The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful

So what is it about religion — exactly — that’s so harmful?

I’ve argued many times that religion is not only mistaken, but does more harm than good. But why do I think that is?

Sure, I can make a list of specific harms religion has done, from here to Texas. I’ve done exactly that. But that’s not enough to make my case. I could make long lists of harms done by plenty of human institutions: medicine, education, democracy. That doesn’t make them inherently malevolent.

Why is religion special — and specially troubling? What makes religion different from any other ideology, community, system of morality, hypothesis about how the world works? And why does that difference makes it uniquely prone to cause damage?


Thus begins my new blog post up at AlterNet, The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful. In it, I take a long, hard, careful look at the harm that’s uniquely caused by religion… and tie it all together into the one quality that makes religion unique.

This is kind of a magnum opus for me. I’ve been working on it for months now, I’m extremely proud of it, and I’m thrilled to have finally finished it — and to have it published over at AlterNet. Regular readers will definitely want to check this one out.

The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful

New Fishnet Story: "Member Patient Satisfaction"

Fishnet logo
Fishnet has a new story up! The online erotic fiction magazine I’m editing, Fishnet, has a new story up for you to enjoy. It’s titled Member Patient Satisfaction, by Hew Wolff, and here’s the teaser:

I take a big breath for her and suddenly I’m hit by a scent of ginger and cardamom. I swear it’s coming from a few drops of sweat right between those magnificent tits I’m trying not to look at. I don’t know whether to report my new symptoms of dizziness and tachycardia.

To read more, read the rest of the story. (Not for anyone under 18.) Enjoy!

New Fishnet Story: "Member Patient Satisfaction"

Atheism and Friendship

Holding hands
How do you be honest about your atheism, and still maintain close relationships with people who are likely to be upset about it?

I got an email from Heather the other day, asking me this:

I know you’re not generally in the advice column business, but you have such a great way of evaluating situations and coming up with good ideas, I want to ask for your help with something.

Good way to start, btw. Flattery will get you everywhere. 🙂

I have an older half-brother, J. We didn’t grow up in the same house for most of my life, but we were still very close. For as long as I can remember, he’s been into woo in a big way. He introduced me to paganism when I was 12 or 13 (and at the time I thought it was awesome). Later in my teens I was leaning toward the more vaguely spiritual, but avidly listened to his ramblings about alternate universes, spirit selves and Carlos Castaneda. He’s my big brother, y’know?

Then a bunch of stuff happened. Within the course of a year, our mom died, he lost his first child and got divorced, and I moved across the country and went to college. We traded a few emails, but didn’t see each other or have a real conversation for years. Only recently have we reconnected and started talking again. And it’s great; we have all kinds of weird stuff in common I wouldn’t have expected. Except that we’ve moved in opposite directions spiritually. He’s living with a channeler, talking about soul unions with extradimensional beings and whatnot. I’m, well, a regular reader of your blog.

So here’s the point of conflict. I want to be honest with my brother, but I’m afraid that if I go about it wrong he will think I’m attacking him. I really don’t want him to shut down and stop talking to me, but it doesn’t seem right to just nod and smile every time he says something completely nuts. He’s so far off the deep end (and so convinced that I’m at least partially in agreement with him) I don’t even know how to start a conversation explaining how I now see the world. I would be very grateful if you had any suggestions.

In a follow-up clarifying the situation, she added:

1. Right now he doesn’t know I’m an atheist. He’s so excited to tell me about his beliefs, he hasn’t asked anything about mine. I think he assumes that since I’m not jumping to tell him he’s nuts that I either agree with him or am considering it. But it seems disingenuous to let him go on thinking that. So do you think there’s more tactful way to say “btw, you know I’m an atheist, right?”

