Religion is bullshit…except for mine!

Last night I gave a talk for the Alliance of Happy Atheists at the University of Oregon. It was a lot of fun, like usual. The group of students were all awesome to talk to, the pizza was yummy, and my talk was well received (or so I was told – would an Alliance of Happy Atheists say anything negative…?).

Near the end of my talk I mention how feminists who are still religious are way more likely to believe in woo-woo spiritual stuff, like reiki, astrology, paganism, and wicca because they tend to be a lot more pro-women. But the problem with these things is that they’re still bullshit, just like Christianity or Islam.

Apparently one student took offense at this because he considers himself an atheist pagan, and he didn’t appreciate his beliefs being dismissively called “bullshit.” During the Q&A he asked me if I saw value in any sort of spiritual beliefs. I replied that people find value in different things – that I find value in truth, so unfounded beliefs in any sort of supernatural things don’t improve my life somehow. But that even if people found their lives improved by those things, it doesn’t make them any less bullshit.

The back and forth went on for quite some time. He basically seemed to be rewording his question in an attempt for me to admit that other spirituality – not that of mainstream religions – is somehow awesome and deserving of a free pass. I tried to emphasize that I don’t think people who believe that stuff are necessarily stupid or bad in some way, but that the beliefs are still false.

At dinner a friend of his mentioned how offended that guy was that I used the word “bullshit” and didn’t respect his pagan beliefs. I always feel a twinge of guilt, because I never purposefully try to offend. But I can’t feel much more than a twinge, because it’s goddamn hypocritical expecting your particular wacky beliefs to get some sort of free pass. If you were lapping it up while I spent 45 minutes tearing apart Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, you don’t get to put your own belief in a little bubble.

Everything is fair game.

And dude? I reel it in a fair amount when I give presentations. Make sure someone brings smelling salts if you ever listen to a hot-blooded firebrand like PZ or JT.


  1. Grammar Merchant says

    You handled him more sensitively than I would have. The expectation of exception is what makes religions (including the fringe religions) dangerous. That same mindet is the reason Christians can tear apart godless atheists, but when an atheist cowboys up and returns fire, everyone bawls like a spanked child and accuses the atheist of unnecessary cruelty. News flash: there is such a thing as necessary cruelty.

  2. says

    And Go Jen! You are absolutly right, I would be a little miffed that the guy sat through your talk and then TRIED to get his woo a free pass from you.

  3. says

    Thanks Jen for your politeness, I think you were gracious enough to explain your reasoning (granted I only have your perspective to go by) for shutting down someone I would have been far more blunt. Someday closet Atheists will be free to discuss openly their views, and I hope the days of religious BS will die out (not that I’m holding my breath, but we can both dream, can’t we?) I may not like the truth, but I would far rather hear it than some foolishness that is there so people don’t have to face reality. I have to walk a fine line sometimes around my relatives beliefs, and while I would not like to hurt them by my Atheism, occasionally I do have to explain that I don’t share their theology.I mean, if “Intelligent Design” were in fact true, why did “God” give men nipples..?

  4. pete084 says

    Nice one Jen, again! Mr Offended deserved more than you dealt him and I normally give these people a hard time, but at the moment I find myself among religious missionaries so I reel it in a bit, but I make it quite clear that I’m an atheist. We recently had a pilot stay at our compound who was there because he found Jesus and felt the need to do good things, we had a lengthy discussion the outcome of which was that he was pleased that, despite the debate, I didn’t try to shift him from his beliefs. I think it’s important to let people make their own mind up and not to brainwash them, that’s the job of the televangelists!Keep on posting excellent blogs, they help me get through the months ahead.

  5. says

    Hard to know what this guy was really asking you about, because in my experience neopagans are all over the map. For some it just means that they think there’s more to the universe than we know, maybe more than we can know, and contemplating that gives them a little whooshy sensawonder. Which is more or less true for me, too, but I certainly don’t call myself a pagan. Others go all the way to full-bore animism, with stops at every wacky, half-baked pantheism and panentheism in between.I guess where I come down is, whatever metaphor you might find personally resonant as a way to order your views of the physical and moral universe is fine with me, AS LONG AS YOU RECOGNIZE IT’S A METAPHOR. (And as long as it doesn’t make you act like an asshole, of course.)

