Atheist or Agnostic?

This question seems to be coming up a lot lately — or maybe I’m just noticing it more — and since my own definitions have been shifting around lately, I thought I’d gas on about it here.

For most of my life, I’ve called myself an agnostic. I’d always understood “atheist” to mean “someone who’s 100% certain God doesn’t exist,” and “agnostic” to mean “someone who isn’t 100% sure one way or the other.” The latter was true for me, so I called myself an agnostic. And I tended to be somewhat critical of atheists: I felt that being 100% sure that there is no God was just as dogmatic and faith-based as being 100% sure that there was one.

Lately, however, it’s been becoming increasingly clear that “100% sure that there is no God” isn’t the only definition of “atheist.” Richard Dawkins himself — generally cited as “the world’s most famous atheist — isn’t a “100% sure” guy. In The God Delusion (which I just finished, and hope to blog about soon), Dawkins talks about a belief spectrum of 1 through 7 (I wish he’d made it 0 through 6, to correlate with the Kinsey scale!), in which 1 means you’re 100% sure that God exists, and 7 means you’re 100% sure that God doesn’t exist. Dawkins puts himself at 6 leaning towards 7 — a position he calls “de facto atheist.”

And Dawkins’s position on his belief/non-belief scale is pretty much the same as mine.

Which got me thinking.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, while in the strictest technical sense of the word I’m an agnostic (I’m not 100% certain that there is no God), in any real practical sense I’m an atheist. I don’t think the existence of God is impossible, but I think it’s very, very improbable — improbable enough for me to rule it out as a hypothesis.

A comparison I’ve been making a lot lately is Zeus. I am about as sure that there is no personal interventionist creator god as I am that there is no Zeus. But I wouldn’t call myself an agnostic about Zeus. I would call myself an atheist about Zeus. I can’t absolutely prove that Zeus doesn’t exist– but I think Zeus’s existence is sufficiently improbable that I don’t have to consider it as a possibility, and I certainly don’t live my life on the assumption that he might exist.

And I feel exactly the same way about Yahweh/Jehovah/Allah, or whatever you want to call the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, personal interventionist creator god.

So lately, I’ve been calling myself an atheist instead of an agnostic. It seems more accurate. And in the current political climate of increasing American theocracy, it seems like a stronger, more defiant position — one that more accurately represents, not just my personal philosophy about my own life, but my strong political resistance to the idea of faith being presented as fact.

But unlike a lot of atheists, I don’t have a problem with other people calling themselves agnostics. There’s a lot of pissy bickering and namecalling between atheists and agnostics — and it’s starting to seriously annoy me. (For a lot of reasons — not the least of which is that pissy bickering and namecalling tend to impede introspection and thoughtful debate, not encourage it.)

Here’s an analogy I made in a comment on Evolutionblog.

I’m bisexual. (No, it’s not a tangent — stay with me. I meant it about the Kinsey scale analogy ) For the last 20 years or more, I’ve had to put up with people telling me either “You’re really a lesbian and just won’t admit it” or (less frequently) “You’re really straight and just won’t admit it.”

But these people are full of crap. I am bisexual. According to my definition of the word — which is a reasonable, not-uncommon one — I’m bisexual. I may not be bisexual according to their definitions, but I am according to mine. And it’s patronizing to tell other adults that you know who they are better than they do.

When it comes to questions of personal identity, I think we need to let people define themselves. Especially when those identities (a) are vital and central to the person’s sense of self, and (b) have many different definitions, no one of which is generally agreed upon. I think most atheists/ agnostics/ skeptics/ doubters/ secularists/ non-believers have thought about this question carefully, and have chosen the identity-word that they think describes them best. And while I heartily support debates about which of our ideas make the most sense and what language describes them best, I think ultimately we need to let reasonable people decide for themselves who and what they are.

So… thoughts? If you’re a non-believer, do you define yourself as an atheist? An agnostic? Something else? If you’re a believer, how do you define yourself, and why? And how do you feel about how other people define themselves? Are you attached to your definitions of these words, or do you feel like other people’s definitions are reasonable? Discuss.

Atheist or Agnostic?

