Atheists and the Closet: or, Keith Olbermann, Tonight's Worst Person in the World

Keith olbermann
If you’re an atheist, and you’re promoting atheists coming out and knowing that they’re not alone — but you, yourself, are not entirely out of the closet about your atheism — does that make you a bad person?

Keith Olbermann seems to think so. In his fabled “Worst Person in the World” segment tonight, he had this to say:

Tonight’s worst persons in the world. The bronze: To the person who donated the scratch for ten thousand dollars worth of ads on the sides of buses in New York City, promoting atheism. They read, “You don’t have to believe in God to be a moral or ethical person.” The hope, from president Ken Bronstein of the group NYC Atheists, is to get people to stop hiding their non- belief — to stop hiding it. No complaint about the message — however, while Bronstein says, “We want to get atheists to come join us, to get out of the closet,” unfortunately the donor who made the ads possible is keeping his identity anonymous. (Contemptuous eye-roll.)

Okay. Here is my question for Mr. Olbermann.

If you were doing a segment about an ad campaign designed to let gay people know that they weren’t alone and to encourage them to come out of the closet — and one of the major donors to the campaign wanted to remain anonymous — would you decry them as one of the worst persons in the world?

Dont ask dont tell
Or would you understand that coming out as gay can — yes, still, even this day and age — be a hazardous enterprise? Would you understand that coming out can mean alienating family and friends, losing your job or your kids, getting beaten up or even killed? Would you understand that people have to come out on their own timetable, and that a person who wants to take action to support gay rights and gay visibility still might not be completely out of the closet? Would you understand that even gay people who are out to their families and friends and colleagues still might not want their name, and their gayness, splashed all over the national news?

And if so, then why don’t you understand it about atheists?

There are some realities about living as an atheist that you may not know about, Mr. Olbermann. Coming out as an atheist can have serious real-world consequences. Parents get denied custody of their children for being atheists. People get harassed and vandalized by their neighbors for being atheists. Teachers get suspended for being atheists. Teenagers get harassed and suspended from school for being atheists. Politicians whip up anti-atheist fear to try to get elected. (And that’s just in the US. I’m not even talking about parts of the world where atheism is a crime, punishable by imprisonment or death.)

Coming out day
I wish atheists would come out of the closet, too. It is the single most powerful act we can do to gain acceptance and understanding. And there’s definitely a Catch-22: the world isn’t safe for atheists since so few atheists are out… but as long as atheists don’t come out, it will continue to be unsafe. Some of us need to take the risk, so it’ll be easier and less risky for others.

But I also understand that that is not my decision to make for others. I understand that, while I can encourage atheists to come out, I can’t judge them if they decide they can’t do it. I understand that coming out is not as easy for some people as it is for others. It was pretty easy for me: my family are atheists; my wife is an atheist; I live in San Francisco, the world capital of alternative culture and “who gives a damn what other people believe”-ism; I work for a hippie punk-rock anarchist business; I don’t have kids. (And even I lost friends when I came out as an atheist.) I understand that not everyone is as lucky as me: I understand that there is a substantial amount of anti- atheist bigotry in this country and in the world, and that some people have workplaces, neighbors, schools, custody situations, etc., that make coming out as atheist untenable.

Is there an irony in the fact that the major donor behind an atheist visibility ad campaign is choosing to remain anonymous? You bet there is. But that irony should not be making you think, “What a hypocrite that person is. They’re one of the worst persons in the world.” It should be making you think, “What a messed up world it is we live in — that even the person promoting atheist visibility doesn’t feel safe being completely open about being an atheist.”

Atheists and the Closet: or, Keith Olbermann, Tonight's Worst Person in the World

Pride, Stonewall, and the Importance of Confrontation

Gay pride flag
Happy Pride, everybody! And happy 40th anniversary of Stonewall.

