Is It Okay to Mock Marginalized Religion?

Is it ever okay to mock a marginalized religion, or the religion of a marginalized culture?

When I posted my recent photo gallery of Strange Religious Imagery In My Neighborhood, I was taken to task for being culturally insensitive. Commenter Raul, who apparently lives in the neighborhood (or at least is very familiar with it), was disappointed in my post. He felt that the attitude it expressed to Latino history and the culture of the neighborhood was disrespectful, dismissive, smart-assed, and ignorant… among other things. (You really should read his comment, as it expresses his point of view better than I can.)

This is my reply.


First: Raul, I do think you have a point. I get that I am something of an interloper in this neighborhood, and while to some extent that’s just the reality of neighborhoods (the Castro was a working- class Irish neighborhood before Teh Gays started moving in), I get that this is an issue, and I try to stay aware of it. I’m friendly to my neighbors (well, as friendly as I am to anybody I don’t know well); I make a point of patronizing neighborhood businesses that have been here a while; I mostly avoid the Johnny- come- lately gentrification businesses (with a handful of exceptions — you’ll get my Dynamo donut when you pry it from my cold dead hands); etc. This is not a new issue to me: it’s an issue I’ve thought about at length, and I thought about it carefully when I was putting together my “strange religious art” post. (I actually went to some trouble to have the gallery not be solely or even primarily about Latino imagery: hence the meditating alien, the Rabbit in the Sky mural, Poseidon, and the triad of Eastern religious symbols on the utility box.)

And I get that critiquing or poking fun at aspects of the culture in which one is something of an interloper can be a dicey proposition. Especially when one is an interloper from the dominant culture into a more marginalized one.

But ultimately, I don’t accept your argument.

Here’s my problem with your argument. Virtually every culture and sub-culture in this country — heck, on this planet — has its own distinct religion and/or spirituality. For most of those cultures, religion and spirituality are deeply and intimately interwoven into the culture.

And many of those religions, arguably most of them, are religions of marginalized cultures. I’ve heard arguments similar to yours about African- American religion: religion is so important to that culture, it’s wrong for outsiders to critique it or mock it, to point out its absurdities and inconsistencies or try to persuade people out of it. Christian fundamentalism is largely the religion of poor people in the American South. Catholicism in America is largely the religion of immigrant or marginalized recent- immigrant cultures: Latino, but also Irish- and Italian-Americans. Judaism. Hinduism. Islam. Wicca. I could go on and on. Either many of the believers in these religions, or the cultures these religions are prevalent in, or the religions themselves, are the recipients of some sort of bigotry or discrimination.

Are atheists therefore not to criticize any of them?

Let me put it this way. If it’s not right for me to criticize or poke fun at any of these religions out of respect for the culture, I’m pretty much left with Episcopalianism.

And while, okay, Episcopalianism is deserving of criticism, and while Episcopalianism is pretty darned funny… that’s still awfully limiting. That doesn’t give me much to blog about. More seriously: Trying to follow this rule would keep me from speaking out against some of the worst horrors perpetrated by religion… and from pointing and laughing at some of religion’s most mind-boggling absurdities.

In other words: The argument that critiquing a given religion is culturally insensitive? It’s essentially a “shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s an attempt to cut people off from pointing out religion’s absurdities: not all at once, but one religion at a time.

Now. The devil’s advocate in my head is arguing that it’s okay to critique… but it’s not okay to poke fun. It’s okay to criticize the religions of marginalized cultures… but I have to do it soberly, and with respect.

But the devil’s advocate in my head is not convincing me. As I’ve written before: Humor is one of the single most powerful, time-honored forms of social criticism we have. Humor is a singularly effective tool at spotlighting and deflating pretention, hypocrisy, inconsistency, greed, corruption, willful ignorance, and just flat-out absurdity.

Emperors new clothes
And when it comes to religion, humor is absolutely crucial to the deflation process. One of the whole points of atheism, as far as I’m concerned, is that religion is the Emperor’s new clothes. Like I said in my Strange Religious Imagery post: People see familiar religions as normal, and unfamiliar religions as freakish and bizarre. So one of the primary points of poking fun at religion is to get people to see their own religion from the perspective of an outsider… and to get people to see that, from the perspective of a non-believer, all religion looks equally silly. (As somebody whose name I can’t remember once said: If you don’t want your beliefs to be ridiculed, don’t have such ridiculous beliefs.)

So the idea that atheists shouldn’t poke fun at religious practices that people take seriously is, once again, essentially a “shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s an attempt to take out of our hands one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. (Sort of like asking atheists not to be so angry.) Again, if I can’t poke fun at any religion that’s precious to a marginalized subculture, then I’m pretty much left with Episcopalians. And I only have so many jokes about golf pants in me.

And I don’t agree with your double standard argument at all. By all means, make fun of Judaism. Other atheists do. I have. Just last month, I referred to a specific tenet of Orthodox Judaism as a “belief in girl cooties.” In this blog, I have made fun of Judaism, Catholicism, fundamentalist Christianity, moderate Christianity, “so far left it’s falling off the continent” Christianity, Wicca, astrology, neo-Paganism, assorted other New Agery and woo, belief in telepathy, belief in guardian angels, Quakerism, Deism, Mormonism, Unitarianism, Baha’i, and the Christian theology from the Middle Ages asserting that the Virgin Mary was impregnated in her ear.

