"Let me know if there are flaws in my reasoning": From the Mailbag

“Functionally there is no difference whether we live on this earth for hours, like some babies that die at birth, or live to see our twilight years.”

Letter 2
I get a fair amount of mail from religious believers, wanting to debate with me about things I’ve written. Back in the days when I didn’t have ten hours worth of work for every hour of spare time I had, I used to engage with these people in private email. I sometimes miss being able to do that. But I simply don’t have time anymore. And in any case, it seems like a waste of time. Why waste my efforts on just one person, when I could be sharing them with thousands? And why waste the eloquence and intellectual powers of my regular readers and commenters? (Which are, quite frequently, prodigious. I love having an army of bulldogs who can make my arguments for me, and often make better ones than I would have, at the times when I just don’t have the time and energy to get into the fray myself.)

So from now on, when I get these emails, I’ve decided to start throwing them to the wolves opening them up to vigorous public debate. I now ask my querants if it’s okay to publish their letters on my blog, and debate them publicly instead of privately. If they say yes, it’s game on. (Names will only ever be published with permission of the authors.)

Our first contestant is Aaron deOliveira, responding to my April 27 piece on AlterNet, One More Reason Religion Is So Messed Up: Respected Theologian Defends Genocide and Infanticide. Here is his letter, published in its entirety, with no edits, and no illustrations until my reply.


sorry it’s taken me this long to say anything about your post. i’ve been a lurker on your blog for a little while. the post gave me a lot to reflect on before i felt i had a suitable answer to your post. also, i’m emailing you rather than posting in the comments because the conversation there has already snaked in several directions.

i myself am LDS. i particularly enjoy talking with atheists and reading their blogs. on the whole, atheists ask very profound questions. i think it’s because they are able to be 100% critical and skeptical of religious actions whether by god or man.

so back to your post. first, lets call a stone a stone. what the Israelites did to the various people’s of Canaan was genocide. it’s functionally no different than the genocides that happened in Sudan, Bosnia/Croatia, etc. one group of people finds a reason to exterminate another group of people. anyone that argues that it was something else is being disingenuous.

so this leads us to the morality of the action. i picture god as a gardener and this earth as a garden. all the peoples of the earth are plants in this garden. by comparison, in the gardens that we till here on earth, the gardener exercises judgement over life and death frequently. he decides which plants to prune, which weeds to pull, which bugs to attracted for pollination and which to kill as pests. the garden is just as valuable to the weed’s continued existence as the flowers and the aphid is just as hungry as the bee. so why does the gardener get to decide what lives and what dies in his garden? shouldn’t he preserve all life unmolested in his garden?

the morality of the gardeners actions are usually judged by measuring against his purpose. the gardeners purpose is to raise up the best plants he can. so he naturally removes things detrimental to their development. because the gardener has designated this particular plot of land as a garden, when he exercises authority over the life and death of what is there, his actions are seen as moral because they fulfill his purpose.

if the gardener were to exercise the same authority over life and death in the wild, his actions would no longer be seen as moral. if he went into the wilderness and killed trees or destroyed animals because they didn’t please him, most people would censure the gardener for his actions even though they are functionally the same as what he does in his garden.

so coming full circle with my god as a gardener analogy. there are times where god as the creator and owner of both the earth and its inhabitants (ie. the garden) exercises authority over the life and death of those that dwell there. god’s purpose of making every inhabitant, both the committer of the genocide and the and the victim of it, into their best selves is fulfilled the same way as the gardener in the analogy.

leaving the analogy, i want to touch on something that you probably don’t accept, but is necessary in discussing god and man’s actions as they pertain to life and death. we are eternal beings. we existed before we came to this earth. we will exist long after we pass through death. functionally there is no difference whether we live on this earth for hours, like some babies that die at birth, or live to see our twilight years. life on earth is just one part of the entire spectrum of our existence.

another quick analogy to explain how god killing someone or directing that someone be killed isn’t immoral. picture every person passing through life as being on a highway. when god exercises his authority and pulls someone over, ie killing them, he does not prevent them from their destination. because of the resurrection, every person will live again and have full exercise of their life and all of its potentials. it is a generally acknowledged maxim that ‘life isn’t fair’. and yet, although it is intrinsically unfair, people don’t impute evil to life not being fair which gives rise to another maxim, ‘you play the hand your dealt’. so from these maxims we see that the length of each life and the manner in which it ends is not intrinsically immoral. because god provided the resurrection, all men, women and children will see the full potential of their lives, just in different orders. some die young and in the resurrection will live out their days. some die old and in the resurrection will receive renewed bodies to continue to become their best selves.

so does my ‘god as a gardener’ analogy hold water? let me know if there are flaws in my reasoning.

great blog.


