Supporting Camp Quest and Crushing PZ Myers — The Last Ditch

Camp quest logo

UPDATE: Jen McCreight at Blag Hag is throwing her hat into the “make a public spectacle of one’s self for this cause” ring. If Team Awesome wins this contest, she will attempt to learn how to ride a bicycle, and, in her words, “videotape the whole inevitably hilarious experience.” Come on, folks. There is no way you can pass this up.

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I am prepared to publicly humiliate myself for atheism.

And so are Matt Dillahunty, Adam Lee, and JT Eberhard.

One-time offer. Take it or leave it.

Here’s the deal. There’s the blogger contest I’ve been gassing on about, a competition to see who can raise more money for Camp Quest, the kids’ camp for children of atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and other non-supernaturalists. The contest is between Team Awesome on one side — a bunch of scrappy underdog atheist bloggers, with me, Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist, Jen McCreight of Blag Hag, JT Eberhard of WWJTD?, Digital Cuttlefish at The Digital Cuttlefish, Sikivu Hutchinson at Black Skeptics Group, Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism, The Chaplain at An Apostate’s Chapel, C.L. Hanson at Letters From a Broad, and Matt Dillahunty at The Atheist Experience — and on the opposing team, PZ Myers, evil cephalopod overlord at Pharyngula, all by his lonesome on the other side.

You may have noticed that there are more players on Team Awesome than had been originally announced. That’s because we are amoral atheists.We took a page from the religious apologists’ handbook, moved the goalposts, and frantically rounded up a bunch of other atheist bloggers to battle for our side.

And yet, as of this writing, PZ is… what’s that word?… winning. Not by much — we’re closing in, and have narrowed the gap to less than $2,000 — but we only have a few days to finish the job. If we don’t raise more money for Camp Quest by June 1, PZ will officially pwn each and every one of us.

We can’t let that happen. Well, okay, we can… but we really, really don’t want to.

So a few of us have agreed to make fools of ourselves in public for the cause. If Team Awesome wins, the following bloggers will make the following absurd public gestures:

* Since PZ Myers has offered to shave his beard into a hideous ’80s mustache if he wins — and really, you should donate to our side for that reason alone — Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism has agreed to grow a beard if Team Awesome wins. Thus preserving Atheist Blogger Beard Homeostasis, and preventing the world as we know it from collapsing into some sort of hideous beardly space-time nexus.

* Matt Dillahunty at The Atheist Experience TV program will do one episode of the show in drag.

* JT Eberhard of WWJTD? will shave his head… and wax his legs.

And what will Greta Christina do? I hear you cry.

* Greta Christina — she said, with a quiver of dread in her voice — will do karaoke.

Let me be very clear about this: I have never done karaoke. I have never wanted to do karaoke. I am a karaoke virgin.

But if Team Awesome wins the Camp Quest fundraising challenge, I will pop my karaoke cherry.

And I will get it on video, and post the video to this blog and to my Facebook page.

You can’t pass that up, can you?

You have until June 1. Here’s the ChipIn widget. Make it so!

Oh, right. The actual cause we’re raising money for. You probably want to know a little more about that, don’t you?

If you’re not familiar with them, Camp Quest is the first residential summer camp in the history of the United States aimed at the children of Atheists, Freethinkers, Humanists, Brights, or whatever other terms might be applied to those who hold to a naturalistic, not supernatural world view. The purpose of Camp Quest is to provide children of freethinking parents a residential summer camp dedicated to improving the human condition through rational inquiry, critical and creative thinking, scientific method, self-respect, ethics, competency, democracy, free speech, and the separation of religion and government.

The nontheist community offers many programs for adults, but very few for children. To provide a future for our values we need to provide freethinking families with a place for their kids to find community, develop critical thinking skills, and learn ethics and values. Fortunately, that is what Camp Quest is all about. Well, that, and all of the summer camp fun that you can pack into a week.

Camp Quest builds a community for children and teenagers from atheist, agnostic, humanist and other freethinking families. They provide campers a place to explore their developing worldviews, ask questions, and make friends in an environment supportive of critical thinking and skepticism. Camp Quest is open to campers from all backgrounds. They encourage campers to think for themselves, be comfortable with who they are, and engage respectfully with people who have different views.

And yes, Camp Quest is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, and donations are tax deductible.

You can help support this awesome cause, strengthen the future of the atheist community… and help stave off the crushing arms of PZ’s cephalopod army! Just click on the handy Chipin widget. That number again:

How can you pass this up? Get that jolt of good altruism chemicals in your brain… and get the entertainment value of seeing your favorite atheist bloggers make public spectacles of themselves! It’s win-win!

High School Student Stands Up Against Prayer at Public School and Is Ostracized, Demeaned and Threatened

When a high school atheist tried to stop prayer at his graduation, he was harassed and kicked out of his house. But the atheist community stepped in.

Damon FowlerWhatever you think about atheists — good, bad, mixed, indifferent — this story should seriously trouble you.

Damon Fowler, an atheist student at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, was about to graduate. His public school was planning to have a prayer as part of the graduation ceremony: as they traditionally did, as so many public schools around the country do every year. But Fowler — knowing that government- sponsored prayer in the public schools are unconstitutional and legally forbidden — contacted the school superintendent to let him know that he opposed the prayer, and would be contacting the ACLU if it happened. The school — at first, anyway — agreed, and cancelled the prayer.

Then Fowler’s name, and his role in this incident, was leaked. And, as a direct result:

1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.

2) One of Fowler’s teachers has publicly demeaned him.

3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to “jump him” at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.

4) Fowler’s parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the front porch.

Oh, and by the way? They went ahead and had the graduation prayer anyway.

Before we get into the details of all this, let’s be very, very clear about the facts and the law here: Nobody — not Fowler, not the ACLU, nobody — is telling anybody at Bastrop High School that they can’t pray. People can pray at graduations and other school events all they want. The sole issue here is whether a public school can have a prayer at a graduation or other school event as an official, school- sponsored part of the program. Individual prayer? Hunky dory. Off-campus prayers at churches or private events? Knock yourself out. Government promotion of a religious agenda? Not so much. What with the First Amendment and the “establishment of religion” bit and all.

It’s a law and a Constitution that protects everybody, not just atheists. If you wouldn’t want to be subjected to a government- sponsored Buddhist prayer, you ought not to be subjecting others to a government- sponsored Christian prayer.

Okay. I hope that’s clear.

So here’s a little more detail about what exactly happened with Damon Fowler.

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Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, High School Student Stands Up Against Prayer at Public School and Is Ostracized, Demeaned and Threatened. To find out more about how exactly the ostracization of Damon Fowler has unfolded — and how the atheist community has stepped up to the plate — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Atheism, Sexism, Etc.: An Update

Important update on yesterday’s post about sexist comments made by David Eller at the Oakland Rapture RAM:

David Eller has offered an apology. A genuine one this time. It’s posted on Jen’s blog: Eller offers an apology. Good for him. This sort of situation can go south and get ugly very quickly: good for Eller for not going there, and for acknowledging his error. That’s exactly the kind of behavior atheists should be modeling, and he’s done a good job of it here. I posted this update as an addendum to the original post, but thought I should also post it separately, in case anyone missed it.

