10 Scariest States to Be an Atheist

Let’s be clear. It’s not like it’s easy to be an atheist anywhere in the U.S. Atheists are the most distrusted and disliked of all minority groups — more than Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and gays and lesbians — and polls show that Americans are less likely to vote for an atheist than they are for a person in any other minority or marginalized category. And this hostility can have serious consequences, in the form of harassment, bullying, ostracism, vandalism, alienation from family, loss of jobs, and more.

But to be honest, there are parts of the country where being an atheist really isn’t all that awful. Heck, I live in one of them. There’s some bigotry, some discrimination, a fair amount of misunderstanding and even hostility… but all things considered, it’s pretty okay. And then, there are some parts of the country where being an atheist sucks.

Let’s talk about a few of those, shall we?

Now, to a great extent, how badly it sucks to be an atheist may not depend on the state you live in. It’s sort of like the red-state/ blue state myth: cultural differences in the United States break down more along urban/ rural lines than they do along state lines. Is it easier to be an atheist in New York than in Texas? Maybe… but it may also be easier if you’re in Austin, Texas than if you’re in rural upstate New York.

Many atheist and secularist leaders I spoke to stressed this point. According to Fred Edwords, National Director of the United Coalition of Reason (the organization responsible for many of the atheist billboard campaigns), “As for the worst states to be an atheist, it doesn’t generally work that way. It depends on what part of a state you are in.” In fact, he’s not even sure that this difference always breaks down along urban/ rural lines. “Is the key idea that the more rural areas give us the most trouble?” he asked. “Maybe. But we had bus ads vandalized in Detroit, too.” And he added that in Kentucky, “we had no problem in Louisville, but I still can’t get a billboard company to run our ads in supposedly more liberal Lexington.” And according to the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State “No state is really safe for non-believers. You find creationist ideas in schools from Louisiana to New Jersey. You find efforts to send secular tax dollars to religious schools in Indiana and Florida. And, finally, you find polls done of all Americans demonstrating that plenty of families don’t want their sons or daughters marrying atheists. There are many sad states of affairs.”

So the point here isn’t to show that some states suck for atheists worse than others. The point is to show that anti-atheist bigotry is real. The point is to show that it has real-world consequences. And the point is to let you know what some of those consequences are.

So with all that being said — let’s get on with the list! If you’re finishing your degree in secular studies and are trying to decide where in the country you want to plant your godless stakes… here are some places you might want to avoid.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 10 Scariest States to Be an Atheist. To find out… well, which are the ten scariest states to be an atheist — and no, they’re not all in the deep South — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

10 Scariest States to Be an Atheist

High School Atheist Ostracized by Town — Atheist Community Steps Up

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

When a high school atheist tried to stop prayer at his graduation, he was ostracized, threatened, and kicked out of his house. But the atheist community stepped in.

Whatever you think about atheists — good, bad, mixed, indifferent — this story should seriously trouble you.

Damon Fowler
Damon Fowler, an atheist student at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, was about to graduate. His public school was planning to have a prayer as part of the graduation ceremony: as they traditionally did, as so many public schools around the country do every year. But Fowler — knowing that government- sponsored prayer in the public schools are unconstitutional and legally forbidden — contacted the school superintendent to let him know that he opposed the prayer, and would be contacting the ACLU if it happened. The school — at first, anyway — agreed, and cancelled the prayer.

Then Fowler’s name, and his role in this incident, was leaked. And, as a direct result:

1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.

2) One of Fowler’s teachers has publicly demeaned him.

3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to “jump him” at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.

4) Fowler’s parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the front porch.

Oh, and by the way? They went ahead and had the graduation prayer anyway.

Before we get into the details of all this, let’s be very, very clear about the facts and the law here: Nobody — not Fowler, not the ACLU, nobody — is telling anybody at Bastrop High School that they can’t pray. People can pray at graduations and other school events all they want. The sole issue here is whether a public school can have a prayer at a graduation or other school event as an official, school- sponsored part of the program. Individual prayer? Hunky dory. Off-campus prayers at churches or private events? Knock yourself out. Government promotion of a religious agenda? Not so much. What with the First Amendment and the “establishment of religion” bit and all. And it’s a law and a Constitution that protects everybody — not just atheists. If you wouldn’t want to be subjected to a government- sponsored Buddhist prayer, you ought not to be subjecting others to a government- sponsored Christian prayer.

Okay. I hope that’s clear.

So here’s a little more detail about what exactly happened with Damon Fowler.

1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.. He’s become the center of what he terms a “shitstorm”: he has been harassed, vilified, targeted with insults and name-calling and hateful remarks. He’s been told that he’s the Devil. He’s been told, “Go cry to your mommy… oh, wait. You can’t.” (A reference to him being disowned by his parents.) He’s been told that he’s only doing this to get attention. A student’s public prayer at a pre-graduation “Class Night” event was turned into an opportunity for the school and community to gang up on Fowler and publicly close ranks against him — teachers as well as students. (Here’s video). And people seen defending him have been targeted as well.

Bastrop enterprise
As just a taste, here are a few comments on the Bastrop Enterprise news story about the controversy: “I personally see him as a coward.” “I hope they [Christians] put enough pressure on this kid to convert him and save his soul from the fire of hell.” “The kid was likely a recluse and apathetic about most everything until now.” “If he don’t want prayer at graduation he can stay at home and not come to graduation.” “Afterall, that’s what she or he wants isn’t it to be singled out! This just makes me ill.” “I hope that the little athiest is offended.” “What he is really doing is trying to shove his views down people’s throats.” “Why does this student only now decide to get engaged in what is happening at the school? Is it nothing more than our own self-destructive human nature to break down anything of which we may not approve?” “That student should just have to have his/her one man graduation ceremony all alone.” “Satan continues to prowl and is deceiving many in this world.”

2) One of Fowler’s teachers has publicly demeaned him. From the story in the Bastrop Enterprise:

Mitzi Quinn has been on the staff at BHS for almost 25 years, much of that time as a senior advisor. In the past, Quinn said there have been students who were atheist, agnostic and other non-Christian religions who “had no problems” with the prayer.

