Gratuitous Provokery and ’80s Nostalgia: Kathleen Parker and Religious Imagery in Art

Chocolate_jesusSo conservative pundit Kathleen Parker recently wrote a column about the latest art kerfuffle, the Chocolate Jesus (a.k.a. My Sweet Lord). While I actually agreed with at least some of the gist of her piece (Catholics shouldn’t be issuing death threats over religious imagery they find offensive — kind of a hard point to argue with), she also made this comment:

“Catholics have been under siege by the secular culture for years, confronted with everything from rock star Madonna’s antics to “Piss Christ” to a Virgin Mary painting adorned with elephant feces. All were intended to provoke — gratuitously.”

Piss_christThe “gratuitously” really ticked me off. Her point seems to be that recent disrespectful or mocking use of Islamic imagery in art (like the Danish cartoons) is okay because it’s critiquing the way the religion has been manipulated by power-hungry jerks… but disrespectful or mocking use of Christian imagery in art? Well, there’s no point to that at all. That’s just gratuitous, offending for the pure purpose of being offensive. (She also seems unaware that neither the Piss Christ artist nor the elephant dung Virgin Mary artist intended their art to be disrespectful or mocking.)

So I wrote this letter to the editor in response. It didn’t get published… but what else is a blog for, if not to share my unpublished rants to the editor?

*****

Holy_virgin_maryThe fact that Kathleen Parker (Opinion, 4/6/07) would characterize artists Chris Ofili (“The Holy Virgin Mary”), Andres Serrano (“Piss Christ”), and Madonna as “gratuitously” provoking about religion makes it clear that she hasn’t bothered to do even minimal research on any of these artist’s intentions. All these artists (even Madonna, for whom I have no great love) have discussed the ideas and impulses behind their religious-themed art, and upsetting people for no reason other than to upset them is not among them.

The sad fact is that religion enjoys an absurdly privileged position in the marketplace of ideas. Religion and religious institutions are tremendously powerful in this country — and yet it’s assumed that religion should be exempt from the criticism, commentary, and even mockery that are commonly leveled at powerful institutions. I understand that Ms. Parker is provoked by certain uses of religious imagery in art — but just because she doesn’t see their point doesn’t mean they’re pointless.

*****

Madonna_2But now I’m sorry that I wrote the letter before I consulted with Ingrid. Because, as usual, she completely hit the nail on the head. “Piss Christ and Madonna?” she said. “That’s what she’s worked up about? What decade is she in, anyway? That is so ’80s.”

And she’s right. Outrage over “Piss Christ” and “Like a Prayer” is such a 1989 time capsule, I almost expect to see it on VH1’s “I Love the ’80s.” It’s almost quaint.

The Martians Explain Consciousness

BrainThis is one of the smartest, most perceptive things I’ve read about consciousness and our understanding of it, and I just had to pass it along.

Martian“Suppose you’re a medieval physicist wondering about the burning of wood,” Pat likes to say in her classes. “You’re Albertus Magnus, let’s say. One night, a Martian comes down and whispers, ‘Hey, Albertus, the burning of wood is really rapid oxidation!’ What could he do? He knows no structural chemistry, he doesn’t know what oxygen is, he doesn’t know what an element is — he couldn’t make any sense of it. And if some fine night that same omniscient Martian came down and said, ‘Hey, Pat, consciousness is really blesjeakahgjfdl!’ I would be similarly confused, because neuroscience is just not far enough along.”

Brain_cellThis has stuck with me ever since I read it. It’s a quote from a New Yorker article by Larissa
MacFarquhar (2/12/2007) , called “Two Heads,” about philosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland, who were among the first modern-day philosophers to argue that philosophers needed to pay attention to science — and in particular to neuroscience — to understand how we think and why we think that way. (I’ve been meaning to blog about it for a while, but I kept waiting for the New Yorker to get their shit together and put the article on their website; but all they have is this abstract. Dummies.)

Anyway. The reason I love this passage so much is… well, a lot of reasons. I love how humbling it is. I love how simple and obvious the analogy is, and at the same time how completely it fucks with my head.

But mostly I love that it said what I was trying to get at in my piece The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely — but so much more cleverly and succinctly.

