Secular “Mission Drift” and the Faith-Washing of Conservative Politics

I was on the Embrace the Void podcast earlier this month to talk about the state of the secular movement. As I discussed the concept of “mission drift”, I realized a problem with the idea. Rather, I realized another problem with the idea. It came up again this weekend, which means it’s time to write about it.

If you’re not familiar with arguments about “mission drift” in the secular movement, it’s a term often invoked by the same people who complain about identity politics. The basic idea is that U.S. secular groups who organize around or work on social and economic justice-related political issues are moving away from the core mission of the movement: maintaining and increasing the separation of church and state.

Those of us who do this activism have spoken at length about why it’s absurd to consider something like good education in science and critical thinking part of the core mission of the secular movement but to leave out feminism and anti-racism. Greta Christina ran an excellent series taking the arguments apart and drilling down to people’s actual objections. However, we haven’t talked in any depth about how ahistorical the argument is.

Organized religious interference in U.S. politics has always been about economic and social justice. That is its entire point. The story of building the religious right is a story that starts with religion being offered as a solution when more honest politicking had failed. Continue reading “Secular “Mission Drift” and the Faith-Washing of Conservative Politics”

Secular “Mission Drift” and the Faith-Washing of Conservative Politics

The Upside of Abuse

Martin Hughes has responded to my prior post on anti-theism. He notes that he decided not to respond point by point, but I definitely consider it responsive nonetheless. It’s a personal and vulnerable post, and I think it’s a valuable contribution to any discussion of the experiences of prior believers.

Martin’s post also clarifies that part of our disagreement is in how we conceive and construct our identities around religion. Where mine are many and determined by my actions, his is singular and determined by his primary priorities. While he’s rejecting “anti-theist” as his singular label, he’s not rejecting all anti-theist work. I still have serious concerns about the way vocal and public rejections of that label feed narratives that reject anti-theist work as anti-social, but I think Alex Gabriel’s piece from yesterday can speak to those for now.

Instead, I’m going to answer the personal with the personal. I don’t know that this is even arguing with Martin’s post, though my perspective is definitely not his and is counter to it in some ways. But who knows, maybe people dealing with situations like his will get something out of it.

It’s not a secret that I come from an abusive home. From the time I learned to say, “No”, there was nothing I could do right and very few places I could go to get away from the consequences of that. Eventually abuse became abandonment, and there’s nowhere to go to get away from that.

It’s also not a secret that one of the places Gamergate and “alt-right” harassment tactics were honed was in the broader secular movement or that I was one of the targets of those. Implicit and explicit threats, demeaning sexual commentary, smear campaigns, coordinated monitoring and attacks at a dedicated site, denial or tacit acceptance of the harassment from people and institutions who benefited from their critics being silenced, big names directing harassers and refusing to take responsibility–all of that was there. It still is.

People ask me how I do it sometimes, how I handle the harassment. I usually shrug or say I don’t know. I do know. I handle it because I was abused. Continue reading “The Upside of Abuse”

The Upside of Abuse

In Praise of Anti-Theism

Martin Hughes joined the ranks of former anti-theists yesterday. Earlier that morning, I’d written some musings on the value of anti-theism on Facebook. They weren’t meant to be a counter to Hughes’ position at the time, but they do that work. I’ve expanded them here.

It isn’t about doing your job or not doing your job.1 I think it was Miri who pointed out last year that everyone should have some point at which they refuse to do their job. “I was just following orders” hasn’t been an acceptable excuse for a long time now, and that’s a good thing.

It’s about where your refusal point is. You make implicit promises when you take a job, so the real question we’re debating is what makes it worth breaking those promises. What does it take for you to become forsworn? There should be a penalty, in reputation if nothing else, when you break promises.2 What makes that worthwhile to you?

There are variations on that, greater “crimes”. There are people who train to become biology teachers so they can refuse to teach evolution. There are doctors and pharmacists who train knowing they’ll refuse to do parts of their job. That’s premeditation and changes the calculations, but the question remains, “What makes this worthwhile?”

This, folks, is where we have to be willing to deny the authority of religion. Continue reading “In Praise of Anti-Theism”

In Praise of Anti-Theism

The Death of Jelly and Birth of Religion

It’s a strange thing, as an atheist, to be in on the early days of a religion. It’s even more strange when that religion is started by other atheists and when it grows mostly through the actions of yet more nonbelievers. Then, one day, you find yourself building a shrine.

My friend Kelly McCullough wrote an essay at Uncanny Magazine talking about how he’s created religions both on purpose–as a writer–and more or less accidentally–as someone who likes to throw a party and has weird friends.

