Greta Speaking in San Francisco, Sat. May 29: “What can the atheist movement learn from the gay movement?”

SFAbannerOne final reminder: I’ll be speaking in San Francisco tomorrow — that’s Saturday, May 29, at 6pm — for San Francisco Atheists group.

My topic: What can the Atheist movement learn from the gay movement? The atheist movement is already modeling itself on the LGBT movement in many ways — most obviously with its focus on coming out of the closet. What else can the atheist movement learn from the LGBT movement — both from its successes and its failures? I’ll be talking about coming out; making atheism a safe place to come out into; defusing the ongoing battles between the firebrands and the diplomats in our movement; avoiding squabbles about language and self-definition; making our movement more diverse; and other lessons that can be learned from the history of the LGBT movement.

The talk will be at Schroeder’s Restaurant, 240 Front St (meeting room in back), in downtown San Francisco (between California and Sacramento Streets, near Embarcadero BART). The talk will start at 6pm; I’ll be talking for about an hour, and there’ll be plenty of time for Q&A afterwards. If you’re in the Bay Area, I hope to see you there!

New Fishnet Story: “The Great White”

Fishnet logo The man behind the counter said it was new in. The large conical shaped snout, the upper and lower lobes on the tail fin, the side gills, they are all anatomically correct. The rows of razor sharp teeth have been replaced with soft and pliable plastic incisors, each one acting as a stimulator similar to those found on cock rings. But the best part of all, so the man said, is the dorsal fin. Inside the shark is a tiny motor that runs off batteries. By pressing a small button on the tail section, the motor sends little vibrations to the tip of the dorsal fin. Once the head section of the shark has been fully inserted, the fin is perfectly placed to tickle the clitoris. As well as being arguably the most well known predatory fish in the ocean, nature has designed the arguably the best ergonomically satisfying dildo on the market.

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That’s an excerpt from the latest story on Fishnet, the online erotic fiction magazine I’m editing: The Great White, by Craig Wallwork. To read more, read the rest of the story. (Not for anyone under 18.)

Please note: This story contains content that some people may find disturbing, such as non-consent, borderline consent, seriously bodily harm, or incest. If you’re not interested in reading stories with this type of content, please don’t read this story. Enjoy!

Atheist Meme of the Day: The Difference Between Proof and Plausibility

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

Very few claims can be proven or disproven with 100% certainty. But we can still assess whether those claims are more or less likely to be true. And that includes religion. Atheism doesn’t mean 100% certainty that there is no God: it’s the conclusion that the God hypothesis is not plausible. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Lady Gaga: Music Videos As Porn

Media-gaga I realize that I’m late to the Lady Gaga party. (Hey, I’m 48 years old. Cut me some slack.) But I gotta say — I’m impressed.

If I just listened to her music, I’d only be moderately interested. I think her music is perfectly fun, well- above- average dance pop music. But I’ve been watching her music videos… and they’re making me think that this woman is a force to be reckoned with. (Yes, I realize she doesn’t direct her own videos — but they are clearly collaborations, strongly shaped by her artistic vision, and they’re a central part of her public persona.)

And what’s striking me about Lady Gaga’s music videos is not just how smart they are, or how imaginative, or how lovingly crafted and visually stunning, or how just flat-out funny. What’s striking me about Lady Gaga’s music videos is how strongly influenced they are by sex culture: by fetish fashion, by sexploitation flicks, and by plain old dirty porn.

What’s more, they seem to be strongly influenced by these cultures, not as an outsider, not as someone who’s manipulating this imagery to titillate/ shock the audience, but as an insider, someone who’s intimately familiar with both sex culture and sexual marginalization. This isn’t Britney Spears, using schoolgirl or slavegirl or girl- on- girl imagery to excite her audience without any apparent understanding or affinity for it. Lady Gaga’s music videos (coupled with her interviews about her work) show a thoughtful, informed insight into polymorphous perversity. She has an analysis that could easily hold its own in any queer theory/ gender theory/ sex theory forum — and damn do I love a sexy girl with an analysis! — and her freak flag is waving high and proud.

