a powerful effect on their beliefs and action… including their actions in the political arena.

How do we deal with that?

I do think that one step is to light a fire under the churches and other religious organizations who are already (in theory) on our side. We need to get them to speak up much more loudly, and in much larger numbers, about how it’s possible to be a fervent religious believer and still support marriage equality, and how religion is not an acceptable excuse for bigotry. Religious believers need to hear that homophobic bigotry isn’t a requirement for religious faith… and they probably need to hear it from other believers.

First Amendment
We also need to do a better job getting out the message that opposing same-sex marriage is not a First Amendment/ freedom of religion issue. One of the most powerful and most effective lies that the Yes on 8 campaign told was that if same-sex marriage remained legal, churches who refused to perform them would lose their tax-exempt status. We need to remind people that this is bullshit. Religious organizations are perfectly free to perform or reject any marriage they like. Synagogues don’t have to perform interfaith marriage ceremonies (and many of them don’t); the Catholic church doesn’t have to perform weddings for divorced people. And if same-sex marriage is legalized, no religious institution will be forced, by tax law or any other law, to perform same-sex weddings if they don’t want to.

Quakers support gay marriage
And we need to point out that, in fact, banning same-sex marriage restricts religious freedom… since religious organizations who want to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies can’t. Even fervent, hard-core religious believers may feel guilt about infringing on the rights of other churches… even if they don’t feel even a twinge of guilt about infringing on the rights of, you know, actual individual people.

But honestly, I’m not sure how effective any of this is going to be. Because again, it’s all an attempt to apply reason and evidence to a side of humanity that doesn’t find either of those things compelling. I mean, it’s not as if traditional religious believers came to their current conclusions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage through a careful examination of the facts and arguments. I’m highly doubtful that a careful presentation of facts and arguments is going to sway them in the other direction.

So how do we deal with this?

No religion
My own long term goal — like, very long term, like maybe a hundred or two years after I die — is to get rid of religion’s power in the political arena by getting rid of religion. My long term goal is to continue to use my powers of persuasion, in tandem with other non-believers, to gradually slide religion out of the human mindset.

But in the meantime, while religion is still here, and is still a powerful political force in this country… what the hell do we do with it?

I honestly have no idea.

Brokeback mountain
I do think part of the solution is to make not just rational arguments, but emotional ones. Keith Olberman’s extremely moving special comment about Prop 8 was a good example of that. We need to talk about/ show images of gay and lesbian couples losing their children, losing their health insurance, losing their shared property when one of them dies, because they can’t be married. We need to talk about/ show images of what Ingrid calls the Brokeback Mountain phenomenon: the way that keeping homosexuality in the closet ruins lives… not just the lives of LGBT people, but the lives of their spouses and families and everyone around them.

We need to talk about/ show images of a lesbian couple — domestic partners even, right here in California — who, when one of them was pregnant and bleeding and having serious trouble with the pregnancy, were not recognized by the hospital as a couple and a family and the mutual parents of the child they were trying to have. (A couple who then drove hours to go to another hospital, with the one woman still bleeding, so they could be together and make decisions together and be treated with respect in a shared medical emergency.)

In other words: We need to make people see the human face of this issue. If we can’t make them see reason and evidence, maybe we can make them feel humanity and compassion.

Jesus_camp
But that can’t be the only answer. For one thing, traditional religious groups can pull on heartstrings, too. They are surpassing masters at it. The yearning to please the invisible Father in the sky; the fear of strangers who don’t keep our sacred things sacred; the desire to protect our children from blasphemous defilers who would lead them into sin and harm; the terror of permanent burning torture in hell… I could go on and on.

And besides, I just hate it when politics turns into a battle of the heartstrings. Why should public policy be won by the most effective emotional manipulators? Do we want a government of Steven Spielbergs?

It’s kind of driving me nuts. I realize that I’ve raised the alarm here without issuing a specific call to action, and I hate it when people do that. But I’m really stumped on this one. I think this is a big problem, one that reaches past the same-sex marriage question, one that has been mucking up politics for a long time. And it’s going to be much harder to move forward on same-sex marriage — or any gay rights issue, or any issue at all that traditional religious organizations care passionately about — if we don’t come up with a way to address it.

So I’m throwing this out to my readers.

Thoughts?

When traditional religious organizations get their teeth into a political issue, and it’s an issue where you think they’re both morally and factually wrong… how do you think we should deal with it?

Why We Care What Other People Believe: Religion, Race, and Prop 8

(Disclaimer: Yes, I know I said I wasn’t going to blog about politics for a while. Y’all should have known that wasn’t going to happen. Hell, I should have known that wasn’t going to happen. Mistakes were made. Let’s just move on, shall we? Besides, that was four days ago. Why do you keep bringing up old stuff?)

Simpsons_church_sign
So as promised: the atheist rant about religion’s role in the passage of Proposition 8 and the banning of same-sex marriage in California.

But first — and not tangentially, in fact very much related to it — a few words about Prop 8 and race.