2. At what point am I reasonably justified in worrying about the potential harm he is causing himself with his beliefs, and is there any benefit in confronting him about that? To make a long story short (too late), J. believes he has a debilitating terminal illness (one that runs in our family, but usually not until much later in life), but he won’t see a doctor about it. He says he is using magic to fight off the symptoms, but that he still isn’t well enough to work. So to me, that leaves two frightening possibilities: either he is terminally ill and not receiving any treatment, or he is so detached from reality he believes he is terminally ill, is using his spiritual views to bolster that false belief, and is allowing that belief to keep him from living a normal life. But he’s an adult, living across the country, and basically subsisting off people who are enabling those beliefs. Does it seem likely expressing my concern would have any potential benefit, or be more likely to drive him away?

I do have some thoughts on all this. But mostly, I’m throwing this one out to my readers. Most of my thoughts on this are about (a) how I’ve messed this up in the past; (b) how this has gotten messed up in the past even when I sincerely don’t think I was the one who messed it up; and (c) how difficult it is to get this right. I’m going to offer what answers I can give; but I’m also asking for help here myself, as I really don’t know how to handle this one.

See, I’m really not the best person to answer this. My track record for discussing my non-belief with friends who are believers has been pretty bad. And while I know I made mistakes, especially rookie mistakes early in my atheism career, I don’t know that I did anything terribly wrong. I think this is a difficult subject to discuss with people, and a lot of believers who think of themselves as open minded and interested in talking with non-believers soon find that they get more agitated than they’d expected to. And they often deal with that agitation by getting angry at the non-believer they’re talking with.

Turned back
But regardless of whose fault it is, or even if it’s anyone’s fault, the bottom line is that almost every religious friend I’ve seriously engaged with in lengthy discussion about religion is now mad at me. In some cases to the point of not speaking to me. It’s really sad; it’s probably the hardest thing about being an atheist activist. And I honestly don’t know whether I’m doing something wrong, or whether this is something that’s just going to be hard for almost anyone trying to do what I’m doing.

The way I’m currently dealing with it — a lesson learned from harsh experience — is to be honest about my own lack of religious belief, but not to talk about it in detail, or try to persuade anyone out of their beliefs, unless I’m specifically asked to do so. At least, not if it’s someone I’m unwilling to lose. There’s a difference between honestly letting someone know what you do and don’t think, and trying to persuade them to change their mind.

Of course, that’s often a fine and blurry line. Many believers will take offense and see it as an attack when atheists simply declare our atheism and our right to be atheists. And many believers, when they find out that you’re an atheist, will try to persuade you to change your mind… and it’s often hard to distinguish between defending your atheism, and trying to persuade someone that atheism is right. If pressed to explain your non-belief, you can try to frame it as “This is what I think and why” rather than “This is why I think you’re mistaken”… but many believers won’t hear that distinction. Which is understandable. It’s kind of a fuzzy distinction to make. Especially when what you think is, “You’re wrong.” (You can also try to frame your perspective as “This is why I think I’m right” rather than “This is why I think you’re stupid and crazy. But again, many believers will hear the latter even if you’re clearly saying the former.)

Now, readers here may be going, “What on earth is she talking about? What does she mean, she doesn’t talk about her atheism in detail or try to persuade people out of their belief? That’s exactly what she does, several times a week, right here in this blog that I’m reading right now!” True. Which brings me to my second point:

I draw a distinction between engaging in debate in public forums (such as my blog or Facebook – btw, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!), and doing it in personal conversation with friends. In public forums, I will happily explain my position at length and do all I can to persuade people of it. I draw a distinction between that… and talking about my atheism at parties or at the dinner table. Which I don’t do unless I’m specifically asked to, and where I tend to go easier, and back off much sooner, and change the subject much more readily, than I would in public debate.

But while I draw that distinction, not all believers I’ve engaged with do. They often take the public debates very personally, even when I consider them part of the public marketplace of ideas and not directed at them personally. (Again, part of that is just part of religion’s defense mechanisms… but part of it is probably just personal differences in how people deal with conflict.) I draw a clear distinction between “who you are” and “what you believe,” but many believers have their beliefs deeply woven into their identity, and they take criticisms and questions about their beliefs as a personal attack. It’s not fair, and in a public debate with strangers I won’t give it any quarter… but with a friend or family member, if you care about the relationship, sometimes you have to let things not be fair in order to keep the relationship. If there’s anything I’d do differently now, I think it would be this: recognizing that this is really personal and really difficult stuff to talk about… and being willing to drop a public-forum argument with a friend when it seems like it’s starting to get upsetting.

