Seven Reasons for Atheists to Celebrate the Holidays

This piece was originally published on AlterNet. I’m reposting as part of my holiday tradition thing.

grinchIt’s often assumed that the atheist position on what is politely termed “the holiday season” is one of disregard at best, contempt and annoyance at worst. After all, the reasons for most of the standard winter holidays are supposedly religious — the birth of the Savior, eight days of miraculous light, yada yada yada. Why would atheists want anything to do with that?

But atheists’ reactions to the holidays are wildly varied. Yes, some atheists despise them: the enforced jollity, the shameless twisting of genuine human emotion to sell useless consumer crap, the tyrannical forcing of mawkish piety down everyone’s throats. (Some believers loathe the holidays for the exact same reasons.) But some of us love the holidays. We love the parties, the decorations, the smell of pine trees in people’s houses, the excuse to eat ourselves sick, the reminder that we do in fact love our family and friends. We’re cognizant of the shameless twisting and mawkish piety and whatnot — but we can deal with it. It’s worth it for an excuse to drink eggnog with our loved ones and bellow out “Angels We Have Heard On High” in half-assed four-part harmony. (In fact, when it comes to the holidays, atheists are in something of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. If we scorn them, we get called Scroogy killjoys… but if we embrace them, we get called hypocrites. Oh, well. Whaddya gonna do.)

So today, I want to talk about some of the reasons that some atheists love the holidays: in hopes that believers might better understand who we are and where we’re coming from… and in hopes that a few Scroogy killjoys, atheist and otherwise, might be tempted to join the party. (If not — no big. I recognize and validate your entirely reasonable annoyance at the holidays. And besides, Scroogy killjoys are an important holiday tradition.) [Read more…]

Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World

I first published this on Thanksgiving 2011, and have decided to make it a Thanksgiving tradition.

thank youIf you don’t believe in God, what does gratitude mean?

I don’t mean specific gratitude towards specific people for specific benevolent acts. I mean that more broad, general, sweeping sense of gratitude: gratitude for things like good health, having food to eat, having friends and family, the mere fact of being alive at all.

I started thinking about this when I was watching the “Thanks for Skepticon” video that the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas put together, where they asked participants at Skepticon 4 to say what they were thankful for. Most of the folks in the video — myself included — took the question at face value, and spoke of our intense gratitude: for science and medicine, for friends and family, for jobs in an unstable economy, for trees, for the very fact that we exist at all.

But some participants — specifically PZ Myers and American Atheists president David Silverman — questioned the entire assumption behind the project. Silverman simply reframed the question: instead of saying what he was thankful for, he spoke about who he was thankful to. And Myers took on the entire enterprise directly. He said that asking people to be thankful for something was an attempt to “anthropomorphize the universe.” He said there were lots of things he liked — being alive, his wife, his kids, squid — but he wasn’t going to express gratitude to the universe, since the universe wasn’t capable of expressing any gratitude back.

Hm. Interesting point.

So this video — and the subsequent discussion of it on my blog — got me thinking: If you don’t believe in God, does it even make sense to say that you’re grateful for stuff? Not to specific people who did specific nice things — that kind of gratitude makes sense, obviously — but just general gratitude for the good things in our lives? Does the emotion of gratitude have to have a specific object, a conscious actor who made choices that affected our lives in positive ways? Or can we feel grateful without an object?

Is there such a thing as intransitive gratitude? [Read more…]

The Pros and Cons of Caring Deeply about Others’ Suffering

First, the cons:

When you care deeply about other people’s suffering, you suffer too. Not as much as they do, generally, but you still suffer. You feel a small piece of what it feels like to be homeless, to be a suicidal gay teenager, to be sexually assaulted, to be beaten for being transgender, or to have your teenage son shot for the crime of existing while black.

You don’t get to go for the big bucks. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of money in caring about other people’s suffering. Unless you’re very, very lucky (like if you write a song about other people’s suffering that goes to number one on the Billboard chart), the best you’ll probably do financially is to be reasonably comfortable. And even if you do get lucky, you’ll probably turn around and plow a good chunk of your good fortune into alleviating the suffering you care about.

You waste a lot of time arguing. Indeed, much of your time is spent trying to persuade other people that the suffering right in front of their faces is real; that the people who are suffering shouldn’t be blamed for it; that working to alleviate suffering isn’t futile. (When I was writing about misogyny recently and asked people to say something about it, many of them argued that speaking out against misogyny was a waste of time; that nobody’s mind would ever be changed by it.) Arguing certainly can be effective, and it does amplify the work you’re doing and gets other hands on deck. But it’s a waste of time in the sense that it’s valuable time spent arguing for what should be obvious. It’s valuable time that all of you could have spent doing the damn work.

And when you’re persuading people that suffering is real and that they should give a damn, you get to feel just a little bit guilty about it. As you’re desperately trying to pry open other people’s eyes, you feel a little bad about the life of suffering you’re exposing them to.

*****

Thus begins my latest column for The Humanist, The Pros and Cons of Caring Deeply about Others’ Suffering. To read more — including the pros, of which there are many — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Chicago Bean, and Some Thoughts on Geographical Icons

chicago bean 01

When I first started seeing pictures of the Chicago Bean, and started seeing it described as a Chicago icon, I was irritated. “How can that be an icon?” I thought. “I don’t remember it! It wasn’t there when I was growing up! It just went up in 2006! That’s not a Chicago icon — not like the Sears Tower, or the Picasso sculpture, or…”

Oh. Right.