A lot of people are talking about the African American community supporting Prop 8. A lot of people are talking about how the black churches were overwhelmingly against marriage equality. A lot of people are really angry about it. Not so temperately, and not so nicely.

I have a few thoughts about that. Mostly, Pam Spaulding of Pam’s House Blend said what I would have said — and in fact, shaped my thinking about this — so mostly I’m going to just link to what Pam said.

10 percent
The point in Pam’s piece that jumped out at me most strongly: Yes, African Americans supported Prop 8, by a depressing margin. But African American voters made up only about 10% of the total vote in the California election. It’s disappointing, of course — it’s always disappointing when oppressed people don’t get it about other people’s oppression. But (a) the No on 8 campaign didn’t do nearly enough to reach out to the African American community, and (b) the African American community did not single- handedly lose this election for us.

After all, lots of other demographic groups voted heavily in favor of Prop 8. People over 65, for one. And I don’t see people scapegoating them, or writing vicious diatribes against them, or screaming bigoted epithets at them in the street.

IMG_1125.jpg
If we’re not going to do that with old people — many of whom are queer, and many of whom are allies — we need to not do that with African Americans. Again, many of whom are queer, and many of whom are allies.

All of which is important. And now, I want to come to my main point.

A lot of people are talking about how the black churches were overwhelmingly against marriage equality, and what we should do about that.

My question:

Why is the focus on the “black” side of that sentence?

Why is it not on the “churches” side of that sentence?

*

Here are some numbers for you. CNN exit polls showed that those who attended church weekly voted against marriage equality, 84%-16%.

Those who attended church only occasionally voted for marriage equality, 54%-46%.

And those who do not attend church at all voted for marriage equality, 83%-17%.

Now. Again. A lot of demographic groups were against us. That, by itself, doesn’t automatically make religion an undeniably huge focal point of this election.

Here’s what makes religion an undeniably huge focal point of this election:

Slc_mormon_tempel
The Yes on 8 campaign was overwhelmingly designed by, organized by, and funded by, the Mormon Church, the Catholic Church, and the far-right evangelical churches.

Overwhelmingly.

The campaign to ban same-sex marriage — not just in California, but around the country — is not just organized and funded by religious organizations. It is inspired by it. Religion is the driving passion behind this movement. It is the engine propelling the tank; it is the fire fueling the engine.

It seems clear to me that race is really not the issue here — except very tangentially, in that the African American community tends to be a church-going community.

The issue is religion.

Saint_Marys_Cathedral_Austin_Texas
It was not African Americans who were against us. It was traditional religious organizations who were against us. Of all races.

There’s something Ingrid said about this, and I’m simultaneously intensely proud of her for thinking of it and kicking myself for not thinking of it myself.

The next time anyone asks, “Why do you atheists care so much about what other people believe?”

This, people, is why we care.

If all people did with their religious beliefs was sit around in the privacy of their homes believing them? I wouldn’t care what they believed. They could sit in their living rooms believing what they believe, and I could sit in my living room believing what I believe, and it would trouble me almost not at all. Certainly not enough to devote my writing career to opposing it.

Holy vote
But people act on their beliefs. And when inspired by religious fervor and a belief that a perfectly loving and good God wants them to act the way they’re acting and will reward them for it with perfect bliss forever after they die, people act with a single-minded energy and focus… and a singular lack of interest in the facts.

See, here’s the thing about religion that makes it such a frustrating player in the political arena. Religion is a belief system based entirely, and explicitly, on authority, tradition, and personal feeling and intuition. And therefore, it is a belief system that can provide an impressively- armored rationalization for just about any opinion and action you care to name. It is a belief system with little or no connection to evidence and reason, and that much of the time is singularly resistant to it.

And so, when religion pops up its head in the political arena, it makes discussion and debate on the actual issues difficult verging on impossible.

Example. When religious believers hear their priests and preachers and so on tell them — oh, say, just for instance — that legalizing same-sex marriage will mean that homosexuality will be taught in grade school, and that anti- same- sex marriage churches will lose their tax-exempt status? And then when they hear teachers’ associations and legal experts saying that that’s ridiculous and it will absolutely do no such thing? Who are they going to believe?

Liar liar
The Yes on 8 campaign lied like dogs in this election. And their lies were extremely difficult to combat. Partly that was because we didn’t have the funding to get our “They’re lying like dogs” message out into the world as much as we needed to. But it was also because the fervent religious believers behind the Yes on 8 campaign trusted their religious leaders — the leaders they trust, the leaders they see as the voice of God, the leaders who provide a cover of divine virtue and authority for the discomfort and bigotry they already feel — before they trusted those dumb old teachers’ associations and legal experts and people with actual evidence supporting their side.

How do you combat that? How do you make arguments to people who think tradition and authority and personal feeling are more valid than reason or critical thinking? How do you provide counter- evidence to people who aren’t all that interested in evidence?

Quakers support gay marriage
Now. You can argue that this isn’t true for all religious believers. You can argue that not all religious believers supported Prop 8, and that in fact many religious organizations opposed it. And you’d be right.