Aaron deOliveira


Okay. I don’t really have time and energy to take this apart line by line. But I can get the ball rolling.

Yes, Aaron, I think there are flaws in your reasoning.

First, and maybe most importantly: Are you really arguing that human life has no more value than plant life? That killing an infant, or wiping out an entire race, has no more moral impact than pulling a weed?

2: Do you think that God the gardener is all-powerful? If so, why did he create weeds in the first place? Why did he create people in such a way that, in order to reach their “potential,” many of them had to suffer terribly and/or die prematurely, either by natural causes or at the hands of their fellow human beings? (Which leads back to #1: Are you really arguing that human life has no more value than plant life?)

3: If we hear voices in our heads telling us to kill people, how are we to know whether they come from God, and are therefore okay — or whether they came from from hatred/ fear/ selfishness/ desire for conquest/ psychosis, and therefore ought to be resisted? How are we to know that the Israelites really were listening to God, and therefore the command to commit genocide against the Canaanites was okay… but that Osama Bin Laden was not listening to God, and therefore the command to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center was grotesquely evil?

4: You are absolutely correct: I don’t accept the premise that life is eternal. Why do you think that premise is correct? You are coming to a moral conclusion based on this premise — namely, that mortal human life is pretty much irrelevant, and that what happens to us in the afterlife is all that really matters. If your premise is mistaken, then your conclusion is questionable at best, profoundly disturbing and morally grotesque at worst. Given that, I assume you want to be very certain indeed that your premise is correct. Do you have any good evidence to suggest that it is? Or do you simply feel it in your heart? And if the latter, again I ask: How do you know that the feelings in your heart are correct, but the feelings in the hearts of people with radically different religious beliefs from yours are mistaken? I can tell you why I don’t believe in God or an afterlife, and can even tell you what evidence would persuade me that I was mistaken. Can you do the same?

Summary: You are basically making the “mysterious ways” argument. God has a plan, and it’s not up to us to judge his plan. You say that “his [God’s] actions are seen as moral because they fulfill his purpose”… while completely punting the question of whether his purpose is moral. It’s a terrible argument for many reasons. When used as a response to truth claims and the lack of good evidence for them, it’s an evasion of the question, pure and simple. When used as a response to questions of morality, it is negating the entire concept of “good” and “evil.” (Your argument that “his [God’s] actions are seen as moral because they fulfill his purpose” is a tautology: God’s actions are moral because they fulfill God’s purpose, and God’s purpose must, by definition, be moral, because he’s God.) As I said in the piece we’re discussing: If you say that what “good” means for God is totally different from what “good” means for people — if you say that murdering infants and systematically eradicating entire races is evil for people but good for God — then you’re pretty much saying that what it means for God to be “good,” and what it means for us to be “good,” are such radically different concepts that the one has virtually nothing to do with the other. You have rendered the entire concept of “good and evil” meaningless. And I, for one, don’t want the entire concept of good and evil to be rendered meaningless.

But if you’re going to make the “mysterious ways” argument, then at least I hope you’re consistent. I hope that you never, ever, ever try to claim that anything at all happened in life because God willed it. I hope you never claim that good things happened because God made them happen. You don’t get to have it both ways: you don’t get to sometimes say that you clearly see God’s plan in your life and the lives of others, and at other times say that God moves in mysterious ways that elude us puny mortals, and we’re not competent to judge him or even understand him.

And if you are being consistent, and see God as entirely mysterious and incomprehensible, with both practical plans and moral guidelines that mean nothing to us… then what meaning does he have in your life? Are you motivated to obey him purely from fear of punishment and desire for reward? Do you see him as an unpredictable abusive parent, who hits or hugs for no reason you can discern, and whose patterns of behavior you’re desperately trying to understand so you can avoid the worst of it?

Is that really how you want to live?

