“Evangelical” Atheism, Or, Is It Okay to Try to Change People’s Minds?


Is it okay for atheists to try to change people’s minds? To try to convince people that their religion is mistaken, and that they should de-convert and become atheists instead?

And is there any difference between that and religious evangelicalism? Between that, and religious evangelicals/ missionaries trying to convince people that their religion (or lack thereof) is mistaken, and that they should convert and join their own religion instead?

I’ve been thinking about what I do here on this blog. (When I’m not talking about porn or politics or cute animals, that is.) And a big part of what I’m doing is trying to contribute, in my small way, to the eventual disappearance of religion from the human mindset. I’m trying to convince any believers who might be reading this blog that their beliefs are mistaken… or at least, plant the seeds of doubt in their minds. And I’m trying to help arm other atheists (as I have been armed by so many other atheist writers) with good arguments to use in their own debates with believers.

And I’ve been wondering: Given my strong negative feelings about religious evangelicalism, is what I do here ethical?

(Or, maybe more to the point: Given what I do here, are my strong negative feelings about religious evangelicalism consistent?)


My usual response (you know, to my own voice that I argue with in my head) is to say, “I’m writing a blog. People are free to visit it or not as they like. I’m not knocking on people’s doors, or moving into their villages, or shouting at them through bullhorns on the streets. I’m not invading people’s lives or their privacy. Presumably nobody visits this blog — or stays in it for very long — if they don’t want to read arguments against religion. And outside the public sphere, I rarely offer my opinions on religion unless I’m asked.”

But I’m not sure that that, just by itself, is enough of a difference. After all, many atheists I admire do much more pro-active, in- your- face things — going on TV and radio, for instance, or writing in newspapers and magazines — to spread the good word about God’s non-existence. And I’d be doing all that too, given the opportunity. Of course, you can switch channels on the TV or turn the page of the newspaper, just like you can surf to another blog. But still. If the only difference between atheist writers and religious evangelicals/ missionaries is that we don’t knock on doors and shout at people on the street, then I’m not sure that’s enough of a difference to maintain my sense of moral outrage at evangelicalism.

So I’ve been thinking about this.


And I’ve realized that my problem with religious evangelicalism isn’t that they’re trying to change people’s minds. Trying to change people’s minds is a grand tradition. The marketplace of ideas, and all that. If you really think you’re right about something important, of course you should try to share it. That’s how good ideas get out into the world. And being exposed to lots of different ideas is good for you. It exercises the brain. It’s how good ideas get strengthened and clarified, and bad ideas get winnowed out. As Ursula Le Guin said in The Dispossessed, “The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”

Which leads me, not coincidentally, to what my real problem is with religious evangelicalism… and what I see as the real difference between it and my small efforts towards atheist de-conversion.

My efforts towards atheist de-conversion are based in — here comes the broken record — reason and evidence. I offer arguments and reasons for why atheism makes more sense, is more consistent, is more likely to be accurate, than religion. And that’s true of most other atheist writers I know. (Most of the time, anyway.)


Religious evangelicalism does nothing of the kind. It bases its persuasion on fear: the normal fear of death, and the trumped-up fear of hell and eternal torture. It bases its persuasion on false hope: a hope for immortality that the persuaders have no good reason to believe is true. It bases its persuasion on falsehoods: flat-out inaccuracies about the realities of history and science.

And it bases its persuasion on the suppression of other ideas.

The suppression of other religious ideas is one of the most widespread elements of religion. It’s not universal, but it’s depressingly common. It’s codified in the texts and tenets of religions: the concepts of the heathen and the heretic, rules against interfaith marriage, the very concept of religious orthodoxy, etc. It’s often codified in law: not just in blatant theocracies, but for decades and centuries in supposedly more enlightened societies. (Example: It took until 1961 for atheists to be guaranteed the right to serve on juries, testify in court, or hold public office in every state in the United States.)

And it’s codified in dozens of forms of social pressure. The idea that it’s rude to question or criticize people’s religion. The idea that religious faith by itself makes you a good person. The social deference given to ministers and rabbis and other religious leaders. The idea that being tolerant of religion requires that you not criticize it. Religion has built up an impressive array of armor: not intellectual weapons to defend its ideas, but armor to protect it against the very notion that its ideas require defending.


