The Times I Miss Rob

I wrote this piece almost twenty years ago. I think I should explain why I’m reprinting it now.

Ingrid and I saw this movie on Friday… no, that’s not how I want to start this story.

Okay.

During the worst years of the AIDS crisis, I was relatively lucky. I wasn’t one of the people who lost almost every one of their friends; who went to three funerals a week; who was on half a dozen care teams at a time; who lost a partner to AIDS, and then another, and then another. I just didn’t have a lot of gay male friends back then: I’ve always hung out with straight people as much as queers, and even at times when I’ve had more queer friends than straight ones, most of them have been women. I’ve always felt a weird survivor guilt about it, actually: in the ’80s and early ’90s, the queer community went through what could reasonably be called a holocaust, and for the most part, I was only ever on the fringes of it.

I didn’t lose a lot of people to AIDS. But I lost one. And the one I lost was… how shall I put this?

At any given time in my life, there have been a pretty small handful of people I’ve considered to be real friends. Capital F Friends. Friends I could call any time, day or night; friends I could say anything to; friends I never ran out of things to say to; friends who got stuff about me that nobody else got. Friends who seemed to feel the same way about me. Friends whose crises and arguments and late-night phone calls felt like a gift. At any given time in my life, I’ve had maybe half a dozen people in my life who were like that.

Rob was one of those people. I assumed we’d be friends for decades.

WeWereHere Ingrid and I saw this movie on Friday. A documentary called We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Francisco. I don’t want to go on about it too much just now, except to say that (a) I fervently recommend it to everyone reading this, and (b) unsurprisingly, it stirred up a lot of old emotions, emotions I didn’t know what to do with.

So Ingrid — who was, in fact, one of those people in the thick of the epidemic, one of the people demonstrating and lying down in the street and getting arrested to make the government and the medical establishment pay some fucking attention to the fact that their friends were dying — suggested that I reprint this piece on my blog.

I wrote this piece almost twenty years ago. I never published it anywhere except my Website. I’m printing it here unedited, as it was when I finished it in 1992.

The Times I Miss Rob
by Greta Christina

The times I miss Rob the most go like this: I’m reading the paper, I come across some article about dinosaurs or black holes or genetically engineered sheep, and I think, I should ask Rob about this, he’s a science guy, he’d know something about it. The thought flicks by, just for a passing moment, and then–boom. I remember, and remembering is like being kicked in the chest from inside, and he dies all over again.

You don’t realize how often you think about someone until every time you think about them hurts.

This is going to sound ridiculously self-evident, but the thing about someone being dead is that they are no longer alive. They don’t change, they don’t get older, they don’t do new stuff that they can tell you about or meet new people they can introduce you to or come up with outrageous new ideas that you can argue with. You don’t have their life as part of your life anymore. What you have instead are memories, like a videotape; and, like a videotape, memories are static, changing only in that they disintegrate. You remember, maybe, what they said about the ethical responsibilities of the scientific community or your relationship with your parents, but you can’t ask them now, what do they think about it now, what is different now from a year ago, or two years, or ten, the last time you talked with them about it, the last time they had an opinion, the last time they were alive.

One of the more frustrating things about a death is the way your memory fades. When someone is alive, you are reminded each time you speak, or write, or see their face, of who this person is. They change, and the change, whether promising or disturbing or just plain there, reminds you of the fact of their life. The event of their death, the crisis and break, separates you from the one who has died, perhaps even more than the actual fact that they are dead. You immerse in the pain of the loss, and lose touch a little with exactly what it is you have lost. You shy away, at first, from images of the dead person, flinch, pull back from the pain that’s still too sharp. Later, when the grief passes a bit and you begin to want to remember…so much gets lost without the weekly phone call, the dinner-and-a-movie, the silly thing in the paper you cut out to send them, the reminder. The image becomes fuzzy, your love for them becomes vague, almost generic. You remember that he liked animals, argued for pleasure, enjoyed his body, was shy about talking about sex. These things mean nothing. They read like a personal ad.

This death has brought up ugly thoughts in me, unspeakable thoughts, thoughts that make me cringe. I want to acquire the status and respect due to a survivor of tragedy by telling everyone about it. I want to protect and hoard my grief by not telling anyone about it. I want to tell his other friends and gain the power of bearing important news. I don’t want to tell his other friends and have to deal with their goddamn grief, too. I want to make people be nice to me and do what I want because my friend has died. I don’t want to get close to another person with HIV and go through this again. I want to prove that he was exceptional in order to make my grief seem less ordinary. I really belong to the gay community now that I’ve had a close friend die of AIDS. I wonder if they’ll have decent food at the wake. I wonder what’s happening to his fabulous art collection. I wonder if I was mentioned in his will.

I think these things, and know them to be ugly, absurd, stupid and silly and no way to live at all. I don’t even want to give them power by speaking or writing them.

I also don’t want to give them power by not speaking or writing them.

One of the facts here is that Rob is a victim of the epidemic. This does not make his death any less special or individual. What it does, instead, is to make the epidemic far more personal. It makes my anger over the epidemic far more visceral. It makes me realize yet another absurdly obvious fact: that every single one of the hundreds of thousands of people killed by this virus had friends who loved them, families that annoyed them, books they wanted to read, work they hadn’t finished. Each of them, like Rob, was an individual, with a life that took up space in the world. Each of them left behind people who feel the way that I feel now.

I realize that I’ve said very little so far about Rob himself. I’m sure that’s intentional. For one thing, I’m a coward about pain, and it hurts to remember him. But it also hurts to remember, and not be able to explain. Describing what Rob was like is proving to be a sad and angry exercise in futility, a struggle through storm and mud that winds up in a shopping mall. “Handsome, intelligent, wealthy gay white man, graduate student in genetics, loves art, animals, the outdoors, reading, performance art, playing piano, working out, dining, dancing, and lovemaking…” No. So I’m not going to try to tell you who he was. I’m going to tell you about some things we did.

I remember riding with him in his fire-engine red Porsche 944, telling him about some book I’d found interesting, and watching him make a detour to pull into a bookstore and buy it right then and there.

I remember going to Disneyland and taking LSD with him and his friend Steve, and each of us having our own little areas of Disneyland fear and resistance that we had to overcome. Mine was Space Mountain, Steve’s was the spinning teacups, and Rob’s was It’s A Small World. I remember Rob being very, very stubborn about not wanting to go to It’s A Small World. I remember his outright terror of the figure-skating penguins and the smiling pink-and-purple hippos doing kneebends and the three-foot-tall cute and adorable People Of All Colors And Nations, all singing that stupid fucking interminable song. I remember he was the last of the three of us to capitulate. I remember him enjoying it in spite of himself, and fuming at us about it anyway.

I remember a long and fierce argument we had over the telephone (one of many lengthy and expensive long-distance phone conversations) about some writing I’d done. I remember him trying very hard to understand why I cared enough about society and social constructs to spend my time arguing against them.