Big_bangThis is what I’m getting at when I gas on about how the fact that life is full of mysteries doesn’t mean the answers to those mysteries are metaphysical. But this passage really gets across the overwhelming, awestruck quality of all the things we don’t know, will never know, can’t know. It’s not just that there are things we don’t understand. It’s that there are things that we don’t even have the basic tools to understand. There are things that we — you and me and everyone alive today on this planet — will never understand, or even come close to understanding. There are things that we — the human race — may not understand for hundreds of years, and may indeed never know. Big, important things, like consciousness and free will and the origins of space-time.

CandleflameJust like the medieval scientist couldn’t have understood about fire.

And even if an explanation somehow appeared to us — an accurate, rational, completely scientific/ naturalistic explanation — it might not even make sense.

I keep trying to come up with some perfect, pithy way to conclude this. But honestly, all I can come up with is: Woo. Freaky.

I Got Yer Intelligent Design Right Here, Baby…

This is the funniest thing I’ve seen all week. (And it’s about both sex and atheism, which makes it an extra-special treat.)

No, it’s not the video. Although the video is hilarious, in an appalling “Holy crap, do people really believe this?” sort of way. But you have to watch the video to get the joke. (It’s only about a minute, and it really is quite entertaining. Video below the fold.)

[Read more...]

How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist: Part 3

This is the third and final part of a three part serial. When our story began, our heroine had gone from the deep-rooted but unexamined agnosticism of her childhood, through a credulous hippie woo-woo bullshit phase, to a general belief in some sort of animating spirit that inhabited all living things and that survived in some form after death. When we last left her, she was beginning to question even this broadest, most general belief in some sort of soul that might survive death…

…when the accident happened.

Elbow1That makes it sound a whole lot more dramatic than it was. It wasn’t a very bad accident: I fell off my bicycle, I broke my arm, and I had to have pins put in the bone. Fairly painful, but nothing life-threatening, or even very dangerous. I was only under general anesthesia for an hour, maybe an hour and a half.

Have you ever been under general anesthesia?

SleepGeneral anesthesia is nothing at all like sleep. When you sleep, you have some feeling of presence even while you’re asleep, some sense when you wake that time has passed and you were there when it did — even if you weren’t aware of it.

Anesthesia1Anesthesia was completely different. When I came out of it, it felt as if the time I’d been under had simply been erased. I had no idea if I’d been under for an hour, or six hours, or twenty-four. If the nurses had told me I’d been out for days or even months, I would have believed it. All my sense of self, of having had a self during that time, was utterly absent.

It didn’t feel like I’d been asleep. It felt like I’d been obliterated. It felt like death, and coming out of it was like clawing my way out of a grave.

Anesthesia2Not so surprisingly, this was a profoundly upsetting experience. And not just because it was scary and freaky. It was upsetting because it destroyed the last remaining shreds of the idea that I might possibly have a soul that would survive me after my death. After all, if just a small amount of some drug injected into my bloodstream could wipe out my sense of selfhood so thoroughly, merely by altering my brain chemistry a little bit… then why on Earth would I think that this selfhood could somehow survive the total decay of my flesh and my brain?

GravestoneSo I had to face the fact that this is what death would almost certainly be like. I had to face the idea of my own non-existence — not just intellectually, but with a visceral and immediate experience of what that might be like. I had to face the idea that, when I died, I wouldn’t be going to Heaven, or getting reincarnated as a lazy housecat, or resting peacefully in an eternal afternoon nap. I had to face the idea that, in all likelihood, I simply wouldn’t be.

KnifeAnd now I had a very bad few months indeed. It’s one thing to believe, in some abstract sense, that death is the real and final end of your existence. It’s another thing entirely to get a taste of that non-existence. I went into a fairly serious depression, and the memory of my non-existence experience — or to be more accurate, the “crawling out of the grave” experience afterwards — would spring out at me unexpectedly like a mugger with a knife. (To be fair, this wasn’t the only thing triggering the depression — a lot of bad shit was happening right around then — but it was definitely a major contributor.)

Question_markI knew that I had to rethink everything. I knew I had to come up with some way to deal with the shortness of my life and the finality of my death, some philosophy that would let me come to some sort of peace with the idea of my non-existence, without making me feel like I was lying to myself.

So I wrote Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God.

PeaceAnd it worked. It was a hard, bad time, and I spent months at my computer with tears running down my face while I wrote. It was an extremely scary piece to write: I went into it without any real idea of what conclusion I was going to reach, and I knew I was getting into treacherous emotional waters without any clear sense of how I was going to get out. But I got there. I got to a place where I could contemplate the finality of my death, and the death of the people I love… not without sadness or grief, but without panic and despair, and with a reasonable degree of acceptance and peace.