So yes to the marketplace of ideas. But in the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free ride. In the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free round- trip ride in a luxury limousine, with a police escort and a climate- controlled armored truck to transport its merchandise. All at public expense. And religious evangelicalism relies on that.

And that, I think, is the difference. The problem with religious evangelicalism isn’t that it tries to persuade other people that it’s right. The problem is that it tries to persuade using fear, and false hope, and falsehood. And it tries to persuade by shutting up any other ideas that might contradict it. It tries to win, not by playing fair, but by rewriting the rules of the game.

But I’m curious as to what you all think. Regular readers of this blog: Do you think there’s a difference between religious evangelicalism and what I do in this blog? If so, what do you think that difference is? If not, why not? And I especially want to hear from other atheist bloggers. How do you parse this question? Do you see what you do do as different from what religious evangelicals and missionaries do? (Apart from the issue of you being right and them being wrong, of course.) And if so — why? This is actually a complicated question for me, and I really want to get some different perspectives on it.

“Evangelical” Atheism, Or, Is It Okay to Try to Change People’s Minds?

Is Cheating Ever Okay? The Blowfish Blog


I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the question of whether cheating in a monogamous (or supposedly monogamous) relationship is ever ethically acceptable. My thinking on the question has been changing, and as is my wont, I’m using the blog as a place to think out loud about it. The piece is called Is Cheating Ever Okay? and here’s the teaser:

But as the years have gone by, my thinking on this has been changing. My thinking has been changed a lot — or rather, has become clarified — by a series of columns that sex advice columnist Dan Savage has been writing about sexless marriages and relationships… and the unfairness of denying your partner sex and then getting outraged when they seek it elsewhere.

And my thinking was put into sharp focus by, of all places, a recent episode of “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” and a passing comment made on the subject by the main character, the call girl Belle.

The comment:

“Yeah, he’s married. But his wife hasn’t had sex with him for five years, so I suppose they’re both breaking the marriage contract.”

Which is the crux of my new, revised thinking about cheating.

To find out what my new, revised thinking is about cheating, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Is Cheating Ever Okay? The Blowfish Blog

Hypocrisy and the “Modern Theology” Argument


Is it fair for atheists to criticize religion when they haven’t studied theology?

One of the most common counter-critiques against critics of religion is that we’re going after the easy targets. We go after dogmatic, unsophisticated, literalist versions of religion… while ignoring the more serious, subtle, well- thought- out theologies. (“The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins gets hit with this one a lot.)

I like to call this the “You’re Not Critiquing My Particular Version Of Faith, Therefore Your Critique Is Invalid” fallacy. (I really need a shorter name for it…)

The usual argument against this — and it is a good one — is that the simpler versions of religion are the most common. The overwhelming majority of believers haven’t spent years studying advanced theology, either. Atheists don’t care all that much about religion as it’s taught in divinity schools; we care about religion as it’s practiced in the real world.

But in a recent Daylight Atheism thread, OMGF (of the charmingly- named Why I Hate Jesus blog) made this point … and I’m smacking myself on the head for not having thought of it myself.

They have no problem with rejecting or us rejecting all other religions. Apparently, they and we can reject all those out of hand, but theirs must be given serious consideration, and we are not to stop considering it until we accept it.

To which my own darling Nurse Ingrid replied:

Exactly, OMGF. It’s not like they studied a lot of Greek mythology before deciding they didn’t believe in Zeus.

Which brings me to the hypocrisy part.


There are hundreds of religions in the world. Thousands if you count all the different sects separately. And when you get into dead religions — the Greek gods, the Norse gods, etc. — those numbers go way, way up.

Have these sophisticated theology scholars carefully studied every single one of these religions before rejecting them?

Good theologians do study lots of different religions. But have they studied every single one? And have they studied them in depth, in their most carefully- thought- out, sophisticated forms? Have they spent years studying the advanced theological theories of astrology, of Wicca, of Santeria, of Rastafarianism, of Crowleyan occultism, of that religion that worships the blue peacock?

And if not, then how are they any different from us?


It’s true, most atheists are comfortable rejecting religion with only a decent working knowledge of its more common tenets and practices. But that’s true for the Sophistimicated Theology crowd as well. They reject hundreds, thousands of religions without any more than a cursory knowledge of them, and in many cases without any knowledge at all.

