Porn, Relationships, and What It’s Reasonable to Ask For

Deep inside annie sprinkle When you’re beginning a relationship, is it reasonable to ask your partner not to watch porn?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column here about porn. I was writing in response to an advice column by Scarleteen, an answer to a letter from a young woman who was upset because her boyfriend watched porn. I posed the question, “In a monogamous relationship, is it reasonable to expect your partner not to watch porn?” And I concluded that it was not. I concluded that people have the right to watch whatever they want when they’re by themselves and on their own time, and that asking a partner not to watch porn is no more defensible then asking them not to watch reality TV or read true crime. I concluded that trying to regulate your partner’s private cultural pleasures — pornographic or otherwise — is like trying to regulate their imagination.

But some readers thought I’d misread Scarleteen’s advice. They said Scarleteen’s point wasn’t that people have the right to ask their existing partners not to watch porn… but rather that if someone objects to porn, they should spell that out at the beginning of a relationship. And on re-reading the Scarleteen column, I think they’re right. In my defense, the situation I was writing about was, in fact, the situation described in the letter — dealing with an existing partner who watched porn, and trying to decide what to say to them. But I do think I misread Scarleteen’s intention in their response, and for that, I apologize.

So now I’m going to address the position Scarleteen took: that people who object to porn and are beginning to date someone should spell out their position early, and should state clearly that they don’t want to be involved with someone who watches it.

And I’m basically going to stand by my original position.

Which is that this is an unreasonable, overly controlling thing for an adult to ask another adult.

*

That’s an excerpt from my new piece on the Blowfish Blog, Porn, Relationships, and What It’s Reasonable to Ask For. To find out why I think it’s unreasonable to ask your partner not to watch porn on their own private time — even early on in a relationship — read the rest of the piece. (And if you’re inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

Atheist Meme of the Day: All Religion Don’t Teach Peace

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!

It is simply not true that all religions ultimately share the same message of love, tolerance, and peace. Many religions teach hatred, bigotry, and conflict. And these religions are not the exception — they are very common. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Greta Appearing at Wicked Grounds Kinky Comic Carnival, Sat. 1/30

Besteroticcomics2009 Come say hi and mingle with kinky comics creators! As editrix of the Best Erotic Comics series, I’m going to be appearing at the Wicked Grounds Kinky Comic Carnival, this Saturday, Jan. 30, along with Justin Hall, Tristan Crane, Ted Naifeh, Storm, and Serena Valentino. Wicked Grounds is the San Francisco’s first and only kink cafe and boutique, and it’s located in the beautiful and historic South of Market district, at 289 8th Street near the fabled Folsom Street. (FYI, the event is from 2-5… but I’ll be cutting out at 4, so if you want to say Hi, show up by 4.)

Here’s some more details:

WickedgroundsWicked Grounds invites you to join us for an afternoon social that you do not want to miss, a gathering of local artists, writers and comic creators coming together at San Francisco’s first and only Kink Cafe, Wicked Grounds, located at 289 8th Street @ Folsom in San Francisco at 2:00 PM, Saturday January 30th.

So please join Justin Hall, Tristan Crane, Ted Naifeh, Storm, Greta Christina, Serena Valentino, and the lovelies at Wicked Grounds, to have a cup of tea or coffee as well as some of their other scrumptious offering while you sample our creative wares Saturday, Jan 30th. We will all have an assortment of our work available for purchase, and we will of course be available to sign them, that is, if you fancy that sort of thing.

Justin Hall is an award-winning comic book creator best known for his series True Travel Tales, Glamazonia the Uncanny Super Tranny, and the gay porn Hard To Swallow Comics. His work has appeared in the Houghton Miflin Best American Comics, Boy Trouble, Best Erotic Comics, and the S.F. Bay Guardian, among others.

STORM is a San Francisco based writer, artist, oracle & doll shaman. He sells funny books at the Isotope Comic Book Lounge & reads X-Men Tarot at Swankety Swank. His one of a kind art dolls and mini-comic Princess Witch Boy are for sale at etsy.com. STORM believes that in a perfect world, Iman would have played Ororo Munroe in the movies. Visit his blog.