I want to talk about Stonewall today. I want to talk about movements for social change — not just queer, but atheist, and feminist, and black activist, and disabled activist, and just about every other movement for social change I can think of. And I want to talk about the conflict that has gone on in every one of these movements I know about: the conflict between accomodationists and confrontationalists, between people who want to make change by polite, patient diplomacy, and people who want to make change through passionate confrontation.

And I want to point something out:

The Gay Pride parade is a celebration of a riot.

The Stonewall riots began on June 28, 1969, when a bunch of New York bar queens and dykes who had been pushed around by the police all night got fed up and pushed back. Pushed back hard. Pushed back with bottles and rocks, garbage cans and bricks. Pushed back with a riot. A series of riots, in fact: riots that lasted for days.

And that riot is generally considered to have sparked the modern LGBT rights movement.

Gay liberation day 1970
Now, to some extent, that’s a misunderstanding of history. There had been gay activism and organizing well before Stonewall: the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, the homophile movement in Europe in the early 20th century, etc. There had even been some direct confrontations and riots. But it is undeniably true that the Stonewall riots sparked something, around the country and around the world. Before Stonewall, there had been some quiet organizing and a handful of uprisings. After Stonewall, the out, proud, visible, marching- in- the- streets gay rights movement suddenly went into overdrive.

There’s a story — it may be an urban legend, I can’t find an attribution for it, but it doesn’t actually matter — about a plan to put up a monument to Stonewall in Greenwich Village. A prominent gay politico was asked what he thought would be an appropriate monument… and he answered, “A drag queen with a brick in his hand.”

Drag queens with bricks in their hands. That is what we’re celebrating.

I don’t say this to denigrate polite, diplomatic activism. To the contrary: I strongly believe that any successful social change movement needs both diplomats and hard-liners. Without the quiet work that the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society and such had been doing for years, the LGBT movement would have had a much harder time getting off the ground. I believe that diplomacy and confrontation are stronger together, and work together in a synergy that is far more powerful than either would be alone. It’s like playing good cop/ bad cop.

I’m just saying this:

When we celebrate LGBT Pride — whether we’re queer or straight, whether we’re marching in the stroller brigade or dancing half- naked on a bar float, whether we’re wearing a rainbow feather boa or a polo shirt, whether we’re sporting a T-shirt that says “Straight but Not Narrow” or “Nobody Knows I’m Gay” — we are commemorating the anniversary of a riot.

And it’s important that we not forget that.

See also:
Good Cop, Bad Cop: Atheist Activism

Pride, Stonewall, and the Importance of Confrontation

Why Do Atheists Have to Talk About Atheism?

Scarlet letter
Whenever the subject of atheism comes up, anywhere that isn’t an atheist discussion group or something, one sentiment almost inevitably comes up:

“I wish atheists wouldn’t talk so much about atheism.”

The sentiment gets worded in many different ways. “The new atheists are so evangelical.” “This atheist criticism of religion is just intolerant.” “You atheists are just as close-minded as the hard-line religious believers you’re criticizing.”

But the essence of it is the same: The fact that many atheists are talking publicly about our atheism, and are trying to persuade people that we’re right about it, shows that we’re … well, evangelical, intolerant and close-minded. So today, I want to explain why so many atheists think it’s important to talk about atheism … and why many of us try to persuade other people that atheism is correct.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why Do Atheists Have to Talk About Atheism? To find out why I think it’s not only valid, but important, for atheists to explain our beliefs and critique religion — and why I don’t think that’s intolerant or close- minded — read the rest of the piece. (And if you want to post comments here as well as, or instead of, on AlterNet, I’ll understand. Boy, howdy, will I ever.) Enjoy!

Why Do Atheists Have to Talk About Atheism?

Speaking Ill of the Dead

For what are probably obvious reasons, I have been thinking about the strong social taboo against speaking ill of the dead.

And I’m trying to figure out if I think it’s an irrational superstition, or a reasonable gesture of respect to people who are in mourning… or some combination of the two.

In the case of private individuals, it makes perfect sense. When people are mourning their Uncle Larry, they don’t want to hear about what an insufferable jerk he was. It would be trivializing their feelings of loss and grief.