Also, proactive atheist activism is a big part of who I am. That may not be true for you. This is my career, a big part of the purpose I’m creating for myself in life, and I’ve made the hard, often sad choice that I’m willing to lose some people I’d rather not lose in order to pursue this path. It’s a little like the difference between just coming out as gay, and being a public gay activist. So again, the balance point that’s right for me isn’t necessarily the balance point that’s going to be right for you.

If you decide that you don’t want to discuss it at all for the sake of keeping the peace, you may just have to stick to a mantra of, “I don’t agree with you, but I don’t want to argue about it. Let’s change the subject.” Something I’ve never been very good at.

Coming out
As to how to come out in the first place… again, I’m not the best one to answer that. I came out largely by writing this blog, which all my friends and family members know about. (I’ve been lucky enough that this hasn’t been an issue for family — my family are all big heathens, the most heated family discussion I’ve had about religion was with my agnostic uncle — so for me, this has been more about friendships than family. Another reason some of you might be better at answering this question than I am.)

You might try easing into it. Instead of just blurting out, “I’m an atheist,” you could try, “Actually, I’m not sure I agree with you about that. I know I used to share a lot of these beliefs with you, but I’ve been spending a lot of time doing some hard thinking and soul-searching, and I just don’t believe in (X) anymore.” And when you’ve made that disclosure, it’s probably really important at first to focus entirely on explaining what atheism is and educating them about myths and misconceptions they might have about it… rather than arguing for why you’re right. And you may have to give it time, too. Often when people come out as gay, it takes time for their family and friends to be okay with it. Ditto with atheism.

As to the harm they’re doing themselves… that’s a tough one. So let’s take it out of the religious context. If your brother were in a bad relationship that was making him miserable, if he had a bad job that was aging him prematurely, if he were participating in dangerous extreme sports that were ruining his health… what would you do? One of the hardest things about adult relationships is recognizing that adults have the right to make bad decisions for themselves… and knowing when (and how) to intervene, and when to just leave them be.

You might come at the health issue by doing what harm reduction advocates call “meeting people where they are.” Don’t go on about how his religious beliefs are nuts and are endangering his health. Instead, maybe say something like, “You know, a lot of people with spiritual beliefs like yours still pursue conventional medicine, especially when something is serious. They see conventional medicine and spiritual healing as interconnected, as working together.” You and I know that’s a load of dingo’s kidneys… but the goal isn’t to prove that you’re right. The goal is to get him to see a doctor.

Holding hands
And I guess that’s mostly what I’m getting at in general. What is your goal here? I’m guessing that your goal isn’t to de-convert your brother to atheism. I’m guessing that your goal is to have a good relationship with him. And sometimes, having a good relationship means striking a delicate balance between being honest about who you are, and not bringing things up that you know will be upsetting. It means deciding which parts of yourself are so important that you can’t have a relationship worth having if you can’t be honest about them — like coming out as gay is for most people — and which parts are not worth the fight. And it’s not a simple all or nothing question. It’s a question of nuance: how much to say, how far to pursue it, what exactly to say and what not to, when to pursue it and when to drop it.

I don’t always know how to do this.

I get it wrong a lot.

What do the rest of you think?

Atheism and Friendship

The Learned Fetish

Note: This piece includes many specific and detailed references to my personal sex life. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that, please don’t read this one.

I have a new piece on the Blowfish Blog. In it, I talk about the idea that sexual desires and fetishes are learned early… and I counter this idea — sort of — by examining some fetishes that I’ve only recently acquired. And I look at how that process works… and how new fetishes feed into old ones.