And I’ve made fun of atheism. Boy, howdy, have I ever.

It’s a fine line to walk, making fun of the religion but not the culture — especially since religion and culture are usually so closely intertwined. And yes, when a culture is especially marginalized, or when there’s an ugly history of bigoted and hateful mockery against it, or when you’re in the position of being something of an interloper/ guest in that culture, then you have to walk that line more carefully.

Alien meditating
Which I was trying to do in my Strange Religious Imagery post. The post was somewhat mocking, yes; but I was trying for a gently mocking tone, even a lovingly mocking tone. I passionately love this neighborhood: it gives me joy just to walk around in it, and I show it off to visitors with beaming pride. And one of the things I love most about it is how much art there is everywhere, and how beautiful and strange so much of it is. (I don’t see “strange” as an insult, btw — most of the art I love best is deeply strange.) The point of the gallery was not, “Look at the wacky stuff Latinos in the Mission believe.” It was, “Look at the wacky stuff people believe, and the fascinating ways they turn it into art.” (Again — hence the inclusion of the meditating space alien and so on.)

I get that this post was not the most brilliant or insightful one that I’ve ever written. (They can’t all be gems.) But I do think I had a point to make — the point I made at the beginning of the gallery, about how unfamiliar religions seem weird and silly, but familiar religions seem normal and reasonable until you start looking at them closely. Sometimes I make my points in thoughtful, soul- searching essays… but sometimes, I want to take a lighter tone. And as a writer, if I’m constantly second-guessing myself for fear of offending someone — especially on the topic of religion, which people get offended about at the drop of a hat — I’m never going to say anything at all.

I do hope that people will call me on it if they think I’ve crossed a line, and I appreciate you doing that. But it seems that the gist of your argument is, “we should never criticize or mock other people’s religions, especially the religions of marginalized people, because it’s culturally disrespectful.” That’s an argument I’ve considered. And it’s one that, for all the reasons outlined here, I ultimately just don’t accept.

Is It Okay to Mock Marginalized Religion?

Strange Religious Imagery In My Neighborhood

Ever since I became an atheist, I’ve been increasingly conscious, not just of how unsupported religion is, but of how deeply strange so much of it is. You know how religions that you’re familiar with seem relatively normal, but religions that you’re unfamiliar with often seem deeply bizarre, even surreal? Along with a lot of other atheists, I’ve found that when you step back from all religion, even the ones you’re familiar with, they all start to seem pretty strange. (The Eucharist? Really?)

And ever since I got an iPhone, I’ve been noticing this strangeness show up in imagery all around me. Having a camera on me 24/7 has made me start paying closer attention to the look of the world around me generally; and it’s definitely made me start paying attention to some of the more striking and unusual religious imagery in the neighborhoods where I live and work.

I’ve been taking photos… and I thought I’d start sharing some of the better ones. (You can click on them to enlarge if you like.)


This is the one that started it all. At first I thought it was supposed to be Jesus, and I even had a blog post all ready to go about the artist who took the phrase “Jesus H. Christ on a crutch” a little too literally. Fortunately, before I made an ass of myself, I did a little Googling, and discovered that it’s not Jesus. It’s Lazarus.

Still an odd thing to want in your home, though.


This is Death. There are many, many sculptures of Death available for sale in my neighborhood. I’m especially fond of this one, because of the owls perched at his shoulders, and the sack of money at his feet. (He’s Death. What does he need with money?)

Alien meditating

No, your eyes do not deceive you — this is a space alien, meditating. Click to enlarge — the spaceships over his shoulder confirm it.


This is Poseidon. Fairly straightforward, actually. But I find it deeply and delightfully strange that, in the midst of the predominantly Christian, Eastern, and woo religious imagery in the neighborhood, someone decided to include Poseidon in the mix. I also like the scuba diver at his feet.

Angry goddess

I’m not sure which Goddess of Wrath this is, but I definitely want to stay on her good side. Especially as she seems to be giving birth to… I don’t know what that is. A dreidle with the face of another god, perhaps.

Death 2

Death again. I could do a whole series of Death Images In My Neighborhood. With this one, I like the blending of the Death iconography with the Justice iconography; and the bony foot resting on the world just adds that special touch. And the fact that Death is wearing a skull around his neck is almost comically self- referential, even if it does have just a smidge of overkill. As it were. Dude, you’re Death. You’re a skeleton in a black cloak wielding a scythe that’s apparently the size of Jupiter. You really don’t need a skull around your neck to make yourself look more ominous.

Rabbit in sky

The Great Rabbit in the Sky. Borne up on clouds by pudgy, podlike little angel- demon things.

Three symbols

No one of these is particularly unusual: I just like their juxtaposition. It’s sort of like those “Coexist” bumper stickers in street-art form. “Can’t we all just get along?”

And now for my very favorite, the religious image residing in that part of our neighborhood that is our living room:

Obama candle 1

The Obama Prayer Candle.

