Eleven Myths and Truths About Atheists

A different version of this piece was published on AlterNet. This is the slightly longer, full-length version. For space reasons, I had to keep the original list limited to 10. This list goes to 11.

Scarlet letterMaybe you’ve read it. 10 Myths — and 10 Truths — About Atheism. Sam Harris’s famous op-ed piece for the L.A. Times. An attempt to clear up the most common misunderstandings about atheists.

The piece is a good idea. But something about it bugs me. Specifically, it bugs me how much time Harris spent dissing religion. Don’t get me wrong — I think religion deserves criticism. But here, I think it’s inappropriate. If you’re writing a piece saying, “Here’s who we are, and why the myths about us are incorrect,” IMO you shouldn’t go off on a “Here’s why the rest of you are losers” tangent. It’s not persuasive… and it’s seriously off-topic.

So I’m writing my own version. (Very much riffing off Harris’s, and with all due credit to him.)

100_percent1: Atheists are 100% convinced that there is no God, as blindly faithful as religious fundamentalists.

Atheism means different things to different atheists. But for the overwhelming majority, it doesn’t mean being 100% certain that there’s no god. It means being certain enough. It means we’re as certain that Jehovah or Allah or Ganesh don’t exist, as we are that Zeus or Thor or the Flying Spaghetti Monster don’t exist. (I’ve read and spoken with hundreds of atheists… and have encountered exactly two 100 percenters.)

Atheists aren’t saying, “We’re 100% convinced that there’s no god, nothing could persuade us otherwise.” Atheists are saying, “We’re not convinced. The arguments for God are weak and circular; the evidence falls apart under close examination. Show us better evidence or arguments, and we’ll reconsider. Until then, we’re assuming that God doesn’t exist.”

Further reading:
The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely
The 100% Solution: On Uncertainty, And Why It Doesn’t Matter So Much

The atheist2: Atheists are immoral: without religion, there’s no basis for morality.

I could argue against this a hundred ways. I could argue that mature morality takes responsibility for its choices, instead of blindly following someone else’s rules… an argument many theologians also make. I could point out that even believers are selective about their religious teachings, deciding for themselves which make sense, and which are appalling or ridiculous. I could point out that religion isn’t a reliable foundation for morality… Exhibit A being gross ethical violations by religious leaders, from Jim Bakker to Osama Bin Laden. I could link to current research on the neurological/ evolutionary basis of morality.

But mostly I want to say this:

Look around you.

This myth is patently untrue on the face of it. Atheists aren’t killing, stealing, raping, cheating, at any greater rate than believers.

Look at countries in Europe, like France and England and Scandinavian countries, where non-believers are half or more of the population. They’re not disintegrating into crime and chaos. They’re doing pretty well, and they treat each other pretty well, with a strong sense of social responsibility.

And look at individual atheists. Oliver Sacks. Carl Sagan. Dave Barry. Andy Rooney. Ira Glass. Milan Kundera. Tom Lehrer. Barry Manilow. Katharine Hepburn. Richard Feynman. Barbara Ehrenreich. Ted Williams. Atheist cops, soldiers, firefighters. The person down the street from you who mows the lawn for the old lady next door. Are all these people cesspools of selfishness and immorality?

Unless you indulge in circular reasoning — unless you think anyone with different religious beliefs is immoral by definition — you have to acknowledge that atheists are as moral as anybody else.

Further reading:
Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor

Depression3: Atheists are angry and unhappy, with no meaning to their lives, and no hope.

Again, I could go on for days about why this is wrong. I could talk about how meaning doesn’t have to come from religious tradition… and how there’s plenty to hope for other than an afterlife.

But again, I mostly want to say:

Look around you.

Spend some time talking with atheists about something besides religion. Books, say. Music. Science. Their spouses or lovers. Their kids. Their friends. Careers. Hobbies. Political activism. Volunteer work. You’ll find lives every bit as rich, full, complex, connected, transcendent, satisfying, meaningful, and full of hope, as the lives of religious believers. We don’t need religion to have meaning and hope. We have hope, for our own lives and for the world. And we create our own meaning.

(Yes, many atheists get cranky when they argue with believers. Especially online. Surprise, surprise. Like no other marginalized group gets cranky engaging with the mainstream… and like losing it on the Internet is an atheist monopoly.)

Further reading:
Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence
For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour
Atheism and Hope

Mean girls4: Atheists are disrespectful, intolerant, and mean.

Sometimes. What with us being human and all.

But all of us? Even most of us? As a defining trait?

And more than religious believers? Really? (I know, I wasn’t going to get snarky about religion here… but can you really look at the grotesque intolerance so many believers have inflicted, on atheists and one another, and still argue that atheists are the big meanies?)

Okay. Snarky mini-rant over. Here’s where I think this myth comes from.

Atheists see religion as just another hypothesis about how the world works. We decline to treat it with more respect than any other opinions, theories, philosophies. We decline to treat its writings with more respect than any other books, its leaders with more respect than any other political or community figures. We think this special treatment unfairly armors religion against legitimate criticism. Besides, we don’t see any reason for it.

But religion has long been treated with special deference, getting a free ride in the marketplace of ideas. And believers are accustomed to this… so accustomed that questions and criticism seems like the grossest disrespect. As commenter Lynet wrote in another blog: People are so used to whispering around religion that an everyday voice sounds like a shout.

(I think this myth also crops up because these conversations are often on the Internet… where, alas, many people are more disrespectful, intolerant, and mean than we are in person. The next time you think atheists are being unusually disrespectful, read the conversations on the political blogs. Or, for that matter, the celebrity gossip and sports blogs.)

Further reading:
Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions

Whine5: Atheists are whiny.

And again: Sure, some of us. Sometimes. What with us being human.