It’s titled The Learned Fetish, and here’s the teaser:

Now, these aren’t full-blown fetishes in the standard sense. They aren’t a necessary component of my sexual arousal and satisfaction. I’m perfectly capable of enjoying sex without engaging in them or thinking about them; I’m perfectly capable of enjoying masturbation without fantasizing about them. (I do think that core sexual desires, such as being gay or more deeply rooted fetishes, aren’t very malleable; and unless it’s a fetish that non-consensually hurts other people, I don’t see any reason to try.)

But my new interests are fetishes in the less-standard sense. They occupy a significant portion of my erotic imagination. (Translated: I think about them a lot when I whack off.) I deliberately search for them in my porn, and fixate on them when I’m — ahem — enjoying my porn. And the sight or thought of them often sexually excites me, even if they’re not coming up in a sexual context.

Specifically — I know my readers, you don’t want to hear about this in the abstract, you want the dirty lascivious details, and I’m happy to oblige…

And I’m very cruelly cutting off the teaser there, to make you want to go read the piece. Enjoy! And if you’re inspired to comment here in this blog, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog. They like comments there, too.

The Learned Fetish

25 Things I Want (In Bed)

Very important note: This piece discusses my personal sexual fantasies and desires, in a significant amount of detail. More than usual. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff are strongly advised to not read this one. Thanks. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

I am stealing this idea shamelessly from Adam Savage of “Mythbusters.” Savage did a reading at a recent Writers With Drinks event, a piece titled (if memory serves) “100 Things I Want.” You might think a piece like that would be self-involved, even whiny, interesting to nobody on Earth but the reader himself. But it was fascinating. It was inspiring. It was a loving and hilarious anthem to optimism, to possibility, to the goofy marvel of the human imagination. And giving it that extra techno- magic- realism touch, it was a whirlwind blend of things that are physically impossible, things that could only happen if Savage devoted his entire life to them, and things that would be entirely within his reach with just a little effort.

But in a freakishly glaring omission, not one of the 100 things on Adam Savage’s list was about sex. (Yeah, I know. Not everyone likes to parade their sexual desires in public. Weirdos.)

So I got inspired. And I decided to share my own list — and keep it entirely sexual. Like adding “in bed” to a fortune cookie fortune. I hope you find it funny and inspiring, and not self-involved and pointlessly confessional.

Quick set of rules: I’m limiting my list to things I genuinely would want to do — or at least that I think I’d want to do — not just things I fantasize about. I’m limiting it to things I either have never done, or haven’t done in a long, long time. This isn’t about my sex life: it’s about my sexual mind, the places my sexual desires go when unfettered by practicality. And due to space considerations, I’m limiting myself to 25.


I want to get spanked until I cry.

I want to have sex on gym equipment.

I want to watch two guys fuck. (I’ve done this, actually; but it was years ago, and besides it was at a sex party so it kind of doesn’t count. I want to watch two guys have sex where I’m the only one watching.)

I want, at least once in my life, to have groupies. At least one groupie. I want to go on a book tour or a speaking engagement and have admiring fans throw themselves at me sexually. EDIT: I have changed my mind about this one. I do not want groupies. I think the power relationship between famous people (weird to think of myself this way, but there you have it) and groupies is kind of fucked-up, and I don’t want to participate in it. Besides, I’m generally way too tired at conferences and on speaking tours to do anything in bed but collapse.

I want to be able to sprout a functioning penis at will. (And, of course, to be able to make it disappear when I’m done with it.)

Pursuant to that: I want to be able to shapeshift. I want to split my tongue in two like a snake and wrap it around someone’s clit. I want to sprout extra hands, so I can pin someone down while I spread them open and fingerfuck them. I want to transform my arms and legs into tentacles and violate someone in all their holes, like a demon in a Japanese anime porno.

I want to get violated by a tentacled demon in a Japanese anime porno.

I want to spend an entire day devoted solely to sex. I don’t want to spend the entire day having sex — I think that would be exhausting and ultimately unpleasant — but I want to have a day where sex is the entire agenda. Having sex, talking about sex, reading about sex, writing about sex, eating sexy food, watching porn, having sex some more.