These showed up everywhere in our neighborhood between the election and the inauguration. I’m not sure what the intent was behind them, or if they were self-mocking or serious, or what. But we just had to have one. More precisely, Ingrid just had to have one, and I griped about it and was secretly delighted. (Don’t tell her.)

Anyway. I feel like I should sum these up in some clever or insightful way. But it’s almost three in the morning, and I don’t think I have anything to add at the moment other than: Religion. Weird.

Strange Religious Imagery In My Neighborhood

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

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog — and it’s another one that both my atheist readers and my sex readers are going to want to check out. It’s about the prevalence of New Age spirituality in the sex- positive community… and why, exactly, I think that’s so common. It’s titled Tantric Orgasms and Sacred Sex: New Age Spirituality in the Sex Community, and here’s the teaser:

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on this blog 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.

That’s just one of the ideas I’ve come up with about this. To find out more about why I think the sex-positive community is so invested in spirituality — and why I care — read the rest of the piece. (And as always, if you feel inspired to comment on this blog, please consider cross- posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog. They like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

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

George Tiller and Bill Donohue: How Religion Twists the Moral Compass

George tiller
You’ve almost certainly heard about George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was murdered yesterday: most likely (although we don’t know for sure yet) by a religiously- motivated anti- abortion vigilante.

You may or may not have heard about Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who, commenting on the latest scandal about severe and widespread institutional child abuse in Catholic schools in Ireland, has been vociferously defending the Catholic Church: downplaying the well- documented and horrific abuse, accusing victims of being “gold diggers looking to get money from the Catholic Church”… and screaming at rape victim Colm O’Gorman to “shut up.”

I want to talk about the power that religion has to twist the human moral compass.

Cccp russian propaganda poster
I’m going to start by being fair. Religion is far from the only belief system or ideology that can inspire people who think they’re doing good to commit terrible, heinous acts. Political ideology, for instance, can do the same thing: as we’ve seen in the Stalinist Soviet Union, or the United States in the W. Bush administration. The process of rationalization is far from limited to the world of religion. And because rationalization is often self- perpetuating — when we do something bad, we find a rationalization for why it wasn’t bad, which makes us more likely to do that bad thing again — it can lead otherwise sane and moral people, step by step, into committing atrocities we would otherwise recoil from in horror. This is not limited to religion: it is a fluke of how the human mind works.

But here’s the problem with religion. Here’s what makes religion special, uniquely suited for twisting the human moral compass.

Reality check
With religion, there’s no reality check. There’s no expectation of a reality check. There’s not even any sense that a reality check is a reasonable thing to expect. Heck, in many religions, expecting a reality check is actually considered a bad thing: a sign of weak faith at best, heresy at worst. (Doubting Thomas, and all that.)

In any other moral system, you’re expected to come across. The ultimate criteria of your actions are, you know, your actions, and the affect they have on the world. We can see those actions, and those effects. And while people can argue that their apparently bad actions will have good effects in the long term or in the big picture, eventually they have to come across with those good effects — or else see their moral system condemned, and have it fall by the wayside.

South park heaven
But religion is ultimately dependent on belief in beings that are invisible; voices that are inaudible; entities that are intangible; and events and judgments that happen after people die. In religion, the Ultimate Arbiter of right and wrong is invisible, and doesn’t judge until after you’re dead and can’t tell anyone. And in religion — in most religion, anyway — the Invisible Arbiter in the Sky takes precedence over the actual human reality staring you in the face. You don’t ever have to come across. A belief that your actions will have good effects in this world will only take you so far; a belief that your actions will earn the approval of an invisible god has no limits in how far it can take you.

And therefore, religion has a unique power to twist people’s innate sense of right and wrong. Religion has the power to bend the moral compass to the point where people will commit murder in the name of protecting life. Religion has the power to bend the moral compass to the point where people will defend or trivialize or explain away the horrific abuse of children — the literal, physical and sexual, institutional abuse of thousands of actual human children — and still decry putting a nail through a cracker as a vile offense against all that is right and good. More than family loyalty, more than patriotism, more than political ideology, more than any other belief system, religion has the power to bend the moral compass until it breaks.

(Some of these ideas were developed in a comment thread on Pharyngula.)

George Tiller and Bill Donohue: How Religion Twists the Moral Compass

Is It Okay to Mock Religion?

Is it okay to mock religion?

And if so, is it ever not okay to mock religion?

I got an interesting question from Ola the other day. She asked:

I have a question for you that arose in one of my disputes with a religious person, and it really bothers me. The question is about the use of humor in our arguments. Not just humor — irony. Sarcasm. Snark, if you wish. Things like the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Kissing Hank’s Ass.

People say that it is mean and disrespectful to mock their beliefs. No, I know what you’re about to say! You wrote: “Atheists see religion as just another hypothesis about how the world works. We decline to treat it with more respect than any other opinions, theories, philosophies. We decline to treat its writings with more respect than any other books, its leaders with more respect than any other political or community figures…” but that’s not quite it. The people who make this argument actually sound like they mean it to include not just religious beliefs, as an exception — but all beliefs and opinions. What they say is that humor and sarcasm are not arguments — they are cheap tricks to bias people emotionally, and they have no place in a meaningful debate. If you really want to discuss something, you should be deadly serious. Or so I understand.

