Category Archives: Religion

Why I’m anti-theist, not just an atheist

So, the other day I was doing public outreach at a church event. Let’s say I was promoting “Cash for Clunkers.” Remember that? Remember George Bush and his occasional wacky schemes that put a few extra hundred dollars in your pocket every few years? I kinda miss that sometimes.

Anyway, this is an analogy, but it fits pretty closely. So I’m making a speech, asking people if they want to pay less for gas, and get some incentives to ditch their old dirty cars and buy an electric. “How many people here are happy with the amount of money they pay for gas every week?” I ask rhetorically. Surprisingly, one hand goes up.

Later on, as we’re taking questions about the program and passing out flyers, the woman who raised her hand approaches me.

“I wasn’t being sarcastic when I raised my hand,” she says. “We get really good gas mileage.”

“Well, that’s great,” I say. “It’s true, every once in a while I meet someone who owns a car that’s already very efficient, so they don’t really need our program.”

“Oh no, it’s not an efficient model,” she replies. “I’m pretty sure it’s miraculous.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, God just puts a little extra money in our pockets whenever we need it.”

It’s not the time to do a spit-take, so I settle for, “Wow, that must be really handy,” accompanied by a somewhat awkward smile.

Now, the people at this church are really, really nice people. I mean, they are absolutely adorable. It’s probably the most racially diverse crowd I’ve been in since I moved here. And the people are kind and friendly and laughing–the children are rambunctious but not obnoxious. If it came down to it, I’d definitely call the pastor for help turning people out to a rally against racism or against climate change or something along those lines. But the religiously inspired paradigm they use lends itself to inadvertent insults and denigration of human achievement and human effort–which are obstacles to change.

In this woman’s case, I can’t really be confident that her car gets good gas mileage. We didn’t discuss what constitutes good vs. bad gas mileage, and it sounded like she was saying that the mileage actually varies somewhat, according to whether God feels like they need some extra cash or not. Like, when they’re poor, God magically makes the engine burn more efficiently, and when they’re flush he lets it run normally.

If this is true, that means several things. For one thing, it’s a testable claim which if verified would lend support to the hypothesis that not just god but specifically Yahweh, the god of the Bible exists. But that’s a story for another day. Another thing it means is that there’s barely any point in measuring fuel efficiency. Also, it means that whatever humans put work into designing and building her car to be as fuel efficient as it is–their work is paltry and meaningless compared to the influence of this supernatural being.

I am also forced to wonder if God is artificially depressing her car’s greenhouse gas emissions when He makes it magically more efficient, or if he’s artificially increasing them when he’s letting the mileage go lower. Either way, it would seem to me like global climate change is a much more pressing concern than the concerns of this or that family in upstate New York, no matter how nice they are.

Then my brain starts to boggle at the worldview that sees this omnipotent being as being avidly concerned with one family’s monthly budget but can’t be bothered to avert a major ecological catastrophe, but then I remember that this is the same God that’s supposed to destroy the world, or so some Christians believe, and that’s supposed to be a good thing, which is why they don’t have to worry about climate change, and there’s a burning smell and smoke starts to come out of my ears.

Truly, even in a congregation whose ethics and values are in the right place, religion poisons everything. Not only was this woman blinding herself to the value of human achievement, she’s also using her religious belief to buttress her system justification, meaning that she’s rendering herself less likely to even be able to hear evidence that economic inequality exists in the world and is unjust. If God pads the pockets of the deserving, the obvious implication is that those with less padded pockets haven’t given God what he wants.

I don’t really see how you can maintain a belief in an invisible but powerful being that rewards those who please it but not those who don’t, and not have it feed into system justification at some point.

Theism is a poisonous and destructive belief, even in very small doses. I don’t suppose it’s reasonable to think that religion will end in my lifetime, but that doesn’t mean I can’t give it a shove while I’m passing through.

8 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Global warming, Religion, Science

What’s your name, little girl? (I wouldn’t tell anyone who called me “little girl.”)

There’s power in names. There’s power in labels, in groupings, in language.

That’s why we fight so fiercely about the terms we use to refer to ourselves and each other.

Right now I’m struggling with my own name. I dig the Sally Strange moniker. Its scansion is the same as my real name, which is pretty unusual. I used to go by Valkyrie607. Put those two facts together, do a google search on both my online handles, and you could figure out who I am fairly easily, I reckon. And I don’t particularly mind people knowing, but I prefer to keep a digital divide, mostly for purposes of googling. My work involves outreach and communication. Political and religious opinions–upstate New York is plenty religious. Home of Mormonism’s most impossible happenings, and we got our own Catholic saint last year, a Native woman named Kateri Tekakwitha. Religion is an important thing here, like many places–more so than it was in Vermont. Vermont is very atheist-friendly–Vermont is actually the least religious state in the union. More than a third of Vermonters have no faith. It’s nice.

