Sexual Harassment or Religious Freedom?

Sexual harassment on the job
Does the First Amendment right to religious freedom include the right of religious organizations to fire people for refusing the sexual advances of their employers, and for reporting those advances to the authorities?

You would think that the obvious answer to this would be No. You would think this would be the textbook definition of a no-brainer. You would think that nobody on this earth would even have to think about the answer to this question.

But apparently, the answer to this question is less obvious than you’d think.

Friendly Atheist has the story of Mary Linklater, former choir director at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, who was sexually harassed by her pastor and another prominent church member; complained; was cruelly retaliated against and eventually fired; sued; and won. The church is now appealing the judgment…

…on the basis of the “Ministerial Exception” — the legal principle that, because of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, religious employers have more leeway in hiring and firing than secular employers do, and can hire and fire based on religious criteria.

I’ll say that again.

The Prince of Peace Lutheran Church is claiming, in court, that resisting the unwanted sexual overtures of your pastor and boss is a “religious criteria.” They are arguing that screwing the pastor when he asks you to is part of the religious doctrine they adhere to, and that they have the right to fire someone who doesn’t adhere to it.

That’s sure what it looks like to me, anyway.

What gets to me isn’t just the grotesque immorality of this position. I mean, of course, yes, that does get to me. But by now the idea that some religious leaders are repulsively unethical hypocrites, claiming a superior morality from their supposed special relationship with God while behaving in ways that a psychopathic chimp would find ethically revolting… this is so common that it barely registers on my radar anymore.

What gets to me is that this is their public, legal defense. This isn’t just how they rationalize their behavior to themselves, in the privacy of their brains, in the dark night of their purported souls. This is what they’re saying in public, the position they’re officially and openly painting themselves with. They apparently have no idea what a massive P.R. disaster this defense could be. Their rationalization is so deeply rooted, they seem to have no idea what it might look like to other people — parishioners, other church employees, the public at large — to insist that the right to sexually harass their staff and retaliate when they complain is a religious freedom, a doctrine of their faith that they have the right to expect their employees to comply with, guaranteed them by the First Amendment.

It reminds me all too well of the Catholic Church, arguing in court that they have a First Amendment/ freedom of religion right to discipline their priests as they see fit, and to assign and re-assign priests as they see fit… including shuffling child-molesting priests around the country to shield them from arrest and prosecution.

I mean, think about it. Is that really the position you want to be arguing? That shielding religious leaders who commit crimes — especially sexual abuse crimes — is part of your religious expression, a tenet of your faith that you have every right to practice? Even if by some freakish twist you win the court case… is that really what you want to be telling the world about your faith?

Or perhaps, would you rather tell the world, “We are so sorry this happened, this is not who we are or what we stand for, we ask your forgiveness and will do whatever we can to make up for it?”

I’m just sayin, is all.

Sexual Harassment or Religious Freedom?

Atheist Meme of the Day: Death Without Wishful Thinking

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheism does have comfort to offer in the face of death. Among other things, it offers the idea that, whatever philosophy of death you have, it’s not based on wishful thinking or false hope, but on the best understanding of reality available. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Death Without Wishful Thinking

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheism Is Not an Excuse for Immorality

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheism does not free people to do whatever selfish or immoral acts they want. The basics of human ethics are almost certainly hard-wired into our brains from millions of years of evolution as social animals — and atheists have that wiring as much as anybody else. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheism Is Not an Excuse for Immorality

Haiti and the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort

I’m finding it hard to say anything about Haiti that hasn’t already been said. I’m even finding it hard to say anything about Pat Robertson’s comments about Haiti that hasn’t already been said. I may have something to say about it all in a few days. But for now, I just want to say this:

Atheists/ humanists/ other godless people who want to donate to Haiti earthquake relief through a secular humanist organization: SHARE, the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort, is now accepting donations directed to the Haiti relief effort. The money gets sent to Doctors Without Borders, who you can also donate to directly if you prefer. And Partners In Health is an amazing organization that already has a good, up-and-running infrastructure in place in Haiti to help people who need help.

I don’t need to tell you what the people in Haiti are going through. Please do whatever you can to help.

Haiti and the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort

Atheist Meme of the Day: God's Power /= God's Goodness

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

“God created humanity, therefore people have no right to judge his actions” is a terrible argument. Parents “make” their children, but they don’t have the right to beat, starve, terrorize, neglect, or kill those children. Even if God did exist, that wouldn’t make whatever he did good simply by definition. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: God's Power /= God's Goodness

On the Ubiquity of Shaving

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

I’ve been thinking about the shaving of pubic hair.