But first, see above, re: what atheists are like when we’re not debating believers on the ‘Net. We’re mostly pretty happy, and grateful for what we have.

And second:

Demanding justice is not whining.

And progressives, of all people, should not be calling it that.

Very few people are arguing that anti-atheist bigotry is as serious as, say, racism or sexism. But atheists have legitimate grievances. And many of our biggest grievances aren’t about how believers treat atheists. They’re about how believers treat one another.

A common weapon against any social movement is trivialization. Women demanding equal rights are being hysterical; people of color are being emotional; LGBT people are being selfishly sybaritic. And atheists are being whiny.

It’s a “Shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s not meant to address atheism. It’s meant to silence it.

Further reading:
Atheists and Anger

Vogue6: Atheists are just being trendy.

Yes, atheism is everywhere now. In bookstores, on the news, in the blogosphere.

Just like gay people were in the early ’90s. African-Americans in the late ’60s. Women in the early ’70s.

There’s a point in any major social movement when it reaches critical mass. It gathers adherents and sympathizers, who become more visible and vocal… a process that’s self- perpetuating. The movement picks up steam. It can no longer be ignored.

At which point the mass media has a collective “WTF?” freakout. Who are these atheists (gays, African-Americans, women), and where did they come from all of a sudden? Like we haven’t been here all along.

Does that make atheism trivial? A fad, something people do to be cool?

Of course not. No more than being queer is.

Coming out as atheist is often a big deal. It can mean losing friends, being cut off from family. It can mean getting threatened by neighbors or kicked out of school, losing job opportunities or custody of your kids. And it often means a major upheaval in how you see yourself and your life. People don’t do this to be trendy. People do it to be true to themselves.

Further reading:
Godless is the New Black: Is Atheism Just a Trend?

Angry scream7: Atheists are just angry with God, or with religion. They’re angry about abuses in religious organizations; about actions of God that they don’t understand; or because God puts restrictions on them that they don’t like.

Uh… no.

Atheists aren’t angry with God, any more than we’re angry with Zeus, unicorns, or the Tooth Fairy. We don’t believe in God. You can’t be angry with something that you don’t believe exists.

It’s true that many atheists are angry about fraud, oppression, and brutality committed in the name of religion. (Many believers are, too.) And it’s even true that, for some atheists (although certainly not all of us), the journey out of religion started, at least in part, with anger. The realization that religious leaders were lying to them; the growing awareness that religion doesn’t offer what it promises; the sense that if God really existed he’d be a sadistic bastard… any or all of this can be the first crack in the foundation of religious belief, the first glimmer of understanding that religion is the emperor’s new clothes.

But it’s completely backwards to say that these people rejected religion because they were angry with it. It’s the other way around. They were angry with religion because they were rejecting it. Religion isn’t like a jerk boyfriend or lousy boss that you walk away from when they tick you off. People don’t reject religion because they’re mad at it. People reject religion because they become convinced that it isn’t supported by the evidence and doesn’t make sense.

As to the myth that atheist reject God and religion because we’re angry about its rules and restrictions… see #2 above, the myth that atheists have no morality. It’s just flat-out not true. Atheists have no more problem with the restrictions of morality than believers. We just want that morality to have a rational basis.

Further reading:
Atheists and Anger

Scarecrow8: Atheists are arguing with straw men: they criticize the ugliest, stupidest, most simplistic, most outdated versions of religion, and ignore the thoughtful, complex forms of serious modern theology.

First, this isn’t true. Many atheists have read serious theology. I was a religion major in college: okay, 25 years ago, but a lot of it stuck. And I’ve read more since becoming an atheist blogger. As have other atheist writers.

But second, and more to the point:

So what?

Most atheists don’t give a rat’s ass about religion as it’s practiced by a handful of theologians. We care about religion as it’s widely practiced in the real world. And that includes many versions of religion that are outdated, simplistic, stupid, and ugly… and richly deserving of criticism.

Further reading:
In Defense of Atheist Blogging
Hypocrisy and the “Modern Theology” Argument

Stalin9: Atheists are responsible for the worst crimes in history: Stalin, Mao, etc.

I don’t know why this keeps getting trotted out. It’s not like the so-called “new atheist” movement is running around saying, “Stalin was keen!” But I see it a lot, so I’m going to address it.

Here’s the problem. The Stalin argument basically goes, “Stalin was responsible for the murders of tens of millions of people. Stalin was an atheist. Therefore, all those murders can be laid at the feet of atheism.”

By that logic, you could argue that Nixon was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Vietnam; Nixon was a Quaker; therefore, all those deaths can be laid at the feet of Quakerism.

It makes no sense.

A sensible version of the Stalin argument has to look, not at every death and imprisonment and such that Stalin caused, but at the ones explicitly done in the name of atheism, to suppress religion.

I’m not a Russian historian, and I don’t know what that number is. I do know it isn’t zero. I’m not arguing that atheists are immune from human evils, including brutal megalomania.

But that number isn’t sixty million, either.

The essence of the Stalin argument — apart from “guilt by association” — is that atheism inherently causes great evil. And that’s just silly. There aren’t many openly non-theistic world leaders — what with the rabid stigma against us — but there have been some. Helen Clark, New Zealand Prime Minister, 1999 – 2008: open agnostic. Robert (Bob) James Lee Hawke, Australian Prime Minister, 1983 – 1991: open agnostic. Bill Hayden, Governor-General of Australia, 1989 – 1996: open atheist. And Winston Churchill called himself agnostic.

England under Churchill. Australia and New Zealand in the last two decades. Not exactly Stalinist dictatorships.

And who knows how many other world leaders were/are non-believers, but couldn’t/can’t be open about it?

Yes, some megalomaniacal tyrants have been atheists. Many have been believers. And both atheists and believers have been decent, functioning world leaders. The Stalin argument proves nothing. It’s a red herring, and a scare tactic.