So that’s my quick- and- dirty response. Readers, what have I missed here? Aaron, what do you think? Everybody, please remember the ground rules: Stay civil. Critique ideas as harshly as you like, but don’t engage in personal insults. And please don’t critique grammar, spelling, tone patrolling, or other irrelevancies: please stay focused on content. Go for it!

"Let me know if there are flaws in my reasoning": From the Mailbag

Greta Speaking at American Atheists' Rapture Party in Oakland, May 21-22

In case you haven’t heard, the end of the world is nigh. The Rapture is supposedly coming on May 21 of this year, and if you haven’t made things right with the Lord by then, it’ll be too late. (Look, he’s been very patient with us, but he has things to do, and a deadline is a deadline…)

To mark this momentous occasion, American Atheists is holding a party/ RAM (Regional Atheists Meeting) in Oakland on Rapture Weekend, May 21 – 22. And I’m going to be speaking!

Rapture party billboard you know it's nonsense

If you’re in the Bay Area, you may have seen this billboard on the approach to the Bay Bridge. “The Rapture: You KNOW it’s nonsense. 2000 Years of ‘Any Day Now.’ Learn the truth at our Rapture Party, May 21-22. atheists.org/oakland .” You may have even seen/ heard/ read the news coverage about the billboard. This is the thing the billboard is advertising! I’ll be speaking there, on the entertaining and enlivening topic, “Why Are Atheists So Angry?” Summary:

The atheist movement is often accused of being driven by anger. What are so many atheists so angry about? Is this anger legitimate? And can anger be an effective force behind a movement for social change?

Other awesome speakers will include Mr. Deity, Jen McCreight (Blag Hag), Matt Dillahunty (The Atheist Experience), Rebecca Watson (Skepchick), and many more. There’ll be stand-up comedy from Troy Conrad and Keith Lowell Jensen, as well as the fun, inspiring talks and an after- conference party. It should be a hootenanny! And it’s pretty cheap — just $49 for the entire weekend, $39 for American Atheists members (you can join when you register), and $20 for students (for advance purchases).

The party/ conference will be held at the Oakland Masonic Center at 3903 Broadway: it’s near MacArthur BART, and is wheelchair accessible. It goes from 9am to 9pm on Saturday, May 21, including lunch, dinner, and the party, and — assuming we’re all still alive by then — from 9m to 1pm on Sunday, May 22. (Lunch and dinner cost extra, but not much — just $25 for both. It’s strongly recommended that you get the meal package, since dining options in the area are limited.) It’ll be a great opportunity for community building, activism, networking and just plain fun. There’ll be planning being done for the Reason Rally, the godless march on Washington, D.C. in 2012… and more immediately, for the godless contingent at the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade this year. There’ll also be a special breakfast on Sunday morning (again, assuming Armageddon hasn’t begun), fundraising for Camp Quest West, and you’ll get to eat and schmooze with the speakers — including me! Not that I promise to be very coherent at 7:30 in the morning on a Sunday, but you’ll have the privilege of watching me fall asleep into my French toast. (Tickets for the breakfast are limited, so if you want to attend, register now.)

Sounds like a good time? It will be! So register for the conference. party now! Hope to see you there!

Greta Speaking at American Atheists' Rapture Party in Oakland, May 21-22

No-Strings Sex, Disappointing Love, and Asking the Wrong Questions

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, for reasons that now escape me. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

Casual sex
If you’ve given up on romantic love, is no-strings sex a viable option?

I don’t usually write this column as an advice column. But I make occasional exceptions. And last week, someone wrote a comment in this blog asking for advice… a comment that I (a) felt compelled to answer, and (b) couldn’t answer in just a few words. (Link to original comment no longer available, since the Blowfish Blog archives have gone missing.)

The commenter had responded to a call for sexually-themed New Year’s resolutions by saying that she’d had a terrible experience with someone she met on the Internet, someone she’d traveled across the world to be worth who turned out to be, shall we say, unworthy of her affections. She had vowed to never get emotionally attached to a man again. And she asked this:

So this puts me in a quandary: how “palatable” to a potential male partner would I be if I told him I just wanted some awesome sex without a relationship or any bullshit “I love you’s” that we both know he probably doesn’t mean anyway, and if he does, he only means it when it’s convenient for him to truly love me?

