The Santa Delusion: Why 'Religion Is Useful' Is a Terrible Argument For Religion

“But religion is useful. It makes people happy. It comforts people in hard times. It makes people better-behaved. And losing religious faith can be traumatic. So what difference does it make if it isn’t true? Shouldn’t we be perpetuating it anyway — or at least leaving it alone? Why do you want to persuade people out of it?”

Atheists hear this a lot. The argument from utility — the defense of religion, not because it’s true, but because it’s psychologically or socially useful — is freakishly common. If you spend any time reading debates in atheist blogs or forums, you’re bound to see it come up.

Now, when atheists hear this “But religion is so useful!” argument, our most common response is to say, “Is not!” We eagerly point out that countries with high rates of atheism are also countries with high rates of happiness, ethics, and social functioning. (This doesn’t prove that atheism causes high social functioning, of course — in fact, it’s probably the other way around — but it does show that high social functioning doesn’t need religion.) We’ll point out the many, many examples of religious believers who cheat, steal, murder, and generally behave very badly indeed… entirely undercutting the notion that religion provides an unshakable foundation for good moral behavior. And we’ll point to ourselves, and to other atheists we know — people who clearly don’t need religion, who are living happy, ethical lives without religion, who in some cases are even happier and better without religion — as the most obvious counter-arguments we can think of to this argument.

These are all fair points. I’ve made them myself, many times, and I will no doubt make them again. But there’s a basic problem with all these wonderful fair points.

They make the argument from utility seem valid.

And I don’t want to do that. I think the argument from utility is absurd on the face of it. I think the entire idea of deciding what we think is true based on what we want to be true is laughable. Or it would be, if it weren’t so appalling. I’ve seen this argument advanced many, many times… and it still shocks me to see otherwise intelligent, thoughtful adults making it. It is preposterous.

So today, I want to dismantle the entire premise of the argument from utility. I want to dismantle the entire premise that it’s reasonable, and even a positive good, to believe in something you have no good reason to think is true… simply because it makes you happy.


This begins my latest piece for Alternet, The Santa Delusion: Why ‘Religion Is Useful’ Is a Terrible Argument For Religion. To read more about why the argument from utility is such a terrible argument — and to find out what Santa’s got to do with it — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Santa Delusion: Why 'Religion Is Useful' Is a Terrible Argument For Religion

"Straight Porn Will Make You Gay": The Delusion of Sex-Negativity

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, since the piece was topical and time-sensitive. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

You’ve almost certainly heard this story already. Michael Schwartz, chief of staff to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), recently told an audience at the conservative Values Voters Summit that “all pornography is homosexual pornography because all pornography turns your sexual drive inwards.” And the media, including the blogosphere, went Foom, with scornful, unrestrained, finger- pointing hilarity. If it were physically possible for the media to piss itself laughing, it would have.

It’s been an easy story to make fun of. (Fun, too!) And I absolutely think it’s a story that’s worth making fun of. I plan to make fun of it here myself. But a lot of the fun-making about this story has, I think, missed one of its most interesting angles.

Granted, there are an awful lot of ways to go with this story. You can go with the “Are you fucking kidding me?” angle, a.k.a. the “This is so stupid it’s laughable” angle, a.k.a. the “If what Schwartz says were true, our species would have turned gay and died out generations ago” angle. You can go with the “Yippee, let’s instill homophobia and sex-phobia in our kids all at once, using the one to whip up the other” angle. You can even go with the “What are you going to do when your kids figure out you’re lying to them? What will that do to your family values?” angle.

All of which is intriguing, and all of which has informed my thinking on this topic. But it’s not what I’m finding truly fascinating.

What I’m finding truly fascinating is the profound futility, to the point of delusion, of the ultimate purpose behind Schwartz’s bizarre connection between straight porn and homosexuality.

Schwartz’s ultimate point wasn’t “Straight porn makes you gay.” I’m not even sure he believes that himself. (In fact, he backpedaled from it just a few sentences later in his speech, saying, “If it [porn] doesn’t turn you homosexual, it at least renders you less capable of loving your wife.”) His ultimate point wasn’t that. His ultimate point was, “Teaching ten- year- old boys that straight porn makes them gay is a great way to keep them away from porn.” His point was that ten- and eleven- year- old boys are profoundly grossed-out by homosexuality… and therefore, telling them that porn will make them gay is a nifty way to make them not want porn.

Playboy cover
To me, that’s the money quote. Not the one about how all porn is really gay porn. To me, the money quote is, quote: “If you tell an 11-year-old boy about that, do you think he’s going to want to go out and get a copy of Playboy? I’m pretty sure he’ll lose interest. That’s the last thing he wants.”

So here’s what I want to know.

Does Michael Schwartz truly believe that you can keep pre- and early- pubescent straight boys from being interested in pictures of naked women, just by telling them it’ll make them gay?

Does Michael Schwartz know any pre- and early- pubescent boys?

Has Michael Schwartz ever been a pre- and early- pubescent boy?

There is just about no force on earth that could keep pre- and early- pubescent straight boys from being interested in pictures of naked women. You could bar their paths with oceans of fire, mountains of jagged rocks, canyons filled with snakes and poisons and pop quizzes… and pre- and early- pubescent straight boys would still find their way to pictures of naked women.

Does Schwartz really think that saying “Straight porn will make you gay” is going to do the trick?

Is he so deluded, so out of touch with the realities of human sexuality, that he thinks this pathetic bit of propaganda is going to have any effect whatsoever?

Come to think of it, it might have an effect. Telling kids that straight porn will make them gay might well contribute to the toxic mess of shame and guilt and mixed messages they’re already being taught about sex. (Especially if their parents are Values Voters.) And it could easily create a serious rift of mistrust between parents and children. Telling your kids such a transparent falsehood is very likely going to make them mistrust anything else you say about sex… or any other topic, for that matter. (See above, re: “What are you going to do when your kids figure out you’re lying to them? What will that do to your family values?”)

But if Michael Schwartz seriously thinks his “straight porn will make you gay” propaganda is going to keep pre- and early- pubescent straight boys from being interested in pictures of naked women, he’s deluded. Deeply, profoundly, almost hallucinatorily deluded. It would frighten me if it weren’t so funny. In fact, it does frighten me, even though it’s so funny. It’s probably so funny, at least in part, because it’s so frightening. The man is so out of touch with the realities of sexual desire that an entire nation could only gasp in shock and then fall all over itself in fits of hysterical giggles.

And that profound delusion is exactly where reflexive sex-negativity leads to.

Fingers in ears
Sex-negativity isn’t just about viewing sex as wicked and disgusting (and thus a treasured gift you should save for the person you love). Sex-negativity is about ignoring or denying the realities of sex. It’s about pretending that teenagers will abstain from sex if the schools scare them enough. It’s about pretending that gay people don’t come that way from a very early age, that they can change if they really try, that their lives will be miserable if they don’t try. It’s about pretending that pre- and early- pubescent straight boys won’t be interested in pictures of naked women if you only tell them an idiotic lie about how it’ll make them gay. It’s about prioritizing your personal view of the sexual world you wished we lived in — rigid, narrow, confined, with only a handful of situations in which people have sex and only one partner they have it with — over, you know, reality.

And it’s not just about doing all this as deliberate propaganda (a.k.a. “lies”). It’s about getting so deeply enmeshed in the propaganda that you believe it yourself.

I’m not convinced that even Michael Schwartz believes straight porn makes you gay. But he does seem to believe — sincerely, and with all his heart — that telling 10- year- old boys “Straight porn makes you gay” will keep them away from porn.

He seems to have swallowed his own Kool-Aid.

And that’s not just scary. It’s not even just scary and hilariously funny. It’s both of those things… and at the same time, it’s one of the saddest things I can imagine.

"Straight Porn Will Make You Gay": The Delusion of Sex-Negativity

Greta Speaking in Columbus, Seattle, and Omaha!

Columbus postcard
I have some nifty and exciting speaking gigs coming up, and I hope y’all can come by and say hi!

I’m speaking at the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference this week — along with PZ Myers, Jamila Bey, Jen McCreight, Dan Barker, Jessica Ahlquist, Dave Silverman, Anthony Pinn, Debbie Goddard, Hemant Mehta, Amanda Knief, and many other godless luminaries. The conference is this weekend, July 29-31, in beautiful and exciting Columbus, Ohio. (No, I’m not being snarky — Columbus is a seriously awesome city, with excellent food and world-class ice cream.) Registration is still available! (Online registration is now closed, though — you’ll have to register at the conference.) And no, you don’t have to be a student to attend — although they do have excellent cheap student rates, as well as group rates so lots of folks from your group can attend. I’ll be debuting my newest talk there, “Resistance Is Not Futile: Is Arguing About Religion Worth It?”

I’m also going to be speaking at the Seattle Atheists on Saturday, August 6, about “What Can the Atheist Movement Learn From the LGBT Movement?” I’ll be doing Q&A after the talk — so come with questions! — and I’ll also be on a panel following the talk.

