Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Still Believe In Something Bigger

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheists do believe in something bigger than ourselves. We understand that the universe, laws of nature, the human race, the arc of history, principles of ethics and kindness, etc. are bigger than we are. We simply don’t believe that these big things come from God, or are in any way supernatural. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Still Believe In Something Bigger

Adult Toy Story: Romance vs. Reality in "Air Doll"

A sad, tired man takes the late train home from work. He comes home to his consolation: dinner and conversation and lovemaking with his beautiful girlfriend. Except his girlfriend is a blow-up doll. The conversation is entirely one-sided; when the lovemaking is over, he scrubs out her removable vagina with a hose.

This has clearly been going on for some time. How long, we don’t know. The next morning, though, the doll comes to life. Or comes to something like life.

And her story begins.

There are a lot of ways to look at “Air Doll,” a beautiful, thoughtful, oddly delicate new film from acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-ada (“Still Waiting,” “After Life,” “Nobody Knows”). And the sexual angle isn’t even the most obvious one. There’s quite a bit of sexual content in this film, but — surprisingly for a movie about a blow-up sex doll — it’s not the main focus. The existential questions — what does it mean to be alive? what does it mean to be conscious? how do we distinguish between people and non-people? — leap much more to the foreground.

But this is me. And this is CarnalNation. So let’s talk about sex.


Thus begins my latest piece on CarnalNation, Adult Toy Story: Romance vs. Reality in “Air Doll.” To find out more about what this new movie says about sex — and especially what it says about sexual intimacy — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to Carnal Nation — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

Adult Toy Story: Romance vs. Reality in "Air Doll"

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Still Aren't Angry At God

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheists are not atheists because we are resentful, disillusioned, or angry with God or religion. We are atheists because we have concluded that the God hypothesis is implausible, inconsistent, and unsupported by good evidence. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Still Aren't Angry At God

Some Evolving Thoughts About Weight and Sex

Please note: This piece discusses my personal sexuality in a fair amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that, you probably don’t want to read this. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Bare foot on scale
I want to start by saying this: I am just talking about myself here, and what’s true for me. These issues are heavily loaded, emotionally and psychologically and politically, so I want to spell that out right from the start. I’m not evangelizing for weight loss; I’m personally finding it to be beneficial, erotically as well as in other ways, but I’ve also found it to be complicated and a whole lot of hard work, and I know that the cost- benefit analysis about it is different for everyone. I’m not talking about what’s right or true for anyone else. I’m talking about what’s right and true for me.

As regular readers of my blog know by now, I’ve been losing weight for close to a year now, and have so far lost 50 pounds. This isn’t something I’m doing for aesthetic reasons, btw: I’m doing it primarily for health reasons (mostly a bad knee that was getting worse).

But the weight loss is having a complicated set of effects on my sexuality: on my libido, my sexual self-image, my feelings about my sexual history, my cultural politics about sex and bodies. Mostly good… but complicated. And I haven’t seen a lot of writing elsewhere about these effects. Most of the writing I’ve seen about weight and sex has either been your standard “Lose weight and magically fix your sex life!” jargon (which I think is bullshit), or fat-positive, body-positive, “fight body fascism and connect erotically with the body you have” activism (which I more or less support, but with a few serious caveats). I haven’t seen much writing about weight and sex from people who are controlling their weight and feel good about it… but who are still informed by the cultural criticism about how our society views weight and sexuality.

So, as usual, when I don’t like the news, I’m making some of my own.


The main effect that weight loss has had on my sexuality has been on my libido. Which has gotten cranked up to eleven, and beyond. (Not that it was exactly low-key before…) Being in better health, being stronger and getting more exercise, feeling more conscious of my body, feeling more comfortable and more at home in my body, being happier with how I look and how I fit into my clothes, getting more compliments and attention… all of this is brewing into an explosive libidinous mix that’s making me feel like I’ve been shot out of a cannon. Just walking down the street is an exquisitely erotic experience: like my skin is humming, like I’m erotically at one with the universe, like I want to stop and hump tree trunks. I feel like I’m exploding in a hundred directions at once. I feel like I want to masturbate twenty times a day.

