Dream diary, 11/21/09: Terrorist Pizza Party

Pizza I dreamed that I was having pizza with Iranian terrorists. A reporter friend of mine was doing a story on them; she was hiding them in her crawlspace, but they were thinking of coming out and revealing themselves in public. To encourage them to do this, she had a pizza party for them. Ingrid and I somehow got mixed up in this. I was uncertain how I felt about what my friend was doing, but mostly I was uncomfortable trying to make small talk, since the terrorists didn’t speak English very well.

What if People Actually Treated Religion as Just a Metaphor (Like Trekkies and Secular Jews)?

Storybook bible If religion really were just a metaphor, just a comforting and inspiring story that gives shape and meaning to people’s lives… what might it look like?

One of the most common tropes among progressive religious believers is Religion As Metaphor. “Religious beliefs don’t have to be literally true,” the trope says. “They’re just useful metaphors: stories that give shape and meaning to our lives.”

I’m not buying it. I’m not buying it for one simple reason: If religion is just a story, then why does it upset people so much when atheists say it isn’t true? Any more than it would upset a fan of “Alice in Wonderland” if someone told them it wasn’t true?

I’m seriously not buying it. I think the “metaphor” trope is just a disingenuous way for believers to slip away from hard questions about their beliefs. But it’s got me thinking: If religion really were just a story — a story that people found comforting and inspiring, a story that people sincerely knew wasn’t true but still enjoyed telling and re-telling — what would that look like?

And would atheists have a problem with it?

I was debating the other day with a believer who was getting bent out of shape about how religion was just a story people found comforting. People didn’t have to believe religion was literally true for it to make a difference in their lives, he insisted. So why was I being so intolerant and mean and trying to take it away? And it suddenly struck me:

The version of religion he’s talking about?

It’s Trekkies.

*

Thus begins my new blog post up at AlterNet, What if People Actually Treated Religion as Just a Metaphor (Like Trekkies and Secular Jews)? In it, I talk about what religion would be like if it really were just a metaphor, as many progressive believers claim; if it really were just a story that people found inspiring enough to devote their lives to. I look at a community that’s passionately devoted to a story that they know isn’t true — namely, Trekkies. And then I make a somewhat more serious comparison: I look at secular Judaism. and how that community is finding a way to sincerely treat religious traditions and stories as metaphors, without needing to believe in God. To find out more, read the rest of the piece.

BTW: This is the second in a four-part series of pieces on atheism I’m writing for AlterNet. (#1 was The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful.) If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been doing as much blogging lately on my own blog: This series is why. It’s drawing a fair amount of my time. If you’re wondering why I’ve been doing my atheist blogging for AlterNet instead of my own lovely blog: $$$. I’ll be reprinting all these pieces here on my own blog soon; in the meantime, enjoy them on AlterNet!

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Don’t Worship Science

Scarlet letter Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheists do not worship science, logic, or evidence as a religious faith. We simply think that these methods have proven to be the most effective ways of figuring out what is and is not true in the real, non-subjective world. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Tears

Please note: This piece, and the piece it links to, discusses my personal sexual landscape in some detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that, please don’t.

Tears I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog: an exegesis on a somewhat unsettling fetish in a particular kind of fetish porn, and what I think its appeal is. It’s called Tears, and here’s the teaser:

Other standard tropes of spanking porn make more obvious sense to me. The classic implements, the classic outfits, the classic roles being played — they’re mostly pretty straightforward, and they don’t take an expert in semiotics or psychology to analyze where they come from and why people find them hot.

But the crying trope is, at least on the face of it, a little more unsettling. It’s the sort of thing that rabid anti-porn activists point to when they’re trying to prove that all porn actresses are forced into the business, either by financial hardship or at gunpoint. I mean, if the actress in a spanking porno is dressed as an underaged schoolgirl… well, even if you find the fantasy disturbing, you can always remember that this is adults consensually playing out a fantasy they both enjoy, and not actual child abuse. But if the actress or actor is actually crying, the line between “acting out a fantasy” and “genuinely upset” is a whole lot more blurry.

And it occurred to me:

That’s the point.

The point is that it’s real.

Crying in spanking porn is like cum shots in regular porn.

To find out more, read the rest of the piece. (And if you’re inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog as well: they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

Atheist Meme of the Day: Personal Experience /= Data

Scarlet letter Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own.

Personal experience is not, by itself, enough reason to believe something is true. And that’s just as true for religion as anything else. Our personal experience told us for centuries that the sun orbited the earth. To be reasonably certain that what our experience tells us is probably true, we need to rely on rigorous testing of hypotheses. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

“Their First Steps”: Atheism and Patience, Round 2

Why do religious believers visit atheist blogs?