But if you’re arguing that, then I have a question for you. It’s an actual, “I don’t know the answer” question, btw, not a ranty rhetorical question, and if someone knows the answer, I’d like to hear it.

Where were the progressive, pro-gay religious organizations in this fight?

I don’t mean the MCC and other religious groups specifically organized by and for the LGBT community. I’m sure they were out in full force. I mean non- specifically- gay- focused religious organizations that are still progressive and gay-friendly. The United Church of Christ. The Episcopalians. The Quakers. Reform synagogues. Etc. I know there was some support… but were they out for us in anything like the numbers, and with anything like the fervor and passion, and with anything like the devotion of time and resources, that the Mormon and Catholic and Evangelical churches had in opposing us?

I sure as hell didn’t see it.

Way too much of the time, when it comes to religion, it seems that T.S. Eliot William Butler Yeats hit the nail on the head: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” Sure, the progressive churches are more or less on our side. But they don’t seem to have anywhere near the energy and focus; the passionate intensity that raises money and mobilizes volunteers and gets the vote out.

I know, I know. There were a lot of issues in this election, and a lot of things were against us, and our organization almost certainly made some serious mistakes. But religion clearly played a massive role in the Yes on 8 campaign, and I think we’re burying our heads in the sand if we act as if that isn’t true.

So what do we do about it?

(To be continued tomorrow.)

Sex, And The Difference Between Jaded And Relaxed: The Blowfish Blog

Please note: This post — and the post that it links to — discusses my personal sex life; not at great length or in a huge amount of detail, but family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff may decide to skip this one. Thanks.

JADED_HEART_smI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about whether being exposed to a lot of sex — sexual ideas, sexual objects, sexual experiences, sexual imagery — makes people jaded about sex… and if not, what causes the common assumption that it does. It’s titled Sex, And The Difference Between Jaded And Relaxed, and here’s the teaser:

I’m fascinated by the assumption that exposure to sex will make people bored with it. After all, sex is one of our deepest, most fundamental animal drives. Our interest in it is not going anywhere. I mean, we’re exposed to food every day, several times a day, and we’re not showing any signs of becoming jaded or bored with it. Why do we think being exposed to sex all day would make us jaded or bored with that?

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

Proud — and Bitterly Disappointed

Wow. Okay. This is an unfamiliar feeling.

Today I am, for the first time in many years, proud to be an American.

Some of it is about race. I’ll freely acknowledge that. I am an unrepentant liberal, and I’m old-school enough to feel ashamed and guilty about my country’s ugly history on race… and proud when my country gets over a little bit more of its racism. And yesterday, my country got over a lot of its racism. Yesterday, my country elected an African- American man to be President of the United States. And I am so proud about that I could burst.

But it’s more than that.

I am proud that my country, for once, did not get deceived by the politics of hate: the politics of fear-mongering, red-baiting, name-calling, character assassination, and trivial- but- juicy issue- of- the- day distraction. I am proud that my country was able to say, “We don’t care that Obama sat on a charity board with a former member of the Weather Underground. We don’t care that his minister said some harsh things about America. We don’t care that his middle name is Hussein. We don’t believe that he’s a socialist, a terrorist, a Muslim, a diva… and even if we do believe that, we don’t care. We think he’s the most able leader to get us through a difficult time — and that is all that we care about.”

This was an ugly, hateful, deceitful campaign on the part of the GOP, a campaign that showed an insultingly dismissive attitude towards the principles of democracy, and a deep contempt for the voters it was trying to court. And my country did not succumb to it. Yesterday, my country acted, not like an easily- manipulated robot army led by focus groups and media advisors, but like citizens.

I am also, I will confess, experiencing more than a skosh of hometown pride. I’m from Chicago… and I grew up in the neighborhood where Obama lives. My family still lives there, in fact. The apartment where I grew up, the apartments where my father and my brother live, are just a short walk from the Obama home. So I am having a totally irrational, but surprisingly powerful, surge of pride that a Hyde Parker — a Hyde Parker! — is going to be our next President of the United States. (Ask me about Hyde Park sometime, and I’ll explain to you why that’s funny.)

And most of all: I am insanely, gut-bustingly proud about yesterday’s massive voter turnout.

Even if the vote hadn’t gone the way it did, I’d still be proud about the massive voter turnout.

For decades, I have been deeply ashamed about the low voter turnout in American elections. America is the cradle of modern democracy, for fuck’s sake. Americans love to talk about democracy and freedom and patriotism and the Founding Fathers. And yet, for decades, way too many Americans have shown themselves perfectly willing to piss on this crucial, hard-won right. For decades, way too many Americans have succumbed to the self- fulfilling prophecies that “my vote won’t matter” and “all politicians are the same.” And for decades, I’ve wanted to grab every one of these Americans by the shoulders, give them a good, hard shake, and say, “Of course your vote won’t matter if you don’t use it! Of course all politicians will be the same if the only people who vote are the people who are invested in the status quo! Haven’t you read ‘Stone Soup’? What part of ‘there won’t be good government unless I bring my share of it’ don’t you understand?”