Some news

There’s some personal news I need to tell y’all about. It’s not good news, and I’m going to keep it short. My dad had a stroke a little over a week ago; he’s still in the hospital, and he probably will be for a while. The tests show that it was a moderate stroke, but he wasn’t in good health even before the stroke happened, and while he’s not in any immediate danger, he’s not in good shape either. He’s heavily sedated and on a respirator (he got pneumonia in the hospital), he has been for several days, and they can’t really evaluate the damage or give us an idea of the prognosis until he’s off both of those things and they can talk to him.

I don’t want to get into a whole thing about it right now. I just wanted to let my regular readers know that I may not be blogging quite as regularly as I usually do, and when I do I may not always be my usual chipper self for a while. And for the love of all that is beautiful in this world, please do not send me (or my dad) your prayers. Dad and I are both atheists, and we’d much rather just have your kind thoughts. Thanks.

Some news

In the Sphere

Well, I seem to be in the blogosphere.

My first clue was that my Grand Theft Auto: Jersualem post got mentioned in a “Today’s Blogs” roundup of the day in blogging. Fairly exciting. A nice little ego boost that probably earned me some new readers.

But my second — and far more convincing — clue that I’ve really entered the blogosphere: A company I’ve never heard of has offered me free swag in exchange for a plug on my blog. They don’t want to send me a review copy or tester in hopes that I’ll do a review. They don’t want to do a link exchange. They want to send me free stuff, in exchange for which I will mention their company and their products.

Everybody, to the “Mary Tyler Moore” theme music: “You’re gonna make it after all!”

I’m not going to tell you who these people are, since I don’t want to plug them, even by making fun of them. I’m just excited that my blog is apparently popular enough to be worth offering me a little sugar for a mention in it.

Now, just to clarify: I don’t have a problem when friends and colleagues send me their books/videos/music/etc. Friends and colleagues:

(a) have reason to think I might be interested in their work;

(b) understand that any reviews I write have to done be as a reviewer, not as a publicist — in other words, that I can’t make any promises, either to give them a review at all or to be nice about it if I do, and that there can’t be any tit for tat;

and (c) understand that I already have more porn and sex toys than I could possibly want or use in several lifetimes, and that an offer of a free sex toy in exchange for a plug on my blog is an UNBELIEVABLY CHEAP AND PATHETIC ATTEMPT AT A BRIBE!

I mean, please. I worked for years for a sex toy company, and am now working as a sex toy reviewer. I have probably thrown away more sex toys than most people own in their lifetime. You think you can buy me by offering me a vibrator? And not even one of these fancy several-hundred-dollar vibrators, but a fairly garden-variety one?

Please. As Homer Simpson said when Mr. Burns tried to bribe him and he thought he was hitting on him: “Sure, I’m flattered. Possibly even a little curious. But the answer is no.”

In the Sphere

Cheese Factory: Dream Quest

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted one of my porn reviews here. And for an assortment of reasons that I don’t feel like going into right now, this isn’t a great time for me to be writing new stuff. So here’s an entertainingly bitchy porn video review I did for Adult Friend Finder magazine, with some commentary at the end about why it’s so much harder to make seriously good porn videos than it is to make good porn in other forms, like writing or photography. Enjoy!

Cheese Factory
by Greta Christina

Dream Quest
Directed by Brad Armstrong. Starring Jenna Jameson, Stephanie Swift, Alexa, Temptress, Asia Carrera, Sydnee Steele, Amber Michaels, Johnni Black, Felecia, Inari Vachs, Jessica Drake, Teri Starr, Bridgett Kerkove, Devin Wolf, Herschel Savage, Randy Spears, Evan Stone, and Brad Armstrong. 130 minutes. Wicked Pictures/Adam & Eve Productions. Available at Extreme Restraints and at Good Vibrations.

And I was so in the mood for it, too.

Really, really in the mood. I’d just gotten back from my honeymoon, all relaxed and happy and horny, and definitely ready to enjoy a high-quality porn video. “Dream Quest” looked like just the thing: a multiple award-winner, critically acclaimed, carried by more than one high-quality sex-product company with excellent taste.

