Accommodation; faith in moderation

Anyone who has been paying attention to the atheist blog-o-sphere in recent months is familiar with the issue of accommodationism.  Anyone who has been following the atheist community at all knows a little about the issue of labels;  Atheist, weak atheist/strong atheist, agnostic, humanist, etc.  Within these, and many other, issues lie a multitude of canards about atheists and issues related to the philosophy of religion that atheists commonly talk about.

One of those issues that comes up by people attempting to be reasonable has been annoying me recently, although it certainly is nothing new.  Just yesterday I was watching a documentary about one man’s search for whether God makes sense, called (appropriately) “Does God make sense?”  In it, we see interviews in which religious leaders and atheists answer questions about belief, skepticism, etc.  In the end, we get a sort of cop-out, a non-controversial moderation of opinion that will offend few and say little.

Does God makes sense? Our documentary narrator and interviewer concludes that both arguments have “circularities” and “endless regressions”; “Arguments? I love them all.  But they all falter.” And finally, “I wish I were certain.”

Ah yes, this old canard! Both the atheists and the theists think they are certain, and that reasonable people are not certain so we therefore reasonable people cannot unambiguously side with any ‘extreme’.  I’ve dealt with this before, somewhat, in talking about arrogance.  I’ve also dealt with the canard of atheist and theist being the extremes of a continuum with moderate positions (say, here and here).  But now I want to deal with another facet of this poorly cut piece of glass being passed off as a beautiful jewel.  I want to deal with the idolization of the moderate.

Shared by large swath of people in our culture, there is a sense that it is somehow laudable, and perhaps a prerequisite for being considered respectable, to eschew the extremes.  Jon Stewart’s recent Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear is a prime example of this trend occurring in our culture.  The idea is that those on the extremes are, well, extreme and therefore unreasonable.  In order to be reasonable and sane we must keep a distance from both shores and sit comfortably somewhere in the middle, safe from controversy that might start a *gasp* conversation  that may challenge others’ views.  We may lean one way or the other, but be should sit near the middle.

But, as the atheist prophet and wordsmith PZ Myers so eloquently commented:

squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshiping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.

That is, sometimes the extreme is not a position of crazy.  Sometimes the extreme position is just right.  So when I see people trying to navigate the question of religion, god, etc and they conclude that the only reasonable position to be in is somewhere between the crazy theist fundamentalists and the crazy atheists, I want to ask why the atheist position is crazy.

And when I do, I get back either a look of perplexity upon being unable to identify examples of atheist fundamentalism or a bunch of positions that no atheist I know holds.  In other words, the extreme they point to is a straw-man, if they can point to anything at all.

But hidden within this is an admittance that I find interesting.  These moderates seem to recognize that the beliefs supported by religious fundamentalism–that is, supported by what the various scriptures actually say–are crazy.  They seem to recognize that the faith that those on the side of religious belief are not-acceptable to reasonable people.  They reject literalism, yes, but they also reject rejecting some watered-down version of that same faith (erroneously labeling that rejection as an equivalent faith).  And, instead, they maintain a new kind of faith; a faith in the moderate, the in-between, the safe. They create the watered-down religiosity that they refuse to reject, in fact.  It’s why they refuse to reject it; it’s their faith.
No, this is not to say that it is really safe, at least not in any way that will stand up to intellectual scrutiny.  It has to do with the fact that it will be culturally safe because so many people accept (without evidence or question, usually) the canard that a moderate position between apparent extremes is preferable, respectable, and will not make you stand out at a party.

It’s politics, really.  It’s an attempt to not be controversial.  Again, it’s not an attempt to not actually hold a controversial opinion, just not to hold a controversial opinion around the people they hang out with; other moderates with the same faith.  They have the numbers on their side, surely, and even when they don’t they will often appear rational.  The religious crazies will at least be sated that they are not atheists (even if they are), and the atheist will be sated that they are not thanking Jesus before dinner (even if they are).  You see, moderation is not so much about the opinion itself as it is about the being quiet among people with which they might otherwise have differences.  They neither discuss or think much about such controversial issues, so they default to the position of moderation while dismissing strong opinions as non-preferable.  They accommodate in order to get along.