What do you think?

Well, let’s see.

Is it ever okay to use humor and sarcasm when discussing an important topic?

Molly ivins
My answer to that particular question is a completely unequivocal “Yes.” Of course it is. From Aristophanes to Jon Stewart, from Mark Twain to Molly Ivins, from Jonathan Swift to Monty Python, from Chaucer to The Onion, satire is a powerful, time-honored form of social and political criticism. Humor and mockery can be used to point out the pretentions and deceptions of the greedy, the pompous, the self- important, the hypocritical, the corrupt, the willfully ignorant… often far more effectively than any other device. Humor shakes you out of your usual way of looking at things and gives a different perspective on it — and when you’re subverting the dominant paradigm or whatnot, that’s absolutely crucial. When the emperor has no clothes, sometimes the only appropriate response is to point and laugh.

Steven colbert
And if nothing else, humor keeps people paying attention. People will keep watching your TV show, listening to your radio program, reading your book or your blog post, if you’re entertaining them. It’s not just that humor is often more effective than sober commentary. It’s that it goes down easier. It keeps people listening… and it keeps people coming back. Plus it’s often more memorable.

I think this one is pretty much a no-brainer. Humor and sarcasm as legitimate social commentary? You bet! But I do want to address the question it brings up. Namely:

Is it acceptable — and is it useful — to use humor and mockery to critique religion?

First, just to be clear: I’m not talking about whether it’s legally okay. Of course it is — and in parts of the world where it isn’t, it should be. I’m not talking about whether people have the right to mock religion. I’m talking about whether it’s right to mock religion: whether mocking religion is ethical, or kind, or effective.

And surprising as it may seem, given the above rant about the power of satire as political and social commentary, I actually don’t think that’s a question with a single, simple “yes or no” answer. I think it’s a question whose answer depends on at least four other questions that I can think of.

1: What’s the context?

Candide voltaire
Are we talking about mocking religion on your blog… or are we talking about mocking religion at Thanksgiving dinner? Are we mocking it in a book or a magazine article or a letter to the editor… or are we mocking it in a personal conversation with a friend about their beliefs?

I think the rules about public conversation are very different from the rules about private conversation. In public conversation, a much higher degree of criticism, both serious and sarcastic, is considered acceptable. (This is a point Richard Dawkins has made: the kind of language that’s decried as intolerant and insulting in atheist critique of religion is accepted with barely a blink in political commentary or restaurant reviews.)

In public discourse, ideas and information take precedence. That’s the whole idea of the marketplace of ideas. People speak loudly and passionately in favor of their ideas and against ones they disagree with, so that — ideally, at least — the most convincing ideas will be the ones that eventually sell. People do this using every rhetorical tool they have… including sarcasm. Dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire. They use all the tricks. And if you participate in public discourse, you’re expected to have a thick skin. If you dish it out, you should be able to take it. (See above, re: satire as a respectable, time-honored form of political and social discourse.)

Flying spaghetti monster
And to this end, I think mockery of religion isn’t just acceptable. It can be a positive good. It can be a way of saying, “We decline to treat religion with kid gloves anymore. We see religion as just another idea about the world… and when it’s a silly idea, we’re going to make fun of it, just like we would with any other silly idea.” The expectation that religion should be treated with extra respect is one of the main ways that religion protects itself from legitimate criticism… and mocking religion can be an important part of stripping that protection from it and making it defend itself just like any other idea.

But in private discourse, ideas and information don’t necessarily take precedence. In private discourse, personal relationships between people often take precedence. Kindness to the people you love and care about often takes precedence. If you’re writing a magazine article or a fashion blog, you might say, “Gaucho pants are a crime against humanity”… but you presumably wouldn’t say it to your cousin Cindy who shows up at dinner wearing them. And I think a similar principle applies to religion.

What’s more, in public conversation, it’s much easier for someone who doesn’t like what you’re saying to turn away: turn the page of the newspaper, change the channel on the TV, click to another blog. That’s a lot harder to do at Thanksgiving dinner. In a situation where there’s a strong social expectation that people not just walk out, I think it’s rude and unkind to put them in a position where their only choices are to walk out, to get into a big argument, or to sit there and let themselves be made fun of.

I’m not saying that religion is off-limits in personal conversation. I’m just saying the tone we take should be different. Personally, unless I’m pretty sure that everyone else in the room is a non-believer, I rarely bring up religion in social situations (although if someone ask what I blog about, I will usually say “Atheism and sex”). And if someone else brings it up, I try to step lightly, speak tactfully, choose my words carefully… a lot more lightly and tactfully and carefully than I do in my blog. And even if my own beliefs aren’t being treated respectfully, I still try to take the high road — a lot more so than I would in a public conversation. I may still use humor… but I’ll be a lot more gentle about it than I would in public writing or conversation.

2: Who or what, exactly, is the target of the mockery?

Monty python spanish inquisition
There’s a line I try to draw when I’m being critical or mocking of religion. The line is this: I try to focus my criticism and mockery on beliefs and actions — not on people. I try to remember to say things like, “Catholicism is stupid” — not “Catholics are stupid.”