A lot of this has to do with just being in better health. The things I’m doing to lose weight — eating a healthier diet, getting tons of exercise — have increased my physical energy, my mental health, my ability to sleep, etc…. all of which are increasing my libido. A lot of it, too, has to do with not being in a state of cognitive dissonance. Before I started losing weight, I was in serious denial about my health and my body and how I felt about it… and cognitive dissonance about your body is not a mental state that’s conducive to feeling connected with it. And some of it, I’ll acknowledge, has to do with the increased compliments and sexual attention I’ve been getting as my weight has gone down. (Although… well, that’s complicated. More on that in a minute.)

But a huge amount of it, I think, has to do with the simple fact that I’m paying closer attention to my body now, in overwhelmingly positive ways. (I’m not talking about being self-conscious, btw; I know that paying close attention to one’s body, in a critical and self-loathing way, can have a terrible affect on libido and sexuality. I’m not talking about that. I’m just talking about being conscious.) I think about my body way more than I ever did: how it feels, how it looks, what it wants in terms of food and exercise and sleep, how it’s changing, how it’s the same. I’m not living in my head as much as I used to: I’m inhabiting my body now, more than I ever have at any time in my life. And that means I’m inhabiting my sexuality more.

A lot more. Hoo, boy.

Which is good. More than a bit frustrating at times — my life is not currently structured to let me masturbate twenty times a day, and our societal norms do not permit the public humping of tree trunks — but good. Being intensely horny is a complicated pleasure… but as long as I’m getting laid fairly regularly, it is nevertheless a pleasure.

The compliments and increased attention, on the other hand… that’s a lot more tricky. It’s not that it sucks. Of course I like compliments and attention. Human beings are social animals, and while it might be lovely if our self-esteem came entirely from within and didn’t have any basis on the approval of peers blah blah blah, the reality is that our self-esteem doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a complex, mirrors- reflecting- mirrors jumble of how others see us and how we see ourselves. So of course I like compliments and attention, and of course they make me feel better about myself.

Greta sun
But at the same time, the compliments and increased attention I’ve gotten as I’ve lost weight have been a seriously mixed blessing. When people get really effusive about how amazing I look now, a big part of me is resentfully thinking, “So what did you think of me when I was fat? You think I look amazing now — did you think I looked disgusting then?” The line between feeling flattered by compliments and feeling defensive and pissy about them is razor-thin. Especially from people who knew me before I lost the weight… and only started paying sexual attention to me afterwards. (Some people — especially gay men, for some reason — do have the knack of paying good, tactful compliments to people who are losing weight. If you want to pay a compliment to someone who’s losing weight, you can’t go wrong with, “You look really good, really healthy — have you been working out?”)

Greta now
The thing is, though? I honestly don’t know how much of this increased attention is because my body is now a type that more people find attractive… and how much of it is because I feel more attractive, and more libidinous. There is nothing hotter than someone who feels good about themselves, someone who loves their body and their sexuality. And there is nothing less hot than someone who, as a Facebook friend put it, is “slouching and sulking as if they are simultaneously angry at the world and apologizing for existing.” Am I getting more attention now because a lot more people prefer thinner women to fat women? Or is it because I’m walking down the street radiating sexual joy and looking like I want to hump tree trunks? I suspect it’s some of both. I really wish I could tease them out. It would give me a better sense of when to get pissy about compliments, and when to just let them in already. (People who meet me for the first time now, since I’ve lost the weight, have no idea what an advantage they have: they don’t have to deal with my hair-trigger, “So what did you think I was before — chopped liver?” defensiveness.)

And I do realize that this pissy defensiveness isn’t entirely fair. I mean, I have preferences myself about what body types I do and don’t find attractive. Most of them aren’t absolute deal-breakers… but it’s not like they don’t exist. So it’s a little unfair for me to expect other people not to have their own preferences.

It’s a delicate balance. How do we critique overly rigid cultural ideals of sexual attractiveness… while still acknowledging people’s right to be attracted to whoever they’re attracted to? How do we ask people to question and critique their — our — desires, to look carefully at the ways that a sexist, consumerist, celebrity- obsessed culture shapes our libidos… while still acknowledging that people don’t really have control over who we do and don’t have the hots for?

I don’t know. It’s a mess. And of course I know that the “effusive compliment” people mean well. I know that in our culture, “You look like you’ve lost weight!” is almost universally considered a compliment. And my weight loss project has, in fact, involved a lot of hard work… so when people get really effusive about how great I look now, I try to hear it as praise for the accomplishment, not as an insult to how I looked before.

