The Deep Rift in Atheism: picking a tribe

Over the last few years, a deep rift has emerged in the atheist community.  If you don’t know about it, and don’t care, then I’m not going to summarize it for you.  For sake of clarity, I am talking about the rift between the FtB bloggers (because they are a hive mind, of course) and those who refer to them at “FtBullies” or somesuch.  You know, like many at Skeptic Ink, the slymepit, or A Voice for Men (and other such places).

venn-scopeofproblemNow, I will start out by saying that I recognize the tribalism emerging here.  For a while, say around 2007, it looked like the atheist community was going to be a tribe of it’s own; breaking away from the tribes of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc and creating a space for those who were interested in science, reality, and who were skeptics.   Quickly, it began to fall apart a bit at a time.  From the fall of the Rational Response Squad, through #Elevatorgate, and to the “deep rift” which still causes trembling in the blogosphere today, there are a number of tribes within the larger community of reason.  Again, I’ll start by acknowledging this, and using it as the basis to say any more about it.

Nobody here is completely right.  In every camp within the atheist community there are people who have made mistakes, with whom I disagree sometimes, and with whom I will not choose to spend my time reading (which is not to say I will refuse to do so, I just don’t follow those blogs).  But that does not mean that the answer is (necessarily) to mediate the dispute by planting oneself in some neutral zone between these camps.  That philosophy of diplomacy is fundamentally flawed, as I think The Daily Show has shown many times over the years by demonstrating that Fox News is not Fair nor balanced.  Similarly, as PZ Myers once said (and I’m identifying my” tribe here), trying to sit halfway between the evidence and “those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.”  That is, there is a side here which is more right than others (or, in some cases, all in-accordance-with-the-evidence while the other is all wrong).  In short, I think that there exists, within this rift, a side which is one the right side of justice, and sees the long term goals of the movement are worth paying attention to.  I think that side is the FtB people, for the overwhelming majority of examples.

Many do not agree.  Justin Vacula, for example,  has said that atheism has nothing to do with feminism.  He puts it this way:

Atheism, as it’s commonly understood, and how I use the term, is lack of belief in any gods. The lack of belief in any gods does not entail any other facts about a person. Atheism — although there may be a large percentage of atheists at least in America who share some unrelated common ideals — is no indication of political views, positions on social issues, guarantee of intelligence, educational background, ideas concerning feminism, or socioeconomic status.

Here, Vacula is technically correct.  Atheism, qua atheism, will tell you nothing about a person other than their lack of belief in gods.  Vacula is here playing the part of the dictionary atheist, as defined by PZ Myers.  And I will admit that I have a small quibble with PZ’s view here about why we are atheists.  I disagree with PZ semantically (because my mind works in such a way that the lack of semantic precision bothers me), but I think I understand PZ’s point in that linked post (from February 2011, mind you…and it’s still an issue…) and agree with it mostly.   On the other hand, I find Vacula’s semantic quibbling, some 2+ years later, to be grating and annoying.  Vacula, like some many around him, is missing the point while trying to be too technical, too lawyerly.

Here’s what I posted to facebook, quickly, before going to work earlier today (in part) after reading an update by Vacula;

Atheism has nothing to do with feminism, eh? Only in the most strict sense that the lack of belief in any gods (per se) is not directly related to the role of gender discrimination and structural inequalities therein are concerned. But the same skeptical methodology and the value for human rights which led me to care enough to take part in the atheist community led me to care about the rights of all genders, discrimination, and to work towards a better world for all people no matter their gender.

And so now I want to elaborate on this.  I want to explain why I think that the atheist community has a lot to add to and contribute to the many social justice movements, feminism included, and why people like Vacula should stop being a clueless douchemonkey about this, if possible.  It’s not that I think Vacula and his ilk is always wrong, that they have nothing worth-while to add, or that he should be kicked out of anything (although I will not seek him out when I go to Women in Secularism 2 in a few weeks).  It’s that I think that they are missing the goddamned point.


