Horror Stories Would Be Nothing Without Stupidity!

Hello! Happy Halloween!

You may have heard that there was a bit of hurricane that blew up the Northeast Corridor, and so state governments around here have been rescheduling Halloween for this coming weekend and beyond, but for much of the country today is still The Devil’s Christmas or whatever the kids are calling it during this time of rampant immorality.  After all, we’ve got preachers saying that The Gays caused Hurricane Sandy and it’s certainly fitting that it would fall right around the most immoral of all holidays.  Halloween: When women all dress as the “slutty” versions of favorite childhood characters and when gay people are…gay…or something.

Look, I’m just looking forward to the election being over, alright?

In honor of the holiday, we at the Polyskeptic Compound have been watching various thematically appropriate pieces of media.  For instance, we have all the seasons of Are You Afraid of the Dark…and I am not ashamed to admit that I am loving it.  I didn’t have Nickelodeon growing up, and this is one of the shows that I watched when I got the chance at my grandparents’ house or something.

Of course, Goosebumps was on broadcast television and I watched the hell out of that.  Mental note: Download Goosebumps also.

Last night, we watched the movie Pet Sematery, based of course on the novel by Stephan King.  Jessie is a huge Stephen King fan and I admittedly have not read or seen very many of these.  I started reading Pet Sematary once and got terrified and put it down. But I figured that I’d watch it because at least it didn’t have a bunch of twisted, blue, cat children like all the Japanese horror movies of recent acclaim.

Several years ago I went to see The Ring in theaters.  I went with three friends and it was a while after its initial release, so the theater was empty.  I spent most of the movie peaking sheepishly from behind my jacket and when I left, I was fairly convinced that I was going to be dead in 7 days.  I had a television in my bedroom at the foot of my bed and my door didn’t close properly and my window was in an odd place so the air current coming from it never reached me, but it would reach the door.  For 7 days I kept expecting a fucking phone call telling me of my fate, kept hearing the door creak in a sinister fashion from the wind convincing me that a weird hair-faced girl decided to take the stairs instead of the television…and then remembering “no, that’s stupid.  She’s totes coming out of the tv…at the foot of your bed.”  I only breathed easily after 7 days…because I’m a jackass.

What I’m saying is, I scare easy.  This is why I don’t go to haunted barns anymore.  Also haunted silos…and prisons…and hay bales.

Anyway, I learned an important lesson from watching Pet Sematery.  Namely, if the people in my house were the family in the movie, the movie would have been about 20 minutes long.  And so for your Halloween Reading Pleasure, here is a comparison:


The movie opens with us meeting a young doctor, his beautiful wife (Tasha Yar), 7 year old daughter and 2 year old adorable son. There is also a cat named Winston Churchill.  They’re new in town.  They have a nice house on lots of land, but beware, there’s a big nasty road nearby.  FORESHADOWING!

Their neighbor, an old an wise man, comes to introduce himself and warn them of the big nasty road nearby. Everyone thanks the old man, but don’t really think anything of it, nor do they do anything about it.  Within minutes in the movie, the little kid has already run toward the road in a haphazard fashion.  FORESHADOWING!

OK, so at this point we already have a problem.  If this was the Fenzorselli/McBrownigal household, I would already be pushing pretty hard for some kind of fence.  We have a crazy dog who likes to run around and not particularly come when she’s called outside.  If we also had a gaggle of unaware kids and cats that liked to be outside (which we do now)… Hell, I barely trust myself not to walk into the road in a haphazard fashion.  We would build a freaking fence.  So…at that point the movie is basically over.

But let’s assume that we build a shitty fence…which is certainly possible.  Wes and I are all about the half-assed projects.  Why use all of the ass when you only need to use half?  EFFICIENCY!

The doc gets ready to go to work. He’s also bringing the cat into get fixed because unfixed cats wander or something.  His daughter asks him to promise her that nothing will ever happen to the cat.  He doesn’t want to do that since it’s a bold faced lie.  Tasha Yar tells him to anyway.  FORESHADOWING!

Obviously, no one in my family would tell the kid that the cat is immortal.  Knowing us and our household opinion that cats are universally assholes, we would talk about cat stew recipes and how maybe the road will do our dirty work for us…because we’re terrible people.  But even if we weren’t going to talk about caticide, we would tell the kid that the cat is going to die well before any of us.  Then we would talk for the cat and say in a high scratchy voice, “AND I WILL COME BACK TO HAUNT YOU…UNTIL YOU GIVE ME MORE CAT FOOD!  ALSO, I WILL GHOST POOP IN YOUR BEEEEEEEED!”

Meanwhile, the old man has taken the young family on a field trip to the local pet cemetery at the end of the big nasty road.  The camera pans to a weird pile of sticks or something and ominous music plays.

Gina sez: Hey, old man, next time can you pick a less terrifying place for us to picnic in? Jeez! Also, I’m never coming back here again.  I don’t know if you noticed, but we have ample land on which to bury our animals.

Rest of the family: Yeah, this place sucks.  Also, old people are weird.

Meanwhile, a teenager gets hit by a Mack truck on the big nasty road and dies.  The doctor tries to help him, despite the fact that he is pretty much a lost cause.  The teenager’s ghost comes back to warn him not to go past the eerie pile of sticks in at the Pet Semetary.

My family: Yes, no shit, ghost.  We already said we’re never coming back here again and you’ve made fucking liars out of us.  THANKS.  Also, are you evidence of ghosts or do we just need to drink more?

