Natalie Reed is a transgender activist and an atheist, and possibly more importantly, a fantastic writer. She wrote an insightful post (like she does) regarding a meme spreading amongst the transgender community that “God loves trans people”, wherein she vehemently disagreed with the statement, because there is no evidence for the existence of this corporeal entity that people claim loves them. She also lays out the fact that religion, historically, has been aggressively anti-gay and anti-trans and, well, extraordinarily xenophobic with regard to anything and anyone that does not fit into the “traditional” (e.g., “DEFINED BY GOD!”) gender roles. These facts are well in evidence around these parts, so I won’t rehash them.
Be Scofield is a Divinity School pantheist and a pro-theism activist, and probably more importantly, terrible at both reading for comprehension (as Chris Hallquist covers), and at writing persuasively. He rebutted Natalie in a most repetitive and anti-Gnu-Atheism manner that she is wrong because she believes supporting religious delusion also supports the more extremist of the religiously deluded. Maybe not in exactly those words, but that’s the gist of his argument, which, while he demands sociological evidence for Natalie’s assertions, he supports his own via argumentum ad nauseum. He also makes several assumptions about Natalie’s line of thinking, about her method of argumentation, her reasons for making the arguments she does, and about her general psychology.
This, by the by, is the same person who, not long ago, accused Greta Christina of racist imperialism by pullquoting Sikivu Hutchinson, one of the biggest contributors to Black Skeptics.
From Be’s paean:
The belief that underlies Reed’s thinking is that if we got rid of religion everyone would magically see how wrong white supremacy, transphobia, class oppression and sexism is.
Is it now?
No, in fact, I would contend that Natalie’s line of thinking was laid out extraordinarily clearly when she said:
Guns and bombs have been used in the service of just revolutions and wars. But that does not make guns and bombs harmless and snuggly. The fact that something can occasionally be used for just ends does not make it any less dangerous or capable of being used for unjust ends. And like guns, more often than not, religion is not put to service for the protection of the weak and vulnerable. Like guns, more often than not, religion is put to service to maintain the positions of the strong and powerful.
I contend that Be’s the one engaging in magical thinking; he’s projecting his own belief that if everyone converted to religiosity, or at the very least stop bleeding off into atheism, the world would be a better place. This projection is very much in evidence elsewhere in his piece:
The fundamental flaw in Reed’s argument is that it conflates people like James Cone who have stridently resisted white supremacist Christianity with the KKK who have used Christianity for their own racist agenda.
The argument Natalie actually made though was that religion itself, by virtue of being an irrational belief in something unproven and dogmatic, is dangerous. It exploits cognitive bugs we humans all share and can be used both for good and for evil. Religions can in fact be used to justify anything, can be used to induce its adherents to behave in any manner — even those religions that explicitly claim that certain values are fundamentally incompatible with their practice. One does not have to look too hard within Western religions to find examples of beliefs derived from the same foundational text that are completely incompatible with one another. Be’s own example shows exactly this: that for every person who resists a form of bigotry, there exist entire organizations that support it, and both of them derive their beliefs from the exact same text.
Many individuals can choose their own morality, their own path, and thereafter are free to pick and choose from the smorgasbord of rationalizations offered by any religion, even the religion they were given by their parents, rather than relying on the very thought processes that gave them the morality they chose to begin with. The problem is, honestly, less with the people who choose their morality then rationalize it thereafter. The problem Natalie has, I have, and in fact most “New Atheists” have with religion itself is that many people are not allowed to choose their morality then pick the religion that best suits them. Most people are shaped, molded from birth, to believe that which their predecessors believed without any scrap of evidence. And many of these beliefs are directly harmful and often even xenophobic, and if you were not raised to think critically about beliefs in general, you will not question your own beliefs.
If people are taught to respect unfalsifiable and dogmatic beliefs and not to challenge these beliefs when they are presented without evidence, it doesn’t matter whether the person offering those beliefs is good or bad, it matters more whether the beliefs themselves are good or bad than whether they are supported. This means it is all the more difficult to reason someone out of a position they never reasoned themselves into in the first place.
