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?

Blessed If You Do, Blessed If You Don't

Blake god
Why is it that when good or lucky things happen, they get used as proof that God exists… but when bad or unlucky things happen, they get pawned off as “mysterious ways”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about a certain kind of argument for the existence of God. It’s not the “Something has to have made all this, and that something has to be God” argument. It’s not the “Something has to have come first, and that something has to be God” argument. It’s not even the wide assortment of “I don’t want for there not to be a God, therefore there has to be a God” arguments.

It’s the “Look at the wonderful things that happen — therefore there has to be a God” argument. When someone recovers from a serious illness, when someone gets the perfect job right in the nick of time, when someone finds the earring they lost… it’s given as proof of God at work.

The argument always has a certain “blessed if you do, blessed if you don’t” quality to it. When good things happen, it’s a sign of God’s love. But when bad things happen… well, God works in mysterious ways. He must have some lesson to teach us, some larger plan that we’re not aware of, and this bad thing must be part of that lesson/ plan. And who are we to question him? He knows what’s right better than we do.

So here’s what I find interesting about this argument. (Apart from the obvious circular reasoning and massive logical holes, of course.)

It assumes that the speaker knows the ultimate divine definition of good and evil. Despite the “mysterious ways/ we don’t know what’s right and wrong as well as God does” cop-out, it assumes that the speaker knows God’s intentions, and knows what God thinks is good and bad.

God hates fags
Look at it this way. What qualifies as a good or a bad event varies, at least somewhat, depending on the believer. Take gay people dying of AIDS. If you’re a progressive, gay- positive Christian, gay people dying of AIDS is a terrible tragedy: and if you believe in an all-powerful loving God, it’s a tragedy that has to be chalked up to mysterious ways and a larger divine plan that we can’t understand. But if you’re a homophobic right-wing fundie, gay people dying of AIDS is an obvious example of God’s justice, a righteous punishment for sin. (Why lesbians don’t get punished in the same way as gay men, or why some “sinful” sex acts spread the virus more readily than others… well, that’s just mysterious ways.)

So when someone says, “X is a clear sign of a benevolent and just God’s active presence in the world, but Y means that God works in mysterious ways and we can’t question his plan” — doesn’t that assume that they know what qualifies as obvious benevolence and justice, and what qualifies as a troubling but presumably necessary part of God’s plan? Doesn’t that assume that they know God’s plan… at least well enough to identify which parts of it are clearly and self-evidently part of that plan, and which parts are a gray, question- mark area that’ll have to be filled in later?

Popper- Logic of Scientific Discovery
My main problem with this argument, of course, is the obvious logical one: namely, that no matter what happens — good, bad or indifferent — it gets used as evidence of God’s existence. Thus rendering the God hypothesis unfalsifiable… and therefore utterly useless. (If any outcome whatsoever can fit into your hypothesis, it has no power to explain the past or predict the future.)

But this pride thing has been bugging me a lot lately. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of theists accusing atheists of being arrogant, when we’re the one who (on the whole) are saying, “Hey, show me evidence that I’m wrong, and I’ll change my mind,” and they’re the ones who (on the whole) are saying, “No argument or evidence could ever convince me that my faith is mistaken.” But the more closely I look at religion, the more I see the supposed deadly sin of pride all over it like a cheap suit.

And the “blessed if you do, blessed if you don’t” view of God’s plan is just another example.

Blessed If You Do, Blessed If You Don't

A Skeptic's View of Sexual Transcendence

Please note: This piece includes a few passing references to my personal sex life. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff may want to skip this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Urban tantra
For some reason, the sex- positive community is also, very often, a spiritual community. (At least in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live.) It’s not often a conventionally religious community; but many varieties of Wicca, Goddess worship, shamanism, Tantra, astrology, chi, chakras, belief in a collective metaphysical consciousness, and other forms of New Age belief and magical thinking permeate it, both privately and publicly.