“They respected the majority of their classmates and didn’t say anything,” Quinn said. “We’ve never had this come up before. Never.”

Throughout her time working with the student, Quinn said they never expressed their personal beliefs or that they had any problems with other students’ Christian faiths.

“And what’s even more sad is this is a student who really hasn’t contributed anything to graduation or to their classmates,” Quinn said. (emphasis mine)

In other words: Because the majority of students want an unconstitutional prayer at their graduation, therefore they’re in the right. Because nobody’s ever had the courage to speak up about this before, therefore the law was not being broken, and everything was okay. (After all, it’s not like anything bad happened when Fowler spoke up… right?) And because Fowler hasn’t “contributed anything” — other than, you know, a model of risking safety and security to stand up for a principle he believed in — therefore his basic legal right to not be targeted with religious proselytization by his public school is irrelevant… and he deserves to be publicly derided by one of his teachers.

3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to “jump him” at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.

Enough said.

4) Fowler’s parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the porch.

Let’s be very, very clear about this one. At a time when their son was being bullied, threatened, publicly pilloried, and ostracized from his school and his community, his parents joined the party. Their initial response was to hold him in their house against his will, take his cel phone and cut off his contact with the outside world, and even cut him off from contact with his older brother, Jerrett. Their more recent response has been to cut off financial support, kick him out of the house, and throw his belongings onto the porch.

Fortunately, Damon isn’t entirely alone. His brother Jerrett is assisting Damon, and will help put him through college; and as of the last report I’ve seen, Damon is currently living with his sister, also in Texas. And Damon is fortunate enough to have the backing of the atheist community, who are providing encouragement, emotional support, practical assistance, and even a scholarship fund. (UPDATE: The scholarship fund is now closed. Info on where you can make donations is at the end of this piece.)

More on that in a moment.

Since that’s a lot of what this story is really about.

There are a lot of hot-button issues in Damon Fowler’s story. There’s the depressing fact of how common this kind of story is: the fact that, despite the law being unambiguous on the subject, public schools around the country are continuing to sponsor prayers and otherwise promote theocracy, in flagrant violation of the law… apparently in the hopes that nobody will want to make waves and speak out against it. There’s the lack of understanding in the United States about fundamental civics: the all-too-common belief that “majority rules” in every situation, and the all-too-common failure to comprehend the principle that the minority has basic civil rights. There’s the ugly reality of anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination across the country — especially in high schools. According to JT Eberhard, high school specialist for the Secular Student Alliance, “In Alabama, Auburn High School is refusing to allow an SSA affiliate. In Cranston, Rhode Island, a public school is facing an ACLU suit for refusing to take down a sectarian prayer [a banner posted in the school gym]. In Texas we had a student who was told he could have a secular club if he called it a philosophy club and didn’t affiliate with the SSA. The list of similar situations is a mile long and these are only the ones I’ve become aware of in my first four and a half months on the job. The Fowler incident is much closer to being the norm than the exception.”

There are rants about religion to be had here as well. There’s the level of not only hostility, but panicked hostility, when entrenched religion gets its privileged status threatened. There’s the way that religion relies on social consensus to perpetuate itself — and how, when that consensus is threatened, it commonly reacts by smacking down dissent and expelling dissenters. There’s the idea that the unverifiability of religion — the beliefs in invisible, inaudible, intangible gods promising an afterlife nobody can know anything about — means that the harm done in its name has the unique capacity to spin off into the stratosphere… since there’s no reality check. There’s the image of religion as a colossal fortress protecting a house of cards: powerful, massive structures and institutions staunchly buttressed and hotly defended to ensure that nobody ever examines the ideas inside and sees how flimsy they are.

And of course — duh — there’s separation of church and state. There’s the principle that a public school should not be sponsoring prayers at graduations. What with that being a government establishment of religion and all, and thus being — oh, what’s that word? — unconstitutional.

All of that is important.

But there’s something else important going on here.

And that’s the way the atheist community has stepped up to the plate.

Scarlet letter
Damon Fowler was ostracized by his school, his town, even his parents. But he has been embraced and welcomed by the atheist community. Atheist writers have been all over this story from the moment it broke: it’s been covered on Friendly Atheist, Pharyngula, BlagHag, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Atheist Revolution, The Thinking Atheist, Atheist Underworld, WWJTD, Rock Beyond Belief… the list goes on. Several atheist organizations are applauding Fowler for his courage. American Atheists said of Fowler, “This kid deserves mad props for letting his principal know on no uncertain terms that ACLU would be contacted if the prayer wasn’t cancelled. Good job, Damon, you speak for the freedoms of people who are trapped in the bible-belt!” JT Eberhard, high school specialist for the Secular Student Alliance, said, “Despite the vile threats, bullying, and hatred his community has given him, we recognize Damon for what he is: a brave student speaking up for religious liberty and inclusion.” Freedom From Religion Foundation spoke about “his courage in speaking out for his and other students’ rights.”

And it’s not just the atheist thought leaders. It’s the on-the-ground community. Fowler has received an outpouring of support from atheists around the country and around the world. The “Support Damon” group on Facebook has over 10,000 members as of this writing. The Reddit post from Damon and his brother Jerrett discussing these events has been loaded with expressions of empathy and outrage. Atheist forums and blog comment threads about Fowler all over the Internet have been extensive and passionate. And many atheists have written letters to the Bastrop High School administration expressing their support for Fowler’s position and their opposition to the prayer.

This support isn’t only emotional, either. Emotional support is not trivial, of course: it’s hugely important, especially when you’re being ostracized, targeted with a hateful smear campaign, and driven from your home. But a tremendous amount of practical and financial support is coming from the atheist community as well. Many atheists have offered Fowler transportation, legal advice, meetup groups, places to stay, physical protection, connections with others who could provide additional practical help, and more. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has given Fowler a $1,000 college scholarship. And perhaps most dramatically, Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta has established a scholarship fund for Fowler, so he can attend college despite being cut off financially by his parents — and the response has been overwhelming. At the closing of the scholarship fund, the atheist community had donated over $31,000. Essentially filling the role that his parents have abandoned.

Why am I bringing this up?

