Defending the Blasphemy Challenge: A Reply

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

How can I do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John McCain on AIDS: “Gee, I Never Thought About That!”

Mccain1Over on Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton has an excellent piece about a recent interview with John McCain on his “Straight Talk Express” tour bus, where he was asked whether the U.S. should fund condom distribution in Africa and elsewhere around the world to help prevent AIDS. You can read the whole transcript (much of which is appalling) on Ed’s blog, or on the New York Times blog he was citing. I just want to point out the comments that really jumped out at me:

“I never got a question about it before.”

“You’ve stumped me.”

“I’ve never gotten into these issues before.”

So let me get this straight.

Act_upHe’s been in Congress since 1982. He’s been in the Senate since 1986. He ran for President in 2000. In other words, his national political career dovetails almost perfectly with the emergence of the AIDS epidemic in this country.

And this is the first time he’s considered the question of what the U.S. government should and should not do to help stop the spread of HIV?

That, just by itself, makes him grotesquely unqualified to be President. Heck, it makes him grotesquely unqualified to be in the Senate.

Baptizing_of_americaOf course, I don’t think that’s really what’s going on. I don’t think this is the first time he’s considered this question. I just think it’s the first time he’s considered this question since he decided that, if he wants to be President, he has to start sucking the dick of the religious right. (The more I read about McCain, the more I realize that the whole “free-thinking maverick who’ll fight for the little guy” schtick is one of the most successful snow jobs in the history of American politics. You can read more about him in the Culture Wars archives and on Making Light.)

Mccain2But look at it this way. The very fact that he thinks “Gee, I never really thought about this before” is a remotely valid response to the question “What should the U.S. government do to help stop the spread of HIV?” — that, just by itself, proves beyond any doubt that he is not qualified to be dogcatcher… much less a Senator, and much, much less a President.

Greta Christina Takes the Blasphemy Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fundamentalist” Atheists and Squabbling About Language

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

When Art Porn Works: “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926″

Ecstasy1Once again, I’m trying to inject a little sex into this increasingly less sex-oriented sex writer’s blog, and am posting one of my Adult FriendFinder magazine porn reviews. This is one of my rare straight-up raves — and as is so often the case with my porn reviews, it’s simultaneously a review and an analysis of what makes porn work. Enjoy!

*****

Ecstasy in Berlin 1926, DVD
Produced, directed, and edited by Maria Beatty
Available at Bleu Productions and at Last Gasp.

Yes. Oh, dear Lord, yes. This is what I’ve been waiting for, what I’m always waiting for and so rarely get. “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926″ is art porn that’s actually both artistic and pornographic. It’s smut that’s exquisitely framed and impeccably timed and created with a passionate creative vision… and that is, at the same time, filthy and nasty and explicit, catering to my most perverted and degenerate voyeuristic lusts.

Ecstasy2The movie is set in Berlin in 1926. A blonde beauty, sensual and delicate and a bit like Jean Harlow, injects herself with an unnamed drug, and slips into a fantasy about a dashing brunette woman who appears from nowhere and kisses her passionately, a gloved hand at her throat. The fantasy lover takes control with an increasingly firm hand, slicing the blonde’s lingerie off with a straight razor, and caressing her breasts with a touch that’s both sensual and sadistic.

Ecstasy3As the blonde woman sinks deeper into the drug, the fantasy changes scene. Her lover is now clad in a corset and severely high laced leather boots — boots for the blonde to grovel at and worship with her lovely mouth. At this point, the fantasies become increasingly intense and perverse, as the submissive girl is bound with ropes, flogged, spanked, paddled, caned, whipped, chained up, and more — all flawlessly pictured in her mind’s eye.

Black_gloveThe film is the love child of Maria Beatty. Beatty has produced and directed a number of erotic videos for her company Bleu Productions: most of them featuring lesbian SM, and many of them quite extreme. I’ve been a fan of Beatty’s for years, and her kink videos The Black Glove and The Elegant Spanking are among my favorites. She has an eye for the perfect moment, the pose that perfectly captures the moment of submission or pain or taking control. “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926″ is a beautiful example. When the blonde is bent over her mistress’s lap, or on all fours in front of a mirror, or on her knees with her face on the floor and her ass in the air, the position is always classic, an iconic example of that pose, perfectly blocked and framed to make a delicious picture for the viewer.