For the moment, I’m going to set aside the question of whether it was wise for this commenter to uproot her life for the sake of an Internet romance with someone in another country thousands of miles away. (Actually… no, I’m not. I’m going to address that question right now; it’s a moot point for this particular questioner, but it may not be for someone else reading this. No, this is not a wise move. Internet romances can be great and do sometimes lead to successful physical-world romances; but they have to be treated with great skepticism, serious caution, and very careful timing. And the farther you have to travel for them, the more true that is. As Dan Savage has said: If you fly across the country or across the world to meet the virtual love of your life, don’t treat it as romantic destiny — treat it as an adventure, and frame it so you’ll have a good time on your trip even if your lover turns out to be a loser. If you uproot your entire life for someone in another country you’ve never met… well, it sucks if they turn out to be a jerk, but you’re the one who uprooted your life for someone you didn’t really know, so yes, you do bear some responsibility. Also, play it every bit as safely as you would if you were meeting an Internet date in your home town: meet in public for the first time, and make sure someone you know knows where you are and how to reach you.)

No strings attached
Anyway. Back to the question at hand. If the question were simply, “Are there men who want casual, non-romantic sex with no strings attached?” the answer would have to be a vigorous, “Yes! Of course! What planet have you been living on that you even have to ask that question? The world is loaded with men who would treat this offer as a gift from every god they’d ever imagined. And while some of these men are selfish game-players, others are decent, ethical men who’ll be as honest with you as they can about what they do and don’t have to give. Be careful — but go for it.”

But I don’t think that’s the right question here.

I don’t think that’s the question I should be answering.

The question I think I should be answering is one that this commenter didn’t ask. It’s one that she assumed she knew the answer to. And I think the answer she’s come up with is wrong — seriously wrong.

The question I think I should be answering is, “Since I got my heart broken by a lying jerk, should I assume that love is always a lie, give up on romantic love forever, and just get my sexual needs met with no-strings sex?”

The answer to that question is a vigorous “No.”

Liar liar
First of all, this assumption is just flatly not true. Not every man who says “I love you” is lying, and not every man pursues love purely for their own convenience. Not even most men do that. It sucks that this happened to you; but as they say in the sciences, you can’t draw a general conclusion from just one data point. It probably makes sense for you to hold off on an LTR right now, while you’re still feeling raw and demoralized — but vowing to never again get emotionally attached to a man because of one crummy experience is a recipe for unhappiness. (If nothing else, you’ll get hosed by confirmation bias — your assumptions will lead you to ignore decent men who treat women well, and focus your attention on selfish, deceitful schmucks.)

But more pertinently to the question at hand:

This assumption is going to seriously interfere with a satisfying no-strings sex life.

For no-strings sex to work, you need to feel happy about sex. You need to feel happy — at least potentially happy, willing and able to be happy — about the people you’re having sex with. And you need to feel happy about yourself. You need to see no-strings sex as something positive you’re pursuing for its own benefits, and for your own reasons. You can’t treat no-strings sex as second-rate, something you’re settling for because you’ve given up on what you really want. Not if you want to have a good time doing it.

Let me put it this way. Back in my late twenties and early thirties, I did some serious catting around. I was happily single, and I made it clear to everyone I dated that, while I was interested in sex and even friendship, a serious romantic relationship was out of the question. I wasn’t just happy to meet women who wanted no-strings sex — I only wanted women who wanted no-strings sex.

And yet, if I’d dated a woman who was looking for no-strings sex because she’d been so badly burned by love that she’d vowed never to try that again? If I’d dated a woman who only wanted no-strings sex because she knew that love was bullshit, and that if I said “I love you” I’d only be lying anyway, so she didn’t want to hear it?

Every single one of my red flags would have gone up.

That doesn’t sound like any fun at all.

I am entirely in favor of no-strings sex for people who genuinely want it. I think there are lots of excellent reasons to want no-strings sex. I even think that “I recently got out of a relationship, and I want sex but I’m not ready for another big commitment right now” is a pretty okay reason. And while I am a great lover of love, I don’t think serious romantic relationships are right for everybody all the time. I think there are people who would be happier being single — some temporarily, some permanently. We don’t all have to do relationships the same way.