And once I got there, I didn’t need to believe in the soul anymore. Or the World-Soul. I didn’t need to hang on to a belief that I was finding increasingly implausible, just because I wanted to believe it.

AvalancheI think I probably would have gotten there without the accident. But it sure speeded things up. And it definitely started a sort of cascade effect. The more comfortable I felt with the idea of the absence of the soul and the finality of death, the more willing I was to see the soul as an unnecessary, needlessly complicated hypothesis, one that doesn’t really explain anything and doesn’t fit with what we know about how the self and the mind works. And the more willing I was to see all that, the more comfortable I got with the idea of the absence of the soul and the finality of death.

Which takes us to the more recent place in this little saga:

Crowleytarot1. thinking that God or the soul, while theoretically possible, are not only unproven, but extremely implausible — about as implausible as Zeus, or fairies, or the invisible hand guiding the Tarot cards, or any number of other beliefs that I now feel entirely comfortable discounting as hypotheses;

Quakers_support_gay_marriage2. thinking that, while I disagree with people who have religious beliefs and think that they’re mistaken, it’s really none of my business what they believe and isn’t a matter of earth-shaking, deal-breaking importance — as long as they respect my atheism, don’t treat their faith as if it were fact, don’t act as if the fact that they believe something they have no evidence for somehow makes them virtuous people, don’t try to shove their faith down other people’s throats, and generally act like decent people;

Pat_robertson3. at the same time also thinking that, in the larger sense, the question of religion or the lack thereof is not merely a personal issue of faith and opinion, but a political issue of enormous importance for this country and for the world — and becoming radicalized about the need to speak and act about it;

Julia_sweeney_24. becoming increasingly aware that there is a growing movement of atheists and other non-believers — a movement that’s becoming more outspoken on an almost daily basis — and wanting to be an active part of that movement;

Richard_dawkins_25. deciding to call myself an atheist instead of an agnostic, not because of a change in my beliefs or lack thereof, but because of a change in my thinking about the language;

Writing6. blogging about it ad nauseum.

Which pretty much brings us up to date. If you’ve been reading the atheism rants on my blog for the past few months, you pretty much know the rest. (If you’re a newcomer to this blog, may I suggest Oh, The Believer and the Skeptic Should be Friends, Why Are We Here? One Agnostic’s Half-Baked Philosophy, The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely, Atheist or Agnostic?, and Defending the Blasphemy Challenge. (Or you could try A Dyke’s Defense of Blowjobs, or The Aging Slut, or Broccoli or Tofu? Sexual Differences in Relationships… which don’t have anything to do with atheism, but are funny and dirty. Or you could even throw your hat into the Harry Potter versus Lord of the Rings debate…)

And I don’t know where I’m going with this in the future. I’m curious to find out myself. I’ll keep you posted.

How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist: Part 2

This is Part Two of a serial. In our previous episode, our heroine had gone from the deep-rooted but unexamined agnosticism of her childhood, through a credulous hippie woo-woo bullshit phase in her college and just-post-college years, to a general belief in some sort of animating spirit that inhabited all living things and that survived in some form after death. We now return to the story.

And then two things started to happen.

Phantoms_in_the_brainFirst: I began to get interested in books about science, and especially the science of the brain and the mind.

Which was a problem.

It’s not that the science of the brain and the mind actually disproves the existence of the soul. It doesn’t. That wasn’t the problem.

Brain1Here was the problem: Reading books about the science of the brain and the mind made it very clear to me — unmistakably, unignorably clear — just how easy it is for the human mind to deceive itself. From optical illusions, to auditory hallucinations, to wildly inaccurate memories that are remembered clear as day, and so on and so on and so on
 the human brain and human mind are tricksters. They fool themselves. They see and recognize faces, whether there’s a face to see or not. They’re far more likely to see what they expect to see than what they don’t expect to see, regardless of what’s actually there. They eagerly embrace evidence that fits their theories about how things work, and just as eagerly reject evidence that doesn’t. And they see patterns, and intention, and cause and effect, EVERYWHERE. Absolutely everywhere. For very good evolutionary reasons, this is all part of how brains work.

All of them.

Every remotely functioning human brain.

Including mine.