Chris—still foolishly possessed of the idea that if it was in the fridge, it had probably at one time been food—was deeply disturbed by this discovery. But after a while, he worked up his nerve, prodded the alien life form with a fork, and discovered it was harmless. However, this experience made him very cautious when he approached the rest of the contents of the fridge, which turned out to consist of one never–opened jar of red currant jelly which had expired some two years before his arrival.

When I finally returned from my wanderjar, Chris naturally enough wanted to share the tale of his adventures in my apartment, and to question me about the candle (now tucked away in a box in a cabinet—but still unidentified) and the jelly. After some careful inspection of the items in question and dusting off of old memories, I was able to identify the candle. But the jelly defied my powers of memory.

Or, at least, that is one explanation. However, since I have never in my entire life eaten red currant jelly, nor to my knowledge has it ever been a staple in my family’s household, I have darker suspicions. I tend to believe that it condensed out of the mysterious cosmic stuff of missing hangers and lost socks, and that it happened some time between when I left the house on my trip and when Chris arrived a day later—and that it is possessed of inhuman and sinister motivations.

And so, I have never opened it or discarded it—for fear that someone else might open it. Instead, once a year—near the expiration date listed on the jar—we bring it out and throw a festival to appease it.

That time has come again.

Yeah, I’m one of those weird friends. No, I don’t believe a jar of expired jelly that spends the bulk of its year sitting in a fridge in a bag labeled, “Do not open or throw away”, is going to wreak havoc if we don’t bring worshipful offerings. I still tell people I’m going to “appease a jar of jelly” when I head out to the party. I still built the thing a shrine. Continue reading “The Death of Jelly and Birth of Religion”

The Death of Jelly and Birth of Religion

Yes, This Is About…

As the news rolls in from Orlando, with 50 people reported dead and that many more reported injured, the disavowals are flying. Everyone wants to tell us what didn’t cause all this death and trauma. But, well, yeah, it did.

Yes, this is about religion.

Religion is what it takes to give us the authority to look at another person’s consensual pleasure and decide that gives us jurisdiction over their life and death. Nothing else gives us that permission. Nothing else puts us above someone else this way but the borrowed mantle of a god’s judgment. Secular arguments fail spectacularly to do so, which is why LGB rights are a staple of secular activism.

Not only are religious arguments the only one that can give us this permission, they routinely do. It isn’t possible to actively participate in U.S. culture–to view our media, to pay attention to our current events, to educate one’s self in preparation for voting–without being inundated with religious arguments that same-sex attraction and sexual behavior are wrong and harming our society. Nor is this confined to any one religion, making it all the more potent as an idea. Someone raised in a homophobic religious tradition will not have their ideas challenged simply by looking outside their home or community.

Religion planted this idea, makes it pervasive, and gives it power.

Yes, this is about homophobia and transphobia. Continue reading “Yes, This Is About…”

Yes, This Is About…

Sacrificing Babies to the Fertility Gods

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

We’ve had new escorts a couple of recent Saturdays at the clinic. They stopped by because things were slow at their regular clinic or came into town to help out during the 40 Days for Life, when we tend to get more protesters. Both times, Guitar Guy has decided to engage the new escorts.

Guitar Guy’s name is Jeff, as he’ll tell you if he wants to talk to you. He has a nickname like most of the protesters, however, because not all of us care to talk to them long enough to find out things like names. He’s Guitar Guy because he spent much of last summer and fall playing his limited repertoire of songs made up of his limited repertoire of chords outside the clinic. It’s currently too cold for the guitar, so he has his baby out with him now instead.

(This is fine, actually. Babies do just dandy at the temps this one has been out in. How they do later when they find out they were used as a prop for their parents is an open question, however.)

It’s only recently that Guitar Guy has tried to engage escorts for proselytization. The first time, he just started talking to the two new people at the door I was on while they carried on a conversation with each other. The second time, he asked. The second time, there was a man among the new escorts.

We’ll be discouraging escorts from engaging with Guitar Guy going forward. He’s been escalating, both in starting those two attempts to proselytize and over the course of them, and there’s no way to tell what he’s escalating to until he does it. It might just be more yelling. It might not. He says he’s there because he discovered the wonders of babies when he found out he was going to be a father, but that’s so far disconnected from “so now I go out and harass the people who don’t want one right now” that predicting any more of his behavior is iffy at best.

Making that recommendation has meant listening to Guitar Guy preach. I hear what he says so the new people can tune him out. It’s annoying, but I keep myself entertained by tweeting bits and pieces of it. He seems to fancy himself a scholar.

“The Bible says abortion clinics are Hell! Did you know ‘Gehenna’ is the Greek word for ‘Hell’?”

Why, yes, I did know that, and that’s a hell of a way to mix up your Old and New Testaments and Jewish folkloric traditions to get the answer you want, and we’ll come back to your premise shortly.

