True or False? Helpful or Harmful? The Two Different Arguments About Religion

There’s something I’ve been noticing lately about the ongoing, increasingly-robust religion/ atheism debate. And that’s that it’s really two debates. Very different debates… which sometimes get confused and conflated.

By both believers and atheists.

There’s the debate about whether religion is true or false. God, the immortal soul, mystical spiritual energy — do they exist, or do they not exist? Is religion an accurate hypothesis about the world, or is it a mistaken one?

Or, to be more accurate, since the God hypothesis can’t be definitely disproven: How plausible is it that God exists? Is it a reasonable hypothesis supported by evidence, or is it a self-contradictory myth that requires a metric shitload of circular defense mechanisms to support it?

And then there’s the debate about whether religion, on the whole, has a positive or negative influence on the world. Does it provide comfort, hope, social cohesion? Does it promote gullibility, intolerance, the rejection of reality in favor of dogma? If both, then which is more common, or more important? Can the good things done in the name of religion really be chalked up to religious belief itself, or would people have done them anyway, and religion just gave them the inspiration? What about the bad things done in the name of religion, ditto?

In this debate, one side typically lines up Gandhi, Martin Luther King, charities and hospitals run by religious groups for centuries, etc. The other side lines up the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, witch burning, 9/11, and so on. And these avatars for religious evil and religious good all duke it out on the Internet, like some wild, absurdist multi-player computer game. (The Simpsons episode where Homer’s hallucinations and Mr. Burns’s hallucinations get into a battle in the ski cabin comes to mind…)

The thing is, these really are two different debates. Religion could theoretically be correct, but still overall be a harmful influence on human society. And it could theoretically be mistaken, but still overall have a beneficial effect. (Although… well, we’ll get to that in a moment.)

But I’ve noticed that these debates tend to slop over into each other. People will be arguing over whether some piece of religious doctrine is plausible… and then someone will start going on about Martin Luther King or the Inquisition.

The reverse also happens, of course. People will be debating whether religious charities and social movements outweigh religious atrocities and intolerances, or whether it’s the other way around… and then someone starts saying, “But it doesn’t matter, because my religion is the Truth, inspired by the True God, and all the religious atrocities in the world aren’t an argument for why it’s false.” Or they start saying, “But it doesn’t matter, because religion is a mistaken theory about how the world works, and all the charities in the world aren’t an argument for why it’s true.” The slopover happens from both sides.

And that makes for some very muddled, meandering, frustrating debates. It is worth remembering that each side could theoretically be right about one of these questions and wrong about the other. Again, religion could theoretically be correct, but still overall have a harmful influence on human society. And it could theoretically be mistaken, but still overall have a beneficial effect. These really are two separate arguments, and I think we might be better off keeping them separate.


See, here’s what makes this even more confusing. Here I am, arguing that these are two separate debates, and that in the interest of clarity we should try to keep them separate.

But I also think they’re connected.

Because if religion is mistaken — and I think that it is — then that makes it harmful.

By definition.

Basing your life on a false premise is going to lead to you bad decisions. It’s the old “garbage in, garbage out” saying about data processing. You can see this in very mundane, practical areas of life. If you think fish are poisonous and inedible, you’re more likely to starve and die out when you move to an island nation. If you think malaria is caused by unhealthy vapors in the atmosphere, you’re more likely to make bad decisions about public health policy. Etc.

Of course this applies to religious premises as well. Possibly even more so. If you believe in a rain god, you’re more likely to make bad decisions in times of drought. If you believe that God will be on your side in all battles because he wants your people to conquer the world, you’re more likely to make bad decisions about military strategy and foreign policy. If you believe the Apocalypse is coming in the next century, you’re more likely to make bad decisions about the need to prevent global warming.

And when the premise is not only a false one, but one that actively resists correction the way religion does — one that actually has an elaborate system of defenses against correction — the “garbage in, garbage out” problem is compounded.

