Their Right To Not Say It: Free Speech and the Unitarian Atheist Ad Kerfuffle

Does the Unitarian Church magazine have the right — not just the legal right, but the moral right — to reject an ad from an atheist organization, an ad that criticizes religion and asks people to reject it?

Uu world
You might have heard about the recent kerfuffle, in which UU World — the free denominational magazine for the Unitarian Universalist Association — printed a paid ad (PDF) from the Freedom From Religion Foundation… and then, in response to complaints from some readers, apologized for the ad, said that it was a mistake to run it, and is declining to run it again.

Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist has objected vociferously to this decision, saying (I’m summarizing here) that the decision goes against the UU’s purported commitment to religious freedom and diversity of ideas, and is an unreasonable squashing of atheist expression in a forum that should be open to it.

I’m going to go out on a limb here.

I’m going to disagree with Hemant, and with other atheists who have criticized the UU over this.

I’m going to defend the church.

Theres probably no god
It’s easy to draw the obvious parallel between the Unitarian Universalists’ decision, and the ongoing controversies over atheist bus ads that bus companies keep trying to find feeble excuses to reject. That’s the most obvious context that this kerfuffle took place in, and I can see why people who got irate over the bus ad controversies might jump to irateness at the Unitarian Church.

But there are two enormous differences between these situations: differences that make the situations not parallel at all. Tangential, in fact. Maybe even perpendicular.

One: The magazine of the Unitarian Universalists is a private publication, expressing the viewpoint of a private organization.

You can be good without god
Public buses are… well, public. They’re supported, at least in part, by taxpayer dollars. The rules that apply to them and their ad policies are therefore more stringent. They’re supposed to have consistent ad policies which they apply fairly, across the board, to anyone who wants to advertise, regardless of whether the company agrees with the message. If they rent ad space to churches saying, “Christianity is cool,” then they have to rent ad space to atheist organizations saying, “Atheism is cool.”

That’s a pretty solid legal principle. And I think it’s a good moral principle as well. Publication spaces that belong to all citizens should provide equal access for all citizens.

But a private organization is under no such obligation. Its publications don’t belong to all citizens. They belong to the organization, to publish its own opinions and views.

Yes, there are laws about public accommodations and such, and businesses that are open to the public can’t reject customers based on race, gender, religion, and so on. But this principle is balanced by the First Amendment right of publications to control their content. Even large, publicly-sold, widely-read magazines have the right to reject ads whose content they think is offensive or in direct opposition to their mission. (As someone who’s tried to place ads for a sex toy company in the New Yorker… believe me, I know.) And an internal magazine of a private organization has pretty close to free rein. They are under no obligation whatsoever to accept an ad whose content is explicitly hostile to their central function.

Legally — or morally.

Which brings me to:

Two: The content of this particular ad was actively hostile to religion.

Don't believe in god? you are not alone
This wasn’t one of those kinder, gentler atheist bus ads saying something like, “You can be good without God,” or, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone,” or even, “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The message of this ad was not, “Hey, there are other atheists out there, it’s okay to be an atheist, atheists can be good and happy people.”

Twain ffrf ad
The message of this ad was, ‘Religion sucks.”

And it is entirely reasonable for a church magazine to decline an ad with the message, “Religion sucks.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. This is a message I more or less agree with. Some of the specific quotes are ones I might quibble with… but I basically agree with the message that religion (a) isn’t true and (b) on the whole does more harm than good. I’m not saying that the FFRF were bad people for trying to run this ad.

I’m saying that the Unitarian Universalists were also not bad people for rejecting it. It was totally reasonable for them to reject it. In their place, I probably would have done the same.

Let me put it this way. Would it be reasonable for the magazine of an atheist organization — or an atheist blog, for that matter — to reject an ad saying, “Atheism is immoral, atheists will be condemned to hell if they don’t repent, the only true path is the path of Jesus”?

And if that would be reasonable — then why are this church’s actions any different?

Who says god doesnt like science
I actually ran into this very situation myself a while back. The United Church of Christ was running an ad campaign plugging themselves as a science-friendly church, with the tag line, “Science and faith are not mutually exclusive.” It’s a message that I ultimately don’t agree with, that I pretty strongly don’t agree with (I think religion and science can uneasily co-exist, but are fundamentally different approaches to understanding the world that will eventually conflict). And after much searching of my non-existent soul, I decided to reject the ad.

I’ve since come up with a different solution. I’ve put an “Ads Don’t Necessarily Reflect My Views” disclaimer above my ad space (thanks to Ebonmuse for that suggestion!), and I now would probably accept the UCC ad with that disclaimer in place. But I think I was entirely within my rights — not just legally, but ethically — to reject an ad in my personal, “this is what Greta thinks” free-speech space that I felt ran completely counter to one of my most central values.

And I think the same holds true for the Unitarian Church.

The Unitarian Church is… well, it’s a church. Yes, it’s a church with a pretty lukewarm and inconclusive position on the existence of God. But it is a church, and at least part of its mission is to provide a home and a place of worship for people who believe in God. Religion is a central part of its mission. It is under no obligation to provide space in its own publications for the message that religion is a terrible institution that should be done away with.

There’s an old saying that free speech advocates use a lot: “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Well, that applies here. If the Unitarian Universalists don’t want to say “Religion sucks” in their in-house magazine… well, I may not agree with what they don’t want to say, but I’ll defend to the death their right to not say it.

Finally, and maybe most importantly:

If we atheists are going to be ethically consistent — if we’re going to be models for the principle that you really can be good without God — then we have to not be reflexive cheerleaders for people who are on our side. We have to judge these questions, not by choosing up sides between atheists and non-atheists, but on the basis of the ethical principles involved.*

In the coming decades, there are going to be a lot of conflicts between atheists and believers. And the atheists aren’t always going to be right. We’ll have a lot more credibility if we don’t always stand up for the atheists… and, instead, always try to stand up for what’s right.

*(To be both fair and clear, I don’t think Hemant is doing that. He’s shown himself plenty willing to criticize atheists when he thinks it’s warranted. I’m talking about general principles here — not Hemant’s particular arguments.)

Their Right To Not Say It: Free Speech and the Unitarian Atheist Ad Kerfuffle

Race, Gender, and Atheism, Part 2: What We Need To Do — And Why

Black scarlet letter
So what can atheists do about the race and gender imbalance in our movement?

And why should we care?

In yesterday’s post, I asked the question, “Why is the atheist movement so predominantly white and male?” I talked about how, even with the best of intentions, a largely white male community can become a self- fulfilling prophecy. I talked about unconscious bias, and the tendency of a group to focus on the concerns of the people who currently dominate that group. And I talked about how the longer a community stays imbalanced, the more this bias and focus get perpetuated… and how this turns into a self-perpetuating cycle, in which women and people of color don’t feel comfortable joining because the movement is already largely made up of white men.

Today, I want to talk about what — specifically — we can do about all this.

And I want to talk about why we should care.


Self fulfilling prophecy
Let’s start with what we can do about it. And let’s start with the self- fulfilling prophecy bit. Self-fulfilling prophecies can seem beyond hope: just another of those stupid hard-wired human behaviors that can’t be fixed. But that’s just not the case here. There are specific, practical steps that the currently white male- dominated atheist movement could take to derail this cycle, or at least to mitigate it. And self-perpetuating cycles can be used for the power of good as well as evil.

Outreach hand
For starters: Atheist organizations could make an effort to reach out to women and people of color, and to get the women and people of color they have now into positions of greater prominence and visibility. Atheist conference organizers could make an effort to get more women and people of color as speakers…. both speaking on issues of race/ gender, and just speaking about atheism generally. Atheist speakers’ bureaus could make an effort to recruit women and people of color. Atheist writers could make an effort to cite the contributions and ideas of female atheists and atheists of color, both from history and from the current movement. Atheist bloggers could make an effort to cite/ link to atheist blogs run by women and people of color, and to include them in their blogrolls. Atheist leaders — writers, speakers, organization leaders — could make an effort to address specific concerns of women and people of color in the atheist community. Atheists of any degree of involvement with the atheist community could speak out when they see racism and sexism in the movement. Etc.

(This is just the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who has other suggestions, please speak up in the comments.)

