Blood and Suffering: A Seriously Pissed-Off Rant About Alternative Medicine

Readers, be warned: This is not one of my more diplomatic pieces. I’m angry, and while I’m trying to be fair here, I’m not trying to be nice. If you don’t want to read that, please don’t. (It was also written under the influence of an entertaining assortment of prescription drugs; so if I’m more meandering than usual, please forgive me. Hey, what a pretty tree!)

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been home sick for several days with pneumonia. The experience hasn’t been a picnic: as anyone who’s had pneumonia knows, even a relatively moderate case that you don’t have to be hospitalized for will totally kick your ass. I’ve been exhausted; I’ve been uncomfortable and at times in actual pain; and since all I could do for days was sit on the sofa breathing steam and watching TV, I’ve been bored out of my mind. (It’s only been in the last couple of days that I’ve been alert enough, or able to stop hovering over the steamer for long enough, to do any writing.)

But the experience has given me a renewed respect for conventional medicine. And it’s given me a renewed rage at the alternative medicine practitioners and proponents who are undermining it.

Here’s the thing. As soon as I started suspecting that my bad cold was something more than a bad cold, I hightailed it over to Kaiser. And within two hours, I had a diagnosis, medicines in my hand, and a treatment plan. In case you’re curious, here’s what I’m on:

Antibiotics. Penicillin, quaintly enough. Obvious purpose — to kill the infection in my lungs.

Cough medicine. Purpose: to quiet my cough, which had been doing this nasty self-perpetuating loop — the cough was making my lungs irritated, which was making me cough even more. (This also reduces my pain and discomfort and lets me rest, since I got the good stuff with codeine.) Also — not to be too gross about it — it loosens the gunk in my lungs, so when I do cough it does some good.

Bronchiodilators. Purpose: to ease the constriction in my lungs. Thus helping me breathe, as well as helping me sleep.

Decongestants. Purpose: at the risk of thoroughly grossing you all out, to stop post-nasal drip from dripping into my lungs and gunking up the works even further. (The gross-out portion of this blog post is now complete. My apologies.)

All of which — how exactly shall I put this? — works. It does what it sets out to do. All of it was carefully, rigorously tested, with placebo controls and double-blinding and peer review and replicability and all that good stuff… and all of it has been shown to work. It’s going to be a little while before I’m back to normal — pneumonia is no joke — but I started writing this three days after I started the treatment, and I’m already significantly and measurably better.

And contrary to one of the more popular misconceptions about conventional medicine, the doctor didn’t just send me home with a bag of drugs. She also sent me home with instructions to breathe steam; drink enormous amounts of fluids (especially tea); stay warm; not talk too much; and rest as much as I possibly could. Plus she asked me about fifty times if I smoked. Contrary to the accusation leveled in a comment in this blog that “anything that isn’t designed by a human in a lab isn’t considered ‘real medicine,'” a large part of my treatment plan had nothing to with anything designed in a lab or cooked up by a pharmaceutical company. And the non-drug part of the treatment didn’t make anybody rich… except perhaps the Celestial Seasonings tea company. (Even the drugs in a bag weren’t making anyone terribly rich; they’re mostly old-school drugs that moved into generics long ago.)

Now, I haven’t been tremendously happy these past few days. I’ve been exhausted, cranky, woozy, uncomfortable, and bored out of my mind. And let me tell you, the combination of codeine and Sudafed is one weird-ass speedball. I don’t recommend it.

But here’s what I haven’t been:


Or dying.

Or even suffering all that much.

The history of pneumonia before antibiotics is not pretty. Until the 20th century, treatment was pretty much non-existent. You either got better on your own, or you died. Mostly, you died. Pneumonia killed a ton of people, and it was known and feared for its special ability to kill young, healthy people in the prime of their life. And death from pneumonia is no fun at all. (I’ll spare you the details, since I promised earlier to stop grossing you out.) There was some treatment beginning to be available in the early 20th century — but antibiotics completely changed the picture.

