"Same-sex marriage isn't right because your god thinks it's awesome."

So I’m watching Bishop Gene Robinson, the gay Episcopal bishop, get interviewed on the Daily Show, discussing same-sex marriage and plugging his book, “God Believes In Love.” I’m sure he means well… but I’m finding myself getting more and more irritated.

Reason for irritation #1: I keep thinking of something Chris Hall said at the Godless Perverts Story Hour: “Same-sex marriage isn’t wrong because your god hates it. But it isn’t right because your god thinks it’s awesome. Same-sex marriage is right or wrong because of how it affects the people involved.”

Unless you can provide some convincing evidence that your god, you know, exists, I don’t give a damn whether your god believes in love, or whether your holy book says that “where love is, there is God also.” And I don’t see any reason why I should. Unless you can provide some convincing evidence that your god not only exists, but thinks what you think he thinks, the question of what God does or does not think should not be part of the political discourse. Of course you should have the legal right to insert it into the political discourse… but it’s seriously unhelpful. Political decisions should be made based on what helps and hurts people, not on what helps and hurts invisible mythical beings.

Reason for irritation #2: I’m really sick of the “Gay couples are just like straight ones, we play board games with our kids and go to church” trope. Not all LGBT people are just like mainstream straight people. (For that matter, not all straight people are, either.) Some of us fuck like rabbits, have multiple partners both casual and serious, spend our Saturday nights at bars or sex parties or atheist porn readings. We still deserve rights.

I’m just sayin’, is all.

(Note: If you want to be kept informed about upcoming Godless Perverts Story Hours, follow us on Twitter, @GodlessPerverts. Or drop me an email, greta (at) gretachristina (dot) com, and we’ll add you to the email list as soon as we create it.)

"Same-sex marriage isn't right because your god thinks it's awesome."

6 Inspiring Atheist Women and Atheists Of Color

A version of this piece was originally published, under a different title, on AlterNet.

Atheism is often seen as a white men’s club. But there have always been atheist women and atheists of color — and they can inspire anyone.

Richard Dawkins. Christopher Hitchens. Sam Harris. Charles Darwin. Mark Twain.

These are the names and faces many people associate with atheism. And apart from their atheism, they all have something in common: They’re all white guys. Atheism is often seen as a white men’s club — by believers, and by all too many atheists as well.

But for as long as there have been atheists, there have been atheist women and atheists of color. Some have been vocal and ardent about their atheism; for some, their atheism has been much more incidental to their life’s work. And some of that life’s work has been incredible. Some of it has changed the world… not just for atheists, but for everybody. When you’re imagining the face of atheism, I hope some of these faces — faces from history, or alive and yelling today — will come to mind.

Frida Kahlo
1: Frida Kahlo. One of the most magnificent and beloved painters of the modern era. Of any era. really. Her work is accessible and challenging, iconic and iconoclastic, introspective and expansive, deeply unsettling and richly beautiful. Largely self-taught, indeed largely self-invented, she is an inspiration and a hero to millions.

And she was as atheist. As John Timpane of the Philadelphia Inquirer put it: “She is, however, an uneasy fit for Mexican culture. In this country dominated by tradition and Catholicism, she was an atheist communist (in and out of the party).” And as she herself put it in a poem written to her husband Diego Rivera (from Finding Frida Kahlo by Barbara Levine):
Your absence
kills me, making
a virtue
of your memory.
You are the nonexisting

Elizabeth Cady Stanton
2: Elizabeth Cady Stanton. You might have heard of her. Palled around with Susan B. Anthony. Largely responsible for the women’s suffrage and women’s rights movements in the United States. Sometimes credited as the primary instigator of these movements in fact. If you’re a woman in the United States, and you vote, you have this woman to thank.