Further reading:
Red Crimes

Professor_frink10: Atheists think science belongs to them; atheists treat science as their religion.

It’s true that believers can be good scientists. No atheist I know would argue otherwise.

But there’s a reason atheists care about science, and use it so much in our arguments. And it’s not because science is our religion, or that we follow it without question. It’s not even because we think science has disproven religion (although it has dispatched many specific religious beliefs).

Atheists care about science because science provides an alternate method for understanding reality. Science isn’t primarily a set of theories and facts: science is primarily a method, one that sorts good information from bad, useful theories from mistaken or useless ones. Science is a method for perceiving the world that relies, not on authority and intuition, but on rigorous examination of evidence, and a willingness to question any theory. When it comes to understanding the world, science offers an alternative to religion: not merely different answers, but a different way of asking questions.

Science doesn’t disprove religion. It simply makes it unnecessary.

Which is why it’s relevant to atheism… and why atheists care about it so much.

Further reading:
What Does Science Have To Do With Atheism?

Monocle-man11: Atheists think they’re superior.

And again, I say: Some do. What with them being human. Thinking you’re better than the people you disagree with is unfortunate… but it’s hardly unique to atheists.

But more to the point:

There’s a huge difference between thinking you’re better than people you disagree with… and thinking that, on one particular issue, you’re correct, and people who disagree are mistaken.

Religion has been armored against criticism for so long, people are shocked when they hear it at all. And because religion is so personal, many believers can’t distinguish between criticism of their ideas… and insults to the core of their being.

They hear atheists saying, “You’re stupid and I’m superior”… when atheists are actually saying, “I don’t agree with you.” Or, “You haven’t made your case.” “There’s a flaw in your thinking.” “What evidence do you have to support that?” “Your evidence and arguments are weak — do you have anything better?

Thinking you’re right, and trying to convince people you’re right… that’s not arrogance. That’s the marketplace of ideas. As long as you’re willing to consider that you might be wrong — and you get that being right about X doesn’t make you right about Y and Z — thinking you’re right isn’t arrogance. It’s no more arrogant to think you’re right about religion than to think you’re right about public policies, or scientific theories.

This is just another “Shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s an attempt to make atheists look bad simply for making our case.

Further reading:
Defending the Blasphemy Challenge
“Evangelical” Atheism, Or, Is It Okay to Try to Change People’s Minds?

*

If you want to criticize atheists, individually or as a movement, please do. We’re not perfect, and the current incarnation of our movement is fairly young, with all the flaws of a young social movement.

But don’t spread lies about us. Don’t fearmonger about us. Don’t assume that you know who we are without listening to what we have to say.

And don’t criticize us in ways that are just meant to shut us up.

Thanks.

Frittatas

It’s been a while since I’ve done a food post, and since I recently revived this recipe and put it back into my rotation, I thought I’d share it with the rest of the class.

FrittataFrittatas are, IMO, one of the great unsung food items. They’re easy, they’re quick, they’re portable, and they’re massively versatile. You can eat them hot, warm, or cold; you can eat them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner; they’re good in summer or winter; you can carry them in a lunchbox or a picnic basket. And you can put just about anything in them — so you can personalize them to your own preferences, or use them to clear out bits and pieces from your fridge.

Here’s my recipe. Except I’m not sure it could be called a “recipe,” exactly. It’s more of a broad concept.

What you’ll need:

EggsEggs (duh).

Stuff that you’d like to have in a frittata. (I told you this was versatile.) Peppers, onions, olives, sausage, asparagus, tomatoes, mushrooms, ham, spinach, peas, corn… pretty much any sort of vegetable, or any sort of meat. I’ve made frittatas with potatoes (more on that in a moment); and while I haven’t yet made this myself, I’ve heard tell of frittatas being made with day-old cooked pasta.

An ovenproof skillet. A non-stick one is ideal — if you have something like a good Calphalon pan that can be put in the oven, that’s what you want — but any skillet that can be put in the oven will do. Cast iron is classic, but in my experience it’s hard to get a frittata cleanly out of a cast iron pan. Pretty much any size is fine: you can make little frittatas, or big ones.

Oil or butter.

Salt and pepper.

How to make it:

Heat your oven to 375 Fahrenheit.

Take the eggs out of the fridge and let them come to room temperature. (You never, ever, ever want to cook cold eggs if you can possibly help it. Cooking cold eggs makes them rubbery.) For a little pan, like a 7″, four eggs will probably be enough; for a 10″ pan, I use six; for a bigger pan, eight or ten.

Put oil or butter in your skillet, and heat it up. (Less if you’re using a non-stick pan; more if you’re not.)

VegetablesTake the stuff that you want to put in your frittata, and put it in your skillet. If it needs cooking, cook it: it won’t cook for very long in the frittata itself. (If it doesn’t need cooking, just warm it up a bit.) Sautee your onions or peppers or sausage or whatever, until they’re pretty much as cooked as you like. (You can also roast your veggies instead of sauteeing them if you prefer.) IMO, veggies and stuff should be cut up into smallish dice, since the frittata will be hard to eat otherwise. If you’re going to do potatoes, slice them very thinly, and sautee them until they’re crispy and golden brown. If you’re going to use tomatoes, cut them up and drain out the liquid and seeds on paper towels first; otherwise, your frittata will be soupy. Onions are extra-good if they’re caramelized.

“How much stuff?” I hear you cry. You want enough stuff that the skillet will be full to about halfway up… but not so much that it’s packed solid. When you pour the eggs in, you want a fair amount of the egg to filter down around the veggies and whatnot to the bottom of the pan.

