Happy Birthday To Me!

Happy_birthdayHappy birthday to me!

Last year, when I turned 46, I wrote a silly little non-rhyming birthday song inspired by evolution and loosely based on the children’s classic (“Happy birthday to you/ You live in the zoo/ You look like a monkey/ And you smell like one, too”). It went:

Happy birthday to me
I don’t live in a tree
But I look like a primate
Because I am one.

Today I’m turning 47. (A fact that I’m ever so slightly freaked out about, as it means I am now officially in my late 40s). So I’ve decided to keep this tradition going, and have written another evolution- themed self- aggrandizing birthday song. And this one even rhymes! It goes like this:

Happy birthday to me
I evolved from the sea
I’m a cousin to plankton
And the rat and the bee.

So happy birthday to me… and Happy New Year to all of you!

How Can Atheists Be Good Allies?

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece about how progressive, non- atheist groups can be good allies with the atheist movement.

Today, I want to follow that piece up with the flip side:

How can atheists be good allies?

I think it behooves the atheist movement to make alliances with other groups that we have affinities with: groups that aren’t atheist- specific and that are made up of both believers and non-believers, but that have goals we support… and in some cases, progressive ecumenical religious groups who recognize the validity of atheism.

I think it behooves us for a number of reasons. Partly because our movement is too small and too stigmatized right now to accomplish what we want on our own: we’ll get more visibility and more work done if we have other people speaking for us and working with us. Partly because it shows the world that we don’t just care about how we want to be treated and what we think we deserve: we care about what we have to offer and how we want to participate in the world.

And partly because it’s, you know, the right thing to do. Because we’re not just atheists, but people, citizens of our communities and our countries and our world. Because we do care about what we have to offer and how we want to participate in the world.

So how can we be good allies? I’ve already written about what atheists are asking for from people who want to support us. What should we be doing to be good allies with people we want to support?

1: Treat other groups the way you want to be treated.

All the stuff I talked about in How to Be an Ally With Atheists? All that stuff about how atheists want to be treated? It applies to how we treat other marginalized groups as well.

Learn about that group’s experience in the world. Learn what the common myths and misconceptions are about that group, and don’t perpetuate them. Learn what kind of language they prefer… and what kind of language insults them and pisses them off. Speak out against bigotry. Be inclusive — not fake, lip-service inclusive, but real inclusive. Don’t trivialize their anger, and don’t divide the group into “good” ones and “bad” ones based on who’s being angry and confrontational and who’s being polite and diplomatic. If you’re going to be critical, be very, very careful that you have both your facts and your context right. Find common ground. Be aware of your own privilege.

You know. Inclusive multiculturalism 101. Easy in principle. A lot of work in practice. Essential.

2: Don’t assume that religious believers are stupid — and don’t talk to them or treat them as if they’re stupid.

Yes, I agree that religious believers are mistaken about their religious beliefs. But being mistaken does not make someone stupid. I guarantee you right now that every single person reading this — and the person writing this — is mistaken about something. Probably about more than one thing. Probably about more than one big, important thing.

It is human nature to hang onto mistaken ideas once we’ve committed to them: to come up with elaborate rationalizations for our mistaken ideas, to hang onto them more stubbornly the more they’re attacked or the more we’ve committed to them… all in ways that are obvious to people around us and completely invisible to ourselves. I agree that religious believers are doing that about religion. But atheists need to not act like we’re intellectually superior because we don’t do it about that one particular type of belief. We do it about plenty of other things. What with us being human and all.

And it is entirely possible to hang onto a mistaken belief with a less- than- entirely- rational stubbornness… and still be a smart, rational, reality-based person most of the time. It is human nature to compartmentalize: and while compartmentalization sometimes makes people want to smack us across the head, it does enable us to cordon off our mistakes and function as rational people in other areas of our lives.

3: Don’t be quick to assume malice or willful ignorance.

If someone says something ignorant or wrong about atheists and atheism, of course you should correct them. Firmly, and unapologetically.

But don’t assume right off the bat that they’re being jerks on purpose. You may have heard “How can you have any meaning or morality without God?” a hundred thousand times until you want to scream and throw pies. But the person you’re talking to may honestly have never thought about that question before, or heard any of the thousands of answers to it. They may have thought of morality and meaning in religious terms for their whole lives, and it may take a lot of conversation and soul- searching for them to understand that this isn’t true for everybody.

I agree that it’s irritating. It’s totally messed up that we have to keep repeating the same talking points and demolishing the same myths over and over and over and over and over again. But the fact remains that much of the world is ignorant about who we are. If we want them to learn, it’s up to us to do the teaching. It’s not going to happen any other way.

And “You may not be aware of this, but…” is a lot more likely to get our message across than, “You bigoted ignoramus — how dare you!”

End of faith
Remember: Our community hasn’t been raising a ruckus for very long. It’s taken the modern LGBT movement 40 years of being out and visible and vocal to get even the limited degree of understanding and de-stigmatization that we have now. The atheist movement, in its current ruckus- raising incarnation, has been out and visible and vocal for roughly five years. Education — especially in the face of not only ignorance but hostility and fear — takes time. I know it sucks. Suck it up.

Now, if you’ve corrected someone’s mistaken ideas about atheism a dozen times or more, and they’re still parroting them… then you can assume malice or willful ignorance. And then you have my permission to smack them around. Metaphorically, that is.

4: If you’re going to talk about religion, tread carefully.

At the risk of getting into the framing wars: Of course I’m not saying we should never be critical about religion. Hey, I’m the one who wrote the 4,500 word screed about why atheists are pissed off.

I’m saying that we should talk differently depending on who we’re talking to, and what we’re trying to accomplish.