So what happened?

Let’s start from the beginning. A sword-and-sorcery costume drama, “Dream Quest” stars Jenna Jameson as Sarah, a sexually repressed young woman who’s irritated at her boyfriend and is longing for more romance in her life. After a frustrating date, Sarah is visited by two fairies in glitter thongs (Stephanie Swift and Felecia), who call Sarah into their magical world on a quest to save fantasy. (Fantasy, as it turns out — warning, spoiler alert — is a sort of glowing, bejeweled dumbbell about the size of a six-pack, but that’s not important right now. It’s been imprisoned by an evil wizard. That’s the important thing.) Sarah undergoes an awkward, hasty transition from uptight good-girl to horny slut, and begins her journey into the magic land of half-naked, constantly-boffing witches, elves, gnomes, and the like.

Yes, it’s a dippy premise. But I’ve seen pornos with dippier premises that have worked just fine. Yes, it plays like it was written by a horny Renaissance Faire nerd. But I’m a horny RenFaire nerd myself, so that’s not necessarily a criticism. In fact, you’d think that’d make it a slam-dunk.

So what happened?

Well, for starters, this video has a seriously high cheese factor. The sets and costumes are reasonably pretty, with a lot more imagination than you typically see in porn. But they still look totally Vegas, with gold thongs and high-heeled boots and enough body glitter to suffocate the cast of “Showgirls.” And while the box cover raves about the Hollywood-level special effects, the effects are in fact mortifyingly lame. I’d cringe if I saw them in an original “Star Trek” episode, much less a Hollywood production. “Dream Quest” is clearly trying to look like “Lord of the Rings,” but it doesn’t even come close. Hell, it doesn’t even look like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” It looks like the cheesy cover art for an embarrassingly bad fantasy/sci-fi novel.

It wouldn’t be so painful to watch if it didn’t take itself so bloody seriously. But the video is clearly aiming for something lofty and transcendent, a haunting, otherworldly beauty that inspires new heights of erotic imagination, or some damn thing. When people who think they’re reaching for the stars end up landing in a giant cheese pile, it makes you cringe in embarrassment. Especially when they don’t have the sense to be embarrassed for themselves.

But all of that could be forgiven — if it weren’t for the sex.

See, in the midst of all the zany Tolkien-in-Vegas costumes and sets and makeup jobs, someone forgot to come up with the zany sex. The sex in “Dream Quest” is the same old goddamn mainstream porno sex that you’ve seen a million times. Since the premise of the video is about the importance of fantasy and how awful life gets when it disappears, you’d think they’d come up with some sex scenes that are more… well, fantastic. Imaginative. Something other than just the same old sucking and fucking in somewhat more interesting sets and costumes. Instead, in the place of genuine erotic variety, they put the actors through a standard series of awkward positions, clearly intended, not to make the sex pleasurable, but to make the sex visible to the camera.

Example. There’s a scene with the evil wizard Vladamir (Herschel Savage) and his wood-nymph slavegirl (Jessica Drake), where the slavegirl says “I would do anything to please you, my prince.” Emphasis on the “anything.” And all he can think of is to get his dick sucked and then fuck her in the cunt and the ass. Please. Have a little imagination. Given a half-wild, half-naked slavegirl kneeling at my feet offering to do anything to please me, I could come up with half a dozen more interesting pleasures just off the top of my head.

Even standard fucking and sucking would have been fine, if it had some oomph. But the sex in “Dream Quest” is depressingly oomph-less. With a couple of exceptions, there’s no passion, no intensity, no sensuality, no erotic suspense. It’s fine, it’s perfectly pleasant to watch, but it’s really nothing special.

Here’s the thing: You can’t just take the same old sex and put it in different sets and costumes, and expect the movie to be different. It’s like the parable of the old wine in new wineskins. Or new wine in old wineskins. Or whatever. I’ve seen this in all too many supposedly high-end porn videos: they put a huge amount of attention into sets and costumes and lighting and camerawork and even writing, and then they run the actors through the same old sexual paces that we’ve all seen a hundred times. It doesn’t have to be that way: the wild sexual ferocity in the vampire flick “Dark Angels,” the hilariously imaginative “sex restaurant” scenes in “Barbara Broadcast,” the elaborately painted pussy that you watch seductively breathing in “Zazel,” all come to mind. But “Dream Quest” is nowhere near that league.