Partly I do this because I think saying “Catholics are stupid” veers dangerously close to religious bigotry. Because Catholics are so diverse, and vary so greatly in how much they do or don’t adhere to the tenets of Catholicism, saying “Catholics are stupid” is essentially deriding people on the basis of the group they belong to, instead of for what they themselves say and do. When we aim our mockery at religious ideas and actions, we’re participating in a noble tradition of satire as social criticism. When we aim our mockery at religious people, we’re participating in a much uglier tradition.

But I also do this because I think saying “Catholics are stupid” is patently untrue. Catholics are no more stupid or smart than anyone else. They have, IMO, some mistaken ideas about the world… but so does everyone else in the human race. You don’t have to be stupid to make mistakes. You don’t even have to be stupid to stubbornly hold on to mistakes in the face of overwhelming evidence. The human tendency to rationalize mistakes can be an aggravating one… but it’s also a universal one, one that every one of us shares. And the human ability to compartmentalize can be a deeply aggravating one… but it also gives room for people with some dumb ideas to still be smart and capable in other areas of their lives.

I do make a few exceptions. Public figures who deliberately make religion a big part of their public image, I think, are fair game… especially when they’re big old hypocrites. But on the whole, I try to aim my criticism of religion — mocking and otherwise — at ideas and actions, not at people or groups.

3: What kind of mockery are we talking about, anyway?

Jon stewart george bush
There’s mockery, and there’s mockery.

There’s mockery that has a point. There’s mockery that shines a spotlight on inconsistency, hypocrisy, stupidity, greed, arrogance, close-mindedness, sloppy thinking, and flat-out evil. (The kind of mockery than Jon Stewart is king of.)

And then there’s mockery of the “Janie is a doo-doo-head” variety. The kind of mockery that calls names and makes fun without any real content or point. The kind of mockery that essentially substitutes invective for analysis. (The kind of mockery that, alas, Keith Olberman is all too prone to.)

The latter, I think, is a whole lot less useful. It has its place, to be sure: it can be entertaining in the right context, and it can do a lot to relieve tension and forge bonds within a movement. And I certainly won’t deny that I’ve indulged in it myself. But I don’t have nearly the same “this is a powerful and venerated form of social commentary that dates back to ancient times, yada yada yada” respect for it that I do for the other kind.

Finally, and maybe most importantly:

4: What are you trying to accomplish?

Are you trying to rally the troops? Are you trying to lift the spirits of non-believers who already agree with you, and to forge stronger bonds between you? Are you trying to inspire other atheists to get more involved, to take a further step into visibility and action? Are you trying to draw attention to atheism in the media and the public eye? Are you trying to shift the public perception of religion: to shake it off its pedestal, and get people to see it as just another institution, and just another view of the world, which we can debate and make fun of just like any other?

Or are you trying to engage in fruitful debate with people who disagree with you? Are you trying to persuade believers to reconsider their religious beliefs… or at least, to reconsider their attitude towards atheists?

Both of these are useful, valid goals. But they require a different approach. And in my experience, mockery is more useful in the first set of goals than the second. Very, very few people in this world will be persuaded that they’re wrong by being made fun of. Generally speaking, making fun of people makes them defensive, entrenches them more stubbornly in their beliefs. And this is especially true when it comes to beliefs that are deeply held, and deeply precious and important to people.

It’s not that humor can never be used in a respectful, persuasive, one-on-one debate. But in my experience, it has to be used more sparingly, and more lightly: with less of a mocking, sarcastic, “don’t you see what an idiot you’re being?” tone, and more of a gentle, “we are all fools together” tone.

If that makes sense.

Oh, and by the way, Ola: Thanks for the “Kissing Hank’s Ass” thing. I hadn’t heard that meme before. That is fracking hilarious.

Is It Okay to Mock Religion?

Sex, Culture and Religion with Greta Christina: My Interview with Weird Things

I’ve just done what I think is a very cool interview with Greg Fish of the Weird Things blog (a blog devoted to “exploring science, the strange and the unknown”). Greg read my Skeptic’s View of Sexual Transcendence piece on the Blowfish Blog, and asked to interview me about the intersection of sex and religion. (It’s not a podcast, btw: we spoke in person on the phone, but Greg then transcribed and edited the interview and posted that on the blog.)

We talked about why New Age spirituality is so prevalent in the sex-positive community; whether there’s a sex- negative community; how traditional religious communities reconcile their fear and hostility towards sex with the injunction to be fruitful and multiply; what inspired me to write about a skeptical/ materialist view of sex in the first place; and what my vision is for an ideal sexual world.

The interview is titled Sex, Culture and Religion with Greta Christina. If you want to read what I have to say about all that, check it out. (And if you’re inspired to comment here, please consider cross- posting your comment to Weird Things as well — I’m sure he likes comments as much as I do.) Enjoy!

Sex, Culture and Religion with Greta Christina: My Interview with Weird Things

What Does it Mean to Believe in Something?

What does it mean to believe in something?

One of the most common canards thrown at atheists… I’m sorry, but I’m being overcome with giggles right now, since the word “canard” comes from the French for “duck,” and I’m now picturing a brace of ducks being hurled at the attendees of an atheist convention by angry but confused fundamentalists. I’m a little punchy tonight. I’ll start again.

