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

Why Do Atheists Have to Talk About Atheism?

Scarlet letter
Whenever the subject of atheism comes up, anywhere that isn’t an atheist discussion group or something, one sentiment almost inevitably comes up:

“I wish atheists wouldn’t talk so much about atheism.”

The sentiment gets worded in many different ways. “The new atheists are so evangelical.” “This atheist criticism of religion is just intolerant.” “You atheists are just as close-minded as the hard-line religious believers you’re criticizing.”

But the essence of it is the same: The fact that many atheists are talking publicly about our atheism, and are trying to persuade people that we’re right about it, shows that we’re … well, evangelical, intolerant and close-minded. So today, I want to explain why so many atheists think it’s important to talk about atheism … and why many of us try to persuade other people that atheism is correct.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why Do Atheists Have to Talk About Atheism? To find out why I think it’s not only valid, but important, for atheists to explain our beliefs and critique religion — and why I don’t think that’s intolerant or close- minded — read the rest of the piece. (And if you want to post comments here as well as, or instead of, on AlterNet, I’ll understand. Boy, howdy, will I ever.) Enjoy!

Why Do Atheists Have to Talk About Atheism?

Iran and the Battle Against Theocracy

I don’t know if I have anything to say about the situation in Iran that hasn’t already been said. And normally, that’s enough to keep my mouth shut. But this time, despite my near-paralyzing fear of being trite, I feel that I need to say something:

I support the protesters in Iran.

And not just for the obvious reasons. Not just because the recent election was almost certainly rigged; not just because legitimate dissent is being violently suppressed; not just because the Iranian government is shooting its own citizens in the streets.

I support the protesters in Iran because they are striking a blow against theocracy.

When Ahmadinejad’s “election” was pronounced as valid and Allah-favored by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — the leader of the Iranian theocracy — the protestors took to the streets anyway.

And when Supreme Leader Khamenei warned the protestors that their demonstrations were illegal and that further demonstrations would be firmly shut down and harshly punished… the protestors took to the streets anyway.

In Iran, this is a big honking deal. This isn’t just garden- variety anti- authoritarianism. This is defiance of the very notion of theocracy. Faced with a choice between a hope for a legitimately elected government, and a religious/ political leader telling them what to do and calling it the word of Allah… they’re going with the hope for a legitimately elected government. The very idea that a religious leader has political authority over them is being rejected, in the most blunt manner imaginable.

This is not an original idea with me. It has been said before, better than I’m saying it. But it’s important, and it bears saying again, by multiple voices: Plenty of people in Iran do not support the brutal, despotic, nutball, Holocaust- denying, theocratic government. Plenty of people in Iran are even pretty okay with America and Americans — even more so, now that Americans on Twitter and Facebook have been so instrumental in getting the word out about what’s happening there. (Remember this when you remember the right-wing tirades about the axis of evil, or John McCain’s clever little “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” ditty. These are the people they were talking about.)

I doubt that many of the protesters in Iran are atheists. Most of them seem to be moderate Muslims. And I obviously don’t agree with them about that. But that is completely irrelevant. They are fighting theocracy on the front lines, in ways that I strongly doubt I would have the courage to do. I am supporting them against the Islamic theocracy of their government, and I want to help them in any way that I can.

To find out what you can do to help, you can follow Mousavi’s page on Facebook. No, really. His favorite movie is Groundhog Day, and he’s looking for an untraceable cel phone in Mafia Wars.

Iran and the Battle Against Theocracy

A Skeptic's View of Love

Lightbrush love
What does it mean to have a skeptical view of love?

I don’t mean having a cynical attitude about love. (Funny how the words “skepticism” and “cynicism” get conflated.) I mean taking a skeptical, materialist, entirely non-woo view of life — and applying it to how we think about love.

Tim minchin
The other day, Ingrid showed me this video by Tim Minchin, famed atheist and skeptical singer/ songwriter/ poet/ performance artist/ comedian. (For boring technical reasons, I’ll embed it at the end of the post instead of here.) The gist of the song, sung for and about his wife (spoiler alert!): “If I didn’t have you, I probably would have somebody else.”

At first, Ingrid was worried that I’d be hurt by her showing me the video. But like her, I found it hilarious — and in a freaky way, I found it one of the most romantic and loving things I’ve seen in a while. (“You fall within a bell curve” has now become one of our endearments.)

And it’s gotten me thinking about the whole idea of soul-mates, and romantic destiny, and there being one perfect love for you in the whole world. All of which I think is a load of dingo’s kidneys.

And I don’t think I’m being unromantic.

Wings of destiny
First, obviously, I think the whole “soul-mate/ romantic destiny” thing is just wrong. Mistaken. Not true. I don’t think we have souls, much less mates for them; I don’t think there’s an invisible hand pushing people together (and if there were, it’d have a seriously sadistic sense of humor, what with putting people’s true destined loves on opposite sides of the country and whatnot).