The doctor’s family goes away for Thanksgiving.  The doctor’s father in law hates him for some reason so he decides to stay behind and eat turkey by himself.  The cat gets hit by a car.  The old man finds the cat and tells the doctor.

At this point, most reasonable people would say, “Well, shit.  I guess it’s time to bury this cat in non-weird soil…better yet, let’s cremate it.” That’s what we would do.  Hence, the movie would once again be over.  But let’s say we don’t just bury the cat and let the old man talk.

So the old man takes the doctor to an old Native American burial ground and tells him that it will bring the cat back to life.   This way, the doctor gets to lie to his daughter some more and nothing bad will happen!  The doctor asks questions that get no answers and instead of, you know, not burying the cat in the spooky burial ground that the ghost told him to stay away from, he does.

Presto change-o the cat comes back to life…as a total asshole!  Now, we at the Fenzorselli/McBrownigal household wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the new “evil” cat and one of our standard cats.  In fact, while watching this movie, we decided that Tandoori must have been buried in this place before we got him.  I laughed hysterically every time the cat did something dickish because it was just so darn familiar!

Meanwhile, because the family didn’t build a damn fence, the adorable little boy gets hit by a truck and dies.  The doctor is understandably grief stricken and, seeing this, the old man warns to not bury the kid in the burial ground.  He tells a tale of a friend of his who did that, and his son came back as a crazy flesh eating monster.  The old man (and a bunch of neighbors) came and burned the house down with the crazy flesh eating monster in it.

At this point, we’d all be asking this jackass why he told us to bury the cat in the asshole generating soil in the first place if he has first hand experience with its “magic”.  And we definitely would have not considered burying the kid there after a story like that.

But this doofus decides that this sounds like a great idea because he probably thinks the old man is blowing it out of proportion and that the worst thing that will happen is that the kid will come back as a hipster or something.

Aaaaand the kid comes alive, finds the doctor’s scalpel and starts slicing everyone up…like you do.  So, the kid kills his mother who comes back just in time (with the aid of the ghost who seemingly wanted her to die with all his freaking help) to get killed.  So the doctor shows up, re-kills his son and then decides that he should now bury his wife in the asshole generating soil.

She comes back to life, shows up at his house, they make out for a while and then she stabs in the head.

The end.

Being skeptics, it’s possible that we would have tried the burial ground for the cat…but probably not because we would have thought the old man was off his rocker…and this would have been a good decision.  But in the name of the scientific method, we might have wanted to prove to ourselves that burying things in the Native American Ancient Burial Ground was a terrible idea.  Upon getting a really big asshole of a cat back (where there was less of an asshole before), we wouldn’t test it again…right?  I mean, I guess reproducibility is the best route to declaring something a law.  But we’d probably test it with hamsters or something…not people.

But as I said in the beginning, this all could have been avoided if they had just built a fence.  Or more importantly, it could easily have been avoided had they hired competent people to build a really good fence.

Also, I would encourage us to either not follow the old man into cemeteries, or encourage him to be more upfront with his horrifying tales of horror from his past BEFORE burying things in spooky places.

The Fenzorselli/McBrownigal movie: Move in, heed the warnings about the shitty road, hire someone to build a decent fence.  If the cat dies, bury him in the backyard and don’t lie about it.  The End.

Man, pretty boring, right?  Well, whatever.  Fine…we’d put some scenes of us in our hot tub or something, ok?

Atonement and Monogamy as Impossible Ideals

As a student of anthropology, I think a lot about cultural constructs which permeate our lives, most of which are pretty invisible to us most of the time.  From an early age I was fascinated with the various institutions of religion, as well as the many more personal spiritual ideologies people espouse, and the various psychological and sociological structures which surround them.  Later on, I started thinking about similar aspects of how we think about sex and relationships, and eventually found many similarities between how we think about gods, spirits, and sex.  This is no surprise since one of the best ways for religions to hold our attention is to demand certain behaviors is to hold us hostage with fears about our deepest inclinations; sex is a great example of this.

In religion, there is this idea of atonement.  It comes in many forms from many theological systems, but it is basically the way that we come to make amends with some supernatural or natural power.  Whether we have to deal with a fundamental brokenness in our nature, some separation, or lack of enlightenment (to only scratch the surface of ways religious ideas deal with this atonement thing) from the power we seek atonement with, there is a set of actions and beliefs which we must do or have in order to reach some ideal relationship with the universe, deity, or ourselves.

Tantalus perpetually reaching for fruit and water he will never grasp

It is my view that the religions which survive best find a balance of difficulty and comprehensibility in the ideals it sets up.  Adherents must be, like the  Tantalus of Greek mythology, perpetually reaching for this ideal of atonement which they cannot really achieve, but it must be something they can imagine as a logically possible thing to have.  Sure, people can think that they have achieved the goal (as many Christians believe they are saved), but the scriptures and religious leaders will always mention that this is pride, or something similar in order to keep them in check.

Opposed, conceptually, to atonement is some detriment presented as part of our nature or circumstance.  We stand unenlightened, sinful, or separated from some god(s), knowledge, or understanding and we will remain there until we atone, repent, or whatever must be done to solve this problem, heal this sickness, etc.  As Christopher Hitchens said many times,

Even the most humane and compassionate of the monotheisms and polytheisms are complicit in this quiet and irrational authoritarianism: they proclaim us, in Fulke Greville‘s unforgettable line, “Created sick — Commanded to be well.”