Brain2And once I knew — in some length and in tremendous detail — just how easy it is for the mind to be fooled, just how possible it is that the faces and patterns and intentions it’s seeing really aren’t there, it became impossible to believe something simply because I personally experienced it. Or rather, it became impossible to believe something about the external world, with no question or room for doubt, simply because I personally experienced it. I could look inward to decide if I really wanted to quit my job, or get involved with Ingrid
 but I couldn’t look inward to decide if the World-Soul was real, or my mother was really visiting me in my dreams. If I was walking down the street and suddenly felt the presence of a beloved dead person wash over me, I could no longer assume that I was really experiencing a visitation simply because the experience was vivid and powerful.

Skeptical_inquirerWhich leads me to the second thing that happened. The second thing that happened was that, somewhat by accident, I started reading the Skeptical Inquirer.

Which was a problem for three reasons.

Capricorn_2Reason One: I had believed for a long time that spiritual beliefs were beyond questions of evidence or proof
 and that therefore, except for the obviously wacky ones (how I defined “obviously wacky” wasn’t clear to me even at the time), pretty much any spiritual belief could reasonably be held by any reasonable person.

The Skeptical Inquirer — and its mission of applying rigorous scientific methods to testing claims of the paranormal — made it brutally clear that this was not the case. At least some claims about spirituality — such as astrology, or faith healing, or speaking with the dead — could be tested. And while they couldn’t definitively disprove (for instance) the existence of life after death, they could show that, every time a claim of speaking to the dead was rigorously tested, it utterly failed the test.

Every single time.

That’s daunting.

ProofReason Two: I’ve always considered myself someone who cares about truth, more than almost anything else. I’ve prided myself on being someone who was willing to face reality, even when it was harsh; who believed that understanding the world to the best of my ability was the foundation of deciding how to act in that world; and who was willing to change my mind and admit I was wrong when the evidence demanded it.

Reading the Skeptical Inquirer made me feel like I was being challenged to live up to that principle.

Julia_sweeneyReason Three: Reading the Skeptical Inquirer made me aware that there was a community of people who felt the same way I did about Reason Number Two — a community I respected, and admired, and wanted to be part of.

WeddingThere is actually a third thing that happened as well: something that doesn’t quite fit into the same category as the other two, but that was powerfully important anyway. And that’s that I fell in love with Ingrid
 and started hearing her sad and awful stories about her fundamentalist grandparents, and the terrible rift that religion had caused in her family, and her anger and grief about it. This wasn’t something that forced me to question my own beliefs, exactly. But it brought the whole question of religion front and center in my life, in a way that it really hadn’t been before, not with my agnostic parents and my lukewarm-Protestant grandparents. Being with Ingrid took this from a somewhat abstract issue to one that was immediate and personal.

Ripples_2At this point, my ripples of belief hadn’t exactly disappeared. But they’d definitely become more shallow. The level of my certainty was dimming: whereas before all this reading and thinking, I’d probably been about a 3 on the Dawkins 1-7 scale of faith (not certain, but leaning towards belief), I was now at least a 4 (thinking that the existence and non-existence of the soul were about equally likely), and maybe even a 5 (not certain, but leaning towards non-belief). The whole “substance that enables us to have consciousness and free will” idea began morphing into “a substance — or maybe just a quality — that enables us to have consciousness and free will.”

And –

most importantly –

I began to realize that I didn’t really believe in the immortal soul because I actually believed it.

I never had.

GravestoneI believed it because I wanted to believe it. I believed it because I found the idea of permanent death to be dreadfully painful, and I found the idea of some sort of afterlife — even a nebulous afterlife in which my soul dissolved into the world-soul — to be a comfort.

BlindfoldBut this realization pretty much shot the comfort to hell. This realization made me pretty damned uncomfortable. And when it came right down to it, I wasn’t willing to believe in the soul — or anything — simply because I wanted to. I wasn’t willing to be that sort of person. Self-delusion is human, forgivable, none of us escape it. But willful, conscious self-delusion
 that, I believe, is a serious character flaw, and one that leads to an enormous amount of suffering in the world. (“The Iraqi people will greet us as liberators!”) I couldn’t do it.

So I was already teetering on the brink, already leaning towards “I really don’t know what happens when we die, and it’s entirely possible and even likely that death is forever”
 when the accident happened.

This is a serial story in three parts. To find out what the accident was and why it mattered, visit this blog again tomorrow for the exciting conclusion.

