How Atheism and Skepticism Can Take On Social Justice Without Mission Drift — Crowdsourcing!

Please note: This post has a somewhat different comment policy than the usual one here. It’s provided at the end of the piece.

If the atheist and skeptical movements focus on political and social justice issues, will that constitute mission drift?


So how, exactly, do we do this?

I’ve written about this topic before. I’ve pointed out that it’s certainly not mission drift for atheist and skeptical organizations to pay attention to social justice in internal matters — such as hiring, event pricing, event accessibility, etc. And I’ve pointed out that it’s not mission drift for atheist and skeptical organizations to actively work on social justice issues that overlap with their existing missions. I’ve pointed out that our organizations are already doing some of this — skeptics working on global warming denialism, atheists working on religious oppression of LGBT people, both kinds of organizations offering student pricing for conferences — without anyone complaining about mission drift. I’m not going to get into that debate again here. Instead, I want to crowdsource some answers to the question:

How, exactly, could we do this?

What exact social justice issues could atheist and skeptical organizations work on that would be consistent with their existing missions? What exact social justice issues would overlap with the missions of promoting critical thinking and rationality, seeking good evidence for testable claims, advocating church/state separation, opposing harm done by religion, creating communities and support systems for atheists and skeptics, etc.?

And when it comes to social justice issues in internal matters, what could atheist and skeptical organizations do that they aren’t already doing — or what could they be doing better?

I want to compile a list of specific, practical ideas, which interested organizations can consult if they want to expand their efforts in these areas. And frankly, I don’t want any of our organizations, interested or otherwise, to be able to claim, “We can’t do social justice stuff! Mission drift! Nooooooo!” When and if they do, I want us to be able to provide an extensive, detailed list of specific, practical, non-drifty options.

I’ll get the ball rolling with just a few specific examples of the kinds of things I mean.

Skeptical organizations could examine testable claims made by proponents of the drug war.
Skeptical organizations could do education about quackery and pseudoscience in the cosmetics industry.
Atheist organizations could fight abstinence-only sex education in the public schools, which is largely promoted by the Religious Right.
Atheist organizations could publicize and oppose the growing influence of the religious right on reproductive rights.
All our organizations could work towards scheduling meetings and events near public transportation.
All our organizations could work towards having sign language interpreters at events.

What else?

Please make your suggestions specific. “Making meetings more welcoming to women” isn’t hugely helpful. “Providing child care at meetings” is a lot more helpful. And to the extent that you can, please show your work: explain how, precisely, your suggestion overlaps with the existing missions of atheist and/or skeptical organizations.

If possible, please note whether your suggestion applies to skeptical organizations, atheist organizations, or both. And please note whether your suggestion applies to internal matters, the actual mission-specific work of the organizations, or both.

Comment policy for this post: I do not want this comment thread to turn into a debate about whether atheist and skeptic organizations should be focusing on social justice. If you want to get into that debate, please do so in the original post on mission drift. This comment thread is for people who are already on board with this basic idea, and who want to propose and discuss specific ways of carrying it out. Attempts to derail that conversation will be met with disemvoweling, being put into comment moderation, or, in extreme or persistent cases, outright banning. Thanks for understanding.

Your time starts… now!

How Atheism and Skepticism Can Take On Social Justice Without Mission Drift — Crowdsourcing!

State Senator to Constituents: "My Oath of Office Means Jack To Me"

From Salon:

State Sen. Jason Rapert, the man behind Arkansas’ ban on abortion at twelve weeks, may have been elected to office to serve the 85,000 constituents in his district, but, he says, he only really serves God.

“It’s more important to do what is right by God,” Rapert told an audience at the Faith2Action banquet in Columbus, Ohio, “than it is to please those that would rather have me talk about pro-life but not really do much about pro-life.”

“There’s only one vote that matters and that’s when I stand before the Lord at the judgment seat,” he added, just in case it wasn’t clear.

Yeah. About that, Senator Rapert.

I looked up the Oath of Office for State Senators in the state of Arkansas. Wasn’t hard. Took about thirty seconds of Googling. You might want to try it when you have a sec. Here’s what it says:

“I, ________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Arkansas, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of ________, upon which I am now about to enter.”