Atheism, Sexism, and Pretty Blonde Videobloggers: or, What Jen Said

UPDATE: Eller has offered an apology. A genuine one this time. It’s posted on Jen’s blog: Eller offers an apology. Good for him. This sort of situation can go south and get ugly very quickly: good for Eller for not going there, and for acknowledging his error. That’s exactly the kind of behavior atheists should be modeling, and he’s done a good job of it here.

Jen McCreight So I’m going to start by saying: What Jen McCreight said. The American Atheists Regional Atheist Meetup/ Rapture party in Oakland was neat. I heard many excellent speakers (including Jen herself); I met some wonderful new people, and got better acquainted with some wonderful folks I’d already met; I feel more connected now with my local atheist community. The stuff I’m going to talk about here was not the responsibility of the organizers, who did a fine job putting this event together.

So. The stuff I’m going to talk about here. Specifically, David Eller’s talk on Sunday at the conference, about how atheists needs to work more on creating an appealing culture/ community that’s an alternative to religion. At which he said and did the following (paraphrasing here, sorry — as far as I know there’s no video or audio record of any of this):

ZOMGitsCriss) a) Gave, as examples of how we’re offering an attractive atheist alternative to religious culture, popular videobloggers Laci Green and Cristina Rad (ZOMGitsCriss), with photos of them on his PowerPoint screen — and made a point of saying how great it was that these videobloggers were so pretty, and how it was helpful to have a pretty blonde Romanian videoblogging to make atheism more appealing. Without any mention of any other qualities these women had that made them popular and appealing, other than their prettiness and blondeness. (And, I guess, their Romanian-ness.)

b) Provided a list of positive atheist role models we could promote — all but one of whom were male, and every single freaking one of whom was white.

c) Suggested that we should keep doing Boobquake every year, since it was exactly the sort of fun event that made atheism seem appealing. At which point, someone in the audience shouted out, “Boobs are great!”

d) When called on the videoblogger thing by Jen McCreight during the Q&A, semi-apologized for having offended anyone — and then went to on say that of course he thought these female videobloggers were smart and thoughtful and witty and insightful and inspiring and so on, and of course we should have understood that he’d meant all that (even though he didn’t say it). And then went on to say that it was still a good thing that these women were pretty, because that made atheism more appealing to men.

So again, I pretty much want to say, “What Jen said.” (Or, to be more accurate, “What Jen said… and another thing…”)

Okay. Deep breath. Let’s take these one at a time. And then let’s look at the big picture.

Beauty myth a) Do we really have to explain — again — that women in the atheist movement, or anywhere for that matter, have value other than as ornaments? Do we really have to explain — again — that women in our culture routinely get treated as if we don’t matter except to be sexually and aesthetically enjoyed by men, and that this is demeaning and belittling, and that men (and women, for that matter) need to be very careful not to go there? Do we really have to explain — again — what women feel like when this happens? What it feels like to be a pretty young blonde woman in that audience who is smart and talented and hard-working, and who suddenly gets her smarts and talent and hard work dismissed as secondary to her looks? What it feels like to be a non-pretty, non-young, non-blonde woman in that audience who is smart and talented and hard-working, and who suddenly gets her smarts and talent and hard work eradicated, because her looks apparently aren’t tempting enough to get anyone to listen to her ideas? Do we really have to explain — again — that there is a time and place for everything, and that while we’re not trying to squelch sexuality or flirtatiousness, and while there are appropriate times and places for commenting favorably on women’s attractiveness, a serious talk about strategy in the atheist movement is not one of them?

And do we really have to explain — again — that this isn’t just insulting to women? That it’s insulting to men as well? Do we have to explain — as was pointed out in the comment thread on Jen’s post — how insulting it is to men to tell them that the main reason they’ll be drawn to atheism is the pretty girls, and that they’ll only care about female atheists because of their looks? Do we have to explain that this attitude is heterosexist as well as sexist: that it assumes all atheist men want to look at pretty girls… and no atheist women do?

Do we really have to explain all this again?

Yes. I guess we do.

Okay. Consider it explained. Again.

Dawkins_dennett_harris_and_hitchens_tshirt b) When we’re discussing leaders, icons, and other role models in the atheist movement, there is no excuse for our lists to be dominated by white men. And there is not even a shred of an excuse for those lists to be overwhelmingly dominated by men, to the point where women get relegated to the status of a single token… and people of color are rendered entirely invisible.

We’ve been over this. And over it, and over it, and over it. (Here are my own rants about it.) This one is a no-brainer. This one is easy and painless. When you want to talk about atheist role models, in history or alive and active today, you need to spend ten minutes looking at lists of prominent female atheists and atheists of color, and put a few of them on your list. (If they’re not just popping into your mind automatically, that is.) It’s an easy and painless way to make atheism not look like a Whites Only, Men Only club. It’s an easy and painless way to make it clear that you recognize that women and people of color, you know, exist, and are part of this movement, and have always been part of this movement, and are welcomed and appreciated as equal participants and contributors. It’s not rocket science. Why is this still not happening?

As Jen said, better than I could ever say it myself, “Yep, someone giving a talk on how to improve our community was horrendously out of touch with one of the most important and commonly discussed issues in said community. The irony has not escaped me.”

I_survived_boobquake_4_26_2010_tshirt c) Boobquake. Okay. First of all: Should we keep doing Boobquake every year? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe we should ask the woman who instigated it? The woman who has made it clear, repeatedly, that the answer is a clear, resounding “NO!”?

Jen McCreight has made it clear that Boobquake was a one-time event. She’s explained her reasons. She even explained her reasons during her talk at this event. (Given that multiple people at this conference made inappropriate comments about her chest, I can’t blame her.) Perhaps, when considering whether we should continue doing Boobquake every year, we first ought to consult the woman who created it.

And second of all: Do we really have to explain — again — that Boobquake was not just about boobs? Boobquake was about the demonization and suppression of women’s bodies and women’s sexuality. It was a fun, sexy, “the Emperor has no clothes” mockery of this demonization and suppression — but it was ultimately about the demonization and suppression. The idea that we should keep doing Boobquake because boobs are cool… that is missing the whole freaking point.

Now, I’ll be honest: This one probably wouldn’t have bugged me that much if it hadn’t been for the other stuff that happened during this talk. Boobquake was a complicated event, and a big part of its point was a celebration of women’s bodies and women’s sexuality, and if people treat it solely as such without what I consider to be a properly nuanced perspective… well, whatever. I don’t like it, but it’s not the crime of the century. In any other context, I would have let this one slide. But given all the other stuff that happened during this talk… it was part of the vibe, part of the bigger picture. And the bigger picture was seriously not okay.

SORRY d) The semi-apology.

I have to take a big, deep breath for this one.

Okay. First of all. If you want your audience to understand that of course you recognize that female videobloggers are smart and thoughtful and witty and insightful and inspiring and so on and don’t have value simply for their appearance… then you should say that the first time around. You shouldn’t assume that this is a given, that of course we understand that. Again: We live in a culture that routinely treats women as ornaments, as having worth only for the sexual and aesthetic pleasure we give men and for our ability to produce children. When you point to women who are icons in the movement, and only mention how pretty they are, without saying anything about their other qualities? It plays right into that trope.

Eller is an anthropologist. He is also, clearly, a smart guy. He should know all this.