Politics.  Except that when the polemical politicians speak up, they simply regard them as more of the crazies, even if they are not.  (And yes, they often are)

My mother is fond of the phrase “happy medium,” implying a pseudo- Aristotelian temperance of opinion.   A very close friend is usually of a similar temperament, and tries to find some position of compromise; but being a government attorney, this is not surprising.  And these skills are often good skills to have, and I employ them myself.  But more is going on here, I think, than good practice of rationality.  In some cases, I think it’s a kind of faith in the truth of moderation itself.  I It is, I think, a cultural phenomenon that is perhaps as predictable and as common as it is, well, average.

And I, who will stand near the so-called “extreme” of opinions about theology and sexuality, look at the people trying to be moderate and see them as, well, conservative.  This is essentially how I view accommodationism; as a position of being stuck in a respectful position in regards to religion mostly for the sake of appearing reasonable to the moderates of the world.  And it is not that they are trying to be conservative; they are not intentionally trying to maintain the status quo in any way, they just simply stop progressing at some point, and became comfortable.  Whether out of discomfort, fear, disinterest, or the occasional actual intent to stay where they are because they prefer it, it creates a cultural phenomenon that to those still progressing, looks like rigidity and sterility.

I will observe that I think that the liberalism of many generations often becomes the conservative of the next.  Where sex outside of marriage was rebellious and liberal for a couple of generations ago, while I was growing up casual sex started to become normal.  And now that I look at those with whom up I grew, I see them as being conservative sexually.  You know, idealizing  monogamy and all that.  A close friend told me not so long ago that polyamory is not for adults.  I find this funny and ironic.

I see those same people not being religious (although they may retain some emotional connection to some vague “spirituality”), and they are not willing to call themselves atheists or even to consider that my position, which they don’t understand and which they assume must be as crazy as the fundamentalist warning hellfire on the street-corner (without having any idea what that would imply), is reasonable.

Why can’t the position of the gnu atheist be reasonable? Simple.  Because it is not moderate, and moderation is good.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the new faith.  It is a new faith of non-controversial, ‘let’s just live and let live’, mentality.

But it’s really always been this way, I think.  But I think they often forget that there should perhaps be moderation in everything; including moderation.

Strong opinions are not always crazy.  Sometimes they only seem extreme and strong because they reject things that really are ridiculous, and the contrast is glaring, loud, and diverting.  Perhaps it is time for great, diverting, contrast to faith of all kinds.  Perhaps it’s time for the anti-faith to arrive.  But to be anti-faith is to be loud even in a whisper.  But perhaps it’s time for more people to stop whispering and proclaim loudly that faith is not a benefit but a detriment to being reasonable.  Perhaps it’s time to call out that accommodationists are accommodating something crazy, even if they are only half-way to crazy town.

Graduation Moment for Gnu Atheists

For many, the realization that they don’t believe in god–that they have *gasp* become an atheist (!)–is a significant moment.  In many cases, it is accompanied with some sadness, possibly anger, and of course the realization that now one can finally eat those babies guilt-free.

And following the necessary subsequent orgy, such a person will return to life and re-join society as an outsider, because they now view their former co-believers as silly, deluded, mindless fools who are only worthy of mockery and derision.

Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself.

That comes much later.  That comes, when they finally graduate to the upper echelon of atheist, the elite, the creme de la heathen.  See, those silly atheists who are not willing to mock, openly, the beliefs and lifestyles of others with whom they share not opinions metaphysical are not real atheists.


Surely, the realization that one does not believe in god says little to nothing concerning not only what they do believe, but what types of behaviors they will exhibit upon accepting this fact.  Many will remain quiet, and they may not even reveal this piece of personal revelation to anyone except close friends, and then only when the question is relevant.

In short, what one does with this lack of belief varies.

Look out! It's going to charge!

I, for example, will tend to be more confrontational, direct, and open about my lack of belief in gods.  I am, as Jerry Coyne has ‘coyned’ it, a Gnu Atheist.

(Here’s a little clarification, for those who are interested in the meaning of and history of such terms.)

But how do you know you are, in fact, a gnu atheist.  Well, it is not enough to merely not believe, but you have to be viewed, specifically by other atheists, as being aggressive, obnoxious, or rude.  And for many atheists, there will be a moment where you are attacked, spoken rudely to, or criticized by other atheists, for attacking, being rude to, or criticizing religious belief.