In particular, the idea that religious faith (i.e., believing in something for which there is no hard evidence and can be no hard evidence) is in itself a virtue, something that makes you a good person… this idea leads both individuals and societies not only to a resistance to reality that contradicts their faith, but to a general gullibility. It makes people extra-vulnerable to faith healers, charlatans, frauds of all stripes, from Jim Bakker to Richard Roberts. And that’s harmful for very obvious, very pragmatic reasons.

So in other words:

Even if there were no religious intolerance or oppression; no Spanish Inquisition or 9/11; nobody burned at the stake for being Protestant or Catholic or insisting that the earth moves around the sun… even if none of the awful shit that happens in religion’s name ever happened, or had ever happened in all of human history, I think religion would still, on the whole, have a harmful effect.

Simply because it is mistaken.

What’s more, I agree with the point Daniel Dennett made in “Breaking the Spell.” He argues that, because religion isn’t based on actual reliable evidence but only on tradition and personal experience and other stuff people made up, and is in many cases flatly contradicted by both evidence and reason, this actually makes people cling to it harder, defend it more passionately… and behave more oppressively and intolerantly towards non-believers and infidels and others who put chinks in the armor.

Obviously there are exceptions to this rule. There are individual people and individual faiths that are tolerant and ecumenical, towards people of different faiths and towards people with no faith at all. But alas, hostile intolerance toward those who don’t share the faith appears to be the rule in religion, not the exception… so much so that it seems to be, not a foundational cornerstone of religion exactly, but one of its most natural and common consequences. Intolerance towards doubters and outsiders is one of religion’s primary defense mechanisms, one of the main ways that it stays alive.

So back to the actual topic at hand:

I do still think that, as a general rule, the “true or false” and the “helpful or harmful” arguments are different arguments, and that the religion debates would be more productive if they were kept more separate.

But I also think it’s worth remembering this:

A mistaken idea is pretty much always a harmful idea.

Just by definition.

True or False? Helpful or Harmful? The Two Different Arguments About Religion

Commenting Problems

Typepad is having sporadic problems with commenting on their blogs, including this one. Occasionally, for no apparent reason, people are posting comments that are showing up in the “Recent Comments” list (as well as in my own blog management software), but that aren’t actually appearing in the comments themselves.

If this happens to you, please let me know. When it happens, I can fix the problem temporarily by re-publishing the entire blog. (Typepad is working to fix the problem permanently.) So as always, if you’re trying to comment and it’s not working, please let me know. Sorry for the inconvenience, and thanks for your patience.

Commenting Problems

On Surfing the Web… The Blowfish Blog

Please note: This post, and the post it links to, contains very explicit details, not so much about my personal sex life per se, but about my fantasies and my tastes in porn. Family members and others who don’t want to read that, please don’t.

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog — with a nosy little poll at the end of it, aimed at readers of all stripes but especially at other sex writers and educators. It’s called On Surfing the Web for Spanking Porn, and it begins very much like this:

Honestly, I’m a little embarrassed by it.

I know that seems weird. I’ve been writing in shameless detail about my sex life, my sexual fantasies, and my tastes in porn for years. Why should I be embarrassed about surfing the web for spanking porn?

I think I’m embarrassed because I’m so single-minded about it. As a porn critic, I pride myself on having eclectic tastes, on being able to be turned on by almost any sexual scenario if it’s executed with passion and skill. All of which is true.

But when it comes to my free time, my “me” time, my non-professional “looking at porn just to whack off” time, I’m very single-minded indeed. I want to look at photos of women being spanked.

Within some pretty specific parameters.

To find out more about those parameters — and how I feel about the whole thing — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

On Surfing the Web… The Blowfish Blog

His Hands: A Dirty Story

I haven’t been posting much about sex here lately. Except for the stuff about the sexual hypocrisy of right-wingers, of course. Which is entertaining in its own way; but not exactly hot.

So today I’m posting a dirty story from the archives. (Family members and others who don’t want to read my porn, now would be a good place to stop.) This piece was originally published in the Five Minute Erotica anthology, a collection of short-short (1000 words or less) erotic fiction edited by Carol Queen. As usual with my fiction, I’m not illustrating it with any pictures, since I want you to visualize the characters however you want. Enjoy! Story begins below the fold.