Please note the lack of any reference to doing what is right by God.

And this is the oath you swore. This is the position you campaigned for. This is the job you were elected to do.

If you want to spend your life doing what is right by your idea of God… there are jobs where you can do that. You can be a preacher, a missionary, a Bible salesman, a teacher at a Bible school, a data entry clerk at a mail-order Christian supply company.

But you didn’t want that. You wanted to be a state senator. And when you became a state senator, you made a promise. You swore an oath. And you did not swear an oath to serve God. You swore an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, to support the Constitution of the State of Arkansas, and to faithfully discharge the duties of your office.

So what you’re saying now is: “I lied. Yes, I promised to support the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Arkansas, and to faithfully discharge the duties of my office. And when I promised that, I lied like a dog. I had another agenda, a different set of priorities. If I have to choose between serving the constituents who elected me, and serving my personal idea of what I think my deity wants, I’m going to choose the latter. And I totally, barefacedly lied about that. Fuck all y’all.”

What’s more: I’d bet dollars to donuts that you swore this oath. I’d bet dollars to donuts that you didn’t affirm it, which is the secular version of oath-swearing. I’d bet a hundred dollars that when you made this promise, you made it with the implication that you were making it with your god as your witness. You made your god into your witness, the god you supposedly want to serve above all else — and you baldly lied.

I’m just sayin’, is all.

State Senator to Constituents: "My Oath of Office Means Jack To Me"

Sex Work for Introverts: Some Sentimental Thoughts on the Closing of a Peep Show

San Francisco Lusty Lady Theatre
The Lusty Lady — the renowned San Francisco peep show, famed in sex-positive feminist and lefty circles for being the first strip club to unionize, and later the first strip club to become a worker-owned collective — is closing its doors on Monday, September 2.

Chris Hall (co-founder and co-organizer of the Godless Perverts) has an excellent story up about it on Slixa: both about the history of the theater, and the factors that led to its closing. The Lusty was a special place in a lot of ways: it employed women with a far wider range of body types than any other strip club in the city, it welcomed a wider range of body expressions (piercings, tattoos, weird hair) than any other strip club in the city, and it was known as a breeding ground for sex-positive activists, writers, theorists, artists, filmmakers, performers, and more. For years, you couldn’t take ten steps in the San Francisco sex-positive scene without tripping over a current or former Lusty.

It was a mixed bag — I worked there before it was unionized, and the shit-ass management at the time was the reason I left. But it was a hugely formative experience for me, one I have never regretted. It shaped my understanding of sex work, of body image, of my own sexuality, in ways that continue to resonate. It inspired me to edit my first book: Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients
. I loved the work itself (most of the time): getting an hourly wage to explore and reinforce my sexuality in a small mirrored room full of naked women was, in many ways, a dream job for me. And I loved the other dancers: it was my introduction to a real sexual sisterhood, and that experience stays with me to this day.

Chris interviewed me for his story, asking me what was special about the Lusty and why it had such a cachet, both among customers and among workers. He was only able to quote me briefly… but his question got me thinking, and theorizing, and speculating.

It’s hard to say what made the Lusty Lady special, or why it was such a magnet for freaky sex-positive feminist activists. By the time I was working there, this vibe was already in place, and it may have been largely self-perpetuating: I heard about the place from other sex-positive feminists, and in turn I told other sex-positive feminists about it. Once a reputation and a vibe like that starts, it’s easy to see how it keeps going. I don’t know how that got started, though.

But I can say what I found appealing about it — other than just the cachet.

One of the things that drew me about the Lusty Lady was the fact that it was sex work I could do without physical customer contact. The peep-show setup — that barrier of glass between the customers and the stage — made a big difference to me. It was a way to dip my foot into the sex work waters, and still have a feeling of physical safety and protection. And the fact that it paid an hourly wage made it very appealing. I do not have the personality to hustle for tips. Huge respect for people who do, but I don’t. I have a hard enough time making small talk when I have my clothes on.

So putting these two together… Maybe the setup at the Lusty — the hourly wage, and being behind glass — made it appealing to women with more nerdy, introverted personalities. Other kinds of sex work require more extroversion: more willingness to have lots of direct human contact, more willingness to hustle and put yourself out there. The Lusty didn’t require as much of that. Maybe that made it more of a magnet for theorists, writers, artists, other introverts.