Eggs 1Beat your eggs lightly (they should be thoroughly mixed but not frothy). You don’t add milk or anything; just eggs, plus salt and pepper to taste. Turn the heat down to medium low, and pour the eggs into the skillet. (If you aren’t using a non-stick pan, make sure there’s butter or oil on the sides of the pan as well as the bottom before you put in the eggs. If you are using a non-stick pan, this doesn’t hurt, but it isn’t as big a deal.)

Cook on the stovetop at medium low until the bottom is set but the top is still runny. The time will vary depending on how big a frittata you’re making, but it should only be a few minutes. (About 5 minutes for a 7″ pan; a bit more for a bigger one.)

When the bottom is set but the top is still runny, put it in the oven at 375 Fahrenheit, and cook until it’s completely set. Again, the time will vary depending on how big a frittata you’re making, but it should only be a few minutes. Just keep an eye on it. (About 3-4 minutes for a 7″ pan; a bit more for a bigger one. I told you this was quick.)

If you want the top browned, stick it in the broiler for a minute. If you like cheese, grate it on the top at the broiler stage.

Calphalon12inchSkilletTransfer it to a plate. This is the point where you realize why I keep gassing on about non-stick skillets. If you’re using cast iron, you’ll probably need to slide a butter knife around the edges to loosen it before doing this, and it still may not come out all that pretty. You can also say “Fuck it,” and serve it directly out of the pan. Let it rest for a minute, then slice it into wedges like pizza, and serve.

Have fun! And if you make any interesting or unusual or especially tasty versions of this, let me know, as I’m always looking for ideas.

Sweet basil book(Credit for the broad concept — namely, “cook on the stovetop until the bottom is set, then put it in the oven at 375 until it’s done” — goes to the lovely book Sweet Basil, Garlic, Tomatoes, and Chives: The Vegetable Dishes of Tuscany and Provence.)

Is All Porn the Same? The Blowfish Blog

Gingerbread menI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s a defense of porn against the criticism that it’s an inherently tedious, cookie- cutter art form; that because there aren’t that many ways for people to have sex, porn is automatically going to be repetitive. It’s titled, Is All Porn the Same?, and here’s the teaser:

First, and at the risk of being snarky: If you think there are only a handful of ways for people to have sex, then I feel sorry for your partners. There is quite a bit more variety available in sex than a few standard variations on fucking and sucking. Read any good general sex guide, like The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex or The Guide to Getting It On, and you’ll get a sense of the tip of the iceberg. Or take a look at the entertainingly long list of adult movie genres available for rent at Bluedoor.com. (Admittedly, many of these genres refer to technical formatting and plot devices and whatnot… but there are more than enough sexual options to keep an enterprising couple busy for a good long time.)

But second, and far more importantly:

What makes porn interesting isn’t that it comes up with some new and different sex act, or some new combination of previously known sex acts.

What makes porn interesting is that it comes up with new ways to look at sex.

To find out more about what I think makes good porn interesting — and why porn is no more likely to be repetitive than writing/ film/ art about any other topic — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Blog Carnivals!

CarnivalBlog carnivals!

Humanist Symposium #34, at Atheist Revolution.

Carnival of the Godless #113, at Daylight Atheism.

Carnival of the Liberals #87, at Blue Gal.

Philosopher’s Carnival #88 at Kenny Pearce.

Skeptic’s Circle #108 at PodBlack Cat (with audio- visual aids, no less!)

And last but not least, a newish carnival on a fascinating and richly important topic: Skeptical Parent Crossing #6, at Rational Moms.

Happy reading!

Trying To Get People To Think

If you’ve been on the Internets for more than ten seconds, you’ve probably heard someone in a discussion or debate say this:

“I’m just trying to get people to think.”

ThinkerIt’s such an innocuous- sounding phrase. I mean, if you’re in a discussion or debate, presumably you’re there because you want to think. You want to be intellectually stimulated. You don’t want to just hold your ideas in your own private bubble: you want them to be questioned and challenged, strengthened and clarified if they’re solid, modified or demolished if they’re weak. Sure, you’re there to persuade other people that you’re right… but in theory at least, you’re open to being persuaded that you’re wrong.

And yet, the “I’m just trying to get people to think” trope drives me up a tree. It drives almost everyone I know up a similar tree. I’m trying to figure out why.

Partly, I think, the trope drives people up a tree because it’s almost always used to defend positions that are outrageous, insulting, or just flat-out stupid and wrong. But I think there’s more to it than that. So I’ve been thinking about this trope, and trying to nail down what exactly is so messed- up about it.

ConflictFirst: There’s enough genuine conflict in the world, without manufactured conflict being thrown into the mix.

See, here’s the thing. People who are sincerely explaining and defending positions that they sincerely hold… those aren’t the ones who say, “I’m just trying to get people to think.” “I’m just trying to get people to think” is something people say when they either:

a) sincerely hold a position, but aren’t willing to be held accountable for it;

b) have been cornered on the indefensibility of their position, but aren’t willing to admit they were wrong;

c) don’t know what they think, but aren’t willing to acknowledge that;

and/or d) are just trying to get people worked up for their own entertainment.

And there’s enough conflict in the world between people who disagree on positions they sincerely hold, without adding in manufactured conflict from people defending positions they don’t sincerely hold… or that they do sincerely hold but aren’t willing to take a stand for.

Devils_advocateNow, it’s certainly true that rhetorical questions, and thought experiments, and the playing of devil’s advocate, are important and time- honored parts of the thought and debate process. But when people are asking rhetorical questions/ positing thought experiments/ playing devil’s advocate, they generally announce that that’s what they’re doing. It’s one thing to say, “Okay, I’m playing devil’s advocate here… but isn’t it theoretically possible that men and women have different intellectual capabilities? How certain are we that this isn’t true? Is this hypothesis consistent with the evidence? If not, why not?” It’s another to say, “Men and women have different intellectual capabilities” … and then watch people react angrily, to both your initial statement and your subsequent arguments for it… and then try to weasel out of it by saying, “I’m just trying to get people to think.”