That argument of religion itself as harmful is separate and distinct from the fact that religion, when it is insulated from criticism as a matter of faith, serves as a club for either side of any argument. Religion does not deserve the special privilege it has been granted as exempt from criticism, and its special privilege is being abused more often than being used to heal our world. And even if it was used more often to heal our world than to harm, then the usefulness of that belief is undermined by every act of violence committed in its name, and this undermining is magnified by the very lack of evidence that Natalie, myself and others disdain about religion. Better if all beliefs were predicated on evidence, so that when people have discussions about how certain moral values are either helpful or harmful, they can reason with one another using our common language without resorting to arguments from the authority of very old and unproven texts and the magical deities they describe.
I suppose she wants to impose a Western scientific atheism on indigenous cultures and religions around the world? This is the height of cultural imperialism and arrogance. I’ve never even heard of your religion or culture but I’m enlightened by science and I know it is harming you. I know your religion is dangerous because all religion is dangerous. You need to be like me. Please.
(Emphasis in original.)
This argument was wrong when Be pullquoted Sikivu, and it is wrong now, especially in light of the fact that Natalie anticipated and tried to insulate against the scare tactic preemptively. Changing the minority group that he uses as a foil does not fix the fatal flaws with the line of argumentation that Frederick Sparks so deftly lays bare. As Sikivu pointed out, atheists have some extra challenge ahead of them in presenting atheism in a way that is relevant to other cultures by taking into account the differences in those other cultures and respecting those differences, but that does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that atheism is itself a “Western scientific” belief system. It is a disbelief in whatever local religions happen to exist in any culture. It is an understanding that this universe operates by rules that can be sussed out through scientific inquiry, and the correlating understanding that lots of people evidently believe things that run contrary to that understanding.
It is no more imperialist to challenge the accepted dogmas in another culture by supporting the atheists in that culture than to support believers in your Abrahamic god in cultures where that was an import to begin with. And it is certainly far more imperialistic to exhort that your particular religion should be preached to the four corners of the world (assuming you believe in a religion that thinks the world is flat and has corners). Opposing dogmatism and encouraging skepticism and doubt has value in every culture, without regard for the specifics of that culture, because every culture has a set of belief systems that are incompatible with any understanding of reality. As PZ Myers points out, there are 4300 different faith groups worldwide, and that isn’t even counting all the little ways any particular adherent might modify the beliefs of their “parent” faith group. If any of them are correct, only one of them is. But, all of them can be incorrect, and in fact they very likely are.
So when it comes to the understanding of the scientific method and the secular worldview, of empiricism and of scrutiny and of skepticism and of doubt, which has been built cross-culturally since the days of the Greek philosophers, one can apply the lessons learned by these hundreds of years of rationality and examine any dogmatic belief system and can suss out what’s bald assertion presented without sufficient evidence and what’s actually empirically true. And since the seeds of doubt are universal, you will find atheists in every culture and society. These people deserve support. In areas where we have nascent swells of atheism like North America, we would do well to take a lesson from people like Sikivu Hutchinson, who in her insight rightly contends that we must assist those doubters in other cultures where they may not have a support structure like ours. We must not fall into the trap that Be Scofield does in thinking that our support structures are “one size fits all”. Just because the seed of doubt exists in every culture does not mean that the support structure we use is also cross-cultural.
The reality is we need more queer and transgender people to become religious leaders. We need more women and people of color to hold significant positions of religious authority. Black liberation theologians, Womanists, and feminist theologians are important voices in the struggle against oppression and domination. But Reed would see a transgender religious leader as a step in the wrong direction. I see it as a necessary corrective to historically narrow minded institutions.