But if you’re pursuing no-strings sex out of bitterness, cynicism, anger, hurt feelings, and a generally bleak view of romance, sex, and the gender(s) you’re attracted to… the chances of it resulting in “awesome sex” are very slim indeed.

At best, you’re going to have some sad, disconnected, unsatisfying sex. You’ll probably get a lot of rejection, too: from guys who are insulted at the assumption that they’re probably liars, and/or who find the prospect of sex with disappointed, pessimistic women to be less than alluring. And at worst, you’re going to make yourself vulnerable to some serious assholes. (Think of the kind of guy who’ll meet you and think, “Hey, she’s bitter and unhappy about men and has given up on love — I bet she’ll put out.” Is that the kind of guy you want to be sleeping with? Forget whether they’d be safe or trustworthy — do you think they’re going to be any fun in the sack?)

In a lot of ways, no-strings sex can be emotionally harder than long-term relationship sex. At least, it’s a different kind of hard. You have to date more people, put yourself out into the world more. You have to date a lot of frogs… and you have to date a lot of people who are going to think you’re a frog. You have to be willing to suffer a lot of rejection — and to do a lot of rejecting yourself. You have to be in a pretty strong, self-confident place for that to work.

And it doesn’t sound like you’re in that place right now.

I don’t think you need no-strings sex.

I think you need a therapist, a vibrator, and time.

Not necessarily in that order.

No-Strings Sex, Disappointing Love, and Asking the Wrong Questions

Supporting Camp Quest and Crushing PZ Myers — Round Two

Camp quest logo

Well, well, well. So PZ Myers thinks he has us licked, eh?

As I mentioned here a few days ago, we’ve started a blogging contest to see who can raise more money for Camp Quest, the kids’ camp for children of atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and other non-supernaturalists. On Team Awesome, we have me, Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist, Jen McCreight of Blag Hag, and JT Eberhard of WWJTD?.

On Team Evil Cephalopod Overlord: PZ Myers at Pharyngula, all by his lonesome self.

And so okay, fine, PZ kicked our ass. For Round One, anyway. In the rules of the initial contest, whichever team raised more money by June 1, or raised $5,000 first, would be the winner. But PZ cheated. He cheated by getting up early in the morning, and gaining the unfair advantage of many hours of valuable fundraising time before the more civilized late risers among us could get started. He cheated by being in the Central time zone and getting the jump on us West Coast folks. And he cheated by using the patently unfair advantage of having more readers than the rest of us combined. His “team” reached $5,000 just as Team Awesome was closing the gap.

But Team Awesome will not admit defeat. We don’t know when we’ve been beaten. We don’t know when we’re winning, either. We don’t have any sort of sensory apparatus known to man.

So we are doing what any amoral atheists with no reason to care about right and wrong would do: We are moving the goalposts. We are changing the rules in the middle of the game. We are — grudgingly — conceding that PZ has won Round One… and have unilaterally decided that the real winner will be whichever team has raised more money for Camp Quest by June 1, 2011. (The race is not always to the swift, my tentacled friend…) And we’re proving ourselves to be clever and devious beyond PZ’s wildest imaginings — and are adding new members to our fundraising team! Already, Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism has thrown his hat into the ring. And still more reinforcements and secret weapons are being worked on, even as we speak. (Any other bloggers who want to join Team Awesome, drop me an email, at greta at gretachristina dot com.)

So help support Camp Quest… and support Team Awesome when you do! Click on the Chipin widget below, and spend the rest of your day basking in the knowledge that you have not only helped support an eminently worthy and fun cause, but that you have struck a blow for the underdogs. Cute, fluffy, tail-wagging underdogs who want to be your friend.

Oh, right. The actual cause we’re raising money for. You probably want to know a little more about that, don’t you?

If you’re not familiar with them, Camp Quest is the first residential summer camp in the history of the United States aimed at the children of Atheists, Freethinkers, Humanists, Brights, or whatever other terms might be applied to those who hold to a naturalistic, not supernatural world view. The purpose of Camp Quest is to provide children of freethinking parents a residential summer camp dedicated to improving the human condition through rational inquiry, critical and creative thinking, scientific method, self-respect, ethics, competency, democracy, free speech, and the separation of religion and government.