Pneumonia still kills people today. Mostly the very young, the very old, the immune-suppressed, and people who don’t get medical care in time. But thanks to conventional medicine and Big Pharma, I am rotting on the sofa for a week, feeling sorry for myself and watching all of “Firefly” on DVD… not rotting in a grave. And so are thousands of other people who got pneumonia this week. (Well, they’re probably not all watching “Firefly”…)

Okay. All very good reasons for me to be happy about conventional medicine. So why is this experience making me angry about alternative medicine? Not just annoyed, not just amused, but deeply, seriously, lividly angry?

I’m angry because I think alternative medicine undermines conventional medicine.

I’m angry because so many alt medicine practitioners convince sick people to treat their illnesses, not with treatments that have been rigorously tested and shown to be effective, but with whatever powders and potions and procedures the practitioner’s fancy happened to light upon, backed up at best with carelessly-done testing, and at worst with nothing but an interesting philosophy. With the best result being a placebo effect, and the worst being actual harm being done, either from neglect of the medical condition or from the sometimes harmful treatments themselves.

I’m angry because so many alt medicine practitioners promise “alternatives” that are easier, more pleasant, and more palatable than conventional treatments… along with promises of more complete and dramatic cures. I’m angry that they encourage people to pursue preventions and treatments based not on thorough testing of what does and does not work, but on what they find emotionally and psychologically and culturally appealing. I’m angry that they encourage people to abandon conventional medicine, which is often unpleasant and sometimes only partially effective, by offering appealing promises that they can’t back up.

I’m angry because so many alt medicine practitioners and proponents convince people that conventional medicine only cares about symptoms and acute conditions and ignores prevention and overall health… when the reality is that doctors and nurses and public health officials around the world are desperately trying to get people to exercise, eat better, reduce their stress, and quit smoking.

Along that line, I’m angry because so many alt medicine proponents and practitioners convince people that “doctors don’t know anything, and all they care about is making Big Pharma rich.” (As if alt medicine practitioners were all-knowing, and nobody in the world were getting rich off of it.) I’m angry at the ways that alt medicine encourages the anti-intellectual strain so prevalent in American culture; the all- too- common attitude of, “What does that hi-falutin’ doctor know anyway, with their book larnin’ and their fancy degrees? Us simple folk know more about (X) than Dr. Fancy-Pants, with their years of specialized training and experience.”

And I don’t mean that altie practitioners and proponents encourage people to question doctors; to have a healthy skepticism about them; to treat them as fallible human beings who aren’t God. I encourage people to do that. Hell, most doctors and nurses I know encourage people to do that. I mean that they encourage people, not to question doctors, but to disregard them at their whim.

Now, a lot of people will argue that many alt medicine practitioners don’t do any such thing. They’ll argue that many altie practitioners see alt medicine as a supplement to conventional medicine, not a replacement for it. That’s why it’s often called complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM — because it complements conventional medicine, rather than supplanting it.

Okay. Fair enough. So look at it this way. If I had gone to an alt medicine practitioner with my pneumonia symptoms, one of two things would have happened.

Option A: They would have tried to treat my pneumonia with their dilutions, their energy fields, their sacred herbs, whatever. Seriously. Here are some of the gems that my Google search on “pneumonia” + “alternative medicine” turned up. We have this site, recommending that pneumonia be treated with diet, bowel and dental cleansing, and — believe it or not — exercise. (Exercise being absolutely the last fucking thing in the world you ought to be doing if you have pneumonia — except maybe for smoking.) No mention of antibiotics. We have this site, which mentions antibiotics but says they’re problematic, and suggests as alternatives cayenne pepper, manuka honey, and hydrogen peroxide. And then we have, which recommends that pneumonia be treated with chiropractic care, pleurisy root, and the color red.

In which case they would, in my opinion, be guilty of reckless endangerment of human life. If anyone anywhere in the world has died, or even suffered needlessly, because they acted on the advice of an alt medicine practitioner and treated their pneumonia with exercise, cayenne pepper, or the color red, then that is blood and suffering on the hands of alternative medicine.