This troubles me. I am a hard- core atheist/ materialist/ naturalist/ humanist/ skeptic/ whatever you want to call someone who doesn’t believe in any supernatural entities or substances. And I’m just as unconvinced — and almost as troubled — by the ideas of the Goddess and chi energy and immortal consciousness and so on, as I am by the ideas of God and angels and Hell.

Now, I’m not writing this piece to argue against religion. I may yet write a piece criticizing spiritual beliefs and practices in the sex- positive community… but it’s not what I’m doing here. (If you want to see my reasons and arguments for my lack of spiritual belief, you can do so here, and here, and here and here and here.)

What I want to do here is offer an alternative.

I want to offer a positive way of looking at sexuality and sexual transcendence that doesn’t involve any sort of belief in the supernatural. I want to offer a sex- positive philosophy that is entirely materialist. The materialist view of life in general and sex in particular is often viewed as cold, bleak, narrow, mechanical, reductionist, and generally a downer. I don’t think it is. And I want to talk about why.


The materialist view says that there is no supernatural world. At all. There is only the physical world. All those things that seem non- physical — thoughts, feelings, choices, selfhood, transcendent sexual ecstasy, consciousness in general — are actually products of the brain, and of the brain’s interactions with the rest of the body and the rest of the world. We don’t yet know exactly how this works — the science of neuropsychology is still in its infancy — but the overwhelming evidence we have so far is that this seems to be so.

And to me, this is not a downer. This is magnificent.

To me, the idea that, out of nothing but earth and water and sunlight, these wildly complex living beings have developed, not only with the capacity for consciousness but with the capacity to create the experience of ecstasy for ourselves and one another… that is just jaw-droppingly astonishing. We can create the experience of joy, of deep, expansive pleasure that takes us out of ourselves and into one another… and we do it through a complex re-arrangement of the energy of the sun, and the atoms and molecules of the planet.

That is magnificent. That, more than any spiritual belief I ever had, makes me feel both humble and proud. That makes me feel intimately connected with the rest of the Universe… in a way that no spiritual practice ever did. What’s that old hippie song about how we’re stardust, made of billion- year- old carbon? You don’t have to believe in metaphysical energy to think that that is wicked cool.

Descent of man
There’s something else, too. When you look at human beings from a materialist and evolutionary standpoint, not as special spiritual entities or children of the Goddess but simply as another twig on the evolutionary tree… that view puts sex squarely front and center in the human experience. Sex has an immensely important place in the evolutionary scheme. Darwin wrote an entire book about it.

Why does sex feel so good? Sex feels so good because it evolved to feel good. Sex feels profoundly, transcendently amazing because evolutionary forces strongly favor animals who really, really like to boff. That’s an oversimplification — for one thing, evolution can also favor animals who are picky about their sex partners — but it is a huge part of the picture.

Of course, birth control and other non- reproductive sexual practices have been shifting this picture somewhat for humans, putting reproduction into our conscious control and increasingly setting it apart from sexual pleasure. And as a queer spanking fetishist who neither has nor wants kids, I’m very much in favor of that. My DNA is apparently under the impression that it’s going to replicate by spanking other women, and I’m happy to let it dream on. But it is undeniable that these evolutionary forces are where the roots of sexual pleasure lie… roots that go back hundreds of millions of years.

Brain 4
In other words: According to a materialist viewpoint, the capacity for transcendent sexual joy is hard- wired into our brains… and it’s deeply and powerfully hard- wired, as a crucial and central feature of our lives, by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. And this doesn’t just mean that suppressing or trivializing sex is stupid and futile, dangerous and harmful, a cruel and pointless crusade against the deeply- laid grain of our nature. (Although it certainly does mean that.)

It means that 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.

