Anonymity, Manners, and the Weakness and Power of the Internet

Mask

Do you think the anonymity of the Internet is a problem?

I was talking with a friend recently, and she was mentioning a rule she uses in her online discourses: Never say anything to someone online that you wouldn’t say to their face.

It’s an idea I’ve seen a lot in discussions of online society: Online interactions tend to be ruder and more cruel than in- person ones. Without the physical presence of the other person, people feel somewhat released from normal social inhibitions — inhibitions like civility, and empathy, and kindness. Without the presence of the other person, people tend to forget that they’re interacting with an actual human being, and not just a set of ideas and beliefs.

Road_roller

There is some truth to this. People do say things online that they wouldn’t say in person. And some of those things really shouldn’t be said: from personal insults to bigoted diatribes to death threats. Even interactions that fall short of these extremes can be, shall we say regrettable. I’ve had more than one painful lesson with friends and family, teaching me never to process serious emotional issues online. It’s too easy to try to marshall your arguments into an unstoppable steamroller, and too easy to forget that you actually care about the person you’re talking to, and don’t want to hurt them if you can avoid it.

So yes. There’s some truth to this.

But ultimately, I don’t agree with my friend.

See, here’s the thing. Yes, some of the things people say online are terrible and hurtful and never should be said. But here are some of the other things people say online that they don’t feel they can say in person:

“I really don’t agree with you.”

“I think your ideas are mistaken, and here — exactly — is why.”

“I’m gay.” (Or bisexual. Sadomasochistic. Polyamorous. A sex worker. A foot fetishist. A furry. Almost any sexual minority you can think of.)

“I think your most deeply held beliefs are irrational, unsupported by the evidence, and almost certainly incorrect.”

“I am an atheist.”

And these are important things to say. They’re things that should be said, things I want to be said.

Emily post

The fact that people feel less bound by social convention online than they do in person doesn’t just give them license to be rude where they would otherwise feel pressured to be polite. It also gives them license to tell the truth as they see it, where they would otherwise feel pressured to go along with socially acceptable lies — or stay silent in the face of them.

And that, I think, is a good thing.

I’ve felt this pressure myself. In person, I’ve definitely backed down from arguments — dropped the subject, changed the subject, agreed to disagree, whatever — to keep the social engine running smoothly. And I haven’t always felt proud of myself for doing so. I’ve compromised my honesty and my beliefs, let stupid and terrible and patently false ideas slide unchallenged, in order to defuse conflict and awkwardness in social situations. And I think most of us have.

It’s a hard situation. I like the fact that I’m empathetic and diplomatic, able to see things from other people’s perspectives and reluctant to hurt their feelings. And it’s not like I think that contradicting wrongness or proving my point is always the highest priority, or that I want every party to turn into a debate. But like a lot of people, I have a reflexive anxiety in the face of conflict, a reflexive tendency in social situations to prioritize social grace over other considerations. And I don’t like it.

Argue

So I love the fact that the blogosphere releases me from some of that concern. I love that there’s a social arena where the convention is that it’s okay to disagree: okay not just to argue, but to stubbornly stick with an argument and see it through to its end instead of just saying, “Well, you may have a point, let me think about that, hey how about them Yankees?” I love that there’s a social arena where it’s okay to point out that the other person has flawed reasoning, unreasonable assumptions, incorrect facts.

I don’t just love it so I can hammer on other people’s ideas, either. I love it so other people can hammer on mine. I feel like the blogosphere is a crucible, a whetstone, where my good ideas get clarified and my fuzzy ideas get sharpened and my bad ideas get burned away. I want other people to feel as free to criticize my ideas as I do to criticize theirs. Otherwise, what the heck’s the point? And I think that’s true for a lot of people. Having a place where you can test your ideas against another smart, thoughtful, stubborn person who’s just as willing to go the full fifteen rounds as you are? I can’t be the only person who thinks that’s the neatest thing since buttered popcorn.

And for people who don’t live in Sodom by the Bay, all of this isn’t just important. It’s vital.

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For people who live in suburbs and small towns, places that are even more strongly ruled by social convention than the big impersonal cities, the online world is a godsend. (Tangent: What’s a secular word for “godsend”? I couldn’t think of one.) There are thousands — millions — of people for whom the online world is the only place where they can speak their truth, and explore the questions and details and complexities of their truth, without fear of reprisal. Not just fear of social disapproval, either, but fear of actual, practical, losing- your- job type reprisal. There are thousands, millions, of people who have no place other than the ‘Net where they can safely say, “I’m queer,” “I’m an atheist,” “I think the way I was brought up is stupid and evil.” For them, the fact that there’s a social arena where it’s okay to disagree and argue and not fret too much about what other people think or whether your opinions are hurting their feelings… it’s not just a relief. It’s a sanity- saver.