Ecstasy4But unlike many other “perfect moment, perfectly framed” porn directors (like, oh, say, Andrew Blake), the performers in Beatty’s movies aren’t merely standing and modeling. They seem like they’re really there. The tongue on the boot, the paddle on the bottom, the lash on the back, the look of concentration on the dominant’s face, the look of fear and bliss on the submissive’s — all of these feel genuine. The performers aren’t thrashing and screaming, to be sure, but they seem very much intent on what they’re doing, and deeply satisfied by it. Maria Beatty is herself a lifestyle submissive, and she’s clearly devoted to making videos that capture both the intensity of her fantasies and the truth of real SM play. And when she’s at her best, her videos are an exceptional blend of artistry and authenticity.

Metropolis2And “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926″ is definitely one of her best. Filmed mostly in black-and-white and sepia-tone with only occasional color, the movie’s perverse pleasures are expertly filmed and deftly framed, giving it an air of luxurious decadence. Watching it made me feel like a wealthy sybarite in an elegant bordello, with lovely and expensive girls performing a series of degenerate sex acts carefully staged for my benefit. It looks like a German art film of the 1920s, like a dirty movie by Murnau or Fritz Lang, or like vintage porn photographs come to life. (“Ecstasy in Berlin 1926″ was, in fact, inspired by a series of vintage girl-girl kink photos, and one of the extras on the DVD is a gallery of those photos.)

Ecstasy5There are a few things you need to be prepared for. One of them is the slow pace of the film, the long, lingering buildup before you get to the “good parts.” Personally, I think this is one of the movie’s strong points: I think foreplay and teasing and excruciating anticipation are “good parts,” some of the yummiest good parts, and one of my biggest complaints about mainstream porn is that it rushes straight to the fucking or the whipping without giving me time to get excited about it. But even if you do get impatient with the teasy buildup (which you can, of course, fast-forward through), I think you’ll appreciate the movie’s patience. Because once it gets to the juicy bits, it stays with them. It doesn’t jump from fetish to fetish or from shot to shot like a music video on speed; it finds a groove and stays with it, letting your eyes linger on the leather boots being lovingly tongued, the chains being carefully wrapped around the naked torso, the bare bottom being paddled again and again. When you come to a bit that you really like, you can relax and trust that you’ll be able to watch it for a little while.

Ecstasy6You also need to be prepared for the complete lack of dialog. The movie is silent: there’s music, but no conversation at all. Again, I personally think this is a huge plus; most porn actors can’t act for beans, and most porn dialog makes me want to crawl under the sofa and die from embarrassment. In “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926,” there are no awkward, wooden, ineptly written, clumsily memorized speeches to distract you — the focus is entirely on the image. If what you like in an adult video is the image, this movie will come as a huge relief — but if you’re a fan of dirty talk, it may be a bit disappointing.

Ecstasy7Finally, you should be prepared for the somewhat abrupt finish. This is my only actual complaint about the film. The blonde girl’s fantasy scenes follow on one another with grace and heat, expertly edited and overlaid, building from firm but gentle dominance to increasingly intense scenarios of blissful pain and submission. But then they just kind of stop. There’s nothing to mark the last scene as the last scene — nothing but the credits. I don’t insist on a classic Big Porn Finish, a final orgy scene with six guys shooting on the star’s face and boobs. But I do like some sense of closure, something to give shape and context to all those beautiful dirty images, something that tells me to breathe again, or to come. This video doesn’t have it, and it’s a bit… well, anticlimactic.

Ecstasy1_1But this is a minor nitpick, really, like ragging on Dickens for having a spelling error. I love this film, and I recommend it passionately. “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926″ is that rarest of all rare creatures: art porn that works, where the filthiness makes the art more beautiful, and the art makes the sex more hot.

Copyright 2005 Greta Christina. Originally published in Adult FriendFinder magazine.

Answering Laura: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion, Part 3

ThinkerLaura, thank you.

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. I do treat this blog as my “thinking out loud” place, and I’m basically okay with that — but I’m a writer, and I hate it when I’m not clear, especially about important and sensitive subjects. So I want to clarify. (And I want to do it as a blog post instead of a comment/reply, since it’s a little too big for that.)

Here’s what I’m trying to say.