  6. Charon says

    “unfounded beliefs in any sort of supernatural things”?Reiki and astrology also have nothing to do with god(s), yet are nonsensical crap.

  7. says

    Great talk Jen. I got to shake your hand and you made me feel guilty for lurking for the past year. Win/win?It always amazes me how in a group of skeptics you will still find unjustified beliefs (i.e. paganism) or ill informed/ignorant beliefs (i.e. the men’s rights movement comments). Not every atheist evaluates evidence before making their worldview.

  8. says

    Jen, you should actually buy some smelling salts and carry them with you the next time you go on a talk.Just so that, on the off chance this happens again, you can actually offer them.The joke would be worth the hassle, in my view.

  9. says

    Well, you know what they say: The same tools you can use to disprove one god can be used to disprove all of them. Except for Bacchus. Goddamn, can he throw a PARTAY!

  10. Josephine says

    (Delurking!) I also was tempted to chuckle at the woman who was a bit offended at acupuncture being called bullshit and wanted to defend it by saying her friend heard of this one positive study that *totally* showed it was better than a placebo. But, of course, I didn’t because I too was a not-really-skeptical atheist until a few years ago so I can only hope that she really heard your answer and will think about it some more.

  11. Alt+3 says

    Surely you were polite enough to offer him a glass of water to wash down the rather large helping of TOLD he just had? Otherwise it just seems rude.

  12. says

    Was psychology brought up during the conversation? People are sucked into religion (including paganism, astrology, etc…) because they are in certain psychological states in which religion and other bullshit satisfy their need. Denial, for example, is one of them. It is a stage in which a person denies whatever happens or will happen, such as a traumatic event and death and accept a “truth” in religion or bullshit. Such “truth” satisfies the need to deny the traumatic psychological consequences of pain and makes them feel comfort. Think of it as an addictive drug of ideas without the presence of any chemical.

  13. says

    Greta Christina wrote a great piece on how liberal believers often look for the atheist seal of approval.

    So if they can get us to give their religion a thumbs-up… that would really mean something. They understand that religious believers — other believers, that is, not themselves of course — often don’t have very good reasons for their beliefs. … They want their cognitive dissonance resolved — the tension between the religious faith they hold to be true, and the evidence and arguments showing that the case for their faith is crap — and they understand enough about the communal reinforcement and other cognitive errors to know that Other People Who Already Agree With Them isn’t the most rigorous way to resolve that dissonance. If they could get some atheists to tell them their belief is okay, that would resolve that annoying dissonance in a heartbeat.

    She then goes on to explain that they aren’t special little snowflakes and their religious beliefs are very ordinary and undeserving of any special considerations by atheists. It’s definitely a good read if you haven’t seen it.

  14. says

    Western Buddhism is also often times not even spiritual. I practice some Buddhist inspired meditation and mindfulness techniques. And there are some clinical studies showing benefits of mindfulness meditation, but in the end, it’s all in your head. There’s no magic or quantum woo involved.I think you’d really have to be more specific to get into issues with Buddhist teachings. Some types are essentially just practiced as a life philosophy. Some types do include folk deities and such and claims of miraculous powers.

  15. says

    Exactly. There are definitely supernatural elements in various sects of Buddhism, but they aren’t very common in the sects popular in the West. I’ve seen both karma and reincarnation redefined materialistically. Karma is just the idea that if you perform an immoral act, you’ve made the world a worse place and it’s more likely that bad things will continue to happen. If you perform a good act, then you’ve made the world a better place and good things are more likely to happen. This is essentially a tautology if you accept some form of utilitarian morality.Reincarnation typically becomes a thermodynamic immortality. The mix of mass and energy that we call Jim will one day be gone, but that mass and energy will continue on in other living and non-living things until the heat death of the universe.