A is for atheist

Let me put it this way. If everyone followed the “Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in person” rule, the atheosphere probably wouldn’t exist.

And I want the atheosphere to exist.

I’m not saying that people should relinquish all social inhibitions in online interactions. Far from it. Even when I’m locked in a hardcore online battle of wits and wills, I try to remember that there’s an actual other person on the other end of the ethernet cable. And I try to remember to criticize ideas and beliefs and behaviors, rather than personally insult people.

Plus, for every well-mannered person who finds a good balance of honesty and kindness on the Internet, there’s an inept, inconsiderate, socially tone-deaf moron who needs more social inhibition, not less.

So I’m not saying that the Internet’s tendency to loosen the bonds of social good grace is an unmixed blessing.

I’m just saying that it is a blessing. A mixed one, but a blessing nonetheless. I’m saying that this weakness of the Internet is also one of its greatest strengths. As annoying and off-putting and fucked-up as it often is, I’m glad that there’s a place in the world where I can say things to people that I wouldn’t say to their face.

And where they can say them to me.

Anonymity, Manners, and the Weakness and Power of the Internet
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Is Cheating Ever Okay? Part 2: The Blowfish Blog

Cheat

Wow.

Not what I’d expected.

My piece about cheating (the one on the Blowfish Blog last week) got more comments than any other Blowfish piece I’ve written. By far. And given the, shall we say, feisty nature of the comments, a follow-up post seemed called for. So I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog, Is Cheating Ever Okay? Part 2, and here’s the teaser:

I’m going to take the most extreme situation to illustrate my point. Admittedly it is an extreme situation; but it’s also not an unrealistic one. In fact, it’s one I’ve seen described more or less verbatim in the sex columns.

You’re in a long- term relationship. You have kids, or a business, or some other major entanglements together: entanglements that would make a split extremely difficult and painful, and that affect other people than just the two of you. And you do, in fact, both like being coupled with each other, and would much rather stay together than split up.

Your partner has stopped having sex with you. You’ve tried to discuss it with them, but they either refuse to even talk about it, or don’t see it as a problem. They are unwilling to change. They think sex is something you do when you’re younger, and that you should just accept the disappearance of sex as a normal part of life. And they are unwilling to consider non-monogamy.

What would you do?

To find out more about why I think cheating in a relationship can be, if not a morally excellent choice, then at least an understandable one, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Is Cheating Ever Okay? Part 2: The Blowfish Blog

Broiled Chicken Breasts

Marvs broiler

I’ve been looking over my last couple weeks of blogging, and I realize I’ve been big with the heavy topics and the cranky pants lately. So today, we have a nice recipe.

Well, not so much a recipe as a general food suggestion.

It’s the marinated, broiled, skinless boneless chicken breast. And it’s become one of the most beloved and relied- upon standards in our rotation. It’s super- fast, it’s ridiculously easy, it’s healthy, and it’s delicious.

And it’s unbelievably versatile. You can make sandwiches with it. You can make chicken salad with it. You can cut it up to add protein to a regular salad. You can cut it up or shred it into noodles. Add it to a stir-fry. Use it in an omelette or a frittata. Use it in risotto. Or you can just put a chunk of it on your plate, with a vegetable and a starch next to it, and pretend you’re a 1950s American family.

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Plus you can flavor it almost any way you want to. And that makes it even more versatile. You can use Italian seasonings, Asian seasonings, Middle- Eastern seasonings, Tex-Mex seasonings, good old- fashioned “whatever you have in your kitchen” seasonings… whatever. Chicken is a subtle flavor, and you can spice it up almost any way you want to. Which means you can use this process for almost any recipe where you want little bits of chickeny protein.

It isn’t strictly necessary to use skinless and boneless, I suppose. But the chicken cuts up better, and absorbs the flavor better, without the skin on it. And it cooks a whole lot faster without the bones.

Here’s the recipe. Such as it is.

Olive oil

1: Make an oil-based marinade. (Technically, I suppose it isn’t really a marinade, but I’m not sure what else to call it. “Oil with flavorful stuff in it,” I guess.) This can be pretty much anything you want, and is your opportunity for your creativity to shine. Olive oil and mustard. Olive oil and Old Bay. Olive oil, lemon, and black pepper. Olive oil and rosemary. Peanut oil, sesame oil, ginger, and soy sauce. Olive oil and cumin. Chili oil. You get the idea.

