Dealing with Death in an Unjust World

This piece was originally published in The Humanist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

There’s this thing I’ve been noticing.

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

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

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

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

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

A Less Simplistic View of Evil: The Jasmine Storyline in “Angel,” And Why People Do Awful Awful Things

Content note: This post contains significant Buffy the Vampire Slayer content. However, I think it’ll be of interest to non-Buffy fans. If I’m wrong, and you read it anyway… well, that’s five minutes of your life that you’re never getting back. Also, it contains spoilers about a TV series that ended over ten years ago. Sorry.

Why do evildoers do evil?

For obvious reasons — the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the NAACP bombing, Ferguson, and just all the awful shit that’s been happening in recent days/ weeks/ months/ years — I’ve been thinking a lot about evil. I’ve also been re-watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” lately, along with its spinoff show, “Angel.” (I promise this isn’t a non-sequitur. Stay with me.)

jasmine 1Right now, I’m in the Jasmine storyline in “Angel” — the storyline about the magical being with god-like powers who wants to turn the Earth into a blissful paradise with no conflict, hatred, war, or poverty, and whose very presence instantly makes people (a) blissfully happy, (b) loving and accepting of each other, and (c) intensely devoted, worshipful, and obedient of Jasmine’s own god-like self. I’ve written before about how this storyline is a metaphor for religion and theocracy. But I was thinking again about why I like this story arc so much, and I realized:

It’s a realistic and insightful exploration of why evildoers do evil. [Read more…]

Radical

(Content note: mentions of racism, rape denialism, domestic violence, homophobia. Also some use of mental illness language used as insult in quoted passage.)

I’ve been thinking about the word “radical.”

Lore Sjöberg recently posted this on Facebook (reprinted here with permission, not linked to by his request):

Here’s a thought experiment I’ve been mulling over. Say I was transported back in time to the 1950s. I’m surrounded by a culture that contains all the sexism and racism on display in Mad Men, and more on top of that.

I would be surrounded by repulsive things, ranging from cartoons about buck-toothed “Chinamen,” ads making jokes about smacking the little lady if she gets out of hand, rolled eyes at any implication that a woman could be raped by her husband, and the cultural certainty that gay people are, at best, just plain crazy.

How could I live with this? If I speak up about a tenth of the terrible things I saw, I’ll be seen as a bizarre radical if not an outright loon. Even if I become an activist, I’ll probably be the activist that everyone points at to say “Well, at least I’m not as extreme as HE is!”

(And all of this is not even addressing the question of what it would be like to actually BE a woman, or a person of color, or a gay man in that era.)

All of this is to say that sometimes I feel like I’m already in the Fifties. One of the complaints leveled against feminists, and feminist women in particular, is that they see sexism everywhere and they make a big deal out of things that everyone, even most women, think is just fine.

Well, yeah! There IS sexism everywhere, and a lot of the things that aren’t a big deal today are nonetheless sexist, just like naming a sports team “The Redskins” in 1932 was racist even if it seemed like good fun at the time. I certainly don’t agree with every statement by every progressive activist — that would be impossible anyway, progressives don’t agree on everything — but a lot of times I find myself reading about controversies and thinking “Yep, that’s radical, and it’s extremist, and it’s unreasonable. But it’s also absolutely correct and in another few decades it will be considered common sense.”

I’ve been thinking about this. And I’ve been realizing what an empty, lazy insult it is to call someone, or someone’s ideas, radical.

Rules_for_Radicals coverLore is absolutely right. Many ideas that were once seen as radical, and not that long ago either, have survived vigorous criticism and the test of time, and are now entirely mainstream. It was once considered radical to see black people as fully human, deserving of all the dignity and liberty and rights as any human. It was once considered radical to think that gay people weren’t morally corrupt or mentally ill, and to see same-sex love and sex and relationships as even remotely acceptable. (In fact, I remember seeing an archival TV interview with a gay activist in the late ’60s or early ’70s, who said that of course gay people weren’t advocating for marriage or adoption rights — that was ridiculous.) Until the 1970s, it was legal in the United States for husbands to rape their wives, and it took until 1993 for marital rape to be a crime in all 50 states. I could come up with a long list of many more examples, right off the top of my head. (Suggestions for others are invited in the comments.)

