Morals, Deprivation, And Prioritizing Sex: Is Cheating Ever Okay? Part 3: The Blowfish Blog


Yes, believe it or not, I have one more post up on the Blowfish blog about cheating in sexless relationships. Part 1 and Part 2 of the “Is Cheating Ever Okay?” series have sparked the most lively conversation to date on the Blowfish Blog, and it’s way too interesting for to drop at this point.

In the latest piece (and last in this series for a while, I promise), I look at the question of cheating in sexless relationships… and connect it to the question of how high a priority we place on sex. It’s called Morals, Deprivation, And Prioritizing Sex: Is Cheating Ever Okay? Part 3: The Blowfish Blog, and here’s the teaser:

I’m not saying that all anti-cheating advocates are trivializing sex. But I am saying that, in the debates about cheating in sexless relationships, I’m seeing what I consider to be a disproportionate emphasis on the cheating… and a similarly disproportionate lack of attention to the sexlessness, and the harm that it can do, and the difficult moral bind that it puts people in.

To find out more about how I think placing a high priority on sex affects the ethical question of cheating, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Morals, Deprivation, And Prioritizing Sex: Is Cheating Ever Okay? Part 3: The Blowfish Blog

Tedious Faith

Grandpa simpson
And now, as a moving and profound personal testimony of faith in troubled times, we bring you a meandering story that doesn’t make much sense and isn’t going anywhere.

In debates about religion, there’s a point that atheists frequently concede. Yes, they say, religion is mistaken. It’s harmful. It’s irrational, contradictory, unsupported by evidence or logic, poorly understood by the bulk of its followers, poorly defended even by its most informed ones. But you have to admit, they say, it’s powerful. The ideas, the imagery, the hope it offers… it’s stirring stuff, even if it doesn’t hold up.

Well, sometimes that’s true.

But sometimes, it’s really, really not.

Sure, as an atheist I’ve felt the occasional twitch of, “This is kind of beautiful, I almost wish I believed it.” Mostly with religious music. When listening to shape- note or gospel or Mozart’s Requiem, I’ve sometimes had a twinge of Black Gospel Choir Makes Man Wish He Believed In All That God Bullshit.

But at other times, I really don’t. When debating with a believer whose ideas are an incoherent mess, for instance. When being preached at with bland, unoriginal platitudes. When watching an ad for sugary “inspirational” Christian music on late- night TV.

And when watching a “testimonial” video that would do Grandpa Simpson proud. A testament of faith so pointless, so unfocused, so self-involved, so completely devoid of content, it’s actually hilarious.

Like this one.

Video below the fold, since putting it above the fold mucks up my archives.

Continue reading “Tedious Faith”

Tedious Faith

“Does (X) Count?” What Sex Is, And Why The Question Matters

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.


Anyone who’s read my writing for more than six minutes knows that the question of how we define what is and isn’t sex — and the surprising difficulty of answering that question — is one of my ongoing hobby-horses. One of my earliest and most widely-read pieces, Are We Having Sex Now or What?, is about these very questions — how we define what sex is, how we handle it when these definitions change over our lives, what we do when our definitions conflict with other people’s. I think these are fascinating questions with profound philosophical implications, and it’s a topic I’ve returned to again and again.

Well, I just read something that reminded me of why these questions are important. Not just interesting, not just philosophically profound, but important, with practical, real-world consequences.

It was a letter to Scarleteen, the “sex advice for teenagers” website. It’s a longish letter, and a longer response (both are well worth reading in their entirety), but the title will immediately tell you what’s going on and why I think it’s important.

The title:

“We’re abstinent, but we had anal sex and are scared to death.”


The story is almost exactly what you probably think it is. Two teenagers, who have decided to be abstinent until marriage, are playing an extended game of “everything but,” avoiding penis- in- vagina intercourse but otherwise engaging in activities that would make Larry Flynt blush. Including, as you may have guessed from the title of the letter, anal sex.


But because they’re not having what they consider Sex — namely, penis- in- vagina intercourse — they’re not taking responsibility for the fact that they’re in a sexual relationship. They’re not practicing safer sex, and the things they’re doing could easily result in the passing on of sexually transmitted diseases, and even pregnancy. (As the Scarleteen advisor points out, unprotected anal intercourse can result in pregnancy, since semen isn’t very good about staying put.)

In fact, the letter was written in a state of panic, not because the letter- writer was scared that what they’d been doing might be risky, but because she was scared that they’d slipped and somehow done The Real Thing without meaning to.