I may be overthinking this, though. That’s just my experience: I have no idea if it resonates with other Lusties. But I know that for all its faults — and there were many — the place was special. I’m sad to see it go.

(Lusty Lady image by AxelBoldt, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Sex Work for Introverts: Some Sentimental Thoughts on the Closing of a Peep Show

My Body is the Knife: Skepticism and the Reality of Medical Uncertainty

This piece was originally published in AlterNet.

The cutting edge of science is hard to accept when your body is the knife.

person asking question
“If we don’t know the answer to a question, it’s better to just say, ‘We don’t know.’ And then, of course, investigate and try to find an answer. We shouldn’t jump in with an uninformed answer based on our cognitive biases. And we definitely shouldn’t assume that, because we don’t know the answer to a question, the answer is therefore God, or something else supernatural.”

Skeptics and atheists say this stuff a lot. It’s all very well and good: I totally agree. But what do you do if the question on the table is one you really need an answer to? What if the question isn’t something fairly abstract or distant, like, “Why is there something instead of nothing”? What if the question is one with an immediate, practical, non-trivial impact on your everyday life? Something like… oh, say, just for a random example, “What are my chances of getting cancer, and what should I do to prevent it and detect it early?”

Here’s what I mean. I’ll start with my own story, and get it out of the way. I recently got a presumptive diagnosis of Lynch Syndrome. This is a genetic syndrome that gives you about an 80% chance of getting colon cancer (a cancer I’ve sort of had — my last two colonoscopies found pre-cancerous adenomas which would have turned to cancer if they hadn’t been removed); a 20% – 60% risk of endometrial cancer (a cancer I definitely had, it’s the cancer I had surgery for last fall); and a somewhat increased chance of some other cancers, including an as-yet-unknown-but-possibly-as-high-as-ten-or-twenty percent chance of stomach cancer.

I say I got a presumptive diagnosis, because they didn’t actually find the genetic markers that normally point to Lynch Syndrome. But this doesn’t mean I don’t have it. According to the genetic counselor, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that there are other genetic markers associated with Lynch Syndrome, ones that researchers don’t know about yet. And my family/ personal history of Lynch Syndrome cancers is strongly suggestive of it. It’s pretty much a textbook case of “Lynch Syndrome family history.” So we’re proceeding on the assumption that I have it… even though we don’t know for sure.

So in addition to my now-annual colonoscopies (oh, joy), we had to decide if I should get stomach endoscopies. I have an increased chance of getting stomach cancer… but my genetic counselor said there currently aren’t any agreed-upon medical guidelines on stomach endoscopies for people with Lynch Syndrome, and suggested that I consult with a gastroenterologist. So I talked to a gastroenterologist… who said that there currently aren’t any agreed-upon medical guidelines on stomach endoscopies for people with Lynch Syndrome, and that the two of us would have to make whatever decision seemed right to us, updating it as new information comes in.

You may be noticing a pattern here. Presumptive diagnosis. As yet unknown. No medical guidelines. It’s possible. It’s likely. As new information comes in. Whatever decision seems right. Proceed on the assumption, even though we don’t know for sure.

science journal cover
This is often the reality of science. There are questions that are pretty much settled: questions we hypothetically might re-visit if giant heaps of new contradictory evidence came in, but that have had an overwhelming body of evidence for decades or centuries pointing to one answer. (Questions like, “Does the Earth orbit the Sun?”) There are questions where the general broad strokes are mostly settled, but where we’re still figuring out many of the finer points. (Questions like, “What the heck is happening on the subatomic level?”) And there are questions that we’re very much in the process of answering, questions on which scientific consensus hasn’t been reached, questions for which the data that’s giving us answers is still coming in, questions we’re still making educated guesses about based on limited information, questions for which our “best educated guess” answers are changing on a yearly and even monthly basis. Questions like… oh, say, just for a random example, “How exactly do genetic factors influence people’s likelihood of getting certain kinds of cancers — and what are the best ways to address these factors to improve prevention, early detection, and treatment?”

