Dealing with Death in an Unjust World

This piece was originally published in The Humanist.

(Content note: racist, transphobic, and misogynist violence.)

In the face of unjust death — what can humanists say and do?

Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 200 JPGI have a new book out: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, a short collection of essays offering secular ways to handle your own mortality and the death of those you love. (It’s out in ebook and audiobook: a print edition is coming later.) In it, I talk about some humanist ways of coping with death, philosophies that might provide some consolation and meaning — including the idea that death is a natural part of the physical universe, that mortality makes us treasure our lives, that we were all astronomically lucky to have been born at all, that religious views of death are only comforting if you don’t think about them carefully, and more.

But when Michael Brown was killed, and when his body was left in the street for over four hours, and when a grand jury decided that the questions about his death didn’t even warrant a jury trial and declined to indict his killer on even the most minor charges — I found myself with very little to say.

Of course I had plenty to say about racist policing, about prosecutors deliberately tanking cases, about how over 99 percent of grand juries indict but less than five percent will do it to a cop. (Although mostly what I’ve had to say about that has been, “Go read these pieces by black writers, they know a lot more about this than I do.”) But when it came to any consolations humanism might have for people grieving this death and the injustice surrounding it, I’ve been coming up largely empty.

So in the face of unjust death — what can humanists say and do?

If the person you’re grieving was one of the black people killed by police in the United States — one every four days? If they were one of the transgender people murdered around the world — one every two days? If they were one of the women killed by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States — more than four every day? I’m not going to respond with, “Well, death is a natural part of cause and effect in the physical universe, and mortality makes our lives more precious, and religious views of death aren’t all that comforting anyway.” I can’t imagine being that callous. Yes, death is a natural and necessary part of life — but being murdered sure as hell isn’t.

So in the face of death caused by human brutality, callousness, and injustice — what can humanists say?

I don’t think there’s any one answer. But in the face of unjust death, one of the few useful things anyone can say is, “What can I do to help?”

That’s true even in the face of natural death, death that isn’t caused by people revealing the ugliest faces of humanity. People who are grieving — humanists and others — often say that the last thing they want is unsolicited philosophizing apparently aimed at making their grief instantly disappear. If grieving people ask us for philosophies and perspectives and insights, by all means we should share them. If they don’t, what they most often want to hear is some version of “I’m so sorry,” “This sucks,” and, “How can I help?”

black lives matterBut in the face of unjust death, those phrases have very different meanings. “Cancer sucks” means something very different than “Police brutality sucks.” (If you don’t believe me, try making both statements on Facebook.) “I’m sorry your friend was killed in a car accident” means something very different than “I’m sorry your friend was beaten to death for being transgender.” As for offering help: When your friend’s father has died of a stroke, you might help by bringing food, cleaning the house, listening to them talk for as long as they need to. When someone’s child has been murdered, and their murder was aided and abetted by a grossly unjust social and political system that’s now ignoring the murder at best and blaming the victim at worst — you might help by speaking out against the racism, or misogyny, or transphobia, or whatever form of hatred it was that contributed to the death, and by working to combat it.

In the face of unjust death, the personal becomes political. And that includes the very personal statements we make in the face of grief, the statements of “I’m so sorry,” “This sucks,” and, “How can I help?” Expressing compassion for an unjust death, speaking out against it, and working to stop the injustice — these shouldn’t be acts of social defiance, but all too often they are.

I do think there are a handful of humanist philosophies that might speak, at least a little bit, to unjust death. The idea that being dead is no different than not having been born yet, so being dead doesn’t involve any pain or suffering — this is an idea that many grieving non-believers find comforting, regardless of how their loved ones died. What’s more, many former believers found their beliefs deeply upsetting when they were coping with ugly or unjust deaths: they contorted themselves into angry, guilty knots trying to figure out why God let this death happen or made it happen, and they were profoundly relieved to let go of the notion that “everything happens for a reason.’ And I think almost anyone, humanist or otherwise, might be consoled by the thought that people who have died are still alive in our memories, and in the ways they changed us and the world.

But in the face of unjust death, sometimes the most comforting thing we can do is to not try to give comfort. Sometimes, the most comforting thing we can say is, “This absolutely should not have happened. There is nothing anybody can say or do that will make it okay. It is not okay, and it should not be okay. What can I do to help keep it from ever happening again?”