I remember yet another long-distance phone call, sitting in my San Francisco apartment and calling him up at his beach house in Laguna to tell him about some article I’d read about a new theory of evolution. I remember talking with him for hours about kin selection and the possible evolutionary value of homosexuality in mammals and the work he was doing on the genetic causes of aging in fruit flies. I remember thinking that he was only person I knew who thought this stuff was interesting.

I remember talking with him about a performance piece he was thinking about doing, something about the military metaphors used to discuss AIDS, and suddenly being whisked off to the toy store to buy dozens and dozens of little plastic soldiers and tanks and astronauts and space aliens and cowboys and Indians and farm animals; then sitting for hours in some generically decent Southern California restaurant, eating our generically decent Southern California sandwiches, and playing with these dozens and dozens of little plastic war toys, arranging and re-arranging them on the table, putting them in our water glasses to see if they’d float, giggling, confusing the waitresses, and discussing performance art.

I remember doing a Tarot reading for him, a year or so before he died, on the question of whether or not he was going to die of AIDS. I remember wanting to tell him, “You stupid git, you have AIDS, of course you’re going to die of it,” and I remember wanting to tell him, “Don’t talk like that, you’re never going to die,” and I remember flipping up one card–The Magician. I remember him saying that the card meant his death was under his power, that he wouldn’t die of anything he didn’t want to, and wouldn’t die until he was ready. I remember hoping to God that it was true, because anyone who got as much of a kick out of living as Rob did would never be ready to die.

I remember getting mad at the cards for lying to me.

Shortly after Rob died, I went to his house, where his belongings were being dealt with and sorted and handed out, and found myself becoming grasping and greedy, piling up stacks of his things (books and music, mostly) to take home with me. I took weird, almost random things: things that seemed to capture the essence of what I loved about him, or that seemed to capture the essence of what I never knew about him and now never would. I took things I admired but would probably never read or listen to, things that reminded me of something he’d once said, things I just plain wanted, things I didn’t even particularly like. I seemed to believe that having the books he’d loved in my possession would, in some way, be like having the person who loved those books in my life. I seemed to believe that I could read a book he’d had that I’d never read, and discover another piece of his nature, thereby keeping him a little bit alive.

Now I find myself rarely reading those books or listening to those pieces of music. When I pick one up, I don’t think, This is something Rob liked, and therefore I’m likely to enjoy it as well. I think, This is Rob’s, and the reason I have it is because he is dead.

So I have these weird aberrations on my shelves; huge volumes of modern poetry, stacks of gigantic color-plate books on surrealism, an almost-complete set of the works of Philip Glass that I would never in a million years have collected and that has to be explained to every new visitor who comes to my house and looks over my music. No, I say hurriedly, I’m not that crazy about Philip Glass, I didn’t buy those, they belonged to a friend of mine who died. Most of my visitors are queer. None of them asks how my friend died.

And now I sit at my keyboard, with a dead man’s jacket in the closet behind my back, trying to finish this piece, not wanting to finish it, hating to write it, not willing to abandon it. Rob died on August 18, 1991: I started writing this almost immediately, and now, more than a year later, I find myself struggling to finish it. I started it to get some closure on his death and my grief, and now I don’t want to end it because that would mean getting some closure on his death and my grief. I have a not-so-irrational fear that, by completing this work, I will be closing another door on Rob, saying yet another goodbye to him. And I hate that. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.

Goodbye, Rob.

-San Francisco, 1992

High School Atheists Are Organizing — Why Are Schools Pushing Back?

High school non-theist groups are getting dedicated support from a national organization but their schools are flipping out. What does this mean for the future of atheism?

Schoolbus High school student Brian Lisco just wanted to form a student club. A senior at Stephen Austin High School in the Houston suburbs, Lisco wanted to meet with like-minded students; students who shared common interests, who could talk about ideas they found interesting, who could give one another support.

But his efforts were consistently thwarted by the administration at his high school. His requests to form a club were stalled for months, and obstacle after obstacle was put in his path.

Why?

Because the group he wanted to start was an atheist group.

His story is being repeated, with variations, around the country.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, High School Atheists Are Organizing — Why Are Schools Pushing Back? To find out more about the Secular Student Alliance’s new dedicated program to support high school atheist groups — and about the resistance these groups are meeting from high school administrators — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Why It’s Not a “Safer Bet” to Believe In God, or, Why Pascal’s Wager Sucks

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Believing in God because it’s a safer bet makes no logical or practical sense, trivializes both faith and reality, and concedes your argument before it’s begun.

Red dice “Why not believe in God? If you believe and you turn out to be wrong, you haven’t lost anything. But if you don’t believe and you turn out to be wrong, you lose everything. Isn’t believing the safer bet?”

In debates about religion, this argument keeps coming up. Over, and over, and over again. In almost any debate about religion, if the debate lasts long enough, someone is almost guaranteed to bring it up. The argument even has a name: Pascal’s Wager, after Blaise Pascal, the philosopher who most famously formulated it.

And it makes atheists want to tear our hair out.

Not because it’s a great argument… but because it’s such a manifestly lousy one. It doesn’t make logical sense. It doesn’t make practical sense. It trivializes the whole idea of both belief and non-belief. It trivializes reality. In fact, it concedes the argument before it’s even begun. Demolishing Pascal’s Wager is like shooting fish in a barrel. Unusually slow fish, in a tiny, tiny barrel. I almost feel guilty writing an entire piece about it. It’s such low-hanging fruit.

But alas, it’s a ridiculously common argument. In fact, it’s one of the most common arguments made in favor of religion. So today, I’m going to take a deep breath, and put on a hat so I don’t tear my hair out, and spend a little time annihilating it.

God 1 Which God? The first and most obvious problem with Pascal’s Wager? It assumes that there’s only one religion, and only one version of God.

Pascal’s Wager assumes that the choice between religion and atheism is simple. You pick either religion, or no religion. Belief in God, or no belief in God. One, or the other.

But as anyone knows who’s read even a little history — or who’s turned on a TV in the last ten years — there are hundreds upon hundreds of different religions, and different gods these religions believe in. Thousands, if you count all the little sub-sects separately. Tens of thousands or more, if you count every religion throughout history that anyone’s ever believed in. Even among today’s Big Five, there are hundreds of variations: sects of Christianity, for instance, include Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Mormon, United Church of Christ, Jehovah’s Witness, etc. etc. etc. And sub-sects of these sects include Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Southern Baptist, American Baptist, Mormonism (mainstream LDS version), Mormonism (cultish polygamous version), Mormonism (repulsive infant-torturing version), Church of England, American Episcopalian, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod…

How do you know which one to wager on?