In a way that — if I can be crass for a moment — makes her videos very functional as porn. I’ve certainly seen other music videos that turned me on. I can’t remember seeing any that made me this hungry to watch them again and again… with a vibrator handy.

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Thus begins my latest “Media Darling” piece for Carnal Nation, Lady Gaga: Music Videos As Porn. To find out more about how Lady Gaga’s music videos are influenced by sex culture and porn — and how they’re different from other music videos that use sex to sell — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to Carnal Nation — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheist Activism Does Work

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

Trying to persuade people out of religious belief does sometimes work, and is not a waste of time. Rates of non-belief are going up dramatically, around the US and around the world — especially among young people. Clearly, the atheist movement is doing something right. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: The Universe Is Not Finely-Tuned for Life

Scarlet letterToday’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

The universe is not finely-tuned for life. The overwhelming majority of the universe is completely inhospitable to life, and life on Earth has a maximum of about a billion more years before the Sun heats up to the point where life will be impossible. It makes no sense to think that the universe was carefully designed so life could happen. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Why Are You Still Catholic?

This is an expanded version of a piece that was first published on AlterNet.

If your softball league or your children’s school did what the Catholic Church is doing, you’d quit in outrage. So why are you still Catholic?

Catholic churchFor any Catholics who might be reading this, I have a question for you:

Why are you still Catholic?

Presumably, I don’t have to tell you about the rash of child-rape scandals in the Catholic Church. I don’t have to tell you about the cover-ups, the shielding of child rapists in the priesthood from law enforcement, the deliberate shuttling of child-raping priests from town to town to protect them from exposure — thus enabling them to continue raping children. I don’t have to tell you about the Church using remote, impoverished villages as a dumping ground for priests who raped children. I don’t have to tell you that this wasn’t a few isolated incidents: it was a widespread, institutional practice, authorized by high-level Church officials. Including Cardinal Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — who, among other actions taken to protect child raping priests, delayed the dismissal of a child rapist in the priesthood… for the “good of the universal Church.”

Pope Benedict XVI And presumably, I don’t have to tell you about the Church’s response as this scandal has been exposed. I don’t have to tell you that, overwhelmingly, they have stonewalled, rationalized, deflected blame. I don’t have to tell you about the Church’s “Come on, the kids weren’t that young, most of them were over 11″ defense, or their “Hey, everyone else is doing it” defense. I don’t have to tell you how they’ve equated the accusations against the Church with anti-Semitism. I don’t have to tell you how they’ve blamed the child-rape scandal on gays, the media, the Devil , even the rape survivors themselves. (No, really. From the Bishop of Tenerife: “There are 13 year old adolescents who are under age and who are perfectly in agreement with, and what’s more wanting it, and if you are careless they will even provoke you.”) I don’t have to tell you that the Church is opposing a measure extending the statute of limitations on child rape. I don’t have to tell you about the Pope’s dismissal of the child-rapist-protection accusations as, quote, “petty gossip.”

And I’m just focusing on the child rape scandal. I’m not even talking today about the other recent scandals in the Church: the gay prostitution ring, the Church banning the use of condoms in Africa to prevent the spread of AIDS, the rape of nuns by priests and the ignoring/ concealment thereof.

You know about all of it.

So here’s what I want to ask you:

Why are you still Catholic?

If these scandals had taken place in any organization other than a religious one — would you still be part of it?

Softball If it were your political party, your softball league, your university, your children’s school, your employer? If any of those organizations were involved in a massive, global conspiracy to protect and conceal child rapists? If they responded when the scandal came to light by entrenching and rationalizing, blaming the victims and making counter-accusations? Not in a few isolated incidents, but as a massive, institution-wide culture, a matter of official policy even, that extended throughout the organization and reached all the way to the top?

Would you still be part of it? Would you still pay your league dues and show up for softball night? Would you still pay your tuition and send your kids off to the school every day?