How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist

ThinkerI realized recently that, in all the stuff I’ve written here about atheism, I’ve sort of been taking my atheism as a given. I’ve been writing from a perspective of, “Of course Greta’s an atheist… so what does she have to say about that?” And that’s actually somewhat misleading. I have had spiritual beliefs in the past. Not that long ago, even. I’ve never belonged to any organized religion, but I haven’t been an atheist all my life, and it didn’t happen overnight.

So it seemed like a good time for me to talk, not about why I think my atheism is right and you should all agree with me, but about the story of how I became one, and why.

*****

BaptismalfontI wasn’t brought up atheist, but I was brought up agnostic. Both my parents were agnostic when I was a kid, and they let my brother and me make up our own minds on the matter. I remember when I was about ten or so, they asked us if we wanted to be baptized… and when we looked at them like they were high, they explained that they hadn’t baptized us as babies so that we could decide for ourselves, but now they thought they should check with us about it. (If memory serves, we continued to look at them like they were high even after this explanation. It just seemed like such a random, out-of-the-blue question, like asking if we wanted to learn Swedish or paint all our shoes bright blue. No, thank you, and why on earth would you ask?)

Jesus_christ_superstarIn general, religion just wasn’t discussed that much in our home, and I didn’t think about it a whole lot when I was growing up. I went through a brief phase of being fascinated by Bible stories and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but it wasn’t out of belief — just curiosity, which in retrospect I think was somewhat morbid. All that pain and death.

IlluminatusSo then I went to college, and started smoking a lot of pot and dropping a lot of acid, and I started picking up a whole passel of woo-woo spiritual ideas and beliefs. Tarot cards, reincarnation, synchronicity, the idea that subatomic particles must have free will since their behavior isn’t predictable… you know, the whole hippie drill. I read a bunch of Aleister Crowley, a bunch of Robert Anton Wilson. I wrote my senior thesis on Gurdjieff.

CapricornI should make it clear that these were not metaphors to me. I genuinely, literally believed that there were mystical forces intentionally guiding the Tarot cards as I shuffled them. I literally believed that I had been a king in some past life (although, to my credit, I never believed that I’d been a very important or famous king). I literally believed that I had a practical but passionate nature because I was a Capricorn with Scorpio moon and rising. I literally believed — so help me — that trees taught birds how to sing; that drawing energy from the moon while we were hitch-hiking would make a ride appear; and that the joint we mysteriously found in our apartment had been placed there by some sort of friendly spirit. (As opposed to, say, rolled by us or one of our friends, and then forgotten about.)

What can I say. I was young. I was high. So sue me.

CrowleytarotWhen I left college and stopped taking quite so many drugs, most of the more absurd of these beliefs faded away. An example: My belief that mystical forces were consciously guiding the Tarot cards faded into a belief that I didn’t know exactly what was happening when I read the cards, but it sure was spooky, and there must be something supernatural going on, even if I didn’t know exactly what… which then faded into a belief that the cards worked because they were designed to work, that they were made with potent symbols that applied to people’s lives, and were basically a useful peg on which to hang a conversation about life. (I was, I should point out, uncannily good at reading Tarot cards. I felt kind of sad when they began to slip out of my life.)

LifeafterdeathBut although the goofier details were fading, the broader and not so goofy underlying concept remained. Most notably, I still believed in some sort of soul that survived after death. I’d be walking down the street and suddenly feel the presence of my mother, or my friend Rob Tyler, and it just seemed obvious that they were there. It didn’t feel like a memory — it felt like a visitation.

So now we enter the third phase of my spiritual journey: from the deep-rooted but unexamined agnosticism of my childhood, through the credulous hippie woo-woo bullshit of my early adulthood, to the general belief in some sort of animating spirit that inhabited all living things, a spirit that survived in some form after death.

As the years went on and I thought about it at greater length, this notion sharpened and crystallized, into a fairly specific belief:

Machine1. that people were not merely biochemical stimulus-response machines, but had some sort of substance that enabled us to have consciousness and free will — a substance I called the soul;

Catfish2. that other animals besides people also had souls;

Jasmine3. that probably plants had some sort of souls as well, and maybe some non-living objects like mountains had them too;

Reincarnation4. that these souls didn’t disappear when the body died (although whether the soul stayed whole and got re-incarnated as itself or simply dissolved into the World-Soul the way the body dissolves into the Earth, I was willing to leave as an open question);

Earth5. and finally, that the sum of all these souls formed a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts; a whole that had some sort of selfhood
 a whole that I was willing to call God. Although generally I didn’t — I usually called it the World-Soul. I didn’t think this World-Soul was perfect or anything — I didn’t think it was all powerful or all-knowing or all-good. I just thought it existed, that it was part of us all and we were all part of it, and that participating in it and helping it learn and grow and be happy was a big part of what gave life meaning.