And I’m going to be speaking at the 2011 Midwest Humanist and Freethought Conference in Omaha, Nebraska, happening August 12-14… along with Mr. Deity, JT Eberhard, Jen McCreight, Hemant Mehta, Fred Edwords, and Brother Sam Singleton, Atheist Evangelist. The cost is super-cheap, too — just $35, and a mere $20 for students.

Here’s the skinny on all of them. If you’re attending any of these events, please come find me and say Hi!


EVENT: Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference
DATES: July 29-31, 2011
DATE AND TIME OF MY PRESENTATION: Saturday, July 30, 8:30 pm – 9:00 pm
LOCATION: Hitchcock Hall, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
TOPIC: Resistance Is Not Futile: Why Arguing About Religion Is Not A Waste of Time
SUMMARY: Many atheists think that trying to persuade people out of religion never works, and simply alienates people. But debating believers about their beliefs can be effective — in changing people’s minds about religion, as well as in achieving other goals of the atheist community. When does it makes sense to debate about religion? How should we go about it? And what should our expectations be for what these debates can accomplish?
COST: See conference website for details. But a lot cheaper than you’d think — and they have group rates for groups of students coming from the same school. They really want students to come, and want to make it as easy as possible. So come!

Seattle atheists
EVENT: Seattle Atheists
TIME: 1:30 – 4:30 pm, including my talk, Q&A, and panel discussion
LOCATION: 2100 Building, 2100 24th Ave. S., Seattle, WA
TOPIC: What Can the Atheist Movement Learn From the LGBT Movement?
SUMMARY: The atheist movement is already modeling itself on the LGBT movement in many ways — most obviously with its focus on coming out of the closet. What else can the atheist movement learn from the LGBT movement… both from its successes and its failures?
COST: Free (donations accepted)

Midwest humanist and freethought conference
EVENT: Midwest Humanist and Freethought Conference
DATES: August 12-14
DATE AND TIME OF MY PRESENTATION: Sat., Aug. 13, 2:30pm – 3:20pm
LOCATION: University of Nebraska – Omaha
Milo Bail Student Center
North 62nd Street & Dodge Street
Omaha, NE 68182
TOPIC: Why Are You Atheists So Angry?
SUMMARY: The atheist movement is often accused of being driven by anger. What are so many atheists so angry about? Is this anger legitimate? And can anger be an effective force behind a movement for social change?
COST: $35; $20 for students
LODGING: Special conference rates are available at the Comfort Inn & Suites, (402) 343-1000. (Hurry — offer expires soon.)

Hope to see you there!

Greta Speaking in Columbus, Seattle, and Omaha!

The Best Things About TAM — And the Best Things About Las Vegas

Tam logo
Thanks for your patience during my blog break! I was at The Amazing Meeting last week: speaking on the diversity panel, schmoozing networking, talking deep-level strategy, drinking, giving interviews, meeting readers, getting my brain stuffed, and laughing my ass off. And because Ingrid and I haven’t had a vacation alone together in approximately 865,673 years, we took a couple of extra days after TAM: to hang out in Las Vegas, stay at the kitten hotel, eat some serious food, drink some serious cocktails, see some ridiculous shows, and generally indulge ourselves.

Throughout both TAM and the post-TAM Vegas trip, I kept thinking, “Wow. This is the best thing about this trip.” And then something else would happen, and I’d think, “No, this is the best thing.” My head is spinning with images and ideas from all of it, and there is no way I’m going to string my thoughts about it together in any coherent fashion.

So here — in no particular order, except the order they’re coming into my exhausted, overloaded, Vegas-addled brain — are some of the best things about TAM.


Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Best Thing About TAM #1: Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I thought I was prepared for how excellent Tyson would be. I was wrong. Brilliant, hilarious, compelling, insightful, inspiring. One of the best public speakers I’ve seen. And he was way harsher on religion than I’d expected.

Best Thing About TAM #2: Meeting and chatting with Richard Dawkins. Who said he likes my blog, said he liked its frankness and wisdom, and hugged me. Yeah. That didn’t suck.

(Context for the hug, btw: I’d just told him that reading “The God Delusion” was why I became an atheist and an atheist activist. I’d said that I’d argued my way through the entire book, and called him many very rude names during the course of it… but that before I read it, I was calling myself an agnostic and was occasionally writing about skepticism, and after I finished I was calling myself an atheist and had decided to make atheism the core of my writing career. That’s when he asked if he could hug me. I think he was genuinely touched. He also hugged Ingrid, btw. I think it was because she said she was the one who’d made me read “The God Delusion.” 🙂 )

And for the record: No, I don’t think Dawkins covered himself in glory over Elevatorgate. I was still tickled to meet him. In fact, one of the things I like best about the atheist/ skeptical movement is that we don’t treat our heroes as saints. We can call people out on it when they screw up… and still respect and admire the things they do that are admirable and worthy of respect.

Best Thing About TAM #3: Rebecca Watson’s Game Show and Variety Hour. I was laughing so hard I was in actual pain.

TAM 9 diversity panel
Best Thing About TAM #4: Being on the diversity panel with Jamila Bey, Debbie Goddard, Hemant Mehta, and DJ Grothe, moderated by the excellent and ever-patient Desiree Schell. It got a lot more heated than any of us had expected — the panelists kept joking beforehand about how we needed to manufacture a controversy to keep people’s interest, and we wound up with a genuine, no-joke controversy on our hands. Namely: Should the skeptic movement apply skepticism to social issues such as the drug war and abstinence-only sex education — issues that are of interest to a more diverse population that skepticism isn’t reaching as well as we could be? Or are these issues beyond the scope of skepticism, and would focusing on them constitute mission drift? (I’ll almost certainly write more about this in the near future; in the meantime, Jen McCreight did a good summary of the panel as a guest post on the Friendly Atheist TAM live-blog.) The panel was more feisty than I’d expected, and at times I found it frustrating… but I also think it moved the larger conversation in this movement forward. And I’m extremely glad that we’re no longer debating whether we need to take steps to make our movement more diverse. We seem to have mostly moved on from that, and are now debating the best ways to go about it.

Best Thing About TAM #5: Waltzing with Ingrid to John Lennon’s atheist waltz (“God”), played by Penn Jillette’s band at Jillette’s Rock & Roll, Doughnut and Bacon Party. Life really doesn’t get much better than that.

Shoes cocktails atTAM bacon and doughnuts party
(Also awesome: The moment at the Doughnut and Bacon Party, when they played Patti Smith’s “Gloria,” and the roomful of skeptics and atheists were bellowing along to “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” I took this pic at the party, and it kind of sums up the vibe, apart from its lack of either doughnuts or bacon.)

Best Thing About TAM #6: The panel discussion on “Our Future In Space,” in which the discussion about NASA funding priorities turned into a WWE-style cage match. Four scientists enter; one scientist leaves. My favorite bit was when Pamela Gay told Neil DeGrasse Tyson to shush. Several times.

Best Thing About TAM #7: Carol Tavris, co-author of “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts,” speaking about the science of cognitive dissonance and rationalization, and how we can apply it to argument and persuasion. I pretty much already knew most of the ideas in this talk… and I still had my brain re-arranged by it. I was re-writing my talk for the Secular Student Alliance in my head halfway through it.

Jamie Kilstein
Best Thing About TAM #8: Comedian Jamie Kilstein’s stand-up routine at Paul Provenza’s “Satiristas!” show. A rapid-fire rollercoaster of brilliance, bluntness, and shrieking hilarity, with a vibe somewhere between slam poetry and an eviscerating atheist blog rant. Meeting him was pretty awesome, too. It’s always entertaining when atheists do the fanboy/ fangirl thing at each other at the same time.

Best Thing About TAM #9: The panel discussion on placebos. My mind is now seriously re-arranged. I have to re-think everything I thought about placebos… including how to talk about them.

Ingrid and Meghan at TAM
Best Thing About TAM #10: The TAM Fashion Mafia. There was some seriously excellent fashion at TAM. Lots of it, in fact. Ingrid and I packed for Vegas glamour and then worried that we’d be overdressed — and we so were not. Many lovely bonding moments were had with many skeptical fashionistas. (Plus I got some awesome steampunk jewelry at one of the tables. We had a running joke among the women I hung out with at TAM, about how we needed to have a TAM girls’ night to talk about shopping, fashion, and cute boys.)

Fashion show at TAM 9
Best Thing About TAM #11: The impromptu fashion show in the women’s bathroom at the Doughnut and Bacon Party. A sizable portion of the TAM Fashion Mafia happened to converge in the bathroom at the same time… and because it was the night of the Doughnut and Bacon Party, we were all dressed to the nines… and because it was the night of the Doughnut and Bacon Party, we were all tipsy enough to think that taking a group photo in the women’s bathroom would be a really good idea.