Or would you be walking out in moral outrage? Would you be writing enraged letters to the organization’s leadership — and sending copies of those letters to your local newspaper — explaining exactly why you can no longer be part of an organization that behaves so reprehensibly? Would you be picketing, exhorting other members to leave along with you, calling law enforcement to demand a response?

And if the latter — then why on earth aren’t you doing that with the Catholic Church?

Snidely_whiplash I mean — how bad does it have to get? Let’s say I was making up a story about grotesque, nauseating, inexcusable- on- the- face- of- it evil; evil that would make all non-sociopathic people turn away in revolted horror at the very mention of it. And let’s say that, to illustrate that evil, I made up an example of a powerful, global institution that concealed and protected child rapists, shuttled them from town to town, failed to inform law enforcement officers and in many cases actually stonewalled them, deliberately dumped the child rapists in remote, impoverished villages… and then, when the horror finally came to light, responded with defensive entrenchment and equated the accusations with either anti-Semitic bigotry or petty gossip.

If I wrote that story, people would think it was over the top. “That’s ridiculous,” they’d say. “You have to make your evil more believable, more human. Nobody really does that.”

Well, people really do that.

The Church you belong to really does that.

Why on Earth are you still a part of it?

Eucharist1 Maybe you stay because of your sincere religious faith. Maybe you sincerely believe that the Catholic Church is the only way to spiritual salvation, and that if you abandon it, you’ll abandon your hope of paradise in the Afterlife.

If that’s true, then my first question to you would be: Do you really believe that? If you disagree with the Church (as many Catholics do) on a huge number of substantial issues — birth control, gay rights, women’s rights, condom use for people with AIDS, etc., not to mention the institutional protection and cover-up of priests who rape children — then what does it mean to say that you believe in the Church?

But let’s say you’re a more traditional Catholic. Let’s say you do agree with the Church on most of these positions. All of them, even, except the one about protecting child rapists and thus perpetuating child rape. Or let’s say you are a more moderate Catholic… but that your disagreement with the Church on major theological issues still doesn’t interfere with your basic belief that the rites of the Church are necessary for your spiritual redemption.

I’d like to ask you to take a step back from your beliefs for a moment, and view them the way an outsider would. If someone else belonged to a religion that, say, protected men who torture and murder their wives; or a religion that practiced widespread fraud and theft from the desperately poor; or a religion that encouraged people to blow up buildings… would you nod sagely and say, “The sincerity of your faith is a good enough reason to stay in that religion”?

Or would you recoil in horror at how profoundly their fear of eternal punishment, and their desire for eternal reward, had bent their moral compass?

And if the latter — then why should you treat your own religion any differently? Your Church protects child rapists, thus perpetuating more child rape. Why are you still a part of it?

Catholic charities Or maybe the religious part isn’t so important to you. Maybe you don’t have strong beliefs about Catholic theology being the only true theology. But you still defend the Church, and still participate in it, because they do charitable work that you support and want to be a part of. (An argument many people made when this piece was first published on AlterNet.)

In which case, I have to ask you:

Are you freaking kidding me?

There are thousands upon thousands of excellent charitable organizations in the world. Charitable organizations that don’t protect child rapists, in a consistent, cold-blooded, institution-wide system of covering their asses. I’ll ask you the same question I asked about your job or your softball league or your kids’ school: If any other charitable organization behaved the way the Catholic Church did — if the Red Cross or the American Cancer Society shielded child rapists from exposure and law enforcement, shuttled them from town to town so they could keep raping children, and then stonewalled and rationalized and deflected blame when they got caught — would you respond by saying, “Well, yes, sure they helped get a bunch of children raped… but look at all the good work they do! Doesn’t that count for something? Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?”

Or instead, would you abandon that organization in revulsion, demand the arrest and prosecution of everyone involved, and immediately take your money and your time to a charity that didn’t, you know, help rape children?