The nontheist community offers many programs for adults, but very few for children. To provide a future for our values we need to provide freethinking families with a place for their kids to find community, develop critical thinking skills, and learn ethics and values. Fortunately, that is what Camp Quest is all about. Well, that, and all of the summer camp fun that you can pack into a week.

Camp Quest builds a community for children and teenagers from atheist, agnostic, humanist and other freethinking families. They provide campers a place to explore their developing worldviews, ask questions, and make friends in an environment supportive of critical thinking and skepticism. Camp Quest is open to campers from all backgrounds. They encourage campers to think for themselves, be comfortable with who they are, and engage respectfully with people who have different views.

And yes, Camp Quest is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, and donations are tax deductible.

You can help support this awesome cause, strengthen the future of the atheist community… and help stave off the crushing arms of PZ’s cephalopod army! Just click on the handy Chipin widget. That number again:

Supporting Camp Quest and Crushing PZ Myers — Round Two

Diversity in the Atheist Movement: Video of AHA Panel with Me, Jen McCreight, and Debbie Goddard

Aha logo
About a month ago, I was part of a panel discussion on “Diversity in the Atheist Movement,” along with Jen McCreight and Debbie Goddard, at the American Humanist Association conference. (It was part of the Secular Student Alliance’s leadership track at the conference.) For those of you who’ve been asking about it, there’s now video of the event!

The three of us each give short talks — Jen on women in the atheist movement, Debbie on people of color, and me on LGBT folks — and then there’s Q&A afterward. I got a lot out of the conversation — Jen and Debbie both had stuff to say that I hadn’t thought about before, and all three of us are fun and interesting to listen to — and I hope you will, too. (Video below the jump, since putting it above the jump mucks up my archives.) Enjoy!

Continue reading “Diversity in the Atheist Movement: Video of AHA Panel with Me, Jen McCreight, and Debbie Goddard”

Diversity in the Atheist Movement: Video of AHA Panel with Me, Jen McCreight, and Debbie Goddard

A Crisis of Faithlessness

So I had this miniature crisis of faith a few weeks ago — “crisis of faithlessness” would maybe be more accurate — and I’m wondering if any other atheist activists have experienced anything like this, and if so, how you’ve dealt with it.

Scarlet letter
It wasn’t about the atheism per se. It wasn’t about thinking atheism wasn’t correct and maybe God was real. Not even a little. I haven’t had a serious moment of doubt about my atheism in quite a while. In my last four years as an atheist activist, I’ve engaged more with religious believers, and have thought more about religious belief, than I have in the forty-five years before… and it’s done nothing to make me change my mind about my atheism. Quite the opposite. Years of seeing the same terrible arguments for God again and again and again; years of seeing religious believers slip and dodge and evade when asked what exactly they believe and why; years of seeing believers try to shut atheists up and stop our arguments before we’ve even begun them; years of seeing believers get hostile and combative at the mere fact of atheists saying out loud, “We’re atheists”; years of seeing believers say, out loud, in actual words, that it doesn’t matter whether the things they believe are true as long as it makes them feel good… these years have made me more certain about my atheism than ever. They have given me a vivid image of religion as a massive fortress protecting a house of cards: the ideas themselves weak and flimsy to the point of being pathetic, all the power of it lying in protecting the ideas from any sort of careful attention.

The crisis wasn’t about my atheism. It was about my atheist activism.

My crisis of faithlessness happened during that awful, awful week. You know. The one with the earthquake in Japan, and the union-busting in Wisconsin, and the war in Libya, and absolutely everything stupid and horrible in Congress.

I was reeling under that week like everyone else… and part of me was thinking, “With all this horrible shit going on in the world, why do I care whether people believe in God? So much so that I’m devoting the bulk of my professional life to trying to talk them out of it?” I spent that terrible week reading about war, and tsunamis, and possible nuclear meltdowns, and Planned Parenthood maybe getting defunded, and the erosion of one of the last remaining weapons working people have against the increasingly powerful and corrupt plutocracy, and on and on and on and on and on… and it made it kind of hard to get seriously worked up about Pascal’s Wager.

I don’t want to alarm you. It’s not like I was seriously contemplating an immediate change of career, or even an eventual one. I was just having a momentary moment of being overwhelmed by the suckage of the world, and feeling helpless about it, and wondering if I was putting my limited energy where it could do the most good.