Are we talking about believers… or to believers? Are we trying to convince non-believers that atheism is an important issue and that they should come out and take a stand… or are we trying to persuade believers to listen to our arguments and our issues? Are we talking in a public forum to create visibility and get our ideas out into the open… or are we talking one- on- one or in a small group, with people we’re trying to work with? Are we trying to convince people that we’re right… or are we trying to temporarily set aside our differences and work together on issues where we already agree? Are we trying to stir up the troops… or are we trying to form alliances?

Strong, angry, passionate language is called for in some of these situations. Polite, measured, diplomatic language is called for in others. Example: I love PZ Myers to pieces, and I think his Pharyngula blog provides an incredibly valuable service: it provides a place for atheists to just relax and say what we think about religion without walking on eggshells… and it’s screaming, “The emperor has no clothes!” at top volume, which somebody sure as hell needs to be doing. But with all due respect, if I were forming a committee to form strategic alliances with other movements, PZ would not be my go-to guy.

If you feel compelled to criticize religion to someone you’re trying to make alliances with, choose your words carefully. When I’m trying to be diplomatic, I generally don’t say that religion is boneheaded or ignorant or useless. I generally say that it’s mistaken. (I generally say that anyway, since I think it’s more accurate. See “Don’t assume that religious believers are stupid ” above.) And unless I’m talking about a public figure who’s exceptionally and consistently heinous, I try to remember to criticize ideas and actions rather than people. People won’t always hear the difference… but I think it’s important to make it.

5: Be careful about making analogies.

I have a whole piece brewing about this, actually, as it’s a large and complicated topic. So for now, I’ll just say this:

Analogies are loaded, and you have to be really, really careful about using them.

If you’re trying to educate and persuade by saying, “The such- and such experience of atheists is like the so- and- so experience of (blacks, women, queers, Jews, immigrants, etc.),” you can easily make people feel like their experience is being trivialized. For instance: When white atheists compare our experience of discrimination to separate drinking fountains or sitting in the back of the bus, we aren’t helping African- Americans — or anyone else, for that matter — understand our experience. We’re making ourselves look like entitled, over-privileged white people with no sense of history and no perspective.

Yes, analogies are a crucial tool for education and understanding. If we don’t understand what someone is going through, it’s often easier if we can compare it to something we’ve gone through ourselves, or something that someone we know has gone through. Analogies and comparisons are an essential part of how the human mind works, and how we understand the world.

But when we’re making analogies to help illuminate our experience, we need to be careful. We need to be sure that the analogy is appropriate — not just in terms of content, but in terms of scope. We need to not be getting people to understand our broken legs by comparing them to other people’s amputations.

(It’s helpful sometimes to make multiple analogies at once. That way, no one group feels singled out, and the focus is on the actual content of the analogy rather than on who the analogy is being made with. If that makes sense.)

Not about you
6: Remember that it’s not always about us.

Don’t always insist on atheist issues taking top priority. If we want allies to work with us on our issues, we have to work with them on theirs.

Atheist bloggers are pretty good about this, actually. They blog about LGBT issues if they’re straight, racial issues if they’re white, sexism if they’re male, poverty if they’re comfortably off, the war and imperialism and such if they’re American. Let’s keep it up.

And maybe we could do it in a more organized manner. A lot of us aren’t joiners — I’m sure not — but maybe the organizations we do have could do more formal, organized outreach to other groups, and to the world at large. (The Seattle Atheists, for instance, have been doing blood drives and stuff. Good for them.) Also, I keep reading reports that believers are better than non-believers at making charitable donations and doing charity work. If we really think that we don’t need God to do good in the world, we need to put our money where our mouths are. We should support organizations like SHARE — the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort — and our organizations need to be doing more to advance general humanist ideals instead of just promoting atheism.

And finally, but very importantly:

Two way traffic
7: Support other atheists whose methods are different from yours.

If you can’t do this alliance stuff, or you aren’t willing to… then by all means, don’t. Every movement needs firebrands as well as diplomats. (And some of us do both at different times, and in different situations.) We should all do what we’re good at and what we feel inspired to do.

But don’t get in the way of people who do want to do this, and don’t call them names for doing it. The firebrands and diplomats in our movement need to stop giving each other shit for being too deferential or too abrasive. If we have a real difference about tactics over any given issue or situation, by all means we should air them. But the general ideological battle over whether firebreathing or diplomacy is always and forevermore the better tactic is ridiculous. We need both. Every movement for social change that I can think of throughout history has needed both, and both work better together then either one alone.


I’m sure there’s more, but that’s all I can come up with for now. What do y’all think? Are there any ideas that I’m missing? Do you think this is even worthwhile?

Advice to an Atheist in an Intolerant Family: Help, Please?

What advice would you give to a young atheist in a family that’s entirely intolerant — belligerently so — of their atheism?

I got this letter the other day from a 19- year- old atheist, asking for advice on how to deal with their family: a family who refuses to accept this person’s atheism, to the point where they have fights about it on a daily basis.

It’s a heartbreaking story, and since my counsel was asked for, I want very much to give it. But on this one, I really can’t speak from experience. I was lucky enough to have been brought up in a family of non-believers: exactly how lucky I’m just beginning to realize, as I hear more and more stories like this one. So while I do have a few thoughts, I also want to throw this one out to my readers, and see if any of you have any better advice to offer than I do. (Yes, the letter writer okayed me doing this: I’ve stripped out identifying information, including gender.)

Here’s the letter:

Pink floyd the wall scream
I am an atheist in a very Catholic family. My family prides itself on its faith, and they are quick to demonstrate it at any opportunity. I am a nineteen year old student, who ironically, attends a Catholic school (the basis behind that one was athletics, not beliefs) and I have been constantly fighting my family over the last five or six years on my beliefs. My mother is a very devout Catholic, and when every Sunday comes around, we have screaming matches and I’m getting very upset over this. Throughout the years, she has attacked me on a daily basis over what I believe, and it is impossible to argue or reason with her because she will simply will not listen. Her biggest argument is that there is, “so much evidence! What about all the miracles that have taken place over the last century” and so on and so forth. Another popular “discussion” point is the creation of the universe, to which she writes down God as creating the Big Bang (she’s not a Creationist, she believes in evolution but believes that God has a big hand in it) and citing that life could only be possible because of a Higher Deity as it’s “too complex”.