I don’t participate in the A+ forums.  My wife (Ginny) is a moderator there (although I think her graduate school works and upcoming website project have made her participation there nonexistent recently).  I don’t know enough about what goes on there to speak with great authority, but I agree with their general goal as I understand it.  And despite what anyone will say about the Matt Dillahunty affair which occurred there (Matt is seemingly still on board with A+, so that should tell you something), they are a dedicated group of people who care about social justice and they are people with whom I’m willing to ally myself generally.

What is the point of atheism+? We know that atheism, per se, is simply a conclusion; the answer “no” to the question “do you currently hold an active belief in any gods?”  So why that title? Simple; it caught on from an organic conversation, and that’s how terms come to be.  It came into form here, with Greta Christina pulling together an idea that was initiated by Jen McCreight about how there is more for us to do, as atheists.  We don’t only disbelieve in gods, we have values and positive beliefs.  Granted, not all atheists share the values which the atheism+ movement embraces, but that is the nature of addition; those who don’t fall into that category are not being counted here.  If you don’t add those values, then you are not part of the set that is defined by atheism + social justice.  There is no attempt to re-define atheism, just to FUCKING ADD TO IT! Nobody has to count themselves as part of it if they are not in agreement.  Personally, I’m glad to leave some atheist dipshits behind here…OK, perhaps it would be better to educate them and bring them along, and I’m juts being cynical and negative.  Fine.

If I had my say, I’d call it skepticism+ (as I think that skepticism is the more fundamental position, compared to atheism).  But the boat sailed on that, so I’m sticking with the term until the unpredictable direction of cultural movement carries it another way.

Atheism is boring

It pains me to do it, but I will mention that Alain de Botton said that the question of whether a god exists is boring.  I detest Alain de Botton’s perspective for many reasons, and wish him the obscurity he deserves for his flat and vacuous philosophy.  But I will partially agree with him here.  It’s not the question per se  which is boring, but rather it is the way we are still answering it, the way we have been doing it for a long time, which is boring.  I’ve been around this block for more than a decade now, addressing theological claims, accommodationism, etc and it’s getting old.  Hence the need for the “third wave” of atheism which started this whole atheism+ thing.  I’m glad that there are people still handing the 101 atheist questions (my good friend Staks, who disagrees with me very strongly about the issue at hand in this post, does a good job of that even still).  In my opinion, basic atheism should no longer be the focus of anyone’s efforts within the atheist community, but should be an occasional peg to be smacked down when it becomes occasionally relevant.  We need, as atheists, to recognize that we should be concentrating on what we are for, and not merely what we are against.

I’m for feminism.

I loved Evid3nc3’s videos.  I thought his voice was remarkable and fresh, and I was glued to the monitor whenever a new video in his series about his conversion came out.  But recently he started a blog, and one of his posts from last year, entitled “Why I am not a feminist” missed the point, hard.  Being a feminist is not about ignoring the rights, plights or hardships of men [edit: Evid3nc3 wants me to clarify that his issue is that his”problem is with the word “Feminism” and the way it alienates people. It isn’t a good common banner to unite around.”  Apologies to him for misrepresenting his view.].  It’s not about focusing on women only (again, Greta Christina has said it well; the patriarchy hurts men too.  Also, see part 2).  This mistake is exactly the same as that which I identified above in discussing atheism+.  The name stuck because of the history of the subject; by studying the cultural positions, experiences, and structural discrimination of women, we learned about the problems we have with gender assumptions and the effects of those assumptions.  Feminism, as I use it (and as it is used within the atheism+ sphere) is an attempt to fix the problem for everyone, and is not misandric.  Those who identity as Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) who argue that feminism seeks to hurt men, are simply missing the point, and often will conflate some (2nd wave) forms of feminism with what people like Rebecca Watson, Stephanie Zvan, and others espouse.  It’s not called feminism because it’s anti-man, man-apathetic, or even because it seeks to reverse sexism, but because that’s the historical title that stuck.  We could try to change it, but given how cultural memes work that seems harder than just realizing that basic point that the title is historical, and not normative.