Serena Valentino has been weaving tales that combine mythos and guile for the past ten years with her work on the comic book series GloomCookie and Nightmares & Fairy Tales published with SLG Publishing. Nightmares & Fairy Tales: 1140 Rue Royale has earned her critical acclaim in both the comic and horror domain, where she is known for her unique style of storytelling, bringing her readers into exquisitely frightening worlds filled with terror, beauty and extraordinary female protagonists. Among her other projects, Serena is currently writing a horror screenplay with writer/director Phil Flores (of the Butcher Brothers), as well as three new graphic novels, Enchanted, Blackbird the Pirate Queen and Hells Café and has writtena novel for young adults for Disney Press based on the Wicked Queen from Snow White entitled Fairest of All, now available in all major bookstores. Visit her website.

Tristan Crane is a San Francisco based writer and photographer. Tristan’s writing has appeared in the recent ‘Comic book Tattoo’ project from Image comics, his first book ‘How Loathsome’ was released in 2004 to many reviews and general muttering; a second graphic novel, ‘InVisible’ with artist Rhea Silvan was published by Seven Seas early in 2009. As a photographer, Tristan specializes in erotic portraiture, bondage sessions, documentary-style photojournalism, and enjoys collaborating with a wildly diverse cast of models.

Greta Christina… oh, you know who I am. But here’s my bio for this event: Greta Christina is editor of the annual “Best Erotic Comics” series, published by Last Gasp Books and Comics, where she has worked for seven years. She has been writing about sex since 1989, and has had sex writing appear in numerous magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, including Ms., Penthouse, On Our Backs, AlterNet, and three volumes of “Best American Erotica.” She blogs about sex, atheism, politics, and other polite dinner- table topics at the cleverly- named Greta Christina’s Blog.

After making a name for himself drawing Serena Valentino’s Gloomcookie in 1999, TED NAIFEH went on to produce several popular all ages comics. The spooky adventure series Courtney Crumrin follows a grumpy little girl whose great uncle Aloysius draws her into a dark world of witchcraft and creatures that go bump in the night. Courtney Crumrin has been optioned by Dreamworks to be made into a motion picture. Polly and the Pirates tells the tale of prim and proper Polly Pringle, who gets kidnapped by pirates, only to discover her own natural, possibly inherited propensity for swashbuckling. Ted also lent his artistic skills to a comic adaptation of the videogame Death Junior, about a little boy whose father is the Grim Reaper. More importantly, Ted co-wrote and illustrated How Loathsome with Tristan Crane. A stylish, sexy exploration of the alternative lifestyle underground of San Francisco, How Loathsome explores gender, community, and how they affect identity. Currently, Ted is illustrating The Good Neighbors, an urban fantasy YA graphic novel series by New York Times best-selling author Holly Black, about a teenage girl who realizes that she’s half faerie. Volume 3 of the series will appear in October, 2010.

Hope to see you there!

The Plausible Fantasy

Important note: This piece discusses my personal sex life and my sexual fantasies, in a fair amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff, please don’t read this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Thought_bubble Does anybody else do this?

There’s this thing that I do sexually. It’s kind of funny, but it’s also kind of irritating, and at times it drives me nuts. So I’m wondering if anyone else does it… and if so, how they deal with it.

It’s this:

I seem to be incapable of having sex fantasies that are implausible.

I’m not talking about supernatural or sci-fi sex fantasies and my general disinterest therein. I’m talking about perfectly ordinary, non-fantastical, physically possible sex fantasies… in which people simply don’t act the way they would in real life.

Alyson_hannigan_3 Examples. If I’m trying to have a fantasy about having sex with a famous person, I first have to come up with a backstory: not only about how we met, but about why, among all the people in the world who are probably throwing themselves at this person, they would pick me. (That’s probably why my “famous person” fantasies tend to be about only moderately famous people rather than global superstars. Supporting actors on cult TV shows; obscure alternative musicians; big fish in small ponds. Alyson Hannigan, yes. Madonna, no.)

If I’m trying to have a fantasy about someone I know, and in real life that someone is in a monogamous relationship, I first have to come up with an excuse for why it’s ethically okay. The couple is experimenting with non-monogamy, or the other partner is watching, or they’ve given their blessing as a one-time birthday dispensation, or something.

If I’m trying to have a fantasy about having kinky sex in the bathroom of a particular cafe, I first have to come up with some explanation for why the other cafe patrons aren’t getting irritated at us for hogging the bathroom.