But maybe more to the point:

The “soul-mate/ romantic destiny” vision of love puts the focus on love as something you feel — rather than something you do.

It puts the focus on love as something that happens to you — rather than something that you choose.

And I find it much more romantic, and much more loving, to see love as something we do, and something we choose.

When we see love solely as something that we feel… then what happens when those feelings change? As they inevitably do.

And when we see love solely as something that happens to us… then what happens when the going gets tough, and we have to make hard choices about the relationship? For that matter, what happens when something else happens to us — something that conflicts with the love? What happens when we get job offers in other cities… or when other romantic prospects appear on the horizon?

Of course a huge part of love is the way we feel about our beloved. The feelings of tenderness and passion that well up in me when I look at Ingrid, the feelings of anxious excitement that I had when we were first starting out…that’s an enormous part of what we have between us. And of course a huge part of love is the feeling that something has hit you out of the clear blue sky. When Ingrid and I were first going out, I used to say that I felt like I’d been conked on the head with a giant vaudeville rubber mallet. If love didn’t have the power to knock us out of our tracks and into a whole new life, it wouldn’t be what it is.

But I don’t think that’s enough. It’s enough to get love started — but it’s not enough to sustain it.

Dishes in sink
I think what sustains love is doing the dishes when you promised to. Remembering the book they said they wanted, and getting it for their birthday. Skipping the movie you wanted to see, to go with them to a party of their friends who you don’t know very well. Remembering which kind of seltzer water they like when you go shopping; remembering how they like their burgers cooked when you’re making dinner. Sitting with them when they’re grieving… and restraining your impulse to always try to fix things and give advice and make things better, and instead being willing to just sit still and be with them in their pain. Asking if there’s anything they need from the kitchen while you’re up. Wearing the stupid sticky breathing strip on your nose at night so your snoring doesn’t keep them awake. Bringing them endless cups of tea when they’re sick. Keeping your temper in an argument, and remembering that as angry as you might be right now, you love this person and don’t want to hurt them. Saying, “I love you.” Saying, “You’re beautiful” — not just when they’re dolled up for a night on the town, but when they come home from work and you notice that they look particularly fetching. Noticing when they come home from work looking particularly fetching. Going to their readings, their dance performances, their office parties. Going to their family gatherings, and treating their family as your family, too. Going to the vet together. Trying out music they like, books they like, recipes they like, hobbies they like, kinds of sex they like, even if you don’t think it’s your thing: not just because you want to make them happy, but because it’s part of who they are, and you want to find out more about them, and share the things that matter to them.

In the inimitable words of Tim Minchin, “Love is nothing to do with destined perfection/ The connection is strengthened; the affection simply grows over time… And love is made more powerful by the ongoing drama of shared experience and synergy/ And symbiotic empathy or something like that… ” Sure, the feelings I have for Ingrid have a lot to do with the giant vaudeville rubber mallet I got conked on the head with when we fell in love. But they have more to do with the eleven plus years we’ve spent together: the meals we’ve eaten, the parties we’ve thrown, the vacations we’ve taken, the arguments we’ve had, the sex we’ve had, the griefs we’ve borne, the thousands of nights we’ve spent sleeping in the same bed, the long conversations we’ve had about politics, about religion, about books, about our friends, about our cats, about bad reality television.

And none of that has anything to do with fate.

Like Tim Minchin, I’m intensely aware of the massive role that pure chance plays in our lives. Not fate, not destiny, but pure dumb random roll- of- the- dice luck. As passionately as I love San Francisco, I realize that I could have landed in a dozen other cities — New York, Portland, London, Seattle, Minneapolis — and settled happily there instead. I often think about the people in those cities who would have been my friends if I lived there instead of San Francisco; I sometimes even feel a loss, a yearning, for the people I’ve never met who could have been my best friends.

And I realize that if I’d wound up in one of those cities instead of San Francisco, I would never have met Ingrid, and we both would likely have met and fallen in love with other people instead. While there’s a pragmatic sense in which I suppose Ingrid and I were destined to meet — we both lived in San Francisco, we were interested in many of the same things, we knew many of the same people, it’s not actually that big of a city — any one of a thousand small choices and pieces of random chance could have resulted in our paths not crossing. Or not crossing at the right time.

What makes Ingrid uniquely special to me isn’t that she’s my soul-mate, my destiny, the one person in billions I could have loved and been happy with. What makes Ingrid uniquely special to me is the years we have behind us: the meals and parties and sex and conversations and trips to the vet and everything else. It’s the things we do, and have done, and will do for many years to come; it’s the choices we make, and have made, and will make in the years we have left.

Wedding portrait
Of the people in the world I might have been happy with? She falls within a bell curve. Of the people in the world I now want to be with? She is entirely and 100% unique. Not because a divine hand made us uniquely suited to be together… but because we have chosen to make each other unique.

Oh, yeah. The Tim Minchin video is below the jump, since when I put videos above the jump it screws up my archives.

Continue reading “A Skeptic's View of Love”

A Skeptic's View of Love