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Female Fantasy, and Some New Thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice”

And now for something completely different. Spoiler alert: This post has spoilers about “Pride and Prejudice”.

Pride and Prejudice BBCNo, this isn’t about how hot Colin Firth was in the BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice. Although… well, yes. Damn. Day-um. But this isn’t about that.

In movies, books, TV shows, etc. aimed at women, there’s a common trope, a fantasy that gets trotted out a lot: Reforming the Bad Boy. In the trope/ fantasy, the heroine is so amazingly awesome — so beautiful, so sexy, so brilliant, so charismatic, so noble — that the bad boy reforms his bad boy ways in order to be with her. Think Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or George Clooney on E.R. (Please feel free to cite other examples in the comments. Ideally with links to pictures. No, I’m not immune to this fantasy, even though I know how ridiculous it is.)

This trope even got poked fun at in The Simpsons, when Bart’s babysitter Laura is dating Jimbo Jones: Bart asks her, “What do you like about him? He’s just a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules” — and Laura, Lisa, and Maggie all sigh wistfully.

And I was thinking: Does Pride and Prejudice fit this category?

In the most obvious sense, of course it does. Mr. Darcy is a handsome, not-very-nice man who initially dismisses the heroine, but is quickly struck by her fine eyes; becomes increasingly taken with her intelligence and wit and spirit; falls in love with her; courts her; is spurned by her; is initially enraged by her spurning; takes her chiding to heart; and betters himself to win her over. Yup, that sure sounds like the “I Can Reform Him” trope.

But I think in the larger sense, Pride and Prejudice doesn’t fit this trope at all.

For one thing: Mr. Darcy is anything but your standard Bad Boy. He’s not a rake or a bounder or a ramblin’ man. He’s a stuck-up snob who’s way too full of himself. In order to earn Elizabeth Bennet’s love, he has to get over his priggish superiority, stop worrying so much about propriety, and let go of some of his rigidity about social class. (Some of it, I said.) Yes, he reforms to be worthy of Elizabeth, but her influence doesn’t tame him — if anything, she loosens him up. He’s not a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules. He’s a good-looking tight-ass who plays by society’s rules.

And perhaps more importantly: Mr. Darcy doesn’t just reform to be worthy of Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth reforms to be worthy of Mr. Darcy.

pride and prejudice penguinThis is one of my favorite things about the novel — the two parallel character arcs. Yes, Mr. Darcy changes to earn Elizabeth’s love — and since we see the story primarily through her eyes, we see those changes through her eyes as well. But we also see — much more uncomfortably, much more painfully — her own changes, and her own growth. Yes, we see Elizabeth’s pleasure in realizing how much Mr. Darcy has been willing to change for her. We also see her pain in realizing how much of a jerk she’s been: how quickly she’s willing to dislike people, how attached she is to being right about that dislike, how easily her judgments of people are shaped by whether those people flatter her. The scenes where she realizes how much she misjudged both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham — they’re not fantasy wish-fulfillment at all. They are extremely uncomfortable scenes, vividly depicting the dark night of her soul. (Or, if you prefer more secular phraseology: They are extremely uncomfortable scenes, vividly depicting her cognitive dissonance collapsing in on her with a thud.) Her story arc isn’t, “He is inspired to change by his love for me, because I am so awesome!” Her story arc is, “He is inspired to change by his love for me — but I need to change too, because I’m not quite as awesome as I thought I was.”

This isn’t a story about a good woman reforming a bad boy. This is a story about two complicated people, each with good qualities and bad qualities, inspiring each other to be better.

Thoughts?

“Simply one of the best contemporary erotic writers alive”: Amazon Customer Review of “Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More”

Bending-cover-jpg-150I’ve gotten some nice Amazon customer reviews for my book Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More, and I thought I’d repost some of them. (The book is now out in paperback print, as well as ebook and audiobook!) Here’s a good one, five stars out of five. (As of this writing, the book has nine customer reviews, and eight are 5-star reviews, with one 4-star.) Here’s what Susie Bright had to say:

Mouth AND Pants-Dropping!

Greta and I worked together at “On Our Backs” in the 1980s. As llong as I’ve known her, she has been a visceral erotic philosophizer, the kind of person I’d want to put in a time machine just to go back and spar with De Sade.