Plus there’s an infinite recursion quality to the “sophisticated theology” argument. Even if you have read serious theology, you haven’t read all of it — so how can you reject it? Okay, you’ve read Aquinas… but have you read C.S. Lewis? Okay, you’ve read Lewis… but have you read Teilhard de Chardin? As OMGF put it, we are not to stop considering it until we have accepted it.


And yet, as OMGF also pointed out, this only applies to their religion. Other religions, it’s okay to reject out of hand, or with only a cursory knowledge. But theirs — theirs is special, and it’s unfair for atheists to reject it without spending years studying every aspect of it in detail.

It reminds me of that Richard Dawkins quote: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

Which brings me to a point that gets made a lot in the atheist debates.

It is not up to atheists to prove that religion is wrong.

It is up to theists to prove that religion is right.

They’re the ones making the claim, proposing the hypothesis about the world and why it is the way it is. It’s up to them to support their claim. We’re just saying, “You haven’t made your case. None of the arguments you’ve made in the past have held water, and until you make your case we’re going to stick with our null hypothesis.”

And from what I’ve read of advanced theology (I haven’t read tons, but I have read some), it doesn’t make the case. It doesn’t provide arguments or evidence for why God exists and what his precise effect is on the world. It mostly just uses clever logic and wordplay to explain why it shouldn’t have to; arguing that faith in something you can’t prove is noble and beautiful, or redefining God so far out of the realm of the real world that he might as well not exist.


I do think atheists should have a basic working knowledge of the religions they’re critiquing before they critique them. (And in my experience, most of us do. The atheists I’ve known and read often know more about religious beliefs, are often more familiar with the basic religious texts, then the religious believers they’re debating.)

But unless the sophisticated theology crowd is prepared to drop everything they do and devote the rest of their lives to a careful study of every single religion that has ever existed in the history of humanity — including the most advanced, arcane apologetics for every one — before they reject all other religions and embrace their own, then they are in no position to criticize atheists for forgoing a years-long study of theology before taking that final step, and rejecting that one last god.

Hypocrisy and the “Modern Theology” Argument

Jealousy, Friendship, And Bisexual Chopped Liver

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Dan savage savage love

So there’s this trope I sometimes see in monogamous relationships. (In particular, I see it in advice columns: it came up in a recent Savage Love column, and I’ve seen it more than once in the Dear Abby/ Ann Landers ouvre.)

It goes like this: “My partner has a friend. The friend’s sexual orientation is towards the gender that my partner happens to be. Is it reasonable for me to be jealous? Should I permit this friendship to continue?”

(Or the reverse: “I have a friend. The friend’s sexual orientation is towards my gender. Is it reasonable for my partner to be jealous, and to want the friendship to end?”)


Okay. In trying to make this generic and gender- neutral, I’m being a little obscure. So let’s clear it up and make it specific: “My wife has a new friend from work, a straight man she sometimes goes to basketball games with. Should I be jealous?” Or: “I’m a straight woman who’s developing a friendship with a lesbian. My husband is jealous. WTF?” (Both real examples from real advice columns, btw. Dear Abby stupidly advised, “By no means should you permit your wife to attend basketball games with another man”; Dan Savage, much more wisely, suggested that the husband of the woman with the lesbian friend should get a first class ticket for the clue train.)

Now, I’m not going to get too deeply into the obvious. I’m not going to get into the craziness of the idea that any and all friendships will eventually turn sexual if the sexual orientations line up right. I’m not going to get into the fucked-upedness of the notion that people should choose their friends entirely on the basis of gender, for the sole purpose of avoiding possible sexual attraction. I’m not going to get into the absurd paranoia that even the slightest hint of sexual attraction in a friendship will eventually overwhelm it with uncontrollable passion. (Hey, for some of us, having a little attraction for a friend makes a friendship more interesting… even when we have no plans whatsoever to act on the attraction, ever.)

And I’m not going to point out that, according to this theory, gay men could never have gay male friends, and lesbians could never be friends with other lesbians.


I’m not even going to get into the borderline- evil concept that people in relationships have veto power over their partners’ friends. This is just R-O-N-G Rong, stupidly and evilly wrong, in all but the most extreme circumstances. (“My partner is making friends with the man who tried to murder me.” Okay, you have veto power. Everyone else, shut up. Your partner is a free agent, with the right to make their own damn friends independent of you.)