The bottom line here is that there is a tendency in human worldviews, whether religion or otherwise, to present a highly unlikely ideal against some much more likely, and often repugnant, set of behaviors or beliefs which we must be encouraged away from.


The sin of non-monogamy and the atonement with The One.

There is a mainstream view of sex and relationships, here in the modern west and most other developed nations, with monogamy as the ideal relationship type.  The majority of cultures have some version of this practice, and it’s major competitor is some kind of patriarchal polygamy.  Polyandry or true sexual/relationship equality is rare and considered aberrational when it occurs.  It took quite a while before we would have a sexual revolution, and with it true freedom started to become part of our cultural consciousness.

And yet even still there exists within our sexually liberated world a distinction between studs and sluts; men are expected to be promiscuous, women are often valued for their “purity.”  These promiscuous men and these sluts are expected, or at least encouraged, to eventually outgrow this part of their life and find The One, or at least settle for A One.

Do you believe that lifelong monogamy is a realistic expectation for a married couple? (click for context and details)

For most people who have a period of sexual liberation, it ends with the attempt to reach an ideal of monogamy. Men and women may be expected to have sexual experiences in their teenage years and into their 20’s, but eventually most people expect them to settle down.  “Settling down” means taking relationships seriously, and usually means exclusivity, marriage, and monogamy.  So while we are liberated as a culture in terms of having sex before we “get serious,” get serious we should, because seriousness means exclusivity and exclusivity is good.

The fallen circumstance, or nature, which even our progressive culture patiently tolerates for is one of promiscuity.  But this sexually liberated part of our lives is held against a stable future ideal of monogamy.   The holy grail of relationships, The One, is presented against the superficial and regrettable reality of youthful promiscuity.  This One is The  person with whom we can have a real relationship, rather than failing perpetually hopping from one insignificant relationship to another (sometimes at the same time!).

A mnemonic device I learned years ago about the word atone was that you can break it down into at+one.  In other words, especially for many Christian traditions, the goal was to work to become at one with some god or another.  All of our other inclinations, not having to do with this atonement, should be secondary to that relationship of working towards chasing that ideal, because nothing was more important than that.  Monogamy has taken a similar place in our culture as that ideal of religious atonement; the sinful and superficial world of sex, lust, and other failings of human behavior are presented against an ideal of monogamy.  That is, even liberal society maintains this ideal, even though that liberality allows sexual promiscuity, co-habitation before marriage, etc.  Anything that looks like monogamy, even if it isn’t really marriage, is what we should be striving for.  The difference here between mainstream conservatives and liberals on this issue is how we get to monogamy, not whether that is the goal.

This shows me that culture tends to be truly human (all too human!) and tends to have worldviews which are conservative even when we are progressive (I actually argue that today’s liberals are tomorrow’s conservatives, because the mainstream is largely conservatives concerning ideals).  We conserve ideals, even as our values shift.  So, even as we become increasingly liberal as a society in terms of seeing redemption and atonement in looser and looser terms, we hold onto the ideal itself.  Liberal views about the supernatural and what we should be doing with our lives changes in terms of the details of the path to get there, but the destination does not really change.  This is one of the greatest failings of most of mainstream liberal culture; it does not seek to question the ideals, assumptions, and goals of our worldviews.


Ideals Worth Wanting

What should be the strength of progressive culture, or perhaps a radical culture, is the re-valuing of our values.  We need to evaluate what is worth valuing, not what we should change in terms of how to get to our Heavens, Nirvanas, or other paradises whether they be otherworldly or physical.  The question is not how we can get to paradise or what we are allowed to do before we settle into monogamy, the issue is why do we value such ideals? Why is being at one with some supernatural power good? Why is monogamy the ideal?

I don’t think there are good answers to those questions, except to say that perhaps those things should not be ideals at all.  With religion, atonement is merely an impossible goal, set before us to tantalize us and keep us striving and behaving within acceptable boundaries.  Monogamy is no different, in that the only way to achieve it is to pretend as if our ability of love is so limited, and our sexual desires so parochial, that we force ourselves into ideal relationship expectations while repeatedly failing in thought if not act.  There is no reason to set us up with impossible ideals which make no sense to value, whether with gods or monogamy, when we have real ideals to inspire us.

A skeptical approach to reality brings us to an informed and skeptical atheism, and allows us to love the people we love, the way we want to love them, in order to live authentic and rewarding lives.  And while we may never be ideal skeptics or lovers, we can at least have ideals worth wanting.


Adventures in Therapy: Waiting for the Next Session

There’s a song out by the band Imagine Dragons that, despite being catchy from an arrangement point of view, annoys the crap out of me because the entire point is that the narrator is the same as he always has been and won’t ever change.  The line that rings out often is “I’m never changing who I am”.

Now, you might be wondering why this would annoy me.  As Americans, growing up in the land of “Individualism” or whatever (I hear that’s part of our cultural identity, but you wouldn’t know it by how differentiations from the norm are dealt with), we are raised to believe that one of the ultimate quests of our lives is to figure out “who we are”, and once we do that (if we manage it), we must stand by “who we are” and not change just because of…anything.  Our identities are extremely important to us.

It annoys me because we should never be so attached to staying the same.