Make enough to coat the chicken thoroughly, but you don’t need so much that the chicken is taking a bath.

Do be sure to put a little salt in your marinade/ oily flavorful goop (unless you’re using something like Old Bay, which is good with chicken but salty as fuck.) I did a sweet marinade once that I thought didn’t need salt, and boy, was I wrong. And be aware that anything with sugar in it will blacken. That may be okay with you — I personally love chicken with a blackened sweet- hot mustard marinade/ goop — but just know what you’re getting yourself into.

2: Put the skinless, boneless chicken breasts in the goop, and let them sit. For an hour if you have time; for ten minutes if you don’t. (The subtler the flavor, the longer you have to let it sit… which is why we tend to go for unsubtle flavors.)

3: Put some tinfoil or a crappy cookie sheet you don’t much care about on your broiler pan, and turn your oven to Broil. (I find that it works best to preheat the oven for a few minutes before putting the chicken under the broiler; but then, we have a really old oven.)

Fire

4: Broil the chicken breasts for roughly 7-8 minutes on one side, and roughly 7-8 minutes on the other. You may have to experiment a little to get the exact time right: it’ll vary depending on your oven and the size of the chicken breasts. You don’t want them overcooked and dry… but you really, really don’t want undercooked chicken, either.

Save a little of the marinade, so when you flip the chicken to cook the other side, you can re-coat it.

If you want to go all nutsoid about how the chicken looks, be sure to broil it with the ugly side up first and the nice side up second, since the side that’s up second will be the side that looks prettiest. But if you’re just going to cut it up — or if you don’t care about that sort of thing — then don’t worry about it.

And that’s it.

Make some oily flavorful goop. Coat the chicken with it. Let it sit if you feel like it. Broil it. Eat.

And if you come up with some really good goop concoctions, let me know.

Broiled Chicken Breasts

But First, A Brief Pledge Break

And now, I’m going to try doing something new on my blog.

I’m going to ask for donations.

(And just like any good pledge drive, I’m going to offer goodies in return!)

Writing

As many of you know, I’m working very hard to get to a place where I can make a living as a writer. And I’m coming to the conclusion that donations and subscriptions to my blog may be an essential part of making that happen. I’ve been blogging for over three years now, and while I’m having more fun with it than I could ever have imagined, I also devote a huge amount of time to it, with no income from it other than a few ads and book sales. The reality that I’m beginning to accept is that this blog isn’t like a magazine, or a publishing company. It’s more like public radio.

Which is brought to you by generous donations from readers like you.

If you’ve enjoyed great new posts like “Evangelical” Atheism and The Messed-Up Teachings of Jesus — or classics like Atheists and Anger — won’t you consider supporting this blog?

And if you do donate or subscribe, here’s what you get in return!

Anyone who subscribes to my blog — $5 a month for 12 months — or who makes a one-time donation of $60 or more, will get a signed copy of their choice of any of my three books:

Bec_2008_small
Best Erotic Comics 2008

Thrkin
Three Kinds of Asking For It

Payfor

or Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for their Clients.

Just email me (greta at gretachristina dot com) with a name and mailing address when you make a donation. I’ll even take requests for how to sign it, if they’re not unreasonable.

And the important but intangible thing you’ll get with your support is a better blog. If I can get a decent income from subscriptions and donations, I can start focusing on my writing to a greater degree than I’m doing now. And that means better blogging. I won’t promise to blog more — my friends have already told me they can barely keep up with my blog as it is — but I can promise to blog better. I can spend more time on it; I can do more research, more profrerading, more rewrites. A well- supported blog will be a better blog.

Plus, of course, you get the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing you’re helping support a writer who you presumably like. You get to feel like a patron of the arts. Heck, you would be a patron of the arts.

You can go the subscription route, which spreads your donation out in small increments over a longer period. (A subscription to my blog is $5 a month for 12 months.) Or you can make a one-time donation, and that can be for any amount. Even small donations would be very much appreciated. You can use a credit card if you don’t have a PayPal account, or your PayPal account if you do.

I promise not to bug you too often with these pledge drives. I definitely promise not to interrupt your programming for it. (Although it is tempting. “We’ll continue the rest of this theological argument shortly. But first, have you considered supporting Greta Christina’s Blog? For just a few dollars a month, you get quality atheist rants like this one — plus sex advice, political opinions, movie reviews, recipes, and so much more — almost every day of the week!”) But I love blogging — not just my blogging, but the basic fact of blogging, the very idea of it — and I want this to be a world where blogging is a viable career option for writers.