ScreamPeople often don’t do our best thinking when we’re angry. Sometimes anger can’t be avoided — in disagreements on important topics that we have strong feelings about and that have serious impact on our lives, it’s almost guaranteed. Sometimes anger is useful and valuable: it can convince people that an issue is important, or motivate people to take action. But even people like me who see the value in anger still understand that it can interfere with clear thinking. And there’s enough serious crap and real conflict already in this world for people to be angry about. There’s no need to insincerely and manipulatively make people angrier than they have to be… in the name of “getting people to think.”

You know what gets people to think? Considering genuine, sincere alternatives to their ideas, offered by smart people who disagree with them. Being poked with a stick doesn’t get people to think. It just gets people to react.

Which brings me to my next problem:

Second: It’s a violation of the conversational contract.

Stuff-of-thoughtI’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s latest book on language, The Stuff of Thought. (Good book, btw: somewhat tough sledding in the first half, but it gets a lot more fun and engaging in the second half, and even the tough- sledding stuff is interesting and worthwhile.)

And one of the things he talks about is the linguistic theory that, when people talk, we make a set of assumptions about the intentions of the person we’re talking with. The conversational version of the social contract, if you will. We assume, for instance, that people aren’t saying much more than they need to, or much less. We assume that what people are saying is relevant to what’s being discussed. And we assume that people are sincere: that even if they’re mistaken, they sincerely mean what they’re saying, and believe it to be correct. According to this theory, these assumptions aren’t just social niceties: they are essential for language to function. They are deeply woven into the way that language works. Without them, communication breaks down.

Now, these assumptions are often honored in spirit, even when they’re not honored in the letter. When we use irony or sarcasm, or conspicuously leave out information we’d normally include, or exaggerate for comic effect, we break the letter of these communication rules — but we do it to communicate something else, something that isn’t being spoken directly. (Example: When somebody asks how your blind date went, and you reply, “He had very nice posture,” the fact that you’re focusing on irrelevant trivia while omitting the most obviously pertinent information is actually speaking volumes.)

Liar liarBut when people break these rules without the intent of communicating something else — when they break them for no reason other than to gain personal advantage — we get angry. We feel betrayed. Lying for personal gain is the obvious example… but even if we haven’t been overtly lied to, when people break these communication contracts, we still pretty much feel lied to.

And I would argue that “I’m just trying to get you to think” breaks the sincerity clause of the communication contract.

When you take a position in a debate — especially when you take a provocative position that is likely to upset people — people assume that you sincerely hold that position. When it turns out that you don’t — or that you do, but lack the courage to either defend your position or admit that you’re wrong — people don’t feel like they’ve been inspired to think. They feel like their chain has been yanked.

And they’re right. It has been. That is one yanked chain.

Which brings me to my third, and final, and most important problem with the “I’m just trying to get you to think” trope:

Three: It is so totally fucking arrogant.

TWO WAY TRAFFIC1Conversations and debates are generally assumed to be a two- way street. There are obvious exceptions, of course — when your teacher gives you information, when your boss gives you an instruction, when a cop gives you an order. But in online forums and blog comment threads and whatnot, the assumption is that we’re all in this together; that we’re all trying to think our ideas through and reach the truth; that we’re all on the same level. (A blog or forum host gets a small degree of privilege in our own spaces — we get to set the topics, and through comment policies and such we get to set the tone — but when it comes to the actual discussion and debate, we’re down there wrestling in the mud with everyone else. Which is exactly as it should be.) Regardless of whether a conversation is cooperative or adversarial — regardless of whether we’re pals trying to think something through together, or opponents fighting fiercely to change each others’ minds — the assumption is that we’re all more or less equals, playing by the same rules on the same muddy playing field.

SuperiorThe “I’m just trying to get you to think” trope assumes nothing of the kind. It assumes superiority. It assumes that the person saying it is speaking from a position of superior wisdom and intelligence. It is an attempt to place the speaker in the position of a teacher or a guru; the one person in the group who is responsible for getting everyone else to clarify their thinking.

And they’re placing themselves in that position without having earned it… and without it being consented to.

In a free and equal society, we sometimes consent to give other people some kind of authority. We consent, within reason, to let a teacher impart one-way information to us and to guide our thinking… on the theory that they have specialized knowledge and training. We consent, within reason, to let cops enforce our laws… on the theory that laws are meaningless without enforcement. We consent, within reason, to let a boss tell us what to do… on the theory that the company will fall apart if nobody’s running the show. (Or, if we don’t consent to that, we join a collective or start our own business.)

Actually_i_am_the_queenBut in a group discussion or debate, the person who’s “just trying to get people to think” has essentially taken that authority upon themselves. They have set themselves above the rest of the group; appointed themselves teacher and guru, the leader of other people’s thinking. And they have done so without the consent of the group that they’re participating in… and without doing any of the hard work that earns someone a position of genuine intellectual authority.

No wonder they piss people off.

Sex — The Great Exception

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Why should sex always be the exception?

From laws about free speech to social rules about polite conversation… why is sex the exception?

Mapplethorpe perfect momentYesterday, in a piece about censorship and the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe art exhibit, I talked about how William F. Buckley was offended by sadomasochistic sex: so offended that he equated it with the Holocaust. I talked about how intensely offensive I found this comparison. And I argued that, if people like Buckley are allowed to ban forms of expression that offend them — such as the Mapplethorpe exhibit — then people like me will be able to do the same with forms of expression that offend us… such as Buckley’s repulsive opinions.