Big old non-believer. A freethinker

, technically (the more common term in her day than “atheist”). And not just a non-theist — an ardent anti-religionist. The co-author of the Women’s Bible, which re-examines the Bible as a literary fiction and critiques its degrading teachings on women, she proposed a resolution at the 1885 National Woman Suffrage Association that would have condemned all religions “teaching that woman was an afterthought in creation, her sex a misfortune, marriage a condition of subordination, and maternity a curse,” and stating this:

“You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded woman. What power is it that makes the Hindoo woman burn herself upon the funeral pyre of her husband? Her religion. What holds the Turkish woman in the harem? Her religion. By what power do the Mormons perpetuate their system of polygamy? By their religion. Man, of himself, could not do this; but when he declares, `Thus saith the Lord,’ of course he can do it. So long as ministers stand up and tell us Christ is the head of the Church, so is man the head of women, how are we to break the chains which have held women down through the ages?

A. Philip Randolph
3: A. Philip Randolph. Founder of the March on Washington Movement — you’ve heard of that, right? Founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — the enormously influential labor and civil rights organization, and the first labor organization led by blacks to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor. One of the great early leaders of the civil rights movement. Once known as the most dangerous black person in America; later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon B. Johnson. (I can’t decide which of those is more awesome. Maybe the two put together.)

Atheist. He once wrote, “We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.” In fact, he was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 1970, and was a signatory of the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II.

4: Zora Neale Hurston. Brilliant Harlem Renaissance writer. Anthropologist. Ethnographer. Folklorist. Best known and beloved for her 1937 masterpiece novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Enormously influential in the worlds of literature, anthropology, oral tradition, African American folklore, and just about every other damn thing except maybe particle physics.

Non-believer. Even as a child, she was beginning to question the unquestioning faith and dogma of her congregation. She wrote of those years she could not “understand the passionate declarations of love for a being that nobody could see…. When I was asked if I loved God, I always said yes because I knew that was the thing I was supposed to say. It was a guilty secret with me for a long time.” She eventually concluded, “Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.”

Salman Rushdie
5: Salman Rushdie. I hope I don’t have to tell you who this guy is. Staggeringly brilliant, multiple award-winning author, whose awards include the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction, Author of the Year (British Book Awards), Author of the Year (Germany), Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award, and… oh, just look at the list yourself. Most famous, unfortunately, for writing a book that some fundamentalist Islamist leaders found upsetting… and, as a direct result, getting targeted with hit men.

And in his 1985 essay “In God We Trust,” he wrote, “God, Satan, Paradise, and Hell all vanished one day in my fifteenth year, when I quite abruptly lost my faith… and afterwards, to prove my new-found atheism, I bought myself a rather tasteless ham sandwich, and so partook for the first time of the forbidden flesh of the swine. No thunderbolt arrived to strike me down. […] From that day to this I have thought of myself as a wholly secular person.”

Natalie Angier
6: Natalie Angier. If you haven’t read The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science
, you have thus far missed one of the great joys of life. I encourage you to remedy the matter at once. New York Times science journalist Natalie Angier is one of the most purely joyful ambassadors of science I have ever read, seen, heard, or perceived by any other sensory apparatus. Blending giddy exuberance with thorough, painstaking, no-joke research, she conveys the hard facts about science with excitement, passion, clarity, humor, and… well, joy. Her love for the physical world, in all its complexity and profound weirdness, is infectious, and entirely inspiring.

And she is an outspoken, even ferocious atheist. From her piece in the New York Times magazine, Confessions of a Lonely Atheist:

So, I’ll out myself. I’m an Atheist. I don’t believe in God, Gods, Godlets or any sort of higher power beyond the universe itself, which seems quite high and powerful enough to me. I don’t believe in life after death, channeled chat rooms with the dead, reincarnation, telekinesis or any miracles but the miracle of life and consciousness, which again strike me as miracles in nearly obscene abundance. I believe that the universe abides by the laws of physics, some of which are known, others of which will surely be discovered, but even if they aren’t, that will simply be a result, as my colleague George Johnson put it, of our brains having evolved for life on this one little planet and thus being inevitably limited. I’m convinced that the world as we see it was shaped by the again genuinely miraculous, let’s even say transcendent, hand of evolution through natural selection.