And finally:

When you don’t believe in God or the soul or any sort of afterlife — when you believe that this short life is all that we have — then making the most of that short life, and taking advantage of the joyful experiences it has to offer, suddenly becomes a whole lot more important. It’s almost a moral obligation. The odds against you, personally, having been born into this life, are beyond astronomical. Are you going to waste that life by not giving yourself, and other people, as much joy as you possibly can?

Now, this doesn’t mean, as many anti- atheists claim, that without a belief in God or an afterlife, we can and would behave entirely selfishly and with no moral compass. It doesn’t mean that even a little bit. But it does mean than we can base our morality — including our sexual morality — on how our behavior demonstrably affects people in this life, and not on how it supposedly affects invisible beings in an unproven hypothetical life after this one. And it means that — as long as we don’t cause harm to people in this life — it is not only acceptable, but a positive and meaningful good, to engage in any activities that bring joy and epiphany and meaning to ourselves and the people around us. Including, and maybe even especially, sex.

In other words:

I don’t think we need to see sex as spiritual in order to see it as transcendent.

Kiss rodin
I don’t think we need to see sex as blessed by the Goddess, or a telepathic connection between souls, or a channeling of the chi energy, or as any form of worship or spiritual practice, in order to see it as valuable. I think we can see sex as a physical act between animals… and still see it as richly, deeply valuable and meaningful. I think we can see sex as a physical act , and still see it as an act that connects us intimately, not only with ourselves and with one another, but with all of life, and with the expanse of history, and with the vastness of the universe.

A Skeptic's View of Sexual Transcendence

Letting Go of God: Atheist Film Festival, Part 2

Part 2 of a two-part review of the Atheist Film Festival. In Part 1, I reviewed the movie Deliver Us From Evil. I am so thrilled to have been at the first ever Atheist Film Festival, I can’t even tell you. I can’t wait for next year’s.

Letting go of god dvd
If I had to choose one book about atheism that I wanted believers to read — one book to explain to believers what atheism is and perhaps persuade them to reconsider their beliefs — I don’t think it would be a book.

I think it would be this movie, “Letting Go of God.”

“Letting Go of God” captures Julia Sweeney’s one-woman performance piece about her deconversion from long-standing Catholic faith to atheism. And Sweeney has a very rare, very special knack. She has the ability to express complex and emotionally difficult ideas in an accessible, entertaining, intimately personal way. Rather than simply making an argument for why atheism is more plausible than religious belief, she tells the story of how, in the process of learning more about her faith, she eventually had to let go of it. And she tells this story with poignancy, with kindness, with dramatic tension, and with a powerful dose of hilarious humor.

Sweeney letting go of god 2
But Sweeney is more than just a good, funny storyteller. She has an intellectual courage that is enviable: a willingness to rigorously investigate her ideas and beliefs… and to change them or let them go if they don’t stand up. When she wanted to explore her Catholic faith in more depth, she didn’t just pray a lot or go to church more — she went to Bible study classes, to actually learn about the religion she’d held since childhood. (The first nail in the coffin of her faith, as it turned out.) When she was considering Buddhism, she didn’t just listen to the watered- down Los Angeles version of it — she went to Tibet. When she was thinking, “God is nature,” she didn’t just look at pretty trees — she read Darwin. And when she was getting into New Age quantum woo, she didn’t just take Deepak Chopra’s word for it — she took a class in quantum physics. (Leading her to the conclusion, “Deepak Chopra is full of shit!”) She is unwilling to accept slippery, vague, or glib answers to the serious questions of life… and she is unwilling to maintain an implausible or untenable belief simply because doing so would be easy or pleasant.