And then I pointed out that, of course, the main difference between Mapplethorpe’s photos and Buckley’s words was that Mapplethorpe’s photos were sexually explicit, and Buckley’s words were not. So therefore, in any court of law, my “If he can ban my offensive expression, I should be able to ban his” argument would be laughed out of the room. Sexual speech does have some First Amendment protection — but not nearly as much as it should. Obscenity laws exist, and have been both applied and upheld. Recently, even. When it comes to the principle of free speech and free expression, sexually explicit content is an exception.

Which leads me to today’s question:

Why is sex an exception?

First amendmentThe principle of free speech is interpreted pretty darned broadly in the U.S. But there are exceptions. There are exceptions for false advertising. For violating copyright. For slander and libel. For revealing state secrets. And for talking about sex.

In other words: Sex is seen as being in a category with fraud, theft, character defamation, and treason.

Why?

What — if you’ll excuse my language — the fuck?

The whole idea of “community standards” for obscenity is another perfect example of this principle. Think about it. We don’t allow communities to set standards for any other area of expression. We don’t allow communities to set standards for expression of political opinions or religious beliefs; for musical genres or styles of poetry. But the idea that a community should be able to set its own standards for sexual expression: this, for some reason, is seen as totally normal and entirely reasonable.

Storm squirters 2Thus creating a legal situation that, if my understanding of the law is correct, would otherwise be considered untenable: a situation in which a reasonable person cannot tell ahead of time whether or not they are breaking the law. A porn producer in Los Angeles, whose product may be shipped all over the country, has no way of knowing whether the possession and sale of their video will violate the law in Bumblefuck, Tennessee. They have no way of knowing ahead of time what the legal limits are, so they can stay within them. They won’t know until after the trial. They won’t know what the crime is until after they’ve been convicted of it.

And the “I know it when I see it” obscenity principle is yet another example. Can you imagine a Supreme Court Justice saying, “I don’t know what treason is, but I know it when I see it?” “I don’t know what establishment of religion is, but I know it when I see it?” The whole point of courts is that they’re supposed to tell us what the law means. They’re not supposed to punt the question to “community standards” and to vague intuitions that we all supposedly agree on… except that we don’t.

Barry manilowBut it isn’t just to obscenity laws that this exceptionalism applies. Heck, it isn’t even just laws. We have, for instance, a basic (if sometimes grudging) respect for the idea that different people have different tastes: in music and movies, food and clothing, places to live and home decor and almost every other aspect of life. But not in sex. Differing tastes in sex are still seen as a moral issue, even when they affect nobody but the people having the sex.

And we don’t even feel comfortable talking about sex, the way that — in this chatty, opinionated, “couldn’t shut us up with an industrial vice grip” country — we feel comfortable talking about almost every other aspect of our lives. Even though better information about sex broadens our sexual perspective, making for both better sex lives and greater tolerance of sexual diversity, we are still reluctant to discuss our sex lives with anyone but the people we’re having them with. We’ll talk about deeply personal, powerful things — jobs, family, food, music, drugs, travel, childhood, art, even politics and religion — but not sex. Not in any detailed way. That’s just… different.

Why?

ScreamI don’t actually have a good answer to this question. I do think I may have a glimmer of one: Sex makes us feel irrational, and it’s probably asking too much to expect us to behave rationally about it. Sex is a powerful force in our lives, a fundamental animal drive, and we tend to be irrational about those, to set up essentially random taboos around them to give us a feeling of control. People have a lot of fears about sex… and those fears can be exploited by powerful people trying to make headlines and win elections. And of course, the United States is a country founded in Puritanism, a country in which conservative religion is a powerful force… with both the irrationality and the fear of sex that comes with that territory.

But I don’t really have an answer.

I just want us to pay attention to the question.

I want us notice the phenomenon. Whenever we treat sex as a side of human experience that is set apart, different from all other aspects of human experience and with special rules all its own — or when we see other people treating it that way — I want us to start asking: Why?

And if we don’t have a good answer — if we can’t really come up with a good reason for why sex should be made an exception — I would like us to seriously consider knocking it off.

Offended

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Does a society have the right to protect itself from being offended?

Dirty picturesThe other day, we were watching “Dirty Pictures,” a made- for- TV movie made in 2000 about the Robert Mapplethorpe censorship case in Cincinnati. For those who might be too young to remember: Robert Mapplethorpe was a gay photographer whose work included a certain amount of sexually explicit imagery, including some depictions of fairly extreme sexual practices. In 1990 there was a big kerfuffle when the director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, Dennis Barrie (played in the movie by James Woods), was tried on obscenity charges for displaying the Mapplethorpe photos in his museum.

The movie is good — overwrought in places, but overall thoughtful and interesting, and good at giving the events a human face. And the format is unusual: the basic form is a docu-drama, but it’s interspersed with commentary from real people, from Salman Rushdie to William F. Buckley, talking about the controversy and the issues it raised.

It’s William F. Buckley I want to talk about today.

William_F._Buckley,_JrBuckley was speaking in defense of the prosecutors of the case. He said that a society has the right to decide what it’s offended by… and to protect itself from that which offends it. And at one point he said — I’m going to have to paraphrase here, since I erased the Tivo before I realized I wanted to write about it — that a society can look at sadomasochistic imagery, and at the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and say, “We don’t want this.”

And I was so offended by this statement, it took my breath away.

I don’t mean mock offended. I don’t mean “offended as a useful rhetorical device” offended. I was genuinely, seriously, viscerally offended. I wanted to reach into the television and smack him across his smug little rat face. I sat there, shocked, thinking, “Did he just go on national television and equate consensual sadomasochism with Nazi Germany?”

How dare he.

How fucking dare he.

Consensual sadomasochismIt is, in my opinion, grossly outrageous to equate a sex act between consenting adults that gives them both pleasure with the deliberate genocide of millions. It’s not just offensive to sadomasochists. It’s offensive to people who went through the Holocaust. It dehumanizes the one, and trivializes the other. It was one of the most offensive things I’d heard all month.

