When did you choose to be monogamous?

I have been asked by a number of people over the years why I am polyamorous.  It can be in the form of when I chose to be polyamorous, how long I have actively become polyamorous, how does that work given jealousy, and so forth.  But I think that such questions might be misisng the larger question.

When do people choose to be monogamous?

Have most monogamous couples had a discussion about exclusivity when they reached a certain point in their relationship? I highly doubt that many couples have had the mono/poly discussion at all, actually.  I would love to hear anecdotes to the contrary, as real statistical data is likely to be severely lacking.

Even those couples who might dabble in swinging, swapping with other couples, or even eventually became polyamorous probably never had such a conversation. Most people are ignorant, rather than intimated or uninterested in non-monogamy, especially polyamory

But in a strict sense monogamous people are choosing to live that lifestyle, even if it is an uninformed choice.  The authenticity of the choice is not overwhelming because in most cases alternative options are not realistically considered even if they are understood to be actual options. It’s hard to make an informed decision when you know almost nothing about it; even most of my friends and family know next to nothing about how polyamory works.

The fact is that monogamy is the cultural default, and is rarely realistically questioned.  This is why the polyamorous community is so small, the swinger community is often anonymous and often secretive, and even affairs are kept quiet; they are a blemish on the fantastical ideal of monogamy.

Having been monogamous in my life, I have a perspective where my choice to try and maintain a polyamorous lifestyle is informed.  And for the few monogamous people who are well aware of polyamory and have discussed the issue with their partner, their choice is authentic and informed as well as mine is, but they are rare.

The vast majority of our culture seems to be monogamous by default, rather than by authentic choice.  Until the idea gains more mainstream attention and understanding starts to spread (if this ever happens), this ignorance shall be the norm.

Two Philadelphia atheist events this weekend

For those of you in the Philadelphia area, I have a couple of events you may be interested in.  They are both affiliated with the Freethought Society, which is run by my friend Margaret Downey, and I will be attending one of both of them.

The first is the Human Tree of Knowledge in West Chester on Saturday December 3rd at 3:00 PM.  The reason it will be a human tree rather than a real one is because the presence of a real tree has been blocked by the city of West Chester, as has been covered recently over at Hemant’s place.  I was there for at least two of the real trees before this form of protest was necessary, as I have worked with Margaret Downey and the FTS for many years.

If you are interested in following news or in networking with people involved, there is also a facebook group.  I will be there on Saturday and will almost certainly do dinner afterwords.  After that I may grab a point at the Iron Hill Brewery since I love their Pig Iron Porter so much.

The second event is the following day, Sunday December 4th, and is in Philadelphia.  More specifically it is at the Ethical Society at Rittenhouse Square.  Here is an image of the flier, copies of which may appear there in the next couple of days.

I am not yet sure if I will attend this event.  I’m not big on holiday rituals, but it may be a good time to catch up with local people of reason.

If you will be in the Philadelphia and/or West Chester area this coming weekend, make a point to attend or pass along the information to others who may be interested.

Holiday warfare

Ugh, I really get annoyed by this time of year.  I’m referring to the time after Thanksgiving and right up until the New Year’s celebrations.  You know, the last month of Fall, when winter descends upon us, the days get shortest, and for some reason people do a lot of shopping?  You know…Christmas time.  Oh, do I mean the holidays? Yeah, whatever.

I get annoyed by the consumerism, the obligatory gift-giving that commences at the culmination of the season, and the false expectation of joy that permeates it all.  Yeah, I know, hum bug or someshit.

And now on top of it is the ideas of a war on Christmas.  You know, the cultural conversation about “holidays” rather than “Christmas.”  The privileged status of the Christian/secular Christmas becomes annoying to those of us who don’t like the tattered remains of the religious holiday (which is ultimately pagan anyway) nor the secular outgrowth of that tradition.  Many people, like myself (and my acquaintance Tom Flynn), just feel that the day or so holiday should not be stretched into a month.

But, then there are the parties.  Parties where people drink more eggnog than they should.  Parties where you get to sometimes see another side of your co-workers than you do the rest of the year.  Parties where friends and family who live far away some times come around.  Parties with cookies, candy, warm drinks and various levels of tacky holiday decorations which are both colorful, lively, and (at least to me) hideous.  It’s like the best and worst aspects of our culture become magnified.