Here’s what I want to say instead:

So what are we bisexuals — chopped liver?


According to this theory, bisexuals could never, ever have any friends at all. We couldn’t be friends with gay men, straight men, straight women, lesbians. And we definitely couldn’t be friends with other bisexuals. According to this theory, the fact that we’re attracted to both women and men makes us ineligible to be friends with anybody, of any gender, ever.

No, that’s not quite true. We could be friends with non-monogamous people, and with single people. But once those single get into monogamous relationships — blammo. That’s the end of that friendship.

I’m not just writing this to point up the stupidity and irrationality of this particular form of jealousy. I’m writing it to point up the stupidity and irrationality of bisexual invisibility.

We used to be a culture that assumed heterosexuality. We still are, to a great extent. But even when we don’t assume heterosexuality, we are still, far too often, a culture that assumes monosexuality. We are still a culture that asks, “Is he gay or straight?” We are still a culture that sees a woman dating a man and says, “Wait a minute — she’s straight? I thought she was a lesbian!” (Or a woman dating a woman, vice versa.) We are still a culture that ignores the Kinsey scale, the spectrum of sexual orientation — and the shifts that many of us make over that spectrum throughout our lives.

Who cares if its a choice

And this assumption leads to some truly convoluted errors in logic. I recently wrote about an example of this here in this blog, about how the “Is sexual orientation a choice?” debates almost always ignore bisexuals… since even if bisexuals are born bisexual, we still have some degree of choice about which direction to take our lives in. And the bisexual wars in the lesbian community led to my favorite piece of Alice in Wonderland political logic ever: “The lesbians will decide who is a lesbian.”

I can see why people tend to overlook bisexuals. Our existence does poke holes in a lot of conventional wisdoms — especially when it comes to sorting our society by gender and sexual orientation.

But… well, that’s actually my point. The existence of bisexuals pokes holes in the sorting of our society by gender and sexual orientation, pointing up ridiculous contradictions and convoluted logic that would be hilarious if it weren’t so annoying.

So maybe we should quit sorting our society by gender and sexual orientation.

And maybe we should start with our friendships. And the friendships of our spouses and partners.

Which are none of our damn business anyway.

Jealousy, Friendship, And Bisexual Chopped Liver

The Messed-Up Teachings of Jesus


There’s a common trope among many progressive Christians (and among many progressives who aren’t Christian but who want to be ecumenical).It goes something like this:

“I’m not a fundamentalist. I don’t believe in every word of the Bible. But I do believe in the teachings of Jesus. They’re so full of love and peace and tolerance. That’s where I get my divine inspiration from.”

I’ll grant that the philosophy of the Jesus character in the New Testament is, in many ways, an improvement over the Old Testament. It’s a lot lighter on the genocidal brutality and violence, for one thing. And some of the ideas in the Gospels are pretty decent ones.

But it’s a very mixed bag indeed. And while a mixed bag is okay if you’re just talking about human ideas — every one of the thinkers I admire have some ideas I think are coo-coo or messed up or just plain wrong — it’s a lot more problematic when you believe that the ideas in question come straight from the mouth of a perfect God.

There are some seriously screwed-up ideas in the Gospels. And they’re ideas that run counter to some of the most treasured principles of most modern progressives… including progressive Christians.

I want to list them here.

A few quick ground rules:

I’m talking here about my own opinion about what is or is not a screwed-up idea. But I am going to focus on ideas that most modern progressives agree are screwed-up (or would, if the ideas hadn’t come from Jesus).


I’m not going to cite references to hell and damnation. I do think that’s one of the most profoundly messed-up ideas in the Gospels, and it’s one of the most prevalent; but I’ve already catalogued it previously.

And I’m not going to cite the self-aggrandizing “I am God” stuff, as it seems like a rhetorical dead-end. After all, the whole question of whether Jesus was or was not God is exactly the point on which Christians and I disagree, so pointing to it as an example of a problematic philosophy is a bit too circular for my taste. Instead, I’m going to focus on ideas in the Gospels that most progressives would find troubling… completely apart from the question of Jesus’s divinity (or, indeed, his existence).