Let’s see if we can make that work.

If you can, please donate or subscribe. Thanks!

But First, A Brief Pledge Break

Serendipity, Synchronicity, and Signs from the Universe: “Everything happens for a reason,” Part 2

Since I’ve become an atheist and a skeptic, I’ve been having new thoughts about pseudo- patterns, and coincidences that just seem too perfect to be really coincidental, and apparent signs and omens from God or the world- soul or the universe.

Ice_cream

Ingrid and I were going to the fancy organic ice cream place the other night. (Yes, this is a story about atheism and skepticism — stay with me). As we drove up, we could see that the line was out the door and down the block. We were trying to decide if the ice cream would be worth the wait, when we saw — wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles — a perfect, rock-star parking spot, right in front of the store.

And one of the first thoughts that flashed through my head was, “It’s a sign. The universe wants us to get fancy organic ice cream.”

Now, for reasons that I’ve gone into at length elsewhere in this blog, I no longer believe that the universe wants anything. I no longer believe in any God, any World-Soul, any sort of large consciousness that has a path marked out for me and is putting signs in my way to get me to follow it.

But I did recognize this as a sign.

Ice cream sign

No, the parking place wasn’t a sign from the universe that we should get ice cream. The universe does not have the capacity for consciousness. And even if it did, it would almost certainly be supremely indifferent to the question of whether Ingrid and I did or did not get fancy organic ice cream on Friday night.

The parking place wasn’t a sign from the universe.

But my reaction to the parking place was a sign from myself.

The fact that my first reaction to seeing a parking place in front of the ice cream store was “The universe wants us to get ice cream” was a sign from my own psyche. I knew it was absurd to wait in line for 20 minutes for ice cream, no matter how good it was. At the same time, I really, really wanted to. This is exceptionally good ice cream we’re talking about, and we were hosting a family gathering the next day where we knew it would be a big hit. So I wanted a justification for doing this ridiculous thing… and “The universe wants you to do it” was a perfect one.

Hermit

This is what I’m beginning to understand about my sign- and- omen seeing back in my woo, World-Soul days. When I ran into a drug- dealing friend on a Friday night and took it as a sign that I should trip on acid that weekend, it wasn’t the Universe sending the message. When I did a series of Tarot readings in which The Hermit came up repeatedly, and took it to mean that I shouldn’t get into another relationship right away, it wasn’t the Spirit of the Tarot doing the talking. It was me.

The signs didn’t always tell me what I wanted to hear. At times, quite the opposite. (I was very cranky about the “no relationships right away” message.) It wasn’t always about rationalizing what I wanted to do anyway. Sometimes it was, of course. But sometimes — often, even — it was about some part of me that wanted to talk and wasn’t being heard.

And you know what? All of this is still true. Even as an atheist and a materialist and a skeptic, it’s still true. The fact that I’m aware of pseudo-patterns and confirmation bias and the fact that our brains are hard-wired to see pattern and intention where none exists… it doesn’t mean I’m not prone to seeing signs and going “Oo!” at apparent synchronicities. It just means that I can catch myself at it when I do.

Arrow sign.svg

And it means I can read the signs better. After all, I know what they are now: not clues to the will of some universal spirit that doesn’t exist and wouldn’t give a damn about me if it did, but clues to myself, to my own mind and heart. If I’m seeing patterns and intentions, prophecies and omens, in the chance events of my life, then that clues me in, not to what God or the Universe or the World-Soul wants, but to what I want.

These ideas were developed in a comment thread on Friendly Atheist.

Other posts in this series:

“Everything happens for a reason”: Atheism and Learning from Mistakes
Atheism, Bad Luck, and the Comfort of Reason

Not Everything Means Something: Virginia Tech

Serendipity, Synchronicity, and Signs from the Universe: “Everything happens for a reason,” Part 2

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

Scarlet_a

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?)

Bullhorn

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.

Cormeilles_Market_3_Artlibre_jnl

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.)

HansMemlingHell

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.)

Double_Visored_Sallet_by_Wendelin_Boeheim
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.

Limousine

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

Cheating

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

God-Delusion

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.

Zeus

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?

Wicca

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.

Simpsons_church_sign_www.txt2pic.com

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.

5_religions

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?”)

Basketball

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.

Veto

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?

Bi

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