As spiritual beliefs go, it’s not totally unreasonable. Certainly not the most unreasonable one I’ve ever heard. (Although of course I’d think that. It was mine, after all.)

RipplesBut — and this becomes extremely important later — throughout all of these phases, the essential agnosticism I was brought up with never really left me. (Except maybe in the hippie woo-woo phase; but even then, I hung onto it in theory, in a sort of, “Well, if I’m going to be intellectually honest, I have to admit that I don’t really KNOW that a mystical spirit is moving my Tarot cards into place
”) During my whole “sum of all souls combined into one being” phase, it was very, very clear to me that this belief was… well, a belief. Something I believed — not something that I knew. I even codified my agnosticism, in a sort of series of concentric circles: I felt pretty darned sure about the first proposition in my list, and increasingly less certain about each successive one, like ripples in a pond fading as they fan out.

And then two things started to happen.

This is a serial story in three parts. To find out what the two things were that happened, visit this blog again tomorrow.

Defending the Blasphemy Challenge: A Reply

Blasphemy_challengeOkay. First: Laura, I get that you’re upset and hurt and angry about this, and I want you to know that I don’t want that. So I’m going to try to say what I have to say, as best as possible, in a way that doesn’t exacerbate it.

How can I do this?

DemocratLet me start by making a comparison. You’re a grassroots progressive Democrat, and a pretty ardent, practicing one. You probably see and hear people making fun of Democrats and progressives on a daily basis, calling you (among other things) stupid and crazy, and worse. And I’m sure you get ticked off at this sometimes, especially when you think the jokes are inaccurate or mean-spirited.

John_kerry_frenchBut you don’t get angry at the very idea that people would make fun of Democrats and call them stupid or crazy or other bad names. Not this angry, anyway. (At least, I assume you don’t. We’ve talked about politics many times, and I’ve never heard you get as angry or as hurt as you seem to be about the Blasphemy Challenge.) You accept that that’s part of the public conversation about politics.

I’d like to ask you to look at religion in the same way.

Religious_symbolsReligions are (most of them, anyway) an idea about the world: a theory about how the world works, and a philosophy about how the world should work. And as such, it should be part of the public discourse, part of the marketplace of ideas — no different than any other ideas about the world, and treated with the same level of respect and/or irreverence.

ArgumentRight now, this country is having a public conversation about religion, in a way that, as far as I’m aware, it never really has. And part of that conversation is going to involve people making mean, snarky jokes, both about the ideas and about the people who hold them. I personally wish more atheists would be more careful about aiming their jibes at Christianity rather than Christians
 but you know, I’m not always careful about making fun of Republicanism rather than Republicans, and I don’t think it’s the crime of the century.

And I don’t think it’s fair to be more angry at people who are childish and insulting about your religion than you would be about people who are childish and insulting about your politics.

JonstewartOr, for that matter, people who are childish and insulting about the politics you oppose. Speaking for myself, some of my favorite pieces of social commentary are sometimes childish and insulting. South Park, Beavis and Butt-Head — very often childish and insulting. The Simpsons, Monty Python — not infrequently childish and insulting. The Daily Show, The Colbert Report — yeah, sometimes. I think if we’re going to accept this type of social commentary when it works in our favor, we have to accept it when it’s aimed at us.

Lenny_bruceYou’re upset because many of the Blasphemy Challenge people treat Christianity as a joke, make fun of it — sometimes disrespectful, mean-spirited, not very nice fun. I’m not sure how to say this in a nice way
 but this is kind of what I’m talking about when I talk about religion getting a free ride in the marketplace of ideas. Making fun of people is a respected, time-honored form of public discourse in this country. Making fun of big, powerful institutions — of which Christianity is most assuredly one — is an even more respected, even more time-honored tradition. I’m sure Republicans and other folks get upset when Jon Stewart makes fun of them and calls them stupid and crazy. Tough beans. That’s life in the big city.

And I really think we need to start looking at religious ideas the same way.

So that’s the big issue. Now a couple of somewhat smaller, more specific points.

[Read more...]