But with public figures… it seems like the rules should be different. And yet, they’re clearly not. If we don’t personally know the person, and don’t even know anyone who knew the person… we still feel the taboo against speaking ill of them. Even if we found them repulsive at best and morally reprehensible at worst; even if we think it’s very likely that they were guilty of one of the worst crimes imaginable; even if, cutting them the greatest possible slack and taking them entirely at their own word about their actions, we still find those actions to be grossly inappropriate and unethical… even then, when a person has recently died, we tend to either say something nice, or not say anything at all. (That’s right… I’m talking about Richard Nixon.)

The only exception I can remember seeing is Spiro Agnew, who the press was merciless about when he died. I’m sure there have been others — I’m sure that when Stalin died, nobody outside the Soviet Union was writing gushing eulogies — but they are wildly few and far between. (And I strongly suspect that Agnew got slammed, not because he’d been so much more evil than any other dead person, but because he’d been such an insulting schmuck toward the press.)

And I’m trying to figure out if this taboo is reasonable.

Richard dawkins
I do get that people feel personally attached to public figures, even when they never met them. A little while back, I saw a blog headline that made me think, just for a few seconds, that Richard Dawkins had died. That he’d been murdered, actually. I was filled with shock and grief; despite the fact that I’d never met the man, I felt a deep sense of loss of someone very important to me who’d made a big impact in my life. And complicating my emotions was that fact that one of the people around at the time (we were travelling, and had some people around us we didn’t know very well) was a hard-core Christian who’d been making no bones about shoving her beliefs down everybody’s throat. The thought of having to go through my grief around this person who I didn’t trust to respect it made a terrible situation (or what would have been a terrible situation) much worse.

So there’s a part of me that really does get it.

But there’s also a part of me that thinks this is dishonest. And while I don’t actually treasure honesty as the single greatest virtue we have, while I do understand the social and even moral value of keeping your mouth shut from time to time… in this situation, there’s a part of me that’s greatly troubled by it.

Richard nixon
If it’s a public figure who I just didn’t care for or find interesting, that’s one thing. I’m happy to keep my mouth shut. But if it’s a public figure who did serious and lasting harm to people — again, think Richard Nixon — it seems that lavishing unfiltered praise on them upon their death is insulting to the people they harmed. I get that we don’t want to be trivializing or callous about people’s grief when someone they care about dies. But I also don’t want to trivialize the damage done by said person… and I don’t want to be callous about the impotent outrage their victims must be feeling when they see the person who harmed them lavishly eulogized all over the world.

So I can’t figure this one out.


Speaking Ill of the Dead

Sex, Spontaneity, and the "Swept Away" Myth

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

So why is the myth of sexual spontaneity so damaging?

I know. I’ve written about this before. Buy why else?

Gone with the wind
I’ve written before about the myth of sexual spontaneity: the myth that, for sex to be good and meaningful, the desire has to strike both partners out of the blue and be acted on immediately. I’ve written about how unrealistic the myth is, how poorly it fits into the reality of many people’s sex lives; I’ve written about the narrow and limiting definition of sexual desire it creates.

But I’ve been thinking lately about another — and in many ways more serious — problem with the myth of sexual spontaneity.

And that’s that it contributes to the idea that sex is dirty and bad… and thus makes people feel like sex is only okay if they don’t take responsibility for it.

A lot of other feminists have talked about this: the myth of being “swept away.” It’s the myth that sexual desire should overpower you with blinding passion — and that if it doesn’t, if you plan for it, that’s somehow cold and calculating and missing the point. And it’s a myth that fucks up sex lives from beginning to end. It keeps teenagers from using birth control. It keeps people from talking with their partners about what they like and don’t like in bed. It keeps people from educating themselves about sex, on the grounds that it should be “natural.” It keeps long-term couples from making dates for sex.

And I would argue — as many feminists have argued before me — that the “swept away” myth essentially comes from the idea that sex is bad.