Those of us who value science understand this. In fact, we more than understand it. We embrace it. We see it not as a weakness, but as a strength. Science isn’t a body of knowledge so much as it is a process, a method of gathering knowledge. And the way that this process self-corrects with new information is one of the main reasons it’s so jaw-droppingly successful. (If you think science isn’t jaw-droppingly successful, think for a moment about the device you’re reading this on.)

But if you’re living your life in the middle of one of those unanswered questions, this uncertainty and shifting ground can be a hard reality to take. The cutting edge of science is hard to accept when your body is the knife.

And I think this is one of the reasons many people are so skeptical of science, so dismissive of it, so ready to say, “Oh, what do those scientists know? They keep changing their minds! Last year they told us not to eat carbs, now they’re telling us carbs are okay! They can’t even make up their own minds — why should we believe anything they say?” On a practical, day-to-day basis, the cutting-edge, not-yet-answered science that most people are intensely engaged with, the one that most people deeply care about, is medicine. And the reality of uncertainty in medicine is often frightening, upsetting, depressing, and even enraging.

The cutting edges of astronomy, of botany, of quantum physics? Most people aren’t even aware of them. Their immediate effects on people’s lives don’t generally start until the science is fairly settled. Even with computer science — another science that affects our lives profoundly on a day-to-day basis — most of us don’t even touch the technology until it’s more or less hammered out.

But medicine is different. With medicine, a significant amount of research is being done on human beings. A case could be made that all medicine is research being done on human beings: medical protocols and best practices are constantly being updated and refined, even in areas that are pretty well understood. And when it comes to terminal illnesses, it would be irresponsible not to pursue uncertain, incompletely understood avenues of treatment that have highly unpredictable outcomes. If the choices are “try something that might or might not work” or “die”… well, most of the time, that’s a no-brainer. (My wife Ingrid got arrested nine times for demanding, among other things, that the FDA grasp this simple principle and shorten the research protocols for experimental AIDS drugs.)

In the cutting edge of medical science, human lives are the knife.

And that can make people feel very freaking cranky about medical science.

Boy, howdy, do I understand that. I hate this uncertainty about my Lynch Syndrome. I would much rather just have the bloody diagnosis. I would much rather know for sure that I have this syndrome, instead of having to act on the assumption that I have it even when I don’t have a test result confirming it. If for no other reason: The fact that they didn’t find the genetic marker? It means that my family can’t get tested for that marker to see if they have it or not… so they now have to work with this vagueness as well, this not-very useful information that “You may or may not have a 50% chance, or a 25% chance, of having this syndrome, but we have no real way of knowing, so maybe you should be getting more frequent colonoscopies than you normally would. Or something.”

This is frustrating as hell.

But here’s the thing.

Medical science is the reason we even know about Lynch Syndrome. Medical science is the reason I’m getting colonoscopies every year instead of every five years, and am getting my pre-cancerous adenomas scooped out every year before they turn into cancer. Medical science is the reason we know that the tendency to get some cancers is heredity: it’s the reason that, even before my doctors knew anything about Lynch Syndrome specifically, they were looking at my mom’s cancer history, and insisting that I get colonoscopies early. Medical science is the reason millions of people are getting regular colonoscopies and mammograms as a standard part of their medical care, and are getting cancers and pre-cancers detected and treated early. Medical science is the reason colonoscopies and mammograms even exist. If we’d known about Lynch Syndrome forty years ago, my mom could have caught her cancer before it ate her up at age 45. It’s painful to think about that. But I can’t be sorry that the current medical science, imperfect as it is, is keeping me alive.

When I was growing up, people used to talk about finding “a cure for cancer.” As if cancer were one disease, and we were going to find one magic-bullet cure for it. I think some people are disappointed that this magic bullet hasn’t happened: that cancer is turning out to be hundreds of different diseases, and that after all these decades, after millions of dollars and millions of person-hours poured into it, cancer research is still about prevention and early detection and improved treatments and increased lifespans, much more than it is about a “cure.”