Important note: This isn’t meant to be the six best women and atheists of color, or the six most famous, or the six most important. Just six who happened to catch my attention and capture my imagination. Just an almost-random six… out of the countless others who equally deserve to be recognized and celebrated.

And there are countless others. If I had space here, I could have told you about W. E. B. Du Bois. Wafa Sultan. Kenan Malik. Hubert Henry Harrison. Susan Jacoby. Simon Singh. S.T. Joshi. Hector Avalos. Rebecca Goldstein. Sikivu Hutchinson. Maryam Namazie. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy. Diego Rivera (“I am an atheist and I consider religions to be a form of collective neurosis.”). Julia Sweeney (“After I stopped believing in God, I realized it was completely up to me to create my own meaning and my purpose was my own.”). Arundhati Roy (“[Do you] think that there’s a god overseeing [your] life?” ” No, I am just like an animal. I have no religion.”) .

So when someone tells you that atheists have no morality, no joy, no purpose to their lives, no reason to care about others, no reason to work for the greater good… remember these people. And the next time someone tells you that atheism is a white men’s club… remember them. These are the faces of atheism, too. And they are some of the most remarkable faces in our history.

NOTE: When this piece was originally published, it was a list of seven, not six: the seventh was Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In reprinting the list here, I’ve edited it down to six. I’ve done this partly because I’ve been persuaded, by the original discussion of this piece when it was first printed as well as by other sources, that as inspiring as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s personal story may be, her political views are sufficiently troubling for her not to be included here. And I’ve done it partly because, frankly, I was distressed at the degree to which the original discussion of “awesome atheist women and atheist of color” was focused on the one person on the list that some people didn’t like, and I wasn’t up for having that happen again. Just in case anyone was wondering.

6 Inspiring Atheist Women and Atheists Of Color

Greta Christina on the Image of Atheists: Video for "A Better Life"

Have you heard about Chris Johnson’s book project, “A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World Without God”? Photographer Chris Johnson has been traveling around the world, photographing atheists and talking with us about how our atheism shapes the meaning of our lives, for a hardcover full-color coffee table book featuring photographs and quotes from each subject. Says Johnson: “From the college professor, to the farmer in Kansas, I want to document my fellow atheists and ask them what brings meaning and joy to their lives. The goal of the book is to visually capture the diversity of non-believers and the ways they maintain a better life, not in spite of their atheism, but because of it.”

A couple of months ago he came to San Francisco to talk with me and take my photo. He’s doing videos of interviews with the book’s subjects as well as photographs — and here’s mine.

There’s lots of other videos in this series as well, many of which are awesome. Enjoy!

Greta Christina on the Image of Atheists: Video for "A Better Life"

New blog design!

As you’ve almost certainly noticed, Freethought Blogs has a new design! Hope you like it!

We’re working a few of the bugs out of it now — and you can help. If you run into any bugs, features that used to be in the old design that you liked and miss, or features in the new design that you don’t like — please say so in the comments here! If you’re giving a bug report, please describe the bug as thoroughly as you can, and let us know what browser and operating system you’re using. Thanks!

New blog design!

Is Religion Really Religious? The Baseball Analogy

I’ve been thinking, for no particular reason, about an argument that sometimes gets made about religion: by believers, and occasionally by atheists. It goes roughly like this:

“Religion isn’t defined by belief in the supernatural. It’s about so much more than that: community, history, philosophy, music. So it’s unfair to criticize the institution of religion solely by criticizing supernatural beliefs.”

Believer Be Scofield made this argument a while back, somewhat crudely, when he chided me for having “myths” about religion… one of those “myths” being that religion is a belief in the supernatural. Atheist Daniel Fincke made a more nuanced version of a similar argument, when he discussed what would be left of religion if the belief in the supernatural were removed (“potentially a lot”).

I was thinking about this recently, and an analogy popped into my head.

hot dog
Would you define “baseball” as “an event at which people eat hot dogs, drink beer, and sing the National Anthem”?