Best Thing About TAM #12: Richard Wiseman. I don’t even remember what he said now. I just remember that he was hilarious, and made us want to run out and buy all of his books.

Best Thing About TAM #13: The joke about triskaidekaphobia, and how ridiculous it is to be afraid of a number.

Best Thing About TAM #14: Richard Dawkins’ talk. Elizabeth Loftus’ talk. PZ Myers’ talk. Bill Nye’s talk. Pamela Gay’s talk. Michael Shermer’s talk. Eugenie Scott’s talk. Steven Novella’s talk. The panel on getting things done for science and skepticism. The panel on communicating skepticism. The workshop on recurring themes in medical mythology. The workshop on grassroots activism. Getting to meet Sastra — eep! (Is it silly to be star-struck about a Pharyngula commenter? If so, I don’t care.) Hanging out in the hotel hot tub at the Skeptics in the Tub party. The announcement that the Richard Dawkins Foundation would start sponsoring child care at atheist and skeptical conferences, to make them more accessible to women and lower-income folks. Meeting the woman who worked in the massage center in the spa at the hotel, who showed up in the conference hall thrilled and fascinated and gathering as many pamphlets as she could hold, who had had no idea until now that a community like this even existed. Getting to meet so many of my readers face to face. There really was a tremendous embarrassment of riches at TAM: any conference where I’m going, “Oh, yeah, Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers and Eugenie Scott and Michael Shermer were pretty great, too”… that’s a good time.

But it was also kind of an overwhelming time. And Ingrid and I really needed to decompress. So since we were already in Las Vegas, and since we’d been saying we wanted to go to Las Vegas ever since we’d been going out, this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

So here — in no particular order, except the order they are coming into my exhausted, overloaded, Vegas-addled brain — are some of the best things about hanging out in Las Vegas after TAM was over.


Best Thing About Las Vegas #1: The Cosmopolitan Hotel. No shit. Las Vegas in general leaves me cold — it’s pretty much everything I loathe about American culture, distilled into one manipulative, pre-fab, oddly tedious pleasure palace. But I freaking love the Cosmopolitan. It’s an exquisite blend of elegant glamour, serious art/design, and sybaritic decadence. The decor and design is glamorous and Vegas-y, but done with real artistry and care, and with a sense of both playfulness and magnificence. (We especially loved the moving, changing, 3-D art installations in the lobby. Triple especially the ones inspired by 18th century botanical drawings, and the ones that looked like naked people trapped inside the columns.) And the food and cocktails were to die for. (Jaleo was particularly delightful, and not outrageously expensive. And I loved that the room service breakfast menu had the cocktail list right at the top… and that their cereal list included Captain Crunch.) We could have spent days in Las Vegas without leaving the hotel, and been perfectly happy. The next time we visit Vegas, we might do exactly that. No white kittens or human furniture like the ads promised… but we were not disappointed. We are so coming back.

Best Thing About Las Vegas #2: The Erotic Heritage Museum. I plan to write a whole lot more about this place in a later post. For now, I just want to say this: I absolutely loved how seamlessly and shamelessly the museum blends the sex education elements, the historical/ political elements, and the porny porny porn porn. There was no sense that the arousing elements of sex culture should be hidden, or excused, or treated any differently from the educational and political and supposedly loftier elements. And I got to meet Veronica Hart! Who works at the museum, and was greeting guests and running the cash register and generally running the place. (I would like to point out that when I met Richard Dawkins, I was able to keep my cool at least somewhat and say, “It’s a pleasure to meet you”… but when I met Veronica Hart, I totally lost my shit and gushed, “Oh my god! You’re Veronica Hart! It’s such an honor!”)

Best Thing About Las Vegas #3: The dirty Cirque du Soleil show. This was rather a mixed bag, truth to tell: the show was a mix of acrobatics and comedy/ clowning, and the comedy was obnoxiously, aggressively, cringingly bad, to the point of being nearly unbearable. But the acrobatics were freaking beautiful, and very hot indeed. Every time I’ve seen Cirque du Soleil, I’ve found it highly erotic, and I’ve always wanted them to take the obviously erotic elements of the show and just run with them. Their “Zumanity” show does exactly that — and it runs to a very good place indeed. There was a certain cheese factor, but it was mostly kept to a minimum (except for the vile comedy), and the cheese was eclipsed by the blend of acrobatic proficiency, visual artistry, and polymorphous perversity. I mean, come on. Half-naked lesbian acrobatics in a giant fishbowl of water. What’s not to like?

Best Thing About Las Vegas #4: Jabbawockeez. These are the hip-hop dance crew who won America’s Best Dance Crew the first year. They have their own Vegas show now, and when Ingrid and I found that out, we immediately put it on our list of Vegas Shows We Absolutely Had To See, Even Though It Made Our Vegas Schedule Ridiculously Overbooked. Awesome. A bit higher on the cheese factor than I might have liked — to be expected in Vegas, I suppose — and not quite the apotheosis of the art form’s potential that I’d hoped for. (I gas on a lot about how hip-hop dancing is the great new American art form, and I don’t think the show at the Monte Carlo quite lives up to that gassing.) But it was still an awfully good time, with much that was clever and inventive, and many jaw-dropping feats of power and agility, and plenty of high points indeed.

Best Thing About Las Vegas #5: Coming home. I had a ball, both at TAM and in Vegas afterwards. But I am overloaded on shiny surfaces and bright lights, and I’m thrilled to be back home, in my matte- finish San Francisco neighborhood. (Ingrid is amused, btw, by my use of the word “matte” to mean “dirty and scruffy.”)

So I’m home. Home! And this is my room. And you’re all here. And I’m not going to leave here ever, ever again. Until a week from now, when I head to the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference. Which I fully expect to rock every bit as hard as TAM, if not harder. Hope to see you there!

The Best Things About TAM — And the Best Things About Las Vegas

Why the "5 Myths Atheists Have About Religion" Aren't Myths

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Power of myth
Do atheists really misunderstand religion?

I read the recent piece in Tikkun by Be Scofield, “5 Myths Atheists Believe about Religion” (reprinted in AlterNet as “5 Things Atheists Have Wrong About Religion”), with a fair degree of both trepidation and curiosity. Trepidation… because my experience has been that, when believers write about atheists, they usually get it laughably and even insultingly wrong. Curiosity… because there are things that the atheist community sometimes gets wrong, about religion and other topics, and I thought I might get some insight into stuff I might not have seen. I don’t think atheists are perfect — believe me, I am well aware of how imperfect we are — and I’m willing and even eager to look at things we might be missing.

But when I looked at these “myths” that atheists supposedly hold about religion, I was more than a bit baffled. Because none of these “myths” looked anything like myths to me. Instead, they looked like… well, like differences of opinion. At best, they were simply areas of disagreement: controversial topics, matters of subjective opinion, semantic squabbles. And at worst, they were red herrings, bafflegab, even complete misrepresentations of atheists’ actual positions.

So let’s look at these supposedly “ill-informed beliefs about religion.”

Let’s take them apart, one by one.

And then let’s look at the assumption of religious privilege that underlies them… and at how religious believers defend this privilege by taking on the mantle of oppression and victimhood.

Simpsons church sign
5. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism.

This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. This is not a “myth” atheists have about religion, or a “mistake” we make about it. This is a topic on which believers and many atheists disagree. And it’s a topic on which Mr. Scofield seems to be entirely missing the point.

The point is not that liberal and moderate religion justifies religious extremism. The point is that liberal and moderate religion justifies religion. It justifies the whole idea of religious faith: the idea that it’s entirely reasonable, and even virtuous, to believe in invisible supernatural entities or forces for which there is no good evidence.

And atheists think that religion is a bad idea. At the very least, we think it’s a mistaken idea. Many of us even think it’s an idea that, by its very nature, does significantly more harm than good.

Now, many atheists do think that liberal and moderate religion provides intellectual cover for the more extreme varieties… again, because it makes the whole idea of religion and religious faith seem reasonable and legitimate. I happen to think that myself. But even these critics aren’t saying that Unitarianism is some sort of gateway drug to fundamentalism. We aren’t saying that the entire well of religion is poisoned because of the hateful, extremist versions of it, and that therefore liberals and moderates ought not to participate in it. We’re saying that the entire well of religion is poisoned because it’s wrong. And we’re saying that liberal and moderate religion justifies that wrongness.

If you disagree about whether religion is wrong… fine. We can have that conversation. But don’t say that the very idea of atheism — namely, that we don’t think there’s a god or a supernatural world — is a “myth” that atheists have about religion. It’s ridiculous. And it trivializes the actual myths that many people hold about other religions or the lack thereof.

Blake god
4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God.


This one makes me want to facepalm my hand right through my skull.

Because it’s taking a fairly minor disagreement over semantics, and treating it as a substantive difference over content, and indeed an accusation of willful ignorance.