Religious symbols The differences between these gods and religions aren’t trivial. If you obey the rules of one, you’re guaranteed to be violating the rules of another. If you worship Jesus, and Islam turns out to right — you’re screwed. If you worship Allah, and Judaism turns out to be right — you’re screwed. If you worship Jehovah, and Jainism turns out to be right — you’re screwed. Even if you get the broad strokes right, you could be getting the finer points wrong. And in many religions, the finer points matter a lot. Taking Communion or not taking Communion? Baptizing at birth or at the age of reason? Ordaining women as priests or not? Any of these could get you sent straight to hell. No matter if you’re Catholic, or Baptist, or Mormon, or Anglican, or whatever… there are a whole bunch of other Christians out there who are absolutely convinced that you’ve gotten Christianity totally wrong, and that you’re just pissing God off more and more every day.

So how on Earth is religion a safer bet?

You’re just as likely to be angering God with your belief as atheists are with our lack of it.

To many believers, the answer to the “Which god?” question seems obvious. It’s their god, of course. Like, duh. But to someone who doesn’t believe — to someone being presented with Pascal’s Wager as a reason to believe — the answer to “Which god?” is anything but obvious. To someone who doesn’t believe, the question is both baffling and crucial. And without some decent evidence supporting one god hypothesis over another, the “Which god?” question renders Pascal’s Wager utterly useless.

Unless you have some actual good evidence that your particular religion is the right one and all the others are wrong, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheist’s bet on no God.

And if you had some good evidence that your religion was right, you wouldn’t be resorting to Pascal’s Wager to make your case.

The_Last_Judgement._Jean_Cousin. Does God even care? Pascal’s Wager doesn’t just assume that there’s only one god and one religion. It assumes that God cares whether you believe in him. It assumes that God will reward belief with a heavenly eternal afterlife… and punish disbelief with a hellish one.

But why should we assume that?

According to many religions — the more progressive ecumenical ones leap to mind — God doesn’t care whether we worship him in exactly the right way. Or indeed whether we worship him at all. In these religions, as long as we treat each other well, according to our best understanding of right and wrong, God will be happy with us, and reward us in the afterlife. These believers are totally fine with atheists — well, as long as we keep our mouths shut and don’t disturb anyone with our annoying arguments — and they certainly don’t think we’re going to burn in hell.

In fact, according to many of these progressive religionists, God has more respect for sincere atheists who fearlessly proclaim their non-belief than he does for insincere “believers” who pretend to have faith because it’s easier and safer and they don’t want to rock the boat. According to these progressives, honest atheism is actually the safer bet. The weaselly hypocrisy of Pascal’s Wager is more likely to get up God’s nose.

So even if you think the god hypothesis is plausible and coherent… why would it automatically follow that belief in said god is an essential part of this afterlife insurance you’re supposedly buying with your “safer bet”?

Just+be+good+for+goodness+sake In fact, I’ve seen (and written about) an atheist version of Pascal’s Wager that takes this conundrum into account. In the Atheist’s Wager, you might as well just be as good a person as you can in this life, and not worry about God or the afterlife. If (a) God is good, he won’t care if you believe in him, as long as you were the best person you could be. If (b) God is a capricious, egoistic, insecure jackass whose lessons on how to act are so unclear we’re still fighting about them after thousands of years… then we have no way of knowing what behavior he’s going to punish or reward, and we might as well just be good according to our own understanding. And if (c) there is no god, then it’s worth being good for its own sake: because we have compassion for other people, and because being good makes our world a better place, for ourselves and everyone else.

Now, to be perfectly clear: I don’t, in fact, think the Atheist’s Wager is a good argument for atheism. I think the best arguments for atheism are based, not on what kind of behavior is a safer bet for a better afterlife, but on whether religion is, you know, true. The Atheist’s Wager is funny, and it makes some valid points… but it’s not a sensible argument for why we shouldn’t believe in God.

But it makes a hell of a lot more sense than Pascal’s Wager.

Unless you have some good evidence that God cares about our religious belief, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheists’ bet on no God.

And if you had some good evidence that God cares about our religious belief, you wouldn’t be resorting to Pascal’s Wager to make your case.

I_m_with_stupid Is God that easily fooled? And speaking of whether God cares about our religion: If God does care whether we believe in him… do you really think he’s going to be fooled by this sort of bet-hedging?

Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that God is real. And for the moment, let’s also pretend that God cares whether we believe in him. Let’s pretend, in fact, that he cares so much about whether we believe in him that, when he’s deciding what kind of afterlife we’re going to spend eternity in, this belief or lack thereof is the make-or-break factor.

Is God going to be fooled by Pascal’s Wager?

When you’re lining up at the gates to the afterlife and God is looking deep into your soul — and when he sees that your belief consisted of, “Hey, why not believe, it’s not like I’ve got anything to lose, and I’ve got a whole afterlife of good times to gain, so sure, I [airquote] ‘believe’ [end airquote] in God, wink wink” — do you really think God’s going to be impressed? Do you really think he’s going to say, “Oo, that’s sly, that’s some ingenious dodging of the question you got there, we just love a slippery weasel here in Heaven, come on in”? Is he going to be flattered by being seen, not as the creator of all existence who breathed life into you and everyone you loved, but as the “safer bet”?

I don’t believe in God. Obviously. I think the god hypothesis is implausible at best, incoherent at worst. But of all the implausible, incoherent gods I’ve seen hypothesized, the one who punishes honest atheists who take the question of his existence seriously enough to reject it when they don’t see it supported, and at the same time rewards insincere, bet-hedging religionists who profess belief as part of a self-centered attempt to hit the jackpot at the end of their life… that is easily among the battiest.

Unless you have some actual good evidence that God (a) exists, (b) cares passionately about our religious belief, and yet (c) is dumb enough to be fooled by Pascal’s Wager, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheists’ bet on no God.

And if you had some good evidence for any of this, you wouldn’t be resorting to Pascal’s Wager to make your case.

All of which brings me to:

Truth has no agenda Does this even count as “belief”? This is one of the things that drives me most nuts about Pascal’s Wager. Whenever anyone proposes it, I want to just tear my hair out and yell, “Do you really not care whether the things you believe are true?”

Believers who propose Pascal’s Wager apparently think that you can just choose what to believe, as easily as you choose what pair of shoes to buy. They seem to think that “believing” means “professing an allegiance to an opinion, regardless of whether you think it’s true.” And I am both infuriated and baffled by this notion. I literally have no idea what it means to “believe” something based entirely on what would be most convenient, without any concern for whether it’s actually true. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word “believe.” I do not think it means what you think it means.

Unless you have a good argument for why insincere, bet-hedging “belief” qualifies as actual belief, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheists’ bet on no God.

And if you had a good argument for this insincere version of “belief,” you wouldn’t be resorting to Pascal’s Wager to make your case.

Money_in_hand Is the cost of belief really nothing? And, of course, we have one of the core foundational premises of Pascal’s Wager. It doesn’t just assume that the rewards of belief are infinite. It assumes that the costs of belief are non-existent.

And that is just flatly not true.

Flying spaghetti monster Let’s take an example. Let’s say that I tell you that the Flying Spaghetti Monster will reward you with strippers and beer in heaven when you die — and to receive this reward, you simply have to say the words, “I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, bless his noodly appendage,” one time and one time only. You might think I was off my rocker. Okay, you’d almost certainly think I was off my rocker. But because the sacrifice of time and energy would be so tiny, you might, for the sake of hedging your bets, go ahead and say the words. (For the entertainment value, if nothing else.)