Anyway, I’m rambling. I was talking about my name. Like I said, I prefer to have that separation between my real name and my online persona of Sally Strange. I hear people talking about how it’s anonymity that’s ruining the caliber of discourse on the internet, but I don’t think that’s it. It is really names that make the difference? Part of the reason I’m not using my real name right now is that I wish to avoid harassment, of myself, and of my friends and family. This is such a common occurrence, and it’s obvious that writing about feminist stuff, as I am wont to do, triggers a larger risk of harassment materializing than writing about less controversial subject. Then also, there’s the fact that my current work contract is temporary, and in 11 months’ time I’ll be looking for work again. Coming off like a political agitator/opinionated blogger with a (however tiny) media platform–ehh, maybe not such a great idea when applying for professional office type jobs.

I’d like to use my real name someday. I can envision a life path in which I could do that without risk to potential employment in five years or so. If that’s something that’s sewn up, then I feel like I can handle the rest of it. I can deal with comments and spam email and whatnot. I know when to invoke law enforcement and when not to.

All of this, because I’m starting up my blog again and contemplating going to a convention. Amazing.

This is why Jerry Coyne is wrong: whether it’s cowardice or not, taking negative social repercussions of holding an unpopular view into account is rational. Pseudonymity allows us to hear voices that would get shut out of the conversation by a “real name rule.” Mine, for example, for a few years anyway. You would only get to hear from older Sally, not present day Sally. And you wouldn’t get to hear from Natalie Reed. And there are thousands more like us out there, disproportionately black and brown, and disproportionately female, disproportionately genderqueer and mentally ill and disabled. Because those are all the same factors that confound our ability to access education, to get good jobs, and so on.

And then there’s the fact that it’s just not accurate to say that using real names increases civility. Think about a bar or a club. You own the facility. People come there to drink and party and get frisky with each other. You don’t want fights and you don’t want harassment. What do you do?

a.) Make everybody get a name tag when they pay the cover charge and show their ID. Use the ID to verify their real name. Better yet, make them write their phone number on the name tags too. This will ensure that everyone is accountable and so nobody will be rude or start a fight.

b.) Employ bouncers to keep an eye on the crowd and occasionally eject those who can’t or won’t follow the rules of civility.

I don’t think that real names would be any more effective in a club than it is online. Certainly being on Facebook or Twitter under their real names has not deterred thousands of people from tweeting blatantly offensive bigoted nonsense of all stripes. The “Not Racist But” blog documents this phenomenon with regards to race.

I hope that pseudonymity continues as long as there is a need for it. Right now I need it, more’s the pity. Building a more economically secure, environmentally just world will increase the number of people able to take the risks and responsibility of revealing their real names online. Oops! Hey, wait a minute–it’s almost like everything we do has political influences and consequences. Everyone’s a partisan somehow. Claiming the alleged (not documented) benefit of increased civility is a worthwhile trade-off for decreased participation by people who are likely to already be marginalized in some way is a political statement, and it’s one that seems at odds with the rest of Jerry Coyne’s beliefs to me. I hope he and those who agree with him have really given serious thoughts to what perspectives they might be missing out on. Son of Baldwin, for example. And countless others. Rather than requiring everyone to use real names, and accusing those who don’t of cowardice, let’s work together to create a world where sharing one’s real name online inspires less fear.

10 Comments

Filed under Anti-bigotry, Anti-racism, Atheism, Feminism, Personal, Religion

PHMT: Patriarchy Hurts Men Too

There’s a well-known saying in feminist circles. It’s so common that it has garnered its own acronym: PHMT. Patriarchy hurts men too. On balance, it hurts men somewhat less than it hurts women, but the harm is still there.

There’s another truism: patriarchy is a system, not a group of people. (Actually, that’s my invention, but the concept has been repeated often enough that it deserves its own pithy phrase.) In other words, just because a woman is doing it, doesn’t mean it isn’t patriarchy in action. Men can be and are feminists.

Another trope in the community of people who struggle to diminish the influence of bigotry of various sorts is, “Intent is not magic.” In other words, if you repeat sexist, racist, or homophobic ideas, the fact that you were not aware of the bigoted undertones of your ideas does not lessen the harm caused by them.

This brings me to the subject of this post. I’m a big fan of FreeThoughtBlogs.com (henceforth referred to as FTB) and of international feminism and activism. FTB has made the wonderful decision to bring Taslima Nasreen, the writer, doctor, and activist for women’s rights and freedom from religion, on board. She has had her books banned in several countries and been threatened by more fatwas than Salman Rushdie for her writings. She is courageous, intelligent, fierce, uncompromising–all qualities I admire and aspire to emulate. And, on the subject of sexuality and consent, she is quite wrong. Some of her first posts on FTB have involved her making some dubious assertions on the nature of prostitution and pornography. She believes that both are inherently exploitative and oppressive, and that no woman truly consents to either. Other bloggers, particularly Greta Christina and Natalie Reed, have pointed out the weaknesses in Taslima’s arguments. Had she simply included the caveat that some women choose prostitution, and made a case for why they should not be allowed to, I think there would not be as many objections to her positions. However, she seems to genuinely be struggling with the concept of consent. Further evidence for this hypothesis was provided the other day as I was reading my Twitter feed. 