For the overwhelming majority of people who use the word, “religion” means “belief in supernatural entities or forces with some effect on the natural world.” It most typically means “belief in a god or gods”; even when it doesn’t, it almost always means “belief in the supernatural.” Souls, angels, ghosts, Heaven, gods, goddesses, reincarnation, karma, the spirit of the earth, a conscious creative and guiding force in the universe, etc. — for the overwhelming majority of people who use the word, that’s what “religion” means.

And when atheists criticize religion, that’s what we’re talking about.

Are there secular Jews? Materialists who follow a Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice? Non-believers who participate in the Unitarian community? Yes. Of course. But — and I cannot say this strongly enough — when atheists are talking about religion, THAT’S NOT WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT. Most of us don’t care about it. Light a menorah; go to a Unitarian picnic; meditate until your eyes roll back in your head. We don’t care. As long as you don’t think there’s any god, or any soul, or any afterlife, or any sort of supernatural anything… we don’t disagree with you. And we couldn’t care less. Some of us even rather like it. It’s the “belief in the supernatural” part that we think is mistaken. It’s the “belief in the supernatural” part that many of us think does harm.

In fact, many of us atheists are secular Jews and materialist Buddhists and non-believing Unitarians and whatnot. Many secular Jews/ materialist Buddhists/ non-believing Unitarians/etc. also identify as atheists. And many of them are just as critical of the religious parts of religion — i.e., the supernatural belief parts — as those of us who don’t have any cultural or philosophical affiliation with a religious tradition.

Case for god
And yes, atheists also understand that some “religious” people have re-defined the word “God” into such vague, abstract terms that the guy becomes unrecognizable by most people who believe in him. We understand that some “religious” people have re-defined the word “God” as the creative principle in life, or the power of love in the universe, or that which by definition cannot be understood or defined, or something along those lines. We often find it incredibly annoying: we’re trying to have a conversation about God as most people understand the concept, and the modern theologians come along with their deepities and vague abstractions, and totally confuse the issue. Plus, many of us strongly suspect that these abstract definitions only apply when nobody is looking, and that a more supernatural definition comes into play when the atheists go away.

But again, when we’re talking about religion and God, that’s not what we’re talking about. We don’t care about your vague, convoluted, abstract deepities, except insofar as they confuse the issue. If you don’t believe in a supernatural God… then we think you’re an atheist. As Richard Dawkins said to the queen of vague theology, Karen Armstrong, “Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right.”

I suppose that, every time I critique religion, I could instead type the entire phrase, “belief in supernatural entities or forces with some effect on the natural world.” You know why I don’t? Because I’m a good writer. I’m trying to be concise. I know that I’m already a more wordy writer than I ought to be; I’m trying to be as concise as I can. And instead of using a thirteen-word noun phrase, I’m using the word “religion,” the way that it’s used and understood by the overwhelming majority of people who use it.

So the next time you read an atheist critique of religion, please just do a “search and replace” in your head. If you insist on re-defining “religion” as “belief in supernatural entities or forces with some effect on the natural world… or some sort of cultural/ philosophical affiliation with a tradition of said belief, regardless of any actual belief”…then the next time you read an atheist critique of religion, just zap out the second part of that clause in your head. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the first part.

And please stop acting as if a semantic difference over a word whose definition is basically agreed on by almost everybody somehow constitutes willful ignorance on the part of atheists.

Bad to the bone - skull
3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior.

And yet again: This is not a “myth” atheists have about religion. This is not a “mistake” we’re making about religion. This is a point of disagreement. This is a topic on which many atheists disagree with believers.

And unless you’re going to actually make a case for why your side is right, I am, respectfully, going to maintain my position.

It’s certainly true that, when atheists critique religion, many of us often point to specific harms that have been inspired by religion, or that have been rationalized by it. But we don’t end our analysis there. (Or at least, most of us don’t.) We understand that people do bad things inspired by all sorts of ideas: political ideology, patriotism or other tribal loyalty, protecting one’s family, etc. We even understand that the harms done in the name of religion have multiple causes, and that greed/ fear/ hunger for power/ etc. are a big part of it. The point we’re making isn’t, “People do bad things and justify them with religion.” Or even, “People do bad things directly inspired by religion.”

The point is that the very nature of religion itself — the very nature of a belief in the supernatural — is, in and of itself, harmful, and is more likely to both inspire and rationalize terrible harm than other kinds of ideas.

I don’t have space here to make this argument in its most complete form. (I’ve made a more thorough argument elsewhere.) So here’s the quick- and- dirty two-minute version: Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die. It therefore has no reality check. And it is therefore uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self- correction. It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality… and extreme, grotesque immorality. Any other ideology or philosophy or hypothesis about the world is eventually expected to pony up. It’s expected to prove itself true and/or useful, or else correct itself, or else fall by the wayside. With religion, that is emphatically not the case. Because religion is a belief in the invisible and unknowable — and it’s therefore never expected to prove that it’s right, or even show good evidence for why it’s right — its capacity to do harm can spin into the stratosphere.

That’s my argument. That’s the argument made by many other atheists.

And if you’re going to respond to this argument, you can’t simply say, “Nuh uh.”

You can’t just say, as Mr. Scofield does, that “the real source of bad behavior… is human nature, not religion”… and leave it at that. If you do — as Mr. Scofield does — then you’re simply asserting the point you’re trying to prove. Scofield is saying here, “Many atheists say religion causes bad behavior, but the real cause is human nature.” And he apparently expects us to reply, “Oh. Well, that settles it. Never mind, then.”

And we’re not going to do it. Many atheists — again, myself included — have actually made a case for why human nature alone is not responsible for the terrible harms done by religion. We have actually made a case for why religion itself bears at least part of the blame. And you don’t get to say, “Many atheists disagree with believers about this… therefore, these atheists don’t understand religion.” A disagreement is not a myth. If you think we’re making a mistake here, you need to make a case for why we’re wrong.

2. Atheists are Anti-Religious.

I will confess that I’m confused by this one. Mr. Scofield here seems to be conflating two different points into one: (a) Religion doesn’t have to mean belief in God, or even belief in the supernatural, and (b) Not believing in religion doesn’t necessarily mean being opposed to it.

So I’ll take them one at a time.

(a): Asked and answered. See above, #4: Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God.

(b) Yes, we understand that. We understand that many atheists don’t think religion is inherently harmful. We understand that many atheist activists choose to focus their activism in areas other than opposing religion, such as creating a safe and supportive atheist community, or fighting for separation of church and state. (In fact, most of the more confrontational, anti-religion atheist activists I know of — myself included — heartily support these efforts, and even engage in them ourselves.) We understand that some atheists are involved in the interfaith movement, and are willing and even eager to work with religious believers and organizations on issues they have in common. We even understand that some atheists and atheist activists see religion as essentially neutral, or benign, or even a positive force.

I’m not familiar with this purported “silent majority” of religion- loving atheists that Scofield is talking about… but atheists are well aware of these differences within the atheist community. Look at the many debates we have about confrontationalism versus diplomacy, fighting religion directly versus creating a positive image of happy atheism, etc. We’re aware of these differences. We spend a great deal of time hashing them out. A great, great deal of time. Perhaps rather more time than we ought. We thank Mr. Scofield for his concern… but he’s really not telling us anything new.

Frankly, I’m a little puzzled as to why “atheists are anti-religious” is even on this list. It’s not even a myth atheists supposedly have about religion. It’s a myth we supposedly have about other atheists. But in any case, it’s pretty easy to dismiss. It’s simply not true.

Religious symbols
1. All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy.”

Boy, howdy, did Scofield get this one wrong. R-O-N-G Wrong.

I take this one a little personally, since it’s a direct response to something I wrote on AlterNet. And it’s a gross misrepresentation of what I wrote. To the point where I’m tempted to think it’s deliberate. However, I’m going to give Mr. Scofield the benefit of the doubt that he failed to give atheists. I’m going to assume that this was not a case of willful, malicious ignorance. And I’m going to spell out my point again, as plainly as I possible can.

I did not say that all religions were equally crazy, full stop, end of discussion. In fact, the entire freaking point of this piece was that the question of whether all religions are equally crazy was a complicated one, without a single simple answer. The entire freaking point was that the answer to this question depended on how you defined the word “crazy.” The entire freaking point was that, on the one hand, all beliefs in the supernatural are equally out of touch with reality, since the supernatural doesn’t exist and there’s not a scrap of good evidence suggesting that it does… but that, on the other hand, there really are significant differences between different religions, and specifically that older religions have had more time to smooth out the rougher, more out-of-touch-with-reality edges of their doctrines, and have adjusted better to social norms (or have shaped society to adjust to their own norms.)

Scofield made a point of quoting me at length on the first point. And he made an equal point of completely ignoring the second one.

So I will make this very, very clear, as clear as I possibly can:

Atheists are aware that different religions are different.

And we still think they’re all wrong.