Continue reading “His Hands: A Dirty Story”

His Hands: A Dirty Story

Evolution of the Blog

Spanish Inquisitor, I could kiss you.

I have to give an enormous grateful shout-out to Mr. Inquisitor. He tagged me with one of these “blog tag” memes, this one being “Pick out five blog posts that illustrate the evolution of your blog, link to them, and comment on them.”

So I was going through my archives trying to pick out the five posts that summed up my blog’s development… and I thought, “You know, I’d really like for the last one to be that Atheists and Anger piece I keep wanting to write. That would sum up the evolution of my blog quite nicely. I should just get off my duff and do it.”

I’d been wanting to write that piece for ages. But I knew it would be painful to write, and I knew it would piss people off, so I kept procrastinating. When I got tagged with this meme, though, I knew I wanted Atheists and Anger to be the capper… and I finally got off the pot and wrote it.

The blog post that changed my life.

I owe you one, dude.

Anyway, here’s the meme. The evolution of my blog, summed up in five posts. Except I’m expanding it to six. Okay, seven. Fine, if you’re going to be a fascist about it — eight. But I’m counting two of them as one, so it’s really seven.

So I’m breaking the rules. So sue me. I’m a rebel, and I’ll never, ever be any good.

Continue reading “Evolution of the Blog”

Evolution of the Blog

Right Wing Hypocrisy Part Two: The Scary Black Men Made Me Do It!

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. Bob Allen was just convicted last week of soliciting a sex act in a park bathroom, so now seems like a good time to reprint this story.

This is just getting ridiculous.

Do you remember in last week’s column, when we talked about Florida state representative/ McCain presidential campaign co-chair Bob Allen? The guy who sponsored a bill to tighten Florida’s public sex laws, and recently got busted for offering a male cop $20 to blow him in a public bathroom?

The story has taken an almost surreal turn. According to the Orlando Sentinel (and a big thank you to the Bilerico Project for the story and the link!), Allen is now claiming that the scary black men made him do it.

I’m not kidding. Quote:

“‘This was a pretty stocky black guy, and there was nothing but other black guys around in the park,’ Allen, who is white, told police in a taped statement after his arrest. Allen said he feared he ‘was about to be a statistic’ and would have said anything just to get away.'”

My question is this:

Just how stupid does he think we are?

Let’s back up for a moment, and take this one piece at a time.

First of all: Racist.

That’s just obvious, and I don’t have much that’s interesting or original to say about it. So I’ll simply say it once more and move on for now: Racist.

Second: Lie.

Allow me to quote from the police report:

“I was standing against the far wall of the stall. Allen closed the door behind him and stood against it. I said ‘what’s up’ and Allen said ‘Hi.’ Allen then said ‘this is kind of a public place isn’t it.’ I said ‘do you have somewhere else where we can go?’ Allen said ‘How about across the bridge it’s quite [sic] over there.’ Allen engaged me in a conversation in which he agreed to pay me $20.00 in order to perform a ‘blow job’ on me.”

Just to clarify: This conversation happened after Allen peered over the cop’s stall — twice — and then pushed his way into it. (Read the whole story for more details.)

And he’s telling us he was frightened of the big scary black men and trying to get away? Liar, liar, pants on fire. This guy was cruising.

Which brings me to my central point:

Just how stupid does he think we are?

I’m reminded of something I wrote during the Ted Haggard kerfuffle. When Haggard’s “counselor” said that, after three weeks of therapy, Haggard discovered that he was “really” completely heterosexual and that “It was the acting-out situations where things took place,” I had this to say:

“Right. Because straight men “act out” by sucking cock all the time.

“No, really. It’s a natural stress response. Long hours, money problems, illness in the family, trouble at home? Every straight guy I know would be running to the nearest male prostitute to suck his cock. It’s a perfectly normal reaction. Very common.”

And that’s exactly my reaction to Bob Allen’s latest statement.

Right. Every guy I know, when he’s in a public place in a situation where he feels threatened, tries to get out of it by offering the purported threatener $20 to suck his cock. I mean, that’s just self-preservation. It’s not like he actually wanted to suck the guy’s cock. He was simply trying to defuse a potentially dangerous situation.