Wicked grounds That’s actually the one that’s been bugging me lately, the one that inspired me to write this piece. There’s a lovely new kink-themed cafe in San Francisco, Wicked Grounds, with a lovely bathroom very suitable for a kinky tryst. So I was having a fantasy about meeting someone at the cafe to negotiate a scene, and spontaneously deciding to go do it right then and there in the bathroom. But because this bathroom is the only one in the cafe, and having sex there for more than five minutes would definitely constitute hogging it, the fantasy got totally bogged down in this stupid detail. I finally had to switch it to a fantasy where we ask a cafe worker if we can play in their storage room. (And she says yes, of course… but only if she can watch. Which is a perfectly wonderful fantasy. But it’s not the same as the fantasy about getting spanked in the cafe bathroom. I still have not successfully had the fantasy about getting spanked in the cafe bathroom.)

Severus Snape And even when I do have supernatural sex fantasies — as with my surprisingly persistent Snape fantasies — I still have a need for something resembling plausibility. I don’t much care that magic isn’t real; I don’t even care that my fantasies are wildly inconsistent with the canonical storyline. But I do care if my fantasies aren’t internally consistent: either with the core personality of the character in the books, or with themselves. As the religious apologist Karen Armstrong might say, I don’t need the story to be literally true… but I need it to be psychologically true.

And if it’s not psychologically true? If I can’t convince myself that my friend’s partner would really give their blessing to our one-time birthday tryst? If I can’t convince myself that Alyson Hannigan would really stumble across my blog, become a fan, introduce herself at a reading, and ask me to be the customer in her long-time prostitute fantasy? If I can’t convince myself that nobody in the Wicked Grounds cafe is going to need the bathroom for the entire forty-five minutes that my date and I are hogging it?

Then I can’t have the fantasy.

Really.

Shift_stick I have to switch gears. I have to find a plausible twist on this one, or else switch to a different fantasy entirely. Otherwise, I’ll spend my entire whack-off session in my head instead of my clit: tinkering with my story, finding holes in it, editing it and re-editing it, and eventually either abandoning it or having a puny, detached, not terribly satisfying orgasm.

I’m even like this in my sex dreams. More than once, I’ve had dreams in which I almost have sex with someone I shouldn’t… but we decide it’s a bad idea, and don’t. (And then I wake up, totally frustrated with myself, going, “It was a dream! Nobody would have gotten hurt! I could have done it, and enjoyed it, and not had any reason to feel guilty!”)

Now, the plus side of this ridiculous habit is that, IMO, it’s one of the main reasons I write good porn. (Assuming you agree that my porn is good.) My bone-deep reflex to come up with plausible sex fantasies, sex fantasies with rich, complex characters and believable backstories… this carries over to the fantasies I decide are interesting enough to flesh out in print.

But I still have to wonder:

What the fuck?

Pensive_Boater They’re fantasies, for fuck’s sake. The whole point of fantasies is that they’re not real, and don’t have to be. The whole point of fantasies is that they’re for my enjoyment, in the entirely consensual privacy of my own head. That’s the whole point of having a fantasy about getting spanked in the cafe bathroom, instead of actually doing something. And if I enjoy thinking about getting spanked in the cafe bathroom, then I should be able to enjoy thinking about getting spanked in the cafe bathroom… without worrying about whether actually getting spanked in the cafe bathroom would be an unacceptable breach of cafe etiquette.

But that’s just the point. Fantasies are for my enjoyment… and if they’re not plausible, I don’t enjoy them. If they’re not plausible, I can’t get lost in them. I can’t get immersed in them to the point where they feel real. With a good fantasy, once I’ve built the foundation, once I’ve sketched out the characters and the situation and the backstory, I can forget about it, and just play the images in my head. And the richer and more real the characters/ situation/ backstory are, the more deeply and thoroughly I can savor those images. If there’s no plausibility, that immersion just doesn’t happen.

So again, I’m wondering:

Does anyone else do this?

And if so, how do you deal with it?

Atheist Meme of the Day: Death and the Good Luck of Being Born

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!

Atheism does have comfort to offer in the face of death. Among other things, it offers the idea that we are extraordinarily, astronomically lucky to have even been born in the first place — and this good luck far outweighs the bad news that we’ll eventually have to die. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

How Atheists Can’t Win

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

No win situation In conversations between atheists and believers, is there any way atheists can win?