Church sign
One of the chunks of mud that’s most commonly slung at atheists is that we’re selfish. Amoral. That without a belief in God and the afterlife, people would have no moral compass, and would just act to please themselves, without any consideration for others. That without a belief in eternal punishment in the afterlife for bad behavior, eternal reward in the afterlife for good behavior, and a supernatural authority figure refereeing it all, people would have no reason to be good people, and no reason to avoid doing terrible things. That without religion, people would have no compassion, no sense of justice, no empathy, no desire to see society running smoothly… and would just do whatever we wanted to do.

Helping hands
But when Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community stepped up. It provided compassion. It demanded justice. It offered emotional support. It offered practical support. It opened its wallets. It made it unassailably clear to Damon Fowler that he was not alone: that although his school, his community, even his parents, had all turned their backs on him, atheists would take care of him, as best they could, until he could take care of himself. It made it clear that, even though he no longer had a home in Bastrop, he had a home in this movement. When Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community proved itself to be a real community.

If atheism means we just do whatever we want to do… then apparently, what we want to do is take care of each other. Apparently, what we want to do is help people who have been injured. Apparently, what we want to do is speak out against wrongdoing. Apparently, what we want to do is put a stop to injustice. Apparently, what we want to do is make sacrifices for people in need.

A whole lot more than the Christians in Bastrop, Louisiana.

I’m not saying that atheists are morally superior to religious believers. I don’t think that, and I’m not saying it. I’m aware that many religious believers are good, compassionate people with a strong sense of justice. I’m even aware that many religious believers, indeed many Christians, are appalled by what’s happening to Damon Fowler, and oppose it with every breath in their bodies. And I’m aware that many atheists are hostile, self-involved schmucks. (Believe me… I’m aware of that.) That’s not my point.

Good without god billboard
My point is this: Human beings don’t need God to be good. Human ethics seem to be wired into our brains, through millions of years of evolution as a social species, and every human being who isn’t a sociopath has them. Some of us act on them better than others… but we all have them. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Rastafarian, Wiccan — and atheist.

And my point is this: The next time someone tells you that atheists are selfish and amoral? Remember Damon Fowler. Remember the religious community that bullied him, harassed him, ostracized him, and drove him out.

And remember the atheist community that took him in.

Damon Fowler’s scholarship fund is now closed. If you’re inspired by this story to make a donation, Damon has asked donations to go to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the ACLU, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, the Secular Student Alliance… “any will do. As long as it’s going toward students, secularization, or teaching critical thinking over superstition.”

High School Atheist Ostracized by Town — Atheist Community Steps Up

Do Atheists Have Better Sex?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Leaving religion doesn’t change people’s sexual behavior very much — but it vastly improves how they feel about it.

Do atheists have better sex?


According to science, that is — and more specifically, according to the recently released “Sex and Secularism” study.

In January 2011, organizational psychologist Darrel Ray, Ed.D. (psychologist for 30 years and author of The God Virus as well as two books on psychology) and Amanda Brown (undergraduate at Kansas University, focused on sexuality and sex therapy) conducted a sex survey of over 14,500 people — atheists, agnostics, and other people in the secular community. The survey was looking at religion, atheism, and sex: how religion affects sex, how leaving religion affects sex, whether lifelong atheists feel differently about sex than people who have recently deconverted, and so on. The report — “Sex and Secularism: What Happens When You Leave Religion?” — is on the Internet, and if you want all 46 pages of the naughty details, including the charts and graphs and personal stories, you can download it free (you just need to register on the site).

But if you just want to know the gist?

Leaving religion improves people’s sex lives.

A lot.

Happy atheist
Atheists and other non-believers, as a whole, experience a lot more satisfaction in their sex lives than they did when they were believers. They feel much less guilt about their sex lives and their sexuality. The sexual guilt instilled by so many religions tends to fade, and indeed disappear, when people leave religion — much more thoroughly than you might expect. And according to the respondents of this study, non-believers give significantly better sex education to their kids than believers do.

Now, when it comes to people’s actual sexual behavior, religion doesn’t have nearly as much impact as you might think. Religious and non-religious people have pretty much the same kinds of sex, at pretty much the same age of onset, and at pretty much the same rate. Believers are just as likely to masturbate, watch porn, have oral sex, have sex outside marriage, and so on, as non-believers are, and they start at about the same ages. So it’s not like religious sexual guilt is actually making people abstain from forbidden sexual activity. All it’s doing is making people feel crummy about it. And when people leave religion, this crumminess decreases — at a dramatic rate. Believers and atheists are having pretty much the same kinds of sex… but when it comes to the pleasure and satisfaction experienced during this sex, it’s like night and day.

Okay. Before anyone squawks, I’ll start the squawking myself: There are some demographic problems with this study, and it shouldn’t be relied on as the absolute final word on this topic. In particular, the participants in the study aren’t statistically representative of the population: they’re statistically representative of whoever heard about it on the Internet, and they’re disproportionately represented by readers of the hugely popular atheist blog, Pharyngula. (In fact, in several places throughout the report, the researchers themselves freely acknowledge the limitations of their research.)

But that being said: The results of this report that aren’t new? They’re entirely consistent with the results of other research. Lots of other research, both on human sexuality and on religion/ atheism. And that makes those results a whole lot more plausible. As researcher Darrel Ray told me, “Our data is virtually identical to other national surveys on the basics of when and how people start sexual behavior.” (Citations of those studies are in the report.) Yes, it’s virtually impossible to get completely accurate, statistically representative information about human sexuality under any circumstances: there’s not really any ethical way to get information about sex other than relying on people’s self-reporting, and it’s a topic that people tend to, you know, lie about. But on the reliability scale of human sex research, this report seems to rank on the higher end.

You might also argue — as I myself did when I first saw this research — that atheists are often pretty hostile to religion, and aren’t going to give a fair assessment of their sex lives when they were religious. I think this is a valid question, and one that’s worth investigating: in fact, I sincerely hope this report is the beginning of research into this topic instead of the end of it, and I’d be very interested to see studies of people who are currently religious and how they see their sex lives. (I’d be especially interested to compare the “Sex and Secularism” results to people who have converted from one religion to another, and whether they view their sex lives differently with the new religion.) But I’d also point out that the atheists who responded to this survey didn’t give homogenous answers. Not by a long shot. Their responses varied a fair amount, depending on which religion they used to belong to, and how intensely religious their upbringing was. Their responses ranged from “ZOMG, my sex life totally sucked and now it’s beyond awesome, I was blind but now I see”… to, “Meh, it’s a little better, but it’s really not all that different.” So the idea that this report simply reflects a knee-jerk atheist hostility to religion… it’s worth considering, but it’s probably not what’s going on here.