Maria_LichtmessAnd maybe, again, the religious part isn’t so important to you — but you find the ritual of the Church comforting. It’s been part of your life since you were a child, your family and friends all belong, you find the music and the stained glass and the reliability of the weekly ceremony to be profoundly soothing.

If so, then I have to take a deep breath and ask you: Are you really prioritizing your own comfort over the rape of children?

Are those really and truly your priorities? Is it more important to you that you be soothed and comforted than it is to not participate in an institution that protects and conceals child rapists and actively enables them to keep doing it indefinitely? When you put the horror and the suffering and the ruined lives caused by child rape on one side of the balance — and the fact that you’re comforted by soothing rituals and pretty music on the other — do you honestly weigh those two considerations, and decide that your comfort comes out as the greater need?

And if not — if you think, as I hope you would, as I hope anyone with a shred of morality would, that your personal comfort is worth sacrificing if it means not participating in an institution that perpetuates the widespread rape of children — then why are you still part of this Church?

I don’t care whether you believe in God or not. Well, okay, that’s not true. I do care: I think religion is a mistaken idea about the world, I think that on the whole it does significantly more harm than good, and I’d love to see humanity let go of it. But if people’s religious beliefs and practices don’t hurt anyone else, then it’s their business, and I don’t really care all that much about them.

But see — that’s exactly the thing.

Belonging to the Catholic Church does hurt people.

Deliver us from evil Belonging to the Catholic Church gives your support to an organization that conceals and protects child rapists. Again, not as a few isolated incidents, but as a massive, institution-wide culture, a matter of policy even, that extends throughout the organization and reaches all the way to the top. Belonging to the Catholic Church — giving them money, letting them count you in their rolls, sending your children to their schools — gives this behavior your personal thumbs-up, and actively enables it to continue.

As long as Catholics stay Catholics, no matter how repulsively evil the Church’s behavior becomes, no matter how many children get raped as a result of its institutional practices, then the Church is not going to change. It will have no reason to change. As long as Catholics continue to attend church, to donate money, to be counted in Church rolls, to send their children — their children! — to church and Catholic school for religious education and the perpetuation of Catholicism, then the Church will assume that it can do anything at all, with impunity. It will assume that it can… you know, I’m trying to think of an example of evil more grotesque and over-the-top than “protecting and concealing child rapists so they can go on raping children, just to protect the organization’s public image,” but I’m coming up short. It will assume that it can squander hospice donations on cocaine and hookers? Dump the Vatican’s sewage into the Rome subway system? Torture kittens in St. Peter’s Square? No. None of that is more grotesquely, over-the-top evil than protecting and concealing child rapists so they can go on raping children, just to protect the organization’s public image.

If you stay in the Catholic Church, even after this scandal, you are essentially telling them, “Go ahead and protect child rapists. I don’t care. As long as I personally get to keep taking Communion and go to Heaven when I die, whatever you do is hunky-dory with me. Your spiritual extortion — your indoctrination of the idea that I will be tortured with burning and fire for all eternity if I don’t drink your wine and eat your cracker — has worked. You can do anything at all that you like. You won’t hear a peep out of me.”

Is that really what you want to be saying?

The only way — and I mean the only way — that the Catholic Church is going to change its stance on this issue, or indeed on any issue, is if Catholics vote with their feet, and get the hell out of there.

When are you going to do that?

To leave the Catholic Church, visit the Count Me Out website, which walks you through the process.

Atheist Meme of the Day: There Is No God-Shaped Hole in Our Hearts

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

Atheists do not have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. The human yearning for something more, for experience that transforms and transcends the ordinary, can be met by many things: love, art, work, sex, nature, adventure, altruism, etc. This yearning doesn’t mean God exists: it means we’re wired by evolution to be explorers. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Sex and the Off-Label Use of Our Bodies

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Human anatomy What are our bodies meant for?

One of the most common condemnations of non-standard sex — from homosexuality to masturbation — is “that’s not what those body parts were meant for.” Genitals and sexual desire were supposedly designed for reproduction, and reproduction alone: by God (as the argument most commonly goes), or by evolution (as the argument occasionally gets made). To use these parts/ desires for any other purpose is dangerous at best and sinful at worst.