Really. You’ve done that, guys… right? You’re in an alley or a deserted park at night, you see a guy you think might be a mugger… you offer him $20 to give him a blowjob. It’s in all the police brochures on urban safety. It’s just plain common sense.

I said it about Ted Haggard, and I’ll say it again now:

Just how stupid does he think we are?

So here’s what I think is really going on.

I think it’s a bad enough PR problem for Allen’s Republican constituents that he was in a public bathroom offering $20 to suck another man’s cock. But I think it makes the PR problem worse, by several orders of magnitude, that he was offering $20 to suck the cock of a black man.

That’s not just faggotry. That’s race treachery. Not something you want to screw around with in the Republican South.

And I think that’s why he’s offering the “scary black men” defense.

I don’t think the “scary black men” defense is racist by coincidence. I think it’s very deliberate. He’s trying to play on his constituents’ racism — and in particular their racist fears of black men’s sexuality — by shifting the perception of the incident, away from “middle-aged man offering $20 to suck a black guy’s cock in a public bathroom,” and towards “panicked victim of potential mugging or rape by big scary black men, handling it as best he could.”

That’s an image his constituents can probably identify with. And he’s hoping they will. He’s trying to create a smokescreen of racist sex panic that his constituents can sympathize with… in hopes that the racist sex panic will be more emotionally compelling, and more what people want to believe, than the image of the right-wing crusader for sexual morality secretly cruising the public toilets for men to suck off.

I just hope that his constituents aren’t as stupid as he thinks they are.

Right Wing Hypocrisy Part Two: The Scary Black Men Made Me Do It!

Godless is the New Black: Is Atheism Just a Trend?

“This atheism thing is just a trend.”

“I’m so bored with this atheism fad.”

“You’re just calling yourself an atheist because it’s cool right now, and everyone else is doing it.”

“Oh boy, another hanger-on to the (Dawkins/ Hitchens/ whoever) bandwagon.” (I was particularly entertained when a recent commenter in this blog accused me of parroting Hitchens — when I haven’t even read his damn book yet.)

“You’re just being trendy.”

I’m beginning to see this argument — if you can call it that — a fair amount lately. The newly visible, newly vocal atheist movement… it’s just people trying to be cool, jumping on the bandwagon, finding a new and exciting way to piss off their parents. Denying the existence of God, restructuring your life philosophy to a naturalistic worldview with no permanence and no intent behind it… it’s just a fad.

Like hula-hoops, or swallowing goldfish.

So I want to talk about the trendiness of the atheist movement.

And for the 4,626th time, I’m going to make an analogy to the gay rights movement.

There was a period of the gay rights movement, right around the early ’90s, when “gay” suddenly became very trendy indeed. The news media was doing tons of stories on us; movies and TV shows were being made about us in droves; publishers were publishing our books; politicians were sucking up to us; advertisers were all over us like white on rice.

And then the trendiness passed. Fewer news stories, fewer movies and TV shows, fewer books being published just because they were about being queer. (I suppose I should be sad about this last one, but it’s hard to work up much grief over it, since a lot of those books were really, really bad.)

Now for today’s lesson.

Does any of that mean that the queer movement wasn’t important? That being queer and coming out was just a fad, a flash in the pan, something people did to be cool? That the queer movement was, and is, trivial?

No. Of course not.

The queer movement had been happening for decades before it became trendy. And it’s continued to carry on after the trendiness faded. It’s continued to have major social impact, has continued to shape culture and public policy. Our visibility continues to increase — not in an, “Oh, my goodness, gay people!” way, but in a “taking us for granted and just assuming we’re part of the picture” way. The trendiness came and went; the movement continues.

In fact, none of the trendiness had anything to do with the actual queer movement itself. Nothing had happened within the queer movement to make us trendy. We hadn’t all suddenly started dressing cool or something. (We’ve always dressed cool.)

What had happened was that our visibility had achieved a sufficient critical mass for the rest of the world to sit up and take notice.

The trendiness was not created by us. The trendiness was created by the mainstream world, the largely-straight world. We were willing to ride the wave and use it to our best advantage; but the wave was not of our own making, except insofar as our efforts towards greater visibility and recognition created the conditions in which it could happen.