And second: When you say that having pretty women as atheist icons is good because it will make atheism more appealing to men? You aren’t just playing into the “women have value only as ornaments” trope. You are actively perpetuating it. You are directly feeding it. You are essentially saying that the male atheists are the ones who count, the ones we need to worry about. You are essentially saying that female atheists have value only as bait, to draw the important atheists, the male atheists, into the community. You are essentially saying — to use a cliche of old-school feminism, but in this case it’s a cliche because it’s true — that men are the subjects of our community, and women are the objects of it.

That. Is. Not. Okay.

Mistakes_were_made I get that, when we’re put on the spot about a screw-up , we don’t always handle it well. We get defensive, we get our backs up, we find it hard to admit that we screwed up. We are rationalizing creatures, and when someone tells us that we made a mistake or hurt someone, our brains are wired to defend our image of ourselves as good, smart people. I get that. I’ve done it myself. I don’t always handle criticism well. Especially public criticism. It’s how our brains are wired.

But if you’re a public figure, you need to find a way to re-wire your brain. You need to suck it up and deal.

Here’s a sentence to memorize: “I need to think about this.” If you have your back up and you’re getting defensive and you don’t have it in you at that moment to simply say, “I’m sorry, you’re right, that was screwed up, full stop”… say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize the effect that would have, I need to think about this.” It gives you time to absorb the cognitive dissonance. It gives you a way to apologize and still save face. (Especially in the atheist/ skeptical movement, where we value the ability to admit mistakes and change one’s mind.) And it gives you time to seriously reflect on whether you did, in fact, screw up, and what you might do differently in the future.

When you get called on your shit in public? Your apology should not make it clear that you don’t, in fact, get why it is that people are criticizing you. Your apology should not be a repetition of the same mistakes you’re being called on. Your apology should not make things worse.

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Okay. Now. Some big picture stuff.

This isn’t about “David Eller is a bad bad man.” David Eller is clearly a smart guy, and while I disagree with him on some strategy stuff, I think he has some good ideas that are worth listening to. I don’t think this was conscious, mean-spirited sexism; I think it was unconscious, unintentional sexism. And I hope he can take this post in the spirit in which it’s intended. This isn’t about “David Eller is a bad bad man”: this is about “This is an all-too-common pattern in the atheist community: it happens far too often, and it happened again at this event, and we need to point it out when it happens so hopefully it doesn’t happen again.”

Because this is not an isolated incident. Far from it. This kind of stuff keeps happening. It’s a pattern. Women in the atheist movement commonly feel trivialized, invisible-ized, and inappropriately sexualized. (The wide applause and cries of “Thank you!” that met Jen’s comment at this event should make that clear.) And many women stay away from the atheist movement as a result of this. I see some signs that this is getting better, and I have hopes that it will continue to get better — but it’s still a common problem, and it’s still a serious problem.

Speech bubbles And it’s not going to get better unless we talk about it. And keep talking about it.

I’ve explained before why we should care about this. I’m not going to explain that again in detail here. The quick and dirty summary: We should care because sexism hurts people, and we’re good people who don’t want to hurt other people. And we should care because it’s creating real problems in the community and the movement, and our movement will be stronger in ten or twenty or fifty years if we deal with this stuff now.

Like Jen, I don’t love making a stink about this. I really wanted my conference report to be, “I heard many excellent speakers; I met some wonderful new people, and got better acquainted with some wonderful folks I’d already met; I feel more connected now with my local atheist community.” I don’t want to start the next firestorm that eats the atheosphere for a week, and I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen here.

But as Jen said, “The more we let crap like this slide, the more it’s going to get perpetuated. And I don’t want the atheist movement of 2021 to be a room full of white men scratching their heads, wondering what went wrong.”

So yeah.

What Jen said.

Live-blogging the Rapture

Rapture billboard

Well, if the end of the world really is nigh, there ought to be some documentation of it for future generations. Oh, wait. There won’t be any future generations. Still. It stand to reason. I mean, if hundreds of years from now, space aliens or something visit the charred remains of our post-Apocalyptic planet and wonder, “What the heck happened here?”, perhaps there ought to be a record. It seems like the sensible thing to do.

So JT Eberhard (WWJTD?), Jen McCreight (BlagHag), and I are going to be live-blogging the Rapture.

Because where will be the first place that visiting space aliens will search for a record of the last days of human life on Earth? Snarky atheist blogs, of course!

Supposedly, the Rapture will be happening at 6pm, in each time zone around the globe. Because God cares so very much about the international date line. (As Ingrid said when we were talking about this on Facebook, “It’s almost scientific, except for the part where it has no basis in reality.”) Okay, yes, it has been pointed out that this lends an unfair advantage to those of us living in the more Westerly time zones — if we see news reports of people being raptured in Australia and Tokyo, we’ll have a chance to repent that they didn’t get. (Let’s hear it for the argument for locality!) And I don’t know what’s supposed to happen to the people on the space station. But who are we to question God’s wisdom and might? Well, his might, anyway.

So I’ll be keeping an eye on world events as they unfold at 6pm in each time zone, from New Zealand to Hawaii. And just to be fair, in case they got the 6pm thing wrong, I’ll also keep an eye on world events as they unfold at midnight in each time zone, from New Zealand to Hawaii. I won’t be making a point of being awake for each of these time zone changes — I’m not going to stay up around the clock for this damn dumb thing, especially since I’m giving a talk on Sunday the 22nd — but I’ll take a peek at the New York Times at occasional intervals, and report on how we’re doing.

If we make it to midnight of May 22 everywhere around the world, I think we can assume we’re in the clear.

***

Okay. We’re starting. 5:11 pm in San Francisco; just past midnight in New Zealand. No rapture-type events reported as of this writing. Most recent New Zealand headline on the New York Times: “Air New Zealand Videos Get Tailwind From Social Media.” To quote Peter Cook, “Not exactly the conflagration we’d been looking for.” But heck — it’s not 6pm yet. It still could happen. And monkeys could fly out of my butt. There is a vanishingly small but non-zero chance of butt monkeys.

***

Damn. It’s been pointed out to me that it’s actually just past noon in New Zealand, not just past midnight. Boy, do I have egg on my face. How am I supposed to document the beginning of the eradication of humanity if I can’t even read my World Clock right? Some Rapture reporter I am.

Anyway. It’s now 5/21 in New Zealand, Tokyo, Moscow, and London. Not 6pm yet, though. So we could still be on the hook for this thing. Stay tuned to this station for further developments.

***

It’s past 6pm in the first time zone where it could be past 6pm; an island in the Pacific called Kiribati. No earthquakes, apparently. CNN is discussing “Celebrity Apprentice.” They are clearly covering up the the real truth.

***

Well past 6pm in New Zealand: 7:54 pm, in fact. Top headline of the New Zealand Herald as of this writing: “Labour proposes dedicated ‘Ministry for Children.’” Lacking a bit in that “earthquakes/ conflagrations/ sea of blood” quality, but I suppose it could be a sign of God’s wrath in some way. Other headlines from New Zealand: “Hubbard asset freeze to be reviewed,” “MasterChef’s backer drops support for school breakfasts,” and, “MPs love property and petanque.” Well, I guess that word “petanque” could be code for something…

A few other updates on the news coverage of this literally earth-shattering event. Top headline of the New York Times as of this writing: “Divisions Are Clear as Obama and Netanyahu Discuss Peace.” On TV, Headline News has Donny and Marie on the Joy Behar Show. CNBC has a “get rich now” infomercial. MSNBC has “Lockup: Indiana.” CSPAN has the Asia Society & U.S. Institute of Peace on the Future of Pakistan. The NASA channel — and you’d think if anyone would be covering the global conflagration cascading across the globe time zone by time zone, it’d be the NASA channel — has still photos of the space station. And CNN is talking to Dick Van Dyke about his new book. I didn’t know Dick Van Dyke was still alive. I suppose that could be a supernatural event of some kind…

Oh, and the in the Los Angeles Times? New Zealand region yet to suffer destruction forecast by Oakland-based doomsday predictor. They are reporting no earthquakes in the region. I freaking love that the L.A. Times is live-blogging the Rapture.