Glasses Okay. Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether there even is a God, much less one who purposely designed the human body to fulfill his divine plan. The most common counter to this accusation is that it doesn’t get applied consistently. Not even by people who do believe in a God who created our bodies. As Dan Savage once pointed out: Our noses weren’t “designed” for us to rest our glasses on — and nobody gets their knickers in a twist over that. Off-label uses of our bodies are ridiculously common. I could come up with them all day. Our feet weren’t “meant” for us to operate the pedals of a car. Our mouths weren’t “meant” for us to play the harmonica. Our heads weren’t “meant” for us to display giant novelty foam-rubber cheese wedges and other oversized signals of allegiance to sports teams. Our hands weren’t “meant” for us to type on computer keyboards. (Boy howdy, were they ever not. My recent tendinitis flare-up is evidence enough of that.) And that doesn’t stop anyone from doing these things.

So why should sex be an exception? No, our mouths and assholes weren’t “designed” for sex, by God or by evolution. So what? We use our bodies in lots of ways and for lots of purposes that they weren’t “designed” for… and nobody considers that immoral. Computers and harmonicas and giant novelty cheese wedges are seen as acceptable and even positively neat. Why is anal sex somehow a perversion of the natural order?

A good argument. And one I frequently make myself.

But today, I’m going to take it a step further.

Off-label uses of body parts and biological functions aren’t just acceptable and morally neutral. They are some of the most beautiful, honorable, and deeply treasured parts of the human experience.

Apollo moon landing Human beings took our animal need for palatable food… and turned it into chocolate souffles with salted caramel cream. We took our ability to co-operate as a social species… and turned it into craft circles and bowling leagues and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We took our capacity to make and use tools… and turned it into the Apollo moon landing. We took our uniquely precise ability to communicate through language… and turned it into King Lear.

None of these things are necessary for survival and reproduction. That is exactly what makes them so splendid. When we take our basic evolutionary wiring and transform it into something far beyond any prosaic matters of survival and reproduction… that’s when humanity is at its best. That’s when we show ourselves to be capable of creating meaning and joy, for ourselves and for one another. That’s when we’re most uniquely human.

Tel Aviv gay pride kiss And the same is true for sex. Human beings have a deep, hard-wired urge to replicate our DNA, instilled in us by millions of years of evolution. And we’ve turned it into an intense and delightful form of communication, intimacy, creativity, community, personal expression, transcendence, joy, pleasure, and love. Regardless of whether any DNA gets replicated in the process.

Why should we see this as sinful?

What makes this any different from chocolate souffles and King Lear?

Rigid moralists — of the “don’t use your asshole for sex, that’s not what it’s meant for” variety — are often fond of talking about “what separates us from the animals.” Our self-restraint, our ability to delay gratification, our ethical judgment… these things supposedly make us finer and more noble than the animals, those base creatures who live only to eat and avoid predators and produce the next generation.

Third-chimpanzee-the-evolution-and-future-of-the-human-animal I, for one, don’t think anything separates us from the animals. We are animals. We tend to forget that. And in fact, recent research is showing that many non-human animals also have ethics and the ability to delay gratification and whatnot. We’re not as unique as we like to think.

But I do think we’re special animals. I do think we have abilities that make us different from other animals. And at the top of that list is our ability to take our animal instincts, and transform them into pursuits and achievements that have nothing whatsoever to do with their original functions of survival and reproduction — pursuits and achievements that serve no purpose but to create meaning, and connection, and knowledge, and joy.

Sex is most definitely one of those pursuits.

It deserves as much respect as any other.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Religious Claims Ought to be Verifiable

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

If your religious beliefs make claims about the physical world, and the effect God or the supernatural has on it, those claims ought to be testable, subject to standards of verification. And if your religious beliefs don’t make claims about the physical world… what’s the point? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.