But that’s hard. Especially since the “You looked like such a fat slob before!” implication of “You look so much better now!” plays right into another part of what’s making this process sexually complicated — the disconnect I’m feeling with my sexual history.

A huge amount of my libido right now is focused on the changes my body is going through, and the ways it’s different from what it was before. Which is understandable: things that are in flux get more attention than things that are in relative stasis. But this has had the unfortunate effect of making me feel weirdly disconnected from my body and my sexuality of the past. My willingness to accept how unhappy I used to be with my body, and how much in denial/ cognitive dissonance I was about it, is making it hard to remember that I did, in fact, like my body at least some of the time when I was fat, and that at least some people found that body attractive, and that I did get a substantial amount of sexual pleasure from it.

I know that this disconnectedness is totally irrational. I know that fat bodies can be happily experienced as sexual, both from the inside and the outside. There are, for instance, plenty of fat people who I see as intensely sexual and would do in a hot second. And I know that it’s seriously counter-productive. I was a fat woman for years — years in which I lived out some of the most powerful and formative aspects of my sexuality, and years in which I had some of the best sex of my life. I know that I have to find a way to inhabit my current sexual body, and at the same time make peace with my old one. (If anyone has any suggestions or experience about this, btw, I’m all ears. This is a tough one.)

And while I mostly feel happier and less self-conscious about my body than I used to, there are still aspects of my body and my appearance that I’m not thrilled about. It’s been weird to accept the fact that even when I reach my target weight, I’m still not going to be the cultural ideal of female attractiveness, and I never will be. And while I’ve been letting go of a lot of my old body dislikes, I’ve also been picking up one or two new ones. (Let me tell you about loose skin sometime.) Losing weight doesn’t mean dropping the battle against body fascism — either externally or internally.

I don’t know. It’s a mess. A mess that on the whole I feel good about, but a mess nonetheless.


Some Evolving Thoughts About Weight and Sex

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Have Not Hardened Our Hearts

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheists have not hardened our hearts against God. Most atheists have given the question of God’s existence serious consideration, and we keep asking believers to show us evidence that our atheism is mistaken. But if “open your heart” means “engage in wishful thinking,” we’re not willing for that to be the basis of our beliefs. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Have Not Hardened Our Hearts

Why Did God Create Atheists?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

God does not believe in atheists
Why did God create atheists?

This is a question I always want to ask religious believers. (One of many questions, actually. “What evidence do you have that God is real?” and “Why are religious beliefs so different and so contradictory?” are also high on the list.)

If God is real, and religious believers are perceiving a real entity… why is anyone an atheist? Why don’t we all perceive him? If God is powerful enough to reach out to believers just by sending out his thoughts or love or whatever… why isn’t he powerful enough to reach all of us? Why is there anyone who doesn’t believe in him?

It seems to be a question that troubles many believers as well. At least, it troubles them enough that they feel compelled to respond. And as atheism becomes more common and more vocal, this compulsion to respond seems to be getting more common and more vocal as well.

I’ve seen a couple of religious responses to this question. Neither of which is very satisfactory. But they keep coming up… so today, I want to take them on.

Open Your Heart To Me, Baby

For more traditional believers, the answer to why atheists exist is simple: Atheists have closed our hearts to God. God has reached out to atheists — but we don’t want to believe. We want to pursue a selfish and sybaritic life, and don’t want to obey God’s laws (so say the real hard-liners)… or we’ve been hurt by life or by religion, and we’re rejecting God out of anger (so say the marginally more compassionate believers). But it’s important that we have free will — so we have to be free to reject God as well as to accept him. God can’t force us to believe. That would be cheating.

Uh huh.

See, here’s the problem with that.

Or rather, here’s a whole set of problems.

For starters: This idea is totally unfalsifiable. There’s no way to prove that you honestly gave religion a chance. Until we develop the technology to accurately record the inside of somebody’s head and play it back in somebody else’s, there’s no way to prove that atheists are sincerely open-minded and willing to consider religion.

Atheists can say a hundred times, “Really, I’m telling you, I’ve looked at this carefully, I’ve meditated on it, I’ve examined the evidence, I’ve studied lots of different religions… and I just don’t find any of it convincing.” We can ask believers to give us good evidence or arguments for God. We can point out the pain and distress many of us went through when we let go of our beliefs — pain and distress that this “You’ve just closed your heart to God” trope seriously trivializes. We can even go out on a limb and point to the kinds of evidence that would convince us we were mistaken (something just about no religious believers are willing to do). But since we can’t demonstrate the state of our minds and hearts, believers can always say, “You aren’t sincere. Your mind and heart are closed.”