No, I think that is precisely it.  Our culture begins to express itself more loudly and the imperfections and relative awesomeness becomes pronounced.  It’s like all the things that bubble under the surface become overt, taking life and becoming part of the common conversation.  Where differences and intimacies are usually subdued in the name of pragmatism and rote behavior, something about this time of year trips up the conventionality of every day life and both exposes our differences via the culture wars and allows us to act more warmly towards each other.  Perhaps its the opening up to each other which exposes those differences.  Either way, it is what happens.

Of course, there are still people who quietly endure under the threat of this exposure.  Men and women, boys and girls, who sit at dinner with family and quietly disbelieve in the grace or sermon being recited.  Polite smiles despite sitting a few feet from a family member, co-worker, or religious leader who is hated, feared, or perhaps merely tolerated.  There are emotions of desperation which come closer to the surface, felt more severely due to the presence of people and rituals which cause false intimacy and bring together the people who you usually do not associate with.

But for many others it becomes a time to enumerate, elucidate, and explore the differences, disagreements, and values which either adhere or rip apart our society.  It becomes a time to expose the privilege of religious majority, to become closer to those with whom we share values and history, and to quite literally gather for warmth created by both said intimacy and the friction of those differences.

It is a powderkeg of our culture, bring closer to the surface all of our various interactions with each other.  It exposes the cracks in our culture or, for some, heals some of those cracks.  It is a strange brew on inauthentic pretending and rubbing together of wounds and scabs which leads to a meta-level authenticity which is so rare in our culture.

It is a thing worth more study.

I sort of like this time of year.

Polyamory and Thanksgiving awkwardness (avoided in the name of humor))

So yesterday, while visiting my mom for Thanksgiving, something amusing happened.  After dinner, while sitting around and watching some TV and whatnot I got up to get my phone which was charging in the kitchen.  By some irrelevant idiosyncrasy of social interaction it came to me to give reason for my getting up, and I said that I had to check my phone for text messages from my girlfriend.  This brought some degree of mirth to a guest with whom I was barely acquainted, and she made some comment about how funny I am.

Because, you know, my fiance was right next to me.  I’m obviously making some joke about my girlfriend which only exists for the sake of such jokes. I couldn’t actually, like in real life, have a girlfriend and a fiance as well.  And even if I was that kind of douche bag, I would not make such an announcement with my doting fiance so close by, as that would be inhuman.  What kind of monster am I?

And this is a phenomenon I have noticed for many years among the normals.  There are these jokes about girlfriends, flirting between couples, and so forth which exists at the surface of monogamous life.  Especially if some drinks are being served, there is a hilarity about these comments.

But only when it’s a joke.

I did not correct her in her mistake that I was joking.  I did not say “Actually, I really am texting my girlfriend.  In fact she is my fiance’s girlfriend as well.”  This is because not only was I so amused by the moment that I didn’t really think about it, but by the time it occurred that some consciousness-raising would be possible, the moment had passed.  And so it passed as a mere joke, to be forgotten.

But had I done so, I imagine that it would have dropped with some weight on the room.  Yes, my mo knows about Gina, but she does not exactly advertise my uncommon lifestyle to the world.

So what is it about this levity of non-monogamy in the normal world while its reality is so often threatening, strange, and jealousy-inducing?  Why do normal monogamous people find it so funny to joke about straying but find it so, well, scary in reality?

I’m sorry to say, I don’t have any solid answers to this question right now.  I think that it is sufficient to make the observation and allow it to sit on my mind for a little while.  Perhaps I’ll some up with something brilliant this weekend.

Or, I’m just to lazy to compose such brilliance right now.  Whatever works for you, my dear reader.


Morality as an applied science

Quick note: My blogging activity has been very light lately because I have just started working again.  I am going to dedicate some more time to writing so that I can have at least a couple of posts a week, and hopefully more.  One the positive side, my posts may become shorter (you’re welcome)

There continues to be conversations about the relationship between science and morality in the blogosphere (here’s some from yesterday), which is no surprise since it overlaps issues such as scientism, religion, and skepticism generally.  These topics are all hot tamales, at least on my google reader.

