It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Fishmen…

It’s beginning to look a lot like fish-men
Everywhere I go;
From the minute I got to town
And started to look around
I thought these ill-bred people’s gill-slits showed…

I still think that Christmas Rhapsody is the best Christmas song parody ever. But this is a damn close second. My only problem is that I find myself humming or whistling it jauntily, and people think I’m whistling the Christmas song, and they have no idea that what I’m humming to myself is, “As I try to escape in fright/ To the moonlit Innsmouth night/ I can hear some more.”



Courtesy of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Enjoy!

A Very Special Christmas Song — No, Really

queen bohemian rhapsodyIs this the Yuletide?
It’s such a mystery
Will I be denied
Or will there be gifts for me?

Come down the stairs
Look under the tree and see…

And it’s time, once again, for my annual plug for my candidate for the Best Christmas Song Parody Evar: Christmas Rhapsody, Pledge Drive’s Christmas-themed parody of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” written by my friend Tim Walters and his friend Steve Rosenthal.

Alas, there’s no video. Which is a shame, since I think this thing has potential to go seriously viral some year if there were a good video to go with it. Interested videographers should contact Tim through his Website. In the meantime — enjoy the song!

And if you like that, Tim has even more holiday music on his site. My fave: Down in the Forest, described as “A dark and slightly confused Yuletide nightmare. It has something to do with the Fisher King. Maybe.” Have fun!

What Are The Goals of the Atheist Movement?

you know it's a myth american atheists billlboard“It doesn’t do any good for atheists to argue with believers about religion, or to make fun of religion, or to insult it. In fact, it’s counter-productive. It actually hurts our cause.”

We see this argument a lot among atheists. And my usual response is to say, “Does not!” I usually point to history, and point out how effective it’s been to have both confrontationalism and diplomacy in a social change movement. I point out the effectiveness of the “good bad/ bad cop” dynamic (hey, there’s a reason cops use it!). I point to the Overton window — the idea of moving the center, and of extremists making centrists look more reasonable by comparison — and I argue that confrontationalists are actually making diplomats’ job easier, not harder. I point out that firebrands are very good at getting visibility… and that visibility is crucial to community building as well as to countering myths. I point out that different people have different temperaments, and are more likely to be moved by different methods of activism: some people are better able to hear a calm, sympathetic voice, while others are better able to hear a passionate cry for justice, and still others are more likely to hear a mocking, satirical jeer about how the Emperor has no clothes. And I point out that activists also have different temperaments, and that even if polite diplomacy were, on average, more effective than fiery confrontation, that’s not very helpful to activists who excel at confrontation and suck at diplomacy. (And vice versa.)

Today, I want to respond somewhat differently.

Today, I want to ask: “What goals are we talking about, exactly?”

I don’t think all atheists — even all atheist activists — have the same goals. And I think this may be the source of some of this conflict and debate that we’re having. [Read more...]

Catroductions: Houdini

And completing the introduction of each of our kittens individually, I’d like to introduce you all to Houdini.



Houdini is the reason we have three kittens instead of two.

We went to the adoption event of our friends who do fostering, with the full intention of adopting two kittens. In fact, other friends who knew we were adopting had suggested that we get three — a suggestion we scoffed at as absurdly impractical on the face of it. And the obvious, logical choice for two kittens was the two silver tabby litter-mates.

But I saw the tortoiseshell, and our eyes met across a crowded room, and the love music from “Star Trek” began playing in the background, and I said to Ingrid, “We have to get the tortoiseshell.”

“Well, we can’t split up the silver tabbies,” she said reasonably.

“Then I guess we’re getting three.”

It’s hard to put into words what it is about Houdini. She has that mysterious, Mona Lisa quality that some cats have: the deep, pensive look that makes her seem as if she has the wisdom of the ages behind her eyes. I realize this is bunk, that what she has behind her eyes is a walnut-sized brain and what’s in it is almost certainly “Bzzzzzzzzzz.” I don’t care.

I think part of it is that she’s more shy and skittish than the two kittens. She’s friendly and playful, but she’s more reserved and remote than Team Tabby, and she’s much more prone to jump at loud sounds and hide under the furniture at terrifying events like the grocery delivery. So when she snuggles or plays, when she settles on your lap or burrows under the covers with you, it feels special. Like she’s taken careful stock of your character, and has decided to trust you.

Which is bunk. Because a sober evaluation reveals her to be rather a tramp. Once she’s past her “jumping at strangers walking in the door” thing, she will snuggle with just about anything with a pulse. And she manages to do this and still seem dignified and mysterious. She totally has us snowed.