I want to lie back in the arms of a lover, who’s holding my arms and holding me down, while a vampire sucks my blood and then licks my clit with my blood on his tongue.

I want to act out a Christian domestic discipline fantasy. I want to pretend to be a good Christian wife, getting punished by my husband for being disobedient and not respecting his dominion over me as the Lord commands. With both of us desperately pretending to ourselves that this isn’t about sex.

I want to get caned while saying ten Hail Marys. (And I wasn’t even brought up Catholic.)

I want to act out a baron/ servant girl scene, in which I’m the baron. I want the fantasy scenario to be one in which she theoretically could leave, but desperately needs the job and feels that she can’t. I want to sit her down next to me, pull her onto my lap, begin to get inappropriate with my hands, while I explain how things are done in my home. I then want to punish her, in increasingly brutal, increasingly sexual ways, on the flimsiest of excuses, for offenses that are essentially made up. I want to tell her that it’s not enough to punish her by beating and humiliating her: I have to punish her by raping her. And then I want to rape her.

(Not for real, obviously. As part of the role-play. Just so we’re clear on that.)

I want to have sex with someone I’m telepathic with. I want to feel what they’re feeling having sex with me, and have them feel what I’m feeling having sex with them. I think the “infinite regress of two reflecting mirrors” thing could be really hot.

I want to spank someone who’s never been spanked before.

I want to spank someone who is much younger than me. Legal age, duh  but young enough to feel like they’re not.

New york times
I want to get punished for not knowing enough about the current news.

(Okay. I think I need to explain that one. I’ve always been gun-shy about playing with punishment, it’s a heavily loaded issue for me… but I’m getting increasingly intrigued by it. But I don’t want to be punished for something real and important, like missing deadlines or breaking promises. I already feel like a guilt- ridden failure at the drop of a hat. At the same time, I don’t think I could take it seriously if I were getting punished for something ridiculously trivial like not folding my T-shirts right, or for some totally fake fantasy misdeed like not doing my spelling homework. Hence, not knowing enough about the current news. It’s real, and I think it’s important  but it’s not going to crush my spirit if I get lectured and punished for fucking it up. And it would make watching the news kind of dirty.)

I want to have sex in the back of a moving truck.

I want to have sex in a castle.

I want to have vicious, brutal, unspeakably filthy sex with Severus Snape. (Yeah, I know. Me and fifty million other people. I’m not embarrassed at how perverse this one is. I’m embarrassed at how trite it is.)

I want to watch people having wild, intense sex  while I’m tied to a chair, unable to participate or even touch myself.

I want to be the center of attention in a gang bang.

I want to have a sex buddy with whom I only have sex. Show up at their place; do it like rabbits; leave. Don’t ever see them until the next time we fuck. Don’t ever talk about anything else.

I want to have sex that feels non-consensual, even though it’s not.

I want to have bruises from a spanking that last more than a day.

I want to act out one of my erotic stories with someone. In every detail. I’m not sure which story; I’m not even sure it matters. I just want to know what it feels like to be inside one of the scenarios that I’ve spent so much time and care fleshing out.


I think that’s enough for one day.

So what about you? What do you want?

25 Things I Want (In Bed)

101 Positions That Won't Spice Up Your Sex Life

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s a critique of the “(X) Number of Incendiary Positions to Heat Up the Bedroom” sex-advice book ouvre, intended to spice up couple’s sex lives and introduce variety by teaching an assortment of sexual positions. It’s titled 101 Positions That Won’t Spice Up Your Sex Life, and here’s the teaser:

But sexual variety can mean so much more than rotating your bodies in different configurations before inserting Prong A into Slot B. And these books seem blind to these possibilities. They hardly ever talk about erogenous zones outside the obvious ones. They hardly ever talk about dirty talk, dirty outfits, foreplay (or, as we dykes like to call it, “sex”), sex toys, slowing things down, speeding things up, role-playing… all that good stuff.