It’s fascinating watching the picking and choosing that is done to try to make it appear that reverence for prenatal life has always been considered highly valuable when it’s largely a product of modern medicine. That simply isn’t true. For these purposes, if you want to see the differences, look at how Exodus 21:22-23 has been interpreted historically by Jewish scholars, then compare that to what anti-abortion groups are telling us it “obviously” means today.

Even knowing that, however, I was completely confused the morning Guitar Guy told us “they” used to sacrifice babies to fertility gods. Continue reading “Sacrificing Babies to the Fertility Gods”

Sacrificing Babies to the Fertility Gods

Secular Confession

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

I was privy to the confession of a stranger the other day. By “privy” I mean that it was left under one of my comments on a friend’s Facebook wall.

I didn’t ask for it. The topic was consent for sexual activity and trying to explain why certain ways of talking about confirming consent are creepy as hell. I said something about how being simplified to bright lines and machine schematics can be dehumanizing that some people found helpful. This guy decided my comment was his perfect opportunity to talk about nearly having raped someone when young and drunk. I don’t understand or particularly care to understand the connection.

I didn’t want it. I just kept getting the notifications for the resulting conversation in email, while I was out to dinner with friends with no Facebook app on my phone and borderline service that meant Facebook was unwilling to load in my browser. Facebook doesn’t always obey when you tell it to shut off notifications, but I couldn’t even tell people to take it elsewhere. I just kept seeing the light on my phone blink as each new message came in. It was distracting and distressing.

I didn’t have a response to it. Part of the reason I studied rape trauma in college is that I’ve been assaulted. Alcohol was involved in making me vulnerable. I am and always will be my first priority when the topic is being discussed, both because of the original assault and because I’ve been treated like crap for talking about it. When given the opportunity, I’ll turn down listening even to other victims because I don’t have much in the way of resources to offer. Here, I chose not to tell my friends what was happening, so I could at least keep it contained to my phone.

My friend also declined to off this guy whatever he was looking for in response to his confession. They continued to put consent front and center instead. Eventually, this guy deleted all his comments and left the conversation in a rather permanent way.

The whole thing was ugly and invasive. What it was not was unique. Continue reading “Secular Confession”

Secular Confession

Producing The Humanist Hour

Those of you who are friends on Facebook know that I recently became the producer for The Humanist Hour, the American Humanist Association’s podcast. Bo Bennett decided he wanted more time to work on his personal projects, and in a whirlwind 48 hours of good timing and good credentials, I applied and was hired to take his place.

Bo’s been building up the team of interviewers over the last few months. If you’ve followed the show in the past, you know Kim Ellington. Peggy Knudtson and Jenn Wilson are recent additions. I’ll do the occasional interview as well as producing, because I know I can’t help myself when there’s a good guest whose brain I can pick. We’re all excited to bring you solidly humanist content.

What does that mean, and how will the show change? The biggest immediate change is that the show is moving to a biweekly schedule. Will it will stay that way? Stay tuned. We’re very enthusiastic about this show.

Otherwise, you can listen to Jenn interview me in my first podcast, where I talk about our plans. Even if that doesn’t interest you, listen to the rest of the show. Kim attended the Black Nonbelievers anniversary celebration in Atlanta last month, and she talked to a fascinating array of authors you probably haven’t heard of but should. Really, give it a listen.

Producing The Humanist Hour

Christmas Is for Stories

There exists an argument that atheists (or more particularly anti-theists, but it’s not phrased that way) shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. Christmas is a Christian holiday, and if we want to celebrate a holiday, we should make our own and keep it away from the Christian cooties. More seriously, the argument is made that contribute to Christianity’s cultural hegemony by celebrating Christmas.

The group that argues this isn’t large. Tom Flynn of CFI heads it up, and most of the rest of the people carrying the torch appear to be the sort of men who think that anything that doesn’t hold their attention is automatically lesser and perhaps in need of banning for the good of society. The whole thing would be almost entirely escapable if it weren’t for Beth Presswood‘s quest to single-handedly keep the joy in Christmas for atheists.

As someone who has never had a non-secular Christmas, I find the hand-wringing over atheists celebrating Christmas puzzling. To me, Christmas is a storytelling holiday. Continue reading “Christmas Is for Stories”

Christmas Is for Stories

Border Crossing: A Conversation

Scene: U.S. border checkpoint at Pembina, ND. Both vehicle and passengers are a bit low on fuel after the weekend.

Customs and Border Patrol Agent: “Where are you coming from?”

Ben: “Manitoba.”

All: [laughter]

Ben: “Sorry. Winnipeg. I’ve been doing that all weekend.”

Agent: “Why were you in Canada?”

Me: You don’t want to know. “We were at a conference.” Continue reading “Border Crossing: A Conversation”

Border Crossing: A Conversation