I’ve been in a lot of discussions and debates with religious believers in the last few years. And I’m beginning to notice a pattern. I’ve been noticing the ways that believers put atheists in no-win situations: the ways that, no matter what atheists do, we’ll be seen as either acting like jerks or conceding defeat.

Like so many rhetorical gambits aimed at atheists, these “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” tactics aren’t really valid criticisms of atheism. They really only serve to deflect valid questions and criticisms about religion. But they come up often enough that I want to spend a little time pointing them out. I want to spell out the exact ways that these “no-win” situations are both unfair and inaccurate. And I want to point out the general nature of this “no-win” pattern — in hopes that in future debates with atheists, believers will be more aware of them, and will play a little more fairly.

Pat robertson When atheists focus our critiques on conservative or extremist religions, we get accused of ignoring the tolerant progressive ones, and lumping all religions together. But when we do criticize progressive or moderate religions, we’re accused of mean-spirited overkill, of alienating people who could be our allies.

Why this is untrue and unfair: It doesn’t make much sense to assume that the atheist critique of religion you’re reading that moment is the only atheist critique of religion this writer has ever come up with. Most atheist writers who criticize religion do so many times, and from many angles. We critique extremist fundamentalism, and moderate ecumenicalism. We critique specific religious beliefs and practices, and the general belief in the supernatural. It’s not “lumping all religions together” to point out the flaws and hypocrisies and evils committed by one in particular.

So if we’re writing about the harm done by gay-hating fundamentalism or the pedophile- enabling Catholic Church, please don’t complain that we’re “lumping all religions together.” We’re not talking about your religion. We did that last week.

And yes, we can criticize progressive religions and still be their allies on issues we agree on. Just like any movement can be critical of other movements and still work with them as allies.

Islam crescent moon star When atheists criticize Christianity, we get accused of being cowards for not criticizing Islam. But when we criticize Islam, we get accused of cultural insensitivity.

Why this is untrue and unfair: And I say yet again: It’s neither fair nor reasonable to assume that the atheist critique you’re reading right that second is the only one this atheist has ever written. If an atheist is criticizing Christianity today, that doesn’t mean they didn’t criticize Islam last week.

Most American atheists do focus our attentions largely on Christianity — mainly because it’s the religion that’s most in our face on a daily basis. But I don’t know of any serious atheist writer who hasn’t criticized Islam. I certainly have. I’ve criticized Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, fundamentalist Christianity, progressive Christianity, Hinduism, Wicca, Baha’i, and that religion that worships a blue peacock. To name but a few.

As for cultural insensitivity in criticizing Islam… well, given how Islam and Islamic theocracies have historically treated women and gays, I’d call it culturally insensitive not to criticize it. I agree that some atheists can be racist, xenophobic jerks (especially on the Internet — the Internet does seem to bring the racist, xenophobic jerks out of the woodwork, from every group). But to slam as “culturally insensitive” any criticism of Islam as it’s widely and commonly practiced… that’s pretty freaking insensitive to the people who are victimized by it.

Case_for_god When atheists focus our critiques on ordinary religious beliefs held by the majority of people, we get accused of ignoring advanced modern theology and focusing on outdated beliefs that nobody takes seriously anymore. But when atheists do argue against modern theology, we get accused of elitism. What’s more, when we argue against Modern Theologian A, we’re accused of ignoring Modern Theologian B… and when we argue against Modern Theologian B, we’re accused of ignoring Modern Theologian C… in an infinite regress of movable goalposts.

Why this is untrue and unfair: Most atheist activists don’t care very much about religion as it’s practiced by a handful of modern theology scholars. If all religion were the religion of modern theology scholars… well, we still wouldn’t agree with it, but we probably wouldn’t bother putting much energy into arguing with it.

We care about religion as it’s believed and practiced by the overwhelming majority of people who believe it. By definition, those beliefs are not outdated. A belief in a personal interventionist creator god who answers prayers and doles out punishment and reward in the afterlife… that is not an outdated belief. It’s what most believers believe in. Even belief in faith healing, demonic possession, magical objects and substances… these are still widespread, around the country and around the world. Heck, nearly half of all Americans believe in young-earth Creationism. When atheists battle these beliefs, we are not fighting straw men. We are fighting real beliefs and practices, with real effects on people’s lives.