And as these efforts take hold and the movement becomes more inclusive, with more diversity in our leadership and our public figures, more women and people of color will feel comfortable and welcomed about joining.

Inclusivity can also be a self-perpetuating cycle.

Some organizations/ bloggers/ writers/etc. are already doing this. Good for them. More of us need to be doing it… and those of us who are doing it need to be doing it more.

The “unconscious bias” thing isn’t hopeless, either. It can also be addressed by taking positive steps to make our movement more inclusive. One of the great things about having a more diverse community is that your unconscious biases get called into question: partly just by seeing counterexamples on a regular basis, and partly because there’ll be more people around to call you on your shit. (People who feel more safe in calling you on your shit, since they’ll feel like they have backup.) And again, this can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy for good instead of evil. The more conscious a community gets of its biases and the more it works to overcome them, the more welcoming that community will be to a more diverse population.

And ditto with focus. The more women and people of color we have in our movement — especially in positions of leadership and visibility — the more that the specific concerns of women and people of color will be heard and addressed. And the more those concerns are heard and addressed, the more inviting our community will be to a wider and more diverse population. Again, the power of the self-perpetuating cycle can be a force for good instead of evil.<br clear=all /.
I want to mention a couple of other specific things we can do about all this, before I move on to why I think we should. A very important one, and one that’s really hard for a lot of people, is this: When someone brings up the subject of racism or sexism in the atheist movement — listen. Pay attention. Don’t just get defensive and reflexively reject the idea out of hand. We don’t have to agree with the criticism — heck, I often see accusations of sexism that I think are bullshit — but we should think about it for more than ten seconds, and listen to what exactly people are saying about it, before we decide whether or not the criticism has merit.

As Cubik’s Rube so eloquently put it in his excellent piece, Isms, in my opinion, are not good: “Don’t let your first response to a potentially legitimate complaint — made in as calm and reasoned and generous a manner as you could ask for, lodged by a demographic that consists of half the population of the planet and who have a history of being beaten down by the other half — be to tell them to shut up because they’re wrong to feel the way they do. That should not be where you instinctively, immediately go to when someone’s not happy with the way things are.”

I mean — if our immediate, instinctive response to criticisms about racism or sexism is to say, “That’s ridiculous, how dare anyone suggest such a thing, this is just PC whining”? That’s a good clue that what’s going on isn’t really a thoughtful, considered response, but is instead a reflexive rationalization of something that isn’t right but that we don’t want to think about.

And one last strategy bit before I move on: Those of us who are already on board? Those of us who see how racial and gender imbalances can perpetuate themselves, even without anyone intending them to? Those of us who think this is important, and that it needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later?

Speech balloons
We need to keep talking about it. And talking, and talking, and talking. We need to keep talking about specific instances of this phenomenon… and we need to keep talking about the phenomenon generally, and why it matters. Making this case within the atheist movement is like the atheist movement making our case for atheism outside it: it’s like water on rock. The ideas can take time to penetrate.

People with privilege will go to great lengths to (a) hang to to our privilege, and (b) deny that we have privilege so we can keep hanging on to it without feeling guilty. And people of all stripes will go to very great lengths indeed to avoid having to change our behavior. So we have to keep this issue — and the cognitive dissonance so many people seem to have about it — on everyone’s radar. We have to make it more of a pain in the ass to ignore ths stuff than it is to just deal with it already.


But why should we care? Why should it matter so much that the atheist movement is largely white and largely male, with so many white men in positions of leadership and power? Don’t we have other issues to worry about?

I’m going to answer as I so often do: with Greta’s unique blend of pie- eyed idealism and Machiavellian practicality.

The idealistic reason? Because it’s the right thing to do. Because women atheists, and atheists of color, matter just as much as white male atheists. Because religion hurts women and people of color just as much as it does white men — more so, in many ways. Because women and people of color who are potential non-believers are just as important as white men who are potential non-believers, and it’s just as crucial to give them a safe place a place to land when they leave religion… as safe a place as we give to anybody else. Because fighting racism and sexism makes us all better people, and makes the world a better place. Because this conversation shouldn’t be about Us and Them: it should be about Us, all of us, all atheists and agnostics and skeptics and humanists and freethinkers and non-believers. Because we are all Us, all part of this movement, and we should all be treated as if we matter.

The pragmatic reason?

Because it will make our movement stronger.

Numbers will make us stronger — and making the movement more inclusive will bring more numbers. Thinking through our ideas will make us stronger — and making the movement more inclusive will challenge us all to think more clearly. And diversity itself will make us stronger. It brings new ideas to the table. It multiplies our abilities to make alliances with other progressive political movements. It brings a broader range of ideas and viewpoints to the public debate. It makes us not look like elitist douchebags in the public eye.

Now, some people will likely respond that this is unfair. To take just one example from all of these issues: Some people will likely argue that making a conscious effort to move women and people of color into positions of visibility and leadership is reverse discrimination, unfair to white men who have worked hard for their prominent positions.

I have two responses to that.

One: The self-perpetuating cycles I talked about yesterday? The ways that unconscious bias can keep a movement largely white and male, and the ways that a largely white male movement will be off-putting to women and people of color, and the ways that a movement that doesn’t make an effort to address everyone’s concerns will wind up focusing on the concerns of the ones who traditionally run the show? Those cycles aren’t going to be broken by everyone just saying, “Okay, we promise not to be racist and sexist.” Those can only be broken by recognizing that there’s a real problem — and taking positive action to address it.

Obama half breed muslin
Two: In this world we live in, you’re really going to complain about the horrible injustice of discrimination against white men?


I mean — really?

I’ve been restraining the impulse to unleash the snark in this piece. But I’m feeling extremely irritated at the fact that I have to even explain this, and I’m going to let the snark off the leash for a moment. People — this is basic. This is Political Organizing 101. This should not be controversial. The self-perpetuating reality of racism and sexism, and the necessity of taking action to counteract it? This is not rocket science. Every serious progressive political movement on the block knows about it, and is at least making a gesture towards pretending to care about it. If we want to be a serious progressive political movement, we need to take this seriously.

In fact, I’m going to get even harsher here for a moment. When we say things like, “The reason there aren’t more women/POC in the atheist movement is that women/POC have special reasons for staying in religion, or for not coming out as atheists”? When we say things like, “How dare you accuse me of even unconscious racism and sexism — I’m not the problem, the unique personality and culture of women and people of color is the problem”? When we say things like, “Sure, our movement is mostly white and male — but that’s not our problem, and we shouldn’t be expected to do anything about it”?

What we’re really saying is, “White male atheists are the real atheists. White male atheists are the ones who count. The reasons white men stay in religion, or have a hard time coming out as atheists — those are the real reasons, the ones we should be addressing. Women and POC — they’re special, extra, other. We shouldn’t have to change our behavior to include them in the movement. This should be a One Size Fits all movement — and that size should be the size it already is, a size that fits white men.”

And I hope I don’t have to explain why we shouldn’t be saying that.

Okay. Stepping back from Snarky Harshville now. The thing is, despite my visit to Snarky Harshville, I actually don’t think that this is about blame. I know that this is a difficult issue; I know that people get very defensive when it comes up; and I know that one of the reasons people are reluctant to act on it is that they don’t want to feel like it’s their fault. But this isn’t about blame. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be. As Cuttlefish so eloquently (and succinctly) put it in a comment on Part 1 of this piece:

“It is worth remembering that we can disagree honestly about the causes, but still agree that a problem exists, and most importantly, still work towards solutions to that problem. The solutions, after all, may even be independent of the causes (a headache is not caused by lack of aspirin), and a common agreement as to the problem, if not the causes, still allows us to evaluate our interventions to see if they alleviate that problem. And whether or not white males are a (or the) cause of the situation, it would be difficult to argue that they are not the ones in the position of having the most power to change that situation.”

And that’s a big part of my point. My point is that it doesn’t much matter whether this is happening on purpose. What matters is that it’s happening — and if we want it to not haunt us for the entire future of our movement, we need to learn to recognize it, and to take action on it, now. This is our responsibility… even if only in the most limited sense that we have power to do something about it.

Rainbow atheist
Let me bring it back into practical terms, in a way I think everyone will get. The atheist movement has actually been quite good about being welcoming and inclusive of LGBTs. In fact, it’s very much taken the LGBT movement as its model (especially with the emphasis on coming out), paying close attention to the history of the LGBT movement and the lessons to be learned from its successes and failures.