This happened to my lovely lady-friend just yesterday for the first time.  Yesterday, in other words, may be her graduation day for becoming one of the elite, Gnu atheists.  So I dedicate this post to her great achievment, a perch from where she can look down upon both religious and accomodationist alike.

Having been attacked for being rude (rudely), and for having spoke her mind to someone who didn’t think it was appropriate to do so, and so therefore spoke his mind, I verily grant thee, Ginny, with the title of Gnu Atheist, with all the powers and responsibilities that come with such an august title.

She does not always wear a bag on her head...

Denis Diderot quote

If nature offers us a difficult knot to untie, let us …not use to untie it the hand of a being who immediately becomes a fresh knot, harder to untie than the first.

I love this quote.  It is a more articulate way of communicating the same point that Richard Dawkins has made in The God Delusion, and which has subsequently called sophomoric and made in a place of ignorance of theology.


Saving yourself for marriage?

I am a daily reader of The Friendly Atheist, as well as a number of other blogs, and I usually agree with Hemant on a number of topics.  Today, I don’t agree with his (probably tentative) reaction to this post on his blog today.  Here’s his (again, probably tentative) conclusion:

There’s nothing wrong with waiting.

But there’s nothing wrong with having safe sex before marriage, either.

Why do I disagree with this? Because I think there may be something very harmful about waiting.  Further, having sex before marriage may be the only way to have a fully satisfying sex life after marriage.  That is, one might be satisfied, but perhaps not as happy as they could be sexually, without having tested the various grounds out there.

Experience and Communication

Sexuality is complicated.  When we are young and inexperienced, we not only don’t know what to do, we really don’t know what we want.  And even if we know what we want, that does not imply that we can know what others want, especially if those things are not the same (or incompatible).  The ability to give to others what they need sexually to some degree depends on sufficient experience with different types of sexuality and our experience with how to respond to those needs.  I doubt that anyone can be prepared for this with only one partner for whom they wait until marriage.

And, perhaps most importantly, when we are inexperienced we rarely communicate about sex, especially during the act itself.  Does that feel good? Do you want me to do that harder, softer, or not at all? Would you like to be spanked, or to spank me?  All legitimate questions.  And there are many more questions in addition to these, of course.  Without prior experience to feed off of, how would people know to ask such questions?

It takes more than two, baby!

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is to have two inexperienced people trying to figure sexuality out together.  This is not to say that two people with no experience cannot figure it out, but it will take time, patience, and possibly some research.  Most importantly, it takes honesty and a willingness to push ourselves.  We cannot find what lies deep inside if we are afraid to look there.

But let’s be honest here; most people who decide to wait until marriage are coming from religious backgrounds with conservative views about sexuality.  There will be exceptions, of course, but this phenomenon of waiting is primarily religion-driven, I’d be willing to bet.  People who were brought up to believe that sex is sinful, except in marriage (and possibly even within marriage, if it gets kinky), are the ones doing the waiting.

These are not people to likely discuss their sexuality in the open, even with their new spouse.  They have become so used to repressing the topic, that in order to then suddenly be sex-positive  will be a rare exception and not the rule by any measure of the term.  Further, because of their lack of experience with other lovers, they will not even know what it is they are lacking.  This is why people need to find themselves a more experienced ethical slut to help them along before they move onto marriage.  Hell, they may need that before they are ready for a serious relationship.

Finding it too late?

And what happens in situations like this, where young people wait until marriage, is that perhaps they get married too soon, or to the wrong person, because they don’t know better.   How could they know? They have little experience to draw from, remember?  And then they find themselves married, perhaps enjoying the sex, but after some time they feel as if something is missing.

With a likely inexperienced lover, they may have desires that they don’t know how to express.  In this situation, most people will not explore their sexuality until after years of pushing back desires that will seem abnormal, wrong, or perhaps sinful.  This is probably why so many people get married only to come out years later as homosexual.  But in many other cases people have a vanilla (that is, “normal”) sex life until they discover their inner kinks later on, and then you see them as they should have found themselves while much younger.