  16. says

    This makes me wonder how many people join atheist groups as a way to “stick it to the man” and go against the mainstream, which could also be accomplished by practicing a much less popular religion. So maybe he was looking for your approval in your mutual eschewing of popular religious culture, failing to fully grasp that atheism is not about sticking it to the man, but is actually about, as you said, truth… and being in opposition to the mainstream is just a byproduct of being an atheist in America.

  17. J. Mark says

    Jen….you are the epitome of the old adage that the truth will set you free…you’re smart, and you speak your mind….publicly…way to go! Sometimes people will be offended by that… be it…remember that you’re not alone in your perceptions….

  18. the_Siliconopolitan says

    There are definitely supernatural elements in various sects of Buddhism, but they aren’t very common in the sects popular in the West. I’ve seen both karma and reincarnation redefined materialistically.

    Really? So Holywood continually kissing the arse of the Dalai Llama is just for show? Not a sign of being “popular in the West”?

  19. the_Siliconopolitan says

    Oh … I get it!Pizzas are flat because they have been touched even more by His Noodly Appendage than midgets have.

  20. says

    Show me where the supernatural elements of Buddhism are “common in the West”. The Dalai Llama may believe in some aspects of the supernatural, but it certainly isn’t what he focuses on when speaking to or writing for Western audiences.

  21. says

    If reincarnation, the entire basis for the Dalai Lama’s claim to authority, isn’t supernatural…I don’t know what is.

  22. says

    Aww, sorry! I wasn’t trying to make you feel guilty – I was just trying to see if I recognized your username from any comments, haha. Thanks so much for coming :)

  23. Azkyroth says

    Near the end of my talk I mention how feminists who are still religious are way more likely to believe in woo-woo spiritual stuff, like reiki, astrology, paganism, and wicca because they tend to be a lot more pro-women.

    Odd. My secondhand experience has been that they tend strongly towards affirming traditional gender roles while trying to smooth out the difference in how valued those roles are. I guess it’s an improvement, but it’s still sexist bullshit. >.>

  24. JoeBuddha says

    The Dalai Lama is no more the definition of Buddhism than the Pope is the definition of Christianity. Just sayin’.

  25. sheenyglass says

    I think the word bullshit implies a negative judgment of one’s moral character or intellectual capacity – it doesn’t just mean untrue, it means so spectacularly untrue as to be beneath discussion. So when we say a statement is bullshit we imply that its speaker is lying (or does not care whether it is true or false) and the person believing it is gullible.So, although I think it is perfectly valid to say that paganism is untrue, I can see how someone would take bullshit to be an offensive description. If someone told me my atheism is untrue I would engage in a civilized discussion. If they said it was bullshit, I wouldn’t bother – it signals they are unwilling to engage with my argument.

  26. QoB says

    Yes, thank you. As metaphors go, I enjoy the neopagan ones a lot more than the Catholic ones I grew up with, but they are still metaphors.

  27. says

    I vividly remember a sudden sharp silence after that comment, like someone had put fingernails on a chalkboard just moments before. It was probably just one of those ‘heard from a friend and believed it too readily’ situations (at least I hope).

  28. says

    I came from woo-woo land myself, and may I just say, it’s amazing how some of that stuff sticks long-term. Took me years to sort much of it out, and even now I catch myself now and again. I’ll probably always be a “pagan-flavoured” atheist, but I’m OK with that. It’s a fun flavour.As to your guy, good for you being compassionate yet firm. Firebrands are fun once you’ve bought in, but up until that point, people tend to spook easily. Sometimes you need a little fire, yes, but other times… Sounds like you’ve given him food for thought, and we all need food.