But if I tell you that the Flying Spaghetti Monster will reward you with strippers and beer in heaven when you die — and that to receive this reward, you have to send me a box of Godiva truffles every Saturday, get a full-color image of the Monster tattooed on the back of your right hand, be unfailingly rude to anyone who comes from Detroit, and say the words “I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, bless his noodly appendage” every hour on the hour for the rest of your life… it’s very, very unlikely that you’re going to comply. You’re going to think I’m off my rocker — and you’re going to ignore my pleading request to save your eternal soul from a beerless, stripper-less eternity. You’re going to think that following the sacred customs of the FSM faith would be a ridiculous waste of time, energy, and resources. You’re definitely not going to think that it’s a safer bet.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Collection plate Most religions don’t simply require you to believe that God exists. They require you to make sacrifices, and adhere to rules. Not just the ordinary ones needed to be a moral/ successful/ happy person in everyday life, either. Religions typically require significant sacrifices, and obedience to strict rules, that can seriously interfere with happiness, success, even morality. Religions require people to donate money; participate in rituals; spend time in houses of worship; follow rules about what to eat, what to wear, what drugs to avoid, who to have sex with and how. Religions require people to cut off their foreskins. Cut off their clitorises. Cut off ties with their gay children. Dress modestly. Suppress their sexuality. Reject evolution. Reject blood transfusions. (For themselves, and their children.) Refuse to consider interfaith marriage. Refuse to consider interfaith friendship. Memorize a long stretch of religious text and recite it in public at age thirteen. Spend their weekends knocking on strangers’ doors, pestering them to join the faith. Donate money to fix the church roof. Donate money to send bibles to Nicaragua. Donate money so the preacher can buy a Cadillac. Have as many children as they physically can. Disown their children if they leave the faith. Obey their husbands without question. Not eat pork. Not get tattoos. Get up early to sit in church once a week, on one of only two days a week they have off. Cover their bodies from head to toe. Treat people as unclean who were born into different castes. Treat women as sinners if they have sex outside marriage. Beat or kill their wives and daughters if they have sex outside marriage. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Religion typically requires sacrifice.

And this simple fact, all by itself, completely demolishes the foundational assumption of Pascal’s wager.

The assumption of Pascal’s Wager is that any other wager is a sucker’s bet. Pascal’s Wager doesn’t just assume that the payoff for winning the bet is infinite bliss, or that the cost of losing is infinite suffering. It assumes that the stakes for the bet are zero.

But the stakes are not zero.

Hazing reader It’s even been argued — correctly, I think — that the sacrifices religion requires are an essential part of what keep it going. (Think of fraternity hazing. Once you’ve sacrificed and suffered for a belief or project or group affiliation, you’re more likely to stick with it… to convince yourself that the sacrifice was worth it. That’s how the rationalizing human mind works.)

And if religion requires sacrifice… then Pascal’s Wager collapses. A bet with an infinite payoff and zero stakes? Sure, that’s an obvious bet. But a bet with infinite payoff and real stakes? That’s a lot less obvious. Especially when there are, as I said before, thousands of competing bets, all with contradictory demands for the specific stakes you’re supposed to place. And double especially when there’s no good evidence that any one of these competing bets is more likely to pay off than any other… or that any of them at all have any plausible chance whatsoever of paying off. Again: If you wouldn’t bet on my Flying Spaghetti Monster religion, with its entirely reasonable demands for chocolate and tattoos and hourly prayer and fanatical Detroit-phobia… then why on Earth are you betting on your own religion?

If this short life is the only one we have, then contorting our lives into narrow and arbitrary restrictions, and following rules that grotesquely distort our moral compass, and giving things up that are harmless and ethical and could make ourselves and others profoundly happy, all for no good reason… that’s the sucker bet.

Besides… even if none of this were true? Even if belief in God required absolutely no sacrifice in any practical matters? No rules, no rituals, no circumcision, no sexual guilt, no execution of adulterers, no gay children shamed and abandoned, no dead children who would have lived if they’d gotten blood transfusions, no money in the collection plate? Nothing except belief?

It would still have costs.

And those costs would be significant.

Faith The idea of religious faith? The idea that it makes sense to believe in invisible beings, undetectable forces, events that happen after we die? The idea that it makes sense to believe in a hypothesis that’s either entirely untestable… or that’s been tested thousands of times and consistently been proven wrong? The idea that we can rely entirely on our personal intuition to tell us what is and isn’t true about the world… and ignore hard evidence that contradicts that intuition? The idea that it’s not only acceptable, but a positive good, to believe in things for which you have not one single shred of good evidence?

This idea has costs. This idea undermines our critical thinking skills. It closes our minds to new ideas. It bolsters our prejudices and preconceptions. It leaves us vulnerable to bad ideas. It leaves us vulnerable to frauds and charlatans. It leaves us vulnerable to manipulative political leaders. It leads us to devalue evidence and reason. It leads us to trivialize reality.

So all by itself, even without any obvious sacrifices of time or money or restricted lifestyle or screwed-up ethical choices, religious faith shapes the way we live our lives. And it does so in a way that can do a tremendous amount of harm.

Unless you have some actual good evidence that the sacrifice of time/ money/ happiness/ goodness/ etc. required by religion — and the sacrifice of healthy skepticism and critical thinking and passion for truth — will actually pay off with the reward of a blissful eternal afterlife, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheists’ bet on no God.

And if you had some good evidence that God exists, and that these sacrifices had a good chance of paying off, you wouldn’t be resorting to Pascal’s Wager to make your case.

Loser capConceding Your Argument Before You’ve Even Started It. If you take nothing else from this piece, take this:

The moment you propose Pascal’s Wager is the moment you’ve conceded the argument.

Pascal’s Wager isn’t an argument for why God exists and is really real. Pascal’s Wager is, in fact, 100% disconnected from the question of whether God exists and is really real. Pascal’s Wager offers no evidence for God’s existence — not even the shaky “evidence” of the the appearance of design or the supposed fine-tuning of the universe or the feelings in your heart. It offers no logical argument for why God must exist or probably exists — not even the paper-thin “logic” of the First Cause argument. It does not offer one scrap of a positive reason for thinking that God is real.

Magic thurstonPascal’s Wager is misdirection. Distraction. It’s a way of drawing attention away from how crummy the arguments for God actually are. It’s an evasion: a slippery, dodgy, wanna-be clever trick to avoid the actual argument. It’s a way of making the debater feel wily and ingenious, while ignoring the actual question on the table.

It isn’t an argument. It’s an excuse for why you don’t have an argument. And it’s a completely pathetic excuse.