Democracy and voting are among the few things that I get seriously earnest and misty-eyed over. They’re among the few things that I consider, in whatever secular meaning you want to apply to the word, sacred. And it’s made me intensely angry, year after year, that so many Americans treat this right — the right that our country was founded on, the right that so many people fought and died for, the right that millions of people around the world still don’t have — with such contempt.

But not this year. This year, people got it. This year, Americans figured out that our government is, you know, ours.

And I’m deeply, deeply proud about that. I’m feeling all gooey, and misty-eyed, and — dare I say it? — hopeful.

Look. I know that Obama isn’t perfect. There are a fair number of issues that I disagree with him on. I’m concerned about how eager he is to be liked by everyone. I know we’re going to have to hold his feet to the fire, probably more than once. And I fear that a lot of young voters are going to lose some of their excitement and passion about politics when they realize that their hero is not, in fact, the second coming of Christ.

But so what. Obama isn’t perfect… but he is way, way better than just the lesser of two evils. He is smart, thoughtful, articulate, well- informed, and both passionate and level-headed. In this campaign, he has shown a remarkable ability to keep his eye on the ball; to not get distracted by the stupid, trivial, non-issue controversies of the minute; to stay on message, on target, on the high road.

And he more or less agrees with me on most of the issues I care about most deeply.

I think I’m going to be reasonably happy to have him as our President.

And I’m intensely proud that my country got over itself enough to make that happen.

*

Right. Yeah. Okay.

Except.

As proud as I am of my country today, I am deeply ashamed of, and hurt by, and furious at, and bitterly disappointed by, my state.

My country did not buy the politics of hate and lies, divisiveness and bigotry. But my state bought it hook, line, and sinker. Over half of my fellow Californians proved themselves to be either bigots, or gullible, easily deceived sheep. Or — and this is the one I’m going with for a lot of them — far too willing to be gullible and deceived. Far too willing to let themselves be persuaded by any excuse, no matter how shabby and transparently false, for voting their bigotry instead of their better nature.

And so my state has told me that I am now — officially, legally — a second-class citizen.

My state wrote discrimination into its Constitution.

(The official line of the No on 8 organizers is that they’re not conceding until all the votes — absentee ballots, provisional ballots, everything — are counted. But right now, it’s not looking hopeful.)

I want so badly to be happy about the Obama victory. I am happy about the Obama victory. I wrote the first part of this piece earlier in the day yesterday, and I meant every word of it. I still mean every word of it.

But right now, I can’t stop crying.

There’s an atheist rant in here somewhere. Something about organized religion’s easy eagerness to force its Bronze-age bigotry onto the rest of the world. Something about religious zealots who care more about their invisible friend in the sky than about the human beings standing next to them. The Yes on 8 campaign was overwhelmingly funded and organized by the Mormon and Catholic Churches. California exit polls showed that those who attended church regularly voted against marriage equality 83-17%; those who attended church only occasionally voted for marriage equality 60-40%; and those who do not attend church at all voted for marriage equality 86-14%. And that pisses me off no end. I can feel an atheist rant coming on that will make Atheists and Anger look diplomatic.

But right now, I don’t have the stomach for it. Maybe PZ or somebody else will take it on. Maybe I’ll take it on myself later. Right now, I’m just tired and sick and sad.

I know that the arc of history is bending in our direction. Eight years ago, a similar proposition — the one that got overturned by the California Supreme Court earlier this year — won by 61% of the vote. This one won with only 52%. In another eight years, we can probably win. (And this initiative may wind up in front of the California Supreme Court, which will hopefully smack it across the head and snap, “What part of ‘Unconstitutional’ don’t you understand?”)

But right now, we’re not there. Right now, I don’t even know if Ingrid and I are still legally married. Right now, I — and the dearest love of my life, and a large number of our friends and colleagues and family members — have had a civil and constitutional right taken away from us by popular demand. This is a huge, grotesque, mutant fly in the ointment of yesterday’s inspiring and historic election, and I can’t pretend that it’s anything else.

*

Finally, though, I want to say this:

I am incredibly proud of all my blog readers who volunteered for, and donated to, and blogged about, and just plain voted in, this election. Especially the ones who volunteered for/ donated to/ blogged about/ just plain voted for No on 8. This one was really personal, for obvious reasons, and Ingrid and I are both deeply touched by all the people who said such sweet and supportive righteously angry things about the issue. And I was especially touched by all the people who said they’d been inspired to donate by my blog. No, we didn’t win… but we made it really, really close. Thank you for that.

And so now I make this promise to you:

No more political blogging for a while.

I’m exhausted. And I’m sure you all must be exhausted as well. I think I’m going to take a day or two off from the blogging. And then, unless something huge happens in the political arena, I’m going to take a break from the politics for a bit. After my day or two off, I’m going to come back to the blog with my usual mix of atheist rants, sexual philosophies, TV reviews, commentaries about science, observations about life, recipes, and, if we can get our camera to work again, cute pictures of our cats.

