Bless Me, Physical Universe, For I Have Sinned

ConfessionalA couple of other atheist blogs have been doing this (Friendly Atheist and No More Hornets), and I thought I’d get in on the fun.

It’s the Atheist Confessional.

I’ll get the ball rolling.

Bless me, Physical Universe, for I have sinned.

When I engage in one of the most central and profound secular activities of my life — namely, having sex — I can’t seem to shut up about Jesus and God. I say/scream “Oh God,” “Oh Jesus,” “Jesus Fucking Christ,” and so on, probably dozens of times in the course of an evening.

I go out of my way to find things about religion in the news to get angry and worked up about — just so I can blog about them.

And when I’m visiting other atheist blogs, I go out of my way to bring up sex, whenever it’s even remotely relevant.

So what about the other godless heathens reading this blog? What godless sins do you have to confess?

Humanist Symposium #3

The Humanist Symposium #3 is up at Black Sun Journal. This is a neat blog carnival devoted to positive atheist blog posts around the blogosphere — i.e., posts about atheism that talk about what’s good about atheism, rather than what’s bad about religion. There’s some good, smart writing in the carnival, and if you’re interested in atheist ideas but don’t like all the griping, you should definitely check it out. They were kind enough to include my two-part “Atheist Identity” ramblings, Not a Butler, Either and Stranger in an Increasingly Strange Land, on what it means to have an atheist identity and why I think it’s important. So thanks, humanists.

Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God

I cite this piece a lot on my blog, so I decided I should post it here. It was originally published in the Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 29 #2 (March/April 2005).

HandSo here’s the problem. If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife; or if you believe that the existence of God or an afterlife are fundamentally unanswerable questions; or if you do believe in God or an afterlife but you accept that your belief is just that, a belief, something you believe rather than something you know — if any of that is true for you, then death can be an appalling thing to think about. Not just frightening, not just painful. It can be paralyzing. The fact that your lifespan is an infinitesimally tiny fragment in the life of the universe, and that there is, at the very least, a strong possibility that when you die, you disappear completely and forever, and that in five hundred years nobody will remember you and in five billion years the Earth will be boiled into the sun: this can be a profound and defining truth about your existence that you reflexively repulse, that you flinch away from and refuse to accept or even think about, consistently pushing to the back of your mind whenever it sneaks up, for fear that if you allow it to sit in your mind even for a minute, it will swallow everything else. It can make everything you do, and everything anyone else does, seem meaningless, trivial to the point of absurdity. It can make you feel erased, wipe out joy, make your life seem like ashes in your hands. Those of us who are skeptics and doubters are sometimes dismissive of people who fervently hold beliefs they have no evidence for simply because they find them comforting — but when you’re in the grip of this sort of existential despair, it can be hard to feel like you have anything but that handful of ashes to offer them in exchange.

PeaceBut here’s the thing. I think it’s possible to be an agnostic, or an atheist, or to have religious or spiritual beliefs that you don’t have certainty about, and still feel okay about death. I think there are ways to look at death, ways to experience the death of other people and to contemplate our own, that allow us to feel the value of life without denying the finality of death. I can’t make myself believe in things I don’t actually believe — Heaven, or reincarnation, or a greater divine plan for our lives — simply because believing those things would make death easier to accept. And I don’t think I have to, or that anyone has to. I think there are ways to think about death that are comforting, that give peace and solace, that allow our lives to have meaning and even give us more of that meaning — and that have nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of God, or any kind of afterlife.

TimeHere’s the first thing. The first thing is time, and the fact that we live in it. Our existence and experience are dependent on the passing of time, and on change. No, not dependent — dependent is too weak a word. Time and change are integral to who we are, the foundation of our consciousness, and its warp and weft as well. I can’t imagine what it would mean to be conscious without passing through time and being aware of it. There may be some form of existence outside of time, some plane of being in which change and the passage of time is an illusion, but it certainly isn’t ours.

Willow_treeAnd inherent in change is loss. The passing of time has loss and death woven into it: each new moment kills the moment before it, and its own death is implied in the moment that comes after. There is no way to exist in the world of change without accepting loss, if only the loss of a moment in time: the way the sky looks right now, the motion of the air, the number of birds in the tree outside your window, the temperature, the placement of your body, the position of the people in the street. It’s inherent in the nature of having moments: you never get to have this exact one again.