One of the most common accusations thrown at atheists is that we “don’t believe in anything.” It’s often said as part of the “without religion there’s no reason for morality” refrain, and it’s definitely at the heart of the nitwit “people who believe in nothing will believe in anything” syllogism. Now, the standard atheist response to this is to say, “We do so believe in stuff!” and to then list stuff the atheist in question believes in: music, love, kindness, truth, the abolition of the designated hitter rule, whatever. And I’m happy to go there as well. But today, I want to do something different.

Today, I want to take a closer look at this whole “atheists don’t believe in anything” notion. I want to figure out what it means, where it’s coming from. (Other than the obvious, “we’re just going to keep saying how immoral and pointless atheist lives are and hope something sticks,” of course.) Today, I want to ask, “What does it mean to believe in something?”

A while back (I was still calling myself an agnostic, which gives you an idea of how long ago it was), I wrote a piece pointing out that the question, “Why are we here?” has two very different meanings. It can mean, “What caused us to be here?”, or it can mean, “What is our purpose?” And I pointed out that religious belief tends to conflate these two meanings — the answer to both questions is, “God” — but that, for non-believers, those two questions have completely different answers. What caused us to be here is the process of evolution and the physical laws of cause and effect; our purpose is whatever we decide our purpose is.

I want to make a similar argument about what it means to believe in something.

There are two very different meanings to the phrase, “believing in something.” There’s “believing that the thing exists.” If you believe in fairies, that means you think fairies exist; if you believe in the shock doctrine, that means you believe that corporations and governments deliberately take advantage of the chaos following disasters to impose unpopular policies that would otherwise encounter resistance.

And then there’s “believing that the thing is good and will result in good things.” If you believe in democracy, that means you believe democracy is generally the best form of government and will yield good results; if you believe in President Obama, that means you believe that he’ll be a good President, who will fulfill his campaign promises and make the country better.

Now, for religious believers, these two meanings are often conflated when it comes to God. Believing in God means believing that God exists — and it means believing that God is good, smart and benevolent and successfully carrying out a plan that will be best for everyone.

But if you don’t believe in God, the things you believe exist and the things you believe are good are often going to be completely different.

Examples. Things I “believe in” in the sense of thinking they exist and are real: I believe in germs. Evolution. An expanding universe. The size of the human pelvic girdle as a limiting factor on the size of the human brain. The ultimately physical nature of everything in the universe. The capacity of the human mind to believe what it expects or wants to believe, and to twist the evidence to fit those expectations or beliefs. I don’t necessarily think these things are good — in some cases, they seriously suck — but I believe they exist and are true.

And things I “believe in” in the sense of thinking they’re good: Love. Sex. Democracy. Reason. Compassion. Social responsibility. The pursuit of knowledge. The ability of human beings to solve problems when they put their minds to it. I don’t necessarily think these things are always in existence — all too often, they’re conspicuously absent — but I believe that they are good, and will more often than not result in good things.

Now, I think that for many theists, this concept is very alien. For many theists, the most important thing that they believe in — the thing without which nothing else makes sense to them — is God. And for these theists, believing that God exists and believing that God is good are equally important. In fact, they’re deeply intertwined. The idea that God exists and created everything else that exists is intimately bound up with the idea that God is good and that whatever he says and does must, pretty much by definition, be the best thing. God is not only good — God is goodness. And to deny the existence of God must seem to them like denying the existence of goodness.

But for atheists, the things we believe are true and the things we believe are good don’t have to be the same things. We don’t see God as the one source of all that exists and of all that is good. We don’t see God, period.

So we’re free to believe that big important things exist, but still suck. And we’re free to believe in ideals and goals that are not always present or even ultimately attainable, but are still worth reaching for. We’re free to recognize harsh reality as part of, well, reality, and we don’t have to twist our understanding of that reality to fit the idea of a perfect God and a perfect Creation. And we’re free, within that often harsh reality, to decide for ourselves what we think is good, what we think minimizes suffering and maximizes joy… and we’re free to do so based on the experience we have of that reality, and the evidence we have about that reality, without twisting that experience and evidence to fit a preconceived notion about God’s opinion of it all. We’re free to see goodness as a human construct, an expression of our evolutionary wiring as social animals… and to still see it as real and important and something worth striving for.

In other words: We’re free to see the things we believe are real, and the things we believe are good, as totally different things. And we are therefore free to explore both reality and goodness, to figure out what they are and what they mean to us and to act on that, as thoroughly and honestly and unflinchingly as we possibly can.

Which, IMO, is a pretty good working definition of believing in something.

What Does it Mean to Believe in Something?

Greta's Podcast Interview with Secular Nation

Secular nation april-june 2009
Want to hear me gas on converse eloquently in dulcet tones about atheism? Not sure what exactly “dulcet” means, but want to hear me talk about atheism anyway? Then check out this podcast interview I did with Secular Nation. Secular Nation, the magazine published by Atheist Alliance International, recently reprinted my Being an Atheist in the Queer Community piece… and they did a podcast to go along with it.