And I hate, hate, hate the moral of the story. See, the movie begins with Sarah being irritated at her boyfriend Steve (Devin Wolf) for constantly pushing sex and trying to grope her even when she says no. At the end of the movie (warning: spoiler alert), after Sarah rescues the Jeweled Dumbbell of Fantasy and comes back to her normal life, her boyfriend shows up to apologize for his crass behavior. And then — get this — she says he doesn’t need to apologize, that she should apologize to him for not being open enough to sexuality and fantasy. Let me repeat that: Her boyfriend pushes sex on her when she’s not in the mood, continues to push and grope after she’s said no several times, repeatedly promises to knock it off and then repeatedly breaks those promises — and she’s apologizing to him? How fucked up is that? Sure, she’s repressed and shut down and needs to let sex into her life — but that’s hardly a sin on the level of refusing to take no for an answer. And frankly, if I had a lover as clumsy and disrespectful as this guy, I’d probably shut down too.

There are things about the video I like. There’s some nice use of long shots interspersed with the genital close-ups, letting you see whole bodies and giving a feel of the setting and the mood. The long shots are nicely done, too, well-framed with some real attention to beauty and sensuality. Jenna Jameson’s swimming scene is a sweet delight: you get to just gaze at her lovely nakedness and watch her enjoying herself and her body at a leisurely pace, without racing impatiently towards the fuck scene. The scene with Jenna and Tundra the ice queen (Alexa) is fairly tasty as well, with some interesting uses of pretty sex toys. And the movie has consistent condom use — good for them.

And despite the overall “taking itself way too seriously” tone, there are a few moments of clever, self-aware humor. There’s a hilarious bit when Arachna (Asia Carrera) gives Sarah new clothes for her magical journey, saying “You’ll blend in better”… and in the next scene, Sarah’s wearing lace-up fur-topped boots, a tight blue bodice with a puffy off-the-shoulder blouse, and a shimmery hip-baring loincloth. (Even funnier — she does in fact blend in better that way.)

Really, except for the embarrassing sword-and-sorcery thing, “Dream Quest” isn’t actually flat-out bad. It’s just — mediocre. But mediocre is its own kind of bad. When porn is so average that you take breaks from it to fold your laundry… and to watch Jeopardy… and then to watch “Whose Line Is It Anyway”… and then to fold laundry some more… well, that’s pretty gosh-darned mediocre. You should not be wanting to take breaks from your porn.

As for the music… well, it varies. None of it is actually good, but very little of it is awful, and at least it’s varied. Some of it is like a Carmina Burana knockoff set to a disco beat-box background, and some of it is Enya-wannabe material, and some of it is reasonably pleasant Renfaire-inspired ambient stuff. But very little of it is your standard thumpa-thumpa synth-disco retread porn crap. I do have to give them credit — at least they’re trying.

And now that I think about it, that’s not just true for the music. That’s true for the entire movie. I didn’t care for “Dream Quest,” I thought it was pretentious and cheesy and not very hot. But I will give the filmmakers this: At least they were trying. They were trying to make a porn video that was beautiful and magical, inspiring and poetic, something that transcended porn conventions and reached into genuine art.

Which is much, much harder to do in video than it is in almost any other porn medium. In erotic writing or comics or art, all you need is one person, one sex freak with talent and imagination who’s willing to give up being seen as a serious artist in order to explore their erotic vision. Even in adult photography, all you ultimately need is one good artist and one good model (although additional models are certainly helpful) who care about erotic art and don’t give a shit about the effect that making porn will have on their career.