There’s no way to prove that they’re wrong. It’s an unfalsifiable hypothesis.

Which makes it an entirely useless one. If there’s no possible way to show that your hypothesis is false, there’s no way to know whether it’s true.

What’s more, the “You’ve hardened your heart against God” trope is a perfect example of moving the goalposts. No matter how many times we gave God the old college try… we clearly haven’t tried hard enough. I mean — we don’t believe! If we’d tried hard enough, then obviously we’d believe! The fact that we don’t believe is proof that we haven’t tried hard enough. Q.E.D. (It’s a fairly entertaining logical fallacy, actually: a unique blend of moving goalposts and circular reasoning. I’m kind of impressed.)

And then, of course, we have the niggling little problem of self-deception and rationalization.

The human mind is very prone to believing what it already believes. It’s very prone to believing what it’s been prompted to believe. And it’s very prone to believing what it wants to believe. Rationalization is a deeply hard-wired part of how the human mind works, and while it’s a surprisingly important part — among other things, it enables us to get on with our lives without being totally paralyzed — it’s something we always need to keep in mind when we’re deciding if the things we believe are really true.

So if the only way to believe something is to try really, really hard? If what it takes to believe something is to “open your heart” — i.e., to put yourself in a state of suggestibility and wishful thinking?

That’s not a very good sign that this something is true.

Quite the contrary.

If we care about whether the things we believe are true — if we want to be sure that we’re not just fooling ourselves into believing what we already believe or what we want to believe — then the times we’re trying really hard to convince ourselves of something? Those are exactly the times we should be most skeptical. That’s not when we should be opening our hearts. That’s when we should be on our guard.

The reality for me, and the reality for a whole lot of atheists? I am open to my mind being changed. Heck, I used to be a believer. I used to be more than just open to the idea of God — I used to believe in God. (Or something that I was willing to call God.) In fact, it was my willingness to change my mind, my openness to reconsidering new possibilities, that led me to let go of my religious beliefs in the first place. And if someone can give me some really good reasons to change my mind back again, I will.

But “You just have to open your heart” is not a good reason. It’s an unfalsifiable argument — nothing I do can prove that I’m sincerely open to the God hypothesis. Its goalposts can be moved forever — no matter how carefully I’ve considered religion, people can argue that I need to consider it just a little more. And it’s basically a defense of wishful thinking as some sort of positive virtue. (Besides, nobody’s ever given me a good reason why I should open my heart to their particular god: why I should open my heart to Jesus instead of to Allah, or Ganesh, or the Goddess, or that blue peacock god some people worship in northern Iraq.)

“You just haven’t opened your heart” is clearly a terrible explanation for why God would allow atheists to exist.

Are there any better ones?

I Love You Just The Way You Are

Circle holding hands
There is another religious response to the puzzling question of why there are atheists. And unlike the unfalsifiable, goalpost-moving, “let’s treat people like pariahs for wanting to be careful that the things they believe are true” hostility of “You haven’t opened your hearts,” it’s a response that typically comes from more progressive, tolerant, pluralistic believers.

It’s this: “God doesn’t care if you’re an atheist.”

“As long as you’re a good person,” this idea goes, “as long as you love other people and try to do right by them, God’s fine with you. God doesn’t need your worship or your praise, or even your faith. God loves atheists, too. He doesn’t care whether you believe in him.”

Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that.

God may not care whether I believe in him.

But I do.

I want to understand the world. I care about reality, more than I care about just about anything. If there really is a God who created everything, who guided the universe and the process of evolution so conscious life could come into being, who animates all life with his spirit — I bloody well want to know about it. I don’t want to be flatly wrong about one of the hugest questions humanity is faced with. In my years as an atheist writer, I keep asking believers again and again, “Do you have some evidence for your belief? If you do, please tell me about it. I want to see it.” And I’m not being snarky, or baiting them into a debate I know they can’t win. (Well… not mostly.) If I’m wrong about this, I sincerely want to know.

Why does God deny me that knowledge? Why does he give it to some people, and not others?

And maybe more to the point:

If there really were a loving creator of the universe who animates all life including my own, and from whom all that is good and valuable about the world emanates?