I really don’t know what to do anymore. If she cannot respect my beliefs, then how can she respect me as a person? My family has tried to shove religion down my throat, and they are relentless in their “Crusade”. I’m tired of all the fights that I have to endure on a consistent basis and I’m tired of all the “You know that deep down you
really believe in God” comments. I could go on and on about it, but in the end, I am just left with frustration.

Do you have any advice on how to approach the matter?

There were a couple of big questions I needed the answers to before I could even begin to tackle this. I wrote the letter- writer back, asking if they still lived with their family, or were financially dependent on them. And I asked if they’d tried the technique Ingrid used with her fundamentalist relatives. If her relatives pressed the subject of religion, Ingrid would say, in a firm but calm voice, “I really don’t agree with you” — and then she would change the subject, and just wouldn’t continue any conversations they tried to have with her about it. Here’s what the letter- writer said:

I have tried Ingrid’s approach many times, although it has never worked. My family gets too enraged and won’t let it drop not matter what you say or argue despite how much logical reasoning you use. Once the subject is raised in any context, it can take ages for the dispute to settle down. It’s impossible to win because my family just won’t stop.

Currently I do not live with my parents; I am usually at school (I am a freshman in college). However, I have a long winter break so I am back with them. I forgot how bad it was arguing and dealing with them until I got back. I actually am somewhat financially independent due to my past work experiences and academic/ athletic scholarships — while my family certainly contributes financially to me I believe I can sustain on my own. I will soon be leaving permanently though to go back to school and to live in (name of city deleted) where I will work. I don’t want to burn bridges with my family; I just want them to understand what I believe and I don’t want our relationship to potentially end on a bad note.

There are just a couple of things I can think of to say before I open up the floor. First: I am so sorry about this. You have all my sympathy. My heart breaks for you. This totally sucks.

Atheist debaters handbook
Now to actual practical advice. One: When you talk with your family about this, be sure that you aren’t making it about how their beliefs are wrong and your atheism is right. Don’t try to de-convert them. Try to make the conversations be about who you are: countering the common myths about atheists, explaining that you’re a moral person who wants to do good in the world, that you have meaning and happiness in your life, etc. Don’t let them say untrue or bigoted things about atheists without contradiction… but don’t get sucked into arguments about theology or evolution. That’s not going to get you anywhere. And anyway, it’s not the point. This isn’t about “winning” an argument. It’s about trying to have a relationship with your family.

The only other advice I can think of is this:

Coming out
If you had a gay or lesbian friend who came to you with this exact same situation, only about their queerness instead of their atheism — what advice would you give them?

I’m guessing that the advice you’d give them might be a clue as to the advice you should try to take yourself.

And based on what you’ve told me, I’m guessing you might well tell them, “If you’ve tried to explain who you are and why that’s okay, and if you’ve tried to live and let live and to just change or drop the subject when it comes up, and none of that has worked and they’re still making your life a misery… then you might have to take a big step back from your family, or even cut them out of your life entirely for a while.”

Hopefully not forever, but for a while. You can close a door without burning a bridge. You sound really anguished and frustrated, and it seems like you could use a break from this. (A break doesn’t have to be an either/or thing, btw: you can, for instance, still see your family, but only for a day or two at a time instead of for weeks, and/or less often than you currently do.)

It’s what a lot of LGBT people have had to do when their families belligerently refused to accept them. It’s extremely hard. But it’s less hard than tolerating abuse.

If you decide to take this step — and I hope you don’t have to — then do it carefully. Don’t storm out of the house in the middle of a screaming match. You might even do it in a letter (and have a friend read that letter and do a venom check on it before you send it). Make it clear that it’s a step you don’t want to take, that you hope it’s a temporary one and don’t intend to cut them out of your life forever, that you’ll keep the door open as much as possible. But until they can treat their adult child with basic respect, they won’t get to have that child in their life. (Again, don’t make it about the content of the argument: make it about your relationship with them and how they treat you, not about atheism versus theism.)

And make sure your financial and other practical ducks are lined up first. Make sure you really can put yourself through school, that you have someplace else to stay during vacations, etc. Also: Make sure you have a good support system, especially from other non-believers. See if you can find an atheist/ secular/ humanist organization in your city. (And, of course, keep visiting atheist blogs and online forums.)

Now, if you’d said that you were financially dependent on your family, I’d probably be answering somewhat differently. I’d probably be suggesting that you temporarily disengage from your family without confronting them about why. Instead of saying directly, “I can’t talk with you when you’re screaming at me, and I can’t have a relationship with you when you’re constantly pushing me to change,” I’d suggest you simply back away from spending time with them without an explanation. But that’s just postponing the inevitable. And it’s not really fair either to you or to them: it’s not giving either of you much of a chance to reconcile down the road. If you can be independent from them, I think letting them know why you’re (temporarily) disengaging is a better option.

Finally, I’d add this: Try to see it from their point of view. Yes, I agree that their point of view is wrong. And nothing excuses the way they’re treating you. But remember: They’re probably very worried about you. They may think you’re headed for a life of immorality and despair; even that you’re endangering your immortal soul and condemning yourself to an eternity in hell. And that has got to suck for them. If they really don’t have any sense of how life could be meaningful and valuable without religion, the fact that their child has left it must scare the crap out of them.

I don’t know if that will help in any practical sense. But it may help you feel less rancorous towards them, and more sympathetic and able to forgive. Regardless of what happens in your relationship with your family, it may help you come to terms with this situation and find some peace.