All these ideas were considered radical — until they weren’t.

In other words: An idea can be radical, and still be right.

In other other words: Insulting an idea (or a person) simply because they’re radical is an empty insult, devoid of any actual critical content. [Read more…]

Unconditional Basic Income: Imagine the World

Please note: This post has a different comment policy from the usual one. It’s at the end of the post.

Imagine a world where nobody was homeless or starving.

nickel and dimed coverImagine a world where poor people weren’t sucked into the misery of the poverty cycle. Imagine a world where being poor didn’t mean you had to stay poor forever: where you could put some time and work into getting out of poverty, going to school or learning a marketable skill or just sticking with a job you liked reasonably well and rising up in it, instead of working exhausting dead-end jobs for your entire life. Imagine a world where being poor didn’t mean your children would almost certainly be poor, and their children, and their children. Imagine a world where being poor meant you weren’t super-comfortable, you didn’t have much in the way of luxuries — but you’d basically be okay.

Imagine a world where every child had basic security. Not luxury, or even comfort — just security. Imagine a world where every child knew that, no matter what happened to their parents, they’d have a place to live, and enough food to eat.

Imagine a world where getting sick didn’t mean the risk of ruining your life.

Imagine a world where getting help from your society didn’t mean navigating an exhausting, labyrinthine, humiliating, demoralizing government bureaucracy. Imagine a world where your life couldn’t be ruined by one small slip-up of this bureaucracy: one clueless clerk, one piece of overlooked paperwork, one mis-typed address.

Imagine a world where college students could stay in school, and really focus their attention on school.

Imagine a world where entrepreneurs could start small businesses or non-profit organizations, without the fear that if they failed, they’d be ruined for life.

Imagine a world where writers and musicians and other artists could pursue their art, without fear of permanent poverty. Imagine a world full of painting and music, theater and writing, photography and sculpture and quilts and fashion and stand-up comedy and juggling acts, made by artists who had time and energy to finish their work. Imagine a world where artists could make artistic and career decisions based on something other than, “Will I pay the rent this month?”

Imagine a world where activists could put all their time and energy into activism if they so chose.

Imagine a world where people pursued work, not out of desperation, but out of desire for more in the way of luxury and comfort, or for the satisfaction of doing something valuable, or both. [Read more…]

Support the Foundation Beyond Belief! Last Chance for 2014!

So you know how a lot of us keep talking about how organized atheism needs to spend less time and resources talking about 17 more reasons God doesn’t exist, and more time and resources making these finite lives of ours better for everyone? In particular, you know how a lot of us keep talking about how organized atheism needs to get more involved in social justice issues and intersectional issues that disproportionately affect marginalized people?

foundation beyond belief logo

Here are a few of the projects the Foundation Beyond Belief has supported.

Reproductive rights and family planning. Rape prevention aimed at men. Housing and support for homeless LGBT youth in New York City. Legal support for refugee children from Central America attempting to enter the United States. Legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. Support and advocacy for political asylees. Support for LGBT students in religious schools. International women’s human rights. Poverty in Haiti, Honduras, the United States. The Black Skeptics of Los Angeles First in the Family Humanist Scholarship Fund, awarding scholarships to South Los Angeles LAUSD students who are going to be the first in their immediate families to go to college. The Innocence Project.

The Foundation Beyond Belief is walking the walk.

If you’re not familiar with them: The Foundation Beyond Belief is a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation created to focus, encourage and demonstrate humanist generosity and compassion. They make contributions to charitable organizations that support their humanist goals; they sponsor humanist volunteer teams; they’re developing a humanist disaster response program; and they’re launching a Humanist Service Corps, which will open in July 2015 as six humanist volunteers begin a year of service in and around the witch camps of northern Ghana.