Don’t believe me? Don’t think that CAM practitioners prescribe CAM treatments for serious, life-threatening illnesses — in the place of conventional medicine? Here’s a nice little story from the BBC about homeopathists in Britain telling people that they didn’t need to take anti-malarial drugs when visiting Africa or other high- malaria- risk parts of the world — they just needed to take the homeopathic remedies. Read it and seethe. And there is no reason to think they did this for malaria only and not for any other life-threatening illnesses. Even a cursory Google search will turn up alt medicine treatments for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, AIDS, and more. And check out these “what’s the harm?” sites for more stories of people suffering or dying because their serious illnesses got alt medicine instead of conventional medical treatment.

So that’s one option. The reckless endangerment option. But the other option is B: They would have recognized that I had a serious medical condition that they couldn’t treat, hustled me out the door, and sent me scurrying to a conventional doctor. (When I Googled “pneumonia” + “alternative medicine,” this is what a number of the sites I found essentially did.)

In which case, what the hell is the point? If the only thing alt medicine is good for is mild health problems that quickly go away on their own, then why bother? What on earth is the point of a multi-billion dollar alternative medicine industry if it exists solely to make people feel slightly better when they have sniffles or sore muscles or tummy aches? (If it even does that, in any way other than as a placebo.)

Conventional medicine is far from perfect. Insert a standard “I know conventional medicine is flawed” disclaimer here; I’ve written them before, and I don’t feel up to writing another one now. But it’s the best game in town. It is, pretty much by definition, medicine that has been rigorously tested using the scientific method, with placebo controls and double-blinding and replicability and peer review and all that other difficult, expensive, time-consuming stuff that alt medicine doesn’t bother with.

And the chances are excellent that you — personally — are alive today because of it. Whether it’s the polio you didn’t get because you got vaccinated, the smallpox you didn’t get because it’s been eradicated, the heart attack you didn’t have because your high blood pressure is being treated, the pneumonia you didn’t die of because it got cured… I could go on and on and on. And on. The benefits of conventional medicine are often invisible, an invisibility that’s enhanced by short memories and insufficient history lessons. But the fact is that we easily prevent and treat diseases and conditions that used to routinely kill thousands and millions of people.

Medicine is about the prevention of death and the relief of suffering. And conventional medicine is, by definition, medicine that has been rigorously tested and shown to prevent death and relieve suffering. Alternative medicine, on the other hand, is, by definition, medicine that is outside that rigorous testing system. It is medicine that promises to prevent death and relieve suffering, but is unwilling to spend the time and work and money making damn well sure that it can back up that promise. It is medicine that shares every single one of the flaws of conventional medicine, from greed to arrogance to cultural blindness, without offering any real benefit that conventional medicine doesn’t.

And it is medicine that undermines conventional medicine; medicine that draws people away from conventional medicine by making enticing promises that it can’t deliver.

So it is therefore medicine with blood and suffering on its hands.

Blood and Suffering: A Seriously Pissed-Off Rant About Alternative Medicine

Brief Blog Break

Hi, all. Greta here. I wanted to let you all know: I went into Kaiser today about the bad cold/ asthma attack I got this weekend, and it turns out to be pneumonia. Not to worry or freak out — it’s not a terribly bad case, and with antibiotics and other nice modern medicines I should be okay in a week or two. But I’m going to be home and out of it for several days, sucking down cough syrup with codeine and breathing steam nonstop. So the blogging will probably be minimal to none for the next few days. (Also, while the Best Sex Writing event at the Center for Sex and Culture on Thursday is still happening, it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll be there.)

And yes, the timing on this is so spectacularly bad as to be comical. This is definitely going to go down as one of the five worst months of my entire life. Hopefully I’ll be able to look back on it someday and laugh grimly. Anyway, just wanted to let you all know. Take care, and I’ll talk to you soon.


Brief Blog Break

A Tale of Two Scandals: The Obligatory Eliot Spitzer and “American Idol” Stripper Column: The Blowfish Blog

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog, a piece that manages to tie together the two big sex scandals of the week — the Eliot Spitzer scandal and the “American Idol” stripper scandal — into one, hopefully not overly belabored analogy. The piece is called A Tale of Two Scandals: The Obligatory Eliot Spitzer and “American Idol” Stripper Column, and here’s the teaser:

When the governor of New York resigns due to the revelation that he had sex with a prostitute — and a contestant on a top-rated TV reality show is found to have been a stripper — sex columnists around the world are driven to the stories like salmon returning home to spawn. So this is kind of an obligatory column. I am powerless to control myself. Can’t… stop! Must… blog… about… Spitzer… and… the “American Idol”… stripper! Send… help!