So here’s a very important lesson the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement and our history:

We screwed this up.


We still screw this up.

And we are still paying for it.

The early LGBT movement was very much dominated by gay white men. And the gay white male leaders of that movement had some seriously bad race and sex stuff going on: treating gay men of color as fetishistic Others, objects of sexual desire rather than members of the community… and treating lesbians as alien Others, inscrutable and trivial.

And we are paying for it today. Relations between lesbians and gay men, between white queers and queers of color, are often strained at best. Conversations in our movement about race and gender take place in a decades-old context of rancor and bitterness, and they can be a minefield, in which nothing anybody says is right. We still have a decided tendency to treat gay men of color as fetish objects, and lesbians as sexless aliens. And we still, after decades, have a decided tendency to put gay white men front and center as the most visible, most iconic representatives of our community.

That makes it hard on everybody in the LGBT movement. It creates rifts that make our community weaker. And it has a seriously bad impact on our ability to make effective social change. We have, for instance, a profoundly impaired ability to shift homophobic attitudes in the black churches… since those churches can claim, entirely legitimately, that the gay community is racist and doesn’t care about black people. If we hadn’t ignored black churches for the last decade, if we had done any serious outreach and alliance building with the black communities for the last decade, we might not have lost Prop 8.

We screwed this up. We still screw this up. We are paying for our screwups.

Fork in road sign.php
Atheists have a chance to not do that.

We’re not going to single-handedly fix racism and sexism overnight. Even I’m not enough of a pie-eyed optimist to think that. But we have a chance in the atheist movement to learn from the mistakes of the LGBT movement, and the mistakes of every other progressive movement before ours. Our movement — at least, the current incarnation of our movement, the visible and vocal and activist incarnation of our movement — is still relatively new. We have a unique opportunity to handle this problem early: before these self-perpetuating cycles become entrenched, before decades of ugly history and bad feelings poison the well.

Let’s take that opportunity.

Let’s take action on this now.

Race, Gender, and Atheism, Part 2: What We Need To Do — And Why

Getting It Right Early: Why Atheists Need to Act Now on Gender and Race

I want to talk about race and sex in the atheist movement.

Rebecca watson
I’m writing this because of the recent kerfuffle in the skeptical community, in which Carrie Iwan and Rebecca Watson of the Skepchick blog did a podcast interview about sexism at The Amazing Meeting (and about sexist remarks made at that meeting by “The Big Bang Theory” creator Bill Prady)… and were met with a barrage of hostile comments over the suggestion that the skeptical community might not always be the most welcoming place for women, and that maybe skeptics should be doing something about it. (Comments arguing, among other things, that women who complain about sexism in the skeptical movement are just being whiny, unreasonable, and politically correct.)

Sikivu hutchinson
And I’m writing this because of the interview I ran here in this blog with Sikivu Hutchinson, on being an African-American in the atheist movement… in which a surprising number of commenters reacted very strongly, and very negatively, to the idea that maybe there was a problem with the fact that the atheist movement is so predominantly and visibly made up of white men, and that maybe the movement should be doing something about it.

I want to talk about the fact that the atheist movement is so predominantly, and so visibly, made up of white men.

I want to talk about why this is a problem.

I want to talk about how this problem plays out, and how it perpetuates itself.

And I want to talk about why we need to do something about it.

Now, I don’t want to get deeply into overt racism and sexism in the atheist movement. (Not today, anyway. I may get into that in some later post.) For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that, when it comes to gender and race, everyone in the atheist movement is completely well- meaning, and has every conscious intention to not be sexist or racist. (I don’t actually believe that… but for the purposes of this post, I think it will be a useful assumption.)

Black scarlet letter
Instead, I want to talk about why it’s important for the atheist movement to start paying attention — now — to race and gender. I want to talk about why it’s important for the atheist movement to start paying attention — now — to the fact that it is largely a white male movement… and to how that’s likely to affect the future of the movement, for everyone in it. I want to talk about into how, exactly, a movement that starts out being mostly white and mostly male, with mostly white men in positions of visibility and leadership, has a tendency to stay that way… even with the best intentions of everyone in that movement. And I want to talk about why this matters: why it’s a serious problem, why it’s going to matter more and more as our movement grows… and why it’s important to nip the problem in the bud, early, while our movement is still relatively young.


First, let’s talk about how this happens. Let’s talk about three distinct ways that racial and gender imbalances in a movement can perpetuate themselves… even if there is absolutely zero conscious intention to discriminate. (BTW, these apply to other marginalized groups as well; but race and gender are what’s on the table right now, so that’s what I’m focusing on. And yes, I know there are more than just these three ways. These are just the big, obvious ones that I’m familiar with. Comments about others are very much welcomed.)

1: Unconscious bias. Even with the best of conscious intentions, people tend to be more comfortable, and more trusting, with people who are more like them. This has been well and thoroughly documented. It’s one of the most important reasons behind affirmative action: people in charge of hiring decisions will automatically gravitate towards people who are more like them. So if the people doing the hiring are white men, they’re more likely to hire white men… and then as the people they hire rise to positions of power, they in turn will be more likely to hire white men… and so on, and so on, and so on. If there is no conscious, deliberate attempt to seek out qualified women, people of color, etc., this process will perpetuate itself indefinitely.

This isn’t just true in hiring. It’s true in any community, and any movement. If a movement starts out being mostly made up of and led by white men, and there is no conscious, pro-active attempt to seek out and welcome women and people of color, then that movement will have a very strong tendency to continue being dominated by white men.

What’s more, people can have racist or sexist attitudes without being conscious of them. You don’t need to be a torch- wielding member of the KKK or Operation Rescue to say and think dumb things about race or gender. (As someone who has said and thought plenty of dumb things… believe me, I speak from experience.) A lot of racism and sexism isn’t grossly overt: it’s subtle, and it’s woven so deeply into the fabric of our culture that we often aren’t aware of it until it’s called to our attention. But you can be damn well sure that the people on the receiving end of those attitudes are aware of it… and it can put them off from participating in a community that they might otherwise be drawn to.

2: Focus. People have a natural tendency to focus on the issues that concern them most directly. And if a movement — however unintentionally — is being dominated by white men, then that movement will tend to focus its energies on issues that concern white men… at the expense of issues that concern women and people of color.

You want an example? Sure. As just one specific example, I’ll cite the tendency of the atheist movement to provide an Internet community more than in- the- flesh communities… a tendency that ignores the powerful social bond that churches provide in the African-American communities, and that neglects the alienation and isolation that many African-American atheists feel when they leave their churches, and that fails to offer a replacement.

Self fulfilling prophecy
3: Self-fulfilling prophecies. Let’s pretend, just for a moment, that #1 and #2 aren’t happening at all. Let’s pretend that there is no tendency, not even an unconscious one, for the leaders and organizers of the atheist movement to default to white men in citations and event organization and so on. Let’s pretend that there are no racist or sexist attitudes in the atheist movement — not even subtle or unconscious ones. And let’s pretend that there is no tendency in the atheist movement, not even an unconscious one, to focus on issues that largely concern white men, at the expense of issues that largely concern women and people of color.

Let’s pretend that none of that is happening. Let’s pretend that the atheist movement is largely and most visibly white and male, either because most women and people of color just naturally aren’t that interested in atheism, or because of pure dumb random luck.

Even if that were so? The tendency of the atheist movement to be dominated by white men would still tend to perpetuate itself.

Remember what we talked about before. People are more comfortable with other people who are like them. And that isn’t just true for white men. It’s true for women and people of color, too. If a movement is largely made up of white men, and if the leaders and most visible representatives of a movement are mostly white men… women and people of color just aren’t as likely to join up. They — we — are more likely to feel like fish out of water. We’re less likely to see the movement as having to do with us.

And maybe more to the point: If a community is mostly white and male, a lot of women and people of color are going to assume that #1 and #2 are probably going on. I know that I’m less comfortable going to an event that’s mostly male… since the chances of having my femaleness be inappropriately sexualized are a lot greater. Women and people of color are naturally, and not unreasonably, going to be cautious about joining up with a movement that’s mostly white and male. We’re going to wonder why that is.