More specifically: I’ve been thinking about a social trend I keep hearing about. If what I’m hearing is correct (and it may not be — it’s not like I’ve done a rigorous, statistically representative, peer-reviewed study on the subject), then shaving and/or trimming pubic hair has become fairly standard among the new generation of sexually active adults. (At least in the U.S. and Europe.) It’s become understood, apparently, that pretty much everyone shaves or at least trims their pubic hair, as just a normal part of modern civilized grooming procedures.

And I have very mixed feelings about this.

First, let me spell this out up front: I have absolutely no issues with the shaving of pubic hair itself. I have some personal aesthetic and erotic opinions about it; but as a socio- politico- sexual phenomenon, participated in or not by other people who I’m not having sex with, I have no opinion about it whatsoever. I consider it an entirely private, none- of- my- business decision. (And even my personal aesthetic and erotic opinions about it are pretty non-committal, amounting to, “Yeah, shaved or trimmed is nice, but it’s not that big a deal, it’s really fine either way.”)

My mixed feelings aren’t about shaving itself. They’re about the degree to which shaving has become de rigueur.

(If indeed that’s true. See disclaimer above.)

Chasing Cool
My initial reaction is to be against it. I don’t like the idea of any specific form of sexual expression being de rigueur. I think that sex is too personal, and too important, for it to be controlled by the whims of fashion. I don’t like the idea of people shaving their pubic hair just because all the cool kids are doing it… any more than I like the idea of people doing bondage, or having three-ways, or saving their virginity for marriage, just because all the cool kids are doing it. Sex is too special for that — and people’s sexualities are too unique, and too idiosyncratic, for that.

Shaved and depraved
And I have issues with what I strongly suspect is the source of this trend: namely, mainstream commercial porn. I hate the idea of porn being the trendsetter, the sexual yardstick by which our sexual activity is measured. The sex in mainstream commercial porn is highly exaggerated; it’s choreographed primarily to look good on camera, not to feel good for the participants; it focuses largely on male pleasure at the expense of female pleasure; and it’s standardized to an almost ritualistic degree that would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Porn is not sex education. It scares and saddens me to think of an entire generation of sexually active adults getting their ideas about what is and isn’t normal/ acceptable/ desirable in sex from porn.

So. All that bugs me.

But. Yet. On the other hand.

I will also say this:

I like the casualness that the standardness of pubic shaving reveals. I like how it treats genitals as just another body part, like armpits or legs or faces — just another body part that people shave or trim to make themselves more sexually appealing. I think this shows a healthy, relaxed attitude towards sex: an attitude that treats one’s genitals as an integral part of one’s body, and sex as an integral part of one’s life.

Swept away
And I like the way it treats sex as important and valuable, worth preparing for ahead of time. As I’ve written before: The idea that sex always has to be completely spontaneous in order to be truly valuable, and that preparing or planning for sex makes it antiseptic and lifeless… it’s one of the most pernicious sexual myths we have. If the new generation of sexually active adults is showing the value they place on sex, and their willingness to take responsibility for it, by grooming their genitals for sex ahead of time — not just for special occasions, but as a matter of everyday practice — then maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I’m not wild about the idea of it becoming de rigueur. But then, I’m not wild about the fact that women have to shave our legs and armpits if we don’t want to be seen as crunchy granola hippies or bomb-throwing radicals. Or that men have to cut their hair and shave or at least trim their beards if they don’t want to be seen as… well, as crunchy granola hippies or bomb-throwing radicals.

And I’ve nevertheless come to terms with it. I get that dress and grooming are languages, symbols we use to signal our segment of society and to express our attitudes towards it. And I get that that this language shifts over time, in much the same way that regular language shifts over time. If the meaning of pubic shaving is changing — socially and erotically — from “weird kinky fetish” to “porn star slutty” to “standard for sexually active young cosmopolitan adults”… well, it’s not that much weirder than the way the meaning of makeup changed in the last century or so, from “prostitute” to “daring and fashionable” to “respectable and conventional.”

So I’m not wild about the idea of pubic shaving becoming de rigueur. So what. I wasn’t wild about bell-bottoms coming back into style, either. If pubic shaving is becoming a standard part of the sexual language — and if what’s being said in that language is, “Sex is a normal and integral part of our lives, and it’s a valuable part that’s worth taking some time to prepare for” — I think I can live with that.

On the Ubiquity of Shaving

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Believe In Things

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

“People who believe in nothing will believe in anything” is a terrible argument against atheism. Atheists believe in things: kindness, fairness, honesty, truth, love, etc. We just don’t believe in supernatural entities that affect the physical world. And we don’t need that particular belief to be good people with strong ethics. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Believe In Things

The Immorality of Heaven

Paradiso dore
So let’s say atheists are wrong. Let’s say there is a God, and there are places of permanent perfect bliss/ permanent absolute torture waiting for us after we die, and if God decides we’re good enough we’ll get to go to the former.

Is that something we would even want?