But film and video is a collaborative medium. To make a good film, everyone involved needs to be good. Everyone. Actors, director, writer, cinematographer, set and costume designers, you name it — all of them have to be skilled and inspired for a movie to come together. And in porn, that’s extremely difficult to pull off. People who are serious about a mainstream or even alternative film career, whether in front of the camera or behind it, tend not to go into porn. And the folks in the porn business who do have real talent and passion still have to work with a whole lot of folks who don’t so much. You can have all the vision in the world, but unlike writing or comics or art, you need other people to help you realize it. It’s a damn near impossible thing to do, and I guess I should cut the people who are trying to do it a little slack.

But not much.

Cheese Factory: Dream Quest

Friday Cat Blogging: “Tuna Is Kewl”


Still don’t have the digital camera working (next week, I swear), so this week’s Friday cat blog is a cartoon from the odd and excellent Wondermark. (Click on the image to enlarge, or visit the original link.)

Exceptionally well-suited for a Friday cat blog, don’t you think?

This particular cartoon is from the 2005 archives, and has been making me and Ingrid chuckle ever since we saw it and put it on our fridge. I’m especially tickled by the casualness of “She doesn’t update very often though” and “I really only subscribe to be polite” — and the phrase “something particularly notable in the litter box” has become a household catchphrase.

Next week, I swear — cute pictures of our cats. I know you’re all waiting with bated breath.

Friday Cat Blogging: “Tuna Is Kewl”

The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely

So if an explanation isn’t proven, how do you decide how likely it is to be correct?

There are two big arguments that believers in the supernatural make again and again. One is the “Explain that!” argument — the world is full of things for which there is currently no explanation, and therefore it’s reasonable to believe that those things might have supernatural causes. The other is the “You can’t prove anything!” argument — naturalists can’t definitively disprove the supernatural, and therefore it’s just as reasonable to believe in it as it to disbelieve.

In the most literal sense, these arguments would seem to be unanswerable. Yes, it’s certainly true that the existence of supernatural phenomena has not been disproven – it’s notoriously difficult, even impossible, to prove conclusively that something doesn’t exist. And yes, of course the world is full of phenomenon for which we currently don’t have naturalistic explanations.

So in the narrowest sense, these arguments are true.

But they’re terrible arguments.

I want to talk about why.


Let’s look at the history of the world. Specifically, let’s look at the history of knowledge in the world.

When you look at the history of the world, you see thousands — tens of thousands, arguably hundreds of thousands or more — of phenomena for which a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural one. Why the sun rises and sets; what thunder and lightning are; how and why illness happens and spreads; why people look like their parents; how people got to be here in the first place  all these things, and thousands more, were once explained by gods or spirits or mystical energies. And now all of them have natural, physical explanations.

Natural explanations, I should point out, with mountains of solid, carefully collected, replicable evidence to support them.

Now, how many times in the history of the world has a natural explanation of a phenomenon been supplanted by a supernatural one?

As far as I am aware, exactly zero.

Of course, people are coming up with new supernatural explanations of naturally-explained phenomena all the time. Intelligent design is the most obvious example. You can pick up any New Age magazine to find more.

But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources?

Again, as far as I’m aware — none.

Which brings me to my point: the question of likelihood.

Given this pattern — thousands upon thousands upon thousands of natural explanations accurately supplanting supernatural ones, zero supernatural explanations accurately supplanting natural ones — doesn’t it seem that any given unexplained phenomenon is far more likely to have a natural explanation than a supernatural one?

Far, far more likely?

Like, several orders of magnitude more likely?

So when you’re looking at a phenomenon — consciousness, for instance, my current favorite example — that doesn’t currently have a good naturalistic explanation, you can of course argue “Explain that!” or “That doesn’t prove anything.” You can argue that scientists don’t really know what consciousness is, and therefore it could be some sort of metaphysical energy, and science can’t conclusively prove that it isn’t.

But I think it makes a lot more sense to look at the pattern — the overwhelming pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones by the thousands and more — and consider which kind of explanation is really more likely.

The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely

Make Kink, Not War

(Advance warning: This will probably only be interesting to people who know San Francisco.)

You know on Mission and 14th, that huge, beautiful, decaying Armory building that hasn’t been used for years? You know how every time you go by it, you think, “God, what a waste, it’s such a grand space, somebody should really fix it up and do something with it”?

Well, somebody is. And it just tickles me pink who it is.