There are a handful of atheists who don’t believe in gods, but who still believe in some sort of supernatural something. But the overwhelming majority of atheists don’t believe in any sort of supernatural world. We get that different religions are different — but we still think they’re all wrong. We get that some religions are more disconnected from reality than others — but we still think they’re all disconnected from reality. We get that some religions do more harm than others — but many of us still think they all do some amount of harm. We’re not as pissed off at, say, the United Church of Christ as we are at, say, the Catholic Church — but we still think they’re worshipping an invisible creator-god who turned himself into his own human son and sacrificed himself to himself in order to forgive humanity for sins he created us with the desire to commit. And we think that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

(And yes, once again, when we say “religion,” most us mean “belief in the supernatural.” I’ve already responded to that point, and I fervently hope I never have to respond to it again in my life. An almost certainly fruitless hope, I know.)

Again: This is not a “myth” that many atheists have about religion. This is a gross misrepresentation of a position that many atheists have about religion — a position that has serious validity. The straw man version of this “myth” isn’t a myth… because no atheist that I know of actually holds it. And the actual version of this “myth” isn’t a myth… because it’s not a misunderstanding of religion. It’s a disagreement about it. Again: It’s absurd to say that the fundamental difference between atheists and believers — namely, whether there really is a god or a supernatural world, or whether that idea is a total misunderstanding of the nature of the universe based on an unfortunate convergence of cognitive errors — is a “myth” that atheists have about religion. And saying it totally trivializes the actual myths that many people hold about religious affiliations that are different from their own.

Which brings me to my final point.

Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

Protocols of the elders of zion
Here’s the thing. Bigoted myths about religions other than one’s own are a reality. Examples: All Mormons are secretly polygamists. All Muslims are hateful extremists, seeking the violent overthrow of the Western world. Jews grind up babies and put them into Passover matzohs. Etc.

And there really are myths that some atheists have about religion and religious believers. I don’t see them expressed very often by the thought-leaders in the movement, but I do see them pop up now and then in forums and comment threads and so on. Examples: Believers are stupid. Believers are sheep, incapable of thinking for themselves. Believers’ morality is immature, based not on a sense of empathy and justice, but on fear of punishment and desire for reward. I’ve even seen atheists refer to believers as “rednecks” and “hicks” in comment threads about religion in the American South… and it’s made me cringe. If Scofield had been talking about any these, I would have been uncomfortable, I would have been embarrassed, but I wouldn’t have had a darned thing to say about it. Other than, “Yup. You got us there. Atheists can be jerks.”

But when you take legitimate areas of dissent and disagreement that many atheists have with religion, and label them as “myths”?

You’re trying to take on the mantle of oppression.

The reality, in the United States and most of the rest of the world, is that religion has a tremendously privileged status. Religion is deeply embedded into our culture and our laws. So much so that it’s often invisible until it’s pointed out. At which point — as is so often the case with privilege — those whose privilege is being critiqued tend to squawk loudly, and resist vehemently, and act as if a terrible injustice is being committed.

Anti Atheist poster
And the reality, in the United States and most of the rest of the world, is that atheists are the targets of significant bigotry and discrimination. Most Americans wouldn’t trust an atheist. Most Americans wouldn’t vote for an atheist. Atheist veterans get booed when they march in a Memorial Day Parade. Atheist groups get targeted with hysterical venom when they play “Jingle Bells” in a Christmas parade. Atheist bus ads and billboards — even the ones simply saying that atheists exist and are good people — routinely get protested, vandalized, and even flatly rejected or removed. Atheist high schoolers trying to organize student groups routinely get stonewalled by school administrations. Atheist teenagers get threatened and ostracized by their communities and kicked out of their homes. Atheist soldiers — in the U.S. armed forces — get prayer ceremonies pressured on them, get atheist meetings and events broken up, get judged for their fitness as soldiers based on their “spiritual fitness”… and get harassed and even threatened with death when they complain about it. Atheists lose custody of their children, explicitly because of their atheism. Bigoted myths about atheists abound — myths that we’re amoral, selfish, hateful, despairing, close-minded, nihilistic, arrogant, intolerant, forcing our lack of belief on others, etc. — and many of us experience real discrimination as a result.

So it totally frosts my cookies when religious believers take legitimate areas of dissent and disagreement that many atheists have with religion… and equate them with bigoted myths. It is a classic example of privileged people defending their privilege by taking on the mantle of victimhood. It is a classic example of privileged people acting as if resistance to their privilege somehow constitutes misunderstanding, bigotry, and oppression.

Tikkun, the progressive Jewish magazine where Scofield’s “5 Myths” piece originally appeared, describes itself as “dedicated to healing and transforming the world,” and says that they “build bridges between religious and secular progressives by delivering a forceful critique of all forms of exploitation, oppression, and domination.”

But Scofield’s piece in Tikkun is not a forceful critique of all forms of exploitation, oppression, and domination. It is, instead, a classic example of it.

I expect better from them.

Why the "5 Myths Atheists Have About Religion" Aren't Myths

Brief Blog Break

In all the kerfuffle, I neglected to mention: I’m at TAM, and will be staying in Vegas for a couple of extra days after it’s over. Plus I’m having to spend rather more time than usual moderating comments here. So I’m on the swamped side, and will probably not be blogging for the next few days. I’d hoped to toss up a reprint or two during my absence, and I’m still hoping to do that at some point before I get back; but I’m looking at my schedule, and the likelihood seems slim. I’ll be back in a few days. Thanks for your patience.

Brief Blog Break

Why We Have to Talk About This: Atheism, Sexism, and Blowing Up The Internet

I know. We’re all sick of talking about it. I’m sick of talking about it; you’re sick of talking about it. And not just this latest blow-up, either, the one that’s been dubbed “Elevatorgate.” All of it. The whole freaking topic. I don’t know anybody who actually enjoys starting an Internet shitstorm about sexism (or racism, or ageism, or classism, or whatever-ism) in the atheist movement. I sure as hell don’t. Whenever I turn on my computer to write about one of these incidents, I don’t do it with an eager gleam in my fingers. I do it with a heavy sigh, and I brace myself for the ordeal that is likely to come. I am not happy about it.

But I’m a whole lot more unhappy being silent about it.

And I want to argue that we all should be a lot more unhappy being silent about it.

Rebecca Watson
For the six of you who have spent the last three weeks under a rock in a cave on Mars with your eyes shut and your hands over your ears: Rebecca Watson of Skepchick recently made a video that mentioned an incident at an atheist conference in which she’d been propositioned by a man in an elevator at four in the morning; she said that this made her uncomfortable and briefly explained why… and an apparently unending shitstorm in the atheosphere has resulted. A shitstorm in which many men, including Richard Dawkins, have argued that this is a trivial issue, or even a non-issue: that it’s ridiculous for women to be cautious or fearful when they’re propositioned by a strange man in a strange country alone in an elevator at four in the morning; that men have the right to proposition women wherever and whenever they like and women should just suck it up; and that (as Dawkins seemed to be arguing) we have more serious problems to be worrying about than whether women feel comfortable and welcomed at atheist events. (This is a ridiculously inadequate summary of the explosion; Lindsay Beyerstein has a better one.)

And lot of the pushback against this feminist ruckus has come in the form of asking why the ruckus had to be raised at all… and why it had to keep getting driven into the ground.

So that’s what I want to talk about today. Or, more accurately: That’s not what I want to talk about — but it’s what I feel like I have to talk about.

Because, to misquote Oscar Wilde: There is only one thing worse than talking about sexism. And that is not talking about sexism. (Or racism, or ageism, or able-ism, or classism, or whatever-ism. This latest kerfuffle was about sexism, so that’s what I’ll be specifically talking about today… but this is also about all these touchy issues of discrimination and privilege, and the fights we keep having about them.)


Where to begin, where to begin?

Okay. I’m going to begin with a point that I haven’t seen raised very much.

To the men who have been resisting and pushing back against the feminists on this issue, there’s a very important thing I want to say to you:

Sex every day in every way
We are trying to help you get laid.

We’re trying to do a lot more than that, of course. We’re trying to make the atheist community more welcoming to women: because that would be better for women, and because it’d be better for atheism. We’re trying to educate men about the reality of women’s experiences, including the reality of how sex commonly gets used to trivialize women, and the reality of sexual violence. We’re trying to make the world a less sexist place.

But we are also trying to help you get laid. (Many of us, anyway.) We are trying to show you the context into which your flirtations and advances and comments about our appearance are falling. We are trying to show you what it’s like to be a woman: what it’s like to try to be flirtatious and sex-positive and still be realistic about the no-joke threats we face every day to our safety and our lives. And we’re doing this, in part, to give you a better shot with us. In fact, one of the very first feminist responses to this latest ruckus, from Jen McCreight at BlagHag, came in the form of a helpful guide: a guide about context, a guide about when/ where your flirtations and advances and comments about our appearance might be well-received… and when/ where they might be perceived as insulting, demeaning, or dangerous.

