Atheists feel transcendent wonder at the magnificence of life, as much as anyone. The idea that, out of earth and water and sunlight, living beings have evolved with the ability to experience consciousness and joy and connection, fills many of us with a deep sense of amazement and awe. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
Atheists feel compassion, empathy, and social responsibility as much as anybody. We don’t think those feelings come from God — most of us think they’re part of our evolution as social animals — but we don’t need to believe in God to feel these feelings strongly, and to take them seriously. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
But atheists’ reactions to the holidays are wildly varied. Yes, some atheists despise them: the enforced jollity, the shameless twisting of genuine human emotion to sell useless consumer crap, the tyrannical forcing of mawkish piety down everyone’s throats. (Some believers loathe the holidays for the exact same reasons.) But some of us love the holidays. We love the parties, the decorations, the smell of pine trees in people’s houses, the excuse to eat ourselves sick, the reminder that we do in fact love our family and friends. We’re cognizant of the shameless twisting and mawkish piety and whatnot — but we can deal with it. It’s worth it for an excuse to drink eggnog with our loved ones and bellow out “Angels We Have Heard On High” in half-assed four-part harmony. (In fact, when it comes to the holidays, atheists are in something of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. If we scorn them, we get called Scroogy killjoys… but if we embrace them, we get called hypocrites. Oh, well. Whaddya gonna do.)
So today, I want to talk about some of the reasons that some atheists love the holidays: in hopes that believers might better understand who we are and where we’re coming from… and in hopes that a few Scroogy killjoys, atheist and otherwise, might be tempted to join the party. (If not — no big. I recognize and validate your entirely reasonable annoyance at the holidays. And besides, Scroogy killjoys are an important holiday tradition.)
Speaking of which:
But for our ancestors, the changing seasons were a critically important part of their lives: a matter of life and death, which they watched and marked with great and careful attention. The winter solstice holidays rose up as a way to mark those changes… and to celebrate the all-important imminent return of the sun and the warmth and the longer days. Celebrating the holidays reminds us of what life was like for the people who came before us — the people who are responsible for us being here.
Sure, it’s theocratic. Sure, it’s bigoted. Sure, it has its roots in anti-Semitism and white supremacy. But it’s also freaking hilarious. Watching these hypocrites twist themselves into knots explaining why America is a Christian nation and it’s the grossest insult to acknowledge the existence of other religions by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”… and why this stance somehow isn’t shameless religious bigotry? It’s the best contortionist act in town. And like the circus, it comes around every year.
And the holidays are another excuse to go gaga over the wonders of science. They’re another way to celebrate the fact that we’re living on a tilty rock whizzing through frigid space around a white-hot ball of incandescent plasma. Neat!
Not the gloppy shopping-mall Muzak that gets forced into our bleeding eardrums every year, despite our cries of pain and pathetic pleas for mercy. I hate that stuff as much as anyone. But some holiday music is seriously pretty. The soaring eerieness of “The Angel Gabriel”; the strangely haunting cheeriness — or cheery hauntingness? — of “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah”; the lilting saunter of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”; the majestic transcendence of “Angels We Have Heard On High” (especially when sung in half-assed, eggnog-addled four-part harmony). Some of this stuff is freaking gorgeous. The really old stuff especially. If you like the tunes but can’t stomach the lyrics… well, there’s a wide world of holiday song parodies at your disposal. (My personal faves: the H.P. Lovecraft ones, and the Christmas-themed parody of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”)
And as I discovered when I was digging up lyrics for a Christmas party songbook, a lot of holiday music is entertainingly grotesque and surreal. You don’t have to dip into the Lovecraft Solstice Songbook to find holiday songs about blood, suffering, torment, and death. I mean, “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume/ Breathes a life of gathering gloom/ Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/ Sealed in a stone cold tomb”? What’s not to like?
And the Number One Reason for Atheists to Celebrate the Holidays:
Any day now.
Science is not a belief system. For atheists or anyone else. Science is the exact opposite of a belief system: all scientific hypotheses are provisional, and a scientific hypothesis is only as good as the last experiment confirming it. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
Or else it’s the latter, thinly disgused as the former.
I’m talking about Garrison Keillor’s recent screed in the Chicago Tribune against atheists, Jews, pagans, and others who would dare to besmirch the right and true practice of the Christmas holiday. In which he says, among other things:
Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite “Silent Night.” If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.
Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off.
I usually like to cut people slack and think the best of them until proven otherwise, and I’d love to think that this was just horribly misfired satire on the very attitudes he’s apparently expressing. But this isn’t the first time Keillor’s expressed religious and other bigotry, and unless he comes out with a sincere, grovelling apology, I’m afraid no slack is forthcoming.