I cannot tell you how many people I have met that say that they wish they knew what they did now, about themselves sexually specifically, 20 or 30 years before.  I meet people in the polyamory communities who only opened up to their kinky side when they were in their 40s, 50s, or later.  Imagine all the years they could have been enjoying sexuality more passionately, ecstatically, and with more people if they just didn’t hold back.  And no, not all these people did wait until marriage, but how could a person who does so avoid this fate? Again, some will avoid it even if they do wait, but most will not.

Everyone should have been exploring their sexuality as teenagers, young adults, and ideally exposed to sex-positive environments as children.  If children grow up knowing that sex is a healthy thing, they will be able to find what they are into easier as they grow up.  And if they get a chance to be sexual as they grow up, of course progressing on their own terms and as they grow comfortable, then they will be able to know that a person is sexually compatible with them.

I mean, how awful would it be to make a commitment to someone who you are not sexually compatible with?  Granted, they don’t have to be monogamous with them (although those that save themselves are more likely to attempt monogamy, I’d bet…at least in the short-term), but to be married to someone who you can’t be your sexual-self with?  How many people are trapped in loveless and/or sexless (or, with unsatisfiable sex) marriages.  And of course they can just get a divorce, right?

Because people with conservative sexual ideas tend to be OK with that too….

No, do not save yourself for marriage.  Marry someone (if you marry at all) who fits your sexuality.  If you want orgies every weekend, marry someone who is into that.  If you want plain old missionary position for 50 years, then by all means at least test out the product before you buy it.  Hell, even vanilla sex can be better or worse with the right or wrong person.

You don’t have to be a slut.  But find a way to explore your sexuality, and to teach your children to explore their sexuality, in healthy ways.  Don’t let them repress their sexuality in the name of some absurd sacredness to sex that is somehow ruined by having it.  For Dionysus’ sake, have some sex, and enjoy it!

Happy Carl Sagan Day

Just a friendly reminder of the wonderful personality of Carl Sagan.  This wonderful communicator of science and  lover of knowledge is still missed by many of us.

I have always loved the sound of his voice, his gentle smile, and I wish I had had a chance to meet him while he was still around.

So, today, let’s try and remember Carl Sagan, what he represented, and what he may still have to teach us.


Here’s the beginning of the Cosmos series, which still gives me a lovely chill when those notes come in.

I urge anyone who has not seen it, or has not seen it in many years, to watch the entire series.

Also, in case you one of those deluded souls who were told, as a child, that anything Sagan was Satanic, Carl Sagan is not Satanic.

Of elections and accommodationists

So, the Democratic party has lost a few seats in the House of Representatives.  And so they maintained a majority in the Senate.  That was about what many expected, including myself.

And so many pundits were calling this election a referendum on Barack Obama.  That’s not really unexpected either.

But has Obama failed in his goals for change? Well, he has accomplished some.  Perhaps not enough for many of the more liberal-minded supporters who ushered him into office two years ago.  Why was his administration not able to do more? Well, some say that it is because of the attempts by Republicans to block legislative attempts, appointments, etc with those oh-so-spooky rules of Congress.  And some have pointed to some other causes; say Barack Obama’s desire to be bi-partisan.  It is a noble goal, perhaps, but one that may have been naive.  And I agree with some who say that it has only been two years, and those two years were mired with immense financial problems and wars over-seas.

Barack Obama seems to really believe, or at least wants to appear to believe (I know, I’m cynical…) that working with his political opponents is a means to healing the split that has grown in our culture and politics.  He does not want to simply use the steamroller of his political power to roll over them, because he wants a world, perhaps, where we work together.

And Jon Stewart’s recent Rally to Restore Sanity had a similar message of working together, to stop demonizing the extremes, and to find a way to work together as Americans.

That is, the message of Hope in Barack Obama’s campaign, as well as Jon Stewart’s rally, is to find a way for people on all sides of these debates to find a way to accommodate their opponents, to treat them like, human beings, to….

Wait a minute.

That sounds really familiar.

Where have I heard that argument before?

Oh, right.  That’s the same argument that people such as Chris Mooney and Karl Giberson have been using in relation for how we should relate to the extremes of the religious world.  We need to build bridges, work with them on projects with which we agree, and we need to stop criticizing them so much.