Yet at the same time, Sweeney has a kindness about her, a sympathetic quality that wants more than anything to understand people and connect with them. She doesn’t dismiss how powerful religion is in people’s lives, and she doesn’t trivialize the loss she felt when she finally had to let go of it. She does poke gentle fun at religion’s absurdities and inconsistencies (and sometimes not- so- gentle fun — Exhibit A being the Deepak Chopra section). But it’s clearly done from the point of view of an insider, one who has held sincere religious belief and understands what it feels like. (Anyone who thinks people become atheists because religion is too burdensome needs to see this movie, pronto… so they can see how hard Sweeney tried to hold on to her faith, and the crisis and loss she went through when it was slipping away.) She isn’t trying to persuade anyone to come around to her atheist point of view (although I suspect that may happen anyway, at least sometimes). She’s just trying to tell you what happened with her belief in God, and why she let go of it. And the bulk of her humor turns not on others, but on herself.

Julia sweeney
And this, I think, is what makes her performance so compelling. More than being a good storyteller, more even than having a rigorous intellectual courage, what makes “Letting Go of God” so powerful is Sweeney’s ability to take you inside her mind and her heart. Her deconversion story is exactly that: a story, not a polemic. With intelligence and sympathy, with drama and humor, with unblinking honesty and affectionate kindness, she takes the audience through her experience of letting go of God: not explaining or arguing for her position, but revealing, step by step, the extremely personal process by which she arrived at it.

Which is exactly why I would pick this movie, above any book or article or even blog post, as the piece of atheist thought I would most like believers to see. I have nothing against harsh critiques or mockery of religion: I’ve criticized and mocked religion at length, and will continue to do so, and will defend it with all my heart. But I also think that Sweeney’s gentle, personal, self- deprecating fearlessness about her own loss of faith is likely to get under people’s skin, in a way that the sharpest argument in the world might not. And it definitely has the power to get believers to see atheists, not as cowardly libertines, but as good, thoughtful, loving people who take life’s big questions seriously.

Now, whenever I give a rave review, I always feel obligated to balance it with some piece of criticism. So here it is:

In some places, the film quality isn’t great. There are spots where it’s a little grainy. (Unless that was a projection problem. In which case, never mind.)

That’s pretty much the downside.

Letting go of god dvd
In other words: This movie completely hits it out of the park. I don’t know why it’s had such a hard time finding distribution: it deserves a wide audience, and it has a broad appeal to both believers and non-. I recommend it to atheists, for all the obvious reasons, and as a great place to get pointers on how to talk with believers about religion. And I passionately recommend it to any and all religious believers who want to understand more about this atheism business: how it happens, and why it happens, and why it means so much to people.

“Letting Go of God” is available on DVD.

Letting Go of God: Atheist Film Festival, Part 2

Strange Religious Signs in the Midwest

When I went on this trip, I’d been planning to do a Midwestern follow-up to my Strange Religious Imagery in my Neighborhood piece. But alas, Midwesterners don’t go much for floridly weird religious imagery. (At least, not in the part of the Midwest where we were.)

They do, however, go for some interesting religious language. So I thought I’d share with you my twisted version of vacation snaps: Strange Religious Signs in the Midwest. (We actually had a genuinely good time on our trip: my family is cool and fun as well as godless, and there’s much about the Midwest that is deeply peaceful and beautiful. I do in fact love it, and get mad when people dismiss it as “flyover country.” But this is what I was doing with my camera instead of shooting pretty trees and houses. There’s something deeply wrong with me, I know.)

God has blessed america

“God Has Blessed America Let America Bless God!” (Galva Assembly of God, Galva, IL)

One in a long series of “America is God’s special country” theocracy signs. We were traveling on the Fourth of July weekend, so this theme was all over the church signs like a cheap suit. I didn’t even bother to photograph most of them.

May the fourth be with you

“May the Fourth Be With You” (St. John Roman Catholic Church; not sure what town, somewhere near Galesburg if not in it)

Yet another in the “patriotic Christianity” series. With an “out of date pop- culture pun to inject some humor and please the kids” thrown in for good measure.

Have i got your attention

“Have I Got Your Attention? — Good! Now Give Me Your Heart -God” (First Church of the Open Bible, Galesburg, IL)

Not a particularly unusual sentiment, I know. What struck all of us about this one was the arrogance of presuming to speak for God. What exactly does a pastor think when he puts up a sign like this… and signs it, “God”?