If you’re relying on Pascal’s Wager for your faith, you might as well believe in unicorns or elves, Zoroaster or Zeus, the invisible dragon in Carl Sagan’s garage or the Flying Spaghetti Monster who brought the world into being through his blessed noodly appendage. Pascal’s Wager is every bit as good an argument for these beliefs as it is for any religion that people currently believe in.

If you had a better argument for God, you’d be making it. You’d be offering some good evidence for why God exists; some logical explanation for why God has to exist. You wouldn’t be resorting to this lazy, slippery, bet-hedging, shot-full-of-holes excuse for why you don’t have to actually think about the question.

Pascal’s Wager isn’t an argument.

It’s an admission that you’ve got nothing.

The Kids Are All Right

This review was originally published on CarnalNation. The movie is now available on DVD, and it received four Oscar nominations, including on for Best Picture.

The-Kids-Are-All-Right-2010-Movie-Poster Are queers just like everyone else?

Are queers just ordinary human beings, with the same hopes and fears and neuroses and dreams as everybody? Or are queers fundamentally different from straight people, with profoundly different ways of dealing with sex and gender and love and family?

It’s a question that shows up most dramatically in debates between assimilationists and separatists (and those of us on the spectrums in between). But it also shows up in the hearts and minds of queers — and straight people with queers in their lives — when we’re searching our souls in private about who we are and how we fit into the world.

And it’s a question explored in fascinating, funny, painful, complicated, and almost excruciatingly human detail in the brilliant new film, “The Kids Are All Right.”

Along with a whole host of equally compelling questions about sex, humanity, and selfhood…. and how they intertwine.

Kids are all right 1 Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon,” “High Art”), “The Kids Are All Right” stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as Nic and Jules, a long-term lesbian couple with two teenage kids: one on the verge of college, the other still in the depths of high school. Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) get curious about their anonymous sperm donor/ father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo): they look him up, meet him, and begin folding him into their family life.

Not- so- wacky hijinks ensue. Paul, an easygoing, live- for- the- moment restaurant owner and self-avowed non- team- player, is in a lot of ways a breath of fresh air for this family, and the things he has to offer are things each of them needs: independence and rebellion for Joni, a model for manhood other than “macho asshole” for Laser, a willingness to relinquish control and let things be for Nic, and for Jules… well, I’ll get to that in a minute, when I get to the spoilers. But the flip side of Paul’s easygoing, live- for- the- moment attitude is his self-absorption and irresponsibility, his blithe disregard for the effect he has on others. And the breath of fresh air he breathes into the family soon becomes a hurricane.

Kids-are-all-right_2 So what does this have to do with queerness? Well, one of the first things you notice about Nic and Jules is all the ways they’re like every other long- married couple. Of any sexual orientation. The casually deep intimacy and the dumb squabbles; the easy affection and the old, unresolved conflicts; the long history of things that never get said and the long history of things so well understood they don’t need to be said… all this will be instantly familiar to anybody who’s married. Or who knows people who are married. Which is to say, anybody.

Yet at the same time, Nic and Jules are very much a lesbian couple. At times to the point of being scary. The processing, the casual use of therapy-speak both to communicate and to score points, will have every lesbian couple in the audience hiding under the seats in embarrassed recognition. More positively, the two women’s ease with their bodies and with each other’s bodies, the complete comfort with which they see themselves as women while offhandedly rejecting almost every conventional image of femininity, will be instantly and delightfully familiar to anyone who’s hung around dykes for more than fifteen minutes. And of course, the crux of the story — the kids of the two moms looking up their sperm donor — hinges on the special circumstances of this being a queer family. As does the particular way that Hurricane Paul wreaks havoc on the family. (Again — more on that in a tic.)

So are Nic and Jules just like every other married couple? Or is their lesbian marriage fundamentally different from a straight marriage?

The_kids_are_allright 7 The answer — to both questions — is Yes. Yes, this is a marriage much like any marriage, a story almost any married couple will relate to. And at the same time: Yes, this is a lesbian marriage, deeply rooted in lesbian culture. Queers are human beings — we’re not frogs or barnacles, of course we have deep things in common with the rest of the human race. And at the same time: Queers are queers, part of a unique culture, with experiences and quirks that even the most queer-friendly straight people are never going to get.

But Nic and Jules are more than just another married couple. And they’re more than just a distinctly lesbian married couple.

They’re Nic and Jules.

Kids-are-all-right-6 “The Kids Are All Right” is one of the most intensely human movies I’ve seen in a long time. The characters feel completely real, and completely individual, as real and individual as anyone I might meet at a party and strike up a conversation with. They are flawed and powerful, sympathetic and aggravating, thoughtful and selfish, careless and loving, disturbing and funny, with good sides and bad sides that are deeply intertwined flip-sides of one another. The characters in this movie are unique. And their marriage is unique.

Which, paradoxically, is a huge part of what makes the movie resonate so strongly. This isn’t a movie about Marriage, or about Lesbian Marriage. It’s a movie about one particular marriage, and one particular family. And that uniqueness, the humanity shown with such rawness it’s sometimes painful to watch, is what makes these characters feel so intensely familiar. It’s something I’ve often said about fiction: To make a story people can identify with, don’t make it generic. Make it personal. Making it personal is what makes it true.

Kids.Are.All.Right 12 There’s a complaint I’m beginning to see about this movie, especially from queers. (And this is where the spoiler I’ve been alluding to comes in. Spoiler alert — now!) The major plot turn in “The Kids Are All Right” happens when Jules starts doing some landscaping work for Paul, and they wind up having an affair. With disastrous effects: not only on Nic and Jules’ marriage, but on the kids’ blossoming relationship with their sperm donor/ dad. This turn of events has some queer viewers angry, or at least annoyed: they’re complaining that historically, way too many movies about lesbians end up with one of them sleeping with a man (and in many cases, being “cured” thereby). And they’re baffled as to why this movie — directed and co-written by a lesbian and so clearly created from a lesbian perspective — would perpetuate this tired old stereotype.

Kidsareallright 11 Sorry, but I’m not buying it. I’m usually happy to join a Celluloid Closet dogpile and rant at a movie for perpetuating stereotypes about queers. But in this case, I think it’s wildly inappropriate. For one thing, Jules sleeping with Paul isn’t portrayed as the lesbian being “cured” of her lesbianism. Not even a little. It’s portrayed as a freaking tragedy that comes close to demolishing a family. If anything, this movie gives a very queer twist on that old queer-bashing trope. Jules “experiments” with a man to fill a need she isn’t getting from her marriage — not a need for maleness, but a need for appreciation, and for spontaneity, and for a life whose parameters aren’t set by her hyper-organized, control-freak wife. But in the end, she turns her back on this disruptive influence, and begins working to repair her marriage and restore what she can of her normal, stable family life. A family life that, in this case, is lesbian.

And maybe more to the point: This movie isn’t about lesbians.

It’s about Nic and Jules.

I’ve been saying for years that what queer audiences (and straight ones, for that matter) need from queer movie characters isn’t positive role models. What we need is queer characters who are as human and complex and believable as the straight ones.