As you know, I have been engaged in a massive overhaul of my mind lately.  Well, for the last few years and now it’s getting into high gear because I refuse to waste another decade being miserable.  At 31, I look back at my 20’s and wonder what the hell I was doing with myself.  In my 20’s, I asked the same question of what I was doing in my teens.  I have accepted that I was likely depressed all that time and refused to seek out treatment because I disliked a good deal of people in my life and they seemed worthy of dislike, so my poor emotional state made logical sense.  But I wasn’t paying as much attention to it as I am now and I keep wondering how much I could have helped myself had I thought about the issues as also chemical, as also warped thinking that I needed to work on.  It’s easier to see it now because the people in my life are amazing and yet I am still not OK most of the time.  But it took me 20 years to see this.  I will be looking into medicinal help since the physical response to my ridiculous thinking patterns is doing me in.  I have started to exercise more in the morning, which helps keep me calm during the day.  I have maintained my no caffeine rule for many months now and no longer crave it.  I have noticed a huge link between my ability to handle stress and not only the amount of sleep I get, but also to any other low energy times during the day.  I have cut back on carbs, replacing them with protein and other lighter healthier stuff to attempt not to crash in the afternoon.  I am trying very hard to get this under control once and for all (with habits that will last a lifetime).

But none of that will change the way I think about myself, and that is the hardest thing.  As such, I have been thinking about identity a whole lot lately.

Identities are made up of “good” and “bad” things we think define us…but we define what is “good” and what is “bad”.  One of my issues is that I allow others to define these things for me often and I take things to extremes.  For instance, I have defined myself by my willingness to change and by the fact that I always look to myself first in difficult situations.  I generally assume that I am at fault, or am wrong.  It is not generally important to me be “right”.  And I see this as a virtue.

The problem here is pretty obvious.  My being willing to change IS a good thing, but the change has to come because I personally view it as necessary, not because someone else does.  It took me a long time to learn this and I still struggle with it.  Similarly, being willing to look at yourself in a critical way is great IF you are capable of coming to the conclusion that, after reviewing the facts, you aren’t wrong sometimes.  I very rarely do that.  If I had anything to do with something, I will take on as much blame as people are willing to pile.  I am stubborn about it because I think it’s better to be agreeable.  As such, I don’t really look at myself as an authority on myself.  I look at other people as that and require their validation and approval constantly because otherwise, I have no idea of my worth.  I have made it so my entire sense of self worth comes from outside.  Add to that the fact that I generally have a low opinion of myself, I have gotten to the point where I don’t even believe people anymore when they say good things about me.  But I still rely on the validation, so if people don’t say it, I assume that it’s because they don’t think it anymore.

Obviously, this is completely fucked up.

I’m not writing this to get a bunch of eHugs or anything.  I’m writing it because I’m kind of astounded by the discoveries I’m making about my perception of the world and my place in it.  The image I have of myself is completely ridiculous.  Take these statements commonly heard in the hallways of my mind:

“I am a bad person because I am selfish sometimes.  Being selfish sometimes means that you are a selfish person and that you don’t care enough about other people.”

“I am good as long as I keep doing things for people.”

“I had a hard time figuring out something that ultimately was easy.  I am not smart.”

“I get sad a lot.  I am not succeeding at my emotional goals and am therefore a failure…at everything.”

“I don’t know a lot of hard chemistry off the top of my head.  I am a lousy chemist.”

But even worse are the things I think when I want to be appreciated.

“I did all this stuff for them without getting asked to.  Why are they not praising me profusely??”

“No one else tries as hard as I do to be better.  Why don’t they appreciate that???”

Sometimes I wish that something awful would happen to me so that people could appreciate me and be worried about me and all that.  It’s terrible and I would never ask anyone to come into my head.  It’s a really aggravating place to be and sometimes I wish that I could have a lobotomy for a day just to not care.

So, yeah, I’m getting help and I’m looking to get more because I’ve had enough of this horseshit.  But I bring it up because I refuse to say “This is just who I am” anymore.  Fuck that.  They say that people don’t change and that’s a load of crap.  The truth is that you can’t change other people.  You only have control over yourself.  And change is hard so a lot of people won’t do it, but it doesn’t mean they can’t.  The key is deciding for yourself if you’ve had enough of something and that being a certain way causes you a lot of trouble.  My problem in the past was that I was trying to be what other people wanted.  I still struggle with that, but now I am making changes for me.  Sure, other people benefit if I’m happier and more confident and secure, but ultimately this is so that I can be comfortable and secure within myself based on my own merits and perceptions.  Change is an important part of life and stubbornly stating “This is just who I am” doesn’t do anything useful.  If your flaws and virtues become your identity, then having their “goodness” or “badness” questioned results in a lot of difficulty.

Maybe this all seems really obvious to you.  It wasn’t to me.  For instance, I always thought that being a nice person was a good thing, but it also means that people take advantage of you, so you have to balance that.  I always thought that being selfish was bad, but if you never do what’s best for YOU (regardless of other people), then you suffer and often for no good reason.  I thought that amount of work you do for someone is directly proportional to how much they will love you.  I thought I had control over people happiness if I was just as perfect as possible…and that every sign of imperfection would people question their decision to be associated with me.  I saw perfection as possible and hated myself every time I proved that it wasn’t.

I talk about this in the past tense because I am aware of it and am working on changing these thoughts, but I still have them all the time and I drive myself crazy with them and won’t let them go.  Letting go of “I am a person who works the hardest”, “I am a person who is nice”, “I am a person who will take only after I’ve given more” is extremely difficult because these are things that people liked and I want to be liked.  I want to be loved and while I have unconditional love from people, I am suspicious of it because I learned stupid lessons growing up that I incorporated into myself as profound truths.  I hear “You would have to become a completely different and despicable person for me to leave you”, but it translates to “If you don’t do the dishes as much, I won’t like you anymore.”  I have every flaw on equal footing and look at it like our country’s drug policy: Pot and Heroine are equally horrible.  I have no hierarchy when it comes to this stuff.  I have things I don’t like about myself and therefore I am probably not really likable.