And what should atheists’ response to them be?

Watchtower There was a recent piece on Daylight Atheism that’s got me thinking about this question: a compelling, fascinating, completely excellent guest post, Jehovah’s Witnesses Hate the Smurfs, by former Jehovah’s Witness Sarah Braasch. The main thrust of the piece was simply to describe the abusive craziness of her upbringing — some of it specific to the religion, some of it simply made worse by it — and to describe how she left it, and how it still affects her to this day.

But what’s got me thinking about today’s question is an almost tangential point that came up in the comment thread. I had asked Sarah what atheists could do to make things easier for people who are coming out of religion. I asked, “Is there anything this community could have done that would have made your transition easier? Is there anything we could be doing now that would make it easier on people who are leaving abusive religion?”

Sarah had a number of good answers to that question. But what really jumped out at me was this:

I want to suggest that those folks that like to argue here for the religious viewpoint are making their first steps towards leaving religion.

I know that it’s easy to get upset with them and to lose patience with them. But, I firmly believe that that is why many of them are here. They are testing the waters. They want to be argued out of their beliefs.

I know it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to ignore them or marginalize them as trolls or whatnot. But, one of the reasons that I really like Ebon and his site is because he does show them a little more care and concern and respect than the typical atheism site.

Not all of them, to be sure. But, it’s just something to think about the next time you react to one of them.

Instead of alienating them, we should probably be trying to embrace them. And, assist them along on their path towards complete deconversion.

And it got me thinking:

I think Sarah has a really good point.

I think a lot of religious visitors to atheist blogs (and forums, and Facebook pages, and so on) are making their first steps towards leaving religion.

Skeptical_inquirer When I was leaving my religious beliefs, there weren’t any atheist blogs. (As far as I know, anyway.) But I found the next best thing. I found Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I’m not quite sure why I picked it up in the first place: mostly I was interested in the science and anti-conspiracy thinking and so on. And also I thought Ingrid would like it.

But a big part of why I kept on reading it was that I was testing the waters of my religion, and of letting it go. I wanted to think more carefully about what I believed and why. I didn’t want to believe out of wishful thinking anymore: I wanted to know whether my beliefs were defensible, consistent, supported by evidence or at least not flatly contradicted by it. A lot of what the Skeptical Inquirer talked about — astrology, anti-vaccination hysteria, conspiracy theories, etc. — were issues I was already down with, and I shared their deep value for the willingness to face harsh truths, and for letting reality trump pretty much everything. Plus I had tremendous respect for their careful consideration and rigorous “benefit of the doubt” testing of ideas they clearly thought were bullshit. If my beliefs were going to be anything other than a rationalization of what I wanted to believe, I needed to run them through the Skeptical Inquirer gauntlet, and see where they came out on the other side.

And I think that’s true for a lot of religious visitors to atheist blogs and forums and Facebook pages and so on.

Now, I don’t think that’s the only reason theists visit atheist blogs and whatnot. Some are just hit-and-run evangelists, wanting to spread the word of Jesus or whoever: they’re not interested in what atheists think or say, and they don’t stick around long enough to find out. Some really are just trolls, spoiling for a fight, poking the beehive with a stick just for the fun of it. And some are reasonable believers — still mistaken, I obviously think, but reasonable — who are interested in understanding atheism now that it’s becoming more important, and who want to forge alliances with us on issues we have in common.

Julia_sweeney But I strongly suspect that Sarah is right. I strongly suspect that a lot of the believers visiting atheist blogs are having questions and doubts about their beliefs, and are wanting to test the waters. They’ve always thought their beliefs were reasonable — especially, in the case of progressive believers, compared to the beliefs of the more prominent and obnoxious organized religions. (I’m always surprised at how many believers say, “Oh, your problem isn’t with religion, it’s with organized religion” — and are genuinely surprised when I reply, “Actually, no — I have a problem with all religions, including yours.”) They’ve always thought their beliefs were reasonable — but now, they’re having some doubts. They don’t just want to accept what they’ve been taught/ what they want to believe, and move on with an unexamined life; they want to examine their beliefs and make sure they make sense. (Julia Sweeney leaps to mind.) They’ve heard about atheism — it’s hard not to these days — and this option they’d never seriously considered is now all up in their face, so they want to give it a fair shake.

In other words: They’re proto-atheists. Any formerly-religious atheist knows that these kinds of doubts and questions and investigations are the first cracks in the foundation of faith. These folks — some of them, anyway, maybe a lot of them — are taking their first steps to atheism.

So what does this mean for atheists?