But again — none of this is spoken from experience. So I’m asking my readers: Have you had a similar experience with your family when you came out as an atheist? Or if not you, has anyone you’ve known had this kind of experience? If so, what did and didn’t work? How has it changed over time? What worked in terms of improving your relationship with your family… and if the answer to that was “Nothing,” what worked in terms of helping you come to terms with a bad situation?

Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival #5: Holiday Edition

And today, we have another round of Cool Stuff I Found On the Blogosphere and Elsewhere on the Internet. The holiday edition. Because I am a giant freak who actually likes the holidays. So sue me.

First, we have the return of a holiday tradition on this blog: The Best Christmas Song Ever. It’s “Christmas Rhapsody,” Pledge Drive’s Christmas-themed parody of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” written by my friend Tim Walters and his friend Steve Rosenthal. Sample lyrics:

Is this the Yuletide?
It’s such a mystery
Will I be denied
Or will there be gifts for me?

Come down the stairs
Look under the tree and see…

I personally think it needs a YouTube video in the worst way. Videographers are encouraged to contact Tim through his Website, where he also has other nifty and odd holiday music.

Next, we have a lovely page of atheist Christmas carols. They’re a little heavy on “why religion sucks” and a little light on “why atheism is cool” for my taste… but it’s a good start. I especially like “There Is No Hell.” And unlike many song parodies, these actually rhyme and scan. Via Ingrid, who got it via Berkeley Morris.

There have been lots of good blog posts this holiday season about the War on the Supposed War on Christmas. My favorite, though is The Roots of the War on Christmas, by Ebon Muse on Daylight Atheism — which gets at the anti-Semitic roots of the WotSWoC.

Ebon also has an excellent Solstice Sermon, with a humanist look at a perpetual Christmas theme: feeding the hungry.

From Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist, we have a hilarious example of Christmas pareidolia: Seashell Jesus By the Seashore.

From PZ Myers at Pharyngula, we have what may be the funniest Jack Chick tract ever, in which a child’s belief in Santa Claus leads to terrorism, murder, and the death penalty. Jack Chick on Santa.

From C.L. Hanson at Letters from a broad: a skeptic/ atheist defends the Santa delusion. The magic of imagination.

And finally, because there isn’t enough sex in this post: From Violet Blue at Open Source Sex (via Eros Blog), we have the story of Playboy: Mexico running a photo spread of a nude model posing as the Virgin Mary. In honor of the Christmas season. Playboy Mexico + Virgin Mary nude spread = bad idea.

Happy holidays, everybody!

The True Meaning of Christmas

So what does Christmas really mean?

War on christmas
Among all the traditions of the holiday season, one that’s becoming increasingly familiar is the War on the Supposed War On Christmas. In this tradition — one that dates back to the sweet olden days of overt anti-Semitism — the Christian Right foams at the mouth about the fact that not everyone has the same meaning of Christmas that they do, and works themselves into a dither about things like store clerks politely recognizing that not everyone is a Christian by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Because in the mind of the Christian Right, it somehow disrespects their faith and impinges on their religious freedom to share a country with people who feel and act differently than they do.

Okay. Insert rant here about how the Christian Right isn’t actually interested in religious freedom and respect for their faith. They’re trying to establish a theocracy. They don’t care about religious and cultural plurality. They don’t care about the fact that winter holidays mean different things to different people, and that different people celebrate different ones and in different ways. They don’t care about the fact that not everyone in the country is Christian, and that lots of people who do call themselves Christian are actually pretty secular in both their everyday life and their celebration of the winter holidays.

No, scratch that. They do care about it. They think it’s bad.

But that’s not actually what I want to talk about today.

In the face of Bill O’Reilly and company screaming hatefully about the true meaning of Christmas, I want to talk — in true grade-school essay form — about what Christmas means to me.

Because I actually like Christmas.

Christmas; Solstice; Hanukkah; Kwanzaa; Festivus; “the holidays”; whatever. I don’t have a strong attachment to any particular name or date or occasion. Any mid-winter holiday around the end of December will do. Lately I’ve been calling it either “the holidays” or “Santamas” (in honor of what Bart Simpson has described as the true meaning of the holiday: the birth of Santa). I was brought up culturally Christian, though, with Christmas trees and Santa and all that, and I do tend to refer to it as Christmas at least some of the time.

And I love it. I always have. I know it’s fashionable to hate it, and I get why people get annoyed by it — but I don’t. I love it. It’s one of my favorite times of the year.

And here’s what it means to me.

I think that holidays tend to rise up naturally out of the rhythms and seasons of a particular geographical area. And in parts of the world where winter is a big nasty deal, I think it’s almost inevitable that a winter holiday, at right around the darkest, shortest day of the year, is going to become the biggest holiday in the culture.

It’s been noted many times, for instance, that Hanukkah is far from the most important holiday in the Jewish religious calendar. What’s less well known is that Christmas isn’t the most important holiday in the Christian calendar, either. Christmas is pretty much a pagan midwinter holiday shoehorned into the Christian religious calendar for convenience. From a strictly religious standpoint, Easter is a much bigger ticket. (Getting born? Big whoop. Everybody gets born. Dying on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, and getting resurrected three days later because he’s God? Now that’s what they’re talking about.)

Xmas shopping
And yet — in parts of the world where winter is a big nasty deal — Christmas has almost entirely eclipsed Easter, for all but the most devout. Christmas gets an entire month of frenzied eating and drinking and shopping and traveling and party-going and family drama. Easter gets — maybe — a nice dinner or brunch, plus for kids it acts as a sort of secondary candy- frenzy holiday to Halloween. If the holidays were really about Jesus, we’d be having a nice quiet dinner with friends and family in late December, maybe with a hunt for hidden chocolate Santas for the kiddies… and a massive social and economic whirl in March or April. As it’s commonly celebrated — at least in the U.S. — the meaning of Christmas is only partly about the Christian religion. And a pretty minimal part at that.