She is also unbelievably sweet with the littler kittens. It can’t be easy, being a relatively sedate five-and-a-half-month-old living with two thirteen-week-old boingers. But she loves to snuggle with them, and puts up with them stepping on her face and lying on top of her and following her around everywhere. It’s almost maternal, although the dynamic often seems more like that of a fourteen-year-old teenager with two ten-year-olds: rolling her eyes at their shenanigans, getting annoyed when they get in her face, but basking in their admiration (the tabbies ADORE Houdini, and Comet is particularly smitten), and occasionally forgetting herself and joining in the fun. And while she’s nowhere near as boingy and energetic as Talisker and Comet (hell, the Hoover Dam power plant isn’t as energetic as Comet), she does love a good round of Chase the Dangly Toy.

The explanation of the name: She’s named after Harry Houdini, obviously. Partly because she’s all mysterious and stuff. Also she’s good at escaping, even if it’s just from the grocery delivery. And we love that Houdini (the magician, not the cat) was a skeptic and debunker of fraudulent spiritualists: in fact, he began the fine tradition of stage magicians becoming skeptics and debunkers of fraudulent spiritualists. We had to have at least one cat named after an atheist or skeptical icon, and Houdini was it.

Here are eleventy billion photos. She’s a little hard to photograph, because her coloring is so dark and doesn’t show up well in our poorly-lit San Francisco apartment; but I like how these came out. [Read more...]

Some Thoughts on Godless Language

“How can you use the phrase ‘R.I.P.’? They’re not resting — they’re dead and gone! You’re catering to religion when you use that language!”

“That word ‘transcendent’ is nonsensical! There’s no supernatural world to transcend to! You’re catering to religion when you use that language!”

“Don’t say ‘Bless you’ when somebody sneezes! That’s religious terminology! You’re catering to religion when you use that language!”

On Language ChomskyI see these mini-debates about language a fair amount in the atheosphere. Sometimes not so mini. They cropped up a bunch when Christopher Hitchens died and some atheists wrote tributes using the phrase “R.I.P.” (which is why I’m thinking about them now). And I’m of two minds about them. So this is going to be one of my “thinking out loud” pieces, where I don’t have a conclusion yet, and hope to come to a clearer one in the discussion thread.

On the one hand: As a rule, I much prefer to focus energy on content rather than form. If I’m going to spend time arguing with people, I’d rather spend it arguing about the content of what we think, rather than the words we choose to say it. Tone-trolling is among the least interesting forms of discourse, and I generally avoid it unless I think it’s necessary.

On the other hand: I think language is important. Like, duh. I’m a writer. To give what I hope is an obvious example: I think it makes a difference to say “police officer” and “firefighter” and “mail carrier” instead of “policeman” and “fireman” and “mailman.” And it bugs the crap out of me when people say “That’s so gay” as a putdown, or use words like “pussy” or “nancy” or “girly-man” as insults. I think hearing sexist or homophobic or other exclusionary language shapes the way women/ LGBT people/ other marginalized people think of ourselves/ themselves… and I think that making the effort to make our language inclusive helps us be more conscious about other forms of inclusion.

And I am, in fact, trying to purge religious language from my vocabulary, unless I’m specifically talking about religion. I try to remember to say “Gesundheit” when people sneeze instead of “Bless you.” (It’s German for “Health.”) I try to say “For goodness’ sake” instead of “For God’s sake.” I loathe the way that religion saturates the culture, to the point where it’s just assumed that everyone is religious and people are shocked and even offended to discover that it isn’t true. And I think using religious language to express secular ideas is one of the ways this saturation happens. (I entirely reject, for instance, the notion that the phrase “In God we trust” has no religious meaning, and that putting it on the money isn’t a slap in the face to atheists.) So I am trying to purge religious language from my vocabulary, unless it’s actually relevant — and I don’t mind when people point out examples of it in my own language.

But on the first hand again: Sometimes there just isn’t a good, purely secular substitute for a word or phrase. Alternatives often don’t convey the intended meaning as precisely, or they’re more obscure and not as widely known, or they also have religious implications as well as secular ones. What’s more, we don’t always agree about whether a given a word or phrase is secular or religious. When I use the word “transcendent,” for instance, I don’t mean “transcending the natural world and entering a supernatural realm.” I mean, “transcending ordinary day-to-day experience, and entering a state of hyper-awareness and a sense of intense connection with the rest of the universe.”