But until help arrives, I’m going to have fun with it.

To find out why a weird part of me is glad that the latest major politician to get embroiled in a sex scandal is a Democrat — and to why find out why I think so many Americans are wigging out over the fact that an “American Idol” contestant was once a male stripper — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

A Tale of Two Scandals: The Obligatory Eliot Spitzer and “American Idol” Stripper Column: The Blowfish Blog

Come Hear Me Read! Thursday, March 27

UPDATE: This event is still happening, but alas, I won’t be there. I’m home sick with pneumonia and expect to be for several days, so I will not be reading at this event. Damn and blast. It should still be fun, though, and I encourage y’all to go anyway.

Note to family members and others who don’t want to know about my personal sex life: This post mentions my personal sex life. It doesn’t talk about it in any great detail, but it mentions aspects of my personal sex life that may be seriously too much information. If you don’t want to know about that stuff, please don’t read this post.

Hey, Bay Area folks! I’m going to be reading at an event for the new book Best Sex Writing 2008, at the Center for Sex and Culture, on Thursday, March 27 at 7:00pm. A collection of the best in sex journalism, Best Sex Writing 2008 collects smart, fascinating, often very funny non-fiction writing about sex, on an astonishingly wide range of topics.

I’ll be reading from my piece “Buying Obedience: My Visit to a Pro Submissive,” a detailed descriptive essay about exactly what it sounds like: my visit to a pro submissive, why I did it, how it worked, what we did, what it was like, whether I’d do it again, and more. In addition to me me me, authors Violet Blue, Paul Festa, Amy Andre, Melissa Gira, and Jen Cross will be there to read and sign books. So it should be either a wingding or a hootenanny, and quite possibly both.

The Center for Sex and Culture is at 1519 Mission St., Suite 2, between 11th and South Van Ness, near the Van Ness MUNI stop and not too far from the Civic Center BART stop. No charge, but they will be asking for donations if you can contribute. Hope to see you there!

Come Hear Me Read! Thursday, March 27

And The Winner of the Internet Today Is…

PZ Myers, of Pharyngula fame, for being refused admission — dare we say it, expelled? — to a screening of the creationist propaganda film “Expelled,” while his guest was admitted without incident.

His guest:

Richard Dawkins.

The whole story is here. It’s the funniest thing I’ve seen all week. The creationist movement: stifling debate, and doing it incompetently.

And The Winner of the Internet Today Is…

Do-It-Yourself Placebos

Ever since I started blogging about atheism — and thus started reading more about religion than I have at any time in my life since I was a religion major in college — I’ve been puzzled by a particular brand of pro-theism argument. It’s the “religion is good for you” arguments: religion gives people comfort, religion gives people hope, religion gives people moral guidance, etc. etc. etc.

There arguments always struck me as evidence of weakness rather than strength. In fact, it’s almost a concession of defeat. “Okay, maybe the arguments for religion being true aren’t so great… but the kids love us! It makes people so happy! Isn’t that enough?” And I’m baffled by the “self-administered placebo” quality of the arguments. I understand unconscious self-deception — we all do it — but conscious self-deception? How the heck does that work? Doesn’t a placebo stop working when you know it’s a placebo?

I still think it’s a weak argument. But I’m in this “trying to be relentlessly honest with myself” phase lately (probably because of that Mistakes Were made book). So I’ve been asking myself: Is that really true? Is the do- it- yourself placebo really that hard to understand? Is there really no area of my life where I know that something isn’t true, but act as if it were anyway because I find it useful?

And just off the top of my head, I came up with two:

Setting the alarm clock fifteen minutes fast. And decaf coffee.

Setting the alarm clock fast is a great example. I know that the alarm clock is fast. I’ve been setting the alarm clock fast for most of my adult life. In fact, the amount of time I’ve been setting it fast has been gradually sneaking up over the years: in my younger days I only set it five minutes fast, but I’m used to it being fast now, and I now have to set it a full fifteen minutes ahead.