I’m deeply grateful to all of you for putting up with the unexpected turn this blog has taken for the past month. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Vote!

Vote_1
And now, for my final election blogging post before it’s all over, a simple exhortation:

Get out and vote!

Wear comfortable shoes in case there are long lines. Wear warm clothes if it might be cold. Bring an umbrella if it looks like rain. Bring this number with you — 1-866-OUR-VOTE — in case you have any trouble with voter suppression or intimidation. (It’s the national election protection hotline set up by the ACLU.)

But do not be complacent. For the love of Loki, if you haven’t already done so, get out and vote.

Voting booths
This election is going to be determined by voter turnout. That’s actually true of all elections… and usually not for the better. But it’s quadruply true for this election. The reason this election has been going the way it has is because of an unusually galvanized electorate, with excited and active citizens from groups that traditionally tend to sit elections out.

That’s wonderful. It’s inspiring. It makes me feel all giddy and hopeful. But it’s not going to be very helpful if the galvanized citizenry doesn’t actually vote.

Stealing democracy
What’s more, you can’t count out the role of voter suppression in this election. From insufficient voting booths, to deliberate lies being spread about when and how to vote, to threats being made to young voters about losing their financial aid or even getting arrested if they vote, to legitimate voters being taken off the voter rolls, and so on and so on… a lot of people who want to vote, who should be able to vote, may wind up not voting. (There’s a good summary of this by Rachel Maddow, and a more insanely detailed summary on TPM Muckraker.)

It is the height of hypocrisy that the Republican Party — the ones who gas on in stirring abstractions about democracy and freedom, patriotism and the Founding Fathers — are so insultingly cavalier about the actual reality of democracy; so much more concerned about winning than they are about the principle that citizens of a country should be able to, you know, vote. But they are. And we have to not let them get away with it.

No on prop 8
Besides, there are a lot of elections going on today. It’s not just the one for President — there are elections for senators, governors, representatives, city councils, school boards, ballot initiatives, and more. The race for President may turn out to be not very close… but other races are close, and they’re almost as important as the Presidential race. More so in some ways. (It gives me chills to think of Prop 8 passing because it rained in San Francisco on Election Day, and San Franciscans thought Obama was in the bag, and didn’t bother to vote.)

There’s an African folk tale — I don’t remember the name of it — in which the whole village is invited to the king’s wedding, and everyone is asked to bring a jug of palm wine to pour into a communal pot for the celebration. One man says to himself, “I’m just going to bring water — with so many people bringing wine, one little jug of water in the pot isn’t going to make any difference, and nobody’s going to notice.” Then the feast comes, the wine is served from the big pot… and it’s all water. Everyone thought the same thing — “My little jug of water won’t make any difference” — and so all there was to drink at the wedding was water.

Don’t let that be the story of this election.

And maybe most importantly:

Voting is its own reward.

Firehoses
People fought and died, got beaten up and sent to jail, for our right to vote. Most obviously in the American Revolution… but also in the civil rights movement, and the women’s suffrage movement, and the movement to stop the poll tax, and so on and so on. They fought and died and so on, so that government could be the way a society decides how to pull together and pool its resources for everyone’s betterment… not the way a king, or an aristocracy, or a plutocracy, makes the rest of us pull together and pool our resources for their betterment.

Voting is how that works.

I don’t even care that much about how you vote. (Well, I do, of course. My two cents: Obama; No on 8 (support marriage equality), No on 4 (no forced pregnancy for teenagers); Yes on 5 (treatment instead of prison for non-violent drug offenders).) But honestly? It’s not nearly as important to me how you vote. It’s way more important that you vote at all.

Do it today.

What Does Science Have To Do With Atheism?

Atheism
What does science have to do with atheism?

Atheists and atheist writers yak about science a lot. Myself included. If you read a lot of atheist writing, you might think atheists are laboring under the delusion that atheism is a prerequisite for practicing science… and/or that science has somehow proven religion wrong.

For the record: I don’t think either of those things is true. (And neither does any other atheist I know.) I know that good scientists can be religious believers; in fact, until this century, almost all scientists were religious believers. And I am under no illusion that science has conclusively disproven the existence of God.

But I do think there’s a real — and strong, and completely valid — connection between atheism and science.

What is it?

Why do atheists talk so much about science? Why do we act as if science is our natural ally? If atheism isn’t necessary to practice good science, and if science doesn’t prove atheism right, then what’s the connection between the two?

Here’s the connection. It’s actually pretty straightforward.

1: Science disproves specific religious claims.
2: Science makes religion unnecessary as a way to explain the world.
3: Science provides an alternate method for understanding reality.

Let’s take these one at a time, shall we?

1: Science disproves specific religious claims.

The_origin_of_speciesScience will probably never be able to prove all religion to be unquestionably mistaken. (If for no other reason, it’s notoriously difficult to conclusively prove that something doesn’t exist.)