So even if the predominant whiteness and maleness of the atheist movement had somehow happened purely by accident, with no sins of either omission or commission on the part of white male atheists… the predominant whiteness and maleness of the movement would still tend towards a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if those hypothetical winds of fate that innocently led the movement to be largely white and largely male were no longer blowing in that direction, even if women and people of color suddenly sprouted an interest in atheism that they’d somehow never had before… this self- perpetuating tendency of largely white male movements to stay largely white and male would still tend to, well, perpetuate itself.

Plus, of course, all this is assuming that there is no overt racism or sexism in the atheist movement. An assumption that, obviously, isn’t warranted.


Circle of two arrows
So that’s some of the ways that largely white, largely male movements stay largely white and male… even if nobody intended it to happen that way. But here’s the good news:

A lot of this is fixable.

Or at least, it’s addressable.

And it’s much, much easier to address in the early stages of a movement than it is down the line, after patterns have been established, and bad feelings have had time to fester.

So how do we fix it?

And why should we care?

That’s Part 2.

(The second half of this piece will appear tomorrow. I’m not going to turn off comments, but if you can hold off on commenting until Part 2 appears, I’d be much obliged.)

Getting It Right Early: Why Atheists Need to Act Now on Gender and Race

Atheism and Patience

So how often do atheists have to keep making the same points, and keep countering the same old arguments?

Okay, that came out a little snarky. And I actually don’t mean it that way. I’m quite sincere. This is my question of the day, a question I’m genuinely pondering: How often do we have to make the same points, and countering the same old arguments?

As some of you know, I’ve been engaged in a debate with a believer, an old friend of mine, on Facebook.* And one of the things that’s been frustrating about this debate has been how many of the same old arguments — arguments I’ve countered a hundred times or more, arguments I could counter in my sleep — have kept coming up.

“Neither side can prove their case with 100% certainty, therefore both atheism and religion are just matters of faith, not based on evidence or reason.” “Science doesn’t understand everything, therefore it’s reasonable to conclude that God exists.” “Religion operates in a separate realm from the physical world, and it shouldn’t have to stand up to standards of reason and evidence.” “It’s intolerant for atheists to make a case for why religion is probably wrong and atheism is probably right.”

I’ve been seeing these same arguments for over three years now. It gets a little old. As one of the commenters said in the FB thread, “Is it too much to ask for *new* bad arguments?”

But here’s the thing: the thing I have to remind myself of, the thing I want to remind other atheists of:

These arguments are old to most of us.

But they’re not necessarily old to believers.

Atheist books
Most believers haven’t been hanging around in atheist blogs for years. Most believers haven’t read a half dozen books about atheism, or indeed any. For many believers, these arguments and ideas are brand new. Many believers have never had a serious challenge to their beliefs before. And they’ve never had a serious challenge to the notion that religious beliefs should go unchallenged. The idea that it’s rude and intolerant to point out the problems with religion — even in a public forum — is very deeply ingrained. As a result, many believers have never had to ponder hard questions about their belief — the kind of hard questions that only people who flatly don’t agree with you are going to ask. And their preconceptions about what atheists think and why have never had to run the reality- check gauntlet of actual atheists.

So the answer to the question, “How often do we have to keep making these points? How often to we have to keep countering the same bad arguments?”… the answer to that question is, Often.

Ingrid made a good point when we were talking about this the other day. She said, “Imagine what it must be like to be a schoolteacher. You have to teach the same ideas, year after year after year. At some point you must just want to scream, ‘Do I have to explain this again? Don’t you know this already?’ But of course, they don’t. It’s a new crop of students every year. It’s old to you — but it’s new to them.”

These arguments are old to us. But they’re new to them. As long as there are people who haven’t heard our case — and who haven’t heard it more than once — we have to keep making that case. And we have to make it patiently. It doesn’t make sense for a teacher to get annoyed and impatient with their students for not already knowing the material. And it doesn’t make sense for us to get annoyed and impatient with believers for not being familiar with our case.

Water on rock
Plus, there’s a whole ‘nother reason for making the same arguments again and again. And that’s the “water on rock” principle. When I did my survey of atheists a while back, asking, “What finally convinced you? What finally made you decide that religion didn’t make sense and atheism was a lot more plausible?”, a theme that came up a lot was, “It wasn’t just one thing. There wasn’t one argument. It was a lot of ideas, a lot of arguments, adding up over time.” That was certainly true for me. If I’d only heard these arguments once or twice, they would have been a lot easier for me to ignore or dismiss. Hearing them more than once forced them on my attention, and forced me to take them seriously and really think about them.

So we have to keep making these arguments. And making them, and making them, and making them. I know it gets tiresome. Boy, howdy, do I know. I am deeply familiar with the temptation to get snippy and snarky, the temptation to unleash the claws. I have even succumbed to that temptation, more than once.

But it’s not going to help our cause. And maybe more importantly: It’s not fair. It’s not fair to treat people like they’re stupid just because they’re not familiar with the things we’re so intimately familiar with.

I’m not arguing for accomodationism. I’m not even necessarily arguing for polite diplomacy. I think it’s fine for us to make our case, and I think it’s fine for us to make it strongly, and unapologetically.

I’m just saying that we also have to make it patiently. We have to remember that the whole reason we’re making our case is that people don’t know much about it. Atheism is old, but the newly visible, newly vocal, newly activist atheist movement is… well, it’s new. People aren’t familiar with it. It’s not fair to get pissy with people because they’re not familiar with it. It’s our job to get them familiar.

In twenty or thirty years, maybe we can start getting bitchy with people who still make the “100% certainty” argument, or the “Science doesn’t know everything” argument, or, for fuck’s sake, Pascal’s Wager. But for now — yes, we have to keep making the same arguments. And making them, and making them, and making them.

Until we get through.

*Sorry if the link doesn’t work. Facebook is fun, but it’s buggy about some things, and external links to specific threads is one of them. If the link doesn’t work, try just going to my wall and scrolling down to the “Response to a believer” note. You do have to be a member of FB to see it, though.

Atheism and Patience

Should Atheists Criticize Religion? A Response

Scarlet letter
“Here’s the thing. If you can’t give me a general guiding principle for why expressing my beliefs and opinions is okay, but criticizing other people’s beliefs and opinions is not? If you can’t give me a general guiding principle for even distinguishing between ‘expressing my own beliefs and opinions’ and ‘criticizing other people’s beliefs and opinions’? If you can’t give me a general guiding principle for why it’s okay for you to take atheists to task for criticizing religion — and indeed to criticize religious beliefs that you don’t agree with (as you have done in this discussion, with creationism) — but it’s not okay for atheists to say why they think religion is mistaken? If you can’t give me a general guiding principle for why saying ‘I think religion is mistaken and here’s why’ is a slippery slope towards religious bigotry and harassment… but saying ‘Atheists are bad and wrong to criticize religion’ isn’t a slippery slope towards silencing atheists? If you can do an ad hoc rewriting of atheist writing that you would approve of, but can’t give me a general guiding principle for how and why you would do that rewrite?

“If you can’t give me a general guiding principle for any of this?

“Then I am led to the conclusion that you don’t have one.

“Or rather, I am led to the conclusion that your general guiding principle is, ‘It’s okay to criticize religious beliefs and positions, as long as they’re not mine.'”

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote on Facebook, a response to an ongoing debate with a believer who thinks it’s okay for atheists to express their beliefs… as long as that doesn’t include the belief that religion is mistaken. According to this argument, expressing your own religious beliefs and ideas is fine… but saying that you think other beliefs and ideas are mistaken, and making a case for why you think that, and supporting your case with arguments and evidence, is bigoted, disrespectful, missionary proselytizing.

Three guesses what I think about that.

Because of the rule/ etiquette that “what happens on Facebook, stays on Facebook,” I’m not posting the entire note here. But if you’re on Facebook, you can read the rest of this rant (and the conversation that preceded it). You don’t even need to be my Facebook friend to read it (although I’m happy to have you as a FB friend!). You just need to be on FB. If you want to see what else I have to say about this, check it out. I haven’t done a good atheist rant in a couple of weeks, and I thought y’all might want to see this one. Enjoy!