I will, however, talk about both the hell stuff and the “I am God” stuff when it points to some other troubling aspect of the Jesus philosophy… such as the oft-repeated “Believing that I am God and following my teachings is the only right way to practice religion” trope.


I’m also not going to bother with factual errors (like “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”), or internal contradictions (such as the whole “Should you do your good Christian works openly or secretly?” question), or instances of Jesus just being a jerk (like blighting the fig tree, and the whole “dissing his mother and brothers” thing). And I’m not going to nitpick every little idea in the Gospels that sort of bugs me.. I’m just going to talk about seriously troubling ethical and political ideas.

When a verse is repeated almost word for word from one book to another, I won’t repeat it in this list, unless for some reason it seems to bear repeating. (Which is why there’s a lot more from Matthew than any of the other four books.) And I’m quoting from the Revised Standard Version.

Here we go!

Continue reading “The Messed-Up Teachings of Jesus”

The Messed-Up Teachings of Jesus

Sex, TV, and Actual Human Beings: “Swingtown” and “Secret Diary of a Call Girl”: The Blowfish Blog


Since so many of you responded to my “Sex and the City” review by asking what I thought of “Swingtown,” I thought I should oblige. (Hey, I’m always up for a good non sequitur…) I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog: a review of the show, with a review of a second show thrown in for good measure. It’s titled Sex, TV, and Actual Human Beings: “Swingtown” and “Secret Diary of a Call Girl”, and here’s the teaser:

To some extent, I’m reserving judgment on both shows. I’ve only seen a couple episodes of each, and it’s way too early to get into the serious socio- politico- sexual analysis of either one. But it’s not too early to say this: I’m watching. I’m curious. I care about the stories and the characters, and I want to see what happens next.

And that’s because the characters are — dare I say it? — human beings.

Which is an exciting new development in the relationship between alternative sex and television.

To find out more about these exciting new actual human beings, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Sex, TV, and Actual Human Beings: “Swingtown” and “Secret Diary of a Call Girl”: The Blowfish Blog

“All This For Us?” The Arrogance of Human- Centered Faith


“You atheists are so arrogant.”

This is one of the most common criticisms leveled against atheists. Many believers see the atheist assertion that there almost certainly is no God as unspeakably arrogant.

The usual comeback is to point out the arrogance of faith: the arrogance, among other things, of thinking that “I really don’t think there’s any evidence for this” is trumped by “My heart tells me this is so.” But, today, I want to talk about a different kind of religious arrogance.

I’m talking about the arrogance of the human-centered universe.

I’m talking about the arrogance of believing that the universe was created by a loving god for the purpose of creating human beings with souls who could love him, obey him, and go to his heaven.

And I’m not even just talking about creationism, either. I’m talking about reasonably science-friendly religion that still sees humankind as the centerpiece of God’s plan.

Solar system

As many writers before me have pointed out, the history of science is the history of humankind receding from the spotlight and into the wings. Copernicus and Galileo showed us that the earth was not the center of the universe: we revolve around the sun, not the other way around. We then learned that our sun wasn’t the center of the universe, either: it was only one of many billions of stars in our galaxy. And in this century, we found out that not even our galaxy was the center of the universe: it was only one of billions and billions of galaxies, in a universe so enormous it staggers the imagination and the ability of writers to express it.

Tree of life

Even here on Earth — here on this puny, puny rock whizzing around one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies — we’re not center stage. The twin demons of paleontology and evolution have disabused us of that notion. The theory of evolution has kicked humankind off the lofty Pinnacle of Creation platform, and put us in our rightful place as just one twig on the very bushy bush of life. Yes, we’re a twig with a startling ability to shape our environment — but even that doesn’t make us unique. Coral, earthworms, all those plants spewing out oxygen into the atmosphere… all have dramatic impacts on the physical world around them.


And when it comes to human hubris, paleontology just laughs in our face. “You think you’re special?” it scoffs. “You genus- come- lately, with your pathetic two and a half million year pedigree? Come back when you’ve survived for as long as the coelacanth or the cockroach, and we’ll talk.” In the history of life on this planet, the human species is a blip on the radar. We might survive as long as ferns and fir trees, alligators and algae… but we might also go the way of the triceratops and the Irish elk. If the history of life on Earth were the history of all music, the history of human life would be “Who Let The Dogs Out?”