I’m not talking about the question of whether Heaven would get tedious; whether human nature is even capable of experiencing conflict-free, obstacle-free bliss into infinity. (Although I do think that’s a valid question.) I’m talking about something else. I’m asking: Could Heaven really be Heaven if we knew that Hell existed, and that people were suffering in it?

Especially if some of those people were people we loved?

William lane craig
This came up in a post on Ebonmuse’s Daylight Atheism blog. Ebon was talking about Christian theologian and apologist William Lane Craig, and a question that was directed to him about this very topic. The querant asked whether God shielded people in Heaven from knowledge of their loved ones who are burning in eternal damnation… and if so, by taking away that knowledge, how was that not taking away our free will? But, the question continued, if we did have knowledge of our loved ones who were being permanently tortured in Hell, how could we be happy in heaven? He said — entirely reasonably, in my opinion:

I would never forget that I had a child and wish to be with them in the afterlife unless God specifically altered my mind… I also find it hard to come to terms with your later assertion that my love and joy in being in the presence of the Lord would make me not care about my loved ones burning in hell… I am just having trouble imagining myself so happy that I just don’t think about my child who is burning in eternal damnation.

The writing of Craig that prompted this question:

It is possible that the very experience itself of being in the immediate presence of Christ (cf. the beatific vision) will simply drive from the minds of His redeemed any awareness of the lost in hell. So overwhelming will be His presence and the love and joy which it inspires that the knowledge of the damned will be banished from the consciousness of God’s people. In such a case, the redeemed would still have such knowledge, but they would never be conscious of it and so never pained by it.

His response to this letter begins (after a little opening background):

My first option suggests that it is possible that God removes from the minds of the redeemed any knowledge of the damned. It seems to me that so doing is merciful and involves no wrong-doing on God’s part. You object, Eric, that God would violate the free will of redeemed persons were He to take such action. I don’t see that this implication follows. God’s respecting human free will has to do with moral decision-making. God will not cause you to take one morally significant choice rather than another. He leaves it up to you. But obviously God limits our freedom in many morally neutral ways. He has so situated me that I cannot, for example, choose to begin speaking Vietnamese or to fly about by flapping my arms. My freedom is circumscribed in innumerable such ways. None of this violates my integrity as a moral agent. My morally significant decisions are still up to me. Similarly, if God removes from the redeemed knowledge of the damned, including knowledge of loved ones that are damned, He does not violate the moral integrity or free will of the persons involved, any more than if He had removed their knowledge of calculus. At least I’ve yet to see any argument that removing such knowledge violates free will in the morally significant way which is at issue.

And then he continues:

The second option I find even more appealing: the redeemed do retain knowledge of the fate of the damned but they are not conscious of it. When you think about it, we’re not conscious of most of what we know. This alternative suggests that the experience of being in Christ’s immediate presence will be so overwhelming for the redeemed that they will not think of the damned in hell. You reply that you can’t imagine yourself being so happy that you don’t think of your child who is damned. Well, to help stretch your imagination a bit, imagine an experience of pain — say, having your leg amputated on the battlefield without anesthetic — which is so intense that it drives out awareness of anything else. In such a condition you wouldn’t be thinking of your child at all. Now substitute for that pain-awareness a feeling of joy and elation, but immeasurably more intense and enthralling. That’s the beatific vision of the redeemed in heaven! It’s not at all implausible, it seems to me, that such an experience would preclude your bringing the painful knowledge of your child’s fate to mind.

And I was so appalled, I could barely find words.

Let’s recap Craig’s hypothesis. The experience of Christ’s presence will be so overwhelming that we won’t care about the people we love. We either won’t remember them, or we’ll be too blissed-out on the presence of Jesus to devote even a corner of our consciousness to thinking about them.

And how exactly will we be ourselves, then?

My thoughts and feelings about the people I love are a central, crucial part of what makes me who I am. The best part, arguably. It is impossible to imagine me being me without the part of me that loves people and cares about what happens to them. And that doesn’t just include my friends and family. I have love for people I don’t know: compassion and empathy for people I will never meet, but whose suffering I nevertheless feel, and whose lives I want to make better even if they’ll never know about it. It is a central part of who I am, and it is one of the best parts.

And Craig thinks that in heaven, this part of me will just disappear?

He thinks that if I’m a good person in God’s eyes, God will reward me by eradicating the best and most central part of who I am?

And he thinks that’s a good thing?

But in some ways, it gets even worse.

Let’s talk about the supposed “moral neutrality” of this conception of Heaven. Let’s talk about the notion that denying us the knowledge of the people we love, so we don’t have to be troubled by their suffering, is somehow the moral equivalent of denying us the knowledge of how to speak Vietnamese.

How quickly can I shoot this slow, stupid fish in this very small barrel?