Moral philosophy can bee thought of as an application of scientifically discovered facts to a problem in social dynamics.  In a sense, it is a bit like a computer programming problem in that we know what kind of program we want to create (a harmonious society with minimal ill-treatment of its citizens), but we need to figure out how to achieve this goal with the software and hardware we have.  The hardware and software are (loosely) ourselves, and the program we want to write involves coming up with a way to order social relationships in a way which benefits people while preventing their harm if possible.

And what is morality? Is it the study of how humans (or other sentient beings) interact in groups, or is it the study of the how those humans should act in groups given some given desires and goals?  With morality the desires are given (they are the facts of our psyches), and the goals are at least defined even if not universally shared.  It is the logistics of how to achieve those goals which are where science comes in.

Is this puzzle one for the scientific method, or more generally one for empirical research? That depend son how we are defining ‘science’ here.  If it is meant merely are a set of tools towards pure research, where the empirical methodology we use is utilized in order to discover laws or support hypotheses towards some theory, then no.  If it is meant as a more general application of reason and the scientific method, then yes.  As I have written recently, I think that the term ‘science’ in terms of these philosophical questions (such as the issue of science v. religion) should make way for ‘skepticism’ instead.

Moral philosophy is not science in the same way that physics is a science.   There is science where we know the road (method) but not the goal (like physics), and then there is science where we know the goal (some achievement, technological or otherwise) but not the path by which to get there.  Morality is an example the latter; we know what we want to accomplish, but we need more information and analysis before we know how to get there.  Morality is an applied science.

When we are talking about doing the science of morality, we are not talking about designing a set of experiments to discover the underlying laws of morality as we would with physics.  But morality is a field where we have real, physical things about which we have questions and goals.  We will use reason, empiricism, etc in doing moral philosophy but most importantly doing moral philosophy will compel the need for further empirical research, some of which might be physics.  It will mostly be neuroscience.

So, to deny that morality is a scientific project only makes sense if we are to define science so narrowly as to limit it to pure research, rather than the larger skeptical project of discovering what is true or how to achieve things via naturalistic means.  This is why I prefer to use ‘skepticism’ in place of science in so many conversations such as this, because so many people conflate ‘science’ with pure research.  I think that is the source of much of the disagreement concerning this issue.

For people such as Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, etc, ‘science’ seems to stand for that larger skeptical project.  The best approach to any topic (including morality) is this skeptical method often referred to as ‘scientism’ by so many commentators, and confused with some kind of neo-positivism by others.  That’s why morality is a skeptical project; it is by these empirical and logical methods that we can get real answers to meaningful questions asked.

For morality, the question asked is something like “how should we behave socially in order to allow people to maintain personal and social well being?” This goal of well being (or whatever term you prefer) is not the thing we are trying to determine or justify, it is the project of moral philosophy from the start.  If we were not assuming, axiomatically, the values of well being, happiness, or whatever term we prefer, we would not be talking about morality at all, but something else.  And what other method besides the empirical ones of science could we use to find out how to answer this question?

We are not using science to determine what morality is or should be, we are using it to find the best ways to solve the philosophical problem we are already aware of.  That’s why this is not about the is-ought “fallacy.”  We are not saying that these are the facts, and so we should do this.  We are saying that here is the place we want to be, so how do we get there?

Much like how we are not using science to find or justify our desires for truth when we use it to determine what is true generally, we are not using science to discover or justify our desire for a moral society by trying to discover the best means to attain such a thing. If you don’t take that goal as axiomatic, then you don’t care about doing moral philosophy.  Similarly, if you don’t care about the truth, you don’t do science.

We skeptical and scientistic moral philosophers take what the hard sciences give us through their pure research methods and apply it to this problem of creating a better society in which to live.  That, to me, is applied science.

Happiness and Exclusivity

I had a conversation with a long-time acquaintance (and one-time friend) a couple of years ago about, well, a lot of things but which included polyamory.  This is a person who claimed, credibly, to have had experience with things such as group sex, alternative sexual communities, etc.  Nonetheless she had grown out of all of that, and she seemed to view my active polyamorous lifestyle as a sort of atavism towards our younger days when we were young and experimenting with ourselves.

She also seemed to have somehow concluded that my view of monogamy was to view it as prudish and ridiculous.  Now, under some circumstances I might be willing to make such a declaration, but certainly not in general.  I think that the assumption of monogamy is often problematic and I would like more people to understand the skills which I have learned from being polyamorous, but I do not think there is anything inherently bad, immature, nor reprehensible about deciding to be monogamous.