And they almost entirely ignore the crux of any good relationship, sexual or otherwise: communication. Talking about desires, talking about fantasies, talking about the outfits and the toys and the dirty talk and the slowing things down, not to mention actual communication skills — how to ask, how to listen, how to negotiate, how to set limits, how to move forward together with experiments — little or none of this gets included in the discussion of how to bring variety into your sex life.

Even when they do talk about this stuff, it’s no more than a cursory, “get it out of the way” mention before getting on to the important business of describing and demonstrating the Double Reverse Astronaut Position. These books might as well be titled, “101 Ways to Have the Exact Same Sex You’ve Been Having, But With Your Bodies Arranged Somewhat Differently.”

To find out more of my objections to this ouvre, read the rest of the piece. (And if you’re inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog. They like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

101 Positions That Won't Spice Up Your Sex Life

Thoughts About Maine: Sad, Angry, Strategic, and Sappy

No on 1
Some early thoughts about the No on 1 defeat in Maine. (In case you haven’t heard: Same-sex marriage has once again been defeated at the ballot box. The Maine voters voted to overturn the law legalizing same-sex marriage in Maine.)

My first thought:

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck.

This is so disappointing. I just want to curl up and cry. This was a hard-fought, well-fought campaign: well-organized, well-publicized, planned for a long time in advance. What the fuck does it take? Why do people hate and fear us so much? (I know, I know. You don’t have to answer. It’s a rhetorical question.)

My second, angrier thought:

What the fuck?

At what point do our basic civil rights not get voted on anymore? At what point does equal citizenship in this country not be determined by a popularity contest? Of course I’m in favor of democracy; but the whole idea of a Constitution is that unpopular minorities need to be protected from the tyranny of the majority; that some questions, questions of basic rights, should not be determined by majority rule. And marriage is a basic right. At what point does the question of whether some people should be second-class citizens not get determined by mob rule?

Okay. Deep breath. A couple of quick preliminary thoughts about strategy and the future.

One: I hope the passage of Yes on 1 on Maine will put a stop to the reflexive, “we could have won on Prop 8 in California if the campaign
hadn’t been botched” blame game.

I’m not saying we didn’t make mistakes in California. I know we did. And of course we should pay attention to those mistakes and learn from them. But if the No on 1 campaign teaches us anything, it’s that we can do just about everything right… and still lose. There are still a lot of people who fear us; there are still a lot of people who are willing to tell lies about us; and fear and lies can still win.

It could well be that Prop 8 won in California because the No on 8 campaign made mistakes. But it could also be that Prop 8 won in California because same-sex marriage has never, ever won at the ballot box in the U.S. It could be that Prop 8 won because same-sex marriage is just a really hard sell right now. I do think time is on our side… but when it comes to the ballot box, it isn’t on our side yet.

Two: I hope the people who want to put same-sex marriage back on the ballot in California in 2010 take a long, hard look at whether that’s really a good idea, and whether the timing is right.

Same-sex marriage is just really hard to win at the ballot right now. I think we need to accept that. We stand a much better chance of winning in 2012 than we do in 2010. To be blunt about it: Support for same-sex marriage skews, more than with almost any other demographic, according to age. The younger people are, the more likely they are to support it. To be brutally blunt: As more old people die, and as more young people become old enough to vote, the odds skew more and more in our favor. Also, the economy in California truly and profoundly sucks right now, and people just won’t be able to donate the kind of money to a political campaign that they did in 2008. And 2012 is a Presidential election year, when voter turnout is always higher — and high voter turnout almost always means more young voters, and almost always favors liberal candidates and causes.

Time is on our side. For Loki’s sweet sake, let’s use it.

Finally, I want to say this:

I am deeply and seriously touched by the response my readers gave to my calls for action on this. Many of you donated money; talked with friends and family; phone banked; blogged about the issue; spread the word in email and on social networks. Some of you even did the Volunteer Vacation thing, spending a week of your no-doubt scarce free time to work in person for this cause. Those of you who did: You are my heroes. You totally rock my world.

This is a disappointing loss. But I have confidence that we will win in the long run. And I am blown away by all of the support y’all gave to this cause. I am more grateful than I can say.