It’s time to move on

Fighting for civil, social, and human rights of atheists is a grand cause which I was glad to be a part of, and want to see continue.  I support all of the people who continue to try ato make a better name for atheists in the world, and would love to see our status as a trusted and understood group improve.  And the fact that this will continue makes me happy.  But some of us need to move on and do more—to add on—than mere atheism   Mostly, this is because it is not sufficient to merely grow our community, it is also important to make our community stronger, more mature, and more broad.  We need diversity of opinion, perspective, and experience and we cannot do so by ignoring what those potential others may teach us.  We need to open our skills up to challenges beyond mere theological claims, and be broad skeptics who understand that there are other causes and effects to the problem of religion than theology.  The role of gender is an important narrative to trace in religious history, and so is race, physical ability (ableism), colonialism, economics, etc.  As a larger community of reason, we need to open ourselves to the various disciplines from all over the social sciences, including history and feminism.

I’ve been paying attention to all sides of this deep rift over the last few years, and they all claim the same crimes of the others, and I’m sick of it.  But the truth is that I’ve learned much more from one side of this than any other. Those at Skepchick, FtB, and even Patheos have been a source of great personal education in recent years, and rarely have I read anything which has brought about personal growth or understanding from anything written elsewhere within the atheist community in recent years.  It’s not so much that one side is right concerning the deep rift per se, but that they have been attuned to ideas which have raised my consciousness more, while other places have just been doing either the same old boring atheist blogging (and not much else) or vilifying the so-called “bullies” elsewhere.

I get it; your feelings are hurt, and you don’t like the people over there.  I don’t give a shit because your blogs are boring, your perspective parochial, and your continuous victim-playing as old as your blogging style.

I’ve moved on and think mostly about the intersection of atheism, skepticism, and polyamory.  Some others are thinking mostly about the intersection of race, feminism, etc with skepticism and atheism.  But at least they have moved on.  You, my atheist brethren who are complaining about the bullies, have not.

It’s time to do so or become irrelevant, at least to this blogger.

Toward a More Skeptical Monogamy

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.



Here at polyskeptic, we tend to refer to atheism and polyamory as “skepticism, properly applied.” I’d like to unpack that a little. As happy poly people, we love polyamory. We love polyamory so much that sometimes, it sounds as though we think polyamory is the only way to have a good relationship. So when we say that properly applied skepticism results in polyamory, it might sound as though we mean that monogamy is inherently unskeptical. This is only half true. It is true that if we lived in a more skeptical world, there would be a lot more polyamorous people. If people took a skeptical approach toward their relationships, many people would conclude that monogamy was not the best way to achieve their goals. However, not everyone would. There are plenty of ways to practice monogamy skeptically, and I’d like to go through a few of those.

Both Parties are Only Interested in Each Other

This is the most often-cited reason for monogamy, but often one of the rarest to be approached in a skeptical manner. Most people feel sexual or romantic desire for more than one person. However, not everybody does. A couple who approached their relationship skeptically could easily conclude that they were only interested in each other. However, the difference between this and your garden-variety monogamy is that skeptical monogamy (or what Shaun calls accidental monogamy) would not have rules against outside sexual or romantic connections. They just wouldn’t happen, because neither party would be interested. A skeptical couple, however, will know they cannot predict their future desires (especially many years in advance), so a skeptically monogamous couple will not make long-term plans or rules that are dependent upon their desires remaining only for one another.

Both Parties Enjoy a Controlling Dynamic

One of my least favorite things about traditional monogamy is that it involves each party being controlling in regards to the other party’s sexuality. It’s a form of ownership over an incredibly important part of another person, and I find it repellent. However, some people are into that! And that’s totally ok! In the kink community, there are tons of examples of people who have no desire for an egalitarian relationship. There are relationships which are explicitly based on ownership and control. Both parties go into the situation with eyes open, knowing what they want, and knowing what they are getting. This is entirely compatible with skepticism. So long as each party has skeptically examined their own (and each other’s) desire and each party enthusiastically consents, this sort of relationship is compatible with a skeptical worldview.