Okay. Let’s sum up for a moment. The universe, post- Big Bang, is roughly 14 billion years old. It consists of billions and billions of galaxies, separated by vast expanses of empty space. Each of those galaxies consists of billions and billions of stars, also separated by vast expanses of empty space. Some of those stars have big hunks of rock orbiting them. And about four and a half billion years ago, in one of those galaxies, around one of those stars, one of those big hunks of rock happened to have a chemical process take place on it that resulted in structures that were able to replicate themselves. Over the eons, the self-replicating structures proliferated into an uncountable variety of different forms. And a mere two and a half million years ago, one of those millions of forms emerged in something resembling its present state… and in pretty much its present state a ridiculously paltry 200,000 years ago.

God Creates Adam Sistine Chapel

Many examples of which have come up with the ridiculously arrogant proposition that they are at the center of it all, the reason for all of it to happen.

To be fair, the human-centered view of the universe wasn’t always ridiculous. It wasn’t ridiculous, say, 5,000 years ago, before Galileo and Darwin and Hubble. It wasn’t ridiculous when — as far as we knew — humans had always been around, and the sun and moon and stars all revolved around us. We didn’t have any reason to think otherwise.

But now we do.

And now we have to let go.


If you’re not a hard-line creationist, if you accept the sciences of astronomy and paleontology and evolution, then you have to accept this simple fact: we are not the center of the universe. We are not the center of anything, except our own lives and history. We are a dust speck on an eyelash on a flea in the vastness of space; we are an eyeblink on that flea in the vastness of time. To think that all of the mind-boggling hugeness of space and time was created just so that flea could blink its eye… that’s one of the most arrogant beliefs I can imagine.

“All This For Us?” The Arrogance of Human- Centered Faith

Lights, Camera
 Richard Kern’s “Action”

Please note: This review includes a passing reference to my personal sex life. Family members and others who don’t want to read that stuff may want to skip this one. There are also nude pictures in this review; please don’t click the “Continue” button if you’re under 18 or don’t want to see those. This review was originally published in Adult FriendFinder magazine.


By Richard Kern
Book with DVD; hardcover, color. Taschen, ISBN 978-3-8228-5649-9

Here’s what you see in this book. Apart from photos of naked girls shamelessly showing off their goodies, that is.

You see smiles. Half-smiles. Awkward grimaces. Coy sidelong glances. Eyes gazing up in adoration. Eyes lowered sweetly and shyly. Eyes shut tight in rapture. Intense stares. Puzzled stares. Thoughtful stares. Looks of concentration. Looks of amusement. A sneer, a yawn, a tongue sticking out. Grins. Glowers. Giggles.

Now, here’s what you don’t see a lot of in this book:

The sultry model’s pout.

You know the one. The “stare at the camera without smiling” one. The one that’s supposed to look sexy and smoldering and “come-hither,” but usually just looks blank. The one you see on almost every goddamn page of almost every goddamn erotic photo book on the goddamn planet. If you’ve seen any decent amount of contemporary adult photography, it’s a facial expression you’re almost certainly way too familiar with.

There’s not a whole lot of it in Richard Kern’s “Action”.

And that, all by itself, is enough for me praise it to the skies.

It’s not just that I’m so bored with the sultry model’s pout that I could scream and set fires. That’s certainly true — but there’s more to it than that.

Continue reading “Lights, Camera  Richard Kern’s “Action””

Lights, Camera
 Richard Kern’s “Action”

The Bank Job, And The Normalizing Of Kink

Please note: This piece includes references to my personal sex life. Not in any great detail, but it might be too much information for family members and others who don't want to read about that stuff. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Bank job poster

Warning: This isn’t a proper movie review. Not at all. I barely even mention the movie’s plotting and construction, its writing and acting, its lighting and camerawork. This is a lot more like that Saturday Night Live sketch, the one with the welder’s review of “Flashdance.”

This is the sadomasochist’s review of “The Bank Job.”

Which I certainly wasn’t expecting to write when I saw the movie.