The link in her tweet turned out to be a news story from Denmark about a couple in their 40s. They met and went to the woman’s house and had sex there several times. However…

“When the 47-year-old wanted even more, her partner said no.”

The man then tried to leave the apartment but the woman prevented him from escaping and demanded he have sex with her again.

“Because the 43-year-old saw no other alternative, he complied with the woman’s wishes another few times so he could finally leave the apartment,” the spokesman said.

“But when she continued to refuse and demanded even more sex from him, he fled to the balcony and alerted the police.”

Now, I appreciate that women in their 40s may indeed be having wonderful sex. But it seems to me that if you have to coerce or force someone into having sex with you, it can’t be that good. The woman in question is, rightfully in my mind, being charged with sexual assault and illegal restraint. The article does not go into much detail about what measures she took to restrain him, nor his response to the experience.

But Taslima Nasreen, who famously fights against patriarchal restrictions and for sexual liberation, does not see that there is a problem here. Her response seems in line with those who commented on the story at the newspaper website:

Arrest her? They should give her a medal. I wish my wife had this woman’s sex drive.

What a tragedy. What did you say her address was?

We should all be so lucky! 🙂
The editors of the story seem to be of a similar mind, judging by the photo they chose to accompany the story:

If it were the story of a woman reporting a similar encounter, it would be pretty clear-cut: preventing someone from leaving in order to coerce or force them to have sex with you when they do not want to is sexual assault. It is sexual assault because there is no consent. It is a terrible thing to do to another person. It should not be excused when either a man or a woman does it.

With responses like this, is it any wonder than men who are raped hesitate to report their experiences? This is why consent and autonomy are central values for atheist humanists like myself. Yes, we should fight against sexual exploitation and objectification, but why? We should end human trafficking and sex slavery, but why? For me, these questions are answered by the axiom that all humans should, ideally, have the ability to control their own bodies. This right exists, of course, within the network of social obligations all humans have to each other to varying extent, and is subject to restriction if it can be shown to cause harm to other people. But this assumption provides a useful framework through which to interpret other people’s actions on an ethical basis. It’s not ethical to imprison, or try to imprison someone to coerce them into sex with you. It’s a violation of that person’s autonomy and his or her bodily integrity. But because our patriarchal culture teaches us that women possess sex, and men must try to take it from them, and women don’t actually like sex itself but only agree to it in order to exchange it for something else of greater value–a Mercedes Benz, a house, children, emotional intimacy–the actions of a woman who is violating another person’s autonomy are seen in a jolly, joking light. The idea of a woman wanting sex more than a man is quite literally laughable.

And so Taslima, despite being opposed to the patriarchy, perpetuated it by enforcing patriarchal expectations onto this man and woman. I do not doubt for one second that she did not intend to do so–her writings on feminism and women’s sexual empowerment are more than enough evidence to convince me that she would not knowingly support patriarchy. Thus, Taslima demonstrates that intent is not magic, and patriarchy is a system, not a group of people. And perhaps because gender inequality in Taslima’s cultural background is so much more pronounced than it is in American or European culture, she was blinded to the fact that in this instance, it was a man who was the victim of the patriarchy.

Who knows how this man experienced it–maybe it was traumatic or maybe not. But if it was, you can be certain that there will be pressure from the entire culture to keep his trauma to himself or risk mockery, derision, questioning of his masculinity, and so on, thanks to the patriarchal idea that men can’t be raped (by women, anyway) and women never want sex, and if they do, it’s absurd and hilarious. This viewpoint is not supported by data, it is a lazy form of stereotypical thinking. It conceals the guilt of those perpetrating sexual assault, either men or women (though the vast, vast majority of rapists are actually men) and it conceals the pain of their victims. It makes me sad that Taslima has this blind spot, but I plan to continue reading her blog.  I recognize that I owe my ability to choose these beliefs in part to race, class, and educational privilege, and I’m open to hearing arguments that may change my mind.

Update: This post has been edited slightly, mostly to add paragraph breaks in the last section of the piece. This is what happens when I publish things at 4 am. Seems I got some odd formatting up in the mix.