Waltzing1And a good thing, too. Because all the things that give life joy and meaning — music, conversation, eating, dancing, playing with children, reading, thinking, making love, all of it — are based on time passing, and on change, and on the loss of an infinitude of moments passing through us and then behind us. Without loss and death, we don’t get to have existence. We don’t get to have Shakespeare, or sex, or five-spice chicken, without allowing their existence and our experience of them to come into being and then pass on. We don’t get to listen to Louis Armstrong without letting the E-flat disappear and turn into a G. We don’t get to watch “Groundhog Day” without letting each frame of it pass in front of us for a 24th of a second and then move on. We don’t get to walk in the forest without passing by each tree and letting it fall behind us; we don’t even get to stand still in the forest and gaze at one tree for hours without seeing the wind blow off a leaf, a bird break off a twig for its nest, the clouds moving behind it, each manifestation of the tree dying and a new one taking its place.

IciclesAnd we wouldn’t want to have it if we could. The alternative would be time frozen, a single frame of the film, with nothing to precede it and nothing to come after. I don’t think any of us would want that. And if we don’t want that, if instead we want the world of change, the world of music and talking and sex and whatnot, then it is worth our while to accept, and even love, the loss and the death that make it possible.

Whole_earthHere’s the second thing. Imagine, for a moment, stepping away from time, the way you’d step back from a physical place, to get a better perspective on it. Imagine being outside of time, looking at all of it as a whole — history, the present, the future — the way the astronauts stepped back from the Earth and saw it whole.

Timeline1Keep that image in your mind. Like a timeline in a history class, but going infinitely forward and infinitely back. And now think of a life, a segment of that timeline, one that starts in, say, 1961, and ends in, say, 2037. Does that life go away when 2037 turns into 2038? Do the years 1961 through 2037 disappear from time simply because we move on from them and into a new time, any more than Chicago disappears when we leave it behind and go to California?

ParisIt does not. The time that you live in will always exist, even after you’ve passed out of it, just like Paris exists before you visit it, and continues to exist after you leave. And the fact that people in the 23rd century will probably never know you were alive… that doesn’t make your life disappear, any more than Paris disappears if your cousin Ethel never sees it. Your segment on that timeline will always have been there. The fact of your death doesn’t make the time that you were alive disappear.

GalaxyAnd it doesn’t make it meaningless. Yes, stepping back and contemplating all of time and space can be daunting, can make you feel tiny and trivial. And that perception isn’t entirely inaccurate. It’s true; the small slice of time that we have is no more important than the infinitude of time that came before we were born, or the infinitude that will follow after we die.

But it’s no less important, either.

Fetus_da_vinciI don’t know what happens when we die. I don’t know if we come back in a different body, or if we get to hover over time and space and view it in all its glory and splendor, or if our souls dissolve into the world-soul the way our bodies dissolve into the ground, or if, as seems very likely, we simply disappear. I have no idea. And I don’t know that it matters. What matters is that we get to be alive. We get to be conscious. We get to be connected with each other, and with the world, and we get to be aware of that connection and to spend a few years mucking about in its possibilities. We get to have a slice of time and space that’s ours. As it happened, we got the slice that has Beatles records and Thai restaurants and AIDS and the Internet. People who came before us got the slice that had horse-drawn carriages and whist and dysentery, or the one that had stone huts and Viking invasions and pigs in the yard. And the people who come after us will get the slice that has, I don’t know, flying cars and soybean pies and identity chips in their brains. But our slice is no less important because it comes when it does, and it’s no less important because we’ll leave it someday. The fact that time will continue after we die does not negate the time that we were alive. We are alive now, and nothing can erase that.

Carnival of the Godless: Lost Secrets

CarnivalThe new Carnival of the Godless is up, this time at Action Skeptics, and they were once again kind enough to include my blog in their round-up, this time with my piece on Barack Obama. (This week’s Carnival of the Godless has a very funny “Lost Secrets” theme, a la the Dead Sea Scrolls/ Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

MagazinesBTW, it’s been called to my attention that I haven’t explained very clearly what these “carnivals” are that I keep gassing on about. So let me explain. A blog carnival is a sort of round-up of recent blog posts on a particular theme or topic. It’s a little like a magazine, a way of sorting through the kajillion blogs in the blogosphere and finding the stuff that interests you. There are blog carnivals about comics, salsa dancing, Harry Potter, small business strategy, homeschooling, pizza, military history, knitting, feminist science fiction and fantasy, HIV and AIDS, left-wing politics, right-wing politics, Bible studies, spirit channeling, global warming, cats, and… well, you know. It’s the Net. Everything. (Of course, this being me, so far the ones I’ve been part of have been about atheism and liberal politics.)