Clasped hands
Compassion for others is supposedly a central part of Christianity and Christian morality. (It’s a central part of every other system of morality, too; but let’s set that aside for the moment.) To know that other people are suffering, and to feel moved to do something about it by our sense of connection and brotherhood with them, is supposedly the essence of Christian love.

And yet somehow, our heavenly reward for living this caring life of Christian love and brotherhood is that we get to have that experience permanently stripped from us after we die. Our reward for our magnificent Christian compassion is that we don’t have to be burdened with it anymore.

And this is somehow morally neutral? Destroying the lynchpin of human morality — our compassion for others, based on our knowledge of their suffering and our desire to alleviate it — has no more moral impact than destroying our knowledge of how to do calculus?

How does that work, exactly?

Brave new world
If anyone else dealt with someone’s anguish over the suffering of their loved ones by permanently drugging them into a blissed-out state of ignorant catatonia, we’d be morally repulsed. In the novel Brave New World, the government that does it is considered an archetype of inhuman, soul-crushing evil. Why is it any different when God does it?

What is wrong with these people, anyway? Do they even hear themselves? Do they know what they sound like?


Now obviously, this isn’t an argument for why religion is mistaken and atheism is correct. As I’ve pointed out many times: We can’t decide what is and isn’t true based on what we want to be true. There are excellent arguments against the plausibility of the afterlife — and indeed, if any given afterlife is logically contradictory (as this one certainly seems to be), that’s one of the stronger arguments against it. But if Heaven and Hell were real, my not liking how they’re set up would not be an argument against them.

That’s not my point.

My point is this:

One of the most common defenses of religion is that it’s comforting. It’s emotionally and psychologically useful. It helps get people through the day. So who cares if it’s not real? If the belief that they’ll see their dead loved ones in Heaven helps people endure the grief of their loss… then what difference does it make if it isn’t, you know, true?

But it turns out that this belief isn’t so comforting after all. For many believers — such as the person asking this heart-rending and completely valid question — the idea of Heaven and Hell provide not consolation, but distress. If they know their loved ones are suffering — and not just suffering a stubbed toe, but suffering the most hideous tortures imaginable, into infinity, with no hope of relief — then how can they be happy in Heaven? But if they’re somehow made to forget about their loved ones and just bliss out on Jesus, then how will they be themselves… and if they’re not themselves, then again, how can that be Heaven?

It’s something Ingrid has talked about often. (In fact, she brought it up in the comment thread on Ebon’s piece.) Her fundamentalist relatives were deeply anguished by the fact that their children and grandchildren had left the faith, and even though they believed that they themselves were going to Heaven, they had no such certainty about their families… and they kept wondering, “How can it be Heaven if our families aren’t there?” It was even worse because they felt that the probable damnation of their family was their own personal failure. In their minds, their one most crucial task was to keep their progeny in the faith, so they’d get to Heaven too — and they’d somehow failed.

So their religion, which if it did nothing else should at the very least have been a comfort to them in their old age, was instead a source of grief and despair.

If Heaven and Hell aren’t real, and the only purpose of believing in them is to provide comfort in the face of death… well, it seems to be pretty cold comfort. Atheism may seem like a second-rate solace when compared to the idea that death isn’t real and we’ll get to live forever and be perfectly happy after we die — but at least it doesn’t teach that forgetting about the people we love is a nifty idea.

And if Heaven and Hell are real? If Craig is right, and being in Heaven means that God obliterates not only the lynchpin of our morality and decency, but the central part of our selves and souls, just so we don’t have to look at the torture he’s inflicting on the people we dearly love?

Then screw that.

God can go straight to Hell.

The Immorality of Heaven

Atheist Meme of the Day: Critiques of Religion Are Fair

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

“You didn’t critique my personal religion, therefore your critique has no value” isn’t a good argument against atheist critiques of religion. Atheists are mostly interested in religion as it’s widely practiced in the world, not as practiced by a few theologians and progressive believers. Besides, we may have critiqued your religion elsewhere. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Critiques of Religion Are Fair

Greta Reading at Perverts Put Out, Sat. 1/9

Perverts put out
I’m going to be doing a reading tomorrow (Saturday) at the San Francisco sex reading series of song and story, Perverts Put Out. It’ll be me plus Meliza Bañales, Sherilyn Connelly, Stephen Elliot, Nabil Hijazi and TedPro, Philip Huang, Kirk Read, Lori Selke, and our genteel hostess Simon Sheppard. It’s at CounterPulse, 1310 Mission Street (at 9th), near the Civic Center BART station in the beautiful and historic South of Market district of San Francisco. Sliding scale of $10-$15. Start time is 7:30, and it tends to fill up and begin more or less on time, so don’t arrive fashionably late. If you’re in San Francisco, come by and say howdy!

Greta Reading at Perverts Put Out, Sat. 1/9