But one thing she said has stuck with me since that conversation.  It was right after she said that she had experiences with non-monogamous activities that she said that she was with a man (her husband) who made her happy.  She emphasized the fact that he had qualities which she appreciated, both physically and otherwise, which sufficiently satisfied her.  And while I don’t remember the exact words, she implied that my desiring, or perhaps even requiring, multiple relationships was immature.  She said that if I ever had a real woman (like herself, whom she considered out of my league) that I would not be able to handle her and I only chose this lifestyle because I was with inferior, insecure, women.

The basis for this claim was to indicate some recent women I had dated.  One recent long term relationship, a girl I still talk to occasionally but with whom I have no continuing relationship , she referred to as a “fool.”  The woman with who I had been living, but who had recently broke up with me, was referred to as highly insecure (hence my ability to talk her into polyamory), and the girl I was with at the time and with whom I had recently moved to Atlanta (yeah, her…) just seemed to my acquaintance to be similar to the last; insecure, uninteresting, being manipulated and possibly victimized by an insecure and predatory man.

Let’s just say this acquaintance of mine does not think highly of me, at least anymore.

To her, at least at that time, this polyamory thing was for insecure or at least immature people who are trying to overcompensate for something lacking.  Real adults (“real” men and women) don’t do silly things like that  It’s an old charge, and an amusing one for me.

But what stuck out to me was her repeated insistence that she was happy with her relationship as it existed.  She saw no reason to add to it in any way, and I was missing something in not being with a “real woman” in a “real” relationship.  I have no doubt that her claim to happiness was (and probably still is) sincere and probably true.  I know her husband (I’ve known them both since high school), and he is a person I like.  But something about her comment has stuck with me, and today I want to talk about why.

Conflating structure with quality

Here is what I think my old acquaintance, as well as many others I have talked to since who have made similar arguments, are missing.   If you are happy, is your happiness dependent upon the structure or the quality of your relationship?

By the “structure” of your relationship I mean the negotiated rules and boundaries.  Are you permitted to pursue other relationships? What are the limitations on those relationships? Are you married, just dating, and will you be co-habitating?  Things like that.

By the “quality” of the relationship, I mean the level of communication, shared goals and activities, and other related considerations.  Are you honest both with yourself and your partners? Do you try and communicate and address issues as they arise? Do you make an effort to maintain your relationship and not merely coast?  Things like that.

In terms of the health of your relationship, it is not really relevant what the structure of your relationship is. Whatever rules and boundaries you agree to (non-coerced, obviously), you can be happy so long as you are doing the necessary work involved.  The quality of your relationship seems to be a measure of your happiness itself.  In other words, the level of communications and so forth are tool you use to make and maintain a healthy relationship.  If you don’t communicate well, don’t share goals, and you don’t like each other then being happy in that relationship seems impossible.

So, what does it matter whether this acquaintance of mine was/is happy being monogamous? What does that have to do with my being polyamorous? Why address the structure of my relationship rather than the quality?  Well, perhaps she knew little to nothing about the quality of my relationships (this seemed true).  And in fact the quality of those relationships at the time were not ideal, but they were good.  But she didn’t know that, and she showed no interest in addressing that in any case.  For her, it was sufficient to say that she was monogamous, was happy, and so I was just overcompensating for something by doing what I was doing.

Happiness has nothing necessarily to do with structure of your relationship.

If you are honest with your partner(s), if you make an effort to communicate effectively, and you share goals, interests, and quality time with them, then you have a much better chance at being happy with them.  Once you decide to do the necessary work to improve whatever relationships you have, you have the ability to make them healthier and more satisfying.  And this can be done whether you decide to be monogamous, to swap partners, to go to swing clubs, to have casual sex outside the relationship, or start your own polyamorous commune where everyone belongs to everyone equally.

What matters in terms of being happy is being honest with what you want, communicating that to the people you care about, and doing the work it takes to maintain a healthy relationship based upon those considerations.  Anyone can do this, whether they are monogamous like my acquaintance or polyamorous like me.  I think this is something that our culture in general needs to better understand.