The podcast features the A. in the Q. C. piece being read aloud by David Driscoll, who then interviews me about same-sex marriage, the San Francisco gay scene, being brought up without religion, atheism in the context of social change movements, lesbian cherrypicking, and more… plus, of course, being an atheist in the queer community. It’s a hootenanny, if by “hootenanny” you mean “thoughtful, occasionally funny conversation.” Check it out!

Greta's Podcast Interview with Secular Nation

The Prodigal Son's Brother: More Thoughts on Queers and the Atheist Community

Gay atheist
I thought I’d reached something resembling peace about being an atheist in the LGBT community. I’m not happy with the high level of vociferous religiosity in the queer community, or with how non-believers in that community get dissed. But I also realize that the atheist movement has only been getting serious visibility and organization in the last few years, and it’s just not realistic to expect the entire world — queer or otherwise — to jump overnight from ignorance and bigotry to understanding and acceptance.

But then I got this email from Dick Hewetson, who read my Being an Atheist in the Queer Community piece, and made this point:

As you have, I have discovered that freethinkers are consistently my friends. Yet the [LGBT] movement people seem reluctant to acknowledge all the support they receive from atheist and humanists groups. But they will gush all over an individual congregation or clergy person who stands up for us. I just find it tiresome.

And I got mad all over again.

I got mad, because until I got his email, the “gushing” issue hadn’t occurred to me. And now I can’t get it out of my mind.

Why is it that, when religious leaders and groups finally come around and say or do something marginally nice about queers, the LGBT community falls all over itself in gratitude… but the godless community, one of the staunchest and most vocal supporters of queer rights outside the queer community itself, gets almost no recognition for their support?

Why is it that leaders and organizations in the LGBT community are bending over backwards to do outreach to religious groups — including religious groups who are lukewarm on our issues at best and downright hostile at worst — but virtually no mention is ever made of reaching out to the godless community, who already runs like crazy with our issues and would almost certainly love to run with them some more?

I want to give you a little taste of what this support looks like before I move on. I want to give you a sense of just how supportive the atheist community has been of the queer movement… so you can get an idea of why it ticks me off so much when that community get ignored or dissed.

From Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism, Hate-Crime Laws and Loving the Sinner:

The question is, given the demonstrable falsehood of their stated premises, what’s the real reason why religious right groups are so adamantly opposed to hate crime laws? If it’s true, as they say, that they “hate the sin and love the sinner”, one would think that they would support laws that give LGBT people more legal protection against crimes of bias.

The obvious answer is that they truly do hate homosexuals and want to preserve their right to discriminate against them.

From Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist, You Say We’re Redefining Marriage? You’re Redefining Love:

I say this to the religious people who oppose marriage equality:

You think we’re redefining marriage?

How can you accuse us of that when you’ve done something far worse?

You redefined love.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin”? Please 

For you, “love” means making sure gay people cannot adopt a child who needs a home.

For you, “love” means stripping away the marital status of gay couples who were legally married in California before Proposition 8 took effect.

For you, “love” means accepting someone only if they never act on their sexuality.

From PZ Myers at Pharyngula, Priorities:

We really do have a screwed up culture. Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA, could publicly argue for continued denial of civil rights to gays on air, in a beauty pageant, and pageant officials were unperturbed. Now that semi-nude modeling photos of Prejean are emerging, they are considering revoking her title. So flaunting her bigotry is no big deal, but posing in lingerie makes them clutch their pearls and squeak in horror?

From Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Orson Scott Card Goes Off the Deep End on Gay Marriage:

Until a few years ago, I’d never even heard of Orson Scott Card. I’m not a science fiction reader, so I’d never read his many books, some of which my friends tell me are quite good if you like that genre. But after watching him make a complete fool of himself over the last few years with his ignorant ravings on evolution and homosexuality, I find him to be one of the most contemptible writers I’ve ever come across.

You really must see the absolutely unhinged claims he makes about gay marriage in an article in the Mormon Times, wherein he calls for outright revolution if the government allows gays to get married.

And finally, from Zee Harrison at Black Woman Thinks, Homophobic Jamaican Prime Minister:

Here is an example of the damage caused by ignorance, religion and politicians who profit from maintaining the status quo. Dangerous. I know these views are prevalent in many societies not just Jamaica, but for the Prime Minister to promote homophobia and then clumsily try to squirm his way around it with a pile of words that could be described as nothing other than bullshit is revealing.

Straight against h8
All of these bloggers are — to the best of my knowledge — straight. And these excerpts are just a drop in the bucket. All of these bloggers write frequently and at length on queer issues… as do many, many other non- queer atheists. I didn’t have to dig for these links and quotes: every one of them was posted just in the last month. (BTW: If you have other examples you’d like to link to — from your own atheist blog or from others — please feel free to quote them/ link to them in the comments.)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Of all the communities and worlds I’ve been a part of, the atheist movement is by far the one where I’ve felt most strongly that straight people had my back. It’s the one where I’ve felt most strongly that straight people were not only supporting and accepting of my queerness, but passionately and pro-actively concerned about queer rights.

And it ticks me off that they’re not getting recognition for it.

I want to illustrate this point with a story. And, in an irony that I’m sure you’ll all find vastly entertaining, the story I want to illustrate it with comes from the Bible.