And yet at no point in my outrage did I think, “There oughta be a law. He shouldn’t be allowed to do that. There oughta be a law against equating sadomasochism and the Holocaust.”

Why not?

I’m trying to think of a nice way to say, “Because I’m better than him.” I’m failing. Because I’m better than him.

FirstamendmentWhat Buckley failed to realize is that the First Amendment that protects our right to offend one another works for everybody. Him, me, everybody. What he failed to realize is that, if Cincinnati can pass a law saying that an image of a man peeing in another man’s mouth is offensive and can therefore be banned, then San Francisco can pass a law saying that equating sadomasochism with the Holocaust is offensive and can therefore be banned.

I would never try to do that. I refer you once again to the “I’m better than him” principle. But there are some folks on the left who don’t quite grasp the “We can’t ban speech just because we don’t like it” concept. (As I learned when I defended Fred Phelps’ First Amendment right to express his evil, hateful, repulsive opinions… and ran into a bunch of progressives who were all too eager to find loopholes in the First Amendment just so we could nail the bastard.) If we don’t protect speech that offends in Cincinnati, we can’t protect speech that offends in San Francisco.

Apple_pieWhat Buckley failed to realize is something blindingly obvious, something many, many people have said before me: We don’t need the First Amendment to protect the radical assertion that puppies are cute and apple pie is delicious. We don’t need the First Amendment to protect popular speech. We need the First Amendment to protect unpopular speech. We need the First Amendment to protect Nazis marching in Skokie, and war protesters wearing black armbands to school in Des Moines; to protect Fred Phelps when he pickets funerals, and lefty radicals when they burn the American flag. We need the First Amendment to protect Robert Mapplethorpe in Cincinnati… and we need it to protect William F. Buckley in San Francisco.

In other words: We need the First Amendment to protect speech that offends people.

That’s the whole freakin’ point.

Police-Line-TapeNow, many people at this point are going to argue — Buckley himself would probably argue if he were still alive — “Yes… but sex is different. When it comes to sexual expression, we have community standards for what’s acceptable. That’s what was at stake here — a community’s right to define what obscenity is for themselves. Not about politics or religion or art. Just about sex. Because sex is different.”

But I have yet to see any good argument for why sex should be different.

Sex is often seen as different. Sex is often the great exception: to free speech laws, to free enterprise laws, to notions about good manners, to notions of ethics and morality.

But I have yet to see a truly compelling argument for why that should be.

And that’s tomorrow’s piece.

Perpetrators and Victims: Religion and “Marjoe”

So when it comes to the harm done by religion, who are the perpetrators, and who are the victims?

MarjoeIngrid and I were watching the movie “Marjoe” the other day. Fascinating movie, and an absolute must-see for anyone interested in religion. It’s a documentary about an revivalist preacher, Marjoe Gortner, who had been a celebrated child preacher, gaining fame as “the youngest ordained preacher” at age four. By the time he grew up, he no longer believed any of it, and he left it behind for a while — but when this documentary was made, he was back working the Pentecostal revival- meeting circuit, whipping the crowds into a frenzy to scam them out of hundreds or thousands of dollars. He arranged for this documentary to be made, largely to expose the widespread fraud and deceit in this particular branch of religion… and, to some extent, to ensure that he could never go back to this life, a life that was easy and tempting but that he found morally intolerable.

It’s a fascinating movie for a lot of reasons. (FYI, it won the Academy Award for “Best Documentary” for 1972.) But in particular, it reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while; one of the things that makes atheist critiques of religion so complicated and emotionally loaded.

It’s this:

The people who are perpetrating the harmful things about religion are, for the most part, also its victims.

And vice versa.

BiblefireThe people who traumatize their young children with vivid and horrific images of hell were, themselves, traumatized by those horrors. The religious leaders who fill their flocks with close-minded ignorance and hateful bigotry were, themselves, taught that ignorance and bigotry are divine virtues, dearly treasured by God. The people who are warping the sexuality of their kids and teenagers, filling them with guilt and shame over normal healthy feelings, were, themselves, warped in this same way.

And vice versa. The people who were warped and stunted and scarred are now doing the warping and stunting and scarring. The perpetrators are victims: the victims are perpetrators.

Marjoe preacherMarjoe is a perfect example. Until he decided to leave his ministry and make this documentary, he was essentially a pure charlatan: someone who made money off religion and people’s gullible belief in it, without believing a word of it himself. And it wasn’t unconscious self-deception and rationalization on his part; it was entirely conscious. He did things like put a special ink on his forehead to make a cross appear when he started to sweat; he sold “prayer cloths” and other religious swag with the promise that they would provide miracles; and the tricks he used to get people to donate more money were 100% deliberately manipulative. He knew every angle of this scam, inside and out: he talked about it at great length and in articulate detail, and even made jokes about it. If it weren’t for the fact that he made this documentary with the intention of exposing the scam — and of making it impossible for himself to ever return to it — he’d be a thoroughly despicable character.

Marjoe childBut Marjoe himself was very much a victim of this brand of religion. He was brought up into this life; taught how to preach from age three by parents who used his talents to make millions… not a dime of which he ever saw. He was threatened and coerced by his parents into performing: not just with the threat of Satan and hell, but with physical abuse. And he never got a formal education of any kind… so by the time he decided to quit preaching, he was unqualified to do anything else. No, preaching was not a sincere calling for him, it was nothing more than a way to make a living. He didn’t know any other way. How do you switch career paths when you not only don’t have a high school diploma, but have never even gone to school?

Perpetrator, or victim?

Now, let’s look at a different example for a moment. Let’s look at someone who’s clearly closer to the “perpetrator” end of this spectrum. Let’s look at Ted Haggard. Liar. Fraud. Hypocrite. Evil bastard.