And as it happens, many atheists are familiar with modern theology. And we’re really not impressed. How much of it do we have to read before we’re allowed to conclude that it makes no sense?

Scarlet letter When atheists attempt to present an organized, unified front, we get accused of being Stalinist group-think robots. But when we’re honest about disagreements among us, we get derided and dismissed for the supposed “schisms” that are supposedly dooming our movement to failure.

Why this is untrue and unfair: I am so tired of hearing about the “schisms” in the atheist movement, I could plotz. Look. We don’t have a central dogma or organization to split away from. We’re a diverse movement with lots of differences among us… and we don’t view that as a weakness. We view it as a great strength.

Besides… how does this make us different from any other movement for social change? In all of history, I can’t think of any other social change movement that hasn’t had internal disagreements: disagreements large and small, disagreements over minor tactics and over major values and goals. Sometimes movements set aside these differences to focus on what everyone agrees on; sometimes they focus on these differences and try to hammer them out. And sure, sometimes that hammering-out process results in pointless in-fighting… but sometimes it results in real progress.

And in particular, the difference between firebrand confrontationalists and polite diplomacists — the supposed “schism” in the atheist movement that the news media has been pissing itself over — has existed in every single social change movement I can think of. And while it can be a source of tension, it can also very much work in our favor — for the same reasons that every other social change movement in history has been able to play “good cop, bad cop” to their advantage.

The atheist When atheists say we don’t believe in God, we’re told that we can’t possibly be moral people. But when we make our morality clear in word and deed, many believers insist that we must be spiritual or religious or following God unconsciously — even if we deny it.

Why this is untrue and unfair: Talk about an unfalsifiable hypothesis! If any act of morality gets seen as an act of spirituality by definition, is there any possible way atheists can prove that we genuinely don’t believe in God? Do we have to eat babies or push little old ladies in front of buses to prove that we’re not religious?

To say that ethical atheists must be motivated by religion is a classic case of assuming the thing you’re trying to prove. And it’s completely unfalsifiable: no possible evidence could show that it’s wrong. If atheists behave ethically, that somehow proves that we’re really religious; if we behave badly, it somehow proves that atheism is inherently bad and leads people away from morality. It couldn’t possibly be that atheists are just human beings — mixes of good and bad, some tilted more in one direction than others. And it couldn’t possibly be that our lack of belief in any sort of god is entirely sincere.

Manusingmicroscope As long as we don’t know exactly how organic life began from non-life, then atheists’ conclusion that life almost certainly began as physical cause and effect will be called blind faith in materialism. But if we can replicate abiogenesis (the origins of life from non-life) in the laboratory — something that’s expected to happen in the next few years — this will be seen as proof that life had to be intentionally created. After all, it required people working in a lab for decades to make it happen!

Why this is untrue and unfair: This one drives me up a tree. The conclusion that life almost certainly began as a chemical process is not blind faith. It’s a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence. The overwhelming body of evidence supports the conclusion that life is a physical, biochemical process, developed into its current state of complexity and diversity by the natural process of evolution. It is reasonable to conclude that this phenomenon began as a physical, proto-biochemical process.

And when/ if abiogenesis does get replicated in the lab, that’s hardly proof that life had to be designed. I’m sorry, but that’s just silly. Natural processes get replicated in the lab all the time. We grow mold in Petri dishes — does that mean mold can’t occur naturally?

Soapbox If atheists don’t offer specific arguments and evidence supporting atheism, we get told, “See? Atheism is just as much a matter of faith as religion.” But when we do provide evidence and arguments for our position, we get accused of proselytizing.

Why this is untrue and unfair: Sometimes when atheists write about atheism, we take God’s non-existence as a given. Like pretty much everyone else in the world, we don’t always want to discuss first principles; we sometimes want to move on to other topics, such as movement strategy, or the dissemination of critical thinking skills, or who’s the sexiest atheist. We’ve made the “God doesn’t exist” argument elsewhere, and we don’t want to recap it every single time. That doesn’t make atheism an article of faith. It makes it a conclusion that we’ve reached and are moving on from. (If you really want to know what our evidence and our arguments are for our non-belief, we can usually point you at something.)