I think she’d lay him out flat.

Christina is fearless about difficult topics– and furthermore, taking a taboo, like “shame” or humiliation and putting them in a wicked sexual context where there are NO banal lessons to be doled out. This is not your after-school-special erotica.

I published her work repeatedly in “Best American Erotica,” and her first novella “Bending,” (reprinted here). I nearly added her essay “Are We Having Sex Now or What?” to my email signature! When she hands me a new manuscript, I cancel my evening plans… and I hope you will enjoy the same singular sensation. She is simply one of the best contemporary erotic writers alive, and this collection is mouth- and pants-dropping.

Thanks, Susie! (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that Susie is a long-time friend, colleague, and mentor, and is also my editor at Audible.) And if any of you have read Bending, it’d be awesome if you’d post a review.

***

Here, by the way, is ordering info for the book! [Read more…]

Two Atheist Movements — And the One I Want to Be Part Of

There’s this thing I’ve been noticing.

lane split road sign.svgIt seems that increasingly, we have two atheist movements. I’m seeing national atheist organizations, local atheist communities, individual atheist organizers and activists and voices and participants, increasingly sorting ourselves into two different movements.

There are the ones who care about social justice; the ones who want to make organized atheism more welcoming to a wider variety of people; the ones who want their atheist communities to do a better job replacing the very real services that many marginalized people get from their religions; the ones who want their atheist communities to work in alliance and solidarity with other social change movements. (Or, to be more accurate — the ones who care enough to take real action.)

And there are the ones who don’t care, who aren’t interested in connecting their atheism to social justice — or don’t care enough to take significant action. They’re the ones who would be perfectly happy to have more women or black people or other marginalized folks at their events, but don’t care about it enough to examine why their events aren’t diverse, to listen to criticism about it, to accept some responsibility for it, or to change what they do. In some cases, they’re the ones who don’t want to connect their atheist activism with social justice — and don’t want anyone else to do it, either, to the point where they’re actively working to poison any efforts in that direction.*

Yes, this is an oversimplification, as almost any analysis saying “you can sort all X’s into two categories” will be. There’s non-trivial slippage between the two movements, and there are people and organizations (such as the atheist support organizations) who, for legitimate reasons, are trying to keep a hand in both. It might be more accurate to say that there are at least two atheist movements. But there are definitely these two: the ones who care about social justice, and the ones who don’t, or who don’t care all that much.

And I want to put my time and energy into building the first one. [Read more…]

Greta Speaking in San Francisco, Orlando, and Richland WA!

Hi, all! I have some speaking gigs coming up in San Francisco, Orlando, and Columbia WA. If you’re in or near any of these cities, I hope to see you there!

CITY: San Francisco, CA
DATE: Sunday, April 19
TIME: 1:00 pm
TOPIC: Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why
SUMMARY: Coming out is the most powerful political act atheists can take. But coming out can be difficult and risky. What are some specific, practical, nuts-and-bolts strategies we can use: to come out of the closet, to support each other in coming out, and to make the atheist community a safer place to come out into? What can atheists learn about coming out from the LGBT community and their decades of coming-out experience — and what can we learn from the important differences between coming out atheist and coming out queer?
LOCATION: First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, 1187 Franklin St (at Geary), Martin Luther King room, San Francisco, CA
HOST: Humanists and Non-Theists of UUSF
COST: FREE
EVENT URL: http://www.meetup.com/Humanists-and-Non-Theists-of-San-Francisco-UU-Society/events/221205641/

CITY: Orlando, FL – Openly Secular Day Flagship Event
DATE: Thursday, April 23
TIME: Noon – 9pm
TOPIC: Coming Out Secular
LOCATION: University of Central Florida (various locations, see Openly event link)
HOST: Openly Secular, for Openly Secular Day
EVENT: Openly Secular Day Flagship Event
OTHER SPEAKERS: Chris Kluwe, Will Gervais, Hemant Mehta
EVENT URL: http://www.openlysecularday.org/flagship/