So what is going on here?

What, specifically, does this report say?

And what is its take-home message — both for believers and atheists?

Atheism Is for Lovers

Hot sex handbook
If there’s one take-home message from the “Sex and Secularism” report, it’s this: Atheists fuck better. Or rather: Atheists have a better time fucking. They feel less guilt about it; they experience more satisfaction with it; and the effect on their sex lives of leaving religion is almost universally positive. Believers of almost every stripe — Mormon to Islam, Mennonite to Methodist, Catholic to New Age — reported a significant improvement in their sex lives after becoming non-believers.

Religious symbols
These differences do vary based on the religion. According to the “Sex and Secularism” report, some religions have a harsher impact on people’s sex lives than others. People raised as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, ranked much higher on the sexual guilt scale than people raised as, say, Buddhists and Episcopalians. (And no, we shouldn’t just assume that Catholicism is the guiltiest party. In fact, when it comes to which religions make its practitioners feel guiltiest about sex, Catholicism lands pretty much smack in the middle. The top of the list is Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, and Baptist. One of many results from this report that run counter to conventional wisdom.) And a similar pattern shows up again and again throughout the report. Conservative religions have a much more harmful effect on people’s sex lives than more moderate or progressive ones — in terms of guilt, sexual education and information, the ability to experience pleasure, the ability to accept one’s sexual identity, and more.

But with only two exceptions — Unitarianism and Judaism — atheists experience less sexual guilt than religious believers of any denomination. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being no sexual guilt and 10 being extreme sexual guilt, atheists and agnostics ranked at 4.71 and 4.81 respectively… and except for Unitarianism and Judaism (which ranked slightly lower, 4.14 and 4.48 respectively), all other religions ranked higher in sexual guilt: from 5.88 for Lutherans, to 6.25 for Hindus, to 6.34 for Catholics, all the way up to a whopping 8.19 for Mormons.

And sexual guilt doesn’t just go up with more conservative religions. It goes up with more religiosity, period. The more religious your upbringing is, the worse your sexual guilt is likely to be. Of people raised in very religious homes, 22.5% said they were shamed or ridiculed for masturbating (to give just one example)… compared to only 5.5% of people brought up in the least religious homes. And of people raised in very religious homes, 79.9% felt guilty about a specific sexual activity or desire… while among people raised in the least religious and most secular homes, that number drops to 26.3%. That’s a huge, huge difference.

But one of the most surprising conclusions of this research? Sexual guilt from religion doesn’t wreck people’s sex lives forever.

According to conventional wisdom — and I will freely admit that I held this conventional wisdom myself — religious guilt about sex continues to torment people long after the religion itself has lost its hold. But according to the “Sex and Secularism” report, that’s rarely the case. Once people let go of religion, people’s positive experiences of sex, and their relative lack of guilt, happen at about the same rate as people who were never religious in the first place.

Ray was surprised by this result as well. (Surprising results — a sign of good science!) “We did think that religion would have residual effects in people after they left,” he told me, “but our data did not show this. That was a very pleasant surprise. That is not to say that some people don’t continue to experience problems, but the vast majority seem to shake it off and get on with their sexual lives pretty well.” So letting go of religion means a rebound to a sex life that’s as satisfying, and as guilt-free, as a sex life that was never touched by religion in the first place.

Now, some hard-core religious believers might argue that this isn’t a good thing. “People SHOULD feel sexual guilt!”, they’d argue. “These kinds of sex are bad, mmmkay? God doesn’t like them. People should feel guilty about them.”

But it’s worth pointing out two things. First of all, the activities being studied in this research are, from any rational perspective, morally neutral. This report isn’t looking at rape, or non-consensual voyeurism, or groping people on the subway. It’s looking at masturbation, oral sex, non-marital sex, homosexuality, etc.: sex acts and sexualities that are consensual, egalitarian, reasonably safe, and harmless to society. The taboos against them are just that: taboos. If there were ever any solid practical or moral reasons behind them, they’re buried in the mists of history. And different religions have entirely different sets of these sexual taboos: some religions denounce some sex acts and accept others, while other religions accept Column A and denounce Column B. Without any apparent rhyme or reason. If God has a message for us about who and how he wants us to boff, he’s not being very clear about it.

Human sexual behavior
And maybe more to the point: According to the “Sex and Secularism” report, religion has essentially no effect on people’s actual sexual behavior. Atheists and believers engage in the same practices, at basically the same rate, starting at essentially the same age. We’re all doing pretty much the same stuff. Believers just feel worse about it. As Ray told me, “Our data shows that people feel very guilty about their sexual behavior when they are religious, but that does not stop them: it just makes them feel bad. Of course, they have to return to their religion to get forgiveness. It’s like the church gives you the disease, then offers you a fake cure.” So the argument that religious sexual guilt is good because it polices immoral sexual behavior falls down on two fronts. The sexual behavior it’s policing isn’t actually immoral… and the policing is almost entirely ineffective.

Oh, by the way? This improvement in people’s sex lives when they leave religion? It isn’t just about sexual guilt. It shows up in many aspects of people’s sex lives, such as (to give just one example) their willingness to share sex fantasies with a partner. And, most importantly, it shows up in people’s assessments of their sex lives overall. This is primarily true of people who had been heavily religious before their deconversion. On a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 being a sex life that was much worse after leaving religion, 10 being a sex life that was much improved — people who’d had the most religious lives averaged at the very high number of 7.81, and 61.6% gave an answer of 8, 9 or 10 — greatly improved. People with little or no religion in their life before they became atheists mostly report that their sex lives didn’t change that much.