A family altar

“A Family Altar Can Alter A Family” (Colonial Baptist Church, Galesburg, IL)

What is is with church signs and bad puns?

Presence of christ puts pain in perspective

“The Presence of Christ Puts Pain In Perspective” (Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church, Galesburg, IL)

I’m not quite sure what the point here is. It could be, “Your divine buddy Christ is here with you and will get you into Heaven forever, therefore your pain is no big deal.” But it could also be, “Christ’s suffering on the cross was more horrific and ghastly than you could imagine, so quit whining about your own petty pain, and have some gratitude for his sacrifice. If it’s the former, then my reaction is pretty much, “Screw you for trivializing my pain.” If it’s the latter… then ditto. With an added helping of, “If I hit myself on the hand with a hammer enough times, does that give me moral authority over you? I didn’t ask Christ to hang himself on a cross for three days, so screw him for using it to try to guilt trip me into obedience.” And with just a dash of, “Ew.”

Do you truly know god

“Do You Truly Know God?” (Galva Assembly of God again; return trip)

At last — a church sign with a clear question that I can answer. My reply to that would be have a big, fat, unequivocal, “No.” Glad we could get that one settled. (I am curious about this one. Is the point that we don’t truly know God but the church does… or that none of us truly knows God and it’s arrogant to think that we do? I like to think that it’s the latter. Although given the blind certainty of the church’s previous “God Has Blessed America Let America Bless God!” message, I’m not so sure.)

We see god every day open arms

“We See God Every Day. Do You Recognize Him?” (Open Arms Community Church, Kewanee, IL)

Providing a charmingly arrogant contrast to the delicate philosophical questing of “Do You Truly Know God?” I mean, isn’t pride one of the seven deadly sins? I’ve never understood why thinking that you know better than others what God thinks and wants and looks like doesn’t qualify.

Brief tangent: This one is even funnier in the context of the church’s “1960s drive-in” architecture. While I didn’t take pictures of many churches themselves, I had to make an exception for this one.

Open arms church

We see God every day. And he looks like a
roller- skating carhop from “American Graffiti.”

Welcome we don't bite much

“Welcome Worship 9:00 AM Stop In We Dont Bite Much” (St. John Lutheran, Princeton, IL)

We don’t bite much. Wow. Do I ever feel welcome here. Especially with the barbed wire. And double especially with the other side of the same sign:

Hell is hotter

“Hell Is Hotter Probably Windier Too.” (ditto)

I think they were probably trying to be funny. With both sides of the sign. But something about this one told us, “Get the picture fast, and then get the frack out of there.” I am kind of entertained, though, by a church sign that warns you against the torments of hell by essentially saying, “The weather is even worse than it is in the Midwest!”

And finally:

God is perfect

“God Is Perfect Only Man Makes Misteaks” (First Congregational Church, Peru, IL)

Another in the “labored comedy” series. Rather more comical than most. Of course this one immediately makes me want to ask, “If God is perfect, then why did he make his most magnificent creation such bad spellers?”

A specially blessed country; bad puns; out- of- date pop culture references; the trivialization of human suffering; the presumption that believers recognize God and speak for him; jokey threats; labored humor; and weird logic. Let’s hear it for Christianity in America!

Strange Religious Signs in the Midwest

Deliver Us From Evil: Atheist Film Festival, Part 1

Part 1 of a two-part review of the Atheist Film Festival. Which was a thumping success as far as I could tell. I’m sorry we were only able to see two movies; I hope they can keep doing it.

Deliver us from evil
It’s not like I didn’t know this stuff. I knew it.

But somehow, this movie made it real, and bore the full reality of it in on me, in a way that it hadn’t been before.