TrafficIf you’re a blogger, carnivals are a good way to draw traffic to your blog — I wish I’d tracked onto them a whole lot sooner. If you’re interested or just curious about what carnivals are out there, check out this Blog Carnival index. (If you’re a blogger trying to find a carnival for you, be sure to focus on the ones that have a “next edition” date listed — if they don’t, they’re probably moribund.) Have fun at the circus!

Stranger in an Increasingly Strange Land: An Atheist Identity, Part 2

Atheist_tshirtIn yesterday’s episode, our heroine gassed on about how atheism — or naturalism — is a positive philosophy, more than just a lack of belief in God or the soul or the afterlife. In today’s startling revelation, she answers the second part of the question of why her atheist identity is so important to her — politics, and the place of religion and atheism in our society.

Second: Politics and society.

AlfredIf religion weren’t so important and so prominent in our society, my atheism almost certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near as important to me as it is. As Eclectic said, I might be non-religious in the same way that I’m a non-butler, or that I’m not from Poughkeepsie, or that I don’t eat broccoli.

CrowleyfoolIn fact, if religion weren’t so prominent, I might not even be an atheist. I might still be an agnostic, or a woo-woo Tarot reading hippie, or a vague believer in some sort of mystical animating spirit that connects all living things. The fact that religion is so much in my face has forced me to think about it carefully, to really consider what I believe — and how likely it is to be true.

PrayinghandsBut in America — and around the world — religion is unignorable, and getting increasingly so. Just as one example: According to a Gallup poll, almost half the people in this country believe in strict Creationism — that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” And these people have become increasingly powerful politically in the last couple of decades, with some very real-world effects — fucking up our schools, our health care system, our environmental policies, etc. etc. (I could go on in this vein at some length, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Gay_fistSo being an atheist is important to my identity for the same reasons being queer is important to my identity. My queer identity is important because of homophobia, and the assumption of heterosexuality, and the fact that queers have been stepped on and have to scream just to be heard. (And interestingly, as these things have diminished somewhat — at least in the little lefty paradise of San Francisco — my queer identity has become somewhat less important to me. The fact that I’m with Ingrid — very important. Crucial. The fact that I’m a bi-dyke
 not as important as it used to be.)

Pat_robertsonAnd similarly, my atheist identity is important because of the religious right. Because of laws restricting abortion rights. Because of abstinence-only sex education in the public schools. Because of the Christian right getting Wal-Mart to stop politely saying “Happy Holidays” to their customers instead of “Merry Christmas.” Because of children being terrorized with the prospect of burning and torture if they even question what they’re taught about God.

Pope_benedict_xviBilly_grahamBecause when my atheist father was admitted to a nursing home, my brother was asked, “Is he Baptist or Catholic?” (As if those were the only choices. That one didn’t just piss me off on behalf of atheists — it pissed me off on behalf of Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists, and Wiccans, and Unitarians… and for that matter, Lutherans and Methodists and Presbyterians.)

TheatheistAnd because according to a recent Gallup poll, only 49 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for President, while 59 percent would vote for a homosexual, 92 percent would vote for a black person, and 95 percent would vote for a woman. Think about what homophobia, racism, and sexism are like in this country, and that’ll give you some context for this statistic.

CreationismBefore you hit the Comment button — Yes, I know that that’s not the only way to be religious. But it’s a depressingly common one, especially in this country. And because of its “believe what you’re told” nature, it’s a way of being religious that wields a frightening amount of political power. If most religious believers in this country were moderate and tolerant, I’d still think they were mistaken in their beliefs… but I wouldn’t particularly care.

Again, I could go on about this at much greater length, and at some point I will. But that is a post for another day. The point is: If none of this crap were true, I might well be a non-believer in the same way that I’m a non-butler.

But it isn’t.

Atheist_buttonSo I’m not.

Not a Butler, Either: An Atheist Identity

Atheist_buttonIn a couple of recent comments on this blog, Eclectic posed what I think is a worthwhile question and one that’s worth gassing on about. Namely: Why is it important for atheists to have atheism as a positive identity?

DebateWhy do we have intense discussions and debates among ourselves about what to call ourselves — atheist, agnostic, skeptic, bright, freethinker, naturalist, etc.?

Richard_dawkins_netAnd why is atheism central to our identity at all? Why would anybody identify themselves — and form organizations, and join online forums, and gas on in their blogs — because of what they don’t believe?