  29. Katsbrain says

    I think you pretty much nailed it. There are many, many people who identify as “pagans” in some form or another, but do not have any literal belief in the deities they study and identify with. They simply believe that those stories and metaphors are particularly helpful in giving them emotional and intellectual perspective. A lot of others also choose to celebrate the pagan holidays, like the Solstices, because they honor nature and other observable realities. I think the only real difference between those types of “pagans” (which I think I kinda fall into) and plain old atheists is a generally more literary or artistic worldview, which may lead them to seek out the old mythologies to fulfill a creative urge. If you want to call that “spiritual,” because art is such a personal experience, then it’s just getting into semantics.

  30. says

    I was sucked in by woo to a point, until a friend almost died from contaminated herbal something or other, got diagnosed and treated at the NIH, and then said “My psychic was right — I had a parasite.”*facepalm*I pointed out that the human body hosts a gajillion “parasites” and it didn’t register with her at all. After that I read “Not Necessarily the New Age” by Martin Gardner and the rest is history. That book looks at the trendy Shirley Maclaine woo of the day in mathematical terms and it was a real eye-opener. Once my eyes were open, Christianity looked sillier by the day.”But that even if people found their lives improved by those things, it doesn’t make them any less bullshit.”When they get to this point we’ve done all we can, because they’re basically admitting that it doesn’t matter if their religion is true or not. They’re not in it for the truth.

  31. says

    I agree with the vast majority of what you say, but I feel compelled to say this:Asserting with absolutely conviction that all such beliefs are false is faulty in a similar way to asserting any of them as true; most spiritual or religious beliefs don’t have any solid evidence against them, just as there’s generally not any solid evidence for them. Most likely false, yes; unjustified, yes. Flat-out false isn’t good, and can only be partially justified by calling it a simplification.Hoping you can agree that religions can sometimes hit on good advice by coincidence, I’ll mention again my favourite Quaker saying – consider you may be mistaken. In this case I’d say it applies, because (as in many cases) we (human beings) apply certainty far too readily. Most (or all, depending on definitions) religious people certainly do, but the atheist who is completely and utterly certain that there really is nothing of the religious or spiritual sort, they’re making the same unjustified assertion. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with it – most people do it, and like you said, it doesn’t make people stupid or bad. It’s just a bit weird to see people accuse others of it while doing it themselves.In your case, I suspect it being a simplification is the most likely, because I’m sure on other occasions you’ve expressed the view (and I may word this badly) that atheism is a default, given the lack of evidence for the compliment thereof, and that it’s a simpler proposition. Another reasonable point is the assertion that it’s all unprovable, and that’s a kind of atheism too, but that wouldn’t justify the declaration that beliefs are false.And that reads really preachy. Not meant to be, more just intellectual-discussion sort of thing, so sorry if it’s come out wrong.

  32. Zenjack says

    I don’t understand how someone could take offense to having their beliefs ridiculed when in attendance of a group of people who tend to be skeptical of any belief structure. I am an atheist as well as a Zen Buddhist. I also realize that by using that label I open myself to criticism from the more ardent skeptics within the atheist community. It doesn’t offend me, in fact I welcome it. No belief should get a free pass and if one is going to hold any sort of belief that is irrational then one should understand that it is open to such criticizing.

  33. Tinker says

    This isn’t really my field but there are several scientific studies that show that acupuncture relieve pain. Here is one study that explains the biological/chemical reason behind this:…. Here is from the abstract: “Acupuncture is an invasive procedure commonly used to relieve pain. Acupuncture is practiced worldwide, despite difficulties in reconciling its principles with evidence-based medicine. We found that adenosine, a neuromodulator with anti-nociceptive properties, was released during acupuncture in mice and that its anti-nociceptive actions required adenosine A1 receptor expression. Direct injection of an adenosine A1 receptor agonist replicated the analgesic effect of acupuncture. Inhibition of enzymes involved in adenosine degradation potentiated the acupuncture-elicited increase in adenosine, as well as its anti- nociceptive effect. These observations indicate that adenosine mediates the effects of acupuncture and that interfering with adenosine metabolism may prolong the clinical benefit of acupuncture.”I think it is important to remember that treatment may actually work, even if it emerged before modern science. And also that when alternative ‘medicine’ are backed up by scientific proofs, they just become ordinary medicine.