But if your religion claims that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago? That there was, in recorded human history, a gigantic planet-wide flood that wiped out almost every living thing? That humans were created in one shot out of whole cloth — or whole dirt — and plonked down on the earth by the hand of God in basically the same form we’re in now?

Science sure has something to say about that.

“No” is what science has to say about that.

Got soul
And that’s not just true of the more extreme wackaloon claims of religious belief. If you believe evolution happened but God nudged it along in the direction he wanted? Science can’t definitively disprove that… but in pointing to the deeply flawed, seemingly pointless, Rube Goldberg nature of so much of the “design” of living things, it sure can make the idea look wildly implausible. If you believe you have an immaterial soul that’s the ultimate recipient of your perceptions and the ultimate source of your choices and actions? Science can’t definitively disprove that — yet — but in pointing to all the ways that physical changes to the brain shape our perceptions, our choices, our actions, our sense of self, everything we think of as the soul, the sciences of neurology and neuropsychology sure are putting a dent in it. Etc., etc., etc.

And in doing all this, science doesn’t just disprove specific claims of specific religions. It repositions religion as just another hypothesis about the world. It pushes religion into the marketplace of ideas, as just one other idea among many, with no special privileges and no automatic right to any unusual respect. And then it sits there expectantly, waiting for religion to defend itself. (At which point, atheism swoops in to actually do battle with religion… in an arena where religion has never really had to stand on its own.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s actually a point all its own, and I’m not quite there yet. For now, let’s move on to:

2: Science makes religion unnecessary as a way to explain the world.

Lightning in hand
Once upon a time, hundreds and thousands of years ago, there really wasn’t any better explanation for the world than religion. There were all these questions, like: Where does weather come from? Where do the seasons come from? Where did people come from? Why does the sun rise and set? Why do people get sick? Why do children look like their parents? We didn’t have good answers to these questions, and for millennia, the best answers we came up with came from religion. Of course all this happened because of gods and spirits. Like, duh.

But now, almost all the major questions that religion once answered have gotten far better answers from science. Over the last few hundred years, science has given us a relatively coherent picture of the world and the universe we live in — a picture that’s enabled us to explain, predict, and shape the world, with an astonishing degree of precision and accuracy.

Question_book.svg
Sure, there’s a handful of those old questions that are still unanswered. What exactly is consciousness and selfhood? How did the process of life begin? What is the origin of the universe itself? But these are being worked on by science even as we speak. And given the track record of scientific explanations for things replacing supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times, versus supernatural explanations for things replacing natural ones exactly never… well, let’s just say that if you’re betting on religion over science to answer these questions with any degree of certainty, you’re really not playing the odds.

In other words:

When it comes to explaining why the world is the way it is, science doesn’t conclusively disprove religion.

It simply makes it unnecessary.

Which is a pretty important connection.

And now we come to what I think is the biggest, bestest, most important connection of all between atheism and science:

3: Science provides an alternate method for understanding reality.

Cave painting
Once upon a time yet again, the method we had for figuring out what was and wasn’t true about the world was a combination of basic observation, personal intuition, basic analysis based on pattern recognition and past experience, believing what everyone else believed, and trusting in authorities who had lived longer than us, and studied harder than us, and presumably knew more than we did. Or else trusting in books and texts written by long-dead versions of those authorities. (A method that, I feel compelled to point out, did keep us fed and sheltered and safe from tigers, for a very, very long time.)

Galileo
But over the centuries and millennia, we began to figure out that this method was limited at best, and prone to gross, flat-out errors at worst. We began to figure out that our senses could not always be trusted. We began to figure out that past experience couldn’t always predict future performance. We began to figure out that our minds tend to see patterns even when no patterns exist. We began to figure out that our intuition could easily lead us astray; that it tended to make us think what we most wanted to think, and see what we most expected to see. And we began, very importantly, to understand that neither crowds nor authority figures could automatically be trusted as reliable sources of information.

And we developed — and are continuing to develop — a systematic method for sorting out good information from bad; useful theories from mistaken or useless ones. We developed a slow, painstaking, rigorous method of testing our ideas about how the world works, to see how well they represent reality. We developed, in a word (okay, three words), the scientific method.

Scientific_method
This is the crucial thing about science that many folks fail to grasp. Science is not, primarily, a collection of theories and facts and data. Science is, primarily, a method. It’s a method that uses, among other things, large and carefully selected sampling sizes, careful control groups, double- blind and placebo- controlled testing, transparency of results and methodology, peer review, the expectation that results be replicable, the expectation that theories be falsifiable, yada yada yada. All to ensure that all the flaws I just talked about, all the traps and pitfalls we can fall into when we try to understand the world, are minimized, as much as is humanly possible.

Now.

Compare, please, to the method of religion.

Bible_old
Religion is also, among other things, a method for understanding the world. And it’s a method that relies almost entirely on one or more of the following: personal intuition, the authority of religious leaders, the authority of religious books and texts, our tendency to think that if everyone around us thinks something then it must be true, our predisposition to believe what we already believe, our predisposition to believe what we were taught as children, and our tendency to see both patterns and intentions regardless of whether they exist.