“Deliver Us From Evil” is a documentary about the extensive child- molestation scandal in the Catholic Church. And it transforms the horror of what happened into a full-scale moral outrage. Not just the obvious outrage over child molestation and the lives it ruins. Not just the outrage at the priest at the center of this particular scandal, Oliver O’Grady, and his repulsive and baffling lack of moral compass (it’s like he knows what morality is supposed to look and sound like, but doesn’t understand what it feels like or what it means). Not even just the outrage over how the Catholic Church consistently and at the highest levels acted to protect itself and its priests rather than to protect the children who were being put in harm’s way: moving molesting priests around the country, lying to law enforcement, concealing evidence, even paying off witnesses. (And, of course, trying to blame it all on the gays.)

No, what this movie filled me with anew was an outrage over the very foundation of the Catholic Church: the essential nature of its theology and its organization.

The movie makes it clear that the child molestation scandal in the Catholic Church is not simply a few bad apples. It’s not even just a case of a few bad apples and an organization’s misguided attempts to circle the wagons. It is the predictable result of a religious organization that vests all of its spiritual connection with God, and all of the possibility for salvation and eternal life, in the hands of a relatively few authority figures. It is the predictable result of a religious organization that makes the organization itself, and its authority figures, a necessary conduit between people and God.

See, the point of this film wasn’t “child molestation is bad.” It wasn’t even, “protecting child molesters and concealing their crimes so they can molest again is bad.” You don’t need a documentary to tell you that. No, the point of this film — or one of the points, a point hammered on again and again by people both inside and outside the church familiar with this scandal — is that the basic hierarchy and theology of the Catholic Church is a recipe for the abuse of power. When you teach people — especially children — that the only way to God and Heaven is through the rites of the Church, administered by Church authorities? When you teach people — especially children — that Church authorities have a special connection to God and goodness that ordinary people don’t have? When you teach people — especially children — that defying the Church and its earthly representatives will condemn you to permanent, infinite burning and torture? When you do all that, widespread abuse of power is almost inevitable. (Add to this that when you teach warped messages about the wickedness of sex to seminary students in their teens, and demand that they refrain from it in order to pursue their special connection with God, it’s almost inevitable that this abuse of power will often be sexual.)

And when you have a church hierarchy and theology founded on these ideas — church authorities being special conduits to God, the necessity of going through these authorities and the rituals they perform to gain salvation — then it’s almost inevitable that they would circle the wagons when they become aware of that abuse… and relentlessly stonewall investigations when that abuse begins to come to light.

I mean, the whole institution is founded on the idea that priests are special, holy men of God with an exceptional spiritual power, and that the authority they wield comes not from human beings but from a divine command. Of course they’re going to protect those priests at the expense of protecting children. To do otherwise wouldn’t just make their organization look bad. It would undermine the very foundation that their church is built on. It would force them to rethink everything they believe, everything they’ve centered their lives on.

And people aren’t very good at doing that.

Deliver us from eivl Mahony
So instead, they circled the wagons. And in doing so, they made themselves more monstrous than the child molesters they were protecting. O’Grady’s actions, abhorrent as they were, were almost understandable in the context of mental illness. The actions of the Church officials who protected him and countless other priests like him, not out of uncontrollable impulse, but consciously, thoughtfully, with a cool evaluation of the pros and cons, are beyond moral comprehension.

This is a hard movie to watch. And I certainly understand the impulse to not go to movies that are hard to watch. (I’ve never been sorry that I went to see a movie that was brilliant but hard to watch… but I always have to remind myself of that, and the impulse to just see something smart and funny at the end of a long week is a strong one.) But I’m completely glad I saw “Deliver Us From Evil,” and I recommend it highly. It made both the full magnitude and the full emotional depth of this scandal clear to me, and personal to me, in a way that it hadn’t been before. And it made clear in an entirely new way just how deeply religion can twist the moral compass, creating an institution that loudly and publicly cries its outrage over the desecration of a cracker… but that whispers and stonewalls, turns a blind eye and covers it up, when thousands upon thousands of children are being molested by its most trusted representatives.