The Sears Tower and the Picasso sculpture were new when I was a kid. The Picasso sculpture was dedicated in 1967; the Sears Tower was completed in 1973. They both became Chicago icons almost immediately — they quickly started showing up in postcards, in travel brochures, on book covers about Chicago, in vacation photographs of visitors from around the world. And to me, that seemed totally reasonable. Of course they were icons! I’d seen them dozens of times, hundreds of times, I’d been seeing them for most of my conscious life — it made perfect sense that they were icons. [Read more…]

Architectural Boat Tour of Chicago, Part 3 of 3 – Pics!

When I was visiting my brother in Chicago last week, we did a boat tour of the architecture and architectural history of downtown Chicago. I’m posting my favorite pics, in three separate posts so the posts aren’t super-huge and hard to load. Part One is here: Part Two is here; this is the last set.

chicago architecture boat tour 18

Another little bridge house! They’re so awesome!

chicago architecture boat tour 19

According to the docent, this building was inspired by champagne bottles. Normally I don’t like architecture that looks like things — “It’s a milk bottling plant, and it looks like a milk bottle!” — but I have to admit that this is pretty cool.

More after the jump. [Read more…]

Architectural Boat Tour of Chicago – Pics!

When I was visiting my brother in Chicago last week, we did this somewhat touristy but seriously cool thing: a boat tour of the architecture and architectural history of downtown Chicago. Chicago architecture is world-renown for its beauty and innovation: it’s been that way ever since the Chicago Fire of 1871, when architects zoomed in for the chance to rebuild the great city from scratch, and it’s lived up to that reputation ever since. (Well, except for the same bad stretch of boring glass boxes that every other city went through…)

I grew up in Chicago, but have never been on this tour before. Here are a few of my favorite pictures.

chicago architecture boat tour 01

chicago architecture boat tour 02

chicago architecture boat tour 03

(More after the jump.) [Read more…]

Is It Ethical to Conceal Your Atheism?

This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.

Let’s say you’re an atheist. Let’s say you’re a college student. Let’s say your parents are supporting you, including paying your tuition. And let’s say your parents are adamantly opposed to atheism — so much so that if they learned about your atheism, they would stop paying your tuition, cut off all financial support, and cut you out of the family. (Not a hypothetical situation, unfortunately.)

Is it ethical to conceal your atheism?

Coming Out AtheistWe often treat this question, and questions like it, as a no-brainer. In my book, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, I repeatedly counsel atheists to hold off on coming out if they don’t think it’s safe — if they think it will get them fired from their jobs, cut off by their parents, kicked out of their homes. I do think coming out is ultimately the right choice for most people — overwhelmingly, most atheists who have come out say it made their lives better and they’re glad they did it — but I think it makes sense to hold off if the timing is bad. As I delicately phrased it in the book, “Don’t screw up your life.” I give this advice without hesitation, and it’s mostly accepted without hesitation.

But I’ve gotten some questions about this — yes, from atheists — that have made me look at this question more carefully. I’m still coming to the same conclusion — but I think it’s more difficult than I’d originally thought, with a more nuanced answer.

The issue at hand: If people are giving you something, and they wouldn’t give it to you if they knew something about you, is it ethical to lie about that information, or even simply to withhold it? If a boss were considering hiring you, and you knew they wouldn’t if they knew about your embezzlement conviction, is it ethical for you to conceal that? If someone you were dating were considering marrying you, and you knew they wouldn’t if they knew you were a Republican, is it ethical for you to conceal that? I think most people would say No.

So by the same token, if your parents wouldn’t pay your tuition if they knew you were an atheist — don’t they have the right to make that decision? Isn’t it their money, and their right to decide what to do with it? Isn’t honesty a core ethical value — especially when people are making decisions that would be affected by your information? [Read more…]

25 years ago today

25 years ago today, I was on Durant Street in Berkeley, on my way to Kip’s sports bar to watch the World Series, when I felt a sharp JOLT, as if someone had yanked the rug I was standing on — except the rug was the sidewalk. Sharp jolt, and then a rumbling, rolling shake, for what felt like a longish time. When it was over, I thought, “Hm, I wonder how big that was?” — and went on to Kip’s to watch the game. (I’d been through earthquakes before. I was jaded.)

Loma_Prieta_Shake_MapBut the game wasn’t on. The cable was out. Someone had a portable radio, but it was hard to hear in the crowded bar. It wasn’t until the TV came back on that I realized, “Oh. This was big. Oh. OH. Part of 880 collapsed. Part of the Bay Bridge collapsed. The Marina is on fire. OH. This was BIG.”

I headed immediately to my friends’ house (hi, Eric!). I was living alone, and I didn’t want to be alone. I stayed there for several days. I remember buying donuts, because it seemed like in a natural disaster, there ought to be donuts.

That jolt shifted my life in more ways than one. My main workplace. BASS/Ticketmaster, was damaged beyond repair, and they took the opportunity to move their offices from Oakland to Walnut Creek… thus inspiring me to get another job, at the San Francisco Bay Times… thus inspiring me to move from Oakland to SF. The Bay Times also eventually became one of my first regular paid writing gigs, doing film reviews… which led to my gig for the Spectator doing film reviews about sexual themes in mainstream movies… which got me noticed in the sex-writing world… which led to me editing my first book, Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients. Funny how the totally unexpected, out-of-nowhere jolt can drastically shape your life.

In memory of the 63 who died.


Coming Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina’s books, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, are available in print, ebook, and audiobook. Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More is available in ebook and audiobook.