God1I really and truly don’t have a problem with people who hold beliefs that aren’t supported by evidence. We all do that to some extent — if not about religion, then about other things — and it’s part of what makes us human, part of what we all have in common. I make a big distinction between people with religious beliefs that they don’t have evidence for (what I’ll call “unsupported faith”) and people with religious beliefs that actually run counter to the evidence, and who deliberately reject the evidence in favor of their beliefs (what I’ll call “counter-factual faith”). And while I think atheism is a radically different outlook from the latter, I don’t agree at all that it’s radically different from the former. I don’t personally get it about the God hypothesis, and I happen to think it’s mistaken… but I do get it about acting on hunches and gut feelings. (I go into more detail about this in Oh, The Believer and the Skeptic Should Be Friends.)

Blind_watchmakerAnd as long as someone’s particular version of the God hypothesis doesn’t flatly contradict mountains of evidence — and as long as they aren’t treating their hypothesis as fact and trying to shove it down other people’s throats — it’s not a big deal to me. I don’t think unsupported faith — or to secularize it, acting on hunches — is a sin.

But I don’t think it’s a virtue, either.

I think it’s common. I think it’s human. I think it sometimes results in brilliant inspiration, and sometimes in disastrous mistakes. (Let me tell you about my first several boyfriends sometime…) But I don’t think that — in and of itself and regardless of the actual beliefs being held — believing things for which you have no evidence is an admirable trait that makes you a good person.

And treating unsupported faith/hunches as if it were a virtue… that’s what I think is a problem. That’s what I think causes harm. And that’s the point I was trying to get at in my original post.

Here’s why.

Magnets1) Treating unsupported faith as a positive virtue makes people susceptible to other unsupported ideas — many of which are nonsense, and some of which are dangerous nonsense.

This is a point Ingrid keeps making when we talk about this. When people believe that acting on an unsupported hunch makes them admirable and good, they’re more likely to act on unsupported hunches in other areas. They’re more likely to, say, believe that magnets in their shoes will cure their arthritis; or that $200 an acre for that Florida beachfront property seems like a great bargain; or that Mr. Amir down the street just seems shady, if you know what I mean; or that capitalism will collapse of its own
contradictions in a glorious workers’ revolution, after which we will all eat strawberries and cream; or that the Iraqi people will shower us with flowers and greet us as liberators.

It’s one thing to say “Hunches are a part of life and we all have to make them sometimes.” It’s one thing to honor your hunches and respect the place they have in your life. But when people say “The fact that I act on my hunches makes me a really great person,” I think they’re more likely to do it more often — and less carefully.

Which leads me to Number 2:

John_kerry_french2) Treating unsupported faith as a positive virtue makes people more likely to devalue evidence, intelligence, and reason.

In this country, we have a culture that devalues intelligence, education, and thoughtfulness, to the point of outright deriding it. From Presidential candidates getting mocked for speaking French, to smart kids
getting beaten up at school, we are often not a culture that values thinking and learning.

I think a lot of factors go into this, including complicated class stuff. But I think a big part of it comes from the “hunch as virtue” idea. When people pat themselves on the back for thinking with their gut and their
heart instead of their brain, I think they’re more likely to dismiss the kind of thinking that is done with the brain.

(Slight tangent: Which is a shame. Because in my own experience, the weird paradox of hunches is that, the more willing you are to pay attention to the outcome of your hunches and admit that they’re sometimes way off, the clearer and better they get. My hunches are WAY better now that I’m 45 than they were when I was 20.)

Bus_13) Treating unsupported faith as a positive virtue gives religion a free ride.

There’s a strong tendency in our society to treat religion as a subject that can never be argued with or questioned. If someone says they never ride the bus on Tuesday because they think it’s unethical, or they think it’s dangerous, or they say their doctor forbids it, we think it’s reasonable to argue with their opinion, or at least to ask some questions about it. But if someone says they never ride the bus on Tuesday because their religion forbids it… we’re not supposed to question it. It’s the conversation-stopper. It’s the trump card.

I get that this comes, at least partly, from a good place of seeing the terrible results of religious intolerance and not wanting any part of that. But I think it gets taken much too far — or rather, that it gets taken too far in the wrong direction.

CreationSee, while part of religion is about personal, largely subjective matters such as ethics and personal philosophy, another very big part of it for many people is about external objective questions about how the world works. The universe was created by an unmoved mover; human evolution was guided by the hand of God; homosexual sex will get you sent to Hell; God cares whether you eat fish on Friday or push an elevator button on Saturday or face the right direction when you pray; Yahweh wants us to live in the Holy Land; no, Allah wants us to live in the Holy Land — these are statements about the real, external world, and it should be okay to question them. It should be okay to ask people to explain their beliefs, and to question whether their beliefs are supported by evidence, and to point out inconsistencies and holes in their reasoning.