ThorAnd when you start getting into the whole “The original meaning of this word is religious” argument, then the whole thing starts to get silly. I mean, the word “goodbye” originally meant “God bless you.” The word “Thursday” originally meant “Thor’s day.” Are you going to purge these words from your vocabulary, and scold other atheists for using them? Sure, it’s worth discussing whether a particular word or phrase has been entirely secularized or still retains a religious meaning. But it’s silly to argue that, because a word or phrase originally had its roots in a religious concept hundreds of years ago, the “real” meaning of the word is still religious, and we ought not to use it. Language changes. The “real” meaning of a word is whatever it’s understood to mean by the people using it.

So here’s my provisional, “thinking out loud” conclusion:

I don’t object to raising the issue of secularizing our language. I think these conversations are worth having.

But I’d like to see them be conversations, and not arguments.

I’d like to see the conversations about this topic be a little less hostile and defensive, and a little more relaxed. I’d like to see them acknowledge that there problems of secularizing language often don’t have good solutions. I’d like to see them acknowledge that reasonable people can disagree over whether a particular word or phrase has already been secularized. I’d like to see them be more empathetic, more “Yeah, this is tricky, we all have problems with this,” and less condescending and preachy. (See? Perfect example. What’s a good secular equivalent for “preachy”?) If we don’t want someone smacking us down as sniveling accomodationists every time we say “Goodbye, I’ll see you on Thursday,” then maybe we ought not to be smacking other people down when they say “R.I.P.” or “Bless you.” And I’d like to see these conversations acknowledge that this is only one issue for atheists among many, and that while it’s worth paying some attention to, we have more interesting and important issues on our plate.

And yes, I realize I’m tone-trolling here. These things happen.

Welcome Edwin Kagin’s Blasphemous Blogging to Freethought Blogs!

We have a new blogger in the Freethought Blogs network: Edwin Kagin, and his blog, Blasphemous Blogging!

Edwin Kagin is the National Legal Director for American Atheists; the founder of Camp Quest; co-author of The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America; author of Baubles of Blasphemy; co-founder of “Recover Resources Center,” alternatives to AA for addiction recovery; and a member of the Secular Student Alliance national Advisory Board.

We are very proud to have him in the Freethought Blogs family. Please go visit him and say howdy!

Catroductions: Comet

Continuing with the introduction of each of our kittens individually, I’d like to introduce you all to Comet.



Comet is trouble. Right here in San Francisco. And that starts with a T, and that rhymes with C, and that stands for Comet!

She’s not at all bad-natured or bad-tempered. She’s just very energetic — VERY, VERY, VERY FRACKING ENERGETIC — and very playful. Long past the time when Talisker is sacked in front of the heater and Houdini is sacked on the sofa, Comet still wants to play. Almost endlessly, apparently. And she thinks the entire world is her toy. Shoelaces, iPhones, books, magazines, jewelry, charger cables, countertops, sinks, the bathtub, hair, hands, feet, cursors moving on a computer screen, words appearing on a computer screen, pretty much anything happening on a computer screen… Comet thinks all of these are the best toy ever. (And yes, we’re working on training her out of thinking that hands and feet are toys.)

She is an incredibly energetic player, one of those kittens who will LEAP into the air doing triple flips, and will RACE up and down the length of the apartment chasing her sister or a crumpled up piece of paper or, apparently, nothing at all. She is the reason we now keep the lids down on the toilet seats, and have taken the curtains down in the living room, and have taken the toilet paper off the spools… (We did that the morning that Comet jumped onto the toilet seat when Ingrid was at the sink, looked Ingrid straight in the eye, sank her teeth into the end of the toilet paper, and raced off with it down the length of the apartment.)

She’s also, probably not coincidentally, the boldest of the three kittens, the one who wants to jump onto the highest places and explore absolutely everything that could possibly be explored. She is both wildly exasperating and endlessly entertaining.

But she’s also unbelievably sweet. When she finally does tire out, she loves attention, and she loves to snuggle: with us, with the neighbors, with pretty much anybody. She loves to give little nuzzly kisses, and we’ve (mostly) trained her out of biting our noses when she does it. She has a ball with her sister, Talisker, and will play and tussle and snuggle with her for hours on end. And she completely adores Houdini, the older kitten. She follows Houdini around like a puppy, and cuddles with her at almost any available opportunity. She also has one of the loudest purrs of any kitty I’ve known: you can literally hear her purring from across the room.

The explanation of the name: Some people have guessed that Comet was named after either the muscle car, the astronomical body, or the reindeer. None of these is correct. She is actually named after the household cleanser. Back in college, I had a friend whose family traditionally named their cats after household products (Jello and Windex being the ones I remember most vividly). Windex had kittens, one of whom was adopted by a very earnest lesbian who named it Sappho, but her housemates scoffed at this and renamed the kitten Saffola. When I told Ingrid this story years ago, she was very entertained by the idea: we talked about what other household products would make good cat names, she suggested Comet, and we both immediately loved it.