The women who are raising this issue are not a bunch of man-hating ball-busters or sex-phobic prudes. If you read Watson’s blog, or McCreight’s, or Amanda Marcotte’s, or mine… you should know that this is patently absurd. We like sex. We like flirting. We like men. We’re not saying you’re all rapists. We know you’re not all rapists. We know that most of you aren’t rapists. We’re explaining that, until we get to know you pretty well, we have no way of knowing whether you’re a rapist or not, and that some situations (such as being alone with a strange man in an elevator) are well-documented as posing a greater risk of rape than others, and if you approach us in those situations, our guard is very likely going to be up.

We are trying to help you get laid.

And if you’re fervently resisting that help… then I have to assume that getting laid is not the point.

Fingers in ears
When women explain to you — in a calm, nuanced, proportionate way — that there are some contexts in which your advances are less likely to be well-received than others, and you respond by sticking your fingers in your ears and screaming about ball-busting, man-hating feminists who are hell-bent on eradicating all flirting and sex and eroding your First Amendment right to proposition any woman at any time and place? When you resist hearing that hitting on a woman who’s alone in an elevator in a strange city at four o’clock in the morning is not likely to be well-received, that it’s likely to be perceived as a potential threat, and that you are likely to be perceived as an insensitive clod at best if you do it? When we explain ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times, that elevators are well-documented as a common place for women to get raped and that it’s therefore not an appropriate place to make sexual advances — and you still reply, “But I don’t understand what the problem is with elevators”?

I have to assume that getting laid is not the point.

I have to assume that the point is something entirely different. I have to assume that you will do anything to resist hearing that women experience male advances in a very different context from the way men experience female advances. I have to assume that you have an active resistance to understanding that women’s experiences are different from men’s: that (among other things) women routinely get our professional/ intellectual/ artistic accomplishments dismissed in favor of a focus on our sexual attractiveness, and that women have to be seriously cautious about physical and sexual violence from men. When you are so vehemently unwilling to see some of the ways that privilege works in your favor, I have to assume that maintaining privilege is the point.

Even if it reduces your chances of getting laid.

Got privilege
I have to assume that your purported desire to get laid is a smokescreen — although quite probably an unconscious one — for your desire to not understand how sexism and male privilege work.

And that is EXACTLY the reason we have to keep talking about it.

Because continuing to talk about it is how people are eventually going to understand it.

And so now, I’m going to address, not just the men who have been insisting on their right to hit on any woman in any place at any time, or complaining about how trivial and self-absorbed it is to raise this issue at all… but everyone. Everyone who’s been participating in this blowup. Everyone who’s been following it. Everyone who sees one of these blowups on the horizon, and buries their head under the covers, and prays to the non-existent God that this one won’t eat the Internet for three solid weeks.

And in particular, I want to address the people who have been asking the question, “Why do we have to keep having these fights? Why is it that every time there’s an atheist conference, there’s some kerfuffle about sexist comments or actions, and everyone flies into a tizzy about it, and it’s the only thing anyone remembers about the event?”

Let me ask you this. When religious believers tell atheists, “Why do you have to keep talking about atheism? Why do you have to keep pointing out religious privilege, and anti-atheist bigotry, and the ways that religion is so deeply entrenched in our culture? It’s so divisive. Nobody can talk about religion and atheism without starting a huge, ugly fight. So why do you keep bringing it up?”

When religious believers say this to atheists… do you say to yourself, “You’re right. This is such a troubling, divisive issue. I’m so sorry I brought it up. We’ll stop talking about it now.”

Silence = death
Or do you say to yourself, “Wow. You really don’t want to hear what we have to say, do you? There’s a part of you that knows we’re right, or that fears we’re right, or that’s getting some assumptions challenged that you’re deeply attached to… and you’re uncomfortable with that. And you’re trying to shut us up. Knock it off. And try listening to what we have to say for a change.”

I’m going to assume that the answer is the latter.

So why on earth would you turn around and say to people who are talking about feminism, “This is such a divisive issue — why do you have to keep bringing it up?”

Do you see how this is the same?

I know. Everyone is tired of the huge Internet blowups about sexism. Everyone would like to avoid them. I’m right there with you. So here’s a tip. You want to know how to not have huge Internet blowups every time women in the atheist movement complain about sexism? LISTEN TO WHAT THE WOMEN ARE SAYING.

Here’s a perfect example of how this can play out well. At the American Atheist regional Rapture conference in Oakland, one of the speakers, David Eller, said that one of the ways to make atheism more appealing was to make greater use of pretty female videobloggers, with no mention of the actual content of what the videobloggers in question have been blogging about. Jen McCreight, and Rebecca Watson, and myself, and probably some other people, called him out on it, both at the conference and in blogs. And Eller apologized. His initial response at the conference was defensive and missed the point, but after a couple of days of thinking about it, he said (paraphrasing here), “Okay, you’re right, that was a dumb thing to say, my privilege was showing, I won’t do it again.” His apology was accepted.

And the crisis was over. In fact, I now have more respect for Eller, whose work I hadn’t really been familiar with before all this happened. Everyone screws up: I’ve said and done more dumb, thoughtless, privileged stuff in my life than I care to think about. It’s how you handle your screw-ups that makes the difference. The fact that Eller was able to see when he’d screwed up made me think very highly of him. And the ability to acknowledge when you’ve made an error is highly prized among atheists and skeptics.

So listen to what the women are saying, already. Women, oddly enough, know a fair amount about sexism. Just like atheists tend to know more about religion than believers — because we have to, because religion is the dominant voice in the culture and we have to be familiar with it — women tend to know more about sexism than men do. Not all women are always right about it — there are women who make critiques of sexism that I passionately disagree with — but we’re worth listening to on the subject.

And even if you don’t agree with the specific point that feminists are making?


You know how I just said that, if you want to avoid a huge Internet blowup about sexism, you should listen to what women are saying? Here’s a great way to create a huge Internet blowup about sexism: Try to shut women up. Try to tell women that we shouldn’t criticize sexist ideas and actions. This is a bad, bad idea. Trying to stop the latest Internet firestorm about sexism by asking women to please shut the fuck up does not work. It does worse than not work. It throws gasoline on the flames.

I am boggled by the number of people who are blaming Rebecca Watson for “creating” Elevatorgate. You want to know who “created” Elevatorgate? People trying to shut Watson up. People insisting, not only that she had no right to be upset over being propositioned by a strange man alone in an elevator at four in the morning… but that she shouldn’t have said anything about it in public. If the response to Watson’s videoblog had been, “Hm, that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that” — or even, “I don’t really get this… why, exactly, are elevators such a bad place to proposition women? Oh, okay, now that you’ve explained it, it makes sense” — this would not have eaten the Internet for three weeks. This would have been one of many moderately interesting topics of conversation for a day or two, and we would have all moved on.

What created this firestorm was not feminists pointing out sexism. What created this firestorm was sexist men perpetuating it.

If you don’t agree — with Watson, or me, or any other feminist making a critique about sexism — then by all means, say so. I don’t always agree with every other feminist about whether such-and-such does or does not constitute sexism. (In fact… this is something of a side note, but it has bugged me during this kerfuffle when women have called other women tools of the patriarchy and the like for disagreeing about what is and isn’t sexist. As a feminist who defends porn, sex work, sadomasochism, etc., I’ve been on the receiving end of that “you’re just sucking up to sexist men” trope way, way too often. Let’s not do it, okay?) So anyway… yes. If you don’t agree that a comment or an incident really was sexist, say so. But keep your disagreement focused on the content of what you don’t agree with and why. Don’t attack us for the mere fact that we brought it up. When we express our observations about sexism in a calm, nuanced, proportionate way, and the Internet reacts by shitting all over itself, do not attack us for bringing up an ugly, divisive issue that we knew people would react to by shitting all over themselves.


I want to address the women and men who have been raising this issue, and who have been keeping it on people’s radar.

I want to say an enormous, heartfelt Thank You.

I want to encourage you to keep on doing it.

And I want to remind you — and everyone else reading this — that what we are doing is working.

I know there are women in the atheist movement who are reluctant to point out examples of sexism. I know there are women who have raised this issue in the past and got a faceful of backlash for it, and now… well, they don’t regret it exactly, but they’re wary as hell about doing it again. And I know that a lot of us — women and men — are exhausted by this issue, and passionately wish it would just go away.

In fact, when I’m in a cynical, pessimistic mood, I often think that this exhaustion is part of the point. The really grossly sexist men — not the genuinely well-meaning men who don’t yet get this stuff and are struggling with it, but the seriously hostile, hateful, deeply entrenched in their misogyny men — are trying to get us so sick of the backlash, and so daunted by the prospect of having to deal with it one more freaking time, that we don’t ever want to bring it up again. They are trying to wear us down.