So what does this have to do with atheism?

It would be foolish to deny that atheism has a certain cachet right now. Atheism is trendy — in the sense that the mainstream world, the mostly-not-atheist world, is suddenly realizing that we’re here… and is finding us fascinating.

Does that mean that atheism is “just a trend”? That atheists are “just being trendy,” and when the fad passes most of us will move on to some other popular philosophy?

No. Of course not.

Like the queer movement, the atheist movement had been going on for some time before it suddenly became trendy. And it would surprise me a lot to see it just disappear. There is a world of difference between the realistic acknowledgment that atheism is somewhat trendy right now… and the dismissive attitude that it’s “just a trend,” or that atheists ourselves are doing it “just to be trendy.”

The fact that atheism is having a big rush of attention and prominence in the public discourse right now doesn’t mean that it’s “just a trend.” Quite the opposite. I think the trendiness phase is a natural side effect of any movement whose numbers and visibility have reached a certain critical mass.

I’m sure there’ll come a point when there are fewer atheist books being published, fewer articles about atheism in the newspapers, fewer people gassing on about atheism on talk shows. But that won’t mean that atheism will just disappear into the invisible margins again. Again, I think it’ll be the opposite. Atheism won’t lose its trendiness when the “fad” passes, when everyone stops doing salsa and starts swing dancing instead. It’ll lose its trendiness when it starts being taken for granted. It’ll lose its trendiness when it becomes part of the cultural and political landscape.

Besides… do you really think people could become atheists just on a whim? Any more than people could become queer on a whim? They’re obviously not exactly parallel situations — I don’t think anyone is claiming that people are born atheist, the way people seem to be born queer — but belief isn’t subject to your wishes in that way. You can’t make yourself not believe in God when you really do… any more than you can make yourself believe in God when you really don’t. It’d be like Pascal’s Wager in reverse.

The “atheism is just trendy” trope is essentially a way of trivializing atheism and the atheist movement… without actually taking the trouble to point out anything that’s wrong with it, or to engage in debate with people who are part of it.

It’s the cool, detached, hipster’s way of dismissing the movement without bothering to think about it.

And phooey on that.

If you don’t want to engage with or think about the atheist movement, then don’t. Nobody’s making you. But if you don’t have anything to say about it, then don’t say anything about it. Don’t go into atheist blogs and forums, don’t get into conversations and debates about the atheist movement, if all you’re going to do is unthinkingly dismiss us by saying that our movement is “just a trend.” It’s insulting and trivializing to us… and it makes you look like a high school kid who thinks that not caring about anything makes you look cool.

Godless is the New Black: Is Atheism Just a Trend?

Carnivals: Godless, Feminists, and Pozitivities

Blog carnivals!

Carnival of the Godless #79 is up at Aardvarchaeology. My pieces this time: How Can You Have Meaning Without… ? and The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many. My favorite other posts in this Carnival: Why I Am an Optimist by Franklin, on why he finds atheism to be a more optimistic philosophy than theism; Religious Privilege: How Religion, Religious Groups, and Beliefs are Privileged from Austin Cline at; and The Night I Stopped Believing by Susie Bright. This is, I believe, Susie’s first entry into the Carnival, so go say hi and make her feel welcome.

Carnival of Feminists #47 is up at Ornamenting Away. I don’t have any pieces in this carnival, but it still manages to be a good carnival nevertheless. My favorite piece: The Rule, by Natasha at Homo Academicus, on Alison Bechdel’s Movie Rule (“1. There must be two or more women in it; 2. Who talk to each other; 3. About something other than a man”) and how it applies to Pixar films.

And the International Carnival of Pozitivities is up at Slimconomy. This is the first time I’ve been in this carnival, a carnival devoted to HIV and AIDS, and I’m pleased and honored to be part of it with my piece Short Memories: AIDS Denialism and Vaccine Resistance. My favorite other piece in this carnival: HIV/AIDS: The Brazilian Response at The AIDS Pandemic. Happy reading, everybody!

Carnivals: Godless, Feminists, and Pozitivities