As for the accusation that we’re proselytizing: All too often, the word “proselytizing” gets tossed around when what’s really meant is, “attempted persuasion by people I don’t agree with.” Persuasion is not proselytizing. And if you insist that it is, then you’ll have a hard time explaining what’s so bad about it.

Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there’s no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it’s just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses… and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it’s mistaken. It’s persuasion. It’s the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride?

100_percent If atheists admit that they can’t be 100% certain of God’s non-existence, believers pounce on that fragment of uncertainty, and atheism gets accused of being as much a matter of faith as religion. But if atheists insist that they are 100% certain that God does not exist (or as close to 100% certain as anyone can be), then believers pounce in that certainty… and atheism gets accused of being as much a matter of faith as religion.

Why this is untrue and unfair: This is one of my pet peeves. It’s just so transparently unfair. We don’t apply the “absolute 100% certainty” standard to any other type of conclusion. If we conclude that the cat is somewhere in the house even though we can’t see it, or that there isn’t a pink pony behind our sofa that teleports to Guam the minute we look back there, or that the earth is orbiting the sun, nobody insists that these conclusions are articles of faith just because there’s an infinitesimal hypothetical possibility that we might be wrong. These are seen as reasonable conclusions, based on the available evidence.

So when atheists say, “No, I’m not 100% sure that there is no God, there’s almost nothing that we can be 100% sure of — but so what, we can still make reasonable conclusions about what’s probable and plausible based on the available evidence, and all the evidence we have now points to God not existing, so I feel confident in rejecting the God hypothesis unless I see better evidence”… that doesn’t make our atheism an article of faith. And when other atheists say, “Yes, I’m 100% sure that there is no God: the fragment of hypothetical possibility that God exists is so insignificant that it’s not even worth considering, I’m 100% certain that there are no leprechauns or unicorns — or as close to 100% as anyone could reasonably expect — and I see no reason to treat God any differently”… then again, that doesn’t make their atheism an article of faith.

The only thing that would make atheism a true article of faith would be if atheists said, “Nothing you could possibly say, nothing I could possibly see or experience, no evidence you could possibly provide me, could ever convince me that my atheism was wrong. My belief in the non-existence of God is an a priori assumption: it is unshakable, as constant as the Northern Star.” And I have yet to encounter an atheist who says that.

Finally — and maybe most crucially of all:

Speech balloon When we speak out in any way about our atheism — and when we continue to organize, and to make ourselves and our ideas more visible and vocal, and to generally turn ourselves into a serious movement for social change — we get accused of being hostile, fanatical, rude, evangelical, bigoted, and extremist.

But if we don’t speak out, if we don’t organize, if we don’t forge ourselves into a powerful and visible movement… then the bigotry and misinformation and discrimination against us will continue unabated.

Why this is untrue and unfair: We really can’t win on this one. Even the most mild forms of atheist activism and visibility result in believers accusing us of disrespect, intolerance, and forcing our beliefs on others. If we do something as mild and unthreatening as putting up bus ads saying “You can be good without God” or “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone,” you can bet good money that plenty of believers will get worked up about how those terrible atheists are insulting Christians and other believers. The purest act of visibility — the simple act of standing up and saying out loud, “Atheists exist and are good people” — gets treated as another example of the offensive, dogmatic, in-your-face extremism of the atheist movement.

But here’s the skinny:

There has never once been a marginalized group who has won recognition and rights by sitting back and waiting politely for it to happen. There has never once been a marginalized group who has won recognition and rights by doing anything other than speaking out, organizing, making themselves visible and vocal. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

So you’ll have to forgive us if we take the accusations of our offensive, dogmatic, in-your-face extremism with something of a grain of salt. You’ll have to forgive us if we listen to the concerned advice from believers about how our confrontational tactics are alienating people and we need to dial it back… and respond by giving it the horse laugh, and continuing to do what we’ve so successfully been doing. You’ll have to forgive us if we treat the attempts to quiet us down as attempts to shut us up.

If you have a valid critique of a particular atheist or atheist idea, by all means, speak up. And if you have what you think is a valid critique of the atheist movement as a whole, we’d be interested to hear about it. We’re not perfect, and we don’t claim to be.

