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…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s why it’s relevant:

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

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

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…]

Greta Reading at Perverts Out Out, Saturday Jan. 3!

Hi, all! I’m going to be reading some of my sex stuff this Saturday, January 3, at Perverts Put Out! PPO is the legendary long-running pansexual reading and performance series: in fact, as far as we can tell, it’s the longest currently-active literary event in San Francisco. The lineup will also include Princess Cream Pie, Jen Cross, Renee Garcia, Daphne Gottleib, horehound stillpoint, and Naamen Tilahun — and, as usual, your hosts Simon Sheppard and Dr. Carol Queen.

Perverts Put Out! will be at the Center for Sex and Culture, 1349 Mission Street (near the Civic Center BART station). It’s Saturday, January 3rd, 2015: doors open at 7:00, show starts at 8:00. $10-25 sliding scale. Hope to see you there!

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.

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…]

“A ludicrous, badly written law that criminalises sexual minorities”: Pandora Blake on the UK porn restrictions

There’s an excellent commentary on the UK restriction on porn content by English spanking performer, blogger, and producer Pandora Blake. It’s titled Online porn: the canary in the coalmine. (Note: the page includes some sexual imagery, including kinky imagery.) Some of the best quotes:

This is a ludicrous, badly written law that criminalises sexual minorities and small business owners. It predominantly targets the cottage industries of women, couples, queers and fetishists – people who are making enough to cover their costs or perhaps a little more, people who are making their own porn because the mainstream genres don’t cater to our needs.

We are self-employed performers, artists, producers, directors. We buy our camera equipment ourselves and edit our content ourselves. We create safe spaces for fellow kinksters to discover they are not alone. We propagate much-needed information about consensual kink practice, showing examples of safe play, negotiation, and healthy kinky relationships. Our films are homegrown, niche, playful, political and sexy, documenting our authentic sexualities where they are not catered to by the mainstream. We work alone or with our partners and like-minded kinky friends. We dare to be different, and to reach out to others who are like us. For this we are criminalised.

Pandora intends to defy this legislation — because she’s a badass.

I’ve had people sending me this information for the last few weeks, asking what I intend to do, and my answer has been the same every time. If you think that this legislation is going to send me running and hiding, you are mistaken. I have no intention of helping the bigots by self-censoring, and I’m certainly not going to pre-emptively shut up shop.

If you care about this, here’s what Pandora says you can to to help:

So what can you do? Well, you can tell your journalist friends about it and get them to write articles about how stupid and harmful this is. You can talk to your mates about it, post about it on social media, and raise the chances that the next time this comes to trial, the jury will think this legislation is a load of rubbish. You can donate to Backlash UK and join the Open Rights Group (of which I am a member), both of whom are campaigning on this issue. You can write to your MP. And you can support your local independent queer and fetish porn producers by buying their porn while you still can.

It’s been said (on the Obscenity Lawyer blog) that “pornography is the canary in the coalmine of free speech: it is the first freedom to die.” Pornography and other sexual expression is all too easy to censor, since many people aren’t willing to publicly say that they like it and think they should have a right to have it. And this is even more true for pornography catering to unconventional tastes: as hard as it is to write a letter to the editor saying, “Bring back my porn!”, it’s harder still to write one saying, “Bring back my kinky porn!” But we have to be willing to do this. If you can do this without destroying your life, please spread the word — even if you’re not in the UK. Let them know that the eyes of the world are on them — and we bloody well want our spanking porn.

The UK Bans Spanking, Female Ejaculation in Porn

Via Salon:

Porn produced in the United Kingdom quietly incurred some major restrictions on Monday, via an amendment to the 2003 Communications Act that bans a long list of sex acts from appearing in adult films. While the new restrictions do not affect porn produced outside the UK (and do not prevent people from watching such porn), they do require on-demand adult films to meet the same guidelines as adult films available on DVD in sex shops.

Via The Independent:

Seemingly arbitrarily deciding what is nice sex and what is not nice sex, the board has banned the following acts from being depicted by British pornography producers:

Spanking
Caning
Aggressive whipping
Penetration by any object “associated with violence”
Physical or verbal abuse (regardless of if consensual)
Urolagnia (known as “water sports”)
Female ejaculation
Strangulation
Facesitting
Fisting

The final three listed fall under acts the BBFC [British Board of Film Censors] views as potentially “life-endangering”.

So. Some serious commentary, and some snarky commentary. [Read more…]

Peter Boghossian “Responds” About Gay Pride

So Peter Boghossian has responded to the criticism of his comment about gay pride, the one where he said on Twitter and Facebook:

I’ve never understood how someone could be proud of being gay. How can one be proud of something one didn’t work for?

Well, okay. “Respond” is putting it strongly. Peter Boghossian has, airquotes, “responded” to the criticism of his comment about gay pride. On Twitter and Facebook, he’s said (among a few other similar things):

Questioning that one can be proud to be gay is a leftist blasphemy. #justbornthatway

and this:

I’m looking for an entirely new group of ideologues to enrage. What word should I disambiguate next?

It’s hard not to notice that Boghossian isn’t actually responding to the criticism. A lot of smart, thoughtful people have explained in some detail exactly why what he said was both mistaken and harmful (here’s my response), and his response is essentially, “Yeah, well, you’re poopyheads.”

m-/