The-kids-are-all-right-9 Which is exactly what “The Kids Are All Right” gives us. The creators of this film aren’t obligated to single-handedly correct every dumb stereotype about lesbians in the history of film. They’re obligated to present lesbians as real, plausible, multi-faceted human beings. Which is exactly what they did. There are a lot of things you can say about Jules sleeping with Paul: it was stupid, it was heartbreaking, it was understandable, it was fucked-up beyond belief. But it was also — and most importantly — entirely believable. There was no part of me that thought, “There’s no way she would do that.” In fact, I saw it coming a mile away. It was completely in character.

A flawed, powerful, sympathetic, aggravating, thoughtful, selfish, careless, loving, disturbing, funny, completely human character.

And when a film gives me that, I can’t ask for anything more.

Kids-are-all-right_4 I could go on about this movie for days. There’s so much here that’s fascinating and compelling — not just about queerness, but about sex generally — that I haven’t even touched on. I’m tempted to write a whole other review of it as soon as I finish this one: one that explores the naturalness with which this movie explores sex, and the balance it strikes between awkwardness and ease. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into Nic and Jules’ sex life: the vibrator in the nightstand, the gay male porn, the loving attempts to kindle passion and the stupid ways that perfectionism mucks it up. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into how uncomfortable Nic and Jules are with their son’s sexuality, teasing out how much of it is discomfort with straight maleness (a fact they’re in almost comic denial of), and how much is just parental discomfort with their kid’s sexuality and their sense of loss over him growing up. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into teenage sexuality: the teenagers who are overly confident and glib about sex, and the ones who are wigged out by it and trying to hold it at arm’s length. I’d love to write a whole other review about how this movie sees the power of sex: the power it has to blow things up, and the power it has to blow things open. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into how casual the characters try to be — and totally fail to be — about the word “sperm.”

But this review is already too long as it is. So I’ll leave it at this: This movie rocks. It is among the best I’ve seen this year, possibly this decade. It is one of the smartest, realest, most original, most compelling, and most human movies I’ve seen in a good long time. It is one of those movies you’ll be thinking about for days after you see it, and wanting to talk about with everyone you know. If you care about queerness, about sex, or just about seriously good films, stop whatever you’re doing, and immediately put it at the top of your To See list.

The Kids Are All Right. Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, and Josh Hutcherson. Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Focus Features. Rated R.

Greta Speaking in Berkeley, Sun. Feb. 20: Why Are You Atheists So Angry?

East_Bay_Atheists

One last reminder: I’m going to in Berkeley this Sunday afternoon, speaking to the East Bay Atheists, at the Berkeley Public Library, starting at 1:30 pm. If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area — and especially if you’re in the East Bay — come check it out! The topic, “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” Quick summary:

The atheist movement is often accused of being driven by anger. What are so many atheists so angry about? Is this anger legitimate? And can anger be an effective force behind a movement for social change? Greta Christina talks about whether the perception of the atheist movement as an angry one is accurate; whether it’s fair for atheists to be angry at religion in general for harms done by specific religions; whether atheist anger is hurting our movement; and more.

I’ll be speaking for 60 minutes, and will be doing Q&A afterward, so come prepared to grill me. Or just come by to say howdy.

LOCATION: Berkeley Main Library, 3rd Floor Meeting Room, 2090 Kittredge St. (one block from downtown Berkeley BART), Berkeley, CA
TIME: 1:30 – 3:30 PM
SPONSORS: East Bay Atheists
COST: Free

Hope to see you there!

Against Ecumenicalism: Why Atheists Don’t Have to Show “Respect” for Religion

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Progressive believers often ignore religious differences in the name of tolerance. But this ecumenicalism is hypocritical, promotes anti-atheist hostility, and shows a callous disregard for the truth.

Coexist “Can’t we all just get along?”

Among progressive and moderate religious believers, ecumenicalism is a big deal. For many of these believers, being respectful of religious beliefs that are different from theirs is a central guiding principle. In this view, different religions are seen as a beautifully varied tapestry of faith: each strand with its own truths, each with its own unique perspective on God and its own unique way of worshipping him. Her. It. Them. Whatever. Respecting other people’s religious beliefs is a cornerstone of this worldview… to the point where criticizing or even questioning anyone else’s religious belief is seen as rude and offensive at best, bigoted and intolerant at worst.

And this ecumenical approach to religion drives many atheists up a tree.

Including me.

Why?

Don’t atheists want a world where everyone’s right to their own religious views — including no religious views — is universally acknowledged? Don’t we want a world with no religious wars or hatreds? Don’t we want a world where a diversity of perspectives on religion is accepted and even embraced? Why would atheists have any objections at all to the principles of religious ecumenicalism?

Oh, let’s see. Where shall I begin?

Well, for starters: It’s bullshit.

Jerry_Falwell_portrait Progressive and moderate religious believers absolutely have objections to religious beliefs that are different from theirs. Serious, passionate objections. They object to the Religious Right; they object to Al Qaeda. They object to right-wing fundamentalists preaching homophobic hatred, to Muslim extremists executing women for adultery, to the Catholic Church trying to stop condom distribution in AIDS-riddled Africa, to religious extremists all over the Middle East trying to bomb each other back to the Stone Age. Etc., etc., etc. Even when they share the same nominal faith as these believers, they are clearly appalled at the connection: they fervently reject being seen as having anything in common with them, and often go to great lengths to distance themselves from them.

And they should. I’m not saying they shouldn’t. In fact, one of my main critiques of progressive believers is that their opposition to hateful religious extremists isn’t vehement enough.

But it’s disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst, to say that criticism of other religious beliefs is inherently bigoted and offensive… and then make an exception for beliefs that are opposed to your own. You don’t get to speak out about how hard-line extremists are clearly getting Christ’s message wrong (or Mohammad’s, or Moses’, or Buddha’s, or whoever) — and then squawk about religious intolerance when others say you’re the one getting it wrong. That’s just not playing fair.

Mother jones And, of course, it’s ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse — as so many progressive ecumenical believers do — and then expect religion to get a free pass. It’s absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc… and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.

However, if ecumenicalism were just hypocritical bullshit, I probably wouldn’t care very much. Hypocritical bullshit is all over the human race like a cheap suit. I’m not going to get worked up into a lather every time I see another example of it. So why does this bug me so much?

Well, it also bugs me because — in an irony that would be hilarious if it weren’t so screwed-up — a commitment to ecumenicalism all too often leads to intolerance and hostility towards atheists.

Housemate_atheist I’ve been in a lot of debates with religious believers over the years. And some of the ugliest, nastiest, most bigoted anti-atheist rhetoric I’ve heard has come from progressive and moderate believers espousing the supposedly tolerant principles of ecumenicalism. I’ve been called a fascist, a zealot, a missionary; I’ve been called hateful, intolerant, close-minded, dogmatic; I’ve been compared to Glenn Beck and Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler, more times than I can count. All by progressive and moderate believers, who were outraged at the very notion of atheists pointing out the flaws in religious ideas and making an argument that these ideas are probably not true. Progressive and moderate believers who normally are passionate advocates for free expression of ideas will get equally passionate about demanding that atheists shut the hell up. Progressive and moderate believers who normally are all over the idea of diversity and multi-culturalism will get intensely defensive of homogeny when one of the voices in the rich cultural tapestry is saying, “I don’t think God exists, and here’s why.”