I wouldn’t want to be alienated from him. I’d want to be connected with him. (Her. It. Them. Whatever.) Especially the touchy-feely God that the progressive, tolerant, pluralistic believers believe in. There are certainly plenty of gods I wouldn’t worship even if I thought they were real — the God of fundamentalist Christianity is a sadistic nutjob, and even if he existed I wouldn’t give him the time of day. But the warm, gentle, “source of all life/ force of goodness and love in the universe” God that progressive believers believe in? Sure, I’d want to know him. I’d have some serious questions for him — why is there suffering, why is there evil, why can’t the Cubs win a goddamn pennant to save their lives — but I’d happily have a beer with the guy. We could be friends. I mean, he’s the source of all life, the force of goodness and love in the universe. Of course I’d want that in my life. Why on earth wouldn’t I?

If God exists… then why isn’t he reaching out to me? Isn’t it cruel of him to reach out to some people but not to others? (Not to mention the manipulative game-playing he seems to be doing, where he reveals himself in wildly different and even contradictory ways to different people, and then sits back while they duke it out over which one is right.) Why does he manifest in some people’s hearts, but not in others? Why is he being such a passive-aggressive jerk?

Let me be very clear about this: I am entirely happy to be an atheist. I’m not one of these whiny, moody, “I wish I could believe” atheists that so many believers think is the only valid kind of atheism. I am tickled pink to be an atheist. I won’t pretend that I didn’t lose a form of comfort when I left my beliefs — but I gained so much in return that the loss is a clear bargain. And the comforts I have now are far more comforting… since they’re built on a foundation of reality. I don’t have the constant nagging feeling in the back of my head that my beliefs are just wishful thinking, and that I’ve built my philosophy on a foundation of sand. I’m persuaded that God does not exist, and that’s just ducky with me.

But I’m happy with my atheism because I’m persuaded that it’s correct. I’m happy not feeling God in my life because I’m persuaded that God doesn’t exist.

If God really existed, I sure as heck would want to know about it.

So why don’t I?

If God really exists — why don’t I know about it?

How we believe
As an atheist, I have some really good answers for why people believe in God even though he doesn’t exist. The human mind is prone to numerous cognitive errors — and many of those cognitive errors make people susceptible to religion. We tend to see intention, even where no intention exists. We tend to see patterns, even where no pattern exists. We give excessive weight to personal emotional experience, and aren’t good at applying critical thought to those experiences. We don’t have a good intuitive understanding of probability, and tend to think events are more improbable than they really are. We tend to believe what authority figures tell us. We tend to believe what we’re taught as children. We tend to believe what people we know and trust tell us. We’re reluctant to question the things that everyone else in our social group believes. Etc., etc., etc. People believe all sort of things that aren’t true… and from an atheist/ materialist viewpoint, that makes perfect sense. Atheism is not even a little inconsistent with the belief in gods who don’t exist.

But the belief in God is very much inconsistent with the existence of atheists. I have yet to see a religious believer give a good answer for why God exists — but not everyone experiences him or believes in him. I have yet to see a good answer for why God bestows the experience of his existence (however inconsistently and contradictorily) onto some people — but not onto others. I have yet to see a good answer for why God is all-powerful and all-knowing and all-good — or even anything close to all-powerful and all-knowing and all-good — and still isn’t perceived by everybody.

Does anybody have one?

(And if you say “Mysterious ways,” I’m going to scream.)

Why Did God Create Atheists?


Please note: This post, and the post it links to, discusses my personal sex life in extensive detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff are strongly advised to skip this one.

Do other masochists run into this conundrum?

If so — how do you deal with it?

There’s a kinky paradox I run into sometimes. It’s entertaining, but it’s also a little frustrating at times, and I’m wondering how other people deal with it.

Here’s what it is.

Sometimes when I bottom, I just want it to feel good. I physically enjoy pain — certain kinds of pain under certain circumstances, anyway — and the sensations and endorphins and whatnot are just pure sexual fun. It’s like eating very spicy food: it’s a complicated pleasure, but it is a pleasure, and my body processes it as such.

But sometimes, when I bottom, I want it to hurt.

I mean, really hurt.

I want it to hurt harder than I want.