It’s, the online fetish video production company.

Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase “make love, not war,” doesn’t it?

I don’t actually have a whole lot more to say about this. I just think it’s cool that the space will be used, and double-cool that a registered landmark building and former National Guard training center will be used to make fetish movies. It’s just so very, very San Francisco. (If you want more details, there’s an article about it on SFGate — one that’s more newsy and one that’s more chatty — and some TV news clips on’s site.)

I just hope they decide to rent space out for private parties. I’ve wanted to see the inside of that building ever since I saw it. Maybe I’ll have my 50th birthday there…

Make Kink, Not War

Friday Cat Blogging: “She’s just really mad about something.”

We haven’t yet figured out how to use our new digital camera, so this week’s Friday Cat Blog is a very funny note our catsitter left us last Thanksgiving. Here’s the key excerpt from the text; you can also click on the picture to see it full size. (Quick explanation: The “fluids” she’s talking about are the subcutaneous fluids that Catfish gets every day — it’s why we hired a catsitter in the first place.)

“Thanks so much for letting me take care of your kitties. I am completely smitten with Lydia and Violet. They are just the cutest, sweetest, most amazing girls. I had a lot of fun with them. Catfish, hmmmm, what can I say? She didn’t like me very much. I couldn’t give her fluids at all. But, she was drinking water. I let her out every night and shuffled her into her room in the morning. She didn’t eat much. She is so cute though. She’s just really mad about something. I wish I knew what it was.”

People who know Catfish will know exactly why this is funny. “Hmmm, what can I say? She didn’t like me very much” and “She’s just really mad about something” are probably the most tactful things anyone’s ever said about her. “Your cat is a bad-tempered raving bitch” is more like it.

And for the record, we know precisely what Catfish is mad about. Catfish is mad about the existence of other cats. The fact that other cats exist is a profound insult to everything she holds dear. Sometimes she just sits in the window and hates other cats. More on this in next week’s cat blog.

Friday Cat Blogging: “She’s just really mad about something.”

The Singular “They”

And we’re back to the heavy topics. No, it’s not sex. It’s not atheism. It’s not the relative merits of “Harry Potter” versus “Lord of the Rings.”

It’s grammar.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been deeply buried in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I plan to blog about it as soon as I finish it — but one of his tangents reminded me about a rant I’ve been wanting to make about the third person singular pronoun. In the section where he talks about the consciousness-raising potential of Darwin, he makes an analogy to the consciousness-raising potential of non-sexist language:

“Gendered pronouns notoriously are the front line of such consciousness-raising. He or she must ask himself or herself whether his or her sense of style could ever allow himself or herself to write like this. But if we can just get over the clunking infelicity of the language, it raises our consciousness to the sensitivities of half the human race. Man, mankind, the Rights of Man, all men are created equal, one man one vote — English too often seems to exclude woman. When I was young, it never occurred to me that women might feel slighted by a phrase like ‘the future of man’. During the intervening decades, we have all had our consciousness raised.”

This sums up neatly, I think, both the sexist insult of using “he/him/his” as the generic third person singular personal pronoun — and the clumsiness of trying to be both politically and grammatically correct by using “he or she.” (Douglas Hofstadter also does some excellent writing about this in Metamagical Themas — including a mind-blowing essay in which he uses “whites” as the generic term for people instead of “men.”)

So what do we do instead?

Many people have invented gender-neutral pronouns to replace “he or she,” “him or her,” “his or hers,” etc. And not one of these pronouns has caught on. The problem (according to Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, anyway) is that, while we invent new words all the time and at an astonishing pace, it’s nearly impossible to invent replacements for words that perform complicated and largely unconscious grammatical placeholder functions. Those words get learned very young, they’re deeply rooted in our brain, and trying to replace them is like trying to uproot an oak tree with a toothpick. They evolve very slowly, if at all, and the most we can do is to shuffle them around a bit.

Simple nouns and verbs and adjectives? Absolutely. We make them up on a daily basis. Pronouns and articles? Not so much.

And “it” doesn’t work. We clearly see “it” as referring to objects, and using it to refer to people is, well, de-personalizing. Dehumanizing, even. Like in Silence of the Lambs: “It rubs the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again.”