But the reality is that cancer is a much more survivable disease than it was when I was growing up. More people with cancer are getting it caught early. More people with cancer are living longer. More people are getting their cancer fully treated, and are living full lifespans and dying of something else. More people with cancer who can’t get it fully treated are living longer, and better, than they would have fifty years ago, or twenty, or even ten. More people with cancer are getting treatment that isn’t excruciating and doesn’t completely screw up their lives. More people with cancer are getting treatment that’s less excruciating, and is screwing up their lives less completely, than it would have fifty years ago, or twenty, or even ten. And some people aren’t getting cancer at all… because they’re eating their fiber, because they quit smoking or never started, because they’re getting regular colonoscopies and are getting their pre-cancerous doodads scooped out before they turn cancerous. Oncology is an imperfect, inexact science… but it’s getting better all the time. Prevention and early detection and improved treatments and increased lifespans are not trivial. Millions of people are alive today because of them. I’m one.

And I’m not going to embrace the results of the scientific process that’s keeping me alive — the messy, uncertain, unpredictable, loaded-with-false-starts, “try a hundred things with no idea which one, if any, will pan out” scientific process — and then piss all over it because it isn’t perfect.

Greta Christina is the 2013 Honored Hero of the Foundation Beyond Belief for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s Light the Night Walk. To participate in the Light the Night Walk, go to the LL&S website. To participate under the Foundation Beyond Belief banner, find out how to join an existing team — or start one of your own.

My Body is the Knife: Skepticism and the Reality of Medical Uncertainty

Ilk T-Shirts! (And Tank Tops, Hoodies, Onesies, and More!)

The commentariat here seems to have named themselves! I’ve been wondering for a while if this was going to happen. PZ at Pharyngula has his Horde, and now I apparently have… the Ilk. (As in, “Jen, Greta, and their ilk.” And yes, I’m more than happy to share a commentariat with Jen.)

And there are Ilk T-shirts! T-shirts, tank tops, hoodies, onesies, and more, in women’s and men’s styles. Designed by Grimalkin, as a benefit for the Send A+ to Skepticon Fundraiser, the assorted garments feature a silhouetted figure — in larger and smaller body shapes — with an ilky-ilk horn and pink jackboots. You can get most of the garment types in lots of different colors (although the black figure won’t show up great against a black shirt).

Here’s the link to the T-shirt with the larger-sized silhouette:

ilk shirt mens larger figure

And here’s the link to the T-shirt with the smaller-sized silhouette:

ilk shirt womens smaller figure

To see the tank tops, hoodies, onesies, etc., in all the different styles and genders and body types, just go to the page with the design you want — larger silhouette or smaller silhouette — and click on “See all styles.” (There are literally 121 available garment styles available for each silhouette. Plus all the colors. Print-on-demand is an amazing thing. We live in the future.)

For those who are of Greta and Jen’s ILK. From the Atheism Plus store on Zazzle. Again, proceeds from sales of this shirt go towards the Send A+ to Skepticon Fundraiser.

BTW, if you’re reading this and going, “D’oh! I was going to make a T-shirt!” — fear not. You still can. There’s room for lots of ilk art in this ilkdom.

Ilk T-Shirts! (And Tank Tops, Hoodies, Onesies, and More!)

Angry Atheists and Equality: Greta's Podcast Interview with "Life, the Universe & Everything Else"

LUEE logo
Podcast time! When I was at the SkepTech conference earlier this year, I gave a podcast interview to Gem Newman of the “Life, the Universe & Everything Else” podcast, hosted by Winnipeg Skeptics. That interview is now up — along with the rest of a very interesting show.

In the interview, we discuss angry atheism, the role religious believers can play in fighting the harm done by religion, strategies of arguing religion with believers, the importance of coming out and atheist visibility, internalized atheist stigma, my favorite arguments against religion, challenging entrenched biases within skepticism, hyperskepticism (or what I’m now calling denialism) and treating ordinary claims as extraordinary ones, straw Vulcans and the notion that being unemotional about an issue makes you more rational, tone-trolling about misogyny, coming out bisexual versus coming out atheist, Twitter walls, self-publishing, and more. Enjoy!

Angry Atheists and Equality: Greta's Podcast Interview with "Life, the Universe & Everything Else"

Godless Perverts Story Hour August 31 — and Godless Perverts Social Club September 3!

Godless Perverts Banner
The Godless Perverts have two events coming up soon! Mark your calendars!