  34. says

    Well, the study shows that sticking people with needles potentially has a pain-reducing effect. That’s interesting, and potentially clinically useful, but it’s only the first bit of the practice of acupuncture, which typically also includes a whole metaphysics about energy flows and a big emphasis on putting needles into very specific spots for very specific effects. None of that latter stuff is backed up by any evidence I know of, and a lot of it directly contradicts a lot of the science we *are* sure about.Agreed that we have to treat all claims fairly and evaluate them with the same methods regardless of their source… but I’m very wary of saying things like “here’s some evidence showing that acupuncture works” without a large disclaimer that it only shows one small part of the acupuncture hypothesis working.

  35. says

    Agreed that, from a lot of epistemological standpoints, we can’t really be absolutely sure about anything. However, we can still very often be justifiably confident enough about something that we can say “X is false” or “X is true”, with an understood context of “… with 99.9999% confidence”.It would be annoying to have to add that bit at the end every single time we made any kind of truth assertion.

  36. DHW says

    I agree that I’ve also read studies and actually recently asked a doctor about it and it seems like there’s some evidence that can work for nausea and possibly chronic pain control but there’s not a lot of good studies about it.

  37. says

    What I think is funny, only about 1% of so-called atheists are true atheists, a lot think because they follow or believe in the Judea/Christian God they are atheist. Just like the people commenting saying their a Buddhist-atheist or Pagan atheist. But even the atheists making a big deal about being an atheist and there being no God or supernatural forces aiding humankind are not true atheists, now that is just my opinion, I do find it funny though because I know people that it doesn’t matter how a person believes and that is true atheism to me. If it bothers someone that someone else believes in something they think isn’t real, then to me there is some sort of problem there, so much so they have to form support groups and have rallys, even write their own bible. So you could say form their own religion. You called that guys beliefs bullshit, well I guess I’m doing the same and calling yours bullshit.

  38. says

    Hmm. Jen, I have followed your blog since pre-boobquake. Back then, I only identified as an atheist, with secular humanism as my life philosophy. But since then, I began to explore other philosophies, and the failings of secular humanism. I could go on, but I have written about this so often I could just link you to my argument if you like. What argument?Well, Back in October I became a Theravadin Buddhist. This is not to say that I accept the belief in rebirth or kamma, but will only accept those if I could verify them personally. The Pali Canon in Buddhism is much more systemic than secular humanism. And I follow my life based on the Kalama sutta, which basically says that we should only accept a thing if its result is wholesome, or good. I believe Sam Harris talks on this in some videos and writings. They are worth having a look at.

  39. says

    Flick me the link if you like.My email is [firstname] dot [lastname] at gmail.comI had a run-in with Buddhism a while back. Liked some of it, but not all of it. Always interested in new perspectives, tho.

  40. says

    “I always feel a twinge of guilt, because I never purposefully try to offend. But I can’t feel much more than a twinge, because it’s goddamn hypocritical expecting your particular wacky beliefs to get some sort of free pass. If you were lapping it up while I spent 45 minutes tearing apart Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, you don’t get to put your own belief in a little bubble.”I also always feel some guilt, because I don’t want to offend, but I’ve never been in a situation of criticizing religion in a talk in front of people. I think we all tend to place our own beliefs close to our hearts, so it hurts when they are criticized, but you’re right in saying that all beliefs should be open to discussion and criticism.

  41. says

    As I understand it, people in the states have support groups and political groups and so on, simply because atheism and non-religiosity are disadvantages socially in many places and situations. This is less true in some other ‘western’ countries.In the UK we have the weird situation that Christianity tends to be over-estimated (or over-counted, in the census) because people tend to tick the Christian box even if they don’t actually believe, but because they feel that is the default – yet even though it’s the default, they don’t tend to look down on others for not being, or for having no faith. Boggles the mind somewhat…However, the question of it mattering what people believe – it does matter, particularly if they believe that everyone who doesn’t believe as they do will suffer eternal torment, and therefore it is “the right thing” to do, to persistently try and convince them of this ‘fact’ – and that’s a fairly benign example. More to the point, decrying such beliefs is an aspect of the sceptic angle – believing (based on evidence) that it’s better for people if they are able to reason critically and make decisions based on evidence.