Should Atheists Criticize Religion? A Response

Tantric Orgasms and Sacred Sex: New Age Spirituality in the Sex Community

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Urban tantra
Why is New Age spirituality so prevalent in the sex- positive community?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about my skeptical, materialist, atheist, entire non- spiritual view of sexual transcendence, and why you don’t need to see sex as metaphysical to see it as magnificent and meaningful.

I deliberately didn’t make the piece critical of spirituality and religion. Partly, that simply wasn’t the point of the piece: the point wasn’t to tear down the spiritual view of sex, but to offer an alternative to it. And partly, I’ll admit, it was because many of my friends and allies in the sex community have spiritual beliefs about sex, in some cases deeply held spiritual beliefs, and I was gun-shy about alienating them.

But I recently gave an interview to Greg Fish of the Weird Things blog, who read the piece and wanted to talk with me about it. And what Greg mostly wanted to know was the very question I’d been deliberately avoiding. He wanted to know why, in my opinion, so many people in the sex- positive community are so heavily invested in associating sex with spirituality and religion.

This is an attempt to answer that question.


I want to say something at the outset: This is pretty much speculation. Since I’m writing this piece from a skeptical point of view, I feel honor-bound to make that clear. It’s reasonably well-informed speculation; but it’s not based on double-blind, peer-reviewed research or anything. It’s just my opinion, based on my own observation and reading and thinking on the subject.

That being said:

Why is there so much New Age spirituality in the sex-positive community? I think there are three basic things going on.

Virtue of faith
The first is the extremely prevalent, deeply- rooted idea in our culture that being spiritual means being good and virtuous, and that the spiritual world is the important world, the most real world.

One of the central tropes of religion is that being a religious person makes you a good person, pretty much by definition. God is good, supposedly, so the closer you are to God, the better a person you are. And related to this is the notion that being a spiritual person means being connected with the most real, and most important, part of life and existence. The material world is hollow, according to this trope; a mere shell for the creamy metaphysical goodness that lies within. Focusing on the material world makes you shallow at best; focusing on the spiritual makes you deep.

Now, even when people reject conventional religion, these ideas can still be very pervasive. And if people have been brought up with any sort of religious teachings (which most people have), the ideas are learned from a very early age: they’re not necessarily conscious, but they’re deeply rooted nevertheless. And even people who aren’t brought up in religion usually still have this idea drilled into them by their surrounding culture.

So when people embrace sex as good and important, it seems natural to frame it as a spiritual experience. If you’ve absorbed the idea that the spiritual world is both the most good and the most real world there is, then once you reject the conventional view of sex as trivial and wicked — once you start reframing sex as valuable and beautiful and a central part of human life — it seems natural to see sex in spiritual terms. If the spiritual world is the most virtuous and precious part of the world, then seeing sex as a spiritual experience is a way of distancing it from the smear of being pointless, selfish, guttural, and evil, and repositioning it as honorable and worthwhile.

And so instead of saying, “Religion is wrong about sex being bad, therefore I’m going to reject religion,” many people say, “Religion is wrong about sex being bad, therefore I’m going to find — or make up — a new religion.”

Second: The sex-positive community tends overwhelmingly to be a progressive community: one that rejects, or at least questions, the mainstream. And unfortunately, a lot of progressive people see science as “the man” — part of the mainstream establishment.

So they throw the baby out with the bathwater. In rejecting the things that are genuinely troubling about mainstream institutions, they also reject science. Including the scientific principles that human judgment is fallible and needs to be rigorously tested and counter- checked, and that claims about the world should be backed up with solid evidence, and that your own personal intuition isn’t by itself enough reason to believe something about the world.

Principles that tend to put the kibosh on spiritual beliefs.

I’m not saying that science and spiritual belief are inherently incompatible. But it does seem to be the case that a greater degree of familiarity with science — not just with scientific knowledge, but with how the scientific method works, and what its history is, and the degree to which it’s radically changed our understanding of the world — tends to make people more skeptical about religion and spirituality. So when people in the sex positive community reject science as just another oppressive mainstream institution designed to deaden the human spirit, they become more likely to embrace spirituality, almost by default.


I think a big part of this phenomenon has to do with the nature of sex itself.

When it’s good, the experience of sex can feel very much like what people describe as a spiritual experience. It can take you out of your body; change your experience of time; give you an almost telepathic connection with another person; make you feel ecstatically transported out of ordinary physical experience; etc., etc. etc.

And again, even if you reject conventional religion, the deeply- rooted reflex in our culture is to see these kinds of experiences as metaphysical. Our culture doesn’t have a widely held framework for understanding and processing these experiences, other than a spiritual or religious one. The idea that the brain and the body, by themselves, can produce these altered states of consciousness — that’s not very prevalent, or very well- understood.

Tantra 2
So when people start to have really good sex — the time- bending, body- transcending, ecstatically transporting kind of sex that seems like a religious experience — and when they start to take those experiences seriously and see them as both valuable and important… again, the reflex is to put those experiences into a spiritual framework. That’s the main framework we have in our culture for this kind of experience… and it’s not surprising that even people who whole- heartedly reject conventional religion as hateful and fearful of sexuality would still put transcendently ecstatic sexual experiences into a larger spiritual outlook.

Which is exactly why I wrote A Skeptic’s View of Sexual Transcendence: to offer an alternative framework, a way of experiencing and understanding sex and sexual transcendence that doesn’t rely on spiritual belief, one that is entirely rooted in the physical world.

What do you care what other people think
Now, I can already hear some critics gearing up to ask, “Why do you care?” Why do I care what other people believe? Why do I feel compelled to poke holes in those beliefs, try to persuade people that they’re mistaken and unnecessary? Aren’t I being just as intolerant and evangelical as the sex-hating hard-core religious fanatics I oppose so strongly?

I don’t really have the space here to get into that discussion, in any detail that would do it justice. If you are interested in why I think spiritual belief is mistaken, you can see my arguments (among other places) here, and here, and here and here and here. If you’re interested in why I think it’s harmful, you can look here, and here, and here and here and here (again, among many other places). And if you want to know why I care what other people believe, you can see my explanations here, and here, and here. Again, among many other places.

But if you want to know those arguments in a nutshell: I think spiritual belief is mistaken. I think that, on the whole, it does more harm than good. And I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t discuss it and debate it and criticize it, just like we do with any other hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is. The fact that I see spirituality as both mistaken and harmful is exactly the reason that I care.

And all of that is every bit as true in the sex-positive community as it is anywhere else.

So I plan to keep looking at where these spiritual beliefs about sex come from. I plan to keep critiquing them. And I plan to keep offering alternatives to them, whenever I can.

(Some of the ideas for this piece originated in my interview with Weird Things.)

Tantric Orgasms and Sacred Sex: New Age Spirituality in the Sex Community

Humanist Symposium #41

Hello, and welcome to the Humanist Symposium #41!

I originally had all sorts of plans to come up with some brilliantly witty theme for the Symposium. But due to an unexpected scheduling conflict, you’re going to have to settle for the “I Just Got Back From Netroots Nation Half An Hour Ago After Four Days Of Intense Conferencing And Four Hours Of Sleep And Have No Energy To Create Anything Other Than A Collection Of Links With Brief Descriptions And Money Quotes” edition. (No pictures this time. Sorry. I just don’t have it in me. I have, however, divided the Symposium into three broad categories: Meta-Atheism: Atheist Organizing and the Atheist Movement; Responding to Religion; and Humanist Living/ Philosophy.) Enjoy!


Cubik’s Rube at Cubik’s Rube presents Isms, in my opinion, are not good. On sexism in the atheist/ skeptical movement… and what is and is not an appropriate way for men to respond when it’s pointed out. Specifically, a response to the TAM/ Skepchick kerfuffle.

Money quote: “But fuck, if women are feeling shut out by a male-dominated atmosphere, and the numbers are there to back them up, don’t start whining about how whiny they’re getting. Don’t let your first response to a potentially legitimate complaint — made in as calm and reasoned and generous a manner as you could ask for, lodged by a demographic that consists of half the population of the planet and who have a history of being beaten down by the other half — be to tell them to shut up because they’re wrong to feel the way they do. That should not be where you instinctively, immediately go to when someone’s not happy with the way things are.”