Join us for another evening of blasphemy and depravity at our next performance event, the Godless Perverts Story Hour, on Saturday, August 31! The Godless Perverts Story Hour is an evening about how to have good sex without having any gods, goddesses, spirits, or their earthly representatives hanging over your shoulder and telling you that you’re doing it wrong. We’ll be bringing you depictions, explorations, and celebrations of godless sexualities, as well as critical, mocking, and blasphemous views of sex and religion. The evening’s entertainment will have a range of voices — sexy and serious, passionate and funny, and all of the above — talking about how our sexualities can not only exist, but even thrive, without the supernatural.



Chris Hall

Our lineup for August 31 features Molly Weatherfield (aka Pam Rosenthal), Victor Harris, Jen Cross, Virgie Tovar, M. Christian, and Simon Sheppard — plus your charming hosts Greta Christina, David Fitzgerald, and Chris Hall. The Godless Perverts Story Hour will be at the Center for Sex and Culture, 1349 Mission St. in San Francisco (near Civic Center BART). Festivities start at 7:00 pm. $10-20 sliding scale donation; no-one turned away for lack of funds; benefit for the Center for Sex and Culture. Hope to see you there!

IMPORTANT NOTE: The Bay Bridge will be closed on the weekend of August 31. If you’re coming from the East Bay strongly suggest that you take BART. If you have to drive, take alternate routes — and give yourself plenty of extra time.

And the Godless Perverts Social Club is now meeting on the first Tuesday of every month — and our next gathering is Tuesday, September 3. Community is one of the reasons we started Godless Perverts. There are few enough places to land when you decide that you’re an atheist; far fewer if you’re also LGBT, queer, kinky, poly, trans, or are just interested in sexuality. And the sex-positive/ alt-sex/ whatever- you- want- to- call- it community isn’t always the most welcoming place for non-believers. So please join us at Wicked Grounds, San Francisco’s renowned BDSM-themed coffee house — 289 8th St in San Francisco, near Civic Center BART — for an evening of conversation and socializing. All orientations, genders, and kinks (or lack thereof) welcome. 7:00 – 9:00 pm. There’s no admission, but we ask that you buy food and drink at the counter, or make a donation to the venue.

If you want to be notified about all our Godless Perverts events, sign up for our email mailing list, or follow us on Twitter at @GodlessPerverts. You can also sign up for the Bay Area Atheists/ Agnostics/ Humanists/ Freethinkers/ Skeptics Meetup page, and be notified of all sorts of godless Bay Area events — including the Godless Perverts. You can RSVP on the Meetup page for the Story Hour and the Social Club, if you like to RSVP to things. Hope to see you there!

Godless Perverts Story Hour August 31 — and Godless Perverts Social Club September 3!

Secular Meditation: Formal and Everyday Practice

Is there a difference between a formal, structured practice of mindfulness, and simply practicing it in your everyday life?

As I’ve been writing about this secular, evidence-based meditation practice I’ve been doing, some people have been commenting that they don’t do any sort of formal or structured meditation practice… but they do work on being mindful in their everyday lives. They work on being more conscious, more present, less tuned-out, when they’re eating, walking, talking, listening, reading, petting cats, and otherwise just getting on with their life.

So I’ve started wondering: Is this something that would work for me?

I’ve actually been doing both of these kinds of practices. I’m doing what I’ve been calling a formal practice — setting aside time every day to step away from my regular daily activities and meditate: sitting or lying quietly and focusing on my body, or my breath, or something else very specific, and noticing when my attention has wandered, and gently returning it to my intended focus. And I’m also doing what I’ve been calling an everyday practice — working on being more present, more conscious, less spaced-out and inclined to think about a hundred things other than what I’m doing, when I’m eating, walking, talking, listening, reading, petting cats, and otherwise just getting on with my life. Also noticing when my attention has wandered, and gently returning it to my intended focus.

This latter bit, this everyday practice, isn’t something I brilliantly came up with on my own. It’s something that was specifically taught in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course I took. It’s a central part of it, actually. We learned an assortment of more “formal” meditation techniques… but we also learned an assortment of methods for being more mindful in our everyday lives, in our interactions with other people and with our surroundings and just with ourselves. (“Formal” and “informal” are not the best terms, in fact, since the everyday practice can be pursued in a very conscientious, disciplined way… but I’m failing to come up with better terms, so I’ll stick with these for now.) To a great extent, the “formal” practice really is just that — practice, literally, for being more present and less reactive in my day-to-day life.