Real pain — pain that’s genuinely hard to take, pain that hurts harder than I like — is what makes me feel helpless, and out of control. It’s what gets me tapped into my fantasies of non-consent; it’s what gets me feeling like what’s happening is being forced on me against my will. Or, at other times (actually, sometimes at the same time, which is weird and contradictory but I’m not going to worry about that too much), pain that hurts harder than I like is what makes me feel submissive. It’s what gets me feeling like I’ve put myself into my partner’s hands: like I don’t belong to myself any more, and have given myself away as a gift, to be used and played with at my partner’s whim.

All of which is awesome. All of which I like very much, in a way that’s very different, and in many ways more intense, than the relatively simple, easy- to- take, endorphin-y fun stuff.

But here’s the paradox.


Thus begins my latest piece on the Blowfish Blog, Harder. To find out the paradox of liking pain that’s harder than I like — and what I think it says about the sexual connection generally and masochism specifically — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!


Why Liberal Values Really Are Better

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Liberal definition
Liberals and conservatives don’t just disagree about specific issues — we disagree about core ethical values. Can a case be made that liberal values really are better?

You may have heard about this. It’s been in the news and the blogosphere, and has been making the rounds at the nerdier water coolers and cocktail parties. A number of researchers are coming to the conclusion that ethics and values aren’t entirely relative, and aren’t solely derived from particular cultures. Human beings, across cultures and throughout history, seem to share a few core ethical values, hard-wired into our brains by millions of years of evolution as a social species. Those values: Fairness, harm and the avoidance thereof, loyalty, authority, and purity. (Some think there may be one or two others, including liberty and honesty; but those aren’t yet as well-substantiated, or as well-studied.)

Different people prioritize different values over others, of course. And of course, different individuals and different cultures come to different conclusions about the right ethical choice in any particular situation: based on our cultural biases, as well as on our own personal observations and experiences. But according to this research, these basic values — fairness, harm, loyalty, authority, and purity — exist in all of us, at least to some degree, in every non-sociopathic human being.

“Fascinating,” I hear you cry. “But what does that have to do with politics?” Well, what researchers are finding is that liberals prioritize very different values from conservatives. When asked a series of questions about different ethical situations, self-described liberals strongly tend to prioritize fairness and harm as the most important of these core values — while self-described conservatives are more likely to prioritize authority, loyalty, and purity.

Liberal conspiracy
As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal — the offspring of a union organizer and an early-adopter feminist, taken to peace marches and McGovern rallies at a tender age — this idea instantly made sense to me. It illuminates a lot of weird dark corners about politics… particularly the rancorous and apparently unsolvable nature of many political conflicts. When liberals and conservatives debate the burning issues of the day — whether it’s immigration or marriage equality, global warming or health care reform — we often wind up talking at cross-purposes, and the conversations go around in increasingly belligerent circles… because we’re not starting with the same ethical foundations. We assume that we have the same core values, and are simply debating the best way to apply those values in the world. We’re not. We’re debating — not very effectively or coherently most of the time — the core values themselves.

And of course, when I heard about this research, my instant reaction was to say, “But fairness and harm ARE more important! We were right all along! This proves it — liberal values ARE better!”

But — being someone who places a strong ethical value on fairness — I realize that of course I’m going to say that. After all… those are my values. Of course I think they’re better. And — again, being someone who highly values fairness — I realize that conservatives are going to say the exact same thing. “But authority and loyalty ARE more important! This proves it! Conservative values ARE better!”

So I’ve been asking myself: Is there a way to distinguish between these values?

If these are core values, fundamental axioms of human ethics… how do we distinguish between them? I mean — they’re axioms. They’re our ethical starting points. When they come into conflict, as they often do, how do we step back from them, and decide which ones we should prioritize?

Betraying spinoza
I’ve been chewing over this question ever since I heard about this research. In other words, for at least a couple of years. And then, at an atheist conference I spoke at recently, the answer was dropped into my lap, so clearly and succinctly that I kicked myself for not having thought of it myself, by the conference’s keynote speaker, philosopher and MacArthur genius Rebecca Goldstein. (From whom I am stealing this idea shamelessly. Hey, I’m an ethical person, with the good liberal value of fairness. When I steal an idea, I give credit.)

Here’s the idea.

Fairness and harm are better values — because they can be universalized.

Goldstein’s argument is this. The basic philosophical underpinning of ethics (as opposed to its psychological and evolutionary underpinnings) are:

(a) the starting axiom that we, ourselves, matter;

and (b) the understanding that, if we step back from ourselves and view life from an outside perspective, we have to acknowledge that we don’t, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else; that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves; and that any rules of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and all that. (Some version of the Golden Rule seems to exist in every society.)