Thoughts About Maine: Sad, Angry, Strategic, and Sappy

Atheism, Openness, and Caring About Reality: Or, Why What We Don't Believe Matters

Thumbs down
Why do atheist activists focus so much time and energy on what we don’t believe?

What’s the point of a worldview and a social/ political movement that’s all about not believing in something? Can’t we be open to possibilities? Why do we have to be so negative all the time?

I’ve been, as is my wont of late, debating religion on Facebook. (By the way, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!) In one of these recent debates, I was exhorted by a believer to “be a little more open to the universe” (an exhortation I’ve heard many times now, from many different believers). In another, I was told that “a belief system based on what isn’t seems reductive,” by someone who added that, “When I turn my mind toward the things I don’t believe in, my world gets smaller.”

So today, I want to talk about some of the positive things that, as an atheist and a humanist, a materialist and a rationalist, I do care about and believe in. I want to talk about what being “open to the universe” means to me.

And I want to talk about why the things I don’t believe in — namely, God or any kind of supernatural/ immaterial/ spiritual entities or forces — are a crucial part of what I do believe, and a crucial part of how I practice being open to the universe.


Hand outstretched
My belief system is not, in fact, based on “what isn’t.” And neither is that of any atheist I know. My conclusions about “what isn’t” are only part of my belief system, and not necessarily all that big a part. I have a positive worldview, a set of priorities and values that shape how I live.

I could gas on about the positive things I believe in for hours, days, years, and still not be done. But here’s the short version of the part that’s relevant to this discussion:

I believe in reality.

I believe that reality is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it.

Pretty much by definition.

And I believe that trying to understand reality, to the best of our abilities, is one of the most important, most interesting, most deeply valuable, most richly satisfying things we can do — individually, and as a species.

The real universe, the universe as we currently understand it, is magnificent, and awe-inspiring, and far weirder than anything we would have made up about it. Solid matter that’s mostly empty space? Black holes at the center of every spiral galaxy? Billions of galaxies all flying away from one another at breakneck speed? Space that bends? Continents that drift? Life forms that are all cousins to one another? Consciousness that somehow arises from brain chemistry? That rocks my world.

And we’ve found all this stuff out, not by giving up on trying to understand it, not by saying, “It’s a mystery and we’ll never fully understand it,” but by saying, “We may never fully understand it — but let’s try. Let’s understand it to the best of our abilities.” We’ve found all this stuff out by being willing to let go of beliefs and preconceptions and opinions we were attached to — and being willing to reject all ideas except the ones supported by the rigorous gathering and testing and cross-checking of evidence. (A very humbling process, I might add.)

But here’s the thing.

The negative part of that process? It’s absolutely crucial. We can’t say, “Yes, the earth orbits the sun,” without saying, “No, the sun does not orbit the earth.” We can’t say, “Yes, the universe is expanding and will continue to expand,” without saying, “No, the universe is not in a steady state.” We can’t say “Yes, all life on earth evolved by descent with modification from a common ancestor,” without saying, “No, life forms were not created fully formed all at once, more or less as they exist today.” We can’t say, “This what almost certainly is true about the universe,” without saying, “That is what almost certainly is not true.”

There is an impossibly huge infinitude of things that we could imagine about the universe. Only the tiniest fraction of those things are actually true. If we’re going to be truly open to the mind-altering magnificence and hilarious freakiness of the universe, if we’re going to truly understand and accept and explore what is true about the universe to the best of our ability, we have to be willing to say “No” to the overwhelming majority of things we can imagine about it. We have to be rigorous in sorting out reality from unreality… and relentless in our rejection of unreality.

Which leads me to this business of being open to the universe.

And which leads me to this:

It was being open to the universe that convinced me there was no God, and no supernatural world.