San francisco crazy road sign
I realize, of course, that no matter what cause I devoted my life to, there would still be eighty thousand other causes demanding my attention, and making my one little cause feel trivial. If I devoted my life to, say, unionizing and labor rights instead of atheism, I still might have been spending that terrible week wondering, “Shouldn’t I be fighting to save birth control? Fighting against aggressive imperialist wars in volatile regions? Fighting against unsafe nuclear power plants being built on, for fuck’s sake, earthquake fault lines?” No matter what path we take, it means not taking eighty thousand other paths… and sometimes one of those eighty thousand paths can suddenly seem extremely important, or even just really interesting. That doesn’t mean we should suddenly switch gears. Of course we should be willing to re-think our choices in life — but if we keep hopping from path to path depending on the flare-up of the moment, we’ll never get anywhere.

When it comes to picking our battles, I think that, to some extent, we have to do what we’re inspired to do, and what we’re good at, and what we think is fun. I mean, it’s not like I think that people in the labor movement are dilettantes for not working on reproductive rights, or that people in the reproductive rights movement are dilettantes for not working on poverty in Africa, or that people in the anti-poverty movement are dilettantes for not working on global climate change. And I don’t think I’m a dilettante for working on atheism. Atheism has caught my imagination. I’m not sure I entirely understand why (although I have some ideas), but it has. I’m inspired to work in this movement; I’m good at it; I think it’s so far beyond fun that I sometimes just burst with excitement about it and have to get up from my computer to do a little happy-dance. I don’t entirely understand why… but I don’t feel that way about other political movements. Awesomely important though they are. And getting involved in a movement that isn’t fun and exciting for you is a sure recipe for burnout.

What’s more, atheism is a fight where I can make a difference. In a way that I can’t do nearly as much in other fights. If for no other reason: I’m already in this movement, and I already have a respected voice in it. And the fact that I care so much about this movement, the fact that I find it so inspiring and fun, is of course a huge part of why I’m good at it… and the fact that I’m good at it is a huge part of why I can make an impact in it.

And maybe most importantly? This is a fight that, in the long run, I think has potential — maybe a seriously large potential — to help with these other fights.

History book cover#1#
I mean — if we win? If in a hundred years, even half the world population has stopped believing in religion? If in two hundred years, almost nobody does? If in three or four or five hundred years, historians are writing about religion as a fascinating relic of human history, the way we now write about geocentrism or the theory of the four bodily humours?

How much of a game-changer would that be?

How different would the world be… not just about religion, but about sexism and science education and same-sex marriage and reproductive rights and eighty thousand other areas of life that religion fucks up?

It’s not like I think the spread of atheism will bring the dawn of a Utopia, a new age of reason in which critical thinking is king and humanist values are treasured by all. Human nature is what it is, and even if religion completely disappeared from the human mindset and became a historical relic, people will still be wired with cognitive errors we evolved a hundred thousand years ago to help us find food and escape from predators, and we’ll still believe silly things for no good reason. Atheism isn’t going to make that go away. (There are way too many atheists who believe silly things for me to convince myself of that.)

But I do think that a huge number of the world’s greatest ills are made far worse, and in some cases are directly caused, by religion. I think religious belief, by its very nature, is a bad influence on humanity, one that does significantly more harm than good. I don’t think the world would be perfect without religion… but I do think it would be better.

And to get back to my specific point: I think that, without religion in the world, or even with less religion in the world, a lot of these other fights I’m talking about would be a whole lot easier. In some cases, they might not need to be happening at all. Without religion, homophobia would be a lot less rampant. Without religion, sexism would be a lot less rampant. Without religion, the U.S. wouldn’t be freaking out over government funding of birth control. Without religion, the Middle East wouldn’t be such a freaking mess. Without religion, we might even be less vulnerable to manipulation of irrational fears and false hopes by disgustingly rich fuckers trying to get even richer. I think the atheist movement has the potential, in the long run and maybe even the medium run, to make a serious dent in all these other issues I care about, and to be a positive force for the human race.

So no. I’m not going anywhere. I just need to question these things now and then, is all. After all, when I do this work, I’m asking other people to question some of their most fundamental ideas and assumptions about their lives and the world. I’d be a pretty big hypocrite if I wasn’t willing to periodically question my own.

And Pascal’s Wager still sucks.

A Crisis of Faithlessness