But the astronomical body is also very apt. Comet the kitten is very much like a ball of ice hurtling through space at enormous speed, with a long tail streaking behind her.

Here are eleventy billion photos. She’s a little hard to photograph, since she usually won’t hold still long enough, but I think we got some good ones. [Read more...]

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

I never met the man. And today, I am intensely sad that he’s dead.

A fair amount of what Christopher Hitchens said and wrote irritated the fuck out of me. Some of it even seriously angered me. But the man was brilliant. He did difficult, at times even dangerous work that few others were willing to do. He was fearless about saying what nobody else was willing to say. He debated with an army of facts ready at his tongue and a wit like a stiletto dipped in venom. He was often totally fucking hilarious. He was beyond eloquent.

And he faced his illness, and what he clearly knew was his impending death, with a courage and grace and brutal honesty that was nothing short of astonishing. He had made it a major part of his life’s work to convince people that there was no God and no afterlife, that these were self-delusions and not even particularly worthwhile self-delusions… and he fervently declined to take shallow comfort in these delusions, even with a horribly painful illness gripping him and death staring him in the face. His writing about illness and mortality was among the most insightful and inspiring that I have ever read. I hope to have even half as much courage and grace when it’s my turn. I think his example will make that a little bit easier.

A fair amount of what he wrote irritated and angered me. And that’s one of the things I like best about the atheist movement. We don’t have to idolize our leaders and our heroes. We can disagree with them. We can recognize that they’re human. We can say to them one day, “Damn, that was brilliant”… and the next day say, “You’re being a fucking asshole, this is beneath you”… and the next day say yet again, “Okay, that was brilliant.”

Sometimes, Christopher Hitchens was a fucking asshole, and said and wrote things that were beneath him. Most of the time, he was brilliant. I’m deeply sorry that I never met him.

I’m not going to say R.I.P. I don’t think Christopher Hitchens is at rest. I don’t think there is anything left of him to rest. I think he is dead. But tonight, I’ll be raising a glass of Scotch in his honor. The world is a better place because he was in it, and it is a sadder, less interesting place now that he’s not.

I never met the man. And I’m crying now. Fuck.

Catroductions: Talisker

I’ve been blogging about all three of our new kittens a lot lately, with lots of photos of all of them piled up together, as if they were a conglomerate or a hive mind. The fact that all three like to play and snuggle together so much makes us ridiculously happy, and we have a tendency to reach for the camera whenever they do it. Which is about twenty times a day. We have a lot of cat pictures right now.

But I think the time is ripe to introduce each of them individually. And I’m going to start with Talisker.



Talisker is, I think, the easiest of the three to like. She’s bouncy and playful and mischievous, but never aggressive or bitey (well, hardly ever), and she switches from bouncy and playful to sweet and friendly in a nanosecond. Her sweet side is ridiculously sweet: she curls up into a tiny ball in your arms, or folds herself up with her paws stretched out and her chin resting on them, or settles down onto your chest and purrs into your face. She does have a restless side: when she sits in your lap, she has a decided tendency to shift positions twenty times, or to wander off and come back and wander off and come back and wander off and come back, before finally settling down. But when she settles and starts to snuggle you, you stay snuggled.

Her facial expression is in an almost permanent state of classic kitten cuteness. (Variation 12: Friendly And Inquisitive.) It’s as if she’s always saying “Oh hai” or “Baroo?” (See photo above.) Her fur is super soft and silky. And I love that just the tips of her paws are white. It’s like she has a French manicure.

She introduced herself to us at the adoption event by leaping onto Ingrid’s shoulders, and we knew immediately that we had to take her. She confirmed this decision by scampering and chasing and tussling with her sister Comet (a hobby they continue avidly), restlessly wandering back and forth from my lap to Ingrid’s, and finally settling on my lap and going to sleep.

Her favorite toy at the moment is a crumpled-up piece of paper. In addition to the standard “batting it around the apartment like a maniac” and “playing keep-away from her sister” crumpled-up piece of paper activities, she also carries it around in her mouth like it’s her kill. (We don’t have any pics of this yet, as she rarely holds still long enough for us to get a shot.) Our neighbor Patty, a retired vet tech, thinks we might be able to teach her to fetch.

The explanation of her name: She was named after the single-malt Scotch.

Here are eleventy billion photos.

[Read more...]