But it still works. In my groggy, half-awake state, I still don’t quite grasp the whole “alarm clock being set fifteen minutes fast” concept. I see the time as 9:00; I think, “Shit, I have to get out of bed”; I don’t figure out until I’m out of bed that it was really only 8:45. The do-it-yourself placebo works.

Decaf coffee is an even better example. I don’t drink regular coffee at all anymore, unless I get it by mistake. I haven’t for years. I seem to have what the shrinks call an addictive personality, and I seem to be incapable of having just one or two cups of regular coffee a day. And regular coffee (or cola, which I also don’t drink any more) puts me on an ugly emotional rollercoaster, an unpleasant cycle of peaks and crashes that repeats several times a day. It’s not worth it.

But when I drink decaf coffee, I get just a little lift: enough to perk me up without putting me on the rollercoaster. It’s gotten to the point where I drink it almost every day… and I get cranky and listless when I can’t have it.

I used to tell myself that the reason for this was that even decaf cofee has just a little caffeine in it, and that’s what I was getting the lift from. But I’ve seen charts listing the relative amounts of caffeine in different substances… and decaf coffee is consistently at the bottom of the list, by a wide margin. It has a little caffeine, yes; but the amount is negligible. It’s definitely less than chocolate, for instance.

And yet decaf coffee gives that wide-eyed perked-up feeling way more than chocolate does.

Now, I’ve read that coffee is a complex drug plant, with caffeine as the main psychoactive ingredient but with other psychoactive ingredients as well. So it could be that that’s what’s going on. I’m getting the other components of coffee, ones that make me jittery and anxious without actually making me wakeful and alert.

But I’m dubious. I strongly suspect that what’s going on is almost entirely Pavlovian. I smell the coffee; I taste the coffee; I perk up. And that’s still true — even after seeing the caffeine charts, and knowing full well that, pharmacalogically, there’s little or nothing going on.

It’s a do-it-yourself placebo.

And it still works.

So I’m taking a poll. Do any of you have any do-it-yourself placebos? Are there any areas of your life where you act as if something were true, even though you know full well that it’s not, simply because you find it useful or comforting? Inquiring minds want to know.

Do-It-Yourself Placebos

Everything You Know about God Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion: Shameless Self-Promotion, Round 3

Finally, there’s one more book with writing of mine in that I wanted to tell you about. This one actually came out a few months ago, and I’ve mentioned it in passing a couple of times, but since I’m on a “shameless self-promotion of anthologies I’m in” roll, I wanted to take a moment to tell you about it all on its own.

It’s the enormous new tome from Disinformation, Everything You Know about God Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion. A collection of critical, skeptical, irreverent, and sometimes just plain hilariously snarky writing on organized religion, the book is enormous, sprawling with a huge assortment of writing on an exhuberant variety of topics. Some of the concepts will be familiar to regular readers of atheist books and blogs (the piece on the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, for instance, should be a surprise to exactly none of you). But quite a bit of it was news to me. This is the book where I got the bit about the Virgin Mary getting impregnated in her ear; and I’m embarassed to admit that I hadn’t heard of the Ghost Dance before I read this book. And instead of primarily focusing on, say, Christianity or Islam, it covers gobs of different religions and religious beliefs, in an “I don’t discriminate, I dislike everybody equally” philosophy that’s badly needed in godless writing.

You should definitely read this book with a careful and skeptical eye. Disinformation has a tendency to use the “throw everything into the soup pot” approach to book editing, especially with the huge sprawling tomes they’re known for, and past books have included work that’s definitely been on the credulous, conspiracy- theory side. So don’t automatically believe everything you read in it. That being said, it’s still a fine book, smart and funny and informative about all sorts of weird shit, an excellent addition to any godless book collection. And they were kind enough to include my piece Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God, which I’m obviously very pleased about.

But there’s one feature of this book that stands out for me more than any other. And that is this:

Richard Dawkins also has a piece in this book. A funny, snarky piece making an analogy between religion and drugs.

In other words:

I’m in a book with Dawkins!