What I am saddened by is that my friendship with this person has not continued, in part because of this conversations.  But largely it was the events around that time, much of it due to my own misdeeds, led to her distancing herself from me.  And since then I have done considerable work to improve myself, and I believe that all of her criticisms of me at that time are no longer relevant.  Nonetheless, now all that remains between us is the inauthentic polite chit-chat at our occasional meetings at a party, which has been thankfully rare.  I think if she knew me now, as well as the quality of my relationships, she could see the two amazing women of high quality (“real womenTM“) I have built relationships with.

But she’s stubborn, and so it will likely not come to be.  But I’m happy, and if she is happy then I suppose I can live with lost friends.  What bothers me is being judged for what I’m not, by a person who seems to have no interest in knowing who I am.  If I’m going to be judged, I want to be judged for what I am.

Scientism or skepticism?

There have been quite a few comments in recent months—in articles, debates, etc—proposing the evils of scientism.  Religion and science, say many thinkers, are compatible and to see otherwise is to see science’s reach as going beyond its fingers.  John Haught, for example, defines scientism this way:

Sicentism may be defined as “the belief that science is the only reliable guide to truth.”  Scientism, it must be emphasized, is by no means the same thing as science.  For while science is a modest, reliable, and fruitful method of learning some important things about the universe, scientism is the assumption that science is the only appropriate way to arrive at the totality of truth.  Scientism is a philosophical belief (strictly speaking an “epistemological” one) that enshrines science as the only completely trustworthy method of putting the human mind in touch with reality.

(Science and Religion: from conflict to conversation, page 16)

John Haught

Now, John Haught is considered, by many, to be one of the world’s foremost experts in the relationship between science and religion.  And while I don’t deny that he has a lot to say about both science and religion, much of it valuable, I agree with Jerry Coyne (as well as Eric MacDonald) that his fundamental views about the intersection of science and religion is problematic if not down-right absurd.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the critics of the so-called “scientistic” people (one is tempted to juts call them “scientists”) seem to not understand the position as it is commonly used by those, such as myself, who believe that science is the preeminent epistemological methodology in the world (perhaps the universe!).  The other part is, as has been pointed out, that this method conflicts too much with theological methodology which is often non-empirical.  People like Haught have a bias, a conviction that ties them to a set of doctrines which make claims at odds with science, and so they see something beyond the reach of empiricism.

But to say something is beyond empirical reach is to say that there are non-empirical things.  Well, how would they know? How could they know? From where could they get that data? Revelation? By what train does the “revelator” travel in order to get from a non-material world to a material one? What are the connecting tracks made of? Without a justification for how they get their information, we are right to be skeptical.

And that’s precisely it, isn’t it?  It isn’t about science per se, but skepticism.  The critics of us scientistic people think that we are claiming that we can design laboratory experiments in order to find answers for all questions, even their magic ones.  They think that when we say that science can answer questions about morality (for example), that we mean that people in lab coats can sit around with complicated bunson-burner experiments to determine what types of things to value, what meaning is, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  It is a rather silly caricature, isn’t it?

Truth and the scientific method

If we are concerned with what is true, then we need to find tools which can help us find clues as well as shift through them to determine which of those clues can help.  But further, we need to find the best tool-set to use, how to use them, and how to know when they are not working.  Over the millennia human culture has developed a complicated history to how we determine the truth.  From the early days of philosophy and rationalism through the enlightenment which brought us more powerful tools of empirical research, we have developed what we now refer to as the scientific method.

It is through this method that we have the best information about what is likely to be true.  No other methodology is close to competing in terms of practical success or theoretical power.  This perpetually leaves me asking people who are critical of the scientific method what they could even try to put up against it.  There is no competition.  Cake or death, or something….

But despite this success of the scientific method, many people (especially postmodern philosophers and theologians) try and argue that neither empiricism and/or logic can tell us what is true.  That is, we have to assume some axioms, we must assume some things, to get anywhere with any of these methods.

Well, of course we do.  The question is whether A) other methodologies would have to accept the same axioms (such as non-contradiction, existence, and reliability of sensory perception) and B) whether this actually damages the method itself.  All important questions, but also beyond the scope of this post.  Instead, I want to take another related path here.

Do you value truth? Does it matter to you to have as many true beliefs as possible and as few false beliefs as possible?

As a preliminary, I must address the issue of whether I should have to justify why we should desire truth.  Having to justify the desire for truth when considering what methodology to use in determining truth is akin to justifying hunger when considering nutritional value in deciding what meal to eat.  If you aren’t ever hungry, there is no point in making such a decision.  If you don’t value truth, there is no point in the consideration of methodologies.