Heavy petting

The idea that some kinds of sexual activity count as Real Sex while others don’t is one of the most common tropes in our sexual culture. Especially among teenagers. It has been for some time: whether it’s heavy petting in the ’50s or oral sex in the ’70s, teenagers have come up with ways to be sexually active without thinking of themselves as sexually active. And while penis- in- vagina intercourse always seems to count as The Real Thing, the sorting of other activities into Sex or Not-sex is almost entertainingly fluid. (I’m actually fascinated by the notion that anal somehow doesn’t count as real sex. When I was a young thing, anal definitely counted. Hell, it counted more. Doing anal meant you were more sexual, more advanced, more of a slut. The generally- accepted heterosexual progression in my day was: fingers, oral, penis- in- vagina intercourse, then anal. So when I read that teenagers today are doing anal before vaginal in order to protect their virginity, a part of me wants to holler at them, “No, no, no! You have that completely out of order!”)

But as common as it is, this idea of the One True Sex is also one of the most pernicious ideas we have. And this letter shows why, in disturbing detail. When people — especially teenagers — fixate on one sexual activity as The One That Counts and disregard other activities as Not Really Sex, they tend to place a disproportionate focus on that One Act, fixating all their sexual hopes and fears onto it. And they do this while ignoring the possible risks — and, of course, the possible benefits — of Just Fooling Around. The possible consequences of sex don’t attach to the things they’re doing. After all, what they’re doing isn’t sex.

Even if they’re getting fucked in the ass.


In a way, I get it. Dividing sex into The Real Thing and Just Fooling Around is a first-class rationalization, a very convenient mental trick for enjoying sexual experimentation without thinking of yourself as a person who has sex. Hell, I did it myself: I did all sorts of sexual things as a teenager, things I would now definitely consider Sex, before I was ready to do what I considered Losing My Virginity. In retrospect, the physical act of intercourse didn’t turn out to be all that special; but the mental line between Virgin and Not-Virgin seemed like a big honking deal at the time. And as long as teenagers are both (a) horny and (b) getting bad information and fucked-up messages from society about sex, I can’t entirely begrudge them the mental gymnastics that allowed me to have all sorts of sexual fun before I felt ready to cross that line.

But if the need to put your sexual activities into the Not Sex category is so strong that it makes you ignore the possible consequences — physical and emotional — of what you’re doing, then there’s a serious problem.

And it’s a problem for parents and teachers and sex educators, too. If you care about unwanted teenage pregnancies and STIs, it’s not enough to teach kids the possible consequences of sex and how to be responsible about them. You need to teach them the possible consequences of whatever the hell it is that they’re doing sexually… even if they don’t think of what they’re doing as sex.

Anal pleasure and health

I don’t really care if people define anal sex as Real Sex. But I damn well care if they’re using condoms and lube when they do it. And if not calling it Real Sex is keeping you from using condoms and lube, then the question of “whether you’re having sex now or what” stops being a fascinating philosophical exercise that you can ponder at your leisure, and starts being an important, immediate, pragmatic question that you really need to think about now.

P.S. Scarleteen is a mind-bogglingly useful resource for teenagers wanting to get accurate, non-judgmental information about sex. If you think the work they do is important, please consider supporting them.

“Does (X) Count?” What Sex Is, And Why The Question Matters

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


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

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

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


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

So yes. There’s some truth to this.

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

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

“I really don’t agree with you.”

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

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

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

“I am an atheist.”

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

Emily post

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

And that, I think, is a good thing.

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

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


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

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

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


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

A is for atheist

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

And I want the atheosphere to exist.

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

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

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

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

And where they can say them to me.

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

Is Cheating Ever Okay? Part 2: The Blowfish Blog



Not what I’d expected.

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

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

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

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

What would you do?

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

Is Cheating Ever Okay? Part 2: The Blowfish Blog

Broiled Chicken Breasts

Marvs broiler

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

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

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

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


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

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

Here’s the recipe. Such as it is.

Olive oil

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

And that’s it.

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

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

Broiled Chicken Breasts

But First, A Brief Pledge Break

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

I’m going to ask for donations.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Best Erotic Comics 2008

Three Kinds of Asking For It


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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see if we can make that work.

If you can, please donate or subscribe. Thanks!

But First, A Brief Pledge Break

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

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


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

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

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

But I did recognize this as a sign.

Ice cream sign

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Arrow sign.svg

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

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

Other posts in this series:

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

Not Everything Means Something: Virginia Tech

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

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


Is it okay for atheists to try to change people’s minds? To try to convince people that their religion is mistaken, and that they should de-convert and become atheists instead?

And is there any difference between that and religious evangelicalism? Between that, and religious evangelicals/ missionaries trying to convince people that their religion (or lack thereof) is mistaken, and that they should convert and join their own religion instead?