So what is the meaning of Christmas? Solstice? Santamas? The holidays? Etc.?

It’s cold. It’s dark. The days are short, and the nights are long. Life is harder than usual right now, and we’re cooped up in close quarters more than any other time of the year.

So let’s celebrate.

Let’s sing. Let’s decorate. Let’s eat and drink. Let’s light candles and put up electric lights. Let’s have parties. Let’s visit our families and our friends. Let’s give each other presents. Let’s spend time together that’s specifically devoted to enjoying each other’s company, and take part in activities — like gift- giving and parties and big group dinners — that strengthen social bonds.

Let’s remind ourselves that life is worth living, and that the cold and dark won’t be here forever. Let’s remind ourselves that we care about each other, and remind ourselves of why.

That’s what this holiday means to me.

Happy holidays, everybody!

Right Of Refusal: The Blowfish Blog

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It talks about a recent letter to Dan Savage, from a rape survivor whose boyfriend wanted her to act out a rape fantasy with him… and was continuing to pressure her and pester her about it, despite her clearly saying “No.” (Dan’s advice: Dump the motherfucker already.) My post takes this letter and expands on it, to ask the question, “When do you have the right to absolutely refuse a certain kind of sex to your partner?” It’s called Right Of Refusal, and here’s the teaser:

I totally agree with Dan’s advice, as far as it went. A rape survivor absolutely has the right to say “No” to acting out a rape scene that they think will traumatize them . . . and to drop the partner who won’t take that “No” for an answer.

But I’d actually go further than that.

I’d say that anybody has the right to say “No” to any particular form of sex, for any reason whatsoever.

To find out more — in particular, to find out more about the degree to which I equivocate from that position, and the degree to which I absolutely don’t — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

How To Be An Ally with Atheists: The Actual Thread

Readers of this blog may have noticed that the comment thread on How To Be An Ally with Atheists has gone both completely off-topic and completely toxic. Regrettably, I’ve had to shut the comments on that post down — which is a shame, since I think the topic is an interesting and important one, and I’d like to hear what people have to say about it. (And yes, I am all too aware of the irony of that particular post being the one where the comments went toxic.)

So if you want to discuss the actual topic of how to be an ally with atheists, I’m providing this post as a place to do that.

Please note: Any attempts to use this thread to revive the original shut-down comment thread will result in being banned from this blog. Thank you.

The Great Gruesome Christmas Carols

Christmas carols
And now for something completely different.

I’m one of those freakish people who actually likes Christmas carols. Not the gloppy, cutesy, “Suzy Snowflake” modern variety so much (although I do have a soft spot for “Silver Bells”), but the soaring, haunting, gorgeous classic ones. “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” “The Angel Gabriel,” that sort of thing.

And one of the things I like about them is how totally freaky some of them are.

There’s this annual Christmas party I go to every year (although I had to miss it this year, damn and blast), at which the singing of Christmas carols and other seasonal and not- so- seasonal music is a centerpiece. A few years back, I went on the Internet and pulled together a lyric sheet, so we could actually sing all the songs all the way through instead of tapering off pathetically after the first verse.

And you know what I found? Some Christmas carols are truly gruesome. Startlingly gruesome. Freakishly and hilariously gruesome.

So I thought I should share with the rest of the class.

We start with a classic: the fourth verse of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

I love that one. It rings out so lustily — especially when a room full of eggnog- tiddly heathens is belting it out.

Then we have this gem: two little lines from the 1865 “Greensleeves” parody rewrite, “What Child Is This”:

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.

Well, it definitely reminds you of the reason for the season. You can’t deny that.

Then we have the lesser- known, but haunting and really quite lovely “Coventry Carol” (here’s the tune, in case you don’t know it). With this charming third verse:

Slaughter of the innocents
Herod the king in his raging,
Charged he hath this day,
His men of night, in his own sight,
All children young to stay.

The fourth verse is a charmer, too, although somewhat lacking in the vivid “dead children” imagery:

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and say,
For thy parting not say, nor sing,
By, by, lullay, lullay.

But the best — the very, very best, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords of gruesome Christmas carols — has got to be the “Corpus Christi Carol,” a.k.a. “Down In Yon Forest.” There are different versions of it, but the one I found when I was putting together the songbook goes like this:

Dead knights
Down in yon forest there stands a hall
(The bells of paradise I heard them ring)
It’s covered all over with purple and pall
(And I love my Lord Jesus above anything)

In that hall there stands a bed
It’s covered all over with scarlet so red

Under the bed there runs a flood
One half runs water, the other runs blood

On the bed there lies a knight
Whose wounds do drip down both by day and by night

By the bed there lies a hound
Who laps at the blood as it daily drips down

At the bed’s foot there grows a thorn
Which ever so blossomed since Jesus was born

(Here’s a nifty folk-Goth version of it by my friend Tim Walters and his occasional project Conjure Wife; here’s a YouTube video with a more conventional rendition, although for some reason it’s lacking the verse about the vampire dog.)

So Merry Christmas, everybody! And in the midst of this terrible, disrespectful, heathenistic War on Christmas, let’s all remember the reason for the season: a life of gathering gloom, flesh pierced through with nails and a spear, children slaughtered by a raging king, and — merriest of all — a half-blood, half-water river, blood dripping from a wounded knight, and a dog licking up the blood. Let me know if there’s any I’ve forgotten, or any I haven’t heard of yet. It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Obama, Rick Warren, and the Difference between Talking and Honoring

I want to say a few words about Barack Obama.

Rick-warrenObama is defending the choice of the anti- choice, anti- religious- plurality, pro- assassination- of- world- leaders, red- baiting, rabidly anti-LGBT, James- Dobson- in- sheep’s- clothing, lying- sack- of- crap megachurch pastor Rick Warren by saying that “it is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.” He is defending it by saying that “it has always been his goal to find common ground with people with whom you may disagree on some issues.”

Here is my response.