AlfredPertinent quote from Eclectic: “I just don’t see how someone can define themselves in terms of atheism. I’m not religious in the same way that most people aren’t butlers. You probably haven’t noticed the lack.” Second pertinent quote: “What activities do you engage in because you are a naturalist, as opposed to say, a lapsed but nominal christian or jew?”

I’d like to answer that question in two ways. First, in my regular voice, and second, in a sort of silly high-pitched whine. (Sorry. The Monty Python references have just been getting to me lately.)

First: Philosophy.

End_of_faithFor me, being an atheist isn’t just about what I don’t believe. In fact, this is one of the reasons that, while I prefer it to most alternatives, I’m not that crazy about the word “atheist.” (The other reason is that “atheist” actually isn’t strong enough for me. It’s not just God I don’t believe in — I also don’t believe in the soul, or reincarnation, or telepathy, or the ability to magically attract the things you want in your life just by thinking about them.) I personally prefer “naturalist” (i.e., someone who believes the natural, physical world is all there is)… but most people think that means, like, a park ranger or a botanist or something, so “atheist” it is.

BeliefSo atheism isn’t just about what I don’t believe. Atheism is about what I do believe — a philosophy of life that I think has some real differences from most theistic philosophies (although I also think there are areas of overlap, and the possibility of understanding and connection). It’s more than just a belief that there is no God, no soul, no metaphysical energy, no afterlife. It’s a belief in…

…what? I could gas on about that for hours and still not be done. But here are some of the high points:

AtomI believe that the physical, natural world is all there is — and I believe that it’s enough. To me, the idea that, out of just atoms and molecules and time, galaxies and life and consciousness and self-awareness and creativity have somehow arisen… that is just awe-inspiring. When I hear people say things like, “There has to be more to the world than what we can see around us,” I sometimes think to myself, “What more do you want?”

EvolutionI believe that the physical, natural world is all there is — and I believe that I am a part of it. I don’t believe that humans have been set apart from the rest of the animal world with some special spiritual quality or purpose. I believe we are an animal species, in the vertebrate subphylum, in the mammalian class, in the primate order. I believe we have unique abilities — but other living things have unique abilities as well (like coral and spiders and bats), and the fact that we have unique abilities doesn’t make us unique. If that makes sense. I believe we have a unusual ability to radically transform our environment (and are often phenomenally short-sighted and stupid about how we go about this) — but other species can and do radically transform the environment as well. (Read about earthworms sometime. Freaky. Plus there’s the whole “plants were poisoning their air with that horrible toxic oxygen until animals evolved who could breathe it” thing

DnaI believe that we are essentially an animal species — and that therefore, genetic hard-wiring plays a significant role in how we behave, how we feel, how we think… in short, who we are. (We don’t, for instance, swim upstream to our birthplace to spawn…) I think we have free will as well — although I’m not sure exactly what that means or how it plays out in a natural cause-and-effect world — but I think our brains and behaviors are, at the very least, powerfully influenced by genetics, both as individuals and as a species. And I think it’s foolish of us to deny that.

ShuffleI believe that I was unbelievably lucky to have been born at all. I believe that I was born, not because of some divine hand who wanted me to be here, but because of the larger process of natural selection, and the more immediate shuffling of my parents’ genetic decks. I believe that the odds of me being born at all — me as me, not as the sister or brother that could have been born instead of me — were astronomical, and that it’s entirely conceivable that I might not have been born at all.

And I therefore believe:

Galaxya) that on the cosmic scale, I’m just not that big a deal — that while of course I’m the center of my own life, I’m very much at the periphery of everyone else’s, and in the vastness of time and space I’m pretty much a dust speck on a flea. I believe that even if the universe were conscious and had the capacity to care about anything, it wouldn’t particularly care all that much about me.

Paying_for_itb) the flip side of that — that if I want to be a person the world cares about and have the world be different because I was here, I bloody well have to make that happen myself.

Lotteryc) that, as Richard Dawkins said, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.” I believe that just having been born makes me astoundingly, astronomically lucky — and that therefore, griping about the fact that I’m going to die someday is like winning a million dollars in the lottery and griping about the fact that it wasn’t a hundred billion.

RandomnessI believe that luck and random chance play an ENORMOUS part in our lives — much larger than any of us (including myself) really like to acknowledge. And I therefore try not to feel too smug and entitled about every good thing that happens in my life — or too guilt-ridden and responsible for every bad thing. (In particular, I try to remember that, as a white, healthy, middle-class, college-educated American, I pretty much won the privilege lottery when I was born, and that griping and whining about the petty annoyances in my life is really kind of pathetic. Not that I don’t do it anyway… but when I catch myself, I try to knock it off.)