  42. says

    Had any contact with liberal Quakers? A lot in common with some sects of Buddhism, but very different as well, and compatible with almost any underlying theology. I’m a non-theist myself.I guess you might get some ideas from my blog, although there’s not much there yet. I think it can be reached via my disqus profile, or I can throw you the link if you like.

  43. says

    I’m not going into my beliefs except to say I’m not typical and my beliefs offend a lot of people unintentionally, I don’t care if people believe in a God or not, or if they want to worship whatever, but be honest about it, when atheists are copying the Bible’s format, wanting to be Chaplains in the military, and basically trying to do what most say irritates them about religion which is convert people to their belief system, that is not atheism. A true belief that there is no supernatural forces at work is atheism, and when someone truly believes that, then it shouldn’t bother them that I believe in a man in the sky as they call it, or if I believe in ghosts, or Santa Claus, until I try to push my beliefs onto them. But that is not how new age atheist are, they are getting offended at mere mention of God, yet they copy the Bible. That is funny to me. And yes 99% of atheists are full of shit.

  44. says

    I meant to comment on this earlier, being the loud mouth AHA! member I am. We have a few members that are wonky. Bullshit is bullshit, and I appreciated you calling it that. I think there was chorus of facepalms when, well, I won’t use his name, spoke as we knew what was coming. We have three self identified pagans who both generally cool people but their “Paganism” makes them sometimes insufferable. I honestly don’t think they really “believe” it but rather use it as a way to explore the spiritual emotions, and form community.AHA! represents a different brand of atheism, its a non-offensive, love everyone brand which can really put a wedge between the hardcore atheists such as myself. I’m glad you came, and put up with our general oddness. Too bad a few more of our core missed out on the talk, including my girlfriend and her roommate. Thanks again!

  45. says

    That was another one of our beloved Pagans in the group. Like mentioned below, cool people but they still harbor the same irrationality as religious people. Soon as she opened her mouth, there was that urge to say, “Oh give it up”.

  46. Derbasementcat says

    Thank you. I feel much better and much more included now.  I used feel way too much in that sententance. Probably because there is no cofee in the house.

  47. Derbasementcat says

    And this is why Athiests are much nicer than Christians almost every time. Even when people disagree with you %90 of the time you don;t scream and throw things. Thank you.

  48. Derbasementcat says

    ….This is….terrifying. While I respect other people’s rights to this. I can not for the life of me understand the appeal of…being stuck with needles. I am now frightened.

  49. Derbasementcat says

    Whyare various branches of Paganism and Various Branches of Wicca considered moreWoo-woo than Christianity or other Religions. Not trying to pick a fight or bean ass I just do not get it, honestly.  As for Reiki and Astrology I lack enough knowledge to evenhave an opinion on them.

  50. says

    Other studies have failed to show that acupuncture performs above placebo when applied to humans.Emphasis is mine.A study with needle acupuncture was performed in tension-type headache employing a new placebo acupuncture method. Sixty-nine patients (mean age 48.1 years, sd = 14.1) fulfilling the International Headache Society criteria for tension-type headache were randomly assigned to verum or placebo condition. No significant differences between placebo and verum with respect to visual analogue scale and frequency of headache attacks could be observed immediately, 6 weeks and 5 months after the end of treatment. There was a significant but weak improvement in quality of life parameters (clinical global impressions, Nottingham Health Profile) after verum treatment. In decision tree analyses, the changes in clinical global impressions and headache frequency depended significantly on primary headache frequency with a limit value of 24.5 days headache per month. High values in the von Zerssen Depression Score resulted in high mean visual analogue scale values.

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