Certainly that’s an accurate description. Baseball certainly is an event at which people eat hot dogs, drink beer, and sing the National Anthem. (At least in the United States: I don’t know what the baseball culinary and musical traditions are in, say, Japan or Central America.) In fact, I’ll go further than that: In the U.S. at least, hot dogs and beer and the National Anthem are closely intertwined with baseball, to the point where each often evokes thoughts about the other, and each tradition has influenced the other in a symbiotic way.

But “hot dogs/ beer/ National Anthem” are not the unique defining characteristics of baseball. Hot dogs, beer, and the National Anthem are consumed/ sung at other events, separately and together. If you were at a Fourth of July picnic at which hot dogs were eaten, beer was drunk, and the National Anthem was sung, you wouldn’t call it a baseball game. It might evoke memories about baseball, or musings about it. Those memories and musings might even inspire picnickers to start a game. But it wouldn’t define the picnic as a baseball game.

And conversely: If a baseball game were played at which no hot dogs were eaten, no beer was drunk, and no National Anthem was sung, it would still be a baseball game. You might think it wasn’t a very fun baseball game; you might even make a joke about how “This isn’t a proper baseball game — there’s no hot dogs or beer or National Anthem!” But in a non-joking context — if you were asked, say, to testify in court about whether you were at a baseball game that day — you would acknowledge that yes, it was a baseball game. Even with its shocking lack of hot dogs and beer and National Anthems.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Yes, religions are commonly associated with community, history, philosophy, music. These things are closely intertwined, and have been for many centuries — to the point where each often evokes thoughts about the other, and each tradition has influenced the other in a symbiotic way. But they aren’t defined by the other. Religion is not uniquely defined as an institution with community, history, philosophy, and music. Many institutions exist with community, history, philosophy, and music, without being religious. And if you come up with a belief system about a supernatural world all by yourself in your apartment, with no community or history or philosophy or music, it would still be a religion.

Baseball is not defined as an event at which people eat hot dogs, drink beer, and sing the National Anthem. That’s not what makes baseball unique. That’s not what makes it baseball. Baseball is defined as a sporting event with certain specific rules, with a pitcher and batters and three strikes and home runs and so on. And religion is not defined as an institution with community, history, philosophy, and music. That’s not what makes religion unique. That’s not what makes it religion. Religion, for the overwhelming majority of people who believe in it, means a belief in supernatural entities or forces with some effect on the natural world.

So if you like hot dogs and beer and National Anthems, but you think baseball is the most tedious sport on earth, you don’t have to go to a baseball game. You can go to picnics, or organize your own “hot dog/ beer/ National Anthem” parties. You can even criticize baseball publicly. Your criticism would generally be seen as a criticism of the game… not as an unfair attack on the fine traditions of hot dogs, beer, and National Anthems.

And if you like community and history and philosophy and music — and heck, who doesn’t — but you think religion is false at best and toxic at worst? You don’t have to join a religion. You can participate in other kinds of communities, or start your own. You can even criticize religion publicly. And it is entirely fair to criticize the institution of religion solely by criticizing supernatural beliefs. That’s what “religion” means. And when believers try to defend religion by saying, “Religion doesn’t mean supernatural beliefs!”, it makes me think that they know, on some level, that the supernatural beliefs are indefensible.


UPDATE: Comment from Nathair that, if you don’t mind my saying so, hit it out of the park:

But you forgot the part about how baseball is therefore responsible for hot dogs, beer, and national anthems and by logical extension responsible for all food, drink and music. Plus, lest we forget, baseball has rules so clearly it’s the basis for all of our laws too.

Is Religion Really Religious? The Baseball Analogy

My Skyped-In Talk at Skepticon 5, or, Greta's Giant Floating Wizard of Oz Head Speaks!