In fact, for the handful of atheists who reported that their sex lives worsened when they left religion — 2.2% of participants — almost all tell the exact same story: Their sex lives got worse because… well, to put it bluntly, their partners or potential partners were still religious, and now that they were atheists, they weren’t getting any. Their spouses got upset because they’d become atheists; their pool of potential sex partners dried up. As one respondent commented, “My wife said to me, ‘How can I sleep with someone who doesn’t share my faith?'” And another, somewhat more waggishly: “When I was a Christian I could lay any girl in church, now that I am an atheist, they won’t even talk to me.”

And perhaps one of the most powerful messages in this report — if one of the least surprising — is the decidedly negative effect of religion on sexual education and information. People raised in more strongly religious homes ranked the quality of their sex education as significantly worse than people raised in less religious homes: 2.4 on a five-point scale, as opposed to 3.2 from the less religious folks. And more religious kids were less likely to get sex information from their parents than the less religious ones — 13.5%, as opposed to 38.2% — and more likely to get it from personal sexual experience and pornography.

Focus on the family
In case the irony of this is escaping anyone, I’m going to hammer it in: The highly religious, “family values” crowd are more likely to get their sexual information from porn and fooling around… while the less religious folks are more likely to talk to their parents. And in case anyone’s wondering why sex information is being included in this study on sexual happiness: Accurate sex education and information has been consistently shown to be one of the cornerstones of a happy, satisfying sex life.

Which, again, atheists are a lot more likely to have.

Happy Endings

So what should this research say to believers?

Well, the most obvious message should be: “Come on in — the water’s fine.”

In debates with atheists, many believers will argue for religion on the basis of how good it makes them feel. They’ll argue that religion is emotionally useful, psychologically useful, socially useful: that religion gives people a sense of meaning, moral guidance, comfort in hard times, etc. It’s an argument that drives many atheists up a tree — myself included — since it has absolutely nothing to do with whether religion is, you know, true. (Believing in Santa Claus might make kids happy and better-behaved, but you wouldn’t argue that people should keep putting cookies by the fireplace on Christmas Eve well into their adult years.)

But if this report is to be believed, then this argument is conclusively shown to be bogus… even on its own terms. At least when it comes to sex. (It’s probably bogus when it comes to the rest of our lives as well — or rather, it would be bogus if our society didn’t privilege religious belief and treat atheism with bigotry and contempt. Countries with higher rates of atheism actually have higher levels of happiness and social functioning than more religious countries. But I digress.)

Religion doesn’t make people happier. Not in the sack, anyway. Religion makes people less happy. Leaving religion makes people happier. There’s no reason to hang on to beliefs you don’t actually believe in and that don’t actually make sense to you, just because you can’t imagine a happy and fulfilling life without them. We know that leaving religion can be a scary and painful process… but once it’s behind you, life is good. And the sex is great. Come on in. The water’s fine.

And what does report this say to atheists?

Smile there is no hell
This report, people, is our sales pitch.

Again, I will make this very clear: The fact that atheists fuck better has no bearing whatsoever on whether atheism is correct. And atheists should not pretend that it does.

But when believers make the argument from utility — when they argue that religion is important and necessary because it makes people happy — we don’t have to just tear our hair out and say, “Does not! Does not!” We can print out this report, and hand it to them with a smile.

A satisfied smile.

Do Atheists Have Better Sex?

Are All Religions Equally Crazy?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet. Please note the addendum at the end about my use of the word “crazy” in this piece.


Are less established religions really crazier than older mainstream ones? Or are mainstream religions just more familiar?

Religious symbols
Does any religion make more sense than any other?

Atheists, by definition, don’t think any religion has any reasonable likelihood of being true. And yet, for some weird reason, we’re often asked to choose between them. Believers often accuse us of ignoring more moderate and progressive religions while we trash the low-hanging fruit of hard-line fundamentalism. We’re accused of disregarding sophisticated modern theology so we can zero in on the simplistic faiths held by the hoi polloi. (Neither accusation is fair; many atheists, including myself, have taken aim at both modern theology and progressive religion, and in any case fundamentalism and other widely-held religions are valid targets for critique — but that’s another rant.) Yet at the same time, many believers seek our approval for their particular beliefs. “Sure,” they’ll say, “a lot of those other religions are silly — but my religion makes sense! Don’t you agree? Don’t you? Huh?”

For the most part, it’s a game I don’t like to play. I think all religions are equally implausible, equally based on cognitive biases, equally unsupported by any good evidence whatsoever. But sometimes, the battiness of a particular religion is powerfully borne in on me, to the point where it becomes impossible to ignore. And it forces me to consider the question: Is this religion really any more batty than any other? Or is it just less popular? Less familiar? Is it simply newer, and thus has had less time for the more wildly ragged edges of its wackiness to smooth out? Is this religion really as crazy as it seems — or are all religions equally crazy?

Magic Hats Versus Magic Snakes

First, just to be very clear: I’m not saying that all religious believers are crazy. I’m saying that religious beliefs are crazy. I’m criticizing the ideas, not the people. And when I say “crazy” (or “nutty” or “batshit” or “lunatic” or what have you), I don’t mean “literally, clinically mentally ill.” I mean “crazy” in the colloquial sense. I mean… well, I’ll get to that.

Mormon temple
I was in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago giving a talk, and I took the opportunity to visit the Mormon Temple Square. If you’re not a Mormon, you can’t go inside the Mormon Temple itself; but Temple Square has all sorts of attractions for the non-Mormon visitor, including the tabernacle, the assembly hall… and two different visitors’ centers, specifically designed to explain Mormonism to the non-Mormon, and to make the religion seem inspiring, and to entice people into the faith.

I have no doubt that it has that effect on many people. Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions on the planet; there must be something about it that people like. But its effect on me… Well, it was inspiring, all right. It inspired me right into a rollercoaster ride of hilarity and horror. It inspired me, at one point, to out-loud laughter that I was literally, physically unable to control. It inspired me to get the hell off their property, take several deep breaths, and rant incoherently with my wife about what an appalling nightmare of indoctrination and brainwashing it was, before we plunged back in. It inspired me to work on my atheist activism ten times harder than I ever had. Its effect on me was not to entice me into the faith. Its effect was to make me think, even more strongly than I had before, “This religion is batshit crazy.”