I think it means we have to be patient.

Patience I’ve written before about the need for patience in the atheist movement. I’ve pointed out that, while the same old bad arguments are very old indeed to any atheist who’s been around the atheosphere for more than six weeks, they’re not old to the believers who are making them. They are brand new to them. So yes, we have to keep on pointing out the flaws in the “You can’t prove atheism with 100% certainty” argument, and the “Life and the universe are just too complex to have happened by chance, therefore God did it” argument, and the “Atheism is a faith just as much as religion” argument. Even [deep sigh] Pascal’s Wager. Just like teachers have to keep explaining the same concepts to each new crop of students, we have to keep explaining Atheism 101 to each new crop of visiting believers. (And a lot of the time, there’s a “water on rock” phenomenon: we almost certainly won’t persuade anyone out of religion in just one debate, but that debate plus twenty others with other atheists may wear the rock down.)

Feet So we have to be patient for that reason. But we also have to be patient for the reason Sarah brought up. We have to be patient because many of the believers visiting our blogs and such are taking their first steps out of religion. In fact, the very arguments they’re making are their first steps. The argument are their first steps to thinking of religion, not as a basic axiom that’s assumed to be true, but as just another hypothesis about the world, one that deserves to be treated like any other hypothesis, with the same criticism and questioning and expectation that it support itself with evidence. (Which, as we all know, is the beginning of the end.) Today’s defenders of the faith are tomorrow’s die-hard atheists. Some of them, anyway.

So we have to be patient with them.

Brick Wall Now, to be clear, I don’t think “patience” means “continuing to beat your head against a brick wall indefinitely.” There comes a point in many discussions and debates when you have to be willing to just drop it. (A lesson I have a hard time taking to heart…) If someone just keep repeating the same points over and over; if they deal with your responses to their points by ignoring you and just repeating themselves again; if they keep bringing up red herrings; if they keep changing the subject every time they get backed into a corner; if they seem uninterested in basic rules of logic and evidence; if they keep turning a discussion of actual issues into a meta-discussion of whether atheists even have a right to make our case… it’s okay to bail. All of these gambits are part of religion’s massive armor against legitimate questions and criticism, and it generally takes more than one Internet argument to penetrate it. Part of being patient is knowing when to back off for the moment. Maybe the seeds of doubt will have been planted, and someone else will pick up where you left off. Maybe not. Either way, there’s no law that says we have to pursue every argument to the bitter end. (I’m writing this to remind myself of that as much as anyone else…)

Not a doormat And of course, I don’t think that “patience” means “letting ourselves be doormats.” I think we can and should make our case, and make it firmly. When we get accused of being intolerant, disrespectful, mean bad people just for making our case, we can and should point out why that’s absurd, unfair, and just another way of armoring religion and shutting us up. And I don’t think “patience” means we have to let ourselves be treated with genuinely insulting contempt. I am generally in favor of taking the high road when this happens: if a believer starts hurling personal insults and calling me ugly names, I will usually respond with cold manners rather than sinking to their level. (If for no other reason, so that anyone else reading the thread will see the difference.) But we can take the high road and still stand our ground.

Patience doesn’t mean letting ourselves be kicked around. What it means is remembering that we’re talking to human beings, and treating them as such. It means being rigorously careful about critiquing ideas and beliefs without insulting people. (A lot of believers won’t make that distinction, and will take it very personally when we critique their religion — but we need to be rigorous about it anyway.) It means remembering that it’s not fair to treat people like they’re stupid just because they’re not familiar with the ideas we’re so intimately familiar with. It means keeping in mind how hard it can be to let go of religion. It means remembering that we’re asking people to abandon a form of comfort they’ve relied on for years… and are asking them to make themselves into one of the most hated groups in the world, and quite possibly to alienate their family and friends, while they’re at it.

Open_doorPatience means remembering that the reason many of these folks are here arguing with us is that they’re curious about us — and it means doing our best to keep the door open, instead of slamming it in their face. It means we have to do more than make good arguments for atheism. We have to show why atheism is a safe place to land. And we have to make it a safe place to land, as much as we can.

We have to treat the people we’re arguing with as people who might soon be our side.

Because that’s exactly what they are.

*

And now I want to throw this one out to my readers.

If you are now an atheist and once were not — and if you spent time in atheist blogs and forums and so on before you deconverted — why did you do that? What made you think, “I want to go check out an atheist blog”? And when you did, what did you find helpful or not helpful in your process of deconverting? What (if anything) did you find inviting, and what (if anything) did you find off-putting?

And if you’re a believer reading this blog — why are you here? What makes you interested in reading atheist ideas, and what do you get out of it? I’m genuinely curious about this, and I want to know.