But to the people who are getting discouraged by this fight — and this may be the most important point I have to make about all this — there is one more reason we have to keep talking about this:

Talking about it works.

I want to show you an email I got last week, which I’m reprinting here in full with permission of its author (and with my utmost thanks, both for the permission to reprint and the sentiments expressed in it).

Hello Greta,

After having followed your blog for awhile I eagerly looked forward to meeting you at the AHA conference in April of this year. My wife Lisa and I both attended. I remember seeing you standing in the hall between breakout sessions a couple of times and thinking to myself that you looked and dressed very sharp. In short, I was impressed seeing you in person for the first time.

We also both attended the panel discussion on outreach to women, the LGBT community and people of color. After the Q&A, I came up to the table to ask whether you might be available to speak to our group in New Jersey. And then I did it. Right after all the talk about how women at atheist conferences get sexualized by men, I told you that your hair looked great and you ought to use a picture from the conference as your avatar.

I wasn’t hitting on you, and I hope you knew that. My wife told me later that she thought my comment was inappropriate in that setting, and I agreed with her after a short discussion. I saw you speak at the AA conference later that month but never got a chance to talk to you and apologize in person.

To make a long story short, all the recent discussions of male privilege and sexism involving PZ, Richard Dawkins, Jen McCreight, Ophelia Benson, Rebecca Watson and you have further enlightened the feminist I’ve always thought I was and made me remember my faux pas.

So I want to apologize. I want to emphasize that your writing is what first gripped and inspired me. And your speaking voice only enhances your talent of putting forth ideas with a clarity that only a few can match. I am constantly thrilled to have a person of your talent advocating for both the LGBT and atheist movements and look forward to a day in the future when equality for people of both groups is accepted as a matter-of-fact proposition.

I still think you looked great. But I should have waited until we met again in a more casual environment, say, sitting around a hotel bar, to pay you that compliment.

Best regards,
Tim Ridge

And this isn’t an isolated incident. Every time we have a huge shitstorm about sexism in the atheist movement, things get better. Every time the feminists break atheism, it gets put back together a little stronger, a little more conscious, a little less sexist. A couple/few years ago, whenever one of these fights broke out, it was mostly “girls against the boys”: largely women making the case against sexism, mostly men making the case that sexism wasn’t a problem or wasn’t worth paying attention to. Now, whenever one of these fights break out, there are a hefty number of men right in there fighting alongside the women. Many of the most eloquent and passionate voices defending Watson have been men: PZ Myers at Pharyngula, Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism, Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, many more. And comment threads in the blogosphere, while toxic and ugly, have had loads and loads of men battling against the ugliness and toxicity.

This. Is. Getting. Better.

Yes, we all want this issue to go away. You know how it’s going to go away? By dealing with it. You know what’s making it better? Talking about it.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll almost certainly say it again: As exasperated as I am at the fact that we have to keep having these fights, I am also thrilled beyond my power to express that we’re dealing with it now… instead of ten years from now, or twenty, or forty. To quote myself: We have a chance in the atheist movement to learn from the mistakes of the LGBT movement, and the mistakes of every other progressive movement before ours. Our movement — at least, the current incarnation of our movement, the visible and vocal and activist incarnation of our movement — is still relatively new. We have a unique opportunity to handle this problem early: before these self-perpetuating cycles become entrenched, before decades of ugly history and bad feelings poison the well. Every other social change movement I know of has been bitten on the ass by this issue, and desperately wishes now that they had dealt with it early, before bad habits and self-fulfilling prophecies got set in a deep groove that are hard to break out of. As exasperating and exhausting as it is, the fact that the atheist movement is hashing this out now — relatively early in our current incarnation as a highly visible, vocal, mobilized, activist movement — gives me tremendous hope for the future of our movement.

We are making atheism stronger. We are making the world less sexist. What we’re doing is working.

So to those of you who are trying to shut us up: Knock it off. You’re making it worse. If you really are well-meaning and are genuinely trying to stop atheism from getting broken by huge fights… it’s not working. The more you try to shut us up, the more thousand-plus comment threads you’re going to get. So please don’t throw gasoline on the flames. Please help us move this thing forward.

And to those of you who are bringing this up:

Keep up the good work. Thanks.


UPDATE: This piece has been linked to, on Pharyngula and lots of other places, and as a result, traffic and commenting is increasing significantly, including from many non-regulars. This is excellent… but it means that people are participating who aren’t familiar with the usual standard of discourse here. Quick summary: I encourage lively debate, but I also expect it to be civil. Criticize ideas and behavior, but please keep the heated rhetoric to a minimum, and don’t personally insult other commenters. I have already banned someone for trotting out the “We don’t have to listen to you because you’re ugly” trope. (Full comment policy is here.)

And it also means that the trolls are seriously starting to come out. Please, please, I beg of everyone: DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS. This conversation is loaded enough. If you’re not sure what constitutes trolling, consult Katie Hartman’s Bingo card. (My regular bulldogs are hereby authorized to give the trolls a “Thank you for sharing” on my behalf.)

My very, very strong preference would be to keep this conversation ON TOPIC. I don’t think we need to re-hash the details of Elevatorgate again. The specific topics raised by this piece were: (a) the proposal that men who steadfastly and angrily refuse to listen to women giving guidance about when and where their advances are likely to be welcomed are more interested in maintaining their privilege than in actually getting laid; (b) the suggestion that, if you disagree with women who are criticizing what they think is sexist behavior or language, you focus on their ideas rather than chiding them for expressing them, and that telling women to shut up about sexism is equivalent to religious believers telling atheists to shut up about atheism; and (c) the proposal that, as unpleasant as they are, these kinds of controversies are necessary for the health of the atheist movement, and that we are far better off having them now instead of ten or twenty years from now. Please, please, if you can possibly bear it, keep your comments focused on these ideas.

I’m leaving for TAM tomorrow, where I’ll be on the diversity panel — I know, perfect timing, right? — which means that as much as I would like to (and I’m serious, I really would like to), I won’t have time to participate in this comment discussion. I will be checking in periodically to moderate (and if necessary, bring down the banhammer on trolls), but I will not have the time to jump in. Greta’s Bulldogs are already doing an excellent job of saying pretty much everything I would have said on my own behalf, though, and I’ll trust them to keep it up. Thanks.

Why We Have to Talk About This: Atheism, Sexism, and Blowing Up The Internet

5 Faulty Arguments Religious People Use Against Atheists (Debunked)

Do atheists misunderstand religion? Or do believers still misunderstand atheists?

Do atheists really misunderstand religion?

I read the recent piece in Tikkun by Be Scofield, “5 Myths Atheists Believe about Religion” (reprinted in AlterNet as “5 Things Atheists Have Wrong About Religion”), with a fair degree of both trepidation and curiosity. Trepidation… because my experience has been that, when believers write about atheists, they usually get it laughably and even insultingly wrong. Curiosity… because there are things that the atheist community sometimes gets wrong, about religion and other topics, and I thought I might get some insight into stuff I might not have seen. I don’t think atheists are perfect — believe me, I am well aware of how imperfect we are — and I’m willing and even eager to look at things we might be missing.

But when I looked at these “myths” that atheists supposedly hold about religion, I was more than a bit baffled. Because none of these “myths” looked anything like myths to me. Instead, they looked like… well, like differences of opinion. At best, they were simply areas of disagreement: controversial topics, matters of subjective opinion, semantic squabbles. And at worst, they were red herrings, bafflegab, even complete misrepresentations of atheists’ actual positions.

So let’s look at these supposedly “ill-informed beliefs about religion.” And then let’s look at the assumption of religious privilege that underlies them… and at how religious believers defend this privilege by taking on the mantle of oppression and victimhood.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 5 Faulty Arguments Religious People Use Against Atheists (Debunked). To find out the five things about religion that atheists supposedly misunderstand — and why this accusation is not only horsepucky, but privileged horsepucky masquerading as martyrdom — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

5 Faulty Arguments Religious People Use Against Atheists (Debunked)

"The Ledge": Does Atheism Have Its "Brokeback Mountain"?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet. “The Ledge” is available now through On Demand and through online streaming from SundanceNow. It opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, July 8.

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A young man walks toward the ledge of a tall building. He is clearly filled with trepidation and even terror; at the same time, he has an equally clear air of purpose and resolve. That resolve: To jump.

It soon comes out that the man is an atheist. And the audience’s first thought might be, “Oh, right. Atheism — depressing, joyless, no sense of meaning or life’s value. Why wouldn’t he just kill himself?” But the story unfolds in places that are miles away from any such predictable path. Far from being depressed or joyless, the potential jumper, Gavin (Charlie Hunnam), has a singular joie de vivre. Far from having no meaning, his life is filled with compassion and intense moments of connection, both large and small. And his suicide attempt is not, as it turns out, a result of his seeing life as valueless and meaningless. It is, instead, an expression of his deep sense of how precious life is.

For reasons I can’t tell you without giving away the ending.