Prodigal son
You all know the story of the Prodigal Son. Son demands his share of his dad’s inheritance; squanders it all on weed and strippers and video games; gets stuck working as a fry cook in a McDonald’s. Son slinks back home to Dad, says he knows he fucked up, says he doesn’t expect his old room back but asks if he can sleep in the garage. Dad embraces him, throws a big barbecue to celebrate his return. Dad’s other son, the non- prodigal one, gets pissy and resentful, pointing out that he’s been a good son and has worked hard for years in Dad’s chicken processing plant, and yet Dad never threw any barbecues for him. Dad says, “Chill out, dude. Your brother’s back. Be happy. Here, have a burger.”

Now, I’ve always thought that the older brother had a point. Yes, he’s being a little pissy; yes, he should celebrate and be happy that his brother came home. But he has a point. If he’s telling the truth — if his father never did throw him any sort of party or give him any recognition of his hard work and devotion — then that’s messed up.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course the prodigal son should get a party. The messed-up part isn’t that the prodigal son is getting a party. The messed-up part is that the non-prodigal son never did. The messed-up part is that the son who consistently does the right thing without being asked gets less appreciation than the son who acts like a big dumb jerk but then comes around.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Hand outreach
I’m not saying that the LGBT community shouldn’t be reaching out to religious groups, shouldn’t be expressing appreciation when said groups help us out or come around to a more queer- positive outlook. I’m saying that the LGBT community should also be reaching out to the godless community… and should be acknowledging the extensive support that the godless community has already given and continues to give.

And I’m kind of baffled about why they don’t.

Scarlet letter
The generous part of me thinks that many leaders and organizers in the LGBT community just don’t know about the atheist community. They know about atheists, of course — in recent years, we’ve been increasingly hard to avoid — but they may not know that we’re a community and a movement, one that’s increasing in both size and organization practically every day. And they definitely may not know how passionately and actively queer- positive that community is.

But when I’m in a less generous mood, I feel like they just don’t give a damn. Atheists already support them. Why should they bother to reach out to us, or even acknowledge us? And atheists aren’t — yet — a massively powerful and well- organized political force. Why should they go to any lengths to make alliances with us? What good can we do them?

I know, I know. I sound churlish and petty. That’s the problem with being the prodigal son’s brother. If you don’t say anything, you’re a doormat; if you do say something, you come off sounding churlish and petty.

So in the interest of not just griping churlishly and pettily, I’d like to make some specific, positive suggestions of what kind of atheist recognition and outreach I’d like to see from the queer community.

I’d like for non- atheist queers to not assume that all queers have religious beliefs. In public or semi- public forums (speeches, conferences, panel discussions, email forums, etc.), where the community as a whole is being addressed, I’d like to not hear general exhortations to pray, or references to “our Creator” or “our spirituality,” or whatnot. I don’t pray, and I have neither a creator nor a spirituality. (If you want to talk about your own religious beliefs, of course I’m totally fine with that — just please don’t express them in a way that assumes that I share them.)

I’d like for non- atheist queers to learn about the most common bigoted myths and stereotypes about atheists. I’d like for them to not perpetuate those myths. And when they hear other people perpetuating those myths, I’d like for them to call them on it.

When LGBT organizations do outreach to religious organizations, I’d like them to at least consider doing outreach to atheist and secularist organizations as well.

When LGBT organizations are putting together panels and conferences and whatnot and are working to get diversity, I’d like for atheists to be part of that diversity mix. Especially if they’re trying to get diversity of religious faiths… or if religion is going to be a central issue of the panel/ conference/ whatever.

When LGBT leaders speak publicly about the diversity of spiritual belief in our community, I’d like them to include queers with no spiritual beliefs as part of the picture.

I’d like for LGBT organizations and bloggers to have at least a couple of major atheist blogs on their radar. Pharyngula at a bare minimum — or, if Pharyngula is too snarky for them, Friendly Atheist. I’d like them to read the blogs, send good stories their way, put them on their blogrolls, give them some link love.

I’m sure there’s more. (If you can think of more, please speak up in the comments.) But that’ll do for now.

Because you know what?

We’ve been good sons.

We’ve been helpful and supportive. We can be even more helpful and supportive if the LGBT community works more directly with us.

And we deserve our barbecue.

Other stories in this series:
Being an Atheist in the Queer Community
How to be an Ally with Atheists

The Prodigal Son's Brother: More Thoughts on Queers and the Atheist Community

A Skeptic's View of Sexual Transcendence

Please note: This piece mostly isn’t about details of my personal sex life, but it does include a passing reference to my personal sexual practices. Family members and others who don’t want to read that stuff, use your own judgment about this one.

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog… and this one, both the atheists and the sex fiends will definitely want to read. (And the atheist sex fiends will absolutely want to read it.) It’s titled A Skeptic’s View of Sexual Transcendence, and here’s the teaser:

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.

To find out what my positive, non- downer atheist/ materialist/ naturalist/ humanist/ skeptical alternative is to sexual spirituality, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

P.S. If you’re inspired to comment on this piece on this blog, please consider cross- posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog as well. They like comments there, too.

A Skeptic's View of Sexual Transcendence