And critics of their perspective, such as PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, have been pointing out that we need to look at the long-term and recognize that while communication is important with the extremes, there is a point where working with them will be useless.  There is a point where criticism simply is the only way, because the crazies are just crazy, and we need to work towards a world where their views are not automatically respected and allowed to hold sway without a fight.

And given the fact that the Republican party has been strongly influenced by the same ideas that are behind the religious extremes, perhaps this point should have been more obvious to all of us.  There are too many Republican candidates who reject the science of evolution, don’t seem to know what is in the constitution, and pander to a political movement that is not much more than an attempt to re-frame the old conservative points with a new wrapper.

It seems that the issue of accommodationism is larger than that of how atheists should deal with religious people.  Perhaps it is also relevant to how Democrats should have related to the Republican minority during the last two years.  The Democratic party tried to work with the Republicans, and look how well that worked.  They were called socialists even though Obama is a centrist, blocked at most attempts to do just about anything, and just sat and took it.  They have had no spine, no ferocity, and no recognizable rallying message.  Just like those atheist accommodationists who argue that we need to not be so, well, honest with religious conservatives.

Perhaps this should be a learning moment for the many accommodationists out there.  because while we cannot exactly be voted out of office in two years, we certainly can keep sitting back and allowing religious conservatives continue to push against science education and dominate the conversation until we start to notice that we don’t have a populace intelligent enough to think critically.

Oh crap, we are pretty much already there.

We have work to do, both politically and it terms of critical thinking, skepticism, and fighting against religious fundamentalism.

Muslim humanity prevents Islamic violence

I just finished watching this discussion between Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ramadan about whether Islam is a religion of peace:

Now, there is nothing particularly new about this discussion, or the points made therein.  In fact, to follow this post, you really don’t need to watch it.  But, do watch it if you are interested in the issues involved.

One of the themes in this discussion is one which I see come up often.  When we talk about whether a religion–Islam or otherwise–is one of peace or not, this point is raised that the majority of the faithful are NOT terrorists, militants, or remotely violent themselves.  The violence comes from the extremes, the fringe, who are not representative of the vast majority of the religious community.

I will leave aside Sam Harris’ point that even if they are not doing the violence themselves, the moderates/mainstream believers lend shelter for those who do.  While I agree with this idea essentially, I am not interested in this point at the moment.

Instead, I want to talk about a related point.  Throughout the discussion, Tariq Ramadan pointed out that people can take the text (the Koran, in this case), and read it in ways that will compel them to violence.  And at the same time, most Muslims do not read it this way, nor do they live their lives around violence or terrorism. That is, even if there are parts of the texts that can be read as a motivation for violence, the fact is that most people don’t live that way as Muslims.

And at one point, he compared it to the fact that while the United States has a secular founding document, George W. Bush was still able to use religious rhetoric as President, including rhetoric used towards initiating war with Iraq.  And, in fact, presidents continually use religious rhetoric, even if the Constitution is a secular document.  Supposedly, the point is that even if the text says one thing (whether it is secularism or violence), the practical fact is that people can be representatives of that document and not necessarily reflect that secularism or call for violence.   There is a disconnection between the text and behavior.

An interesting point, but it compels me to wonder how we are to define a religious believer (or representative of the Constitution of the United States), in light of this.  Is it enough to believe in Allah, Muhammad as his Prophet, etc in order to be a Muslim?  Is it enough just to live in an Islamic culture and follow the daily rituals and where the right clothes? Is it enough just to have Muslim parents?

Similarly, is it enough to be elected president? That is, is just being in the position, holding the title, sufficient to actually be a representative of the Constitution which they claim to represent?

In a practical sense, it probably is enough.  And I don’t want to get too mired in the minutia involved in this question now.   But is there a line which, upon crossing it, one can no longer be considered a representative? Is a person who was raised Catholic, attends Mass on rare Sundays, is for a woman’s choice to abort, doesn’t really believe in the Trinity, does not care much for the Pope (the one in Rome), and who has not confessed his “sins” to a priest in years a Roman Catholic?

And if the Koran really does ask you to kill apostates, convert the world to Islam, etc and you don’t do so, then are you really a Muslim?

Where is the line? A point worthy of consideration, but I shall leave it aside for now.