(Rare editorial note to Cubik’s Rube from the Symposium hostess: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. And to readers: If there’s only one piece from this Symposium that you read, make it this one. This is really important stuff for the atheist movement to get, and to get now, while our movement is still in its early stages and we have time to prevent it from getting entrenched.)

Paul Fidalgo at Secularism Examiner presents Nonbelievers will get called out for fudging the numbers. Why we have to be honest about the number of atheists in America and in the world, and not exaggerate those numbers — for pragmatic reasons, and because respect for truth and evidence is a central part of the humanist philosophy.

Money quote: “As proponents of rationalism, we have to deal with reality on its own terms, not as we would like it to be. Stop telling people that nonbelievers make up 15% of the country, because we don’t — or if we do, not enough of us are telling pollsters when they ask. Our honesty and our adherence to facts are our greatest strengths. To leave gaping holes like this only makes us easy targets for our enemies to nail us where it hurts.”

vjack at Atheist Revolution presents Organizing Atheists: The Model. Using MoveOn as a model for how the nascent, still- disorganized, herding- cats atheist movement could be turned into a political powerhouse.

Money quote: “Just imagine the next time some jackass pundit or politician engages in anti-atheist bigotry. Action alerts go out to members via email, petitions are circulated, letters are written, calls are made, press releases go out to news agencies. And instead of every damn blogger, forum host, Twitter user, etc. having to do it themselves without necessarily knowing what others are doing, it is done from this sort of organization. Imagine the clout of a Pharyngula multiplied several times over! That is what we’re talking about here.”

Jennifurret at Blag Hag presents Atheism is boring. On whether atheism offers not only meaning but engagement with the world… and on people who join the atheist movement without understanding atheism and atheist philosophy.

Money quote: “I’d like to pretend this isn’t happening, but there are more and more ‘atheists’ who can’t give you a single logical argument why they don’t believe in God — not because those arguments don’t exist, but because they haven’t given it any thought.”

Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism presents Getting a Philosophy Under Your Feet. Why it’s important for the atheist movement to promote, not only disbelief in God, but a solid, positive humanist philosophy of life that can help get atheists through difficult times. Using the conversion story of evangelist pastor Dave Schmelzer as a cautionary tale.

Money quote: “In effect, Schmelzer fell for two illusions, one right after the other. First, he bought into our capitalist, consumer-driven society’s message that happiness is achieved through acquiring money and possessions. He found out for himself that this was a false ethic, but then fell right into a second trap, the religious message that happiness is achieved only through worshipping God. Atheist though he was, what he was lacking was a real philosophy of his own. Without a solid ethic under his feet to ground him, he fell prey to one false creed after another, like a leaf being blown around by the wind.”


Michael Fridman at a Nadder presents One Law to Rule Them All. In political discussion of religious issues one thing that’s often missed is how offensive it is to treat members of religious communities as having different rights — this goes against everything humanism and human rights stand for and has been slipping into news stories unchallenged a bit too often.

Money quote: “So the Sudanese authorities broke even their own boundaries for Sharia law. Big surprise. But the report seems to imply that if only the government left the non-Muslims alone (and only lashed Muslim women) it would be better. No it wouldn’t. The above quotes just underscore how offensive it is to have two laws in the same country depending on what family you’re born into.”

Greg Laden at Greg Laden’s Blog presents What to do if you accidentally end up with a roommate who is religious? The assumption that people are religious is our society’s default assumption… and flouting this assumption, simply by coming out as an atheist, can be disruptive and upsetting to believers. In a good way.

Money quote: “The truth is that when the Atheist World and the Religious World overlap or interact in the United States, the Atheist World is expected to give sway, make the excuses, back off, or shut up.”

PhillyChief at You Made Me Say It! presents How about valuing human life as a fellow human? Why empathy is a more solid foundation for morality than adherence to religious tenets… with the recent shootings at the Pennsylvania health club being Exhibit A.

Money quote: “Personally, I find empathy as being the cornerstone of morality. Without the ability to understand and relate to other humans, any attempt at morality will be a futile exercise. In fact, this lack of empathy is recognized as a mental disorder and such people lacking empathy are referred to as sociopaths.”

Spanish Inquisitor at Spanish Inquisitor presents Belief. Rumination on the concept of belief… and the differences between secular and religious beliefs.

Money quote: “I used to think that all beliefs were utterly useless, unless they were supportable beliefs. I would want to see some arguable substance behind the belief. This is one of the underpinning tenets of my atheistic lack-of-belief. However, now I think it’s a little more nuanced than that.”

NeoSnowQueen at Winter Harvest presents Allegory: A Tale of Two Rationales. A glance at the way that religious people and atheists look at healing and death in an allegory.

Money quote: “The Christian will read this allegory and come to the conclusion that God is in everything. God is on a higher plane, and his plan is supreme — all we can ask for is intervention, the answer is not so important as the question. If it is in God’s will, there will be a miraculous healing, a slow healing, a resurrection, or a death. The atheist will read this allegory and come to the conclusion that God is in nothing.”

Luke Muehlhauser at Common Sense Atheism presents How to Convert Atheists. Advice to Christians on how they might convert atheists. (And in this editor’s opinion, a charmingly sneaky way to get Christians to reconsider their faith.)

Money quote: “Persuading atheists is kind of like picking up chicks. You’re 80% of the way there if you just avoid the really big mistakes that most people make. Most of what you have to do is just not be stupid.”


TechSkeptic at Effort Sisyphus presents Rights of Passage. On the importance of ritual even in a secular society… with a tongue- in- cheek proposal for a series of secular/ skeptical/ science- themed rituals to replace or supplement the existing ones.

Money quote: “There is a very uncelebrated milestone that 95% of us go through (78% of you english folk). Vaccinations. Why don’t we celebrate this? This is an awesome achievement over disease and death… We should be celebrating this achievement!”

Sean Prophet at Black Sun Journal presents Radical Skepticism and Gullibility: Two Sides of a Coin. On how easy it is to confuse skepticism with gullibility and sloppy thinking… and how to avoid doing so.

Money quote: “Radical Skepticism must be distinguished from the healthy kind that promotes inquiry.”

Glowing Face Man at Glowing Face Man presents How to Contribute to Society. A very different, nontraditional answer to the question, “How should I contribute to society?”

Money quote: “By far the best way to stimulate your world is to actively, joyfully participate in it. Merely by walking around outside, you provide profound cultural value. Culture is nothing more than the people in it, and without those people, it is nothing.”

(Please note: Many of the conclusions of this piece are emphatically not endorsed by the host of this carnival. However, it is sufficiently thought- provoking to merit inclusion in this Symposium.)

Andrew Bernardin at the evolving mind presents Violence Incubated at Home? Thoughts on a recent study showing that young men living at home may be more prone to violence… with thoughts on how to carefully interpret data and avoid misleading conclusions.

Money quote: “Okay, they’ve discovered a correlation, but is the link between variables causal or inertly predictive or something else?”

00FF00 at ooffoo presents Should the government make ‘Right to Die’ facilities publicly available? Ooffoo asks “Should the government make ‘Right to Die’ facilities publicly available?” and kicks off the debate by inviting two leading voices, Dignity in Dying & Care Not Killing, to contribute. But most importantly, they want to hear what you think.

Money quote: “The ‘Right to Die’ debate seems to get larger and louder daily so to foster discussion here on Ooffoo we have asked our own question.”

James Pomeroy at presents Wheresoever We May Roam. A piece intended to inspire secular wonder in our world and in life.

Money quote: “From protean, simplest life, we arose. In infinitesimal increments, by accident and, eventually, by intentional effort, by hook and by crook even, we found ourselves standing. Here. On the good earth. On the cruel ground. On this indifferent planet. And we proclaimed our will and ourselves in tools, in rituals of birth and burial, in artistic representation. We found our meaning in these things, and by these things we created a different world, a symbolic world.”

Finally, we have my own bad self: your Humanist Symposium hostess, Greta Christina, at the cleverly- named Greta Christina’s blog, presenting A Skeptic’s View of Sexual Transcendence. In which I offer ways to look at transcendent sexual ecstasy that don’t involve any sort of belief in the supernatural. A response to the woo spirituality that’s so prevalent in the sex-positive community. (May not be safe for work, whatever that means.)