***

7:30am California time. Tokyo and Moscow should be dust by now. Hm. Apparently not. CNN has the Doomsday story right now, but it’s a jokey, “Gee, some people think the world is ending today” piece — not a “Tokyo, Moscow collapse into the earth, repent now before it’s too late” story. Google search for “Moscow news” gets “IDF attaché sought intel. on Russia-Arab arms trade,” and “Tokyo news” gets “Wen, Lee Show Support for Japan Recovery Effort.” No, no, no! Recovery effort? That’s not apocalyptic at all! That’s, like, the opposite of apocalyptic! Harumph.

***

9:15 am California time. Family Radio (Harold Camping’s station) was on in the car ride over to the conference. Strangely non-apocalyptic. Music, light chatter, and some kid’s story about inviting people to meet Jesus. You’d think it’d be a little late for that now.

***

BTW, if you want to track earthquake activity for the day, you can do it on the U.S. Geological Survey website.

(checking)

Sheesh, dude. Is that all you got?

***

Just past 6pm in London. Main headline in the London Times as of this writing: “Twitter fury as footballer takes legal action.” Well, Twitter fury is sort of like the wrath of God… right?

***

Update in London: Guardian U.K. DOES have a story about the Rapture!

Oh, wait. It’s about how the Rapture isn’t happening. Never mind.

You know, I really do love how many news outlets are covering the “Rapture Not Happening” story. It’s as if the worldwide news media was covering the story, “Suspension Bridges Around the World Not Turning Into Fish.”

***

Well, Jesus did make an appearance in Oakland.

Jen jesus

A little ahead of schedule, but mysterious ways, who are we to question, yada yada yada. Here at the atheist convention, oddly enough. Told a few jokes, took a few questions. Nice guy. Has some sort of beef with Ed Hardy, but pretty easy-going overall. Didn’t say anything about the world ending today, though. Hm. Wonder if they got that wrong. Naaaaah.

(Photo by Jen McCreight at BlagHag, shamelessly swiped from her own live-blogging of the Rapture.)

***

Okay. It should be hitting New York right about now.

***

OOO! Is that it? The New York Times is doing live updates!

***

Nope. False alarm. The New York Times is doing live updates of the Preakness Stakes.

***

Hm. 6:10 pm in New York City. Headlines on the New York Times website as of this reading: “Promise of Arab Uprisings Is Threatened by Divisions.” Okay: uprisings, divisions.. that’s sort of apocalyptic, right? How about, “In the Golan Heights, Anxious Eyes Look East to Syria.” Okay, anxious eyes on Syria… because of the people being raptured there, right? No? Okay, how about, “Guard Dog to the Stars (Legally Speaking).”

Oh, piffle. This is just sad.

***

Just talked to my brother in Chicago. All seems to be normal there. Or normal for Chicago. Rapture-free, at any rate. No earthquakes, no brimstone, no flocks of the faithful ascending through the skies. He says the weather was grey and drizzly earlier in the morning, but the sun came out later in the day, which may be a sign of some sort.

***

6pm in Oakland!

***

Aaaaaaaaaand…

***

Well, my soul might have been raptured up to Heaven. But Greta without a soul is indistinguishable from Greta with a soul. So I’m not sure how anybody would know.

***

Ingrid says Hi, by the way. And she says, “Cheer up. It’s not the end of the world.”

***

Oh, wait. Something’s happening…

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Rapture<br clear=all /

***

This is me, Mr. Deity, Jen McCreight, Matt Dillahunty, Ashley Paramore, and several other atheists being raptured. We bounced off the ceiling, though, and came back. Damn acoustic tile.

***

Apparently there was just a little earthquake in Oakland. I didn’t feel it, but other people at the atheist conference did. Ripple of derisive, slightly nervous laughter. The world seems to be continuing on, though. Maybe the apocalypse is waiting until Mr. Deity finishes his talk.

***

Earthquake was a 3.6. Yeah, that’s Armageddon all right. [facepalm]

***

Well, fine. It’s past 6pm on May 21, everywhere in the world. According to Reuters, Harold Camping has gone entirely silent; the shades are drawn on his house, nobody is answering the door, and he has yet to issue any sort of comment on the complete lack of anything interesting or unusual happening today. (Well… anything other than Rapture parties, anyway…)

Headlines on the New York Times: Many of the same ones as my last update, but a few new ones. “Ivory Coast’s New President Urges Unity.” “Daniels Decides Against G.O.P. Presidential Bid.” “Blogger With ‘Man Crush’ Wins Putin Scoop.” Oh, for goodness’ sake. It’s like they’re trying to make the news as bland and non-apocalyptic as possible. (I especially love that last one.)

I’m going to give this way more of the benefit of the doubt than it deserves, and wait ’til it’s May 22 everywhere in the world before I absolutely officially call it. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Sleep tight, everybody!

***

That’s it. It’s today, everywhere in the world, except in the places where it’s tomorrow. May 21, 2011 has 100% come and gone, and no Rapture. The world continues to turn, more or less as usual.

And now, a quick, slightly serious word.

Lots of us have been making fun of the Rapture in recent days and weeks. And we should: it was a ridiculous idea, and ridiculous ideas should be ridiculed. But real harm was done during this hysteria. People depleted their life’s savings, their childrens’ college funds, ran up their credit cards, to fund this stupid billboard campaign — which whipped up more people into more hysteria so they could deplete their life’s savings. Religion does real harm in the world. I am entirely in favor of making fun of it… partly because it’s fun to do so, but mostly because religion does real harm, and making fun of it is one of the most effective tools we have for dismantling it. Religion depends on social consent to survive and perpetuate itself. We have to deny that consent. We have to keep pointing out, at every available opportunity, that the Emperor has no clothes.

And we have to keep pointing out, at every available opportunity, that this world — this beautiful, terrible, ordinary, spectacular, fascinating, sad, hard, funny, and entirely small-R rapturous world — is enough.

Thank you for your patience. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Rapture Fear: What If The End Really Is Nigh?

May-21-Rapture-Billboard So I have something embarrassing to admit.

With all the talk about the Rapture that’s supposedly coming on May 21? With all the Rapture parties, the snarky jokes, the atheist conferences around the country specifically scheduled on Rapture Weekend for the purpose of making fun of it?

There is a tiny, tiny part of me that’s scared.

There is a tiny, tiny part of me that’s been wondering, for occasional intermittent nanoseconds, “What if they’re right?”

And I’m wondering if that’s happening with anyone else.