My journey to mental health keeps taking me deeper to the roots of my problems and my identity seems to be the deepest root.  This idea of good and bad and the need to be loved has warped how I perceive everything.  I have not yet gotten to the point of generally digging myself while also seeing what has room for improvement and accepting that I will never be perfect.  I keep saying “I will let go of this whole perfection thing” and then I can’t because I just don’t believe it’s impossible.  I can admit that it’s an asymptotic reality, but because I have made a lot of progress I just see myself being able to get pretty much there and I just won’t stop.  I don’t know how to accept the imperfection is guaranteed and keep working on myself.  There has to be an endgame and I don’t know what that is if it isn’t perfection.

I guess that is the number one thing I have to answer.  An overall increase in happiness is certainly a goal, but what about everything else?  I don’t know yet.

Next time I’ll talk about Imagine Dragons’ other song which suffers from the same “decent arrangement, stupid writing” problem.  Accept, I’m much more scathing of that because “Radioactive” is an apocalypse themed song…you can tell because it has a line in it that says, “This is it.  This is the Apocalypse.”  Please see my explanation of why this is annoying in this post. Ugh.


Off-Topic: Epic Doctor Who Party!

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



As Shaun recently pointed out, we here at the Polyskeptic compound are rather big Doctor Who fans. On that vein, we are having an awesome Doctor Who-themed Halloween party!

To start, I made the front door into a TARDIS:

TARDIS front door
It’s bigger on the inside
My kind of party!

Step 2: make an awesome drink menu:

“Polybar Galactica” is the name of the bar at the house

Step 3: Costumes!

Needless to say, we’re pretty excited about it. Allons-y!

Tim Muldoon is an Asshole

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.





I recently read a post on the Patheos Catholic channel called I Believe In One God by Tim Muldoon. In it, Muldoon makes a good point that atheists make all the time:

thinking about God is limiting in the way that Nietzsche intuited: inevitably the god that emerges from our thinking is little more than a creation of our imagination. We create gods in our own image.

Does Muldoon take this to mean that there probably is no God? Of course not. Does he make the conclusion that, even if there is a God, it would be impossible to know anything about such a being, so attempts to follow God’s Will are misguided and foolish? No. Instead, he points to the real villain – thinking:

For as wonderful as thinking can be, it is still a rather small tool…. Jesus reminds us that ultimately thinking is not the aim of faith; rather, living in love is, which he described with the metaphor of “the Kingdom of God.” At the end of the day, when I put down books with ponderous titles, having wrestled with great thinkers who try anew to stretch our imagination and our knowledge of the world, I get up from my desk and am immersed in a world that is in desperate need of rigorously thought-through love. If love is real, and if anything we do in this vale of tears carries with it the possibility of meaning or beauty, then it is because God is present throughout it.

Muldoon, having rightly pointed out that God cannot be intellectually understood, pivots to say that the way to square that circle is just to stop thinking and have faith.

Presumably, Muldoon means having faith in the same things that he (Muldoon) has faith in. Things like if a woman enjoys sex outside of a relationship, she’s not being the person God created her to be. Things like gay marriage is bad for society. He even picks a fight with in vitro fertilization, of all things.

While Muldoon himself points out that even if he exists, knowing the mind of God is impossible, he still manages to hold orthodox Christian views on pretty much every social issue. And when it’s pointed out to him that this doesn’t make sense, he finds a great solution: just stop thinking.

God Who?

So, there’s this:

OK, so first of all the doorway to the polyskeptic compound is totally not in the shape of the TARDIS.

If you drive around New Jersey long enough, you will see this door. If you do, don’t stalk me.

OK, it is, but that does not mean that the house is bigger on the inside.  But the house can travel through time and space! …although only forward in time at the usual rate and in space only relative to things like cars, people, and so forth which move around and through it.

There are a couple of issues with the video above, such as the definition of religion used is not universally accepted, but I think it would be somewhat silly to seriously criticize such a video made with at least one tongue implanted in some cheek somewhere.

OK, so that sounds like it might be sexual, but I guarantee I’m only slightly turned on right now (and that has more to do with the TARDIS; it’s bigger on the inside.  That’s what she said).

OK, terrible jokes aside, I am sure that under some definitions of religion, some people I’ve met might classify as Whovian-cultists or someshit.  After all, a cult is really just a religion that is not Christianity, right? (It pains me to reference Matt Slick, so I feel like I need to balance that out with this video of a discussion between Matt Slick and Matt Dillahunty about the transcendental argument for god, or TAG).

Two sexy Doctors, a Dalek, and even Jack Harkness participating in the traditional Whovian ritual of being drunk.

OK, so Doctor Who, in conjunction with its fan-base, might be thought of as a religion.  I have never thought of it that way, but I also think that one part of what makes something a religion is the acceptance, or belief, that the object of reverence is real.

And then I wonder how “real” the people who created texts in ancient times about gods, creation, etc thought the stories were.  I think part of what makes mythology interesting is realizing that for many people, throughout many eras, didn’t have the same distinction between reality and myth, nor did they have a solid meaning of reality which we would recognize.  In other words, it may be the case that many people who have religious beliefs are not thinking about “truth” or “reality” using empirical or skeptical concepts of either of those terms.