Money shot — er, money quote: “The act of sex, and the experience of sexual pleasure, connects us to every other living thing on earth. We are the cousins of everything that lives on this planet, with a common ancestor of primordial soup going back billions of years… and we are all related, not entirely but substantially, because of sex. That is awesome. That makes me want to go fuck right now, just so I can feel connected with my fish and tetrapod and primate ancestors. That is entirely made of win.”

That’s it for this edition of the Humanist Symposium. The Humanist Symposium #42 will be held at The Greenbelt on September 6. Submissions can be made through the Blog Carnival Hosting Doodad. Ta!

Humanist Symposium #41

"God Doesn't Have to Mean Religion": Accomodationism and the "Church and State" Panel at Netroots Nation

Is it okay that there’s language about God in the U.S. government… since the word “God” doesn’t have to be religious?

As you may have heard on other atheist blogs (or on my own Facebook page — if you haven’t already, friend me!), there was a panel at Netroots Nation today, A New Progressive Vision for Church and State. (Or yesterday, I guess — sheesh, is it after midnight already?) Here is a summary of the panel’s thesis, proposed by panelist Bruce Ledewitz:

The old liberal vision of a total separation of religion from politics has been discredited. Despite growing secularization, a secular progressive majority is still impossible, and a new two-part approach is needed — one that first admits that there is no political wall of separation. Voters must be allowed, without criticism, to propose policies based on religious belief. But, when government speaks and acts, messages must be universal. The burden is on religious believers, therefore, to explain public references like “under God” in universal terms. For example, the word “God” can refer to the ceaseless creativity of the universe and the objective validity of human rights. Promoting and accepting religious images as universal will help heal culture-war divisions and promote the formation of a broad-based progressive coalition.

The reaction to this thesis around the atheosphere has been an interesting combination of outrage and baffled head-scratching. But come now, that’s not fair. That’s just a summary in the conference materials. I’m actually here at Netroots Nation; I actually attended this panel; I heard what the people on it had to say.

And I can tell you that my reaction — and the reaction of a whole lot of other people attending this panel — was somewhere between outrage and baffled head-scratching.

I mean — what? It’s okay for the government to endorse God  because God isn’t necessarily a religious concept? It’s okay for the government to endorse God  because we can define God in a way that includes atheism?


Okay. I’ll try to be fair here. I’ll try to not go straight for the snark. Having now heard a more detailed explanation of this idea than the quick- and- dirty summary, I’ll try to take Ledewitz’s thesis seriously. I don’t promise to succeed… but I’ll try.

Ledewitz — who is an atheist, I want to make that clear up front — basically says that no, government can’t establish a religion, and it can’t even establish that it thinks religion of any kind is better than no religion. But “God” can be defined very abstractly and philosophically: as, say, the universal essence of goodness and justice. And while the government can’t establish religion, it can — and does — express views on philosophical questions. So if we define “God” as a philosophical concept and not a religious one, that makes it okay for the government to — for instance — put the words “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, or spend $100,000 to engrave the words “In God We Trust” on the Capitol Visitor Center, or display the Ten Commandments in city halls. It’s not really endorsing religion. It’s just endorsing God.

So. Here’s my first response to that.


(That’s my best attempt to depict a blend of outrage and baffled head-scratching. If I had a way to depict “incoherent gibbering and waving my hands in the air like a crazy person,” I’d do that instead.)

Are you fucking kidding me? You can define “God” in a way that isn’t religious? God and gods is the whole freaking foundation of religion. It’s practically the definition of it. And you can define “God” in a way that doesn’t exclude atheists? Do you know what “atheist” even means? Let me spell it out. A-theist. No God. This isn’t Alice in Wonderland; you can’t just make words mean whatever you choose them to mean. (As Jesse Galef of the Secular Coalition of America, who was also at the panel, pointed out on Friendly Atheist.)

Now here’s my serious, un-snarky response. (Much of which I said during the Q&A at the panel. Did you really think I could go to this thing and keep my mouth shut?)

First. Let’s say that we can re-define God to mean something way more vague and philosophical than 99% of the people who use the word understand it to mean. Let’s say you define God to mean the infinite creativity of the universe, or the universal and objective essence of goodness and justice, or something.

So what? As an atheist, I don’t believe in that, either. I believe that if the astronomers are right, the universe is eventually going to run out of steam; and I believe that goodness and justice are concepts generated by our human brains after millions of years of evolution as social animals: more or less universal across humanity, but certainly not generated from a higher source. I believe in an entirely physical, non-supernatural world, guided by the physical laws of cause and effect. Period.

Does that mean that I’m not included in “One nation, under God”? Why should that make me a second class citizen?

Ledewitz’s response to this was that, even if I don’t agree with this “Justice is a universal concept” statement, it is a philosophical statement and not a religious one, and the government is entitled to make it. But I’m not buying it. Again I have to come back to what seems like a blindingly obvious point: It’s God. For fuck’s sake. You can’t make God not be a religious concept just by saying that it doesn’t have to be defined that way, simply so you can avoid painful conversations and difficult political fights. (More on that in a bit.) Yes, believers have lots of different understandings of what “God” means; but 99% of people who use the word understand it to mean some version of “a supernatural being who created the world and/or intervenes in it.” I don’t believe I have to sit here and try to explain why “God” is, by its very definition, a religious concept.

Rights of man
Second: To say, “when we say ‘God,’ we’re including whatever the heck it is that atheists believe,” is like saying, “When we say ‘man’ or ‘men,’ of course we’re also including women.” It’s patronizing. It’s dismissive. It’s relegating us to second-class citizenship, while pretending that if you close your eyes and pretend real hard then that’s not really what you’re doing. (Kudos to Ingrid for coming up with this argument.) Again: Yes, believers have lots of different understandings of what the word “God” means. But whatever you think it means, atheists don’t believe in it. Again — by definition. A-theist. No God. If God is in official government language and documents, then atheists, by definition, are being left out of it.

Besides, I completely fail to see how this argument is a defense of the Ten Commandments being displayed in government buildings. The Ten Commandments don’t just refer to some nebulous generic God that can be defined almost any way you want it to. The Ten Commandments refer to a very specific God: the God who demands that we have no other Gods before him, that we not take his name in vain, that we not make any graven images, that we keep the Sabbath holy. Even if you buy the argument that the God in “In God we trust” doesn’t have to be a religious God… how is the God of the Ten Commandments anything other than the God of very specific religious beliefs?

And as Witold “Vic” Walczak of the ACLU pointed out (he was one of the panelists: there were four panelists, two of whom were vehemently opposed to Ledewitz’s proposal):

This approach is deeply dismissive and insulting of religious believers. As much as it is of atheists, and in some ways more so. It basically says to believers, “One of your most treasured beliefs about the very nature of the Universe? Your government is defining it as just this vague philosophical concept about creativity or goodness or something.” Isn’t it more respectful to say, “You can believe whatever you want to about God — and your government is going to stay the hell out of it”?

Furthermore — again, as Vic pointed out:

One nation under god
The insertion of God into government language does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a concerted attempt by the hard Christian right to turn our country into a theocracy. It is part of a concerted attempt by the hard Christian right to shove their religion down everyone else’s throat  and to do it using the government that supposedly belongs to all of us. We can’t take this question out of its political context. We can talk all we want to about how “God” can mean a nebulous philosophical concept of creativity and goodness… but that sure as shit isn’t what the religious right means by it.

(Quick tangent: Vic was one of the people working on the Dover case about creationism in the public schools. I was gobsmacked to even be in the same room with him. Did you ever know that you’re my hero?)

Now, I will say this: As priorities go, this isn’t a high one for me. I care a whole lot more about health care reform and global warming than I do about whether the Pledge of Allegiance has the words “Under God” in it. Even on the list of atheist and “separation of church and state” issues, this one isn’t that high for me. Creationism in the schools, theocracy in the U.S. military, job and adoption discrimination against atheists, threats and violence against atheist activists… I’m a lot more worried about that stuff than I am about the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s completely legitimate to say, “This is wrong, but it isn’t where should be focusing our energy right now.”