Is it not a value of yours to know true things? If so, then just stop reading.  Just go somewhere else, play some video games, and have a few drinks because nothing you say, do, or think is relevant any more concerning anything I have said here.  If you don’t care about what is true, or if what you prefer to be true is more important than verification, then there is simply no talking with you about epistemology, methodology, etc because you don’t care enough so it does not matter.

If you do care, then it should be your value, as a direct logical descendant of that prior value of truth-having, to utilize the best methodology for determining if things are true.  To accept any other method would be absurd, because it is not as good at determining if something is reasonable to accept as true.

And the best methodology for determining truth is, well, science right?  Well, partially.  The best methodology is actually…


That is, after all, the central theme of this blog.  “The Atheist, Polyamorous, Skeptic,” right?  The first two terms in that title are qualifiers of the last; they tell you what kind of skeptic I am.  But further, I believe that skepticism, properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism (and possibly polyamory; a topic for another day), but that is beside the point that I am a skeptic first, which should imply that if the evidence were to point elsewhere I would be otherwise.  Because evidence is what matters.

One of the primary ideas in skepticism is the idea of the null hypothesis.  Now, I realize that in every day practical science this ideal is not a reality, but a s a rule of scientific inquiry in general it is essential as a part of the philosophy of science.  It basically says that you should wait for sufficient evidence before accepting a hypothesis as true.  That is, you withhold belief until enough evidence, or at least rational justification, is given to accept something as having a basis in reality.

Obviously the amount of evidence necessary to accept a claim is proportional to the claim; I don’t expect you to withhold belief in the claim that I ate pizza for dinner tonight; it’s not an extraordinary a claim that is worthy of serious skepticism, and accepting it even if false has little to no consequences generally.  A supernatural being who created and controls aspects of the universe is a different matter, one worthy of skepticism and requiring good support to accept.  As far as I have seen, no good support exists for such a claim.

Skepticism involves many tools and ideals beyond crude empiricism.  Empirical testing, verification through demonstration of material effect, logic, reproducibility, etc.  It is a large tool set which together give us a very powerful detection apparatus for what is true, what exists, and what is not sufficiently verified to rationally accept.

It is this method, that of skeptical inquiry, which the scientistic people are on about.  It is not science per se but the whole set of empirical  and logical tools which I call skepticism.  It is thus my proposition that rather than call us “scientistic,” we should just call ourselves skeptics and have done with it.  Rather than argue against scientism in the science/religion debates, we should be framing the debate as one about skepticism versus non-skepticism.

It is my contention that many fans of NOMA or other angles on the science/religion compatibility side are being non-skeptical, or at least not properly applying skepticism to all aspects of their beliefs, worldviews, or reality.  I think this has been the crux of the issue all-along.


Against skepticsm, religion has a hell of a time competing.  This is not to say that religion does not use logic, empiricism, or skepticism at all.  It just often subverts them under the wing of revelation, authority, tradition, etc.  Many theologians (including William Lane Craig) have said that if it came down to what science says and what their scripture says, they stick with scripture.

But of course many other religious thinkers, such as John Haught and Francis Collins, believe that the methods of science (and perhaps of skepticism) are compatible with their religion.  But the problem with this is immediate, at least to me; religion is often essentially reliant on certain unquestioned propositions (sometimes referred to as “facts”) such as the crucifixion, the miracles of this or that deity or holy person, or the existence of a deity in the first place.  These questions, when pressed against the methods of skepticism (and not merely science), do not stand.  It has been one of the themes of this and many other “new atheist” blogs to demonstrate this week after week.

But when we open our skeptical tool boxes in the presence of ideas accepted due to tradition, faith, or unsupported personal experience we are told that those tools cannot reach there.  We are told that the substance of those things, the nature of their meaning, or even there very ontological status is beyond material manipulation.

But we, as animals with material nervous systems which make up all that we are, are not exceptions to the universe.  We ar enot privy to some magical bridge to some supernatural world.  This has to be supported first.  Haught and his cohorts on sciency-religious love-fests have to demonstrate that there is anything to their revelatory experiences in the first place.  They have to demonstrate that there is any reason to accept that there really is a separation of nature from supernature before they start making claims that the questions about them need different tools.