They rock.

If you’re looking for a tax-deductible non-profit organization to donate money to before 2014 ends, the Foundation Beyond Belief would be an awesome choice. They currently have a fundraising goal of $75,000 before the end of the year, to ensure that their programming will continue and thrive in 2015. As of this writing, they’re within $3,500 of that goal. It would be mega-awesome if they could start 2015 with that fundraising goal taken care of.

Quick note, for the purposes of full disclosure: I’m now on the Foundation Beyond Belief’s Board of Directors. I just got elected. So I’m not exactly unbiased here. But there’s a reason I decided to run for the Foundation Beyond Belief’s Board of Directors. This organization walks the walk. Again: If you’re looking for a place to donate money to before 2014 ends, the Foundation Beyond Belief would be an excellent choice.

Should Atheists Celebrate Christmas? The Social Justice Angle

why-believe-in-a-god-santa-bus-adSo I’ve been thinking about the question of atheists and Christmas, or other religious holidays that get folded into cultures and subcultures. And I’ve been realizing that there’s a social justice angle.

Context: Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and editor of its flagship magazine Free Inquiry, wrote an essay and a book a few years back, arguing that no atheist should celebrate Christmas ever ever ever — yes, he uses the words “should” and “shouldn’t,” repeatedly. He’s opined about this topic many times, including comments (on Facebook and elsewhere) that atheists who do celebrate Christmas aren’t “real atheists,” are “hypocrites,” and are giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.” He doesn’t even approve of secular Solstice celebrations. In the last couple of weeks, Beth Presswood, of the Godless Bitches podcast and the Atheist Community of Austin, has been ripping him a new one about it on Facebook.

My overall angle on this is that every atheist has to find their own ways of coping with religion’s intrusion into everyday life. Some of us push back on it with everything we’ve got. Some of us are fine with secularized versions of religious traditions — sincere or mocking or both. Some of us are fine going along with religious traditions. And many of us mix and match: pushing back against some religious incursions, accepting or creating secularized versions of others, going along with still others. I have zero problem with this. I’m finding my own way of handling Christmas, a balance of festivity, mockery, tradition, and resistance that works for me, and it does not trouble me in the slightest that other people are more traditional about it, while others are more oppositional, or are simply not interested.

I was thinking about this, and it occurred to me:

Oh. There’s a social justice angle to this.

Yes, different atheists have different ways of handling religion and its intrusions into everyday life. There are lots of reasons for that. But one of the big ones is: How much do they rely on a social support system that’s structured around religion? Are they in a culture or subculture or family that’s very religious? Would refusing to participate in traditions like Christmas — traditions that are religious, or semi-religious, or quasi-religious, or secularized religious — mean alienating people they can’t afford to alienate, for practical reasons or emotional ones? Would refusing to participate mean isolating themselves from the continuity that people get from traditions, the sense of connection to something larger?

And certain forms of marginalization can play into this.

African-Americans are more likely to have deeply religious families and communities, who they can’t afford to alienate or simply don’t want to. Poor people are more likely to have deeply religious families and communities, who they can’t afford to alienate or simply don’t want to. For women, the social costs of disconnecting from family traditions are often greater than they are for men, since the job of perpetuating these traditions is commonly seen as women’s work. Many LGBT people, who have been cut off from their families, find much-needed practical and emotional support in LGBT-friendly churches or other religions, and a much-needed sense of continuity and connection.

So insisting that no true atheist would celebrate Christmas is pretty damn insensitive to the different realities of different atheists — black atheists, poor atheists, women atheists, LGBT atheists, any atheists in other marginalized groups — who are more dependent on religious structures, or whose lives are just more intertwined with religious people.

Atheists with other forms of marginalization are often treated as traitors to their race, their gender, their culture. Why on earth would we want to pile onto that from the other side? Many black atheists already get a bellyful of, “You’re not really black.” It’s messed-up to pile onto that with, “You’re not really an atheist.”