CITY: Richland, WA
DATE: Tuesday, June 16
TIME: 6:00 pm
TOPIC: What Can the Atheist Movement Learn From the LGBT Movement?
SUMMARY: The atheist movement is already modeling itself on the LGBT movement in many ways — most obviously with its focus on coming out of the closet. What else can the atheist movement learn from the LGBT movement… both from its successes and its failures?
LOCATION: Riverfront Shilo Inn, International Ballroom, 59 Comstock, Richland, WA
HOST: Tri-CIty Freethinkers
CO-SPONSORS: Mid-Columbia Pride and the Mid-Columbia Coalition of Reason
EVENT URL: https://www.google.com/calendar/render?eid=YzF1NW5laTNsMWltcjQ3OHN1ZzExcWdvaHMgZnJlZXRoaW5rZXJqZW5uQG0&sf=true&output=xml#eventpage_6

“It should be in the hands of every hospital and military chaplain, every hospice care giver”: Darrel Ray on “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God”

Greta Christina continues to provide unique advice and information to the growing community of seculars. We all need to consider our mortality and learn positive and productive ways to deal with our inevitable deadline. Thanks for this little book of wisdom. Christina has written a handbook we can all use. But it should be in the hands of every hospital and military chaplain, every hospice care giver, even ministers, etc. No secular person should be subjected to supernatural ideas and wishful thinking when they are dealing with death, dying and grief.

Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 200 JPGGot a really nice blurb about my new book, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, from Darrel Ray, founder of Recovering from Religion. Thanks so much, Darrel!

The ebook is available at Kindle/Amazon (that’s the link for Amazon US — it’s available in other regions as well), Nook/Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. The audiobook is available at Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. All ebook and audiobook editions are just $2.99. And yes, I did the recording for the audiobook. (Plans for a print edition are in the works, but there’s currently no publication date scheduled.)

Here is the description of the book:

*

If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife — how do you cope with death?

Accepting death is never easy. But we don’t need religion to find peace, comfort, and solace in the face of death. In this mini-book collection of essays, prominent atheist author Greta Christina offers secular ways to handle your own mortality and the death of those you love.

Blending intensely personal experience with compassionate, down-to-earth wisdom, Christina (“Coming Out Atheist” and “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?”) explores a variety of natural philosophies of death. She shows how reality can be more comforting than illusion, shatters the myth that there are no atheists in foxholes — and tells how humanism got her through one of the grimmest times of her life. [Read more…]

What’s the Harm in Courting Conservatives? A Letter to American Atheists

American Atheists logoWhat’s the harm in courting conservative atheists? What’s the harm in American Atheists going to CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) to promote their organization and recruit members, or otherwise work to recruit conservatives?

I want to talk about a few incidents that happened earlier this month, at the American Atheists convention in Memphis. I’ll explain why they’re relevant in a moment.

* I was sitting in the hotel bar, talking with a friend and colleague who’s African-American. A man, white, sat down with us, joined the conversation — and in about five minutes, he started telling us, entirely unsolicited and out of the blue, about a time he went to a Halloween party in blackface. He defended this at some length — in the face of my friend clearly being appalled and uncomfortable, in the face of my own obviously appalled expression, and in the face of me explaining that this was seriously not okay and why.* He said that that since black performers wear whiteface, white people should be able to wear blackface, it’s totally the same thing, and besides it’s not like he was dressed as someone from a minstrel show, he was dressed as a specific black person (Michael Vick), so it was okay.

I’ll say that again: Blackface. A white guy sat down with a black colleague and me, and out of nowhere, said that he’s done blackface, and explained why he thinks it was fine and why criticism of it is unfair.

It turned out, by the way, that more than one person had already talked with him about this — including my friend, who had explained to him in the past how and why many African-Americans find blackface dehumanizing and degrading. Despite that, he still thought blackface was okay — and he still thought it was okay to casually mention it at a convention social event, with someone he had never before met, and with an African-American person who had already told him it wasn’t okay. To be fair, he quasi-apologized when he left, saying he was sorry he had upset me, and acknowledging that it was “a touchy subject.” He still, apparently, remained oblivious to the notion that since this is a “touchy” subject, perhaps he ought instead to choose one of the 85,000,000,000 other possible Halloween costumes available to him, and perhaps he ought not to casually mention it at a public social event with one person who’s the subject of this “touchiness” and another person he’s just met. He also apparently remained oblivious to the fact that I wasn’t the one he should apologize to.