Science and religion are incompatible because while they both deal with the real world, the extra stuff that religion is supposed to have exclusive access to are not credible in the first place.  There is no reason to think they are real at all.  Only the best set of truth-testing tools that we have can reliably determine what is likely to be true, and those tools don’t expose the presence of the magic world which religion claims propriety over.

If the science/religion discussion is about who can say what about what is beyond the scope of skeptical analysis, then I vote that we let religion have it.   The result is that theologians get to play in imaginationland and skeptics and scientistics can go on having (as Haught says) “the only completely trustworthy method of putting the human mind in touch with reality.”  What Haught and others don’t seem to get is that the rest simply is not rationally acceptable as real.

Truth and honesty as indicators of respectibility

It has been asked of me, more than several times over the years, why I care so much about what people believe.  Why can’t I just live and let live.  Well, I do.  It’s just that I don’t think that living and letting live necessarily involves not asking why people live the ways they do.  I’m not stopping anyone from living by wondering why they live the way they do.

I have said it many times, but the truth is important to me.  This is not to say I assume that all my beliefs are true, only that I try to believe things for good reasons.  I try to have evidence, or at least good reason, for accepting ideas as true.  So, if I do believe something I do think it’s true, but realize that I might be wrong and so I maintain an open mind about that possibility.  This necessitates listening to criticism, going out of my way to challenge ideas (both mine and others’) in the face of dissenting opinions.

This skepticism of mine is part of my life project to be honest, open, and direct with the people around me.  It is a value of mine to live authentically, which for me means that I don’t hide who I am to people, try not to allow self-delusion to survive within myself, and be open about my strengths and my faults. I challenge others because I challenge myself.

One implication of this is that I don’t want cognitive dissonance to exist within my mind, and don’t happily tolerate it in others.  I don’t want to have ideas which are in methodological or philosophical opposition to one another, and I am sensitive to it in others.   Cognitive coherence is a goal at which I will inevitably fail, but I strive for it nonetheless because to do otherwise is to capitulate to intellectual and emotional weakness.

Another implication is that I do not respect the idea that an opinion or view “works for me” as being sufficient to accept it as true.  I actually care what is really true, not merely what coheres with my desires.  This attitude is essential for a healthy skepticism.  The desire to apply skeptical methodology to all facets of reality (sometimes referred to as “scientism”) is a value of mine, and I think it should be a value for everyone.

And this is why meeting someone who has little inclination towards this skepticism, who believes things which are not supported by evidence and do not care to challenge them, raises flags for me.  It is, in fact, reason for me not to trust them.

Now, wait (you may be saying).  How does being non-skeptical about things make a person untrustworthy?

Well, it does not make them completely untrustworthy.  It would not necessarily mean that I could not trust them to watch my bag while I run into the bathroom or have them feed my cats while I’m out of town.  No, it merely means that I will have trouble accepting some claims they make.  It makes me trust them less intellectually.

They have already demonstrated that they are capable of being comfortable with cognitive dissonance, or at least in holding beliefs uncritically.  They have demonstrated that they have less interest in holding true beliefs than holding comfortable ones.  So if they were to claim some knowledge, opinion, etc I would be in my skeptical rights in having some issue with their trustworthiness.

This, of course, does not mean they are wrong.  People with all sorts of strange ideas can be right about other things.  It means that I would be more willing to demand argument or evidence for their claims, since they have already compromised their credibility in my eyes.

It also makes it harder to actually respect them, as people.  It makes it less likely I will want to become closer to them personally.  In potential romantic partners, unskeptical attitudes and beliefs are a turn off, for example.  Beliefs in astrology, psychic powers, homeopathy, wicca, or even some aspects of yoga are indicators that a person may not be a new best friend or romantic partner.

Such beliefs are indicators that while we may get along well enough socially or in light conversation, our goals in life are incompatible.  As a result, there is only so close I am willing to get because the attitude they take to the truth makes them vulnerable to deception.  They have not exercised critical thinking to themselves or the world, and it seems likely that they may not know themselves well enough emotionally and/or intellectually and therefore are more likely to subject themselves, and thus people they are involved with, to undesirable situations.

This is not to say that people who believe these things cannot be educated or better informed, only that until they are willing to critically challenge such things they will occupy a place in my head of lesser reverence.