5 Comments

Filed under Anti-bigotry, Feminism, Religion

Transcendent Love

On the school bus. Autumn. Upstate New York. I was nervous about the swim meet I was going to. It was only the second time I competed as a diver. I gazed out the window. The images of red-gold, orange leaves imprinted on my mind. At 60 mph, the maples, oaks, and spruce slid slowly by my vision as if I were on one of the drugs I hadn’t yet tried. I felt as if I’d transcended time. I wondered if this was what was meant by the stories I’d read of bodhisattvas attaining enlightenment. No attachments. Just the moment. Pure beauty.

***

The Himalayas. The coordinator of our semester in India had decided that riding on a bus on these narrow one-lane roads was too terrifyingly dangerous, and so had hired a convoy of six white taxis to transport our group of 20 students plus 2 teachers. We were heading up into the mountains, to visit Yamunotri, the source of the holy river Yamuna. The day before, I had received a letter from my boyfriend at the time. The first person I had ever had penetrative sex with. I thought I was in love with him. In his letter, he had told me that he had fallen for another woman, a fellow student at Oberlin College. I was, of course, heartbroken, but I also felt strangely relieved and liberated. The taxis wound their way up and down steep mountain slopes. My friend Michael pulled himself entirely out of his taxi window and hoisted himself up onto the roof, sitting crosslegged in the luggage rack. He spread his arms wide, smiling a beatifically and singing a song I could not make out from where I watched him, two cars ahead. I was surrounded by verdant jungle. Wisps of cloud spilled over the tips of the mountain above, and impossibly green rivers rushed through the valleys below. I felt embraced by the world, as if all of this was there for me. Not just that it all was there for me–the greenery, the cold streams and rivers, the haunting mist, the clean white taxis, the gravel roads, my playful fellow students–but also that it was me. There was no separation. Love was not something that could depart from my life or be taken away. The universe loved me. I was the universe. I was life, moving through life: I was myself. How could I not be loved, boundlessly, endlessly? I felt joyous and free. There was no need to worry because I was one with life and it would provide me with everything I would ever need.

***

  I sat cross-legged in the small building whose walls were straw bales covered with earthen plaster. The window before me overlooked the Breitenbush river, ice-cold, fed by the melting glaciers of the Cascadian mountains. I was high on something, weed definitely and probably mushrooms too, or maybe datura. I’d been alternating between meditating and playing my clarinet. I’d spent the entire day doing yoga. As I sat, lotus-style, the constant stream of music in my head (it’s always playing, even now as I write this) took visible form in my mind’s eye and reared up in front of me, a fiery snake curling out of the ground beneath me. Kundalini energy embodied took shape in my mind and manifested in my awareness. The snake touched its mouth to mine and I wrapped my hands around it as I would my clarinet. I played the snake like a musical instrument. The mystic serpent and I united and we became the music I am always hearing in my head. Then the snake reared back, curled round and under, and entered me like a phallus. My body rocked with successive orgasms. I was ecstatic. The release I felt was blissful, pure, and utterly transcendent. I had become the lover of all of creation, and creation was loving me back with an intensely sexual sense of joy and pleasure.

***

What does all of this mean? Ultimately, nothing. My synapses firing in unusual and interesting patterns. My individual experience, to which I can assign a meaning or not. Back in the day, I might have taken these experiences to be indicative of “something larger than myself,” as the language goes. I was raised with a vague agnostic mix of Christianity, paganism, and Zen Buddhism. Occasional flashes of strict, judgmental Christianity during my teenage years served only to drive me away from organized religion. I am glad I had a pagan/goddess-worshiping phase, mostly for the psychological benefits of being a woman and devoting a lot of time to thinking about the feminine divine in this patriarchal society. But ultimately, after attending university and learning about statistics, the scientific method, and common logical fallacies, I decided that such experiences were indicative of nothing more than the pretty awesome and amazing things my brain can apparently do when given the right stimuli. At one point in time, I took these experiences to mean that the universe is conscious and intelligent and watching out for me. At another time, I took experiences like these to mean that the Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as the pagan ones, both old and new, were symbolic embodiments of real life energy which, again, was conscious, and flowing through me and all living things. At another point in time, I considered that perhaps the Buddhists were correct and I was experiencing momentary glimpses of moksha, liberation, and that perhaps all this reality I saw before me really was merely illusion.

Eventually, though, I decided that these ideas were all too vague and fluid to have much usefulness, and I stopped using them. Going back to school as a student of the sciences gave me the tools to realize why I had let them go: no evidence. No meaningful hypothesis. No useful predictions.

I’m writing this to hopefully give one more data point in the constellation of information about atheists’ lives that is developing now. I still have these moments even though I’m not just atheist but also anti-theist. Little moments of pure in-the-moment joy and relaxation; experiences of transcendent love for all humanity, all living beings, even all inanimate objects; these are the legacy of our evolutionary heritage and as such belong to all living beings, regardless of what supernatural or social framework they press into service to provide some philosophical structure for the experience.

3 Comments

Filed under Personal, Religion