In an entertainingly weird form of meta-technology, here is a YouTube video of my Skyped-in talk at Skepticon 5. I had to cancel my scheduled talk at Skepticon 5, which was sad and frustrating and drove me up a fucking tree. In fact, when I was talking with my oncologist about scheduling my hysterectomy, for about three nanoseconds I considered postponing it until after Skepticon. I love Skepticon, it’s one of my favorite events on the atheist calendar, and I hated that I had to miss it.

But the Skepticon organizers set it up so that I could make an appearance anyway, via the wonders of 21st century technology. So here is the YouTube video of me giving my talk, and taking questions, in the form of a giant floating head on the video screen, Skyped-in remotely from San Francisco to Missouri. I am the great and powerful Oz!

My topic… well, I didn’t bother give this talk a title, since it was pretty specific to these circumstances and I’m unlikely to repeat it. But if I were to give it one, it would probably be, “How Atheism and Skepticism Help in a Shitstorm.” In it, I talk about how atheism, humanism, materialism, naturalism, and skepticism have helped me through the difficulties of the last couple of months… and why I think these comforts and supports are stronger and more powerful than the false ones offered by religion. Ingrid also makes a brief appearance, as does Houdini.

It was a deeply weird experience: I couldn’t see or hear anything that was happening on the Missouri end of things, so from my end it just felt like a very long-winded Skype call. It’s weird giving a talk when you can’t see or hear your audience, and so can’t gauge their reactions and adjust your talk accordingly. Also, some people were watching it live through streaming, which added yet another layer of techno-meta to the proceedings. Also, I was hopped up on Vicodin. Watching it now, I’m kind of amazed that I managed to be that coherent. But as weird as it was, I’m very glad I was able to do it, and am deeply grateful to the Skepticon organizers and technicians who made it happen. Enjoy!

My Skyped-In Talk at Skepticon 5, or, Greta's Giant Floating Wizard of Oz Head Speaks!

Update on Cancer Recovery and Stuff

It’s been a little while since I’ve blogged, and I’m starting to feel better and like I can do some writing again, so wanted to give y’all an update/ prognosis on my recovery from my cancer surgery.

As regular readers know, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer — that’s cancer of the uterine lining — in mid-October, and had a laparoscopic hysterectomy on October 24. The cancer turned out to be Stage 1, limited to the uterus, not in my ovaries or my lymph nodes, and they’re pretty sure they got it all. I don’t have cancer anymore: I’m now in process of recovering from the surgery.

Recovery from abdominal surgery is a bitch, though, and the last few weeks have been difficult and exhausting. Everyone tells me I’m recovering well and quickly; I know intellectually that that’s so, and I even feel it. Five weeks ago I could barely get off the sofa by myself, and I couldn’t turn over in bed without serious pain. Now I’m taking 45-minute walks, and am even hitting the gym. (Very lightly. “Gently tapping the gym” might be more accurate.) Also, five weeks ago I was maxed out on Vicodin and Ibuprofen around the clock: now I’m off pain meds entirely. (Thank goodness. Vicodin is semi-fun for about a week, and it sure does kill the pain, but it gets old fast. I like having my brain back.) I know my recovery is going about as well as could be expected, and I’m grateful for it. (I’m also deeply glad that I’ve been taking care of my health as well as I have in the last few years. I know that’s made my recovery go much better.)

But it’s been a hard slog: sometimes painful, often uncomfortable, almost always tiring. Emotionally as well as physically. I always have to remind myself: emotional stress is physically exhausting. And getting cancer, plus my dad dying so soon before the cancer diagnosis, has been stressful as hell. But my recovery has mostly been progressing steadily. I’ve had a few setbacks: I had a bad setback with my pain when I started running low on pain meds and my prescribing doctor decided that I had to be tightly rationed (a topic for another post); I had another bad setback when I had a bad reaction to my new anti-depressant meds (miscommunication from the pharmacy about dosage); a couple others. On the whole, though, the direction has been pretty steadily towards better.