Homer-simpson-the-end-is-near Now, let me make this very clear, very quickly: There is no part of me that seriously thinks this Rapture thing is going to happen. It’s beyond absurd. The number of times that people have predicted the exact date of the Rapture, or some other supernatural end of the world, is off the charts. Even if the hypothesis of any sort of God or supernatural world were plausible — which I don’t think it is — this particular hypothesis? The hypothesis that if you take a demonstrably inaccurate book written by Bronze Age goatherders and crunch the numbers in it in a special way like it was the Da Vinci Code or something, you’ll know the exact date and hour that God is coming to pour suckitude on his beloved creation while he carries a handful of his bestest friends to a permanent party in the sky? It’s laughable on the face of it. It’s the equivalent of a hand-scrawled sign held up by a raving street-corner preacher saying, “The End Is Nigh”… except it’s a really big sign, being held up on street corners around the country, by a preacher who happens to have a radio show and a budget instead of a soapbox on the corner. I am appalled at how many people are taking this thing so seriously, to the point where they’re quitting their jobs and spending their life savings on this stupid ad campaign. And I’m tickled pink at the degree to which the defiant, mocking, festively scornful response to it has caught on… not just among atheist activists, but in the public at large.

Rapture-billboard-2 And yet, when I see the Rapture billboards or hear the news stories about them, there is this tiny part of me that — just for a nanosecond — gets scared. There’s a tiny part of me that wonders, just for a nanosecond, “Could this Rapture thing really happen?”

It’s embarrassing to admit this. I feel like it makes me a failure as an atheist, a failure as a skeptic. I haven’t wanted to say anything about it… even to myself. I had to screw up my courage even to mention it to Ingrid. Acknowledging it in public feels seriously uncomfortable.

But I’ve built my career on saying things that people don’t want to talk about; things that people are embarrassed and uncomfortable about; things that people keep secret. And almost every time I have, I’ve been glad. I’ve felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. And almost always every time, I’ve gotten a grateful and relieved response from other people saying, “Oh, thank goodness you said something — I thought I was the only one!”

I’m not going to stop now.

I want to talk about this — and I want to look at what’s going on.

*

Brain_1 Here’s what I think is going on. Part of my mammalian hindbrain reflexively assumes that, if a whole lot of other people believe something, it’s probably true. Or at least, that it’s plausible. Or at the very least, that it can’t be completely ruled out, and isn’t just flatly stupid on the face of it, and ought to be given a moment of serious consideration. There is a part of my mammalian hindbrain that, when it sees a whole bunch of people freaking out over what they see as an imminent terrible danger, gets a little jolt of alarmed adrenaline.

And it’s not just my own mammalian hindbrain. It’s all our mammalian hindbrains. (Even if you’re not scared about the Rapture.) The human brain is wired with a number of cognitive biases and errors in thinking: biases and errors that have good evolutionary reasons to be there, that have helped our ancestors survive and reproduce, but that do get in the way when we’re trying to carefully figure out what is and isn’t true in the world. And of all these biases, one of the trickiest is communal reinforcement — otherwise known as the argument from popularity. “If lots of other people think this,” our mammalian hindbrain tells us, “it must be true!”

Tiger It’s a bias that does have real evolutionary value. If everyone in your tribe is screaming “Tiger!”, and you don’t see one, it still makes sense to run. And I would argue that this bias has some genuine philosophical value as well. Other people can, in fact, be a useful reality check. After all, it’s not like I’m always right about everything. If everyone I know is telling me I’m wrong about something… well, that’s not automatically a reason to change my mind, but it is a reason to stop and think for a moment about whether I might want to.

So the more I thought about this, the more I realized that these fleeting moments of Rapture fear don’t actually make me a bad skeptic. In a sense, they make me a good skeptic. They show that I recognize my own limitations, and that I’m willing to consider the possibility that I might be mistaken.

And more to the point: They just make me human.

Being a good skeptic doesn’t mean that I don’t have cognitive biases. Skeptics still have human brains. Skeptics are still subject to confirmation bias, rationalization, wishful thinking, the perception of pattern where there is none, the perception of intention where there is none, yada yada yada… and yes, the argument from popularity.

Shermer_why_people_believe_weird_things Being good skeptics doesn’t mean we don’t have these cognitive biases. It means we’re aware of them. It means we can say, “My computer sure has been crashing a lot lately… but that could just be a pseudo-pattern.” It means we can say, “It seems like I’ve been getting sick less often since I started taking Vitamin C… but that could just be selective memory.” It means we can say, “I think cardamom is becoming the newest food trend… but that could be confirmation bias, and I’m just seeing the stuff everywhere because I’m looking for it.” Being good skeptics means we can see these cognitive biases, in ourselves as well as others. And that means we can compensate for them. It means that, when we’re trying to figure out what’s true in the world, we can set up systems specifically designed to filter them out, as much as we humanly can. It means we don’t have to let our lives be controlled by them.

So yes. When I see the Rapture billboards, for a flashing nanosecond, I get scared. I hear a bunch of other people in the tribe screaming, “Tiger!”, and I flinch and glance around reflexively for a nanosecond… before I remember that these are the same people who have been screaming “Tiger!” for years and decades and generations, and they have never once been right about the tiger or anything else, and it is entirely reasonable and safe to ignore them.

And then I come back to my senses, and rejoin the party.

*

Atheist rapture billboard oakland

P.S. Speaking of Rapture parties, just a quick reminder: I’m going to be speaking at one! The Regional Atheists Meeting in Oakland, hosted by American Atheists, is happening on Rapture weekend, May 21-22, at at the Oakland Masonic Center at 3903 Broadway. Other speakers will include Mr. Deity, Jen McCreight (Blag Hag), Matt Dillahunty (The Atheist Experience), Rebecca Watson (Skepchick), and many more. There’ll be stand-up comedy from Troy Conrad and Keith Lowell Jensen, as well as the fun, inspiring talks and an after- conference party. Advance tickets are no longer available, alas; tickets at the door are $59 for the whole weekend. The conference per se starts at 9:00 each morning, but registration takes some time, so they’re recommending that people arrive at 8:15.

My topic for the conference: “Why Are Atheists So Angry?” 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? My talk is on Sunday, May 22. Assuming we’re not drowning in a sea of blood by then.

There’s also a special, pre-conference fundraising breakfast for Camp Quest West on Sunday 5/22 at 7:30 am. You’ll get to eat and schmooze with many of the featured speakers: me, Jen McCreight, Matt Dillahunty, Brian Dalton (Mr. Deity), Rebecca Watson, David Byars, Mark Calladus and Lewis Marshall. Menu options include blood pudding, steak a la brimstone (a Bay Area specialty!), honey-roasted locusts, and lamb. (Kidding. I wish. It’s been way too long since I’ve had a good locust.) Tickets are $50 each. Come join us! I’ll be as chatty and sparkly as I can be at 7:30 in the morning after a bath of sulfur and frogs.

Atheists Do It Better: Why Leaving Religion Leads to Better Sex

A new study shows that religious people have as much sex as atheists, but with less sexual satisfaction and more guilt.

SexandSecularismDo atheists have better sex? Yes. According to science, that is — and more specifically, according to the recently released “Sex and Secularism” study.

In January 2011, organizational psychologist Darrel Ray, Ed.D. (psychologist for 30 years and author of The God Virus as well as two books on psychology) and Amanda Brown (undergraduate at Kansas University, focused on sexuality and sex therapy) conducted a sex survey of over 14,500 people — atheists, agnostics, and other people in the secular community. The survey was looking at religion, atheism, and sex: how religion affects sex, how leaving religion affects sex, whether lifelong atheists feel differently about sex than people who have recently deconverted, and so on. The report — “Sex and Secularism: What Happens When You Leave Religion?” — is on the Internet, and if you want all 46 pages of the naughty details, including the charts and graphs and personal stories, you can download it free (you just need to register on the site).