Quick precis: “The Bank Job” is an unusually well-done bank heist movie, set in England in the 1970s, and based — loosely — on real events. And one of the movie’s main MacGuffins — an object everyone is chasing after, an object driving the plot — is a series of photos of a member of the House of Lords cavorting at a brothel… a brothel offering, among other things, sadomasochistic services, catering to what is often known as “the English vice.” These photos of an MP being tied up and flogged have obvious blackmail potential; hence everyone in the movie being very interested in them, and attempting to steal and swindle and threaten them away from one another. (There’s another, more central MacGuffin in the movie, also involving naughty photos of a famous person; but that’s a post for another day.)

Scandal Poster

Now, secret sex — even secret sadomasochistic sex — being used to drive a movie plot is hardly unusual. It’s barely worth even mentioning, much less writing an entire column about. But there’s something about the kink in “The Bank Job” that’s very unusual indeed… so unusual in mainstream movies as to be almost unheard of.

And that’s this: The movie’s attitude towards the sadomasochism is entirely casual, and entirely non-judgmental.

The SM scene in the photos — which we get to see a bit of as it’s being secretly photographed — is more than just safe and sane and consensual. It’s friendly. It’s happy. The MP at the center of attention is smiling, enjoying himself, and even making requests in a very “topping from the bottom” manner. Devotees of the more classic forms of SM might chide him for his manners and his poor form — and obviously the fact that he’s being secretly photographed for potential blackmail purposes isn’t so cool — but nobody could say that he isn’t having a good time.

What’s more, the women in the brothel — the women tying up and whipping said MP, as well as the women catering to more conventional desires — look happy to be doing what they’re doing. They’re not victims, they’re not prisoners: they’re professionals, doing their job and enjoying it a fair amount.

And while the characters in the movie are of course aware of the photos’ shock value — and hence their blackmail value — none of them seem personally shocked or surprised. There’s no, “This man likes to be beaten? Merciful Zeus! What wicked debauchery has this world descended to? And a Member of Parliament, too!” They’re amused, they’re entertained, they’re immediately aware of the photos’ potential value and perfectly willing to take advantage of it… but none of them seems upset, or concerned, or even the least bit surprised, by the fact that a member of the English aristocracy gets off on being beaten.

Crow 2 city of angels poster
And in movies with SM in them, this attitude is so rare as to be almost unheard of. The usual cinematic approach to SM is to treat it as a marker for real-life cruelty and abuse, or real-life martyrdom and self-destruction. Sexual sadists tend to be evil drug lords or something; sexual masochists are either prisoners of the sadists, or prisoners of their own sick, destructive desires. And when movies show SM, they typically try to have their cake and eat it too: using SM imagery to excite and titillate the audience, while at the same time condemning and punishing the people who engage in it.

Either that, or the whole thing gets treated as a big joke. Treating SM as just another sexual variation — and treating society’s objections to it as silly and hypocritical — is rarer in the movies than dildos at a church picnic.

Secretary Poster

There have been other pro-SM movies, of course. “Secretary” leaps to mind. But that was a movie specifically about an SM relationship. “The Bank Job” is the first mainstream movie I can think of that has SM as a side plot, a casual, secondary plot device with not that much attention paid to it… and that still pays the attention it does give to SM with basic acceptance and an acknowledgement of its right to exist.

I don’t know if this marks the start of a trend, or if it’s just a one-time fluke. But I just want to say this, to all the sadomasochists who have been coming out over the last couple/ few decades and trying to educate the public about what we do: Good job, everybody. Coming out works. It’s slow going, but it works. Keep it up.

The Bank Job, And The Normalizing Of Kink

“Ya Gotta Reach For Your Dreams”: An Optimistic Realist Perspective


Should we, in fact, always reach for our dreams?

I know. That sounds like an almost stupidly obvious question. But stay with me. I’m going someplace with this.

You’ve seen the movies, the TV shows; you’ve read the inspiring books. Scrappy underdog with a dream struggles against all odds — conformist friends, an implacable authority structure, traditionalist parents who are scared of change — to astonish everyone with their awe- inspiring talent and win the big game at the end.


It’s the Flashdance/ Bend It Like Beckham/ Strictly Ballroom/ Mighty Ducks trope. And it’s very deeply embedded in our culture. You can do anything you want, as long as you set your mind to it. Take your passion, and make it happen. Do, or do not — there is no “try.”

In my ongoing attempt to be both an optimist and a realist, I’ve been thinking about this trope. And I want to take it on.