But then I started thinking.

How much crazier is this, really, than any other religion?

Christus_statue_temple_square_salt_lake_city north visitors center
Let’s not mince words. There is some profoundly crazy stuff in Mormonism. The magic underwear. The retroactive baptism of the dead. Getting to be a god on your own planet after you die. The Garden of Eden being in Missouri. The foundational story of Joseph Smith reading secret magical golden plates through a magic hat. The baptismal font sitting on the backs of twelve cows. (Okay, fine, oxen. Still.) The washings and anointings and veils and temple garments and secret handshakes and other highly ritualized pseudo-Masonic ceremonies. Lying for the Lord. (No, really. Look it up.) The casual shrugging-off of well-known, thoroughly documented facts of history and archaeology that contradict Church doctrine. The shameless, barefaced retroactive continuity, to the point of actually lying about the religion’s history. (“Polygamy is not a central tenet of Mormonism, and it never was. Racial bigotry is not a central tenet of Mormonism, and it never was. Stop looking at The Book of Mormon. No, stop it. We’ll tell you what our religion says, thank you very much.”) Mormonism loves to present a wholesome, clean-cut image of almost obsessive normality to the public… but when you scratch the surface, what you see is howling, chaotic lunacy. That assessment may seem harsh — but if these ideas were presented in any context other than a religious one, nobody would be debating it.

But then I started thinking:

How much crazier is this than any other religion?

Adam and eve
How much crazier is this than talking snakes? People living inside giant fish? Boats that carry two of every living creature on the planet? Magic crackers that turn into the body of your god when you eat them? Magic fruit that ruins the lives of all your descendants? Virgins giving birth? Sprinkling magic water on babies so if they die they won’t burn forever in Hell? A planet that was created 6,000 years ago, despite an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary from every relevant scientific field? A god who sacrifices himself to himself to save the world from the punishment he himself was planning to dole out?

And let’s not just pick on Christianity. How much crazier is this than ritual washing in a polluted magic river? Transferring your sins to a live chicken, waving it over your head, and having it slaughtered? Transferring your sins to a bundle of money, waving it over your head, and donating the money to charity, because the chicken thing is just too weird? The compulsory covering of women’s bodies from head to toe? The compulsory wearing of hats? A god who’s okay with you smoking weed, but doesn’t want you drinking alcohol? A god who’s okay with you drinking alcohol, but doesn’t want you smoking weed? A god who doesn’t want you to draw pictures of real things? A god who wants you to cut off your daughter’s clitoris? A god who wants you to cut off the tip of your baby boy’s penis?

Plenty of religions are loaded with crazy when you scratch the surface. You don’t even have to scratch very hard.

So why do these older, more mainstream religions seem less crazy?

A lot of it, I think, is popularity. If lots of people believe something, we’re more likely to give it credibility. This is a bias that all human brains are vulnerable to, and it’s largely unconscious. (Although many religious believers will make this argument consciously and overtly. Spend enough time in the atheist blogosphere, and I guarantee you’ll see it pop up: “How can you dismiss something that so many people believe in?”) We’re social animals, and we’re wired to think that if everyone else thinks something, it’s probably true. Or at the very least, that it’s not batshit insane on the face of it, and we ought to give it serious consideration.

From a strictly evolutionary standpoint, this bias makes sense. Other people can, in fact, be a useful reality check: if everyone in your tribe is screaming “Tiger!” and you don’t see one, it still makes sense to run. But it’s a confounding bias to contend with when you’re rigorously examining a truth claim. It makes it hard to voice unpopular perceptions… and indeed even to conceive of them. It’s very, very difficult to be the first person to say out loud, “The Emperor has no clothes.” It’s even more difficult to say it to ourselves.

Then adding to this de-crazification phenomenon, we have the power of time. In the earlier days of a religion, the battier elements are much more prominent. But with time, if a religion flourishes and becomes more mainstream, the rough edges get smoothed off. “Our Savior is returning within a generation” turns into “Our Savior is returning one of these days.” “You have to wear a ginormous hat all the time” turns into “It’d be nice if you wore a little hat in the temple.” “God created the entire universe out of nothing in six days” turns into “God created matter and energy and the laws of physics and let them unfold into life as we know it, and when we say ‘day’ we don’t mean a literal ‘day,’ and it’s absurd and unfair for you to think that we do.” The battier elements get abandoned entirely, or get hidden out of sight, or get shoved to the back burner as trivial and peripheral, or start being seen as metaphorical instead of literal. (45% of all U.S. Catholics don’t even know that, according to the doctrine of their own Catholic Church, the magic cracker literally becomes the body of their god when they eat it. They think it’s symbolic. They apparently weren’t paying attention in catechism class.)

The fascinating thing about Mormonism is that we can see this process happening in real time. As a religion founded within the last two centuries, during a time of good historical record-keeping, Mormonism is an intriguing case study of how a religion transforms from a despised fringe cult to a popular branch of mainstream modern faith. And part of that picture is the ways that the fringier elements have either been abandoned wholesale or kept out of the public eye. .. and indeed kept out of the eyes of its own adherents until they’ve already bought in. (Mormonism even has a “milk before meat” concept: teach the easy, non-controversial stuff about Mormonism first, and wait to teach the batty stuff until adherents are too deeply invested to leave.) The degree to which Mormonism has become mainstream is the degree to which the less digestible nuts have been eliminated from the fruitcake.

But most of this phenomenon, I think, is simple familiarity.

Mormon underwear
I didn’t learn about magic Mormon underwear until I was an adult. So when I did, the battiness of the belief smacked me in the face. I was like, “Really? Magic underwear? Really?” And the same was true for the magic hat, and the secret handshakes, and the Garden of Eden being in Missouri, and so on and so on. Every time I learn something new about Mormonism and Mormon history, it’s… well, it’s new. And I can see its craziness with fresh eyes.

But I’ve known about magic crackers and talking snakes since I was very young. So they just seemed normal. Part of the cultural landscape. I didn’t believe in them — but for years, I didn’t think about them very hard. And again, because these beliefs were widely held, when I did think about them I gave them more credit than they actually deserved.