So, call be judgmental, elitist, and arrogant if you like.  But I will judge unsupported ideas as flawed, consider demanding higher intellectual standards as preferable, and do not think that pride in these standards to be unwarranted.   I am judgmental (so are you, so is everyone.  I am just honest about it).  I am elitist, and I don’t care if it offends your sensibilities.  But arrogant? Well, I don’t think my ideas of self-importance, based upon my standards, are unwarranted. I think they help to make me a better person.

I’m honest, I care about what is true, and I hold myself up to high standards.  If you don’t care about these things, then I likely don’t respect you.  Live with it.


Religion and sex in conservative America

Sex is ubiquitous.  We see it all over the media, entertainment, and our lives.  Most of us think about sex quite frequently, and many of us have a fair amount of it.  One thing all of our ancestors had in common was some kind of sex.

Artificial insemination, of course, makes it possible to pass your genes along without having sex, but I doubt more than a handful of people are virgin parents, Mary being no exception no matter what Christians try and tell you.

Now THAT's what religion should be like!

Religions have varied relationships with human sexuality.  In our Christian-drenched culture, this relationship is somewhat strained, but this is not the universal relationship between religion and sexuality.  Many Hindu temples, for example, depict sexual acts of all kinds; no prudishness inherent there.

Many new age religions celebrate sexuality in many ways, and I have found many religious people in my years among the polyamorous community.  One is likely to find orgies, swingers, sex rituals, or just sex-positive monogamous couples in all sorts of religious traditions.

And yet in the West, where Christianity reigns over any other religious tradition, sexuality has a sort of schizophrenic role to play.  On one hand, sex is (as I said) ubiquitous.  Secular culture is ripe with it and much of it is great (which is to say some of it is not).  And then there are the critics of this phenomenon, mostly from conservative Christianity, who view sex as something limited to marriage.

Which is, of course, excluded from everyone except monogamous couples, one of which is a man the other is a woman.


I have been thinking about this for a long time, and I think that this strategy is somewhat smart, from the point of view of maintaining conservative religious lifestyles.  There is a real separation from the mainstream American culture and that of the conservative America which tries to keep its distance from the rest.

Several years back I was invited to attend a Battle Cry event in Philadelphia.  What was presented to me there, and what many (many) subsequent discussions with former conservative Christians (as well as current conservative Christians) have shown me, is that there is a concerted attempt to create a Christian culture which keep people protected behind a wall of Christian culture.  The goal is to have people  protected from the evil, Satanic, secular culture.  One part of that is to keep their sexuality repressed, at least until they are married.

And they somehow expect their sexuality to open up and flower when marriage happens, as if one can turn off all that emotional association to sexuality in a day.  It’s all a myth, a fantasy, a lie.

If you tell people that sexuality is sinful, that your lewd thoughts are Satan’s influence, and that when you have such feelings you should pray for forgiveness, then you are setting up the best guarantee that many people will keep coming back again and again.  It initiates a cycles of activity which keeps people tied to their religion (bonus to anyone who gets the word-play there).

The parts of this cycle go something like this:

  • The vast majority of people think about sex frequently.
  • Most of those people’s thoughts, if they were raised in a conservative religious environment, will be seen as sinful or even evil.
  • Church teachings, including youth groups, provide young people with ways to combat these feelings (especially if they are homosexual in nature).
  • Those methods do not actually stop those thoughts or feelings, they just associate them with a religious ritual, activity, or belief.
  • Because people think about sex frequently, they have a built-in reminder of their religious upbringing, training, and the emotional associations inherent to that process.
  • This guilt (or even fear) often sticks with people even if they move away from their faith.

This cycle is not good for a sex-positive society.  And a sex-positive society is good for everyone.  Conservative religion, Christianity in particular, is not good for society or the people in it.  Sex is only one example of why this is the case.

And while I would prefer people not be raise in religious environments, if I have to choose, I would prefer them to be raised in a moderate of liberal religious home where the damage is less severe.  Yes, parts of this shame, guilt, and sinful views on sexuality still exist in many aspects of liberal Christianity, but it is less severe even if often nonexistent.  Liberal theology allows people to be exposed to reality, including the truth about sexuality and its role in our lives, and thus it is the lesser of evils.

That’s right, liberal Christianity is the lesser of evils, especially when it comes to sexuality.  That is not to say it is not still bad.

Because it is.