Right now, I’m in kind of an odd in-between place. I’m not in much pain anymore, and I’m beginning to recover my physical strength and stamina. I can do most of what I was able to do before the cancer diagnosis and the surgery. But I can’t do as much of it. If that makes sense. Here’s what I mean: I can take a long walk, or I can do a gym trip, or I can write an essay, or I can get semi-caught-up on some of my email, or I can run errands, or I can have a social night with friends… but on most days, I can’t do more than one of those things. Lately I’ve sometimes been able to do two of those things, or one and a half of them (a gym trip plus a little email, an essay plus a medium-sized walk, a social evening plus a couple of errands), and that’s been a big advance. Also, I’m trying to keep a little energy in reserve, in case something unexpected happens that I have to deal with. (Has everyone read The Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino, about managing daily activities with chronic illness? It’s more or less what I’m getting at here. Except that for me, fortunately, this is temporary.)

So I’m doing better… but I’m not 100% yet, or even all that close to it. It may take a while to get back to where I was before the surgery. (When I asked my oncologist about resuming exercise once the “no heavy lifting for six weeks” ban was up, he said I should act as if I’d been inactive for a year and was just starting a new exercise regimen. To which my response was, “FUUUUUUUUUUCK!”) I get tired more easily; I get irritated more easily; small things upset me all out of proportion. In fact, I’ve been trying not to think in terms of “getting back to where I was” or “getting my life back.” I’ve been trying to think in terms of “moving forward.” I don’t think I’m going to be the same person after this that I was before it. Some things will be the same; some things will be different. Some of what I’m going through now will be temporary; some of it won’t be. I don’t know yet which is which.

In the next few weeks, I’ll probably be blogging more than I have been since the surgery — but not as much as I was before it. I know that it doesn’t look like it from the outside… but writing is work. I know that it looks like sitting around on the sofa dicking around on the Internet… but it’s not. It’s work. And since I typically have energy to write something substantial or to do substantial physical exercise, but not both, right now I’m prioritizing the physical exercise. The physical exercise is the lynchpin that everything else hangs on. If I can get my physical strength and stamina back up, I’ll get my mental energy back up, and my emotional energy, and my mood/ mental health. So if it’s a choice between writing or going to the gym, most days I’m going the gym.

There are some very tricky balances with this recovery. With physical activity especially. I need to be physically active if I’m going to keep getting better, and I need to add a little more physical activity all the time. At the same time, my body has been through serious trauma — including the part of my body that is my brain — and I need rest, much more than usual. So I’m trying to find that sweet spot, that window, that perfect balance between getting more exercise and giving myself rest.

We all have these windows, of course. Even entirely healthy people. You probably wouldn’t run a marathon in the morning, cook Thanksgiving dinner for twenty people in the afternoon, and go out dancing all night. You’d plan your life better than that. Even healthy people have to decide how much energy they have for the day, how much activity is too much. But when you’re sick, the window between “too much” and “not enough” is very, very narrow. It’s like one of those tiny slits in castles that people used to shoot arrows through. And I have to plan my life accordingly. I can’t just “trust my instincts” or “trust my body.” I have to think, carefully, every day, about how much time I’m going to spend exercising, and how much time I’m going to spend doing emails or writing, and how much time I’m going to spend sitting on my ass watching “How I Met Your Mother.” (Again: read The Spoon Theory. Must-read.)

Fortunately — if “fortunately” is the right word here — I’m somewhat used to having to manage this kind of balance. I have the same one when I’m dealing with depression. Staying active is one of the main things I do to alleviate the depression, both short-term and long-term… but if I overdo it I get exhausted and stressed, which makes my depression worse. Physical activity, social activity, rest, sleep… all have to be carefully balanced to manage my depression, to help make it get better and keep it from getting worse. I’m used to it. I know how to do it.And I know how to recognize it when I’m slipping too far in one direction or the other. So there’s that.

Enough for now. There’s more, but it’s a nice day right now and I want to get some sunshine, and I want to get to the gym today if I can. I’ll write more later, and if nothing else I’ll start throwing up some links and stuff soon. Thanks for being patient.

Update on Cancer Recovery and Stuff