So is it fair to think that Mormonism — or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Scientology, or any other relatively new religion — is really any crazier than more mainstream religions? Is it fair to think that it’s crazier than the mainstream varieties of Catholicism or Baptism, Hinduism or Buddhism, Judaism or Islam?

I spent my day at Temple Square going back and forth on this question. One minute, I’d be thinking, “Well, okay, this is pretty nuts… but it’s not really any crazier than magic crackers and magic snakes.” The next minute, I’d be confronted with some new form of wacko, and I’d be thinking, “No, this really is crazier.”

So which is it?

I think the answer depends on what exactly we mean by “crazy.”

Crazy Is as Crazy Does

Like I said earlier, when I say “crazy” here, I don’t mean “mentally ill.” I mean… well, what, exactly?

If by “crazy” we mean “out of step with cultural norms”… then yes, Mormonism really is crazier. Pretty much by definition. To some extent, battiness and reasonableness are defined by social norms. In the Victorian era, it was considered entirely normal for women to wear tightly-laced corsets, all day, every day of their adult lives, to the point where their physical functioning was seriously impaired and their internal organs were deformed. In modern society, doing this would generally be considered pretty damn freaky. Instead, many women in modern society wear high-heeled shoes that impair their functioning and deform their feet, all day, every day of their adult lives… and this is considered standard, non-crazy behavior. So yes, by this definition, the more mainstream a religion is, the less crazy it is. And so yes, by this definition, Mormonism is crazier than, say, Catholicism.

But if what you mean by “crazy” is “out of touch with reality”?

Then it’s all equally crazy.

Any belief in a supernatural world that affects the natural one is equally implausible, equally the product of cognitive biases, equally unsupported by any good evidence. Some religions contradict reality quite blatantly, flatly stating that well-established historical and scientific facts aren’t true. (Young-earth Creationism does this with basic facts of evolution; Mormonism does it with basic facts of human history.) Other religions do a better job of presenting a plausible face and shoehorning their beliefs around reality. (The standard progressive Christian belief in theistic evolution is Exhibit A. Theistic evolution is entirely inconsistent with even the most basic facts of evolution, but these believers can still convincingly tell themselves and others, “No, no, we think science is great, of course we accept evolution, we’re not out of touch with reality.”)

But all religions are out of touch with reality. All religions are implausible, based on cognitive biases, and unsupported by any good evidence whatsoever. All of them ultimately rely on faith — i.e., an irrational attachment to a pre-existing idea regardless of any evidence that contradicts it — as the core foundation of their belief. All of them contort, ignore, or deny reality in order to maintain their attachment to their faith.

And by that definition, all religions are equally crazy.

Some just hide their craziness better than others.


Note: I have read the comments criticizing my colloquial use of the word “crazy” in this piece, and am seriously considering them. I’m not sure I agree with them, and I’m a bit puzzled at the automatic assumption that I don’t have any experience myself with mental illness. (That’s not, in fact, the case. I’ve struggled with depression off and on for most of my adult life, and while I don’t currently consider myself as someone with mental illness, I am someone with a history of mental illness, and I have to carefully manage my life so as to minimize a chance of a recurrence.) But I have heard the criticisms, and I am taking them seriously. I’ve decided to go ahead and reprint this piece as originally written, with the original language, since I think it’s important that the stuff I write for AlterNet be archived here in more or less its original form. (Especially since the comment threads on AlterNet are so — how shall I put this? — challenging, and re-posting them here gives my readers a chance to discuss my pieces in a more welcoming forum.) But the message has been received, and I’ll be re-thinking this language in the future.

Are All Religions Equally Crazy?


Camp quest logo

We are the champions, my friend
And we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end…

The scrappy underdogs have won it!

In the epic battle to raise more money for Camp Quest — the kids’ camp for children of atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and other non-supernaturalists — Team Awesome/ Beat PZ — made up of me, Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist, Jen McCreight of Blag Hag, JT Eberhard of WWJTD?, Digital Cuttlefish at The Digital Cuttlefish, Sikivu Hutchinson at Black Skeptics Group, Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism, The Chaplain at An Apostate’s Chapel, C.L. Hanson at Letters From a Broad, and Matt Dillahunty at The Atheist Experience — has raised $13,550.06. $1,868.73 of which was matched by the Stiefel Freethought Foundation. For a total of $15,418.79.

And PZ Myers at Pharyngula, Lone Squidly Overlord, has raised a paltry $13,016.01. $1,640.00 of which was matched by the Stiefel Freethought Foundation. For a total of $14,656.01.

Raising — just so we don’t lose sight of the actual point of all this — a grand total between all of us of $30,074.80 for Camp Quest, the kids’ camp for children of atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and other non-supernaturalists.


Yes, yes, I know. PZ tried to play us. In a pathetic attempt to save face, with the prospect of humiliating defeat bearing down on him, PZ tried to throw the match — asking his minions to support our team instead of his, and pretending that Team Awesome’s noble offer to make fools of ourselves in public was his master plan all along. Yeah, right. Nice try. Kind of sad, really.

So yes. Ahem. Re that “making fools of ourselves in public” bit.

[looks around frantically for an exit]

Yes, I’m on it. At the Secular Student Alliance conference in July, I will take to the karaoke stage, and pop my karaoke cherry. I will post the video, on this blog and on Facebook. I will do a solo — no, I don’t yet know what song — AND I encourage any and all members of Team Awesome who are at the conference to join me on stage for a stirring rendition of “We Are The Champions.” PZ is speaking at the conference as well, and if he’s man squid enough, he’ll attend the Karaoke Victory Ritual as well, and suck up his defeat in person.

Altruism is so much fun. Many, many thanks to everyone who played. Thanks to everyone on Team Awesome. Thanks to the Stiefel Freethought Foundation. Thanks, even, to our worthy opponent PZ Myers, who made this an epic and hilarious battle. And most of all — thanks to everyone who donated to Camp Quest. For either team. This is a truly worthy cause, and we’ve improved the lives of a whole bunch of freethought families. If godlessness really means that we have no moral compass and can just do whatever we want to do, then apparently what we want to do is help other people.