Let’s look at another primal animal desire, one that we don’t have as much negative baggage about. Let’s take the desire to eat. We don’t think that eating a meal is somehow diminished by planning for it; that eating is only true and beautiful if the desire strikes us out of the blue and we act on it at once. Sure, we’ll stop and buy funnel cake if we smell it at a street fair… but we also buy groceries a week in advance, and make reservations for busy restaurants, and think in the morning or afternoon about what we might want for dinner, and make careful plans for special, festive meals.


Because we basically think that eating is okay. We have some complicated and messed-up feelings about food in our culture, sure; but most of us accept that food is a necessary and valuable part of life. We don’t think there’s anything wrong with planning a meal… because we don’t think there’s anything wrong with eating one.

But that’s patently not the case with sex. Our culture tends to see sex, either as a sin that we must resist, or as a selfish luxury we can do without. We don’t see it as a necessity, and we definitely don’t see it as a central and valuable part of the human experience.

And yet — obviously — we still want it.

Swept away
Which is where the “swept away” myth comes in. The “swept away” myth lets us have sex, while pretending to ourselves and everybody else that we didn’t really want it, and didn’t consciously choose it, and can’t be blamed for it.

It’s essentially a way of abdicating responsibility for sex. It’s a way of convincing yourself that you didn’t really choose this. You were overwhelmed by passion, by an animal urge or emotional flood that couldn’t be controlled. You couldn’t help it. It wasn’t your fault.

It’s like fantasies about bondage or rape: fantasies that, for many folks, let them enjoy sex, or enjoy thinking about sex, while still feeling like it’s against their will and they’re not responsible for it. Now, there’s not a damn thing wrong with these fantasies. There’s not even anything wrong with acting these fantasies out. But it’s no way to live your entire sex life. (Unless you’re into the 24/7 dom/sub thing… and even that takes a lot of thought and conscious choice, more even than most sex lives.) It’s not grownup. It’s not responsible.

New good vibrations guide to sex
And ultimately, it’s not even that much fun. The “swept away” myth of spontaneity seriously limits your opportunities to learn about sex; to learn more about your partners desires and your own; to expand your sexual repertoire. It limits the kinds of sex you can have: if planning for sex ruins it, that pretty much rules out the acquisition of sex toys. Not to mention sex education materials, or smut, or birth control. And — especially if your life is stressful and overbooked, or you’re getting older and the spontaneous urge to boff is diminishing — it limits your sex life in the most blunt and obvious way… namely, how often you have it.

And maybe more importantly, the “swept away” myth feeds the monster of sex-negativity. It feeds the monster in our culture and in all of us that says that sex is a sin, and that while letting yourself be overcome with lust might be forgivable, consciously choosing to make room for it in your life makes you guilty of first- degree sex. With premeditation and passion aforethought.

I actually have nothing against spontaneous sex. I love spontaneous sex. Being overwhelmed with lust, blowing off your dinner reservations because your lover’s ass has suddenly become way more important… that’s lovely. It’s like an adventure, like riding a rollercoaster. It lets you feel like your entire life isn’t being measured out in coffee spoons; like you still have the capacity to surprise yourself, and to be surprised.

My problem isn’t with spontaneous sex. It’s with the myth of spontaneous sex. It’s with the idea that spontaneous sex is the best sex, the sex we should all be having all the time, the only sex that counts. As one kind of sex among many, spontaneous sex is great. But as The One True Sex, it severely limits your sexual options. And it feeds into the monstrous idea that making sex a priority makes you a bad person.

So buy a vibrator. Make a sex date. Have a conversation with your partner about sexual things you might like to do. Call San Francisco Sex Information, and ask them a question you have about sex. Read a book about a kind of sex you’re curious about. Do something that says, “Sex is a priority for me, and I am making a conscious choice that will shape what my sex life looks like.”

And let’s starve the monster together.