And we know — as well as we know anything — that every single one of these sources is profoundly unreliable.

Which brings me back to the whole “marketplace of ideas” thing.

I said before that science — the very existence of science — pushes religion into the marketplace of ideas. It takes religion off its pedestal as the One Thing We All Have To Believe If We Don’t Want To Be Called Heretics Or Get Condemned To Hell (or, in the pedestal’s more modern incarnation, the One Idea We All Have To Treat With Respect And Veneration, Even If We Don’t Agree With It). It pushes religion off its pedestal and onto the playing field, to fight it out with all the other hypotheses about how the world works and why it is the way it is.

But it doesn’t just do this by comparing claim against claim: by comparing penicillin to faith healing, say, or meteorology to prophecy.

It does this by comparing the methods themselves.

It does this by saying, “Yeah, sure, you can try to understand the world with the methods we used tens of thousands of years ago, when we were hunkered around campfires in caves. Or you can try to understand the world using this systematic method we’ve come up with, where we rigorously test our ideas and reject the ones that don’t work. Let’s see which method works better — shall we?”

And when that comparison is made, religion doesn’t stand a chance.

Armor_3
When religion has to fend for itself on a level playing field; when it can no longer resort to any of the “Shut up, that’s why!” arguments that it’s used for so long to armor itself against criticism; when it has to defend not only its hypotheses but its methods of arriving at those hypotheses… then that’s the beginning of the end.

No, science can’t tell us with 100% certainty whether or not religion is true. (As if that mattered.) But it does shed hard, serious light on the question of whether or not religion is plausible. Science doesn’t just offer alternate explanations for the world. It offers an alternate method for figuring that world out. It doesn’t just offer different — and better — answers. It offers a different and better way of asking the questions.

And that’s why science is relevant to atheism… and why atheists can’t, and shouldn’t, shut up about it.

Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival #4: Election Edition

Carnival
And it’s time for another round of cool, funny, snarky, interesting, informative stuff I found in the blogosphere and the Interwebs. The election edition, what with it being the day before election day.

On Undersized Red, White and Blue Balls, on Faster than the Speed of Satire… A very funny and pertinent piece, comparing the Obama campaign to ABA basketball… and asking why the Right even bothers to play if they don’t like or respect the game. “I’ve noticed that in this election cycle, there’s one side trying to shoot out the lights, one side trying to set a record with teamwork, and everybody playing their hearts out for the full game. And then there’s the other side. Far from working to run up their own totals, they seek instead to hold down the other side’s scoring.” By a great entertainer, a great humanitarian, and my close personal friend for 29 years, Nosmo King.

No on Proposition 8: Debunking the myths used to promote the ban on same-sex marriage. A totally kick-ass editorial by the Los Angeles Times, comparing the Yes on 8 campaign to the misdirection of a stage magician. “The campaign promoting Proposition 8, which proposes to amend the state Constitution to ban same-sex marriages, has masterfully misdirected its audience, California voters. Look at the first-graders in San Francisco, attending their lesbian teacher’s wedding! Look at Catholic Charities, halting its adoption services in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal! Look at the church that lost its tax exemption over gay marriage! Look at anything except what Proposition 8 is actually about: a group of people who are trying to impose on the state their belief that homosexuality is immoral and that gays and lesbians are not entitled to be treated equally under the law.”

Kay Hagan’s Staff Explains Her Position on “Godless Americans” (and Her Position on Us), by Richard Wade at Friendly Atheist. Pretty much what it sounds like. There’s been a bit of a dustup in the atheosphere about Kay Hagan, Democratic candidate for Senate in North Carolina, defending herself against the atheist smear, and seeming to agree with the notion that being godless would be a bad thing. This letter clarifies her position… and makes me feel good about her all over again.

If You Are Undecided, You’re Not Paying Attention, by Helen of the Margaret and Helen blog. Helen walks an undecided voter through the choices, as patiently and un-snarkily as she can manage without the top of her head coming off. “If you are undecided — and I am at a complete loss for how you could be — please consider the following: Which party has been screaming terrorist, socialist, Marxist, murder him and kill him… and which party has been talking about hope and unity. Which party has been throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you everyday for the past two weeks hoping to scare you into thinking that there is an Un-American part of the country… and which party has been saying that there is no red America and no blue America but only the United States of America. Which party thinks war is the answer to everything… and which party has suggested that maybe we need to sit down and talk this out to see if peace is possible.”

California Prop 8: Vote No to Extortion, Exploitation, and Denial of Religious Freedom, by TruthWinsOut. A summary of the sleazy, dishonest, and downright illegal tactics used by the campaign to ban same-sex marriage… in California, and elsewhere around the country. “But the religious-rightists who support these propositions can’t win popular support by telling voters the truth. So instead, Focus on the Family, Exodus, wealthy Mormon donors, and others have caved in to the immoral gutter instincts of dirty politics, illegal Internet attacks, and alleged election-law violations.”