Especially when people try to get those beliefs set into law and public policy.

But it’s not. We’re supposed to just shut up and nod politely. It’s gotten to the point where any questioning of a religious belief, no matter how moderate or polite, is seen as an intolerant attack.

And I think a big part of this attitude comes from the idea that having unsupported faith is an admirable, virtuous quality, and that it’s churlish to question it.

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LotrAnd you know what? If you think I’m wrong, then tell me. All of you. Please. Again, this blog is my “thinking out loud” place, and one of the reasons I do it is to run my ideas past the gauntlet and see if they hold up. I’ve changed my mind on this blog more than once, on subjects from US military intervention in North Korea to the merits of “Lord of the Rings.” If I’m wrong about this, I want to know.

But if any of you think I’m wrong and want to tell me so, then please, I beg all of you, do not do any of the following:

1) Please do not accuse me of holding opinions that I haven’t expressed and don’t agree with.

2) When I reply that I don’t, in fact, hold those opinions and don’t agree with them, please don’t continue to insist that I hold those opinions, and continue to get angry at me over them.

3) Please do not berate me for making sweeping statements that I’ve only supported by a couple of pieces of anecdotal evidence, and then — when I point out that I have offered non-anecdotal evidence, clarify that evidence, offer to supply more evidence, and ask you to supply non-anecdotal evidence for your own sweeping statements — turn around and say, “Never mind, I’m not going to debate this.”

4) And if you’re going to do any of the above, please, for the love of all that is beautiful in this world, do not then get angry and sad about how atheists aren’t trying hard enough to understand believers.

HulkThat’s just gonna tick me off.

Atheist_cartoonAnd not just because it’s personally annoying and unfair. See, this is the kind of thing atheists deal with all the time. There’s a depressingly common set of myths about what atheists believe and say and feel and act like, and when somebody holds those myths, they tend to apply them to all atheists… regardless of what the atheist in front of them is actually believing and saying and feeling and acting like.

And yes, that does make me angry. I think a lot of what gets interpreted as “fundamentalism,” or intolerance, or abrasiveness on the part of atheists, is actually anger.

Anger that, while it doesn’t always make people behave their best, is pretty damned justifiable.

But that’s a different post.

Well, There’s Your Problem: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion, Part 2

Question_mark_2When we last left our heroine, she was agonizing over the question of religion’s affect on people’s behavior. She had discussed the inconsistency of many atheists who believe that people’s good behavior isn’t influenced by religious faith but that their bad behavior is — and the parallel inconsistency of many religious defenders, who believe that people’s bad behavior isn’t influenced by religious faith but that their good behavior is.

But she had realized that she hadn’t actually tried to answer the core issue herself. When we left her, she was wrestling with the question: Which way do I think it is? Do I think people, on the whole, would act differently if there were no such thing as religion?

Religious_symbolsHonestly, I have no idea. I have opinions about it, of course — I have opinions about almost everything that crosses my consciousness — but I don’t really know. I don’t think anyone knows. Religion is so widespread, and so integrated into most people’s lives — something like 90% of people in the world have some sort of religious belief — that trying to imagine a world without it is a pure thought-experiment, with very little data to support any hypothesis.

EuropeWe have some data, of course. We have the data of the largely secular society in much of Europe, for instance, which seems to be far more peaceful than the largely and passionately religious Middle East. But even in Europe, where religion isn’t much a part of public life, personal and private religious belief is still very common — and even public life hasn’t been secular for that long. Therefore, the data doesn’t really answer the question. And while I think the question is interesting to ponder and worth debating, I don’t think we have enough data to do much more than ponder and debate.

But I do think this: There is a feature of religion that I find very troubling, and I think it does contribute to serious problems in the world. It may not be inherent to religion, but it is awfully damn common in it. It’s a tenet of most major religions, and from the studies I’ve read, most religious believers hold it to at least some extent.

MartyrIt’s the idea that faith itself — believing things about the world for which you have no evidence, and in many cases things that the evidence flat-out contradicts — is not just acceptable, but a positive virtue. It’s the idea that refusing to question your beliefs, and placing your beliefs above reality, is an admirable quality. A trait to be cherished and protected. Something that in and of itself makes you a good person, regardless of the actual beliefs you have faith in.

And that, folks, I do think is destructive.

Ted_haggardIt teaches people to deny, not just scientific realities like evolution, but human realities — like sexuality, and the humanity of women, and the fact that those evil heathens who scorn your God are really just folks like you trying to get along in the world.