And because I can’t finish this on a sappy note, I’m going to finish with a stirring round of rubbing it in.

We are the champions
We are the champions,
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions


Camp Quest Fundraising Contest – Matching Offer for the Final Hours!

Camp quest logo

The Camp Quest Fundraising Contest is in its final hours — it ends at 2pm Eastern time today — and an amazingly awesome monkey wrench has just been thrown into the works.

The Stiefel Freethought Foundation has just pledged a 1 to 1 match of up to $5,000 per team for the last 3 hours of the contest!

The Stiefel Freethought Foundation is a a 501(c)3 non-profit private foundation that provides financial support and volunteer strategy consulting to the Freethought Movement. And if you donate to the Camp Quest Fundraising Contest — to either side, either to Team Awesome/ Beat PZ or to Beat PZ — your donation will be doubled by the foundation. Everything above $11,681.33 for Beat PZ and $11,376.01 for Team PZ will be matched, up to $5,000 per team.

But you have to do it NOW. You have only a few hours. So donate to Camp Quest now! Donate through Team Awesome if you like scrappy underdogs. Donate through Team PZ if you like conniving cephalopods. I don’t even care. At this point, I’ve actually lost track of the complex, Machiavellian, “if we win, PZ wins, but if PZ loses, then we lose, unless we also win, in which case we really win” machinations. (Although I still want you to support Team Awesome/ Beat PZ. And I still say that if we win, then we win, and PZ’s efforts to throw the fight were simply a sad attempt to save face in the view of almost certain defeat.)

In case you haven’t been following the saga, here — quickly copied and pasted from my last post about it, so I can get this up in time — are the details. Donate NOW — and get your donation doubled!


I am prepared to publicly humiliate myself for atheism.

And so are Matt Dillahunty, Adam Lee, JT Eberhard, and Jen McCreight.

One-time offer. Take it or leave it.

Here’s the deal. There’s the blogger contest I’ve been gassing on about, a competition to see who can raise more money for Camp Quest, the kids’ camp for children of atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and other non-supernaturalists. The contest is between Team Awesome on one side — a bunch of scrappy underdog atheist bloggers, with me, Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist, Jen McCreight of Blag Hag, JT Eberhard of WWJTD?, Digital Cuttlefish at The Digital Cuttlefish, Sikivu Hutchinson at Black Skeptics Group, Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism, The Chaplain at An Apostate’s Chapel, C.L. Hanson at Letters From a Broad, and Matt Dillahunty at The Atheist Experience — and on the opposing team, PZ Myers, evil cephalopod overlord at Pharyngula, all by his lonesome on the other side.

You may have noticed that there are more players on Team Awesome than had been originally announced. That’s because we are amoral atheists.We took a page from the religious apologists’ handbook, moved the goalposts, and frantically rounded up a bunch of other atheist bloggers to battle for our side.

And yet, as of this writing, PZ is… what’s that word?… winning. Not by much — we’re closing in, and have narrowed the gap to less than $2,000 — but we only have a few days to finish the job. If we don’t raise more money for Camp Quest by June 1, PZ will officially pwn each and every one of us.

We can’t let that happen. Well, okay, we can… but we really, really don’t want to.

So a few of us have agreed to make fools of ourselves in public for the cause. If Team Awesome wins, the following bloggers will make the following absurd public gestures:

* Since PZ Myers has offered to shave his beard into a hideous ’80s mustache if he wins — and really, you should donate to our side for that reason alone — Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism has agreed to grow a beard if Team Awesome wins. Thus preserving Atheist Blogger Beard Homeostasis, and preventing the world as we know it from collapsing into some sort of hideous beardly space-time nexus.

* Matt Dillahunty at The Atheist Experience TV program will do one episode of the show in drag.

* JT Eberhard of WWJTD? will shave his head… and wax his legs.

* Jen McCreight at Blag Hag will attempt to learn how to ride a bicycle, and, in her words, “videotape the whole inevitably hilarious experience.”

* C.L. Hanson at Letters from a Broad will organize a showtunes sing-along.

And what will Greta Christina do? I hear you cry.

* Greta Christina — she said, with a quiver of dread in her voice — will do karaoke.

Let me be very clear about this: I have never done karaoke. I have never wanted to do karaoke. I am a karaoke virgin.

But if Team Awesome wins the Camp Quest fundraising challenge, I will pop my karaoke cherry.

And I will get it on video, and post the video to this blog and to my Facebook page.

You can’t pass that up, can you?

You have until June 1. Here’s the ChipIn widget. Make it so!

Oh, right. The actual cause we’re raising money for. You probably want to know a little more about that, don’t you?

If you’re not familiar with them, Camp Quest is the first residential summer camp in the history of the United States aimed at the children of Atheists, Freethinkers, Humanists, Brights, or whatever other terms might be applied to those who hold to a naturalistic, not supernatural world view. The purpose of Camp Quest is to provide children of freethinking parents a residential summer camp dedicated to improving the human condition through rational inquiry, critical and creative thinking, scientific method, self-respect, ethics, competency, democracy, free speech, and the separation of religion and government.

The nontheist community offers many programs for adults, but very few for children. To provide a future for our values we need to provide freethinking families with a place for their kids to find community, develop critical thinking skills, and learn ethics and values. Fortunately, that is what Camp Quest is all about. Well, that, and all of the summer camp fun that you can pack into a week.

Camp Quest builds a community for children and teenagers from atheist, agnostic, humanist and other freethinking families. They provide campers a place to explore their developing worldviews, ask questions, and make friends in an environment supportive of critical thinking and skepticism. Camp Quest is open to campers from all backgrounds. They encourage campers to think for themselves, be comfortable with who they are, and engage respectfully with people who have different views.

And yes, Camp Quest is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, and donations are tax deductible.

You can help support this awesome cause, strengthen the future of the atheist community… and help stave off the crushing arms of PZ’s cephalopod army! Just click on the handy Chipin widget. That number again:

How can you pass this up? Get that jolt of good altruism chemicals in your brain… and get the entertainment value of seeing your favorite atheist bloggers make public spectacles of themselves! It’s win-win!

Camp Quest Fundraising Contest – Matching Offer for the Final Hours!