Certainly, people can take those mythological ideas and subsequently think of them as real in our modern sense, but the fact that they end up there does not necessarily mean they started there.  There is the question, for example, of whether many of the New Testament books were closer to literature than history (I would recommend Tom Verenna’s blog for more about that), and whether many scriptures from around the world are even comparable to any sort of skeptical inquiry.  It may be that Jesus was a character of inspiration for first century Palestine in a similar way as the Doctor is an inspiration for many people now, all over the world.

And this is the point where some people will point at me and be like ‘See! You admit that religion is not to be taken literally, so your criticisms of them as if they are literal beliefs is shown to be wrong-headed,’ or something similar.  The problem here is two-fold.

First, in many cases people do take mythology as real in the sense I mean it; as in it describes the actual world and they simply are wrong about the facts.  Second, the fact that some people do not think of things this way shows where they are going awry in not understanding that we have a reliable methodology for knowing things about the world, and that mythologizing the world is not a means to understanding, but obfuscation, parochialism, and ultimately a worldview based not on what’s real but rather what is comfortable or even non-confrontational.

Unfortunately, many postmodernist approaches to the world are much closer to those who mythologize the world, which is why, I think, many (secular) progressive intellectuals tend towards liberal theology or at least show deference to such liberal theologies.  Karen Armstrong, for example, has talked about ‘God’ without concern for whether such a thing exists, as if that was not even relevant.  While I appreciate some of the contributions of postmodernism in philosophy, the tendency towards anti-realism, as opposed to realism, in the philosophy of science and in metaphysics has always been a bane for me.

Art and religion

So, The Doctor is not real.  But the show can be a source for thinking about the nature of the world, our choices and their consequences, and so forth.  It’s a living mythology, of sorts, which many draw inspiration from.  But is that inspiration, entertainment, and possible edification spiritual? Is it a religious experience?

As a person who has never believed in supernatural realities, but who has had experiences that seem similar to the descriptions of spiritual/religious experiences, I would say that there is some gray area here.  Where I think I am likely to say no is that I think that these experiences are the result of art, and not religion per se.  Religion, the great usurper of all things human, has once again stepped in and claimed something as its own when it belongs to all of us, religious or not.

So, insofar as Doctor Who, or Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Shakespeare, or…you get the point.  So long as artistic expression invokes existential inspiration in us, it is art that has done it.  We need to stop associating these things with gods or spirits, because they are natural occurrences with no supernatural explanations necessary.

Where does this leave ‘religion’? Well, as we become more secular and educated as a species, I envision religion becoming conflated with artistic and ritual social ties which will probably never go away, even as their supernatural associations dissolve into the nothingness from which they came.  But we should not forget that those supernatural and irrational additions to the art we have created over time have been semantically tied to so many things, and that people will continue to associate nonsensical ontological concepts to everyday experiences, hopes, dreams, fears, etc.

Supernaturalism, theism, and even deism are irrational and even silly concepts which are clutching onto our art, even as they slowly die.  But the art, the inspiration, and the creativity of the human mind will continue long after the gods have all been forgotten.  So Doctor Who might be called a religion, but only in the loose and artistic sense that all that we do and love as humans is considered religious.  That is, in the watered down way that only seeks to distract us from what is truly irrational and dangerous about religion; faith.

When art turns into certainty, when creativity and inspiration is not checked by skepticism, is when it goes wrong for our art.  Because we can create illusory worlds to play in, but the imaginations of humanity are only for pretend and should not be guidelines from policy or morality without a skeptical check on their influence.  We need to leave faith behind because we don’t need to believe that our imaginings are real for them to be interesting.   Further, if we do believe they are real then we may be too unwilling, whether through reverence or fear, to make sure that they are rational.

So science and skepticism are not the source of all understanding, but they should be the arbiter of what we accept as true.  Art can inspire, entertain, and even teach us about the world, but we must make sure the lessons are actually true and not merely revere them unskeptically.

In other words, enjoy Doctor Who, and remember that he’s probably a better source of inspiration than Jesus.



Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



Wes Here.

Last week, I was visited by a few Christian missionaries. They gave me this pamphlet:

Men, women, black people AND Asians? Amazing!

I decided to talk with them for a while. After I made it clear that “because the Bible says so” was not an acceptable answer for anything, the conversation turned to why we ought to trust the Bible. According to these missionaries, we know the Bible is true because it made a bunch of prophecies that came true. They were a little fuzzy on the details, but the one that they remembered clearly was the prophecy of Cyrus. According to them, the Bible prophecized that Cyrus would conquer Babylon, and that the gates of the city would be open, over 100 years before it happened.

My response was that the prophecy did not seem all that prophetic, and it was rather vague. The missionaries promised to do a little more reading and then come back. That was last Thursday. They haven’t been back yet. But in the event they do come back, I have a printout from the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible for them, all about Biblical prophecies.

However, I have my doubts that they’ll be back. I’m calling false witness.

The Thing About Activism

Several years ago, Wes and I went to Longwood Gardens and I totally obeyed a sign that said, “Keep off the grass”.  I didn’t even think about it.  I follow the rules.  I keep the status quo.  I don’t ruffle feathers intentionally and if it happens, it is usually unexpected.

This is, to put it in thermodynamic terms (as though that makes anything more understandable), my lowest energy state.  Breaking rules, going against the grain willfully, challenging largely accepted world views, all require a large exertion of energy for me.  It is rarely energizing for me to speak out and often I have regrets because I do not have the thick skin required to withstand the attacks of people who disagree.