Atheist Meme of the Day: The Right To Make Our Case

Scarlet letter Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own.

“You have no right to make your case” is an argument people make when they don’t have a case themselves. And that’s true of religion as much as anything else. If your anti-atheism argument focuses on why atheists are bad people just for making their case, maybe your case for religion isn’t very strong. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Oh, quick note about Twitter: Some people have asked me to make the Memes Twitter-ready. I think I’m not going to do that: I already have a hard time saying what I want to say in 420 characters for Facebook, without trying to say them in 140 characters for Twitter. But if you want to edit these down to a Tweetable format, I heartily encourage you to do so.

New Fishnet Story: “El Salvador Will Win”

Fishnet logo Fishnet has a new story up! The online erotic fiction magazine I’m editing, Fishnet, has a new story up for you to enjoy. It’s titled El Salvador Will Win, by Howard Jackson, and here’s the teaser:

As she rode him, she found her voice. A stream of Spanish tumbled from her lips, rising and falling with her excitement. Josh could have concentrated to pick out words or phrases, but he was happy to let the cascade of language stay foreign, exotic, mysterious. For all he knew, she was telling him her life story — her role in the civil war, her pain, her loss, her redemption in the arms of a kind stranger. But, truthfully, he didn’t want to know. Knowing so little was part of what made the whole adventure feel like an adventure.

To read more, read the rest of the story. (Not for anyone under 18.) Enjoy!

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Connect with the Universe

Scarlet letter The people have spoken. Enough of you seem to want me to keep posting the Atheist Meme of the Day here every day, so I’m going to go back to doing it. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day:

Atheists are not shut off from the universe. Many atheists experience deep connection with the universe, and a sense of transcendent wonder at its majesty and complexity. We just don’t think those experiences imply anything about God or an immaterial world. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Memes of the Day

Scarlet letter Quick update on my Facebook project, The Atheist Memes of the Day:

Yes, I’m still doing the Memes. I stopped for a few days when my Facebook feed was bolloxed up, but now they’re back.

However, I stopped posting them to my blog every day. It seemed clumsy: it was taking up a lot of room on the blog page, making for a lot of scrolling to get to the more thorough bloggy content. So I thought it might be better to post them to my blog once a week instead.

If there’s a general clamor for me to post the Atheist Memes of the Day here every day, I’ll switch back. If not, I’ll just keep posting them once a week or so.

For those who are just tuning in: I’m doing a project on my Facebook page, The Atheist Meme of the Day. Every weekday, I’m posting a short, pithy, Facebook-ready atheist meme… in the hopes that people will spread them, and that eventually, the ideas will get through. If you want to play, please feel free to pass these on through your own Facebook page, or whatever forum or social networking site you like. Or if you don’t like mine, edit them as you see fit, or make some of your own.

(BTW, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!)

Here are the last few Atheist Memes of the Day:

Our choices for dealing with different religious beliefs aren’t limited to uncritical ecumenalism or fundamentalist theocracy. We can question and criticize religious beliefs we disagree with, while passionately supporting religious freedom and people’s right to believe whatever they like. That’s where most atheist activists are coming from. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

The reason many atheists care what other people believe is that beliefs affect decisions. Including political decisions. Political decisions should be made based on evidence about what works in this world, not on what an invisible being whose opinions we have no way of evaluating supposedly wants in an otherworldly realm nobody can agree about. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across. (Posted the day after same-sex marriage lost in Maine.)

“Believing is a safer bet than not believing” is a terrible reason to believe in God. Which God should we bet on? If we’re believing in God just to hedge our bets in the afterlife, which of the thousands of contradictory religions should we follow? And how would that be sincere belief? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

If there’s no possible way to show that a hypothesis is wrong — if any possible event can be interpreted to confirm a hypothesis — then that hypothesis isn’t useful. And that applies to religion. If anything that happens, bad or good, can be seen as a sign of God’s existence, then God’s existence is indistinguishable from God’s non-existence. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheism doesn’t mean cynicism, nihilism, or despair. Atheists can and do have happy lives, full of meaning and joy, and with comfort and solace in difficult times. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

“Something had to have made the universe, things don’t just make themselves” is not a good argument for God. If things can’t just exist forever or pop into being out of nothing… where did God come from? And if God can have existed forever or come into being out of nothing… why can’t that be true for the universe? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Religion is not just a matter of personal opinion or different perspectives. It’s a hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is. And it’s not unreasonable or intolerant for atheists to treat it as a hypothesis, and to point out when that hypothesis is inconsistent with the evidence. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.