If you can’t see it in a theater or at an atheist film festival, “Deliver Us From Evil” is also available on DVD.

Deliver Us From Evil: Atheist Film Festival, Part 1

Atheists and the Closet: or, Keith Olbermann, Tonight's Worst Person in the World

Keith olbermann
If you’re an atheist, and you’re promoting atheists coming out and knowing that they’re not alone — but you, yourself, are not entirely out of the closet about your atheism — does that make you a bad person?

Keith Olbermann seems to think so. In his fabled “Worst Person in the World” segment tonight, he had this to say:

Tonight’s worst persons in the world. The bronze: To the person who donated the scratch for ten thousand dollars worth of ads on the sides of buses in New York City, promoting atheism. They read, “You don’t have to believe in God to be a moral or ethical person.” The hope, from president Ken Bronstein of the group NYC Atheists, is to get people to stop hiding their non- belief — to stop hiding it. No complaint about the message — however, while Bronstein says, “We want to get atheists to come join us, to get out of the closet,” unfortunately the donor who made the ads possible is keeping his identity anonymous. (Contemptuous eye-roll.)

Okay. Here is my question for Mr. Olbermann.

If you were doing a segment about an ad campaign designed to let gay people know that they weren’t alone and to encourage them to come out of the closet — and one of the major donors to the campaign wanted to remain anonymous — would you decry them as one of the worst persons in the world?

Dont ask dont tell
Or would you understand that coming out as gay can — yes, still, even this day and age — be a hazardous enterprise? Would you understand that coming out can mean alienating family and friends, losing your job or your kids, getting beaten up or even killed? Would you understand that people have to come out on their own timetable, and that a person who wants to take action to support gay rights and gay visibility still might not be completely out of the closet? Would you understand that even gay people who are out to their families and friends and colleagues still might not want their name, and their gayness, splashed all over the national news?

And if so, then why don’t you understand it about atheists?

There are some realities about living as an atheist that you may not know about, Mr. Olbermann. Coming out as an atheist can have serious real-world consequences. Parents get denied custody of their children for being atheists. People get harassed and vandalized by their neighbors for being atheists. Teachers get suspended for being atheists. Teenagers get harassed and suspended from school for being atheists. Politicians whip up anti-atheist fear to try to get elected. (And that’s just in the US. I’m not even talking about parts of the world where atheism is a crime, punishable by imprisonment or death.)

Coming out day
I wish atheists would come out of the closet, too. It is the single most powerful act we can do to gain acceptance and understanding. And there’s definitely a Catch-22: the world isn’t safe for atheists since so few atheists are out… but as long as atheists don’t come out, it will continue to be unsafe. Some of us need to take the risk, so it’ll be easier and less risky for others.

But I also understand that that is not my decision to make for others. I understand that, while I can encourage atheists to come out, I can’t judge them if they decide they can’t do it. I understand that coming out is not as easy for some people as it is for others. It was pretty easy for me: my family are atheists; my wife is an atheist; I live in San Francisco, the world capital of alternative culture and “who gives a damn what other people believe”-ism; I work for a hippie punk-rock anarchist business; I don’t have kids. (And even I lost friends when I came out as an atheist.) I understand that not everyone is as lucky as me: I understand that there is a substantial amount of anti- atheist bigotry in this country and in the world, and that some people have workplaces, neighbors, schools, custody situations, etc., that make coming out as atheist untenable.

Is there an irony in the fact that the major donor behind an atheist visibility ad campaign is choosing to remain anonymous? You bet there is. But that irony should not be making you think, “What a hypocrite that person is. They’re one of the worst persons in the world.” It should be making you think, “What a messed up world it is we live in — that even the person promoting atheist visibility doesn’t feel safe being completely open about being an atheist.”

Atheists and the Closet: or, Keith Olbermann, Tonight's Worst Person in the World