But if you just want to know the gist?

Leaving religion improves people’s sex lives.

A lot.

Atheists and other non-believers, as a whole, experience a lot more satisfaction in their sex lives than they did when they were believers. They feel much less guilt about their sex lives and their sexuality. The sexual guilt instilled by so many religions tends to fade, and indeed disappear, when people leave religion — much more thoroughly than you might expect. And according to the respondents of this study, non-believers give significantly better sex education to their kids than believers do.

Now, when it comes to people’s actual sexual behavior, religion doesn’t have nearly as much impact as you might think. Religious and non-religious people have pretty much the same kinds of sex, at pretty much the same age of onset, and at pretty much the same rate. Believers are just as likely to masturbate, watch porn, have oral sex, have sex outside marriage, and so on, as non-believers are, and they start at about the same ages. So it’s not like religious sexual guilt is actually making people abstain from forbidden sexual activity. All it’s doing is making people feel crummy about it. And when people leave religion, this crumminess decreases — at a dramatic rate. Believers and atheists are having pretty much the same kinds of sex… but when it comes to the pleasure and satisfaction experienced during this sex, it’s like night and day.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Atheists Do It Better: Why Leaving Religion Leads to Better Sex. To find out more about the new “Sex and Secularism” report on the sexual effects of religion and the lack thereof — and to find out my analysis of the report and its implications, both for believers and for atheists — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Case of the Missing Bisexual

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, for reasons that now escape me. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

Missing bisexual Harebrained speculation time:

Why aren’t there more “true” bisexuals? (“True” in quotation marks — so please don’t all start yelling at me.)

One of the interesting puzzles about sexual orientation is the way it’s distributed in the population. It’s very far from a neat bell curve, with a few heterosexuals and homosexuals at either end, and a big peak in the bisexual middle. It’s not even a slanty bell curve, peaking sharply at “more or less heterosexual” and sloping down gradually towards “more or less homosexual.”

Instead, it’s a double bell curve — with one peak near “leaning towards straight,” and another, smaller peak near “leaning towards gay.” (The height and shape and location of these peaks vary depending on who’s doing the study… but the basic “double bell curve with one high peak and one low” pattern seems to hold pretty steady.)

Translation: Very few people are strictly straight or strictly gay… but most people do have something of a preference for one gender or the other. Quote unquote “true” bisexuals, people who are attracted to women and men equally, are fairly rare. Even if we take self-identification out of the picture — even if we define orientation purely on the basis of desire or behavior — we still see this tendency.

Why would this be?

If sexual orientation were entirely genetic — if there were some evolutionary reason for humans to be more heterosexual than not but to have some fluidity around that — why would we have the double peaks? Wouldn’t we just have the slanty bell curve, peaking around 1 or 1.5 on the 0-to-6 Kinsey scale, and gradually curving down towards 6? Why would we have a small second peak at around 4.5 or 5?

DNA_double_helix I freely acknowledge that there might be some good genetic reason for this “double bell curve” phenomenon, one that we just don’t know yet. I’ll even acknowledge that there might be some good genetic reason for this phenomenon, one that somebody else knows but that I don’t. I’m definitely not a sexual orientation constructionist (translation: person who thinks orientation is entirely constructed by society). The science is still shaking out, but it does seem to be pointing to genetics as at least a significant factor in determining which gender or genders we like to boff. And it might well turn out that genetics play an important role in this “double peak” pattern.

But I’ll also say this:

I think it’s quite plausible that the double peak is entirely cultural.

And there are two specific cultural trends that I think may be skewing our orientations towards the two peaks.

Got-Homophobia The first is homophobia… and the way it’s sorted our culture into Straight and Gay. The two mix and overlap, of course — straight people have gay friends, and vice versa — but they’re still distinct social categories. Especially in parts of the country and the world that are more homophobic. Because of homophobia, people who lean towards being queer have a strong need to create a gay culture, a community shaped around sexual and romantic desire towards people of the same sex. And of course, because of homophobia, straight people have historically shunned queers — and have denied any queer tendencies in themselves. This has improved dramatically, but it’s only improved fairly recently, and it does still go on today.

So because society has sorted itself into two intermingling but distinct groups — Gay and Straight — people somewhere in the middle often feel a need to pick one. There is a bisexual community, but it’s nowhere near as visible, or as well-organized, as either the straight or gay worlds. And it can be very hard to drift back and forth between those two worlds. People whose natural orientations lie close to the middle of the scale — say, a 2.5 or 3.5 on the scale of 0 to 6 — often wind up picking a side, and more or less sticking to it.

And that tendency can be self-perpetuating. A cultural preference for straight society or the gay community can slant your sexual preference towards women over men, or vice versa. I know that I tend to get more interested in women when I’m spending more time in dyke culture, and I get more interested in men when I’m hanging around straight people more. It’s a simple matter of who’s on my mind. Not to mention who’s available. Love the one you’re with, and all that. Or lust after the one you’re with, anyway.

So that’s Harebrained Speculation Number One for the double peak.

Harebrained Speculation Number Two: Biphobia.

BiphobiaThere’s a strong bias against bisexuals in both straight and gay cultures. Gay culture tends to see bisexuals as traitors, fence-sitters, kinky thrill-seekers, people who can’t commit either politically or personally. Straight society tends to see bisexuals as fickle, unreliable, secretly gay people who just can’t admit it. Plus straights often see us as promiscuous… and, of course, in the age of AIDS, they see us as vectors of disease. And both gays and straights tend to see us as confused, experimenting, “going through a phase.”

All of which exacerbates people’s tendency to sort into gay or straight culture. The strong biases against bisexuality — from both gays and straights — push many people to pick one camp or the other… people who might not otherwise need or want to. People who might have identified as bisexual can internalize this biphobia, and decline to call themselves bi. And people who privately identify as bi are often reluctant to do so publicly.

So largely because of homophobia from the straight world, we have a tendency to sort ourselves into straight society and the gay community. Because of biphobia from both straight and gay cultures, this tendency gets exaggerated. And this cultural tendency gets transformed into personal sex behavior and desire… which then turns into a self-perpetuating feedback loop. Hence, the “double peak” pattern in our sexual orientations — a pattern that might be much less pronounced, and might not even be there at all, if these social trends weren’t there.

I’m not sure how you’d test this hypothesis. But here’s what I’d expect to see if it were true:

Rainbow_earth_flag If it were true, then in parts of the world that were less homophobic — and less biphobic — I’d expect to see a less vividly pronounced double peak. (If the less-homophobic, less-biphobic trend had been happening for long enough, anyway.)

And if it were true, then if society continues to become less homophobic — and less biphobic — over the coming decades, I’d also expect to see the strong double peaks soften and flatten towards a more standard slanty bell curve.

It might not flatten out entirely. Again, there may be some genetic reasons for the double peak in the bell curve, ones that we don’t know about. And even in an entirely non-homophobic, non-biphobic society, we still might have something of a cultural tendency to sort into gay and straight cultures. For dating/ cruising purposes if nothing else. But I think without these cultural factors, this double peak would very likely flatten out significantly.