Which is why I’m advocating the singular “they.”

It’s not a made-up word, so it has much more potential to be adopted. In fact, in its current usage (third person plural), both its literal meaning and its grammatical placeholding functions are extremely close to the meaning/function I’m advocating — so close that expanding its meaning/function would be relatively painless.

In fact, not only can it be used this way — it’s already being used this way. In casual conversation, anyway.

And this, I think, is the best argument going for it. No other gender-neutral third person singular personal pronoun has made anywhere near as much headway as the singular “they.” Not only can it be used this way — it is being used this way. You can’t say that about any other alternative.

I think the singular “they” is the best solution we have. And I think we should move towards incorporating it — in casual conversation, but also (gradually) in more and more formal usage as well. I’m not saying we should get rid of “he” and “she” — gendered pronouns are useful, too. But when we want a third person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown, I think “they” is going to be our best bet.

Now, the big argument against the singular “they” is that it’s ungrammatical. “They” means third person plural, the argument goes, not third person singular, and that’s the end of it.

But I have two counter-arguments to that. One is the argument from precedent. We already use “you” to mean both second person singular and second person plural. And we do so with minimal confusion. Our grammar is obviously capable of using the same pronoun for singular and plural — there’s nothing in the structure of our language to disallow it.

In fact, “you” wasn’t always both the plural form of the second person pronoun — it used to be the second person plural only, with the now-archaic “thou” taking the second person singular. Clearly our grammar is capable, not just of having one pronoun for both singular and plural, but of allowing for a switch from one to the other. (A quick shout-out to Cecil Adams of “The Straight Dope,” for pointing out the plural-singular shift of “you” in a discussion of this very issue.) The singular “they” also has centuries of literary precedent, including Shakespeare, Thackeray, Austen, the King James Bible, and others.

The second — and probably more controversial — argument is my general descriptivist approach to language. To say that a word or usage isn’t correct because it isn’t grammatical is, in my opinion, circular reasoning. It’s grammatical if it’s generally accepted as such by everybody who uses the language  as long as it doesn’t violate the basic structure of the language (and I believe the abovementioned precedent proves that the singular “they” does not). Grammatical is as grammatical does. Language changes — in fact, change is essential to the way language works — and usages that were considered incorrect 100 years ago now are now accepted without argument by even the most passionate prescriptivist. (And vice versa.)

(BTW, if you’re unfamiliar with the arcane lingo of linguistic squabbles and don’t know what the hell “descriptivist” and “prescriptivist” mean, Wikipedia has an excellent entry on the subject. Short version: Prescriptivists tend to think people should use language according to rules set out in grammar books, and are more likely to resist changes in language; descriptivists tend to think grammar books should describe the rules of language as it’s used, and are more likely to embrace changes in language. The difference is often described as if it were between two clearly opposing camps, but in fact it’s more of a shades-of-gray spectrum.)

Now, while I am a fairly ardent descriptivist, I’m not a hard-line one. I understand that, while language has to change in order to work, it also has to have some consistency in order to work. If we don’t agree on what words mean (not to mention the structures we put them together with), then the language just becomes nonsense. And while I think it’s silly to resist changes in the language just on principle, I think it is worth debating whether any given change is necessary, desirable, comprehensible, and graceful.

But I think the singular “they” is all of the above. It’s needed, it’s wanted, it’s simple, and it works. And the more it gets used, the less awkward it will sound, and the more quickly it’ll be accepted as standard usage.

So let’s use it.

The Singular “They”

Catfish Doing Yoga: Greta’s First Foray into Friday Cat Blogging


My friend Hayley used her camera phone to take this picture of Catfish doing yoga in front of the heater, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to begin my foray into Friday Cat Blogging.

I should warn you: Ingrid and I got a digital camera for Christmas (thanks, Judy and Lori!). So as soon as we figure out how to work it, this largely “sex and atheism” blog will be turning into a “sex, atheism, and cute pictures of our cats” blog.

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

Catfish Doing Yoga: Greta’s First Foray into Friday Cat Blogging