Silence means security But please make sure your criticisms are fair. Please make sure your criticisms don’t just put us into a rhetorical box, where we can’t win no matter what we do. Please make sure your criticisms are a genuine attempt to engage with atheists and the atheist movement… and not just an attempt to stop the conversation and make us go away.

Thanks to Jesse, Jennifer, Tom, Tinna, Other Tom, Other Jennifer, Aaron, Shawn, Jon, Justin, James, Liz, and Robert for their help with this piece.

Atheist Meme of the Day: People Act on Their Beliefs

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!

“What do you care what other people believe?” is not a good argument against atheist activism. What people believe affects what they do — in ways that affect other people. Mistaken beliefs lead to poor decisions… decisions that don’t just affect the person making them. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Part of the Show: Atheist Transcendence at the Edwardian Ball

I had one of my atheist epiphanies the other night.

Edwardian ball 2010 It was at the Edwardian Ball. Quick bit of background: That’s not Edwardian as in King Edward VII, but as in the artist Edward Gorey, known for his finely detailed, hilariously ghoulish depictions of Victoriana, Edwardiana, and ’20s flapperdom. The Edwardian Ball started years ago as a little nightclub gig held in honor of Gorey by the self-described “pagan lounge” band Rosin Coven, and has mushroomed into a massive, magnificent, weekend-long event, with live music, ballroom dancing, costumes, art, exhibitions, absinthe cocktails, trapeze performances, weird taxidermy displays, and more. It’s where the Goth, steampunk, ballroom, and historical recreation society scenes collide in a magnificent explosion, and it seems to have become one of the “can’t miss” events for all these cultures in the Bay Area.

I love it passionately. Ingrid and I never miss it if we can possibly avoid it. And last night, I had an epiphany about why.

The Edwardian Ball is a near-perfect example of what I think of as the atheist meaning of life.

When you don’t believe in God or an afterlife — when you don’t think that the meaning of your life is determined by a perfect divine force, and when you think that humanity is just a tiny, fragile, absurdly mortal fragment in the immensity of space and time — you have to seriously rethink the whole question of what life means. The meaning of life isn’t pleasing God and going to Heaven, or perfecting your soul for your next reincarnation, or working towards the enlightenment of the World-Soul, or anything like that. And humanity isn’t a singularly beloved creation with a special destiny. We’re just an unusually complex biochemical process on one small rock whizzing around one nondescript star in one of billions of galaxies. And when that star goes Foom in a few billion years, that biochemical process is destined to go Foom along with it, with no traces left but a few bits of space junk floating in the vast emptiness of the universe.

The Edwardian Ball looks at all this, and says, “Let’s celebrate.

“And let’s connect.

Edwardian ball 3 “Let’s spend hours putting together magnificent outfits, so other people can look at them and go ‘Oo!’ Let’s spend years learning and practicing and playing music, so other people can dance and be happy. Let’s spend years learning and practicing and performing trapeze and acrobatics, so other people can gaze in astonishment and admiration. This is what we have to work with: the matter on this little planet, the energy from this average star, this tiny lifespan before each of us dies, this not- much- longer lifespan of the planet before humanity is boiled into space. What can we do with it? What are some of the strangest, funniest, most beautiful patterns we can work this matter and energy into before we have to go?”

The Edwardian Ball is one of my favorite examples of Stone Soup culture; of people who know that the party will be more fun if they bring their share of it. It isn’t just about hearing other people’ music, watching other people’s stage shows, looking at other people’s art. Everywhere I looked, people were dressed to the nines: in rigorously accurate historical costumes, in fanciful imaginings of fictional history, in elegant formal dress, in irreverent and hilarious re-interpretations of formal dress, in complicated technological marvels, in artfully lascivious displays of flesh, in elaborate configurations of black on black on black. And people were dancing, creating a delightful whirlpool of giddy, ridiculous glamour whizzing around the dance floor. The audience was as much a part of the event as the performers. This event is not about sitting back passively and waiting to be entertained. It’s about participating — being part of the show.

Which is exactly what I think of as the atheist meaning of life.