So here’s what I posted in the comments at the Tribune:
This is truly ugly.
Mr. Keillor, on what authority are you deciding for other people how they should celebrate Christmas? Who died and made you the Christmas police? And what has made you so ugly and hateful about it?
As others here [in the Tribune comments] have pointed out: traditions change, and many supposed Christmas traditions have actually been adopted from other sources. Which is as it should be: traditions should change to meet the needs of the people practicing it. And you don’t get to decide who those people are. The reality is that Christmas is a cultural holiday as well as a religious one. It’s a U.S. Federal holiday, for goodness’ sake. And as a non-believer, if I have to get Christmas shoved down my throat every year, I see no reason why I and my friends and family shouldn’t adopt its traditions to make them work for us. (If “Greensleeves” can be rewritten as the Christmas song “What Child Is This,” why can’t Silent Night be rewritten to make it more Unitarian?)
As for “spiritual piracy”: Christianity is overwhelmingly the dominant religion in Western culture. I am heartily sick of Christians acting like they’re being thrown to the lions every time they don’t get their way in everything.
And the crack about “lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year” is deeply ugly. Did you stop and think about what that would sound like before you wrote it?
And a hundred times especially about the grotesquely ugly “lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys” crack. Which, frankly, I didn’t even know how to reply to, as it just left my mouth gaping in “Did he really say that?” aghastness.
But the Tribune comments limit people to 1400 characters. So I had to keep it concise. Merry Christmas, spiritual pirates!
(Note: This piece discusses my personal sexuality and tastes in porn. Family members and others who don’t want to read that, please don’t.)
The topic for today’s sermon:
Women who like gay male porn.
And people who are surprised by this.
It’s true that this desire hasn’t been reflected very much in the video porn industry — and video porn is what a lot of people default to when they think about “porn.” But “women don’t like gay porn” isn’t a very good explanation for this. (Some better ones: Women on average are more interested in written porn than videos. And the video porn industry can be idiots sometimes: they’re terrified of putting something on screen that might turn off straight guys; they largely ignore the potential of the women’s market; and even when they try to cater to women’s tastes in porn, they tend to get it laughably wrong.)
So those are the facts: Some women like gay male porn. Enough so that there are entire porn genres that cater to it.
Thus begins my new piece on the Blowfish Blog, All Boy-Boy Action. To find out why gay male porn is so appealing to some women — and why this fact should be entirely unsurprising — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!
Most religious beliefs are unfalsifiable — there’s no possible way to test whether or not they’re true. And unfalsifiable hypotheses should be rejected on that basis alone. If there’s no way to test whether a religion is true, how do you distinguish it from the thousands of other untestable religious beliefs? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
I want to talk about the sexual world we have today. And I want to talk about how vastly, immeasurably better it is than it used to be. Not that long ago, either. I want to point out some of the ways that, as painful and terrible as our sexual world can be, it is so much better than it has been… in ways that we sometimes take for granted.
When you’re fighting for social change — whether that’s for racial equality or sexual liberation, ecological consciousness or LGBT rights, free speech or feminism — it’s easy to get despondent. It’s easy to focus on how lousy things still are, how slow the going is, how much further we still have to go. So today, I want to take off the Cranky Pants, and put on the Incurable Optimist hat, and remind us all of how very far our sexual world has come in a remarkably short time.
And it started to strike me: Damn. Thing are so much better now for sex than they were when I was born. In so very many ways.
I want to talk about some of those ways.
When I was born, the very idea of female sexual pleasure, and the idea that women had as much right to sexual pleasure as men, was shocking and controversial. Today, the notion that women actually enjoy sex, and that we have a right to ask for the kinds of sex we enjoy, is generally understood and accepted. (At least, more so than it was 47 years ago. Even right wing Christian evangelicals are pushing the idea of sexually satisfying marriages… satisfying for both partners, not just men.)
When I was born, it was generally assumed that women in an office were there (a) for the sexual enjoyment of men, and (b) to catch husbands. Today, it is generally assumed that women in an office are there to get some work done.
When I was born, birth control was still illegal in about half of the States in the U.S…. and the birth control methods that were available were ineffective, dangerous, or both. Today, birth control is legal, widely available, available in a variety of forms, and much safer — thus enabling women to enjoy sex without the constant fear of unwanted pregnancy.
Hell, that’s true for adults, too, not just kids and teenagers. When I was born, the available sex information for adults was mostly Kinsey, a handful of bad marriage manuals… and their friends, who didn’t know any more about sex than they did. Now, accurate and detailed information about sex — from “How can I help my female partner reach orgasm?” to “What is a safe way to pierce my genitals?” — is readily available, simply by turning on a computer or picking up a phone.