I’m not saying “everyone is basically bisexual.” I think that’s bullshit. Some people are clearly not bisexual. Some people are clearly gay or straight. And even though most people do have at least some capacity to be attracted to both/all genders, that still doesn’t make them “basically bisexual.” Sexual identity is complicated — it’s about political identity, cultural identity, sexual history, romantic and relationship preferences, etc., as well as basic sexual attraction. And when people are deciding which identity (if any) works best for them, they get to decide for themselves which of these factors gets priority. I don’t want someone insisting that I’m “basically lesbian” because I’m currently hovering around 5 on the Kinsey scale — so I’m not going to insist that someone else is “basically bisexual” because they’re currently hovering around 4.

Bisexual symbol So I’m not saying “everyone is basically bisexual.” I’m saying that, at least for those of us in the wide sloppy middle of the Kinsey scale, sexual orientation is at least somewhat malleable. Like I wrote in my piece, The Learned Fetish, the finer points of our sexual desires can be shaped by our experiences as adults — even if the basic outlines are set early on.

I’m not sure why I think this is important. I’m not sure the answer would have any effect in figuring out social policy or political strategy or dating strategy, or any other practical decisions we might make about sex. I’m even not sure that it is important, except that figuring out what is and isn’t true about reality is always important.

But I sure do think it’s interesting.

So what do you think? If you lean more towards one end of the Kinsey scale, do you think you might lean more towards the middle if society weren’t so divided into Gay and Straight? And if you’re already pretty squarely in the middle, do you think you’d have had an easier time getting there if it weren’t for the two camps?

Are All Religions Equally Crazy?

Are less established religions really crazier than older mainstream ones? Or are mainstream religions just more familiar?

Religious symbols Does any religion make more sense than any other?

Atheists, by definition, don’t think any religion has any reasonable likelihood of being true. And yet, for some weird reason, we’re often asked to choose between them. Believers often accuse us of ignoring more moderate and progressive religions while we trash the low-hanging fruit of hard-line fundamentalism. We’re accused of disregarding sophisticated modern theology so we can zero in on the simplistic faiths held by the hoi polloi. (Neither accusation is fair; many atheists, including myself, have taken aim at both modern theology and progressive religion, and in any case fundamentalism and other widely-held religions are valid targets for critique — but that’s another rant.) Yet at the same time, many believers seek our approval for their particular beliefs. “Sure,” they’ll say, “a lot of those other religions are silly — but my religion makes sense! Don’t you agree? Don’t you? Huh?”

For the most part, it’s a game I don’t like to play. I think all religions are equally implausible, equally based on cognitive biases, equally unsupported by any good evidence whatsoever. But sometimes, the battiness of a particular religion is powerfully borne in on me, to the point where it becomes impossible to ignore. And it forces me to consider the question: Is this religion really any more batty than any other? Or is it just less popular? Less familiar? Is it simply newer, and thus has had less time for the more wildly ragged edges of its wackiness to smooth out? Is this religion really as crazy as it seems — or are all religions equally crazy?

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Are All Religions Equally Crazy? To read my thoughts on whether some newer, less-established religions ([cough] Mormonism [cough]) really are much battier than more conventional religions, or whether all religions are equally out to lunch, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

How Religion Contorts Morality: Respected Theologian Defends Genocide and Infanticide

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

“Respected Theologian Defends Infanticide.”

Why did this story not make headlines?

William lane craig In a recent post on his Reasonable Faith site, famed Christian apologist and debater William Lane Craig published an explanation for why the genocide and infanticide ordered by God against the Canaanites in the Old Testament was morally defensible. For God, at any rate — and for people following God’s orders. Short version: When guilty people got killed, they deserved it because they were guilty and bad… and when innocent people got killed, even when innocent babies were killed, they went to Heaven, and it was all hunky dory in the end.

No, really.

Here are some choice excerpts:

God had morally sufficient reasons for His judgement upon Canaan, and Israel was merely the instrument of His justice, just as centuries later God would use the pagan nations of Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel.

and:

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

and:

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life.

I want to make something very clear before I go on: William Lane Craig is not some drooling wingnut. He’s not some extremist Fred Phelps type, ranting about how God’s hateful vengeance is upon us for tolerating homosexuality. He’s not some itinerant street preacher, railing on college campuses about premarital holding hands. He’s an extensively- educated, widely-published, widely-read theological scholar and debater. When believers accuse atheists of ignoring sophisticated modern theology, Craig is one of the people they’re talking about.

Buddy_jesus And he said that as long as God gives the thumbs-up, it’s okay to kill pretty much anybody. It’s okay to kill bad people, because they’re bad and they deserve it… and it’s okay to kill good people, because they wind up in Heaven. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it’s okay to systematically wipe out entire races. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it’s okay to slaughter babies and children. Craig said — not essentially, not as a paraphrase, but literally, in quotable words — “the death of these children was actually their salvation.”

So why did this story not make headlines? Why was there not an appalled outcry from the Christian world? Why didn’t Christian leaders from all sects take to the pulpits to disavow Craig, and to express their utter repugnance with his views, and to explain in no uncertain terms that their religion does not, and will not, defend the extermination of races or the slaughter of children?

Because the things he said are not that unusual.

Because lots of people share his views.

Because these kinds of contortions are far too common in religious morality. Because all too often, religion twists even the most fundamental human morality into positions that, in any other circumstance, most people would see as repulsive, monstrous, and entirely indefensible.

Step One: Admit Your Mistakes

My bad See, here’s the thing. When faced with horrors in our past — our personal history, or our human history — non-believers don’t have any need to defend them. When non-believers look at a human history full of genocide, infanticide, slavery, forced marriage, etc. etc. etc., we’re entirely free to say, “Damn. That was terrible. That was some seriously screwed-up shit we did. We were wrong to do that. Let’s not ever do that again.”

But for people who believe in a holy book, it’s not that simple. When faced with horrors in their religion’s history — horrors that their holy book defends, and even praises — believers have to do one of two things. They have to either (a) cherry-pick the bits they like and ignore the bits they don’t, or (b) come up with contorted rationalizations for why the most blatant, grotesque, black- and- white evil really isn’t all that bad.

Cherry_picking Now, progressive and moderate believers usually go the cherry-picking route. But that requires its own contortions. Once you acknowledge that your holy books really aren’t that holy, once you admit that they have moral as well as factual errors, then you have to start asking why any of it is special, why any of it should be treated any differently from any other flawed books of history or philosophy. You have to start asking why — since your religion’s holy books are just as screwed-up as every other religion’s — your religion is still somehow the right one, and all other religions are mistaken. You have to start asking how you know which parts of your holy book are right and which parts are wrong — and how you know that people who disagree with you, who’ve picked the exact opposite cherries from the ones you’ve picked, who feel their faith in their hearts exactly as much as you do, have somehow gotten it terribly wrong. You have to start asking how you know the things you know. And to do that, and still maintain religious faith, requires its own contorted thinking, its own denial of reality, its own sticking of one’s fingers in one’s ears and chanting, “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!”

Bible on cloth soft light And when you don’t go the cherry-picking route? When you insist — as Craig apparently does — that your holy book is special and perfect, that the events and motivations in the text all took place exactly as described, and that the actions of God described in it are right and good by their very definition?

You put yourself in the position of defending the indefensible.