Sex, Spontaneity, and the "Swept Away" Myth

Iran and the Battle Against Theocracy

I don’t know if I have anything to say about the situation in Iran that hasn’t already been said. And normally, that’s enough to keep my mouth shut. But this time, despite my near-paralyzing fear of being trite, I feel that I need to say something:

I support the protesters in Iran.

And not just for the obvious reasons. Not just because the recent election was almost certainly rigged; not just because legitimate dissent is being violently suppressed; not just because the Iranian government is shooting its own citizens in the streets.

I support the protesters in Iran because they are striking a blow against theocracy.

When Ahmadinejad’s “election” was pronounced as valid and Allah-favored by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — the leader of the Iranian theocracy — the protestors took to the streets anyway.

And when Supreme Leader Khamenei warned the protestors that their demonstrations were illegal and that further demonstrations would be firmly shut down and harshly punished… the protestors took to the streets anyway.

In Iran, this is a big honking deal. This isn’t just garden- variety anti- authoritarianism. This is defiance of the very notion of theocracy. Faced with a choice between a hope for a legitimately elected government, and a religious/ political leader telling them what to do and calling it the word of Allah… they’re going with the hope for a legitimately elected government. The very idea that a religious leader has political authority over them is being rejected, in the most blunt manner imaginable.

This is not an original idea with me. It has been said before, better than I’m saying it. But it’s important, and it bears saying again, by multiple voices: Plenty of people in Iran do not support the brutal, despotic, nutball, Holocaust- denying, theocratic government. Plenty of people in Iran are even pretty okay with America and Americans — even more so, now that Americans on Twitter and Facebook have been so instrumental in getting the word out about what’s happening there. (Remember this when you remember the right-wing tirades about the axis of evil, or John McCain’s clever little “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” ditty. These are the people they were talking about.)

I doubt that many of the protesters in Iran are atheists. Most of them seem to be moderate Muslims. And I obviously don’t agree with them about that. But that is completely irrelevant. They are fighting theocracy on the front lines, in ways that I strongly doubt I would have the courage to do. I am supporting them against the Islamic theocracy of their government, and I want to help them in any way that I can.

To find out what you can do to help, you can follow Mousavi’s page on Facebook. No, really. His favorite movie is Groundhog Day, and he’s looking for an untraceable cel phone in Mafia Wars.

Iran and the Battle Against Theocracy

A Hedonistic View of Physical Health

Overheard this weekend (can’t remember where):

“Eat healthy; exercise regularly; die anyway.”

It’s a sentiment I’ve heard many times before. You’re going to die anyway — so why bother living healthy? Why not just enjoy life? Sure, eating well and getting regular exercise might lengthen your life a little… but is it really that important to have a longer life? Isn’t it more important to have a satisfying one?

So today, I want to evangelize a little for the cause of eating well and getting regular vigorous exercise.

And I want to do it, not in opposition to hedonism, but in passionate support of it.

If the only reason I worked out was to extend my life, I might well not do it. I certainly wouldn’t do it as much. After all, what’s the point of having more time if you’re just spending that extra time walking on a treadmill?

So I don’t work out so I’ll live longer.

I work out so I have more energy. So I sleep better, and am not tired all day. So I’m less likely to suffer from depression. So my joints don’t hurt when I dance, or walk, or indeed when I try to fall asleep. So I’m better able to focus and stay alert and present. So I have a higher libido. So I feel more at home in my body.

And ditto all that with eating a healthy diet.

In other words:

Eating well and exercising aren’t obstacles to an enjoyable life.

They’re what make it possible.

Sure, when I was in my twenties, I could live a happily sybaritic life and still eat junk and never work out. I could dance ’til three, stay up all night playing cards, do drugs, chase women, march in the streets — all the things that made my twenty- something life worth living — with practically no effort.

But I’m 47 now. If I eat crap, I feel like crap. If I don’t work out, I get logy, irritable, depressed, easily bored, easily distracted, and physically uncomfortable. (The effect isn’t subtle, either: if I have to skip the gym for even just a couple weeks due to illness or travel or something, I start to feel achy and crabby very, very fast.)