(BTW, if you don’t understand why white people wearing blackface is profoundly messed-up, or why black people doing whiteface is not the same as white people doing blackface, read this, and this, and this and
this and this, and this, and this, and this. If you still don’t understand, piss off.)

* Moving on to some other incidents: Heina Dadabhoy — blogger on this network, and writer/ speaker on (among other things) their experiences as a Muslim and an ex-Muslim — had more than one person come up to them at the conference and explain what being a Muslim means and what Islam is. (And yes — these folks did this knowing that Heina’s an ex-Muslim.) This included one man who told Heina that true Islam was all about conquest, and that if Heina had never believed this, they hadn’t been a true Muslim. He did this, ironically, after the workshop Heina co-hosted on intersectionality.

wedding-cake* The keynote speaker at the convention, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, said in her keynote speech that “If you are gay the worst the Christian community can do in America is not serve you cake.” Either she was appallingly ignorant of the reality of many gay Americans’ lives — a reality that includes bullying, violence, losing jobs and homes and children, parents kicking gay teenagers out of their homes, vitriolic hatred, and more — or she knew about it, and was still willing to lie about it to score rhetorical points.

* Rebecca Hensler, founder and co-moderator of Grief Beyond Belief, got into a Twitter argument with Pro-Life Humanists representative Kristine Kruszelnicki, who was tableing at the convention. (Yes, the Pro-Life Humanists had a table at the convention. It’s hard to imagine that American Atheists would give space in their exhibit hall to an organization called Humanists for Jim Crow, or Humanists Against Gay Rights. But an organization dedicated to the eradication of the bodily autonomy of anyone with a working uterus — they were given a table.) When Hensler questioned how Kruszelnicki could claim “common ground” with Vyckie Garrison — a mother of seven, formerly in the Quiverfull movement, now an atheist activist and winner of American Atheists’ 2014 Atheist of the Year award — and at the same time collaborate with the movement backing crisis pregnancy centers, Kruszelnicki replied that the crisis pregnancy centers are, quote, “far from perfect,” but that they “work w them to help improve them.”

crisis pregancy center callout via exposingfakeclinics tumblr(Crisis pregnancy centers, for those who don’t know, are fake clinics run by anti-choice organizations, supposedly offering free pregnancy tests but really targeting pregnant women with grotesque misinformation and abusively traumatic propaganda, not only about abortion but about birth control, safer sex, rape, and sex generally. Calling them “far from perfect” is like calling Pat Robertson “not entirely rational.”)

* Heina Dadabhoy told someone at the convention that the more credible threats to their personal safety come from within their own community — feminist-hating atheists in the US — rather than from random Muslims overseas. He then said that he, himself, was an anti-feminist — but it was okay, he would personally protect Heina from other anti-feminists who wanted to physically harm them.

How is all this relevant to American Atheists, and the issue of courting conservative atheists?

Here’s why it’s relevant:

Courting conservative atheists is saying, “Incidents like this are fine with us.”

Actually, it’s worse than that. Courting conservative atheists is saying, “Incidents like this are fine with us — and it’s fine with us if they happen more often, in ways that are even uglier.” [Read more…]

“Clear, bold, gentle and endlessly thought-provoking”: David Fitzgerald on “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God”

Required reading for anyone alive. Greta Christina’s clear, bold, gentle and endlessly thought-provoking writing style constantly reminds me why I love her. She provides elegant proof that the even the hardest truths can be as beautiful, wonderful and uplifting as any other facet of our existence.

Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 200 JPGGot a really nice blurb about my new book, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, from David Fitzgerald, author of Nailed and The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion. Thanks so much, David!

The ebook is available at Kindle/Amazon (that’s the link for Amazon US — it’s available in other regions as well), Nook/Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. The audiobook is available at Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. All ebook and audiobook editions are just $2.99. And yes, I did the recording for the audiobook. (Plans for a print edition are in the works, but there’s currently no publication date scheduled.)

Here is the description of the book: [Read more…]

Godless Perverts Social Club Thursday April 16: What Does “Sex-Positive” Mean?

Godless-Perverts-Social-Club-Sex-Positive-blog-banner

The next Godless Perverts Social Club is this Thursday, April 16! On our third Thursday meetups, we pick a discussion topic ahead of time — and this week, we take a look at the question: What do we mean by the term “sex-positive”? The phrase has been part of sexual politics for thirty years, more or less, and it’s still as contentious as ever. What does “positive” mean to you? Can sexuality be talked about as “positive vs. negative,” or do we need something more? How have our religious backgrounds shaped our views of sexual shame and pleasure? Bring your questions and answers to Wicked Grounds on Thursday evening and share them with us.