I’m in a book with Dawkins, I’m in a book with Dawkins, I’m in a book with Dawkins!

I’m all a-twitter with girlish glee. Imagine excitedly fluttering hands and a happy little Snoopy dance. I am tickled pink about this, all out of proportion to how important it really is.

I’m in a book with Dawkins.


Everything You Know about God Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion: Shameless Self-Promotion, Round 3

The Best of Best American Erotica 2008, 15th Anniversary Edition: Shameless Self-Promotion, Round 2

And I wanted to tell you about yet another book that I have writing in. I am very proud to have been included in the most recent edition of Best American Erotica: the special 15th anniversary Best of Best American Erotica 2008, collecting the standout authors and stories from the history of the series (along with a few previously unpublished gems).

This one is actually rather bittersweet, as this special volume of Best American Erotica is also going to be the last one in the series. This is a fucking tragedy for serious erotica readers and writers. As a reader, the world of erotic fiction is way too oversaturated right now, with far too many erotica anthologies on the market and, frankly, not enough good writing to fill them all up. Best American Erotica was always a treasure trove: I didn’t always love every single piece in every single volume, but the quality was always consistently high, even when it didn’t happen to be to my taste. And my tastes were often expanded by the stories in BAE, sometimes to my great surprise. I’m going to miss it sorely.

And as a writer, the world of erotic fiction is, alas, neither prestigious enough nor lucrative enough to justify the enormous amount of time and work I typically put into a porn story. But inclusion in Best American Erotica made it both. (Barely lucrative enough… but definitely prestigious enough.) Personally, I almost always wrote my porn fiction with a hopeful eye towards getting it into BAE — and I can’t be the only writer that’s been true for. Without BAE, it’s going to be awfully damn hard to convince myself that writing porn is worth it anymore. Again, I’m going to miss it sorely. Kudos to series editor Susie Bright for blazing the trail and keeping the light burning for so long.

The Best of Best American Erotica 2008, 15th Anniversary Edition: Shameless Self-Promotion, Round 2

Best Sex Writing 2008: Shameless Self-Promotion, Round 1

Note to family members and others who don’t want to know about my personal sex life: This post mentions my personal sex life. It doesn’t talk about it in any great detail, but it mentions aspects of my personal sex life that may be seriously too much information. If you don’t want to know about that stuff, please don’t read this post.

I wanted to take a few moments to tell you about a new book that I have an essay in. The book is Best Sex Writing 2008, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: an anthology of non-fiction writing about sex. Edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel, the book has a really good assortment of smart and interesting writing, on an almost hilariously wide range of topics: from black male porn stars to online sex predators, from sex on wedding nights to sex in Iran. (The sex in Iran piece may be my favorite. Other than mine, of course. And maybe even including mine.)

My piece is titled “Buying Obedience: My Visit to a Pro Submissive.” And the title is also pretty self-explanatory: it’s a detailed descriptive essay about, well, my visit to a pro submissive: why I did it, how it worked, what we did, what it was like, whether I’d do it again. I think it’s one of the best pieces I’ve written, and it’s on a topic that doesn’t get written about much: for all the reams and tomes that have been written about sex work in recent years, very little has been written from the customer’s point of view.

If that interests you, or if you just want a good, smart read about sex, I encourage you to check it out. Enjoy!

Best Sex Writing 2008: Shameless Self-Promotion, Round 1

On The Amazingness of Atheists… And Why It’s Doomed

I think the contemporary atheist movement is amazing. I am inspired and enlightened and completely blown away by it, on an almost daily basis. Not to mention vastly entertained. I think the contemporary atheist movement is largely — although far from entirely — made up of people who are smart, thoughtful, ethical, caring, passionate, honest, funny, brave, and able to think for themselves… to an amazing degree.

And I think that amazingness is doomed.

More to the point: I think it should be doomed.

I want to talk about why.

And I want, for what I believe is the 86,467th time in this blog, to make a comparison with the queer movement.

When I was coming out as queer in the 80’s, coming out was still a hard thing to do. And you had to be a special person to do it. (Sorry if that sounds arrogant, but it’s true.) You had to have a strong personality, an independent spirit, a huge amount of self-confidence, a passion for social change, a vision for the future, a wicked sense of humor, a metric shitload of courage, an unbelievably thick skin. (That’s even more true the further back you go. Out queer people in the 60’s and 70’s were fucking phenomenal. I bow down to them.)