SeattleI sometimes think about the places I might have ended up living in instead of San Francisco — Seattle, Minneapolis, New York, London. And I think about the people in those cities who would be my dearest friends now, who would have been my dearest friends for years, if I’d lived there instead of here. There’s a part of me that wants to know those people, that feels the lack of them in my life — and that recognizes how lucky I am to have the dear friends I have today, and how much it’s a matter of chance that I know them at all.

Meaning_of_lifeBecause I don’t believe in a divine hand that put us here, I believe that the question “why are we here?” is essentially meaningless — that we have no purpose in life except whatever purpose we make up ourselves. I don’t, however, think that this makes our lives meaningless. It just makes meaning something we create for ourselves and one another, not something handed to us from outside. And I absolutely don’t think that this somehow absolves us of moral obligation — in fact, I think it underscores that obligation.

Scientific_methodI believe that the human mind has a tremendous capacity for self-deception — and that therefore, when we’re trying to understand the world around us, we have to be very careful to quintuple-check our work. And I believe that the scientific method, while far from perfect, is, in the long run, one of the very best tools we have for doing this.

ReincarnationI believe that this life is all we have — so we damn well better make the most of it. In my woo-woo hippie days, if I missed out on some great experience, I used to say things like, “Oh, well, I’ll do that in my next life.” I don’t say that any more. And because I don’t say that anymore, I consider the opportunities I run into a lot more carefully than I used to. I take advantage of them more than I used to; I try harder to really experience them and be in the moment of them… and when I do pass on them, I let myself feel the loss of it, so I’ll remember it the next time I’m facing an opportunity, and can make a better decision as to whether I should take advantage of it or not.

Helping_handI believe that this life is all we have — so we have a moral obligation to improve it for each other as well as ourselves. I don’t think there’s any pie in the sky for the homeless guy on the corner… so I try to help him out in this life.

Question_markI believe there are enormous, important areas and aspects of the world that we don’t understand — and that, while that can be profoundly unsettling, it’s ultimately okay. I don’t feel a need to fill in all the blank spaces in the coloring book with a blue crayon and call it God or divine energy or anything else. I am, of course, intensely curious about all the things we don’t know, and one of the things I grieve over the hardest when I think about mortality is the fact that the central mysteries of our age — what is consciousness, how did space-time begin — are questions that I may well never know the answer to. But basically, I feel pretty okay looking at big questions and saying, “I don’t know.” And I think that, as a species, we stand a better chance of eventually answering these questions if we acknowledge that we don’t already have the answers.


Religious_symbolsNow, of course I understand that at least some religious and spiritual believers have reached at least some of these same conclusions. There are religious believers who feel a moral obligation to make the world better; who try to make the most of their short lives; who feel lucky and grateful for the chance to be alive at all.

Gods_planBut — and I could be wrong here — I think there are very few, if any, religious believers who share all or even most of these beliefs. (Especially the ones about the universe not putting us here on purpose and not giving a damn about us one way or the other.)

No_godsAnd I think — although again, I could be wrong — that a good number of atheists share many or most of them, if not all.

Atheist_tshirtSo that’s the first part of my answer to the question, “Why is my atheism so important to my identity?” The second part has to do with politics and society… but this post has already gone long enough, so I’ll save the rest for tomorrow. (Don’t worry — tomorrow’s post is shorter.)

Even If It’s Wrong: Barack Obama, Religious Faith, and Same-Sex Marriage

Barack_obama_1There was this piece about Barack Obama in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. And it had a comment in it — about both same-sex marriage and religious faith — that chilled me to the bone.

Barack_obama_2“If there’s a deep moral conviction that gay marriage is wrong, if a majority of Americans believe on principle that marriage is an institution for men and women, I’m not at all sure he shares that view, but he’s not an in-your-face type,” Cass Sunstein, a colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago, says. “To go in the face of people with religious convictions — that’s something he’d be very reluctant to do.” This is not, Sunstein believes, due only to pragmatism; it also stems from a sense —

and here comes the kicker, people –

that there is something worthy of respect in a strong and widespread moral feeling, even if it’s wrong.”

I’m trying to think of the best way to put this:

No_2No, there isn’t.

No, no, no, no, no.