In order to be inclusive — in order to move beyond the politics of divisiveness and bring our country together — is it important to talk with people you profoundly disagree with, people with opinions you find repugnant? Is it important to invite them to sit down and talk so you can try to work out your differences and find common ground?

Yes. It absolutely is. The President needs to talk with leaders of the Republican party who are trying to tear him down, with leaders of powerful political movements he opposes, with leaders of countries who despise us. No question.

But is it important to invite them to GIVE THE INVOCATION AT YOUR FREAKIN’ INAUGURATION?!?!?

No. It is not.

Having someone speak at your inauguration is more than just being willing to sit down and talk with them. It is a mark of approval. It is a high honor, a thumbs-up. It is a “Heck of a job, Brownie.”

And it is an honor that absolutely should not have been given to Rick Warren.

Obama supports Warren on his work with poverty and AIDS. Fine. He couldn’t find a religious leader for his inaugural invocation who’s done good work with poverty and AIDS… and who isn’t a homophobic, anti- choice, anti- science, anti- atheist, anti- any- religion- that- doesn’t- agree- with- him, pro- assassination, lying, red-baiting bigot?

I’ve said this before about Obama: My greatest fear about him is that he wants too badly for everybody to like him. My fear is that his palpable desire for everybody to get along — and for everybody to get along with him — means that he will be too tolerant of intolerance, too inclusive of divisiveness, too unwilling to take a firm principled stand that may piss some people off.

I’m beginning to think that my fears were justified.

Let there be no mistake about it. This is not just about Rick Warren’s opposition to marriage equality, as the mainstream media has been pitching it. It is about his equation of homosexuality with pedophilia and incest. It is about his support of programs to “cure” LGBT people of our LGBT-ness. It is about his own acknowledgement that he ignored AIDS until the widespread orphaning of children in Africa by the epidemic was brought to his attention. It is about his absurd, patently false claim that legalizing same-sex marriage would infringe on his right of free speech.

And it’s not just about his stands on LGBT issues. It’s about his own assertion that the only difference between him and James Dobson is one of tone. It’s about his rabid opposition to a woman’s right to choose abortion, comparing abortion to the Holocaust and calling the goal of reducing the number of abortions a charade. It’s about his rabid opposition to stem cell research. It’s about his opinion that the U.S. assassination of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be “the legitimate role of government.” It’s about his pretense that he doesn’t get involved in electoral politics, when he sent an email to thousands of other pastors in 2004 telling them to vote for Bush. It’s about his red-baiting of religious leaders who fight for social and economic justice, referring to them as “Marxists.”

And — let’s not leave out the atheists — it is about his declaration that people who don’t believe in God are not fit to be President.

Should Obama be willing to talk with him?

Probably. Sure. I don’t actually object to that.

But should Obama have invited him to a place of high honor at one of the most historic occasions in American history?

Absolutely not. It is a slap in the face. It puts a serious tarnish on what should have been one of the most shining days in our country’s history.

(Oh, and P.S.: Before anybody leaps in with an “I told you so”: I never thought Obama was going to be perfect. I knew he was going to disappoint us at some point. I knew we were going to have to hold his feet to the fire on some issues. I was just hoping I could wait until after he was actually President before that started. And I’m still not sorry I voted for him. I still hold with the harm reduction model of politics, and I still think he’s going to be about a hundred times better than McCain would have been. I’m just beginning to think that my hopes for a Democratic President who might not be just another shilly- shallying suck-up to the far right were unfounded. Damn.)

How To Be An Ally with Atheists

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post on being an atheist in the queer community. But I think it will be of interest to anyone, individual or organization, who wants to be an ally with atheists and the atheist movement.

Scarlet letter
So what do atheists want from their allies?

And how can progressive non-atheist people and groups be good allies with the atheist movement?

Yesterday, I posted a piece about how difficult I was finding it to be an out atheist in the LGBT community. Since I don’t like to gripe for the sake of griping without offering any solutions, today I’m offering my suggestions for what atheists want: my prescription for how progressive believers can, if they want, be supportive of atheists, and allies with the atheist movement.

A quick disclaimer first: While I suspect that a lot of atheists will more or less agree with much of this list, I really am speaking only for myself here. Atheists are notoriously independent, and they don’t like having other people speak for them. (Any atheists reading this: If you have disagreements with this list or things you’d like to add, please speak up in the comments.)

1: Familiarize yourself with the common myths and misconceptions about atheists — and don’t perpetuate them.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance about who atheists are and what we do and don’t believe. Needless to say, these myths and misconceptions are wrong. Don’t believe them. Don’t perpetuate them. Don’t let them infect the way you speak and act, and please speak out against them when you hear them. Find out what we actually think and believe and do, instead of what anti- atheist propaganda says about what we think and believe and do.

Sam Harris has written a pretty good list of the most common myths about atheists, with short arguments against them. There’s a touch of needless snark in the piece, IMO — Harris can’t quite resist the temptation to get in a few digs against religion when he should probably just be explaining atheism — but overall, it gives a good, concise view of the most common misconceptions about atheism, and why, exactly, they’re mistaken.

I’m just going to add one quick thing to Harris’s list before I move on: The myth that atheists are 100% certain that there is no God, with a dogmatic attachment to that belief.

In reality, I’ve encountered almost no atheists who thought that God’s existence had been definitely disproved. Atheism doesn’t mean being 100% certain that God doesn’t exist. It just means being certain enough. We’re about as certain that Jehovah doesn’t exist (or Yahweh, or Allah, or Ganesh, or the Goddess, or any of the gods that are commonly worshipped today) as we are that Zeus doesn’t exist. If you don’t think you’re close-minded for not believing in Zeus, then please don’t accuse atheists of being close-minded for not believing in your god.

2: Familiarize yourself with what it’s like to be an atheist, both in the U.S. and in the rest of the world.