Greta Christina Takes the Blasphemy Challenge

“Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

BibleThis is from the Bible. Mark 3:28-29. It’s not from the Old Testament; it’s not from Paul, or someone else interpreting Jesus’s words. It’s the words of Jesus himself. It’s not late in the narrative, either, when some scholars argue Jesus was starting to lose it. And I’m not quoting from the beautiful-but-wildly-inaccurate King James translation, either; I’m quoting from the Revised Standard.

As far as I can tell, it says what it says. According to Jesus, as quoted in the Gospels, there is one sin that will not be forgiven, one sin that is eternal — blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.

Demons(FYI, here’s the context for the quote: Jesus has been casting out demons, and the scribes respond by saying “He is possessed by Beelzebub, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” [Mark 3:22] Jesus replies by asking “How can Satan cast out Satan?” [Mark 3:23], talks in that vein for a bit… and then lets loose with the “never has forgiveness/guilty of an eternal sin” stuff; “for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.'” [Mark 3:30] In other words, they’d denied that the Holy Spirit was how the demons had been cast out, and had said it was Satan instead.)

I’ve actually read a fair amount of the Bible. I was a religion major, for goodness’ sake. But until recently, I somehow managed to miss this bit. And obviously, it’s not a verse that gets much attention called to it… what with it totally contradicting the central message of Christianity.

RrsbadgeSo some people have put together this Website (boy, do I love the early 21st century — of course some people have put together a Website) called The Blasphemy Challenge. On it, they’re encouraging people to deny the Holy Spirit, videotape themselves doing it… and post the videos on YouTube. (And I say yet again: I love this century.)

It’s become kind of a big deal. There’ve been news reports about it, including on Nightline, and hundreds of people have made these videos.

Here’s mine. (Click the link, or else view it below the fold.)

[Read more...]

Come For the Atheism, Stay For the Sex! (Or Come For the Sex, Stay For the Atheism!)

FishnetsGod_delusion_2Or come for the atheism AND the sex, and stay for the politics! Or the weird dreams, or the pop culture analysis, or the arcane discussion of the finer points of grammar, or the recipe for grilled peanut butter and chocolate chip sandwiches

We were talking about my blog at a party a couple of weeks ago, and someone suggested that I split my blog up into two blogs: one about atheism, and one about sex. They said that single-issue blogs are easier to market and publicize, and that I might get more traffic and keep more readers if I had different blogs devoted to my different interests.

Religious_symbolsEcstasy1It’s an idea I’ve considered before. I sometimes worry that people who find my blog through the porn reviews and blowjob discussions get put off by the lengthy faith/evidence conversations. And vice versa.

But I also think this blog’s eclecticism is one of its strengths. I personally enjoy blogs that are largely focused on one or two topics I’m interested in — sex and politics, politics and literature, science and culture — but that also surprise me with facts and ideas and news stories I might not have run into.

WritingAnd even from a purely marketing/publicity standpoint, I think keeping it all together might be a good idea. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as just a sex writer, or just an atheism writer, or just an anything writer. I’d like to be recognized as, you know, a writer, who can get her brain and her fingers around a wide variety of topics.

Besides, if I split this into a Sex blog and an Atheism blog, where would I put the political rants? The movie reviews? The dream journal? The grammar debates? The recipes?

Dirty_found_1Julia_sweeney_2So I’m taking a reader poll. Not that it’s necessarily going to affect what I do — I’m probably just going to keep on doing what I want to do — but I’m curious. What do y’all think? Do you think this blog would be better if it were two blogs, one on Sex and some other stuff and one on Atheism and some other stuff? Or do you like it better the way it is? Inquiring minds want to know.

“Fundamentalist” Atheists and Squabbling About Language

Julia_sweeneyI’ve been getting into a debate in Julia Sweeney’s forum — and it’s been so ironic it’s making me laugh out loud.

It’s over the phrase “fundamentalist atheist.” And the irony is that I’m taking the exact opposite of the position I usually take about language. Normally, I fall very far on the descriptivist side of the descriptivist/prescriptivist spectrum. I tend to think that language changes; that language should change; that words mean what people understand them to mean; and that arguing “X doesn’t mean Y, it really means Z” is like arguing that the tides shouldn’t change or species shouldn’t evolve.

But in this case, I’m arguing the other side. Very uncharacteristically for me, I’m arguing that the word “fundamentalism” means something quite specific; that this original meaning is useful; and by gum, that’s how people should use it.