But back to Tariq Ramadan.  His point that there is a distinction between the text and the behavior of adherents is important, if not new, and I do think it gives us pause in such discussion to consider its ramifications.   Ultimately, however, I don’t think it makes the point that Ramadan may intend, which seems to be that the text is not enough; that we need to look at the practical truth of how those who claim to represent those texts actually live.  The people are the body of the religion, and how they behave is, in many important respects, the definition of the religion.  But this is not the whole story.

I think Ramadan’s point does not prove that Islam is not violent any more than George W. Bush’s religious rhetoric proves that the United States is a Christian nation.  Muslims not acting violently, despite the violence called for in the Koran, is comparable to the fact that politicians in the U.S. may be crossing a line in endorsing their religious perspectives as representatives of a secular document.  What this seems to indicate is that people are capable of finding themselves in positions where they are supposed to represent a constitution or sacred text and do so imperfectly.  That is, they veer away from the text in such ways that displays their humanity (and other influence on them from their culture), and how such things can influence how religions and political climates change in practice from their sources.

The practice of one’s religion is a combination of their sacred text (interpreted by theologians and other intellectuals) and the secular and/or alternative religious influences that permeate their culture.  And where they are not acting upon the text and its commands (whether violence or something else), this demonstrates not that the religion is not in fact violent, but that their behavior is informed by other things.  Their humanity prevents them from acting on the violent parts of the text (whether for distaste for it or, perhaps more likely, their ignorance of it), and since most people do this, the religion itself begins to look non-violent based upon this behavior.

Further, those intellectuals and more liberal theologians who read the Koran differently are, perhaps, not being honest with the history and source of Islam, whose history is rife with violence.  It was Mohammad himself who led an invasion of Mecca, which led to subsequent invasions in the name of spreading Islam (both as a religion and political force).  The Koran is pretty clear that the goal of the faith is to convert the world.  One has to explain this or reinterpret it to mean something else to not see the inherent violence contained within.

So where are these intellectuals within the Islamic world finding this lack of essential violence in Islam?  How are they finding the peaceful, intellectual, and modern view of Islam?  Well, the same way that most (liberal) Christian intellectuals find the roots of peace, social justice, and acceptance of homosexuality within the Bible and the Christian tradition. They ignore the atrocities, reinterpret many others, and focus of the parts that are helpful to their worldview.

(and the conservatives do the same, but with a focus on different parts).

It is as I (and many others) have argued before; liberal theologians accomplish their liberal views by being inconsistent with the entire text.   By making decisions with their educated perspective, which is often the result of interaction with ideas outside of their sacred text, they reveal the secular source of their peaceful and open attitude towards alternative ideas and beliefs.  They are not being peaceful and sophisticated because of the religious texts themselves, but because of their humanity which they project onto their interpretations of those texts.  And because there are a few occasions where the text does inspire more modern and liberal values, they highlight these verses and put to the side the ones which display the violence which is part of that tradition and faith.

So, why are the vast majority of religious people generally tolerant, non-violent, and moderate? Well, because they either don’t know what the text says, don’t agree with a lot of it, or because as human beings they don’t literally take the whole text (and only that text) as the inspiration for how to live their lives.  And those that do try to live their lives based upon that text become fundamentalists.  They become the fringe, because this behavior pattern of taking one source very seriously is rare in human behavior.

But the more seriously they take the text, the more radical and insane they seem to the mainstream.  And since the text is the source of the religious beliefs of both fundamentalists and moderates, without which those crazy notions of violence, evangelism, etc would not as easily exist, would it not be better to just view the text as something to not revere?

Where the text says things we agree with, we merely acknowledge that we agree with the text there.  Where we find it out-dated and crazy, we admit that.  But this would imply that the text is imperfect, and the theological notions which derive only from those texts (whether it be Muhammad as being the last prophet or Jesus being God who dies for our sins) should be discarded.

But the moderates hold onto those notions anyway.  While they only accept some of the text (again, out of ignorance or distaste), they still accept some of it despite their being no other source for supporting the ideas and the utter insanity of them.

Again, how are these people really representatives of the text, and why should we respect their beliefs just because they are only partially nutty?  Just because most Muslims, Christians, and Jews are not acting on the calls for violence that their texts clearly ask of them, how does that not make the religion itself non-violent?  Following directions poorly does not change the nature of the directions.