In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable.

And liberal values — fairness and harm — are universalizable.

In fact, it’s inherent in the very nature of these values that they are universalizable.

Fairness is the most obvious example of this. I mean, the whole freaking idea of fairness is that it be ought to be applied universally. Tit for tat. What’s sauce for the goose is what’s sauce for the gander. Yada, yada, yada. The whole idea of fairness is that everyone ought to be treated, not identically, but as if they matter equally.

And the value of harm, and the avoidance thereof, can easily be universalized as well. It can be applied to everybody. In fact, the history of the evolution of human ethics can be seen as the history of this principle being expanded to a wider and wider population: to people from other countries, to people of color, to women, etc. etc. etc. It can even be universalized further, and applied to non-humans. (It may well be that, in 200 years, people will look back on the way we treat animals with the same bewildered, “How on earth could they do that?” horror that we now view slavery with.) There’s nothing in the principle of avoiding harm that prevents it from being applied to any creature with the capacity to experience suffering. It is an easily universalizable value.

Conservative values, on the other hand, are not universalizable.

Quite the contrary.

It is in the very nature of conservative values — authority, loyalty, and purity — that they are applied differently to different people. It is in the very nature of conservative values that some animals are, and ought to be, more equal than others.

The conservative value of authority has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people — i.e., authority figures — ought to be respected and obeyed more than others, and ought to have the right to tell other people what to do, and ought to have the power to enforce those dictums. The conservative value of loyalty has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people — i.e., people inside the in-group, the family or country or faith or what have you — ought to be valued more than others. And the conservative value of purity… well, purity is a weird one, since it applies more to how people treat their own bodies, and less to how people treat one another. (Making it a pretty baffling ethical principle, in my opinion.) But when it does apply to how people treat other people (the notion of “untouchables,” for instance), it has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people — i.e., people who are considered pure — ought to be treated as fully human… and that people who are considered impure need not be.

Conservative values — authority, loyalty, and purity — can’t be universalized. They actively resist universalization.

So if you accept the idea that the philosophical foundation of ethics is that other people matter as much as we ourselves do, and that any principles of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves, then that makes liberal values… well, better. Closer to that philosophical foundation.

I will say very quickly here: I’m not arguing that liberals, as people, are inherently the moral superiors of conservatives. Again, I’m a good liberal/ progressive/ whatever, and my innate sense of fairness makes me flinch in revulsion from saying anything of that nature.

Wedding vows
And I’m not going to say that the conservative values of loyalty and authority and purity are irrelevant. Loyalty especially. Prioritizing the people we love over total strangers… that’s a huge part of what it means to love people in the first place. If someone had such a powerful sense of fairness that they didn’t prioritize the people they loved, I’d think there was something profoundly wrong with them.

As for authority… well even Little Miss Dyed-in-the-Wool Pinko can’t imagine a world entirely governed by consensus. The thought of a world population of almost seven billion being operated as a consensus collective makes me shudder with dread and want to move to the Moon immediately. I’ve been in consensus collectives. The meetings alone would take a lifetime. As much as I hate to admit it, some sort of authority — assigned democratically and with the consent of the governed and with some seriously powerful checks and balances and oversight, obviously — is probably necessary for human society to function smoothly, or indeed at all. Even the most progressive pinko societies (I’m looking at you, Sweden) haven’t abandoned the idea of authority and law. We probably need to have laws against murder and theft and running red lights and so on… and we probably need people whose job it is to enforce those laws. (If for no other reason, our wonderful universal liberal values of fairness and harm don’t mean a lot if there aren’t any consequences to violating them.) As I always say to libertarian extremists who want a world with no government: Move to Somalia. That’s what a world with no functioning government looks like.

And as for purity… well, while I find the idea of purity as a moral value rather baffling, it certainly makes sense from a practical viewpoint. The principle of purity has to do with the idea that the body ought to be pure and holy, not desecrated by that which is contaminated or evil… and among other things, an innate revulsion over that which is impure is what keeps us from eating things that can kill us.

So I’m not saying that typically conservative values have no place in a human ethical system, or that thoughtful, non-teabag-loony conservatives don’t have a valid voice in conversations and decisions about ethics, and how ethics should be applied in policy and law.