And since it’s a question that’s come up in this blog, I thought I’d gas on about it here.

*****

DictionaryYes, I’m normally a descriptivist, or a usagist. But there are changes in language that I’ll argue against — not because I resist the general idea of the language changing, but because I have a specific objection to a specific change. The best example is the changing meaning of “literally” to mean “very.” My problem isn’t that “literally” doesn’t really mean “very.” My problem is that the original meaning of “literally” is extremely useful
 and we don’t have another word to replace it.

And I feel the same way about the word “fundamentalist.”

“Fundamentalist” has a pretty specific meaning, and I think it’s a useful one. Let’s take a look at the dictionary, and see what it is. According to Merriam Webster Online, fundamentalism is:

1 a (often capitalized): a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching b: the beliefs of this movement c: adherence to such beliefs
2: a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles

It’s this second meaning that I assume people are getting at when they talk about “fundamentalist atheists.”

And in my experience, it’s flat-out not true.

BibleI have never known — or read — any atheist who has strictly and literally adhered to a set of basic atheist principles. Heck, one of the whole points of atheism is that there is no set of basic principles — no Bible, no Koran, no Book of Mormon — to which one could strictly and literally adhere. One of the whole points of atheism (and the passionate respect for science that typically comes with atheism) is that beliefs about the world should be adaptable, and taken in context, and open to question.

Penn_jilletteThere are atheists who are intolerant. There are atheists who are pig-headed. There are atheists who are contemptuous of people who don’t agree with them. There are atheists who are, in a word, assholes. Not as many as people sometimes think — as I’ve written before, atheists get called intolerant and contemptuous of religion for saying things like “I don’t agree with you,” “I think you’re mistaken,” or “What evidence do you have to support that?” — but there are some.

But I have known not a single atheist who believed in a set of basic atheist principles to which they felt they should strictly and literally adhere. And I mean none. Literally zero.

So why does this “fundamentalist atheist” thing bug me so much?

Atheist_cartoon_1Because I think it’s unjust. It’s part of the larger picture of myths, misunderstandings, and deliberate misrepresentations of atheists in our culture. It bugs me for the same reason that comments like “oh, science is just your religion” bug me — it shows a basic misunderstanding of both fundamentalism and atheism, in the same way that “science is your religion” shows a basic misunderstanding of both religion and science.

Here’s an analogy I drew over in the debate on Julia Sweeney’s forum:

NaziWhat if I were to go around talking about, say, “religious Nazis” or “Christian Nazis.” (Sorry to use the N-word — I generally try to avoid it in online discussions, but I can’t think of another that means what I’m trying to get at.) You would probably respond — and rightly so — that the word “Nazi” means something very specific, and that however terrible the beliefs and actions of intolerant religious believers are, the word “Nazi” does not even come close to accurately describing them.

And if I replied, “Well, that’s just how I define ‘Nazi,'” you’d probably get very angry. You’d probably reply something like, “You can’t just make up your own meaning of a word — especially such an emotionally loaded word.” And again, you’d be right to do so.

That’s how I feel (although obviously not on the same level) about the phrase “fundamentalist atheists.” It’s not that it says something about atheists that’s critical. It’s that it says something about atheists that’s completely untrue and unjust.

*****

BisexualOkay. Regular readers of my blog may be getting puzzled right about now by how adamant I am on this topic
 given my previous rants on both sexual identity and the atheist/agnostic debates, and why it’s so important to let people use whatever language they like (within reason) to define themselves.

But there’s a difference — and it lies in the word “themselves.” There is a HUGE difference between mutating the language to define yourself
 and mutating it to define other people. The former is about identity, and thus about freedom; the latter is about labeling, and thus not so much about the freedom.

Pat_robertson_2Now, if you want to argue that the colloquial meaning of “fundamentalist” is changing — that it no longer means “strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles,” that it now means something like “intolerant, rigid, pig-headed jerk” — well, that’s an argument that may be worth making. It’s an argument I’ve made many times myself, about other words. (Although interestingly, that’s a far more pejorative definition than the “strict and literal adherence” one
)

The problem is that the “strict and literal adherence” definition is an extremely useful one — and we don’t have another word with that meaning.

And until we do, the word “fundamentalist” will, at the very least, carry both colloquial meanings — the “strict and literal adherence” meaning, and the “intolerant jerk” meaning. And while the latter certainly does describe some atheists, the former really and truly doesn’t.