Circle holding hands In a way, I can see it. Ecumenicalism is a big, comfy love-fest. (Or, to use a less polite metaphor, a big, happy circle-jerk.) Everyone stands around telling each other how wonderful they are, how fascinating their viewpoint is, how much they contribute to humanity’s rich and evolving vision of God. Everyone is self-deprecating about how their own vision of God is of course human and flawed and limited, and how they’re both humbled and uplifted to see such different perspectives on him/ her/ it/ them/ whatever. Everyone tells the story of the six blind men and the elephant, and how God is too vast and complex and unfathomable for any one person to perfectly understand him, and how all these different religions are just perceiving different aspects of his immensity. And no one ever says anything critical, or even seriously questioning. About anyone. Ever. It’s one gigantic mutual admiration society.

Rain cloud sign And then atheists come along, and ruin everyone’s party. Atheists come along and say, “Well, actually, we don’t think any of you are getting it right.” Atheists come along and ask hard questions, like, “You actually have important differences between your religions — how do you decide which one is true?” Or, “Religion has never once in all of human history turned out to be the right answer to any question — why would you think it’s the right answer to anything we don’t currently understand?” Or, “If there’s no way your belief can be proven wrong, how do you know that it’s right?” Or, “Why do the six blind men just give up? Why don’t they compare notes and trade places and carefully examine the elephant and actually try to figure out what it is? You know — the way we do in science? Why doesn’t this work with religion? Sure, if God existed, he/she/it/they would be vast and complex and hard to fathom… and what, the physical universe isn’t? Doesn’t the fact that this never, ever works with religion strongly suggest that it’s all made up, and there is, in fact, no elephant?” Atheists come along and make unnerving points, like, “The fact that you can’t come to any consensus about religion isn’t a point in your favor — it’s actually one of the strongest points against you.” Atheists come along, like the rain god on everyone’s parade, and say things like, “What reason do any you have to think any of this is true?”

No wonder they don’t like us.

Which leads me to the final objection I have to religious ecumenicalism, and by far the most important one:

It shows a callous disregard for the truth.

What-me-worry This idea that religion is just a matter of opinion? That the most crucial questions about how the universe works and how it came into being should be set aside, because disagreements about it might upset people? That it doesn’t really matter who actually has the correct understanding of God or the soul or whatever, and that when faced with different ideas about these questions, it’s best to just shrug it off, and agree to disagree, and go on thinking whatever makes us feel good? That figuring out what probably is and is not true about humanity and the world is a lower priority than not hurting anyone’s feelings? That reality is less important, and less interesting, than the stories people make up about it?

It drives me up a fucking tree.

In my debates and discussions with religious believers, there’s a question I’ve asked many times: “Do you care whether the things you believe are true?” And I’m shocked at how many times I’ve gotten the answer, “No, not really.” It leaves me baffled, practically speechless. (Hey, I said “practically.”) I mean, even leaving out the pragmatic fails and the moral and philosophical bankruptcy of prioritizing pleasantry over reality… isn’t it grossly disrespectful to the God you supposedly believe in? If you really loved God, wouldn’t you want to understand him as best you can? When faced with different ideas about God, wouldn’t you want to ask some questions, and look at the supporting evidence for the different views, and try to figure out which one is probably true? Doesn’t it seem incredibly insulting to God to treat that question as if it didn’t really matter?

Symbols_of_Religions There are profound differences between different religions. They are not trivial. And the different religions cannot all be right. (Although, as atheists like to point out, they can all be wrong.) Jesus cannot both be and not be the son of God. God cannot be both an intentional, sentient being and a diffuse supernatural force animating all life. God cannot be both a personal intervening force in our daily lives and a vague metaphorical abstraction of the concepts of love and existence. Dead people cannot both go to heaven and be reincarnated. Etc. Etc. Etc.

When faced with these different ideas, are you really going to shrug your shoulders, and say “My, how fascinating, look at all these different ideas, isn’t it amazing how many ways people have of seeing God, what a magnificent tapestry of faith humanity has created”?

Do you really not care which of these ideas is, you know, true?

Joan_of_arc_burning_at_stake A part of me can see where the ecumenicalists are coming from. I think they look at a history filled with religious wars and hatreds, bigotry and violence… and they recoil in horror and revulsion. And they should. I recoil from that stuff, too. It’s not why I’m an atheist — I’m an atheist because I think the religion hypothesis is implausible and unsupported by any good evidence — but it’s a big part of why I’m an atheist activist.

But the ecumenicalists seem to think there are only two options for dealing with religious differences: (a) intolerant evangelism and theocracy, in which people with different religious views are shunned at best and outlawed or brutalized at worst… or (b) uncritical ecumenicalism, in which different religious views are ignored whenever possible, and handled with kid gloves when some sort of handling is absolutely necessary. Ecumenicalists eagerly embrace the second option, largely in horrified response to the first… and they tend to treat any criticism of any religion as if it were automatically part of that ugly, bigoted, violent history.

They don’t see that there’s a third option.

FirstAmendment They don’t see that there’s an option of respecting the important freedom of religious belief… while retaining the right to criticize those beliefs, and to treat them just like we’d treat any other idea we think is mistaken. They don’t see the option of being passionate about the right to religious freedom, of fully supporting the right to believe whatever you like as one of our fundamental human rights… while at the same time seeing the right to criticize ideas we don’t agree with as an equally fundamental right. They don’t see the option of debating and disagreeing without resorting to hatred and violence. They don’t see the option of disagreeing with what people say, while defending to the death their right to say it.

You know. The option advocated by most atheist activists.

United church of christ science I will say this: If the only religious believers in the world were progressive and moderate ecumenical ones, most atheists wouldn’t care very much. We’d still disagree with religion; we’d still think it was implausible at best and ridiculous at worst. But it wouldn’t really get up our noses that much. We’d see it about the same way we see, say, urban legends, or those Internet forwards your aunt Tilda keeps sending you: kind of silly, mildly annoying, but mostly harmless, and not worth getting worked up about. (And, in fact, while I disagree pretty strongly with ecumenical believers, I’m happy to share a world with them, to work in alliance with them on issues we have in common, to sit down at the dinner table with them and enjoy a long evening of food and booze and conversation. As long as we don’t talk about religion.)

American fascists But ecumenicalists are not the only believers. Not by a long shot. When it comes to religion, “live and let live” believers are very much in the minority. And progressive and moderate religion lends an unfortunate credibility to the conservative and extreme varieties. It lends credibility to the idea that faith is more valuable than evidence; to the idea that it’s completely reasonable to believe things we have no good reason to think are true; to the idea that wishful thinking is a good enough reason to believe something. It lends credibility to all the things about religion that makes it most uniquely harmful.