I care a great deal too much what other people think of me, be they friends or strangers.  I have made “being well liked” a large part of my identity, and as happens with anything you make a Part of Your Identity, challenging it hurts and causes you to question said part.  When I wrote that thing the other day and a few strangers on the internet all agreed that, to them, it sounded like a great afternoon and I’m crazy for being uncomfortable and I found myself believing that they were right.  “Oh no…what if I AM full of shit?  What if I’m just too sensitive?  Maybe I’m just an asshole.”  But thinking about it, and getting counseling from Wes, I remembered the actual inspiration for the post and had to find my wits again to remember that yes, in fact, there was something out about the whole affair.

I am a pretty theatrical person.  Jessie calls me a Muppet all the time (which, in our house, is a high compliment).  I am no stranger to putting myself out there in the arena of Making a Fool of Myself.  I don’t generally fear performing, public speaking, dancing on a dance floor to the cool tunes of the 1980’s (or anything really), but I am deeply insecure about my intelligence and the validity of my opinions about social issues, government, philosophy and other “high thinking” things.

I live a privileged life.  I am not blind to that.  I am married to a man and work in science.  I own a house and a car and worry about things like when to plant tomatoes.  From the outside, I look like a standard white, straight, female member of the middle class.  This identity enables me to blend into society.  All the other things that very much veer me away from the norm (atheism, polyamory, bisexuality, burlesque, and the fact that I knew that David Carradine died of auto-erotic asphyxiation after only thinking about it for like 5 seconds) can be practiced under the protective covering of Socially Acceptable.  I don’t have to be out about any of this to have a high quality of life.  I don’t need to fight the good fight to have it all.

And when I try to fight the good fight, I get exhausted with it quickly.  I periodically get tired of explaining polyamory, the advantages and necessity of applying the scientific method to all things, or the impressive, insidious nature of sexism and privileged outlooks in our modern Post-Sexist/Post-Racist/Post-Everyist society, for the umpteenth time.  When anonymity online emboldens people to cast countless vitriolic, hurtful things on those who dare to speak out with their real names, it is difficult to figure out who you’re fighting for.  And when the other end, the end which tells you that you can not disagree…even when disagreement is civil and for the purpose of furthering perspective…lest you offend someone, who is this conversation for?  I get tired of being told that I am either crazy for having a problem, or horribly privileged to even think something that doesn’t take the lowest of the low into the fullest account.  I do not live for debate.  I do not thrive on conflict.

But then, why do I speak out ever?  Why do I not stay quiet forever?  Well, it’s because I feel an obligation as a privileged (brave, due to that privilege), articulate person living a strange life “behind closed doors” quite normally and healthily to spread the word.  My privilege allows me to speak out and say that these are real things in the world.  These are things that are healthy and rational and they impose absolutely no threat to you whatsoever.

And I worry that if I don’t exercise this right; if I don’t use this privilege not just to my advantage but to the advantage of the people struggling who do not have a voice, what is my purpose?  What is my value?  Why should anyone care about me if I am too much of a coward to speak?

Of course, this is all a bunch of ego.  I’m not remotely on the level of any great thinkers.  I have trumped up my importance to the world and have allowed myself to be defined by it.  The world will not stand or collapse based on my willingness to blog or go to conferences.  I am one voice in millions saying the same shit.  I am part of a force that will continue to swell regardless of my level of involvement.  I am not so important that this should be some kind of grand soliloquy delivered to the fourth wall of the world’s stage just prior to my great act of madness and defiance that will cast everything we know asunder.  I’m just a chick in a labcoat who thinks about things sometimes.  I do not have my finger on the big red button.  I won’t make the statement that brings war or peace.

I’m much more Dr. Strangelove than President Muffley, is what I’m saying…in that I will like cackle and talk in a funny accent while the big boys make plans to nuke a country.  We do what we’re good at in Difficult Times.

So what I finally realized is that activism doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  If you are inspired to speak out or do something, and are able, then do it.  If you find yourself exhausted and without words or motivation, then take solace in the fact that ever little bit counts.  Some people might listen and you might get through, and some other people might call you a Pinko Commie Cunt.  That’s life on Planet Earth.  When you get tired of talking, then you should be peaceful in your quiet because your quiet is what you want at that time.  You speak and you act because you want a better world, but the responsibility of representing the ideals of this better world is not yours alone or even yours particularly. Speaking out is worthwhile.  Living your life as you choose to live it is paramount.  You do not need to do it all to have it all or to have great value.

I’m writing this because I never have much to say about atheism as a movement and because I often get exhausted being an ambassador for polyamory and because currently insidious sexism has hit me and has made it hard to be strong and brave and inspiring.  All this passes and my urge to say things will become strong again…and then it will get knocked back down.  I accept this now.  It is just hard to accept it when you want to do everything and have a great sense of humor the whole time you’re doing it.

The thing is I am not an activist.  I am a person living in the world but I won’t always be shy about what I see.  I question. And with often great difficulty, I call out.  And then I go back to regular life.  And even this low level dissidence is hard to maintain without injury.  So, I applaud those who fight outright.  I commend those who go into the fray and debate and enlighten in a way that I just don’t want to, or sometimes can’t.  And every now and then, I’ll help in the way I want to, but being a little squeak on the periphery saying, “Yeah! I see it too!  You’re not crazy!”

PZ Myers and Michael Ruse’s mis-attribution of the fault in our wars

I have been writing, reading, and thinking about the issue of accommodationism for some time.  Type ‘accommodationism’ in the search box above for some context, as there are too many posts to link to here.  I will say that  I have tended to agree with Jerry Coyne’s views about the relationship between religion and science most of the time, and I tend to agree with PZ Myers more often than not.