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

Godless Perverts is Not for Everyone: What Inclusivity Means to Us, and What It Doesn’t Mean

I Love Feminism, by Jay Morrison

This is a joint statement by Greta Christina and Chris Hall, originally posted on the Godless Perverts site.

Godless Perverts is not for everyone.

We mean that in the gentler, more informal sense of the term: Not everyone is going to like it. Not everyone is going to enjoy discussion groups, entertainments, or parties centered on godless views of sexuality. They may not enjoy our frank, explicit explorations of sex, including a wide variety of unconventional sexualities; they may not enjoy the views of religion that come up in our meetups and entertainments — some of which are harshly critical and mocking, others of which are sympathetic. That’s okay. We can’t be all things to all people, and we’re fine with that.

But we’re also not for everyone in the somewhat harsher sense of the term: We are not open to everybody. There are going to be times when we have to tell people they’re not welcome.

This is hard. Almost everyone has had painful experiences with being told, openly or otherwise, that they’re not welcome in a group. Almost all of us have had painful experiences being picked last for a team at school, or being treated like an outcast at a social event. The two of us certainly have. It’s a difficult thing to experience, and it’s not an experience we dole out lightly. (The Geek Social Fallacies can be very seductive, including Geek Social Fallacy #1: Ostracizers Are Evil.) But the unfortunate reality is that if we want to create a welcoming space for people who support and value our mission, we will sometimes have to ask people to leave. [Read more…]

Death and Injustice: How Can Humanists Respond?

Protests

(Note: the following contains references to racist, transphobic, and misogynistic violence.)

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

I have a new book out called Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, a short collection of essays offering secular ways to handle your own mortality and the deaths of those you love. [It comes out December 11 in ebook and audiobook; print edition will come later.] In it, I talk about some humanist ways of coping with death and highlight philosophies that might provide some consolation and meaning—including the idea that death is a natural part of the physical universe; that mortality makes us treasure our lives; that we were all astronomically lucky to have been born at all; that religious views of death are only comforting if you don’t think about them carefully; and more.

But when Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, and when his body was left in the street for over four hours, and when a grand jury decided that the questions about his death didn’t warrant a jury trial and declined to indict his killer on even the most minor charges—I found myself with very little to say. And when, a week after that grand jury announcement, another grand jury in New York City declined to indict another police officer (Daniel Pantaleo) in the death of another unarmed black man (Eric Garner)—I was almost speechless.

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

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

*****

Thus begins my latest piece for The Humanist magazine, Death and Injustice: How Can Humanists Respond? To read more, read the rest of the piece.

(Note: Some of the comments at the link are okay, but some are appalling. The next time someone says, “You shouldn’t call yourself an atheist, if you care about atheism plus social justice you should call yourself a humanist” — or the next time someone says, “Humanism already means caring about racism and sexism and all that, so why should I call myself a feminist or anti-racist, I just call myself a humanist and that covers it” — I’m pointing them to these comments. Self-identified humanists can be total fucking assholes.)

Ferguson Links

Here are some posts about Ferguson, Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, and related stuff, which I think are worth reading.

It’s Incredibly Rare For A Grand Jury To Do What Ferguson’s Just Did

Fake Michael Brown case pathologist: ‘If they want to think I’m a doctor, that’s their issue’

Structural and Institutional Racism Exists Within Police Forces

When Force is Hardest to Justify, Victims of Police Violence are More Likely to be Black

Ferguson: 5 Points We Need to Understand

St. Louis police officers’ group demands Rams players be disciplined for ‘hands up, don’t shoot’

Charges Dropped For Cop Who Fatally Shot Sleeping 7-Year-Old Girl

The Talk (cartoon by Steve Sack)

the talk cartoon

‘Racism without racists’: White supremacy so deeply American that we don’t even see it

Self-Segregation: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson

12 things white people can do now because Ferguson

6 Things White Parents Can Do to Raise Racially Conscious Children

Ferguson Public Library (you can make donations)

Ferguson Defense Fund

BlackLivesMatter Bay Area Legal Fund