I’m saying that, when we debate political issues, we can do more than just go around in circles, assuming that we’re talking about the same values when we’re clearly not. I think that, when we debate political issues, it will be much more productive to look, not only at the specific issue, but at the broader differences in our core values, and how we’re applying them to the issue at hand. And I’m saying that we can actually distinguish between different core values, and prioritize some over others — and that, unless there’s a specific compelling reason to prioritize the “some animals are more equal than others” values of authority or loyalty or purity, we ought to prioritize the universalizable values of fairness and the avoidance of harm.

And you know what? I’ll go even further.

I’m saying that any moral progress humanity has made over the centuries and millennia has been made, not in the direction of greater adherence to authority or purity or tribal/group loyalty, but in the direction of expanding our understanding and application of fairness and the avoidance of harm. I’m saying that, in every example I can think of where our morality is a clear improvement over the morality of the past — democracy, banning slavery, religious freedom, women’s suffrage, etc. etc. etc. — the core values being strengthened have been the values of fairness and the avoidance of harm: the liberal values, the ones that can be applied to everyone.

I’ve been a proud liberal since I was old enough to make a choice. And now I’m prouder than ever. Because humanity’s moral evolution has, in every instance I can think of, been in the direction of humanity becoming more liberal.

Why Liberal Values Really Are Better

Do You Care Whether the Religious Ideas You Believe in Are True or Not?

What do you say to religious believers who don’t care about reality?

I don’t mean people who unconsciously don’t care about reality. I don’t mean people who unconsciously resist or rationalize evidence when it contradicts the things they believe. I get that. That’s universally human. Everybody does that. Atheists, believers — everybody. Me, and you, and everyone we know.

I’m talking about people who consciously, intellectually state that they’re less interested in what’s really true about the universe than they are about their personal interpretation of it. People who consciously, intellectually state that reality can’t be completely understood, and therefore all interpretations of it are equally valid. People who consciously, intellectually state that it’s less important to understand reality than it is to not offend people by pointing out that their beliefs are inconsistent with the evidence. People who consciously, intellectually state that, even though there’s powerful evidence against the belief that (say) consciousness is animated by an immaterial soul that survives death, or that life was shaped into being by a loving God, or what have you… it’s still reasonable for them to hold those beliefs. People who consciously, intellectually state that, when it comes right down to it, they don’t care whether the things they believe are true.

And who firmly defend that position.

What do you say to them?

As an atheist writer, I’ve been having this weird series of conversations about religion with believers who take this position. Some of them take it in a very hard-line relativist way: they insist that there’s no reality other than the one we create in our minds. Or they insist that, even though there probably is an external reality, there’s no way to truly understand it… so it’s completely reasonable to live in the world as we create it in our heads, and to interpret reality in whatever way gives us comfort and pleasure. Regardless of whether that interpretation jibes with, you know, evidence about how reality works.

Others are more slippery about this position. They’ll state their religious beliefs… and then, when challenged to provide some evidence supporting those beliefs, they’ll say something like, “That’s just what I believe. None of us can prove for 100% certain whether our beliefs are right. We all choose what to believe. So what’s the point in debating who’s right?”

I’ll be honest: I find it very hard to argue against this position. Mostly because I find it so utterly baffling. The idea that reality matters? The idea that we ought to care whether the things we believe are true? To me, this is close to a fundamental axiom. And when people say they don’t care about that, it leaves my jaw hanging in dumbfounded silence.

But that makes it a topic worth getting into. I like questioning my fundamental axioms. I think they’re worth examining. So I’m going to examine this one.

Why should we care whether the things we believe are true?

Why should we treat the external, objective reality of the universe as more important than the internal, subjective reality of our personal experience?

Why is the universe more important than me?


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet: Do You Care Whether the Religious Ideas You Believe in Are True or Not? To find out why caring about reality is both a practical necessity and a moral obligation — and why I don’t believe people who say they don’t care about it — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Do You Care Whether the Religious Ideas You Believe in Are True or Not?

Atheist Meme of the Day: Criticizing Ideas /= Attacking People

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheists often get accused of intolerance and disrespect for saying things like, “I don’t agree with you,” “I think you’re mistaken,” “What evidence do you have to support that?”, “I think your reasoning is flawed, and here’s why.” Criticizing ideas is not the same as attacking people — and religious ideas are no exception. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Criticizing Ideas /= Attacking People