And victim.

Ted_haggardIf Ted Haggard had been born and raised into a religion that taught love and acceptance for gay people — or, for that matter, if he’d been born into no religion at all — do you think he’d be the lying, fraudulent, hypocritical, evil bastard he is today? Do you think he’d be quite so full of obvious self- loathing… so full that he had to turn it against others? Do you think he’d have become quite so skilled at mental contortions… so skilled that the contortions just seemed natural, and straightforward thinking seemed like the voice of Satan? Do you think he’d have become quite so adept at the deceit of himself and others… so adept that it became a way of life?

I don’t know. Maybe. Gay people can be brought up in gay- positive households, and still grow up to be jerks. And gay people can be brought up in hatefully homophobic upbringings, and still get themselves the hell out of Dodge. But it’s impossible for me to look at both Ted Haggard and Marjoe Gortner, and not see both of them as both perpetrators and victims. And it’s hard not to think that the main difference is simply that Haggard drank the Kool-Aid. It was Marjoe’s conscious insincerity that ultimately led him to choose moral integrity; it’s Haggard’s apparently unconscious self- deception that’s enabled him to keep living a lie… and to keep passing that lie along to others.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Other than the obvious, namely: What a gigantic clusterfuck. What a huge, messy, impossibly complicated moral and emotional tangle.

Responsible adultI do think that, barring extreme circumstances like mental illness, adults are responsible for their behavior. I’d even argue that the very definition of adulthood is that you don’t get to blame everything you do on your poor sad upbringing. So I’m not saying that every instance of religious fraud, bigotry, and brutality should be forgiven simply because the perpetrator is a victim as well.

But I also think that, when atheists are talking with believers, or when we’re writing stuff that we expect to be read by believers, we need to bear this stuff in mind, and try to have some compassion and empathy even when we’re at our most critical. Especially when we’re dealing with folks who believe in the more damaging versions of belief. I’m not saying we should always play nice and never say harsh truths — far from it. I’m saying that even the worst perpetuators of hurtful religious belief aren’t cartoon villains. They’re human beings, who have been damaged by religion even as they perpetuate that damage. We won’t get far if we don’t remember that.

Circle two arrowsI’m not sure where I’m going with this. But I do know that, for me, thinking of religion this way — as a continually self- perpetuating chain of victimization and perpetration — doesn’t make me less passionate about working to persuade people out of it. If anything, it makes me more passionate. It makes me both angrier and more compassionate — angrier at religion, more compassionate with the religious — both of which fuel my passion as an atheist activist. It makes me more eager to make atheism more visible… so more people can see it as an option, earlier in their lives, when there’s a better chance for the cycle to be broken.

Good In Bed: The Blowfish Blog

BedI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog — about the phrase, and the concept, “good in bed”: what it means, what it implies, what it says about how we view sex, and so on. It’s called, strangely enough, Good In Bed, and here’s the teaser:

What does it mean to be “good in bed”?

This phrase, “good in bed,” has been stuck in my head lately. It’s a phrase I’ve thought about a lot over the years.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t like it.

To find out why the phrase “good in bed” gets up my nose, read the rest of the piece. (And if you have comments you want to post here, please consider also cross- posting them to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

The Sex Meditation Commune at 7 A.M.

Please note: This piece discusses my personal sexuality and sex life. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff, please don’t read this.

So blog reader sav was kind enough to send me this article, which she thought — rightly so — I would find fascinating.

HandIt’s a piece in the New York Times, titled The Pleasure Principle, about a new age commune in San Francisco, One Taste, dedicated to female sexuality… including a form of female- centered group spiritual practice called “deliberate orgasm” or “orgasmic meditation.”

I realize that this article should be fertile ground for me. I should be able to gas on for days about the unsettling connection between woo spirituality and the sex- positive movement. Or about the assumption of heterosexuality in this particular practice. Or, indeed, about the apparent inability of the New York Times to write anything at all about sex without snickering. I may yet do one or all of these things.

But at the moment, I’m finding that I just can’t get past this sentence:

At 7 a.m. each day, as the rest of America is eating Cheerios or trying to face gridlock without hyperventilating, about a dozen women, naked from the waist down, lie with eyes closed in a velvet- curtained room, while clothed men huddle over them, stroking them in a ritual known as orgasmic meditation — “OMing,” for short.

Pertinent phrase: “At 7 a.m.”

At 7 a.m.?

AT 7 A.M.?!?!?

Each day?

Are you fucking kidding me?

SunriseAt 7 a.m., Ingrid can barely drag me out of bed to help medicate the cat. At 7 a.m., I’ve had maybe five or six hours of sleep. On a good night. On a less good night, I’ve had three or four. And even if I’ve been a good girl and gotten to bed at a reasonable hour instead of staying up ’til two writing porn, I am never, ever, ever interested in sex at seven in the morning. I am barely interested in life at seven in the morning. I think the only times I’ve ever had sex at seven in the morning have been times when I’ve been up all night. And while a seven a.m. bonk can be a lovely thing at the end of an all- nighter or an acid trip… well, sadly or blessedly, my days of all- nighters and acid trips are now behind me.

I won’t deny that the thought of being in a room with a dozen other women, with a dozen men fondling our genitals and focusing devotedly on our arousal and orgasm, does have a certain appeal. But the thought of it happening at seven in the morning fills me with unholy dread. And the thought of it happening at seven in the morning every day makes me want to run screaming into the night. The beautiful, beautiful night. More than anything else in this article (which, admittedly, was about as trustworthy as anything else the Times writes about sex, which is to say not very much at all), this single fact has convinced me that this organization is, to put it mildly, not for me.

Smiling sun7 a.m.

They have got to be fucking kidding.