But if I eat well and get regular vigorous exercise, I have the energy, and the focus, and the mood, to engage in the things that make my life meaningful and fun. I can put in a full day at the office, and still go out dancing, or spend an hour cooking a meal, or work on my book proposal, or write my congressperson. I can take a two- mile walk showing friends and family the wonderful neighborhood I live in. I can spend a day running around doing errands and still go out to a party at ten at night. I can dance all night, fuck all night, stay up all night talking with friends, stay up all night blogging. (Well, maybe not all night — but fairly late.)

And so I say again: Eating well and exercising aren’t obstacles to enjoying my life. They’re what make it possible.

I thoroughly agree that living this life to its fullest is crucial. (And no, that doesn’t mean being thoroughly selfish or self-indulgent; in fact, I strongly think that “living life to its fullest” includes empathy and social responsibility and staying connected with the world around us.) I think this life is the only one we have, and that not experiencing it with as much richness as we can is a tragic waste.

But if this life — and this body — is the only one we have, then don’t we want it in good working order? If you had a car that you knew for a fact was the only one you were ever going to have for the rest of your life, wouldn’t you give it regular tune-ups and oil changes? Like, to a psychotically obsessive degree? Not just so it ran long, but so it ran well, and could reliably get you where you wanted to go?

And assuming the answer is yes… why should you treat your body any differently?

I don’t think being healthy means constant self-deprivation. The occasional donut, the occasional Manhattan or three, the occasional day spent in bed or on the sofa… these have an important place in a healthy life. As Dr. Hibbert said on The Simpsons, “I feel a balanced diet can include the occasional eating contest.”

But these bodies are the only ones we’re ever going to have. In fact, I’ll go further than that. We don’t have our bodies. We are our bodies. The best evidence we have is that our consciousness, our ability to choose, everything we think of as our selves… all of that comes from our brains, and from our brains’ interactions with the rest of our bodies and with the rest of the world. And our brains are one of the main body parts we have that functions and feels better with a healthy diet and regular vigorous exercise.

And since we are our bodies, making our bodies happy is how we make ourselves happy.

I get that it’s hard. Boy howdy, do I get it. Especially at first. It does get easier with time, as your habits change: as you find healthy food that you think is delicious, as you find types of exercise you think are fun, as you learn to connect your moods and energy levels with how you’re eating and moving. But I won’t deny that it can be hard. (I recommend incremental change: adding one or two workouts a week, changing two or three meals a week from junk to actual food… and when you’re adjusted to that, adding one or two more.)

But my point is this: I think it’s a mistake to look at eating well and exercising as punishment, or as deprivation, or as virtuous but purgatorial and boring. I think it makes much more sense — and is much more sustainable — to look at eating well and exercising as a gateway to a delightfully hedonistic, richly satisfying, vigorously pleasurable life. I say one more time: Taking care of our bodies is not an obstacle to enjoying life. It is what makes enjoying life possible.

Other posts in this series:
The Eroticism of Exercise

A Hedonistic View of Physical Health

My Vision for a Sexual World

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. And I’m taking a somewhat different tack on this one. Instead of a critique or commentary on the sexual culture we have, I thought I’d sketch an outline of the sexual culture I’d like to see. It’s called My Vision for a Sexual World, and here’s the teaser:

Like a lot of sex-positive sex writers, I spend a lot of time ranting and venting about things in our sexual culture that I don’t like.

Today, I want to do something different. Instead of bitching about the sexual culture we have, I’d like to present my vision for the sexual culture I’d like to see.

And the best way I can say it is to put it in a metaphor.

I would like us to treat sexuality — and differences in sexualities — much the same way we treat music.

To find out the details of the sexual world I’d like to see — and why I think music is such a good analogy for it — read the rest of the piece. (And as always, if you feel inspired to comment on this blog, please consider cross- posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog. They like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

My Vision for a Sexual World