And this ecumenical attitude that reality is an annoying distraction from the far more important business of feeling good — and that insisting on reality is an ugly form of bigoted intolerance — is part and parcel of this unique armor religion has built against valid criticism, questioning, and self- correction.

It is not a protection against the evils of religion.

It is one of them.

The Heterosexual Questionnaire – Video!

“So what do you think caused your heterosexuality?”

“Do you think your heterosexuality might be a phase you’ll grow out of?”

“Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality?”

“What exactly do men and women do in bed together?”

When I was on my recent speaking tour in Iowa and Ohio, I did this hilarious video interview with Ashley Paramore, video blogger extraordinaire and development director of the Secular Student Alliance. In it, I play a very concerned lesbian therapist, trying to “treat” Ashley’s heterosexuality… and asking the kinds of questions that LGBT get asked all the freaking time. (After all, there are so few happy heterosexuals in the world — wouldn’t you want to be cured of it if you could?)

Video after the jump, since putting it before the jump mucks up my archives. Enjoy!

[Read more...]

Why It’s Not a ‘Safe Bet’ to Believe In God

The idea that you should believe in God “just in case” trivializes both faith and reality, and concedes your argument before it’s begun.

Red_dice “Why not believe in God? If you believe and you turn out to be wrong, you haven’t lost anything. But if you don’t believe and you turn out to be wrong, you lose everything. Isn’t believing the safer bet?”

In debates about religion, this argument keeps coming up. Over, and over, and over again. In almost any debate about religion, if the debate lasts long enough, someone is almost guaranteed to bring it up. The argument even has a name: Pascal’s Wager, after Blaise Pascal, the philosopher who most famously formulated it.

And it makes atheists want to tear our hair out.

Not because it’s a great argument… but because it’s such a manifestly lousy one. It doesn’t make logical sense. It doesn’t make practical sense. It trivializes the whole idea of both belief and non-belief. It trivializes reality. In fact, it concedes the argument before it’s even begun. Demolishing Pascal’s Wager is like shooting fish in a barrel. Unusually slow fish, in a tiny, tiny barrel. I almost feel guilty writing an entire piece about it. It’s such low-hanging fruit.

But alas, it’s a ridiculously common argument. In fact, it’s one of the most common arguments made in favor of religion. So today, I’m going to take a deep breath, and put on a hat so I don’t tear my hair out, and spend a little time annihilating it.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why It’s Not a ‘Safe Bet’ to Believe In God. To watch me tear apart Pascal’s Wager, stomp it into tiny pieces, bury the pieces, and then dig them up so I can tear them apart all over again, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

No, Atheists Don’t Have to Show “Respect” for Religion

Progressive believers often ignore religious differences in the name of tolerance. But this ecumenicalism promotes anti-atheist hostility and shows a disregard for the truth.

Coexist“Can’t we all just get along?”

Among progressive and moderate religious believers, ecumenicalism is a big deal. For many of these believers, being respectful of religious beliefs that are different from theirs is a central guiding principle. In this view, different religions are seen as a beautifully varied tapestry of faith: each strand with its own truths, each with its own unique perspective on God and its own unique way of worshipping him. Her. It. Them. Whatever. Respecting other people’s religious beliefs is a cornerstone of this worldview… to the point where criticizing or even questioning anyone else’s religious belief is seen as rude and offensive at best, bigoted and intolerant at worst.

And this ecumenical approach to religion drives many atheists up a tree.

Including me.

Why?

Don’t atheists want a world where everyone’s right to their own religious views — including no religious views — is universally acknowledged? Don’t we want a world with no religious wars or hatreds? Don’t we want a world where a diversity of perspectives on religion is accepted and even embraced? Why would atheists have any objections at all to the principles of religious ecumenicalism?

Oh, let’s see. Where shall I begin?

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, No, Atheists Don’t Have to Show “Respect” for Religion. To find out why on earth any atheist would object to the idea of interfaith respect, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Greta’s Speaking Tour, Iowa and Ohio, Feb. 7-12 – and Blog Break

Greetings from ohioOne last reminder: If you’re in Iowa or Ohio — specifically around Cedar Falls in Iowa, or Dayton, Oxford, or Columbus in Ohio — come hear me speak! I’m going to be doing a speaking tour, February 7-12, at various university campuses and humanist/ atheist/ secular groups in Iowa and Ohio. My stops will be at University of Northern Iowa, Wright State University, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio State University, and the Humanist Community of Central Ohio. All events are free of charge.

I’ll be speaking on the topics of “Atheism and Sexuality” and “Diversity in the Atheist Movement.” (Yeah, I know — the college groups always want the sex talk. What do you expect?) Here are summaries of the talks:

Atheism and sexuality. The sexual morality of traditional religion tends to be based, not on solid ethical principles, but on a set of taboos about what kinds of sex God does and doesn’t want people to have. And while the sex-positive community offers a more thoughtful view of sexual morality, it still often frames sexuality as positive by seeing it as a spiritual experience. What are some atheist alternatives to these views? How can atheists view sexual ethics without a belief in God? And how can atheists view sexual transcendence without a belief in the supernatural?

Diversity in the atheist movement. The most visible representatives of the atheist movement tend to be white men. Is this a problem? If so, should the atheist movement be doing something about it — and if so, what?

I’ll be doing Q&A at every talk, so come prepared to grill me, ask me that question you’ve always wanted to ask, or just say howdy. The tour is being sponsored by the amazing Secular Student Alliance. Here are the details:

*

UNIFI.logoLOCATION: University of Northern Iowa, Center for Multicultural Education, Maucker Union, Cedar Falls, IA
TIME: 7:00-8:00 PM
EVENT: Darwin Week
SPONSOR: University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI)
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality

Freethought WSULOCATION: Wright State University, Oelman Hall, Room 112, Dayton, OH
TIME: 6:00-8:00 pm
SPONSOR: Freethought WSU
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality

Miami universityLOCATION: Miami University, 116 Pearson Hall, Oxford, OH
TIME: 7:30-9:00 pm
SPONSORS: Secular Students of Miami, Spectrum, and Pro-Choice Miami
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality

Ohio stateLOCATION: Ohio State University, Hitchcock Hall 131, Columbus, OH
TIME: 7:30-9:00 pm
SPONSOR: Students for Freethought at Ohio State University
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality

HccoLOCATION: Columbus, OH, Northwood High Building, 2231 N. High St., Room 100
(just north of OSU’s main campus; there is ample free parking in the back of the building)
TIME: 1:00 – 3:00 pm
SPONSOR: Humanist Community of Central Ohio
TOPIC: Diversity in the Atheist Movement

Hope to see you there!

And no, I probably won’t be blogging much, if at all, while I’m gone. Please bravely wipe away a tear, and try to find the strength to somehow carry on without me. See y’all soon!