So could I ever get so good at being mindful in my everyday life that I didn’t need the formal practice?

The more I think about meditation, the more I draw analogies to physical exercise. When I meditate, I’m strengthening the part of my brain that’s able to be really conscious and present in my life, that’s able to turn my focus where I want it to go, that’s able to thoughtfully respond to events in my life rather than reacting to them and being whipped around by them. And doing this feels very much like strengthening a muscle group, so I can make better use of it when I need to. It’s like lifting weights at the gym, so I can carry a sack of cat litter into the house; it’s like doing sprints on the treadmill, so I can run for the bus. And like physical exercise, it’s not just about building strength in one particular part of my body or my brain — it’s about improving my overall health. Working out improves my general health and stamina and well-being, in countless ways; meditating improves my mental and emotional health, in countless ways.

So. Let’s extend this analogy.

If I had the kind of job or the kind of life where I got regular vigorous exercise as part of my daily routine — if I were a construction worker or a piano mover or a park ranger — I might not feel a need to go to the gym. I might decide that the physical exercise I got as a routine part of my day was enough. (I could also see going the opposite way — I might make a point of getting extra exercise to keep me good at my job, or to get kinds of exercise my job didn’t afford — but not necessarily.)

But I don’t. My work, and most of my hobbies and interests, are pretty sedentary. If I don’t make a point of setting aside time to get vigorous exercise, it isn’t going to happen.

And if I were more of a natural athlete — if I were someone who just naturally gravitated toward lots of physical activity, if my hobbies included hiking and bicycling and skiing and tennis and kayaking — again, I might not feel a need to go to the gym. I might decide that the physical exercise I got through the rest of my life was enough. (Again, I could also see going the opposite way — I might want to make a point of getting extra exercise, like strength or endurance training, to improve my hiking and bicycling and skiing and tennis and kayaking — but not necessarily.)

But I’m not. My personality does not naturally gravitate towards physical activity. My personality naturally gravitates towards sitting on my butt thinking about stuff. I enjoy exercise and physical activity once I start doing it, and I can tell that it has a strong positive effect on my life — including my ability to sit on my butt and think about stuff — but I am not naturally drawn to doing it unless I make a conscious point of it. If I don’t deliberately set aside time for it, it isn’t going to happen.

And now, let’s bring the analogy back.

computer keyboard with hands
My life, and my personality, are not a natural fit for an everyday mindfulness practice. My work sucks my attention in twenty directions at once, and it strongly reinforces my tendency to live in my head. My personality includes a strong tendency to live in my head… and a strong tendency to live in the future, to worry and plan and fantasize, to come up with endless “If A happens then I’ll do B, if C happens then I’ll do D” contingency schemes.

Now, it’s true that my personality is also drawn, at least somewhat, toward mindfulness. When I look over my writing over the course of my career, I notice the theme popping up again and again, everywhere from my atheist rants to my smut. The ability to stop and literally smell the roses — like my character Dallas in my erotic novella “Bending,” to “just notice that she was alive, here, in this place and time… [to] be filled with the immensity of the moment, the clear understanding that infinity and eternity were present in this minuscule sliver that was her life” — this is something I treasure.

But when I don’t do a formal meditation practice, this happens pretty sporadically. And it happens to me, coming out of the blue. It isn’t something I choose to do. If I don’t set aside time to formally practice mindfulness, it isn’t something I’m going to keep up in my everyday life. Even if I did, it wouldn’t be something I’d do particularly well. When I do set aside time to meditate, being present in my everyday life is easier, and more natural… and I do it a whole lot more often.

Like I wrote before: Meditation is literally a practice — in the sense that it’s something I’m doing over and over and over again, so I can get better at it and more comfortable with it. If the skills I’m learning came to me more naturally, or folded into my life more fluidly, then I might, at some point, be able to let go of the formal practice, and just incorporate the everyday practice into my life.