The Godless Perverts Social Club meets on the first Tuesday and the third Thursday of every month, 7-9 pm, at Wicked Grounds, 289 8th Street at Folsom in San Francisco (near Civic Center BART). We do slightly different formats for the two clubs. Our Third Thursday Social Clubs are Topical Thursdays — we pick a topic ahead of time, have a moderator/ host who leads the discussion, maybe even get special guests to guide discussions on particular topics. The first Tuesday Social Clubs are more loosely-structured casual affairs, where we mostly just nosh and sit around schmoozing about whatever topics happen to come up. (Our next First Tuesday Social Club will be Tuesday, May 5.) Admission is free, but we ask that you buy food and/or drink at the cafe if you can: they have beverages, light snacks, full meals, and killer milkshakes.

Godless Perverts presents and promotes a positive view of sexuality without religion, by and for sex-positive atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other non-believers, through performance events, panel discussions, social gatherings, media productions, and other appropriate outlets. Our events and media productions present depictions, explorations, and celebrations of godless sexualities — including positive, traumatic, and complex experiences — focusing on the intersections of sexuality with atheism, materialism, skepticism, and science, as well as critical, questioning, mocking, or blasphemous views of sex and religion.

Godless Perverts is committed to feminism, diversity, inclusivity, and social justice. We seek to create safe and welcoming environments for all non-believers and believing allies who are respectful of the mission, and are committed to taking positive action to achieve this. Please let the moderators or other people in charge of any event know if you encounter harassment, racism, misogyny, transphobia, or other problems at our events.

If you want to be notified about all our Godless Perverts events, sign up for our email mailing list, or follow us on Twitter at @GodlessPerverts. You can also sign up for the Bay Area Atheists/ Agnostics/ Humanists/ Freethinkers/ Skeptics Meetup page, and be notified of all sorts of godless Bay Area events — including the Godless Perverts. And of course, you can always visit our Website to find out what we’re up to, godlessperverts.com. Hope to see you soon!

Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Some Questions for the Secular Policy Institute

Secular-Policy-Institute-LogoSome of you may have read the recent statement from the Secular Policy Institute, criticizing/ condemning/ disassociating from/ it’s not clear what exactly but in some way saying something bad about PZ Myers. For the record: PZ is a colleague and friend, and as far as I can recall I’ve never met or worked with Michael Nugent, but I care almost not at all about the conflict between them. I do, however, care about the issues underlying that conflict, including the issue of how we should or should not talk about sexual assault. And I care about how some individuals and organizations — including the SPI — are responding to this conflict, since their responses have implications that reach beyond this particular dispute.

At the end of their statement, the Secular Policy Institute asked, “What are your thoughts?” Since the SPI invited me to join their organization not that long ago — an invitation I declined — I thought they might want to hear my thoughts. Here are some of them.

The secular movement has a problem, in that some of our foremost leaders get media attention by causing controversy.

Can you please specify who, exactly, you’re talking about — and can you give examples of the behavior you object to?

See, in my experience, words like “controversy,” “infighting,” “bashing,” and “discord” are very subjective. As I’ve written before: When we disagree with someone or think the point they’re arguing is trivial, we tend to call their arguments “infighting,” “bashing,” “discord,” “strident,” and “creating controversy”; when we agree with someone or think the point they’re arguing is important, we’re more likely to call their arguments something like “constructive debate.” If you don’t specify the people you’re talking about, and cite examples of the behavior you’re criticizing, it makes it difficult to have a discussion about the behavior in question, or to decide whether we agree with your characterization of it. Your readers will likely assume that your accusations apply to whoever and whatever they happen to not like.

So, specifically: Does the “problem” of atheist leaders “getting media attention by causing controversy” include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, or any other fellows in your institute known for making controversial statements, both about religion and about other atheists? Also, does it include Michael Nugent, who in recent months has written 32 blog posts, totaling 75,000 words, criticizing PZ Myers? If not — why not? How do you decide which controversies are acceptable and which are not — and who gets to make that decision? [Read more…]