When your holy book says that God ordered his chosen people to slaughter an entire race, down to the babies and children — and you insist that this book is special and perfect — you put yourself in the position of defending genocide. You put yourself in the position of defending infanticide. You put yourself in the position of defending slavery, rape, forced marriage, ethnic hatred, the systematic subjugation of women, human sacrifice, and any number of moral grotesqueries that your holy book not only defends, but praises to the skies and offers as models of exemplary behavior.

And you can’t cut the Gordian knot. You can’t simply say, “This is wrong. This is vile and indefensible. This kind of behavior comes from a tribal morality that humanity has evolved beyond, and we should repudiate it without reservation.”

Not without relinquishing your faith.

Clutching_old_bible And if you refuse to relinquish your faith? If you cling to the assumption that your faith, by definition, is the highest good there is, and that by definition it trumps all other moral considerations?

Then you cut yourself off from your own moral compass.

I’ve made this point before, and I’m sure I’ll make it again: Religion, by its very nature as an untestable belief in undetectable beings and an unknowable afterlife, disables our reality checks. It ends the conversation. It cuts off inquiry: not only factual inquiry, but moral inquiry. Because God’s law trumps human law, people who think they’re obeying God can easily get cut off from their own moral instincts. And these moral contortions don’t always lie in the realm of theological game-playing. They can have real-world consequences: from genocide to infanticide, from honor killings to abandoned gay children, from burned witches to battered wives to blown-up buildings.

Under-the-Banner-of-Heaven As just one example among so very many: Look at the Lafferty brothers, Mormon fundamentalists who murdered an innocent woman and her fifteen- month-old daughter because they thought God had commanded them to do it. At many points in their journey across the continent on their way to the killings, they questioned whether brutally slaughtering their brother’s wife and her infant child was really the right thing to do. But they always came to the same answer: Yes. It was right. They thought God had commanded it — and that settled the question. It ended the conversation. It stopped their moral query dead in its tracks.

But don’t just look at sociopathic murderers from a bonkers religious cult. That’s too easy. Look at Mr. Theological Scholar himself, William Lane Craig. In this piece, Craig says that the Canaanites were evil, and deserving of genocide, because (among other things) they practiced infanticide. The very crime that God ordered the Israelites to commit. I shit you not. Quote: “By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice.” (Emphasis — and dumbstruck bafflement — mine.) And he says the infanticide of the Canaanite children was defensible and necessary because the Israelites needed to keep their tribal identity pure, and keep their God-given morality untainted by the Canaanite wickedness. Again, I shit you not. Again, quote: “By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable.” As if an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god couldn’t come up with a better way to teach a lesson about assimilation to pagan idolatry than murdering children.

Screaming I could sit here all day and pick apart everything that’s intellectually wrong with Craig’s arguments. But it seems that a far more appropriate response would be, “Are you fucking kidding me? Do you hear what you’re saying? Can you really not hear how grotesque, repulsive, flatly evil, totally batshit insane that sounds? Yeah, sure, if you start with your assumptions, then genocide and infanticide are morally defensible. Doesn’t that tell you that there is something monstrously, ludicrously wrong with your assumptions?”

If I were trying to make up a more blatant example of ethical contortionism, of morality so twisted by its need to defend the indefensible that it has blinded itself to its own contradictions and grotesqueries, I couldn’t have done a better job. Craig, like so many believers before him, has made my best arguments for me.

What’s Sauce for the Creation is Sauce for the Creator

Rule_book Now. Some people might argue that the rules of morality aren’t the same for God as they are for people. They might argue that, while it would certainly be wrong for people to kill babies and eradicate entire races on their own initiative, it’s not wrong for God to do it. Craig himself makes that argument in this piece. Quote:

According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. (emphasis mine) He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses. We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.” Human authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God. God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second. If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.

Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that. If the moral rules for God are different from the moral rules for people? If the very definitions of good and evil are different for God than they are for us?

Then what does it even mean to say that God is good?

Of good and evilIf you say that what “good” means for God is totally different from what “good” means for people — if you say that murdering infants and systematically eradicating entire races is evil for people but good for God — then you’re pretty much saying that what it means for God to be “good,” and what it means for us to be “good,” are such radically different concepts that the one has virtually nothing to do with the other. You have rendered the entire concept of “good and evil” meaningless.

And I, for one, don’t want the entire concept of good and evil to be rendered meaningless.

Of course, if you’re a progressive/ moderate/ non-literalist believer, you’re not stuck with defending every tenet of your holy book. You can say, “No, no, God didn’t command these horrors. He couldn’t have. The Bible is an inspired but flawed document, and it must be mistaken here when it says this command came from God. The Israelites wanted to slaughter the Canaanites, so they went ahead with it and told themselves the order came from God. But my God is good, and my God would never tell anyone to do any such a thing.”

But then we’re back to the cherry-picking problem: How do you know? How do you know which parts of your holy book are the ones that God meant? The Bible, and indeed most other religious texts, is loaded with instances of God commanding his followers to commit murder or worse. How do you know that God really wasn’t giving those orders… but he really was giving the orders to love our neighbors and give to the poor? No two Christian sects agree on which bits of the Bible are God’s true word and which bits are the “Just kidding” bits. And every sect has just as much “feeling in their heart” about their interpretation as you do.

So in order to pick those cherries, you have to twist yourself into just as many contortions as the fundies do.

Irony Meter Goes Off the Scale

Evil atheist It’s funny. One of the most common pieces of bigotry aimed at atheism is that it doesn’t provide any basis for morality. It’s widely assumed that without religion — without moral teachings from religious traditions, and without fear of eternal punishment and desire for eternal reward — people would behave entirely selfishly, with no concern for others. And atheists are commonly accused of moral relativism: of thinking that there are no fundamental moral principles, and that all morality can be adapted to suit the needs of the moment.

Crumb genesis sodom But it isn’t atheists who are saying, “Well, sure, genocide seems wrong… but under some circumstances, it actually makes a certain amount of sense.” It isn’t atheists who are saying, “Well, sure, infanticide seems wrong… but looked at in a certain light, it really isn’t all that bad.” It isn’t atheists who are prioritizing an attachment to an ancient ideology over the clearest moral principles one can imagine: the principle that entire races ought not to be systematically exterminated, and the principle that children ought not to be slaughtered.

Human beings have intrinsic compassion. We have a sense of justice. We have feelings of revulsion and rage when we see others harmed. We have a desire to help create a livable world. We have a willingness to make personal sacrifices — sometimes great sacrifices — to help others in need. And contrary to what Craig and many other Christians think, these moral emotions don’t derive from the Bible, and don’t require belief in God. They’re taught by virtually every religion and every society, and atheists feel them every bit as much as believers. Humans are a social species, and these emotions and principles evolved because they help members of a social species survive and reproduce. (Other social species seem to have some or all of these moral emotions as well.)

But our compassion and justice, our altruism and moral revulsion, can be twisted. They can be stunted. They can be denied, ignored, shoved to the back burner, rationalized away. They can be contorted to the point where we’re saying that black is white, war is peace, and the most blatant evil is actually goodness if you squint your eyes just right. They can be contorted to the point where we’re saying that genocide is okay because everyone gets what they deserve in the afterlife, and that infanticide is morally necessary to teach a lesson about the evils of murdering children.

And religion is Exhibit A in how this can happen.