Let’s get this out of the way right at the start: I enjoyed the heck out of “The Ledge,” and am recommending it heartily to pretty much everyone. Atheists, believers who are curious about atheists, people who just like good movies — I recommend “The Ledge” to all of you. Written and directed by Matthew Chapman (author of Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir and 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania, as well as Charles Darwin’s great-grandson), “The Ledge” is smart, riveting, complex, emotionally engaging, visually gorgeous… and best of all, almost entirely unpredictable. Its characters are, well, human — likable, aggravating, tough, loving, damaged — and the story is unpredictable in exactly the ways that human beings are unpredictable. It’s not a perfect film — I’ll get to that in a tic — but its imperfections are ten times more compelling than most of the boilerplate crap regularly churned out by the Hollywood machinery. (The movie is available now through On Demand and through online streaming from SundanceNow; it opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on July 8.)

It’s hard to summarize the plot of “The Ledge” without giving too much away. And I’d truly hate to do that. Again, so much of what’s good about this movie is its unpredictability, and I’d hate to take away the pleasure of seeing its surprises unfold. So I’ll do my best to explain without spoiling. Soon after Gavin climbs onto on the ledge, he’s confronted by a police officer, Hollis (Terrence Howard), who tries to talk him down. And as Hollis gets Gavin to tell him why he’s on the ledge, we see the strange story of the events that led him out there.

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It’s a story of sex, love, revenge, and religion. A thriller, of sorts. Gavin meets an attractive new neighbor, Shana (Liv Tyler): a sweet, pensive, buttoned-down young woman married to an intense Christian extremist, Joe (Patrick Wilson). Joe’s genuine devotion to Shana shows up in the form of paternalism and possessiveness… and his genuine devotion to God shows up in the form of close-mindedness and homophobic bigotry. So Gavin begins a scheme to liberate Shana away from Joe and into his own bed: partly out of lust, partly out of compassion, and partly out of pissy hostility towards Joe and his religion. But what starts as a casual, almost light-hearted game becomes intensely real — as Gavin and Shana’s connection grows stronger, as Shana’s dilemma becomes more vivid, and as Joe’s insecurity — about both Shana and his own religious faith — becomes increasingly volatile.

Gavin is the central character here. And in the pantheon of movie characters, he is both one of the more distinctive and one of the more instantly recognizable that I’ve seen in a while. As his story unfolded, I kept wondering, “Where is he going with this? What makes him tick? What on earth is he going to do next?” And at the same time, I kept thinking, “Oh, my lack of God — I know this guy.” Passionate, funny, combative, compassionate, way too quick with a snarky barb, equally quick to apologize and admit that he’s an asshole, tender-hearted, quick-witted, competitive, impulsive, hard-assed, firmly realistic, fervently idealistic… I know this guy. I see dozens of people like him on atheist forums every day. Heck — I’m more than a little like him myself. It’s something I’ve said many times: To make characters that an audience can identify with, you don’t make them generic and lowest- common- denominator. You make them personal. You make them quirky, complex, mixed-up, unique. You make them human. Humans are what other humans identify with… and writer/ director Chapman has done that in trumps with Gavin.

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And he’s done it with the rest of the characters in “The Ledge” as well. This is a story of heroism and villainy… but it isn’t a story of cartoon heroes and villains. The villain of the piece, Joe, is almost as complex and nuanced as Gavin. The movie is clearly taking Gavin’s side, but it goes out of its way to show where Joe’s religious extremism comes from and why he clings to it so strongly, and whenever he came on screen, I found myself feeling an uneasy blend of compassion and revulsion. The woman caught in the middle, Shana, has a quiet, compelling strength peering out from her apparent meekness. I sometimes found her to be frustratingly passive — it would have been nice if the main female character actually made some stuff happen and hadn’t primarily been the prize in the game played between two men — but her few moments of real choice have a thoughtful, carefully- considered gravitas, offering a dramatic contrast to Gavin’s impulsive, often blundering willfulness. Hollis, the detective trying to talk Gavin down from the ledge, is a good man having a very, very bad day. The crisis with Gavin coincides with one of the worst personal crises of his own life, and he juggles both with a mix of calm and despair, morality and rage, compassion and bewilderment, a strong man being shaken to his core. In many ways, he’s the foundation the film is built on, and I don’t think it’s an accident that the movie opens and closes on him and his story.

And the scenes between Gavin and his best friend/ roommate, Chris (Christopher Gorham), are among the most authentic of the entire movie. The way the two friends keep touching on the subject of religion, and then stepping back from it because they know they can’t talk about it without it causing a rift… it felt like a hand cupping my heart and then twisting, just a little. I know that. I’ve lived that. It’s one of the saddest, hardest things about my friendships with believers: it’s this hugely important issue, for me and for them, and there’s no way to talk about it seriously without it starting a fight. And so it is with Gavin and Chris. They show their love for each other, not by pushing forward on an intensely personal matter, but by carefully stepping around it. It made me want to cry… more than any of the characters’ tragic histories or romantic dramas. (And yes — the gay best friend/ roommate gets to have a love life, and even a sex life. Praise Jebus.)

There are places, I’ll admit, where the dialogue gets a little… not false, exactly, but stilted. In particular, the conversations about religion often play like a bit like a comment thread in an atheist blog. An exchange of abstract ideas, rather than a personal conversation. But on the occasions when it does that, it pulls back into the human realm very quickly. And even though these debates are so absurdly familiar to me I could probably recite them in my sleep — “The problem of suffering! The argument from locality! The utility defense!” — I have to acknowledge that this probably won’t be true for much of the audience. If you don’t spend the bulk of your professional life hanging around the atheist blogosphere, the ideas and arguments in “The Ledge” about religion and atheism may be very new indeed. Unsettling. Emotionally intense. Possibly even mind-blowing.

The producers of “The Ledge” are pitching it as atheism’s “Brokeback Mountain.” And while I think that’s something of an exaggeration, I don’t think it’s much of one. “The Ledge” is an intensely personal film that explores broad social questions on a private, human scale. It has an unapologetic viewpoint on the issues in question, without shying away from the complexities and sorrows and thorny, unanswerable questions they raise. It makes the marginalized character likeable and heroic, and at the same time lets him be flawed and troubled and often kind of a jerk. The parallels are hard to ignore.

I’m not quite ready to call this the atheist “Brokeback Mountain,” though. It’s an excellent movie, and it’s an entirely unique movie; but it’s not the nearly flawless work of genius that “Brokeback Mountain” was. The flaws I’ve already mentioned aren’t the only ones. The movie is more than willing to let Gavin be troubled and morally imperfect — but when it comes to the fact that Shana is not just his married neighbor but his employee, and that seducing her is sexual harassment, it shrugs and looks the other way. On a related note: I’m really, really, irritated that, in 2011, thoughtful, independent, culturally sensitive filmmakers are still making films that fail the Bechdel Test. (A failure that’s even more troubling here, given the main female character’s passivity, and her role primarily as the pawn in the two men’s game.) And the tragedies in the main characters’ pasts seem more than a little forced, a needlessly melodramatic way of gaining the audience’s sympathy. (The sad sex work history particularly got up my nose. Can we please knock it off with that particular stereotype, folks?)

So no. I don’t know if “The Ledge” is atheism’s “Brokeback Mountain.” But you know what? I don’t know if atheism needs a “Brokeback Mountain.” Atheism hasn’t yet had a “Children’s Hour,” or a “Cabaret,” or a “Philadelphia.” Hell, atheism hasn’t even had a “Hairspray.” I can certainly think of atheist characters in mainstream American films — mostly amoral, cynical, depressed, emotionally clueless, emotionally distant, or a combination of the above. But I can think of damn few atheist film characters who were likeable, sympathetic, and even heroic. And I can’t think of a single mainstream film that was not only about an atheist, but that was about atheism. I can’t think of a single mainstream film before this one that was a serious attempt to convey the reality of atheists’ experience.

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“The Ledge” isn’t atheism’s “Brokeback Mountain.” “Brokeback Mountain” was the result of decades of activism and consciousness- raising — about LGBT people in general, and about media depictions of LGBT people in particular. “The Ledge” isn’t that. It isn’t the culmination of a decades-long cinematic conversation about atheism.

It’s the beginning of it.

And that might be even more important.

“The Ledge”. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson, Terrence Howard, and Christopher Gorham. Produced by Mark Damon and Michael Mailer. Written and directed by Matthew Chapman. IFC Films. Unrated.

"The Ledge": Does Atheism Have Its "Brokeback Mountain"?

Brief Blog Semi-Break

Forgot to mention: I’m on a family vacation, with limited time to blog, and also with an intense desire to actually take something that resembles a break. So I won’t be blogging much this week. I’ll do a reprint or two; I’m working on a piece for AlterNet that I’ll link to. But I’m not going to be here much until nest week. Please find the courage to carry on without me somehow.

Brief Blog Semi-Break