I’ve been thinking about what I do here on this blog. (When I’m not talking about porn or politics or cute animals, that is.) And a big part of what I’m doing is trying to contribute, in my small way, to the eventual disappearance of religion from the human mindset. I’m trying to convince any believers who might be reading this blog that their beliefs are mistaken… or at least, plant the seeds of doubt in their minds. And I’m trying to help arm other atheists (as I have been armed by so many other atheist writers) with good arguments to use in their own debates with believers.

And I’ve been wondering: Given my strong negative feelings about religious evangelicalism, is what I do here ethical?

(Or, maybe more to the point: Given what I do here, are my strong negative feelings about religious evangelicalism consistent?)


My usual response (you know, to my own voice that I argue with in my head) is to say, “I’m writing a blog. People are free to visit it or not as they like. I’m not knocking on people’s doors, or moving into their villages, or shouting at them through bullhorns on the streets. I’m not invading people’s lives or their privacy. Presumably nobody visits this blog — or stays in it for very long — if they don’t want to read arguments against religion. And outside the public sphere, I rarely offer my opinions on religion unless I’m asked.”

But I’m not sure that that, just by itself, is enough of a difference. After all, many atheists I admire do much more pro-active, in- your- face things — going on TV and radio, for instance, or writing in newspapers and magazines — to spread the good word about God’s non-existence. And I’d be doing all that too, given the opportunity. Of course, you can switch channels on the TV or turn the page of the newspaper, just like you can surf to another blog. But still. If the only difference between atheist writers and religious evangelicals/ missionaries is that we don’t knock on doors and shout at people on the street, then I’m not sure that’s enough of a difference to maintain my sense of moral outrage at evangelicalism.

So I’ve been thinking about this.


And I’ve realized that my problem with religious evangelicalism isn’t that they’re trying to change people’s minds. Trying to change people’s minds is a grand tradition. The marketplace of ideas, and all that. If you really think you’re right about something important, of course you should try to share it. That’s how good ideas get out into the world. And being exposed to lots of different ideas is good for you. It exercises the brain. It’s how good ideas get strengthened and clarified, and bad ideas get winnowed out. As Ursula Le Guin said in The Dispossessed, “The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”

Which leads me, not coincidentally, to what my real problem is with religious evangelicalism… and what I see as the real difference between it and my small efforts towards atheist de-conversion.

My efforts towards atheist de-conversion are based in — here comes the broken record — reason and evidence. I offer arguments and reasons for why atheism makes more sense, is more consistent, is more likely to be accurate, than religion. And that’s true of most other atheist writers I know. (Most of the time, anyway.)


Religious evangelicalism does nothing of the kind. It bases its persuasion on fear: the normal fear of death, and the trumped-up fear of hell and eternal torture. It bases its persuasion on false hope: a hope for immortality that the persuaders have no good reason to believe is true. It bases its persuasion on falsehoods: flat-out inaccuracies about the realities of history and science.

And it bases its persuasion on the suppression of other ideas.

The suppression of other religious ideas is one of the most widespread elements of religion. It’s not universal, but it’s depressingly common. It’s codified in the texts and tenets of religions: the concepts of the heathen and the heretic, rules against interfaith marriage, the very concept of religious orthodoxy, etc. It’s often codified in law: not just in blatant theocracies, but for decades and centuries in supposedly more enlightened societies. (Example: It took until 1961 for atheists to be guaranteed the right to serve on juries, testify in court, or hold public office in every state in the United States.)

And it’s codified in dozens of forms of social pressure. The idea that it’s rude to question or criticize people’s religion. The idea that religious faith by itself makes you a good person. The social deference given to ministers and rabbis and other religious leaders. The idea that being tolerant of religion requires that you not criticize it. Religion has built up an impressive array of armor: not intellectual weapons to defend its ideas, but armor to protect it against the very notion that its ideas require defending.


So yes to the marketplace of ideas. But in the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free ride. In the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free round- trip ride in a luxury limousine, with a police escort and a climate- controlled armored truck to transport its merchandise. All at public expense. And religious evangelicalism relies on that.

And that, I think, is the difference. The problem with religious evangelicalism isn’t that it tries to persuade other people that it’s right. The problem is that it tries to persuade using fear, and false hope, and falsehood. And it tries to persuade by shutting up any other ideas that might contradict it. It tries to win, not by playing fair, but by rewriting the rules of the game.

But I’m curious as to what you all think. Regular readers of this blog: Do you think there’s a difference between religious evangelicalism and what I do in this blog? If so, what do you think that difference is? If not, why not? And I especially want to hear from other atheist bloggers. How do you parse this question? Do you see what you do do as different from what religious evangelicals and missionaries do? (Apart from the issue of you being right and them being wrong, of course.) And if so — why? This is actually a complicated question for me, and I really want to get some different perspectives on it.

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