It was being open to the universe that convinced me to let go of my spiritual beliefs, on the grounds that they just weren’t internally consistent, or consistent with the evidence, or in any way plausible. It was being open to the universe — i.e., paying careful attention to what the universe, through evidence, was saying about itself — that led me to let go of what the inside of my head, based on confirmation bias and wishful thinking, believed about it. It was being open to the universe that led me to the conclusion that the universe is almost certainly an entirely physical entity, and that God and the supernatural have no part in it.

That was an extremely difficult thing to do. I was very emotionally attached to my religious beliefs. In particular, I was deeply attached to my belief in an immaterial soul that survives death. I don’t like death any more than anyone else does, and accepting the finality of death — mine, and that of the people I love — was among the hardest things I’ve had to do.

But reality wins. The universe wins. The carefully gathered, rigorously tested, relentlessly cross-checked evidence about the universe wins out over my biased, demonstrably flawed, wishful- thinking- based intuitions and opinions about it. The most reasonable evidence- based conclusion about what’s probably true wins out over my hypothetically possible but entirely unsupported and thoroughly implausible belief about what might be true.

Being open to the universe doesn’t just mean being open to possibilities about what might be true. It means being open to possibilities about what might not be true. It means being willing to say “No” to most of the stories about the universe that we can imagine — even the stories we’re most attached to — if it turns out that those stories aren’t likely or plausible.

Let me be very clear: I have absolutely no problem with making up stories about imaginary realities. I love stories about imaginary realities. They can help us frame our experience and give it meaning; they can give us fresh perspectives on the world, and even help us see new things about it. Stories and imagination are essential parts of what make us human. And besides, they’re just fun.

But if we care about reality, we need to not deceive ourselves into believing that our stories are true. We need to be very careful about distinguishing between our useful metaphors about the world, and our accurate descriptions of it. We need to be very careful about distinguishing between the stories we make up in our own heads about the universe… and what the universe, through evidence, is saying about itself.

Our world does not get bigger when we place our subjective experience of the world over the world itself. Our world does not get bigger when we treat every possibility that we can imagine as equally likely… and then choose between them based on which ones we find most attractive. Our world does not get bigger when we hang onto beliefs about reality that are almost certainly not true, clinging to the gossamer- thin thread that “it might be true, you can’t absolutely prove that it isn’t.” Our world does not get bigger when we treat the space inside our head as more important than the space outside of it.

Our world gets bigger when we let the world in. Our world gets bigger when we let the world itself take priority over whatever ideas we might have about it. Reality is bigger than we are. Our world gets bigger when we let that reality be what it is… and when we pay careful attention to what it is, the most careful attention we possibly can.

And that’s why I care about what isn’t. That’s why I spend so much time and energy thinking and writing about what I don’t believe.

Yes, I do often focus on “what isn’t” in my writings. I do this, in large part, because the beliefs in entities that almost certainly don’t exist (a) are very widespread, (b) have a real effect on the choices people make, and (c) on the whole do, IMO, more harm than good.

But I also do it because caring about “what isn’t” is a central and crucial part of caring about “what is.”

I do it because, when we fill our brains with stories about what almost certainly isn’t true or even plausible — and convince ourselves that these stories are true or plausible, and hotly defend the stories against the evidence opposing them — we are armoring ourselves against reality. We are practicing the mental gymnastics that help us ignore or deny reality.

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And reality is what I believe in.

Atheism, Openness, and Caring About Reality: Or, Why What We Don't Believe Matters

Atheist Memes on Facebook: Whose Intuition Do You Trust?

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I’m doing a project on my Facebook page: The Atheist Meme of the Day. Every weekday, I’m going to post a short, pithy, Facebook-ready atheist meme… in the hopes that people will spread them, and that eventually, the ideas will get through. If you want to play, please feel free to pass these on through your own Facebook page, or whatever forum or social networking site you like. Or if you don’t like mine, edit them as you see fit, or make some of your own.

Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day:

“We can’t prove or disprove God with absolute certainty, so I’m going to trust my intuition” is a terrible reason to believe in God. There are thousands of religious beliefs, many completely contradicting each other. And every believer’s intuition says something different. How do we tell which of these beliefs is right? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Memes on Facebook: Whose Intuition Do You Trust?