But for now — I don’t think so. Not for the foreseeable future. Maybe not ever. I’m not even sure I would want to — I like meditating, it’s often pleasurable and feels good, just like going to the gym is often pleasurable and feels good. But I go to the gym even when I don’t think I’m going to enjoy it, even when I’m absolutely not in the mood. And I meditate every day even when I don’t think I’m going to enjoy it, even when I’m absolutely not in the mood. I work out regularly so I can be strong and healthy in my life. And I meditate every day so I can be mentally healthy and present in my life. For me, that’s just how it works.

Secular Meditation: Formal and Everyday Practice

Greta Appearing on “Sex Out Loud” Radio!

sex out loud logo
I’m going to be on Tristan Taormino’s radio show, “Sex Out Loud,” on The VoiceAmerica Network. Taormino is an award winning author, speaker, sex educator and filmmaker, and her radio show explores the world of sexuality from every angle. It’ll be a live broadcast this Friday, recorded for later podcast listening — and if you tune in live, you can call in with questions!

The live broadcast will be Friday 8/23, 5:00 pm PT / 8:00 pm ET. For info on how to tune in, go to the “Sex Out Loud,” website. The call-in number is 866-472-5788. Talk to you soon!

Greta Appearing on “Sex Out Loud” Radio!

Shorter JT

JT Eberhard has responded to Jen McCreight’s critique of his post on Bria Crutchfield’s critique of a commenter at a Q&A at the recent Great Lakes Atheist Convention.

He took 8,208 words to do it in, though. Here’s my summary. Shorter JT:

“I wasn’t saying that it’s always bad to express anger about racism. I am just taking it upon myself to tell an African-American woman how and when and where and in what tone she should express her anger about racism. I am doing this, even though it enrages me when religious believers do the same thing to atheists — take it upon themselves to tell us how to run our movement and our messaging, and consistently advise us to tone it down. I know when the intent behind a racist question is genuine and when it’s hostile, and other people should trust me on this. Also, the intent behind a question is the most important factor in determining how to respond to it.

“A white person being embarrassed at being called out on her racism — whether intentional or unintentional — is the most deserving target of my compassion, the one I should be spending thousands of words defending. The African-American people who were the targets of that racism are a secondary concern. Also, African-Americans’ suspicions of white people are equivalent to white people’s suspicions of African-Americans.

“If people don’t understand what I say, it’s their fault as readers, not my responsibility as a writer. Also, if people interpret my writing differently from how I want it to be interpreted, it’s not that they have a perspective that I’m not seeing — they’re just wrong. It’s a mischaracterization. They just don’t understand me. It couldn’t possibly be that they understand me all too well.

“Some people don’t like the harsh tone that some social justice advocates sometimes take. They are tickled pink to see bloggers take on religion and religious believers with passion, rage, invective, and biting wit, a la Christopher Hitchens — but they don’t like it when these tactics are turned on them. In some cases, the fact that some people will harshly disagree when they get stuff wrong is enough to keep them from speaking out about social justice. They would rather stay silent about injustice than speak out and risk being verbally smacked down if they get it wrong. And when speaking about social justice, avoiding offense should be our highest priority. People only ever change their minds on social justice when they’re spoken to nicely: harsh expressions of anger doesn’t change people’s minds — even though I say the exact opposite when it comes to speaking about religion. Therefore, social justice advocates within the atheist movement should tailor our tone to make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings — even though most of us get furious when religious believers tell atheists to do the same thing. The social justice advocates — “Jen, Greta, and their ilk” (that’s a direct quote) — are driving people away from atheism. People are being driven away or kept away from the atheist movement because of infighting — but me devoting several thousand words to criticizing other atheists somehow doesn’t count as infighting, it’s only when people disagree with me that it counts as infighting. Social justice advocates are ruining atheism. Despite the large number of people who say they have had their minds changed about social justice by those of us who are writing about it, we are still ruining atheism.

“And the fact that just about every feminist friend I ever had in this movement has called me out on my attitudes about this, numerous times… that’s not a problem. They’re just all wrong. If just about every quantum physicist I knew told me I was wrong about quantum physics, I’d probably pay attention — but I’m not going to pay attention to this.”

My response:

Your concerns are noted, and will be given all due consideration. Thank you for sharing.

Shorter JT