Roy batty tears in rain When I’m in a despondent mood, I sometimes get depressed about the “closed circle” nature of human endeavor. I’m not naturally a very Zen, “in the moment” kind of person; I’m ambitious, forward thinking, and I like to think of my affect on the world as possibly having some life beyond my immediate reach and extending past my death. It sometimes makes me sad to remember that, even if I mysteriously became the most famous and influential person in the history of the planet, it’s still a closed circle — because life on Earth is a closed circle, and there’s no God or World-Soul to carry my thoughts and experiences into infinity. Like the replicant Roy Batty says in Bladerunner: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

Edwardian ball 9 The Edwardian ball reminds me, “So what? So what if you’re spending hours on your outfit just to be seen and admired by a couple thousand other people, whose outfits you’re also admiring? So what if you’re working to make life a skosh more joyful for people who’ll be dead in a few decades anyway, and whose descendants will be boiled into the sun in a few billion years? Don’t those people matter? And don’t you matter? The odds against you personally having been born at all are beyond astronomical. Beating your breast in despair because you’re going to die someday is like winning a million dollars in the lottery and complaining because it wasn’t a hundred trillion. You’re here now — and those other people are here now. Experience your life… and connect with theirs. Even if it’s just to spend a moment admiring the marvelous outfit they spent hours putting together.”

The Edwardian ball reminds me that permanence is not the only measure of consequence or value. The Edwardian ball reminds me that, as fragile and transitory as they are, experience and consciousness are freaking miracles. And the fact that we can share our experiences and connect our consciousnesses, even to the flawed and limited degree that we do, is beyond miraculous.

Let’s participate. Let’s be part of the show.

And here’s the final thing that struck me this year about the Edwardian Ball: All this celebration and magnificent silliness isn’t done by ignoring death.

Evil_garden Quite the contrary. Images of death are all over the Edwardian Ball. There are elaborate dioramas of animal skeletons and bizarre examples of the art of taxidermy. There are skulls and other death symbols incorporated into costumes all over the dance floor, and into the art all over the theater. The stage show this year was an elaborately costumed acrobatic/ trapeze interpretation of Edward Gorey’s “The Evil Garden”… a story in which the characters are strangled by snakes, eaten by carnivorous plants, and carried off by giant moths.

This event is not about dealing with death by pretending it isn’t real or shoving it onto the back burner. This is about dealing with death by transforming it into art, and costume, and ghoulish humor. This is about dealing with death as if it were an urgent To Do reminder. This is about dealing with death by incorporating it into life.

I’m not saying everyone who attends or creates the Edwardian Ball is an atheist. It would surprise me tremendously to find that that was true. I’m saying that for me, as an atheist, the meaning of life is to participate in it as fully as I possibly can; and to connect with others as richly as I can; and to minimize suffering and maximize joy to the greatest degree that I can, for myself and anyone I can connect with. Sometimes that means staying up until four in the morning writing about atheism and sex. Sometimes it means singing the James K. Polk song to my best friend’s new baby. Sometimes it means doing copywriting and website maintenance for a hippie/ punk/ anarchist publisher and book distributor. Sometimes it means cramming twenty people into our apartment for a sit-down Christmas Eve dinner. Sometimes it means going to see our friend’s co-worker’s band as a dutiful favor, and becoming obsessed fans overnight (how we discovered Rosin Coven in the first place). Sometimes it means donating money to earthquake relief in Haiti.

Greta edwardian ball 1 And sometimes it means dressing up like a character in an elegantly ghoulish fictional world, drinking absinthe cocktails, and waltzing the night away with my beloved wife, in a ballroom full of taxidermied animals and beautiful nerds who spent hours on their costumes.

I think I can live with that.

Related posts:
Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen
Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence
For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour
Why Are We Here?

Atheist Meme of the Day: Popularity /= Truth

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!

“Most people believe in religion” is not a good argument for why religion is true. At one time, most people believed that the sun revolved around the earth. That didn’t make it true. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Friday Cat Blogging: Violet and Physical Therapy

And now, a cute picture of our cat.

Violet on stretching mat

Violet has recently become obsessed with my physical therapy routine. Especially the parts that involve me being on the floor. If she’s in the room when I’m on the floor doing my stretches, she becomes fascinated, and almost inevitably comes over to investigate/ assist/ interfere/ keep me company. And if I have to move the stretching mat when she’s on it, she’ll often hunker down and stubbornly stay there. (At one point even getting into a winner- take- all wrestling match with the mat while I dragged it across the floor.) Here she is while I’m doing one of my hamstring stretches, very considerately keeping my ankle warm.