A wrong moral feeling is not — repeat, NOT — made worthy of respect by being either strong or widespread.

Danger_poisonI don’t just think this idea is wrong. I think it’s dangerously wrong. I think this idea — that even if a belief is wrong, if a lot of people share it and hold it passionately then it has somehow earned gravitas and respect — this is among the most destructive ideas that human beings have come up with.

Why? Because it is essentially a self-perpetuation machine for bad ideas.

LynchingDo I even need to explain this? Think of all the evil, harmful things in human history that have been supported by a strong and widespread moral feeling. Slavery. Clitoridectomy. Imperialist wars. Religious wars. The disenfranchisement of women. The censoring of information, and active disinformation campaigns, about birth control and sexual health. The Salem witch trials. The Inquisition. Genocides ranging from the Trail of Tears to the Holocaust. Lynchings. Putting queers in jails and mental institutions. Do I need to go on?

And every one of these events and institutions was made stronger and more durable by this “worthy of respect” idea — everyone else thinks it’s okay, so how bad could it really be?

Witch_burning_monty_pythonThe idea that a strong and widespread moral feeling deserves respect, even if it’s wrong… it’s morality by mob rule, by popularity contest. It’s an idea that enables people to not think about what’s right and wrong in the world, but instead to let everyone else think for them. It’s an idea that makes it possible to not question received wisdom, even if that wisdom is blatantly contradicted by the reality around you. It’s an idea that makes people vulnerable to skillful demagogues who are experts at manipulating strong feelings and fears — especially the fear of being left out, of not being part of the group.

Ted_haggardAnd it’s one of the more troubling aspects of religious faith — the idea that holding strong, passionate religious beliefs is by itself a good thing, regardless of what those beliefs are, regardless of whether they’re demonstrably untrue or demonstrably harmful. The idea that being a “person of faith” is an admirable trait, one you have to give at least grudging respect to… even if you find that person’s actual faith itself to be bigoted, evil, stupid, and/or insane. The idea that a lot of people believing the same thing together at the same time is a beautiful thing — regardless of whether the thing they believe is in any way based in reality. (BTW, before everyone writes in — yes, I understand that this isn’t the only way to be religious. But it’s a depressingly common one. And I think the “faith ultimately trumps evidence” nature of religion makes it unusually susceptible to this way of thinking.)

Bill_clintonAnd I don’t want a President who thinks that. That’s what we had with Bill Clinton — a weathervane President who was unable to take an unpopular moral stand, on same-sex marriage and about a billion other issues. And as much as I would give ten years off my life to have Bill Clinton be President again right now (how depressing is that?), as much as he’s pretty much been the best President of my conscious lifetime (and how depressing is THAT?), I sure as heck wouldn’t vote for him in a primary, and I don’t want another President like him.

WeddingBecause the upshot is this: Ingrid and I want to get married. Legally. But a whole lot of people have a strong feeling that it’s wrong — and that feeling is supposedly deserving of respect. Even though that feeling is based on ignorance. Even though that feeling is based on hatred and fear. Even though that feeling is being manipulated and taken advantage of by corrupt, power-hungry frauds. Even though that feeling completely disrespects us. We’re still supposed to respect it.

NoAnd I say yet again: No.

No, no, no, no, no.

Fuck that. We have to do nothing of the kind.

Barack_obama_3(P.S. Yes, I’m aware of the fact that these are not Obama’s own words — they’re the words of a colleague describing her his understanding of his ideas. But it’s a colleague who seems to understand him very well. And given the positions he’s publicly taken on same-sex marriage (he supports same-sex civil unions, but opposes same-sex marriage because “marriage is a religious bond”), it seems pretty damn plausible that “worthy of respect even if it’s wrong” is an accurate representation of his position on religious homophobia.)

Upbeat Atheism and Dirty Stories: A “Humanist Symposium” Shout-Out and a “Perverts Put Out!” Reminder

SunriseFirst, a shout-out and thank you to the latest Humanist Symposium, a neat and smart blog carnival collecting positive atheist blog posts — i.e., posts about atheism that talk about what’s good about atheism, rather than what’s bad about religion. They were kind enough to include my piece Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence in their latest roundup. So I wanted to say thanks, to both Confessions of an Anonymous Coward for hosting this latest carnival, and to Daylight Atheism for starting the carnival in the first place.