But I am adamantly opposed to the accomodationist line that we should just go along with this crap — and not only go along with it, but actively help it along — just to avoid being divisive. I understand the wish for diplomacy and forging alliances with believers, and I think that, at least sometimes, that’s both desirable and achievable. But I am not going to quietly lie down and let myself be openly treated as a second-class citizen by my own government in my own country, just so I can avoid painful conversations and difficult political fights. I’m sorry if Bruce Ledewitz is upset by the divisive culture wars over religion. But suck it up, dude. We have real differences in this country. We are not going to resolve them by pretending they don’t exist. We are not going to resolve them by letting the religious right dictate the terms of the debate. And we sure as hell are not going to resolve them by re-defining our language: by saying that black is white, war is peace, and God is not a religious concept.

P.S. I also want to say this: I was deeply surprised and gratified at how many people showed up at this panel in a state of outrage and baffled head-scratching to say, “What the hell are you talking about?” I was kind of worried that I’d be the only godless agitator in a roomful of “Why can’t we all just get along?”ers. I shouldn’t have been.

"God Doesn't Have to Mean Religion": Accomodationism and the "Church and State" Panel at Netroots Nation

"But Is That It?" Religion, Death, and the Argument from Wishful Thinking

If there’s no soul, no God, and no afterlife… then doesn’t that kind of suck? Isn’t it better to believe that death isn’t the end, and that there’s a greater purpose in life than just life itself?

I got an email recently from Allan of New Zealand, who writes:

Hi Greta. Read your site, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God. Very interesting. I believe a life well lived is a comfort too because loved ones who are left. Have great memories to reflect on, and of course right living means a good model is left for future generations.

But as a Christian I also believe there is nothing that beats knowing one day you will see your loved ones again, that it’s not actually the end. After all we are are born… we grow… we marry… we work… we die… and have joy and sorrow along the way but is that it?? The same cycle for our children and our children’s children… if that’s it what’s the point. One of the reason I became a Christian is because I always believed, even as a near atheist, there to be a greater purpose in life.

I have two responses to this. One is more comforting, offering meaning and hope in a world with God or an afterlife. The other is a whole lot more hard-assed… but in some ways, I think it’s a lot more important.

The more comforting answer is: Yes, I believe that in a world without God or an afterlife, both life and death can have meaning and hope. I’ve written about this at length: not just in the Comforting Thoughts piece, but elsewhere. I’ve written that permanence isn’t a very good measure of meaning or importance, and that brief, transitory experiences can be every bit as valuable as stone monuments. I’ve written that sometimes the most seemingly silly and trivial experiences can create the greatest meaning and joy. I’ve written that the entirely physical nature of our being doesn’t make us drown or disappear in the vastness of the universe — it connects us intimately with it. I’ve written about how even death can be seen as connecting us intimately with the universe, part of the cycle of the physical and natural world. I’ve written that thinking of death as a deadline — a serious, non- negotiable, drop- dead deadline — can give our lives motivation and focus, inspiring us to do the things that matter to us now instead of putting them off indefinitely. I’ve written that there’s no reason to think that any particular scale of size or time is more important than any other, and that the human scale has every bit as much value as the universal scale.

That’s just a sampling. And other atheists have written similar things as well. A life without God or an afterlife can still have meaning, purpose, and an intimate connection with the arc of human history and with the vastness of time and space.

So that’s my “There is so comfort and purpose in an atheist life” answer.

Now here’s my hard-assed answer.

Since when is, “I really, really want X to be true” an argument for why X is true?

“Nothing beats knowing that X is true” is not an argument for why X is true. “If X isn’t true, then what’s the point?” is not an argument for why X is true. “X gives me a sense of a greater purpose in life” is not an argument for why X is true.

Or at least, it’s not a good argument.

This is what Ingrid calls “the argument from wishful thinking.” And if it were made about anything else in the world, our response would either be pity or an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. If I were to argue that ice cream doesn’t have any calories, that the California economy is flourishing, that I have a six-figure book contract, that I’m going to live for a thousand years, that the Middle East is a utopia of peace and harmony, that Alan Rickman and Rachel Maddow are waiting outside my front door right now to ravish me for hours — simply because I really, really want these things to be true — nobody would consider that a good argument. Nobody would take it seriously, even for a second.

So why do people consider it a valid argument when it comes to God and religion?

Let’s take a hypothetical. Let’s suppose, for a moment, that the most extreme version of this argument is true. Let’s suppose that a world without God or an afterlife really is a shallow, joyless, hopeless, isolated void. Let’s suppose that atheists really do have nothing to offer, no tidings of comfort and joy, and that the only way to view life as having meaning and purpose is to view it through the lens of religion. (I don’t think that, obviously; but hypothetically, let’s suppose.)

That’s still not an argument for why God and the afterlife are real. It’s just adding more “really”s to the “I really, really want X to be true” argument. It just turns the argument into, “I really, really, really, REALLY want X to be true. No, you don’t understand — really. If X isn’t true, that completely blows.” And that doesn’t make the argument any more convincing.

The argument from wishful thinking is completely backwards. It picks a pleasant philosophy first… and then crams reality into it, whether it fits or not. And that’s backwards. Reality comes first. Reality is more important than our opinions or wishes. It makes much more sense to look at reality first… and then find a philosophy consistent with it that we find useful and meaningful. (And then, of course, to modify that philosophy as needed when our understanding of reality changes.)

And the reality is that a belief in God, the soul, and the afterlife are just not consistent with the evidence.

Believe it or not, despite my “WTF?” tone here, I’m more sympathetic to this argument than you might imagine. I held on to spiritual beliefs for a long time, not because I thought the best evidence supported them, but because I found the idea of permanent death to be dreadfully painful. I wasn’t doing this consciously… but I was definitely doing it.

But as I wrote in Atheism and the Argument from Comfort: This is not an argument.

Fraying rope
It is a sign of desperation.

It is a last- ditch effort to hang on to an argument that the believer knows in their heart — and that they even know in their head — has already been lost.

I mean, if your big argument for religion is, “Sure, it doesn’t make sense, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were true? Doesn’t it make our lives easier to believe that it’s true?”… then you have essentially conceded the argument. It’s not an argument for why religion is correct. It’s not even trying to be an argument for why religion is correct. It’s an argument for why it’s okay to believe something that you know is almost certainly not true, but that you can’t imagine living without.

So try to imagine living without it. Other people have. And it works. Atheists around the world have found ways to see life — this life, just this short one that we have right now — as profoundly joyful and meaningful. Many of us even find it vastly preferable to a life with religion, offering more hope, more consistency, more empowerment, and more genuine meaning. And it offers the extra comfort of knowing that our life is built on the solid rock of reality… and not on the unstable sands of wishful thinking.

Related post:
Atheism and the Argument from Comfort

"But Is That It?" Religion, Death, and the Argument from Wishful Thinking

The Five-Book Atheist Canon?

I’m throwing this one out to all of you.

What do you think are the five must-read books on atheism?

I got this question from a friend of a friend who knows about my godless blogginess. And my first answer, right off the top of my head, was: Five?!?!? Are you kidding? Trust me — you need more than five. Five will just get you started. Five will just scratch the surface.

That being said:

My first reaction (after “You need more than five!”) would be to cite the writers jokingly referred to as the Four Horsemen: Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris. These writers keep getting cited over and over again, by countless atheist writers and thinkers. The most important books by those authors — the ones that keep getting cited over and over again — are probably:

God delusion
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Breaking the spell
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett

God is not great
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens (or instead, possibly the anthology he edited, The Portable Atheist)

End of faith
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris

And then I’d add to that:

Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

But that’s just off the top of my head, and I’m not sure that’s really the best representation. For one thing, all these titles are very recent, part of the so-called “new atheist” movement. It doesn’t include Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, W.E.B. DuBois, Epicurus… anyone in the long, rich history of non-belief. And all of them but Ayaan Hirsi Ali are white Western men.

So, per the request of this friend of a friend, I’m throwing this question out to the sharks:

What do you think are the five must-read books on atheism?

And do you think the answer would be different for different situations? Would you give a different answer to a bookstore buyer? A librarian? A private individual who just wants to learn more about atheism? Would it matter if the library were a public library or a graduate academic library? If the individual were a believer or an atheist? I’m curious to know what everyone thinks; I’m wondering if I need to add still more books to my teetering “must read ASAP” pile… and my friend of a friend will be grateful. Thanks!

The Five-Book Atheist Canon?