Ironic: 12,000 vs. 12,500, by Frontlines, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Blog. Pointing out that the number of soldiers affected by “stop loss” — having your tour of combat duty extended involuntarily — is about 12,000… and the number of service members discharged by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is over 12,500. They’re just saying, is all.

Palin’s Constitutional Ignorance, on Dispatches from the Culture Wars. In which Sarah Palin apparently thinks that media criticism of political candidates threatens the First Amendment. No, really.

And winding up with another fine piece from Nosmo King, which I meant to link to earlier but didn’t: Everybody’s talkin’ bout the new kid in town…. A wickedly funny evisceration of Sarah Palin, and the decision- making process used to select her as McCain’s running mate. “I guess she thought, When life gives you rape, and you have to make rape-aid, make sure you charge by the glass.”

That’s it for today. Vote tomorrow, if you haven’t already. If there are lines, for the love of Loki, wait in them — an insufficient number of voting booths are a common form of voter suppression, so please don’t let voter suppression work. And if you have any sort of trouble with voter suppression or intimidation, call 1-866-OUR-VOTE, the national election protection hotline set up by the the ACLU.

And don’t just vote for President. Spend a little time tonight finding out about candidates for other offices — Governor, Senator, Representative, city council, school board — as well as ballot initiatives. Or, if that seems overwhelming, find an organization or two that you trust, and see what their endorsements are. (My own technique is to compare the endorsements of two or three organizations whose politics more or less dovetail with my own. Where they all agree, that’s how I go; where they disagree, I do more research.)

On a national level, elections for Congress will matter almost as much as the election for President if we want to actually get anything done in the next four years. And on the local level, your city council and school board and whatnot, as well as whatever ballot initiatives you may face, may wind up having more of an effect on your day- to- day life than the national government. Besides, today’s local officials are tomorrow’s national ones. So vote all the way down the ballot. Happy Election Day!

Obama & Biden Oppose Prop 8… and Notes on Political Morality

Barack_Obama
In yet another shining example of moral leadership, the Yes on 8 campaign has just sent out a deceptive flyer making it seem as both Barack Obama and Joe Biden support Yes on 8, the initiative on the California ballot to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

To be clear: Obama and Biden have both been kind of weaselly on the subject of same-sex marriage. But both have clearly stated that they oppose Prop 8. And they’ve just released a statement reiterating that opposition in no uncertain terms. Just so we’re all on the same page.

And now, I want to talk for a moment about the Yes on 8 campaign… and about morality.

The Yes on 8 campaign is pushing — hard — the idea that we need to ban same-sex marriage in order to protect morality.

And to accomplish this goal, they have resorted, not only to gross deception (as in the case of the “Obama agrees with us!” flyer), but to outright lies, blackmail, and an attempt to shut down the website of their opposition.

And we’re supposed to see them as moral paragons. We’re supposed to see them as the protectors of our values. We’re supposed to want this moral world that they’re trying to create.

Fuck that. I don’t want their morality. Even if I didn’t already disagree vehemently with their position, everything they have done in this election has made it clear what their moral values are. And their moral values suck. They are moral values that prioritize defining marriage the way they want it defined over truth, honor, respect for democracy, and obeying the law. They are the moral values of “get our way, at any cost.”

These are not my moral values. If they’re not yours, please support No on 8.

On Writing Porn In Public: The Blowfish Blog

Note: This piece, and the piece it links to, discusses my personal sex life and sexuality in some detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read that should probably skip this post. Thanks.

Internet cafe
I have a new piece on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about my attempt to understand secret exhibitionism — a sexual practice that I don’t enjoy or take part in — by examining a practice that I do enjoy.

It’s titled On Writing Porn In Public, and here’s the teaser:

I’m not usually a fan of exhibitionism. Not the secret kind, anyway. I worked as a stripper years ago and enjoyed the work — erotically as well as professionally — and I’m perfectly happy to strip for a lover, pose and perform for them, etc. But the sort of sneaky, secretive, “fingering under the restaurant tablecloth/ fucking on the picnic table that you hope nobody can see” sort of exhibitionism has never done it for me. I’m not comfortable with the consent issues raised by involving people in my sex life who didn’t agree to be involved. And besides, the fear of being caught doesn’t make me excited. It makes me anxious, distracted, unable to concentrate on the business at hand. It’s one of those kinks that I more or less understand intellectually, while being totally baffled by it emotionally.

But I’ve been discovering an exception.

That exception is writing porn in public.

Like countless other writers with laptops — and like countless writers with typewriters and pens before us — I’ve discovered the joy of writing in cafes. It’s a great way to avoid both the claustrophobia and the easy distraction of working at home all day.

And I’ve discovered that there’s something uniquely hot about sitting down at a cafe, opening up my laptop, and setting to work on a dirty story. Something that makes me finally get what it is that turns people on about secret exhibitionistic sex.

To find out more about what I find interesting about writing porn in public, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!