So it was easy to be deceived into thinking that there was something inherently special about being queer. After all, when you looked around you in the queer community, what you saw everywhere was totally amazing people. It was easy to forget that the difficulty of coming out was a powerful self-selecting filter for amazingness.

And as a result, there was often a thread of self-satisfied elitism woven into all that amazingness. The queer theory crowd especially was always going on about how queerness represented this radical paradigm shift, how we were the cutting edge of a new frontier of humanity, how being queer meant seeing the world in a completely different way, how it represented a brand new way of looking at gender, how the liberation of queerness was going to solve world hunger and fill the world with cute puppies.

But as the movement progressed, and coming out became easier and safer, the amazing specialness of the queer community became… well, less and less special and amazing.

Which is exactly as it should be.

I don’t remember who said this first, but the goal of any liberation movement is to make itself obsolete. That goal hasn’t been reached yet in the queer movement — far from it. But as the movement has progressed, as it’s become easier and easier to come out as queer, the queer community is looking more and more like just the regular old human community: not overwhelmingly populated by strong, independent, funny, brave, self-confident, thick-skinned visionaries with a passion for social change, but in fact populated largely by regular folks who just want to get on with their lives. Being queer has become increasingly normal, increasingly no big deal, increasingly not the central defining feature of every queer person’s identity. People have been able to come out of the closet who wouldn’t have had the strength and courage to do it twenty or thirty years ago.

And good for them. That’s exactly how it should be.

Now, this has been a hard pill to swallow for some, especially for the radical anti-assimilation queers. But it seems pretty clear now that having the hots for people of the same sex does not, in and of itself, make you a special and amazing person.

Which brings me back to the atheist movement.

Right now, coming out as an atheist is pretty damn hard. (Easier here in San Francisco… but still not super-easy. Among other things, I’ve had casual friendships lost and closer friendships seriously strained by my outspoken atheism. And the death threats haven’t been a picnic.) So you have to be a pretty amazing person to do it. You have to have a strong personality, an independent spirit, a huge amount of self-confidence, a passion for social change, a vision for the future, a wicked sense of humor, a metric shitload of courage, an unbelievably thick skin.

And as a result, the atheist community is amazing. Aggravating to the point of madness at times (as was the queer community of the 80’s and 90’s)… but still totally amazing. I love it to pieces.

But that’s not going to last.

We have to be prepared for that. And we have to not let our current amazingness go to our heads. We have to not succumb to elitism. We have to not fool ourselves into thinking that our amazingness comes from anything other than the difficulty of coming out, and the powerful self-selecting filter that this difficulty creates.

The recent debate here about the morality of atheists and believers is what reminded me of this, what made me decide to finally write about it instead of just musing about it in my head. See, I think this is part of the reason some atheists are inclined to think that atheist morality is more mature than theistic morality. Because right now, the atheist community is largely made up of people with a very mature, well-thought-out sense of morality and ethics. We’ve had to be. The assumption that morality comes from religion is very deeply ingrained in our culture, and those of us who’ve rejected religion have had to think long and hard and carefully about what our morality is and why. (Many theists have also thought about this carefully — in the same way that many straight people in the 80’s and 90’s had a thoughtful and perceptive understanding of gender — but coming out as an atheist today means having that thoughtfulness thrust upon you.)

But if we’re successful — if we succeed in making a world in which being an atheist is relatively easy, or at least a whole lot easier than it is now — then that’s going to change. As we succeed in making the world an easier place to be an atheist, we’re going to see more and more atheists who haven’t agonized over their atheism to the same degree that most of us have. As we succeed in making the world an easier place to be an atheist, we’re going to see more and more atheists who aren’t amazingly brave and strong, tough and independent, passionate and confident. We’re going to see more and more atheists who are pretty much regular folks who just want to get on with their lives.

And that’s exactly as it should be.

So we’d better prepare for it now.

On The Amazingness of Atheists… And Why It’s Doomed