Best_american_erotic_2005And a quick reminder: I’m going to be reading tomorrow (Friday, May 25) at the Perverts Put Out! series of sex readings. I’m planning to read my very nasty story, “View from the 14th Floor,” originally published in On Our Backs and reprinted in Best American Erotica 2005 — and it looks like I may be tossing a snarky sex toy review into the mix as well. Come by and say howdy!

Perverts Put Out
Friday, May 25
7:30 pm
1310 Mission Street, San Francisco

Mistakes Were Made: The Arrogance and Fun of Admitting You’re Wrong

Wrong_way_2_2“As smug and self-righteous as people can be when they’re loudly insisting that they’re right, it does not even come close to the smug self-righteousness of people who are loudly pointing out that they’re big enough to admit their mistakes.”

I’m quoting myself here.

See, I get a little tired of hearing skeptics, science-lovers, and atheists get accused of being arrogant, completely convinced that we’re right about everything, and unwilling to either say “I was wrong” or “I don’t know.”

Scientific_method_2I mean, of course we can be arrogant and stubborn, what with us being human beings and all. But in my experience, skeptics and science-lovers and atheists, while we can be very certain that we’re right, are also as a rule very willing to admit it when we’re wrong. (That’s exactly how science works, after all — it’s a self-correcting system that works by people acknowledging that they’re wrong and changing their mind when the evidence becomes sufficiently convincing.)

ArroganceAnd I think there’s a substantial and functional difference between the arrogance of saying, “I really think I’m right about this — but if I’m wrong, then by all means convince me”… and the arrogance of saying, “Nothing you could say or do, nothing I could possibly see or experience, could ever shake my faith.”

Richard_dawkinsIn fact, not only do skeptics and science-lovers and atheists admit it when we’re wrong — we’ll do it proudly. Like the guy Richards Dawkins is always poncing on about, the college professor who publicly shook the hand of the person who proved one of his pet theories wrong and said, “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” Skeptics and science-lovers and atheists will not only admit that we’re wrong and that we don’t know everything — we’ll do so happily. Proudly. Even smugly and arrogantly We’d take out full-page ads in the New York Times if we could afford it.

DebateBy Jove, nobody admits that they’re not always right and that they don’t know everything better than we do!

SmugSo I’m going to do an unbelievably smug, arrogant, self-aggrandizing thing here — and take you on a tour of some of the places in this blog, either in the posts or the comments, where I’ve done one of the following:

1. admitted that I was wrong and changed my mind;
2. called attention to mistakes I’ve made in the recent past;
3. pointed out a subject on which I recently changed or was currently changing my mind;
4. acknowledged my uncertainty and/or my limited or faulty knowledge on a subject;
5. asked for help, advice, or information.

Question_mark_headI’m not even talking about the places where I’ve pointed out the limitations of science or human knowledge generally. And I’m not doing the tour of places where other rabid atheists/ skeptics/ science lovers have admitted that they’re wrong. Maybe I’ll do that in another post someday. For now, I’m sticking to my own personal mistakes, ignorance, and limitations.

This is going to be fun. For me, anyway. I hope y’all enjoy it as well.

Deathly_hallows“Again, I don’t know why I’m subjecting myself to this public humiliation, as my track record on these pop-culture predictions has consistently sucked.”
The “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” Prediction Contest, or, The Most Trivial Thing On This Blog To Date, And That’s Saying Something

Bill“Important disclaimer: I’m a smart observant person, but I’m not a legal expert. If any legal experts see any flaws in my understanding of the law, please point them out.”
Hate Crime Laws, and the Difference Between Speech and Evidence

Hitchens“I’m literally and physically pulling those numbers out of my ass as we speak, by the way.”
So Christopher Hitchens Walks Into A Bar…

Gonzales“I think that’s a very good point, Jon. But now I’m wondering. It seems to me (and do correct me if I’m wrong, you obviously know a lot more about this than I do)…”
Our No. 1 Crime Fighter: Alberto Gonzales, and What Government Is For – comment

Scientist“I am passionate about science, especially for someone who’s only studied it as a humanities major and an educated layperson.”
The Slog Through the Swamp: What Science Is, And Why It Works, And Why I Care

Probability_book“Our brains are not very good at grasping statistics and probability. (That includes mine — I can’t get more than ten pages into a ‘Statistics and Probability For Dummies’ book without my puny earthling brain exploding.)”
A Lattice of Coincidence: Metaphysics, the Paranormal, and My Answer to Layne

Cards_fanned“Okay, this is freaking me out now. I based my metaphysical beliefs for YEARS on the idea that this pattern was ridiculously unlikely. Sheesh. (BTW, if there are any mathematicians or statisticians reading this who are screaming with frustration at my math, please feel free to correct me.)”
Ditto. This one counts for double — I pointed out a mistake I’d made in the recent past, AND asked for help on a subject on which I knew my understanding to be faulty. Yay, me!