It teaches people that how their actions adhere to religious dogma is ethically more important than how their actions actually affect other people.

It teaches people that reality — the reality that their God supposedly created — is less interesting, and even less true, than their opinions and hunches about reality.

BlanketsAnd when it’s taught to children, it teaches them to devalue their intellect, their ability to reason, even the evidence of their own senses and experience. It teaches them that to believe what they’re taught, simply because it is what they’re taught, makes them good people — and that curiosity and independent thought makes them bad people.

So back to the question: Do I think people would act differently if there were no such thing as religion? Better? Worse? Equal amounts of both?

And the real question behind it: Is religion, on the whole, a force for good or ill in the world?

Martinlutherking_2Osama_bin_laden_1I think the actual beliefs themselves can go either way. They can inspire people to fight social injustice or to blow up buildings; to feed the poor or to beat up queers. And I think people can certainly be inspired by things other than religion to do both great good and great evil.

And I really and truly don’t have a problem with personal religious faith. We all have our hunches, about ourselves and the world, and the fact that many people base their lives on hunches they can’t prove really isn’t a problem for me. I’ve based my own life on hunches, more than once, in important and central ways.

Pat_robertson_1The problem comes when people treat their faith as if it were fact. When people try to pass laws and public policy on their faith as if it were fact; when people try to force their faith on other people as if it were fact; when people teach their faith to their children as if it were fact… that, I think, is a serious and powerful force for ill in the world. (To paraphrase Bernard Mannes Baruch, “Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but no-one has a right to their own facts.”)

Religion itself isn’t a problem. Dogmatic religion — religion that teaches that its hunches and opinions are unquestionable truth, and that the refusal to question is an admirable virtue — that is a serious problem indeed.

And unfortunately, that seems to be most of the religion in the world.

Having It Both Ways: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion

Richard_dawkinsThere’s this problem I’ve been running into in atheist writing, an example of bad thinking that crops up again and again even from some very intelligent writers. Richard Dawkins does it; Sam Harris does it a lot; cool atheist bloggers I read sometimes do it.

It’s bugging me, and I want to point it out.

MartinlutherkingHere’s how the thinking goes. When they’re dealing with the issue of great people doing good things who seem to have been inspired by religious faith — Martin Luther King, Gandhi, yada yada yada — many atheist writers argue that these people would have done those same good things even without religion. Compassion, empathy, a vision of how much better the world could be — that’s what inspired these people, the argument goes. They didn’t need religion to fight the good fight.

Osama_bin_ladenBut when they’re talking about bad people doing terrible things who seem to be inspired to their evil deeds by religion — Osama Bin Laden, the Crusaders, etc. — these same writers are all over it. “See?” they write. “Look at the terrible things religion inspires people to do! See what a bad influence religion is in the world?”

And I don’t think you get to have it both ways.

Either religion inspires people to act, or it doesn’t. It makes no sense to argue that religious faith inspires people to do evil, but not to do good.

But.

And this is a big but.

GandhiMany defenders of religion do the exact same thing — only in reverse. They point to people like King and Gandhi to show what a positive force religion is in the world… but then argue that the Bin Ladens and Torquemadas of the world would have acted exactly the same without religion. Politics, hunger for power, xenophobia, flat-out psychosis — that’s what drove these evil people, they say. Not religious faith.

Which is just as messed up. Defenders of religion don’t get to have it both ways, either. If you want to point at all the wonderful people in the world who are inspired by religion, you need to be willing to look at all the massively fucked-up shit that religion inspires as well.

So which way do I think it is? Do I think people, on the whole, would act differently if there were no such thing as religion?

I think that’s a separate post. I’ll rant about that tomorrow.

Ballerinas and Rabbits: The Poetry of Spam

BallerinaFor no very good reason, I’ve been collecting the more surreal, more poetic subject lines of spams I’ve been getting. Some of them really are quite beautiful, in a random sort of way, and it seems a shame to just let them go to waste. So I’m starting to put them together into “found” poems. Silly, but entertaining. Here’s the first one. Enjoy!

Spam Poem #1

The singers think it isn’t dangerous to eat
incinerated carpet tack
so ballerina kissing
the hairiest rabbits ever seen

quaint cheers
twirl downstairs
signing rhythm

You are blocked
No Marianne no exultation
arts trepidation
shortwave litigation
No deliverance or twenty

just fuck and don’t think about anything else
your cock will be your master