When I was born, people were still being put into jails and mental institutions in the U.S. for being gay. Almost all gay people lived their gay lives in secret, in constant fear of discovery and ruin. Today, my female lover and I are legally married, and we live together openly, with all of our friends and families and colleagues knowing about it and not thinking it’s a particularly big deal.
When I was born, oral sex was widely considered dirty and perverted, even between married partners. Today, people are shamelessly writing to sex columnists asking for advice on spanking, bondage, anal sex, fisting, three- ways, casual sex, gay sex, rape fantasies, rimming, dressing up like stuffed animals, and everything else under the sun… and oral sex is generally seen as just part of the standard sexual package, so normal as to be almost boring. (Almost. I said almost.)
When I was born, it was legal in the United States for husbands to rape their wives. It wasn’t even considered rape. Today, it is considered rape — and it is against the law in all 50 states.
When I was born, divorce was shameful. Hell, it was still shameful a decade after I was born: when I was twelve and my parents got divorced, I tried to keep it a secret from my friends. Today, it’s understood that marriage doesn’t always work out, and that people shouldn’t be trapped in misery for the rest of their lives just because they changed over the years or made a bad decision when they were younger.
I could go on. And on. And on.
But I think you get my point.
And much of the world outside the U.S. is in a dismal sexual state, with girls getting their clitorises cut off, and women being executed for adultery.
I’m not saying that our sexual world is perfect, or even that it’s great. (So please don’t all write in with outraged comments about how insensitive or naive I’m being.) I’m not saying that our sexual world is perfect or great. I’m saying that it’s better. It’s better than it was. And it’s better than it was because, for decades now, people have been working and writing and kicking up a stink.
So let’s keep doing that.
And let’s keep remembering that it works.
Reason and evidence aren’t the only ways to understand the world. But since they minimize our biases and tendencies to believe what we already believe, they are the best ways to understand what is and isn’t true about the non-subjective world. And religion is a question of what’s true about the non-subjective world. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
Since I’ve been working my way through the “bad arguments for religion” catalog, and since someone mentioned this particular one in a recent email to me, I thought I’d take a moment and tackle it today. The argument, in a nutshell: Jesus’ apostles clearly believed that he was divine, performed miracles, etc. They believed it so strongly that they were willing to be persecuted, tortured, and killed for their beliefs. And they were there! What they believed must have been true!
First of all, this argument is assuming one of the main things it’s trying to prove: namely, that the New Testament is a reliable and accurate source of information about the events that happened in that time and place. Which it’s clearly not. The New Testament is shot through with factual errors and internal contradictions; and it was written decades after the events it supposedly describes, by people with a passionate vested interest not only in believing these events but in persuading others about them. A reliable source this is not.
But for the sake of argument, let’s concede that point for the moment. Let’s pretend that the New Testament is a reliable and accurate source of information, at least about the basic historical events if not about the supernatural stuff. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there was a historical Jesus, that he had apostles who believed in his miracles and his divinity, and that those apostles were willing to sacrifice their lives for this belief.
How is that an argument for their belief being true?
But the fact that they’re really, really convinced that these things are true is not evidence that they are actually true. The human mind plays weird tricks on us. (Read Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things for a good discussion of this phenomenon.) And the more we’ve committed ourselves to a belief, the more deeply we rationalize that belief and convince ourselves that it’s true.
To the point where some people will even die for their beliefs.
The argument from conviction is just a slightly tweaked version of the argument from popularity. Instead of saying, “Lots of other people believe this, therefore it must be true,” it says, “Some other people believe this a lot, therefore it must be true.” Which still makes for a truly lousy argument.
I think there’s an element of guilt tripping and emotional blackmail involved here as well. It’s like, “These people died for their beliefs — are you going to make their sacrifice be in vain? Or worse — are you calling them liars?” And there’s a circularity to it, too. People will readily say that the Heaven’s Gate cultists were delusional to sacrifice themselves for such an obviously nutty belief… but the Apostles’ sacrifice, that we have to take seriously. Why? Because the story of Jesus’ divinity and miracles isn’t absurd. And why do we think Jesus’ divinity isn’t absurd? Because the Apostles said it was true.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: The only “evidence” we have of God or the supernatural comes from the inside of people’s heads. There is not one scrap of good, carefully- collected external evidence supporting the God hypothesis. It’s all sacred texts, or “my parents taught me this,” or “I feel it in my heart.” Or, “The Apostles believed this, and they died for their beliefs — and nobody would sacrifice themselves for a belief that wasn’t true.”
Just like the Heaven’s Gate believers.