Duke“But… oh, just go read the piece on the SmackDog blog. He says it better than I can.”
Credibility and the Duke Rape Case Fiasco

Blasphemy_challenge“I’m sorry that I misunderstood you about being angry because people were making snarky jokes about your faith. It seemed to me like that was part of what you were saying. My bad.”
Defending the Blasphemy Challenge: A Reply – comment
(Also in that comment: “Plenty of smart people have had some stupid ideas. I’m one of them.”)

Bible1“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.”
Greta Christina Takes the Blasphemy Challenge

Religious_symbols“I think I need to clarify my point about faith. I thought I’d made it clearly in my original post, Well, There’s Your Problem; but if Laura — who does, in fact, try hard to understand what I’m saying and give me the benefit of the doubt — didn’t understand it, than I obviously said it wrong. For which I apologize.”
Answering Laura: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion, Part 3

Bergstrom“In a perfectly non-sexist society, it’s possible that we might still have more male engineers than female, more female teachers than male. I don’t know. I don’t think any of us knows.”
Brain, Brain, What Is Brain? or, Is Gender Hard-Wired?

Question_mark“…since my own definitions have been shifting around lately, I thought I’d gas on about it here.”
Atheist or Agnostic?

God_delusion“Lately, however, it’s been becoming increasingly clear that ‘100% sure that there is no God’ isn’t the only definition of ‘atheist.'”
Ditto. Actually, the whole point of <A HREF="this post was to call attention to the fact that I was changing my mind about an important topic.

Sex_offender_sign“There are some very commonly-held myths about sex offenders that turn out to be total bullshit — myths that I believed myself until I read this piece.”
Please Think of the Children: Sex Offender Hysteria

Blake_god_1“When you don’t believe in God, the question ‘What purpose do we serve?’ is as elusive as ‘What caused us to be here?’ is solid. It isn’t simply mysterious. It’s unanswerable.”
Why Are We Here? One Agnostic’s Half-Baked Philosophy. (This one may seem like cheating, since I was using the abstract “you” to mean “all naturalists” as well as just “me.” But I was mostly talking about my own naturalist philosophy here, not other people’s; and besides, it was such a big important a topic for me to admit my limitations on that I couldn’t resist.)

Selma“…ripped fishnets and miniskirts and skimpy tops don’t make me look like a punk rock waif any more. They make me look like an aging tramp. And I don’t know why that is — or whether I’m okay with it.”
The Aging Slut

Fishnets“I want to dress in a way that reclaims my sexual power. But I want to do it in a way that doesn’t make me look, or feel, pathetic and desperate. And I’m not sure how to do that. Any thoughts?”
Ditto. In fact, this entire post is about how I don’t know the answer to an important question and am struggling with it.

Matisse_woman_reading“Quick caveat/tangent — I may not be being fair. I haven’t been reading a lot of contemporary literary fiction lately, so maybe I’ve just been unlucky.”
The Death of the Novel? – comment

Mark_foley“Jon, you make a good point. I think the abuse of power issue is more important than I’d originally made it out to be.”
Sixteen Candles: The Rep. Foley Scandal – comment

Kimjongil_1“I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and am now thinking that, on the specific topic of North Korea, I may well have over-reacted.”
North Korea, and Reason 8,624 that the War on Iraq was a Bad Idea – comment

Bisexual“I have (a theory) about my ‘bis tend to end up with women’ observation… But I’m very aware of the fact that my circle of close friends does not constitute a statistically accurate sampling — so I want to expand the sampling to my circle of people who read my blog. Much more accurate…”
If You Believe in Bisexuals, Clap Your Hands: My Letter to Dan Savage

Lordoftherings“I am now convinced that I was mistaken about LOTR’s moral simplicity and political irrelevance. Again, I haven’t read it for 20 years, and even then I didn’t read it very carefully after the first 100 pages or so, since I wasn’t enjoying it. Mea culpa.”
Why I Like “Harry Potter” Better than “Lord of the Rings” – comment

Wrong_wayWe hope you have enjoyed this tour of Greta’s Willingness To Admit That She’s Wrong And Doesn’t Know Everything. We now return you to our regularly scheduled program of opinionated ranting.