Discrimination against atheists, in the United States, and around the world, is very real. It doesn’t look exactly like other forms of discrimination — no form of discrimination looks exactly like any other — but it is real.

Here are just a few examples.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, asking Americans who they’d be willing to vote for for President, atheists came in at the very bottom of the list: below blacks, below women, below Jews, below gays. Below every other marginalized group on the list. With less than half of Americans saying they’d vote for an atheist. Unless you live in a incredibly progressive district, being an out atheist will effectively kill any chances you have at a political career.

Atheists in the military have been illegally proselytized at, berated, called a disgrace, denied promotion, had meetings broken up, and been threatened with charges… all by superior officers, and all because of their atheism.

Dole atheist flyerIn her recent Senate campaign, Elizabeth Dole issued a series of campaign flyers and videos, centering on the fact that her opponent, Kay Hagan, had attended a fundraiser hosted by two atheist lobbyists… a campaign that openly referred to atheists as “vile,” that treated the very existence of atheists as an abomination, and that used language about atheists that would have raised a tidal wave of shock and denunciation around the country if it had been aimed at any other religious group.

And especially in small rural towns, anti-atheist bigotry can turn truly ugly. Being an out atheist means risking ostracism and worse. Out atheist teenagers have been kicked out of public school programs, and then kicked out of public school. Out atheists have been the targets of vandalism and death threats. Even believers can be targeted with anti- atheist ostracism, threats, and vandalism, if they’re perceived as being atheists because of their stance on separation of church and state (such as the anti- intelligent- design activists in Dover, Pennsylvania).

And I’m just talking about the U.S., where atheists are, at least in theory, guaranteed equal protection and freedom of non-religion under the 1st and 14th amendments. I’m not even talking about overt theocracies, where denying the existence of God will earn you a death sentence.

This stuff is real. And there’s a lot more. These examples have barely scratched the surface. We are pissed off for a reason. Please don’t trivialize it.

3: Find common ground.

Religious believers might think there’s no way for them to be allies with atheists. Aren’t atheists trying to do away with religion? How can you be allies with someone who thinks your most cherished beliefs are a myth, and wants to rid the world of them?

Okay. First, not all atheists are trying to do away with religion. Many atheists are fine with religion, as long as it’s respectful of people who don’t share it. They just don’t believe it themselves, and just want to be left alone to give what they have to the world and to practice their lack of faith in peace. If all religions minded their own business, if religions didn’t have the depressingly common habit of demonizing people who don’t agree with them and shoving themselves down everybody else’s throat… most of us wouldn’t care about it very much.

Second: Even the atheists who would like to see religion disappear, and who are actively working to make that happen, still passionately support religious freedom. We don’t want to make religion disappear by law, or coercion, or even social disapproval. We want to make religion disappear by persuasion. We want to convince people, in an open marketplace of ideas, that religion is mistaken. Even the most strongly and rudely anti- religion atheists I know are passionate in their defense of religious freedom, and of people’s right to believe whatever crazy bullshit they want as long as they don’t inflict it on other people.

And even though atheists obviously think religion is a mistaken idea about the world, and believers obviously don’t… well, we don’t have to agree about everything to work together. Atheists and progressive believers have a lot of common ground: a passionate support of religious freedom, a fervent belief in the separation of church and state, an intense respect for diversity. The fact that we don’t agree about the existence or non-existence of God doesn’t mean we can’t work together on issues we share.

4: Speak out against anti-atheist bigotry and other forms of religious intolerance.

If you’re white, it’s important to speak up about racism. If you’re male, it’s important to speak up about sexism. If you’re straight, it’s important to speak up about homophobia. Etc.

And if you’re a religious believer, it’s important to speak up about anti-atheist bigotry and ignorance. Familiarize yourself with the common myths about atheism and the truth about those myths (see above)… and when you hear someone repeat the myths, speak out.

Common ground5: Be inclusive of atheists.

Remember that not everybody is a religious believer. And I don’t just mean that not everybody belongs to a traditional religious organization. Many people have no religious or spiritual beliefs at all. So if you’re talking to a group, don’t ask people to pray. Don’t talk about “our Creator.” Don’t talk about the spirit that moves within all of us. I don’t have a creator, and I don’t have a spirit, and I don’t pray.

If you want to talk about your own religious beliefs, then please, by all means, go ahead and do so. Say that you’re going to pray. Tell us about your creator. Talk about the spirit that moves within you. But don’t assume that everyone you’re talking to shares your beliefs, or indeed has any religious beliefs at all. Don’t — as a commenter in this blog observed at a No on Prop 8 rally — talk about the wonderful work churches are doing for your movement, and the wonderful work being done by people who don’t go to church but still believe in God, and neglect to mention the people who don’t believe in God but still passionately support your cause. In the same way that (I hope) you try to remember that there are probably people in your audience who aren’t white, or college-educated, or able-bodied, or whatever, please try to remember that there are probably people in your audience who aren’t religious or spiritual.

(And don’t do fake inclusion, either. Saying, “No matter what your religious beliefs or lack thereof are, let’s all pray or meditate,” is like saying, “No matter what your religious beliefs are, let’s all give thanks to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” No matter how good your intentions are, it’s not inclusive. It’s a back-handed slap.)

6: Don’t divide and conquer, and don’t try to take away our anger.

Don’t divide us into “good atheists” and “bad atheists” based on how vocal or angry we are. Don’t say things like, “Well, you seem reasonable — but that Richard Dawkins and that Christopher Hitchens, they’re just so mean and intolerant!”

I hope I don’t have to tell you about the ugly history of dividing activists for social change into “the good ones” who are polite and soft-spoken and easy for the privileged power structure to get along with, and “the bad ones” who are angry, rabble- rousing trouble- makers. I hope I don’t have to explain about the not- no- subtle message behind it: “We’re fine with you as long as you don’t speak up too loudly, and don’t make us too uncomfortable, and don’t ask for too much.”