Yes, I think we should, most of the time, reach for our dreams. But I also think this is a screwed-up trope that does a fair amount of damage. It undercuts a realistic view of the world… and in a weird way, it undercuts optimism as well.

Here’s the thing. The trope offers false optimism. It strongly implies — and sometimes promises outright — that if you try hard enough, you’ll succeed.

But if you look at the world around you for ten minutes, you’ll see that this is patently untrue. Not everyone succeeds in their dreams. The world is full of singers who never get on the radio; ball players who never make it past college or high school ball; students who flunk out of med school; writers who never write a bestseller, or indeed never get anything published at all. (I always have to remind myself of this when I’m feeling cranky about my struggles in my writing career: no, I’m not as successful as I’d like to be, but the overwhelming majority of writers don’t even reach the modest level of success that I have.)

American idol

It isn’t always for lack of trying, either. Sometimes, for instance, it’s for lack of talent. The American Idol tryout shows are Exhibit A: a pathetic parade of self-delusion, a nearly endless caravan of dreadful, dreadful singers who saw Flashdance and The Mighty Ducks and think this is their big shot, that if they work hard and stay true to their dream they’ll someday be a star. The line between confidence and delusion is a fine one indeed, and sometimes very difficult to detect.

And sometimes it’s simply for lack of luck. As any successful person who isn’t totally arrogant will tell you, luck plays a huge role in success. Especially in difficult and highly competitive fields, like ballet dancing and hockey. You have to be talented, you have to be ambitious, you have to work hard… and you have to get the breaks. (Even if it’s the often- overlooked breaks of birth and upbringing.) If the difference between confidence and delusion is simply in the outcome, then sometimes that difference is drawn by a roll of the dice.

Road closed

Hard work and determination are no guarantee of success. And one of the hardest lessons to learn, one of the hardest balances to strike, one of the hardest choices to make in life, is figuring out when you should keep trying and when you should let go and move on. Which setbacks are just temporary obstacles on your path to glory, and which ones are the universe telling you, “Forget it, kid, it ain’t gonna happen.” (It’s not just about careers, either. I’ve definitely hung onto relationships that were dead and rotting because I had “If we try hard enough we can make this work” damage.)

These are some of the hardest, most wrenching decisions we have to make. And I think the “Stick to your dreams and you’ll win in the end” trope can cloud these decisions and make them even harder. It can turn confidence into delusion, way past the line where it’s difficult to see the difference. It can make people think that their big break is just around the corner, they can’t give up now, if they just stick with it long enough it’s bound to happen.

Bridge collapse

And it makes people feel even worse if they don’t succeed. This is what I mean about the trope undercutting optimism. You’re already feeling bad about failing, and then on top of that you feel like a double failure because you gave up. If you’d really wanted it badly enough, if you’d worked harder or had more confidence or just stuck with it a little longer, you’d be on your way to Dreamtown. How much harder is it going to be the next time you pursue a dream, if you start out feeling like your last failure is proof of a character flaw?

So here’s what I think.

You shouldn’t reach for your dreams because if you stick with them with enough confidence and determination, eventually you’ll succeed.

You should reach for your dreams because you may or may not succeed if you try — but you sure as hell won’t succeed if you don’t.

You should reach for your dreams because the reaching itself can be satisfying and valuable.

You should reach for your dreams because the reaching itself can get you to places that are interesting and worthwhile, even if they’re not where you’d originally set out to go.

You should reach for your dreams because you’ll regret it forever if you don’t.

And you should reach for your dreams because… well, what the hell else are you going to do?

You have one life. (No, I’m not going to debate that point.) Are you going to spend it trying to do what matters to you? Or are you going to spend it wondering what would have happened if you’d given your big dream a shot?

Tree surgeon

When you’re near the end of your life, would you rather look back and say, “Boy, I wish I’d tried to be a tree surgeon. I bet I would have been really good at it. I guess now I’ll never know.” Or would you rather look back and say, “What a life I’ve had. Look at all the crazy things I did. Remember that time I tried to be a tree surgeon? Boy, did that ever not work out — but it sure was interesting to try.”

Also in the Optimistic Realist Series:
The Harm Reduction Model of Life
Is Altruism Real?

“Ya Gotta Reach For Your Dreams”: An Optimistic Realist Perspective