The answer to all Be’s apparent prayers would be for everyone to convert to religiosity of some sort or another, to change these structures from within. Rather than sloughing off the institutions that are used most often to oppress and subjugate people to certain dogmatic ways of thinking, rather than supporting a true religious freedom of giving everyone all the most relevant information and letting them decide for themselves whether a particular religion is right, the answer in Be’s mind is to convert, to anything. To force an institution predicated on outdated ideas to evolve. To force that institution to come to terms with the idea that their interpretation of their foundational texts may be incorrect. As though there is something of value in those institutions other than community, which you can get in myriad other ways.
While this is an excellent way to make atheists of casual believers, to tell them that the text that is easily used to support anti-transsexual sentiments is simply being misinterpreted, I can’t see this as actually helping his case. He is showing his own imperialism in this — that every culture, that every movement that struggles against oppression and domination, should join any theology in general (presumably, later, his theology in specific, given he founded “godblessthewholeworld.org”!) to absorb those movements into the ultimately oppressive and dominating dogmatic theology that values faith more than evidence. Is this not imperialist against the skeptics and atheists who exist in every culture?
The idea that Natalie is somehow “blaming” trans folk for the oppression done to them by the religious is disingenuous at best, but I’d go so far as to say it’s an outright lie. The observation that supporting one form of delusion gives cover to other forms of delusion and all the violent rhetoric (and actual violence!) said delusion entails is a common one, and well-grounded. That people participate in and facilitate their own oppression is certainly nothing new. Natalie pointing it out is not blaming them for their behaviour, she’s blaming the institutions that are taking advantage of those cognitive bugs we all have. She laments that people have these bugs — as do I — but she does not blame them or call them immoral or stupid or less than fully realized human beings for it. We’d all be caught, Natalie and I included, if we intended to cast that particular net.
Trans folk deserve better than to be used as pawns in service of religious dominionism. They deserve better than what amounts to “battered spouses syndrome”, where they are abused by religious dogma for so long, and are told the path out of that abuse is the embrace and reinterpretation of the very religious texts that have been used as a club. They deserve better than the answer to be, hey, look, the God that this dogma describes actually really loves us (if you turn your head and squint at scriptures just so).
Natalie’s analysis is spot-on. God doesn’t love trans folks, because no deity ever described by any dogma actually exists. Because every one of those faiths can be disproven on some fundamental point by science, all you’re left with is people. People who choose what to believe and what not to believe. The vast majority of these people who believe in God also believe that transsexuals are just wrong, and just because some people who believe in God are okay with trans folk, that does not mean that God loves trans folk. If you take into account the concept of “Self Projection As God“, then you will easily understand where both the “God hates trans people” and “God loves trans people” are actually describing how THEY feel about trans people.
Stripping away that layer of abstraction when people say “God loves/hates X” shows you exactly where the problem actually is. Trans folk need to recognize that the people who say “God loves” may love trans people themselves, and can and should be allies, but they are just as wrong about why they should be allies as the folks are who say “God hates” are wrong about being your enemies.
Meanwhile, Be gets to coast on his own imperialism, gets to escape any measure of introspection, and can happily adhere to the utterly simplistic and magical worldview that everyone would just be that much better off if only they were religious. He can write thousands of words talking around the same idea that somehow “New Atheists” are wrong because they’re vocal, without any measure of realization that he is in fact vocal himself. He can somehow navigate the minefields of cognitive dissonance while laying so many mines himself. It is very much like Be was born with some part of his brain configured solely to deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes from believing in an institution despite its history and its destructive and grinding effects on people like him.
How easy it must be to be Be Scofield. How utterly magical it must be to do all of this with such seeming facility. Despite all the hardship he’s endured in realizing his trans status, what a simple world it must now all be to Be with his cosmic connection to the inerrant reality of his theism. How comforting it must be to know that your belief, out of 4300 possible super-beliefs and infinite sub-beliefs, is exactly right because it’s right because it’s right, never mind all those times that people with the same belief have hurt you in the name of said belief. It almost makes me envious.
Then I realize that to be like Be, I’d have to turn off my brain.