Like every other movement for social change I can think of, the atheist movement has its more diplomatic members and its more confrontational ones. And like every other movement for social change I can think of, the atheist movement needs both. It’s more powerful with both. Both methods together work better than either one would work on its own.

Besides, we all know that Hitchens is an asshole. It’s not news to us.

7: If you’re going to accuse an atheist or an atheist group of being intolerant — be careful, and make sure that’s really what they’re being.

Atheists often get accused of being intolerant for saying things like, “I don’t agree with you,” or, “You haven’t made your case,” or, “I think you’re mistaken — and here, exactly, is why.” Atheists often get accused of bigotry when, in fact, they’ve been very careful to criticize specific ideas and actions rather than insult entire classes of people. Atheists often get accused of being close-minded for firmly stating their case and saying that, unless they see some good evidence or arguments to the contrary, they’re going to stand by it. Atheists, as Richard Dawkins recently pointed out, often get accused of being insulting or hateful for discussing religion in the kind of language that is commonly accepted in political opinion pieces or restaurant reviews.

It’s totally fucked up. Please don’t do that.

Here’s the thing. Atheists see religion as (among other things) a hypothesis about the world: an explanation for how the world works and why it is the way it is. We think that, as such, it should be willing to defend itself in the marketplace of ideas, on an even playing field. And we see the “criticism of religion is inherently intolerant” trope as one of the chief ways religion avoids having to do that. It totally gets up our nose.

As someone whose name I can’t remember recently said: Religion has been discussed in hushed tones for so long, that when people talk about it in a normal tone of voice, it sounds like we’re screaming. But most of us are not screaming. Most of us are talking in a normal tone of voice… for the first time in our lives.

8: Do not — repeat, DO NOT — talk about “fundamentalist atheists.”

If you think an atheist or an atheist group is being intolerant, or bigoted, or close-minded, then by all means, say that they’re being intolerant or bigoted or close-minded. But please, for the sweet love of all that is beautiful in this world, do not call them “fundamentalist atheists.” The “fundamentalist” canard makes most atheists want to scream and tear our hair out. It’s a problem for three reasons:

1: It’s inaccurate. Atheists do not have a text or a set of basic principles to which they strictly and literally adhere… which is what the word “fundamentalist” means. (See “common myths about atheists” above.)

2: It perpetuates the myth that atheism is just another form of dogmatic religious faith… which it most emphatically is not. (Again, see “common myths about atheists” above.)

3: It divides the atheist movement into the “good” ones and the “bad” ones: the good ones who keep their mouths shut, and the bad ones who speak their opinions loudly and firmly. (See “don’t divide and conquer” above.)

Think of the phrase “fundamentalist atheist” as an epithet. If you insist on using it, you should expect that no atheist will listen to anything else you say.

Finally — and I think this may be the hardest for a lot of people, especially in the LGBT community:

9: Be aware of how religious belief gives you a place of mainstream and privilege.

This is a lot less true for believers in minority religions, like Jews and Muslims in the U.S. But even though the specifics of your belief marginalize you, the fact that you have belief at all does give you some privilege that you may not be aware of.

The assumption that everyone believes in some sort of God is so widespread as to be practically invisible. And the assumption that morality must stem from religious faith is incredibly pervasive. Many religious believers — even the more hard-core ones, maybe especially the more hard-core ones — are more trusting of other religious believers whose beliefs they don’t share than they are of atheists. (Look again at “what it’s like to be an atheist” above… and look again the Gallup Poll about how atheists are considered less qualified to be President than any other group that was polled about.)

And if you are a Christian? Forget about it. If you are a Christian in the United States, then — when it comes to this particular area of the “privilege/ marginalization” palette — your Christianity puts you squarely in the “privileged mainstream” category. Christians are in the clear majority in the United States, and they are in the clear mainstream of politics and culture. You’re not being thrown to the lions anymore. You haven’t been thrown to the lions for almost 2,000 years. You are in the group that is running the show.

And that’s fine. That doesn’t make you a bad person. When it comes to the “privilege/ marginalization” palette, most people have some of both. I am privileged as a white person, a college- educated person, a middle- to- upper- middle class person, a more or less able bodied person, an American. I am marginalized as a woman, a queer, a bisexual, a fat person, an atheist. And my privileges don’t confer wickedness onto me, any more than my marginalizations confer virtue.

But my privileges do confer some responsibilities. They confer the responsibility to educate myself about the experiences of marginalized people, and the myths about them. To speak out against bigotry, even and especially when it isn’t against me. To not assume that everyone is just like me. To remember that passionate anger is as important to a movement as gentle diplomacy. To learn what kind of language people prefer when talking about them, and what kind of language totally sets their teeth on edge. (Which is just good manners anyway.) To tread carefully when I’m criticizing marginalized people, and to make sure I know what the hell I’m talking about.

And to not act like a victim when my privilege is questioned, or indeed simply pointed out.

Hand_shakeI do think progressive movements — the LGBT community, as well as others — should be making alliances with the atheist movement. If for no other reason, I think it’s a smart choice pragmatically. Like I said yesterday, the atheist movement is just beginning to get off the ground, and it’s already come very far in a very short time, both in terms of numbers and in terms of visibility. IMO, in the coming years and decades, it’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. You want to get in on the ground floor here, people.

And it’s also, you know, the right thing to do.

If you want to do that, I think this is a good place to start.

What do you think?

Addendum: I have, alas, had to turn off the comments on this post, as the comment thread has gone both completely off-topic and completely toxic. I’ve opened a new post — How To Be An Ally with Atheists: The Actual Thread — for anyone who wants to discuss the actual topic of this post. (And yes, I am all too aware of the irony of this particular post being the one where the comments went toxic.)

Important note: Please do not use the new comment thread to revive this original shut-down thread. Any attempt to do so will result in being banned from this blog. Thank you.