Yesterday, PZ Myers put up a post about Michael Ruse which I largely agree with, but I want to address something, not because it makes me disagree with the point PZ makes, but because I think it takes a step back and gives some larger perspective on this issue.  Here’s the relevant section from PZ’s post, quoting Ruse:

But wait! There are more paradoxes! One of the big problems with the New Atheism, says Ruse, is the way we idolize and support our leaders unquestioningly.

There are other aspects of the New Atheist movement that remind me of religion. One is the adulation by supporters and enthusiasts for the leaders of the movement. It is not just a matter of agreement or respect, but of a kind of worship. This certainly surrounds Dawkins, who is admittedly charismatic.

We worship Dawkins? And possibly Hitchens and Harris? Has he ever noticed how much we all freaking argue with each other? There are no saints and popes in the New Atheist movement.

Oh, wait, yes he has noticed. In the very next paragraph.

Freud describes a phenomenon that he calls ‘the narcissism of small differences’, in which groups feud over distinctions that, to the outside, seem totally trivial. It is highly characteristic of religions: think of the squabbles about the meaning of the Eucharist, for instance, or the ways in which Presbyterians tear each other apart over the true meaning of predestination. For those not involved in the fights, the issues seem virtually nonsensical, and certainly wasting energies that should be spent on fighting common foes. But not for those within the combat zone.

The New Atheists show this phenomenon more than any group I have ever before encountered.

So which is it? Blind, unquestioning worship of our leaders, or incessant fractiousness and dissension? It doesn’t matter. Ruse is just spinning his wheel of deplorable sins and accusing us of whatever random flaw pops up.

I will point out that PZ has missed that these two ideas are not, in fact, in necessarily contradiction, even if Ruse’s argument is ridiculous (which it is).  It is logically possible that people in the atheist movement idolize atheist leaders and that fractious arguments also result, just like with religion.  All it would take is a hypothetical Dawkins follower to argue with a Sam Harris follower, insofar as Harris and Dawkins would disagree.  And there are some people I have met who do seem to look up to some atheist “celebrities” with some level of idolization, but this is to be expected.  We are human, with personal flaws, after all.  The ideal, however, does not have anyone idolizing anyone.  I, for example, respect some people more than others, but I’ve never been a person who idolizes anyone, and never get fanboyish around well-known people, nor do I understand why other people do.

And I agree that there are arguments within the community, but I see this as largely a good thing even though in some cases it is evidence of bad ideas remaining among atheists (such as misogyny and privilege).  There is a lot of work to do before our culture matures emotionally, cognitively, and in terms of being aware of our privileges and biases.  And as a result of that, many atheists will tend to be stuck behind their own blindness, and fractures will exist which we need to addressed in the form of criticism and education of those people.  Hence Atheism+.

But what Ruse is identifying here is not so much that the atheist community is like religion, but that when groups of people gather for any common cause, belief, or lack of beliefs, they tend to have similar behavior patterns of idolization, arguing, etc.  So yes, the atheist community has some behavioral issues which are reminiscent of religion, but once again the error is in mis-attributing such things to religion, when in fact religion is the result of human group behaviors not the cause of it.  Ruse is showing how atheist communities are acting human, just like religious groups.  Why does Ruse make the (apparently unconscious) assumption that these behaviors fundamentally belong to religion?

Our goal—as skeptics and atheists concerned with our culture, our beliefs, and our actions—should be to improve how we all think, behave, and interact.  Those working on including social justice in their actions, whether atheist or religious, are taking a step in the right direction in such terms.  But what new/gnu atheism is about, Michael Ruse, is about asking whether the views some group has are true or not.  We must take as a given that we will err in how he think, behave, and interact, but the question which concerns us is whether our ideas are true, not whether our community is perfectly ideal.

That’s the long-term goal, and it will take time to get there.  And, as I understand it, this is what efforts such as Atheism+ were developed to answer.  Because if we want to address the human flaws and how they emerge in the atheist community, we have to understand how psychology turns into sociology; how our personal flaws turn into groupthink and tribalism.  The problem with religion is not that it fractures, idolizes its leaders, and then fights among themselves.  No, that’s a human problem which we all have to deal with.  The problem with religion is that it isn’t true; that they are arguing over fantasies.

Skeptical atheists, at least, are arguing over what is true with a methodology which works; science.  And if they are not using science and skepticism well enough, then we can use skeptical criticism to point out how and why.  When does religion do that? Religion uses logic on top of the assumptions of its theology, but it rarely, if ever, appropriately uses empirical methodology and good skepticism.

Michael Ruse is stuck comparing religion to atheism in ways which must be true because they are activities done by humans.  Where atheism and religion are alike, it is attributable to anthropology (what I have my undergrad degree in).  What Ruse misses, and what PZ does not articulate well in this case, is that what does separate religion from atheism is the concern for truth of worldviews rather than behavior of participants.

Because sure, some atheists go around  idolizing people and arguing over small details, but our goal is to help them personally grow until they are mature, skeptical, knowledgeable people with good cultural and personal perspective.  And unlike religion, we actually have real ways to achieve that because we do not have any scripture, doctrine, or limitations of criticism.

We have the best methods in our hands, no rules about where we cannot inquire, and only our personal flaws to hold us back.  That tempered by caring about what is true, rather than what is comforting, preferable, or sanctioned is a good road to progress.