Social Consequences

If we lived in a more skeptical world, this would not be an issue. However, we live in the real world, and in the real world, being polyamorous can have consequences. Often, if we are thinking skeptically, those consequences are less bad or less likely than they seem. But sometimes the consequences are real and relatively certain, and it makes sense to try to fit in. Part of what the community is doing is trying to make this less of a concern, but as it stands now, the fear of societal consequences (especially in less liberal regions/countries) can be a legitimate, skeptical reason to stay monogamous.

Lack of Ability or Desire

This is lumping a lot of things together, but basically it stands for the proposition that polyamory takes a certain amount of emotional work and emotional stability, and not everyone is able to do it, either due to mental illness, societal conditioning, or just plain personality. For most people, being happily polyamorous takes a lot of effort.* A skeptic will not shy away from working toward a worthwhile goal, but there is always a cost/benefit analysis. For some people, the amount of work is too great, the payoff (in terms of happiness) too small, or the chances of success too low. A skeptical approach to life will recognize this and make decisions accordingly. Some people will reasonably conclude that it’s just not worth it. So long as their partner agrees, it’s a reasonable position.

I’m sure I’ve missed other reasons why a truly skeptical person or couple might choose monogamy. My intention here was to explicitly acknowledge that monogamy is not always a bad or unskeptical choice. However, I’d also like to stress that the bar for skeptical monogamy is pretty high. It requires a critical examination of all parties motives, desires, predictions, and assumptions. Just as polyamory takes a lot of effort, so does monogamy, and it’s not something to be entered lightly. As with all important decisions, it’s best to approach it in a critical, skeptical manner.


*this is another area in which we are hoping society will improve. As polyamory becomes more mainstream and monogamy becomes less of a default expectation, starting a polyamorous relationship should take much less work in terms of switching away from a mononormative mindset.

Christians mocking themselves while unintentionally advertising for polyamory

Wait…have you seen this?

So, I found this today via the Friendly Atheist, and I really thought this was a parody.  I simply cannot believe that real people, trying to make a real point, could be so unaware.

Wait, yes I can.  But it hurts to think about it, because I really want to like our species, but find so many reasons not to.

So, a man admits his infidelity (his “adultery”) to his wife, with his accomplice at hand, and offers the argument that if she loves him, she has to love his adultery.  And she accepts it, even so far as to write up some placards to support this publicly.  Of course, the primary analogy is between accepting of the sin (of homosexuality/adultery) of the sinners we should love.  You know, “love the sinner hate the sin” and other hilariously stupid ideas derived from the absurdity of Christian theology.

But also, this video is hilarious (unintentionally) while simultaneously frustrating.  And, of course, the first thing I thought (when deciding whether it was a parody) was that this was a poly triad making a video mocking Christians.  But since this seems legit I’m just going to have to pose the question of whether poly people should take offense at this video or not.  I mean, this is clearly in the wheelhouse of the argument that homosexual marriage will lead to thing like group marriage, sex with alpacas, and whatever else Christians fantasize about when denying that their worldview is as crazy as a pack of rabid hyenas on coke.  But are the Christians who made this even aware of the overt similarity to polyamory here in this video? Is it making fun of us?

Perhaps, but I don’t think any offense should be taken, and I think what Hemant said in response to it is the reason why:

This is the sort of video you would expect an LGBT group to make to mock Christians’ narrow-minded thinking on the subject… Instead, the Christians here went ahead and did the work for them. They’re proving to the world how badly they don’t get it.

They are mocking themselves, without being aware of it.

See, what a video like this does is exposes the lack of self-awareness of people who make it.  Think of it this way; could we here at polyskeptic have made this exact video (with us in it, of course), and had it be a parody? Could we have written it much better to make the point of the absurdity of the conservative Christian worldview in relation to such issues as homosexuality? No, I don’t think so.

The nonchalance of the wife in this video, in reaction to her husband admitting adultery while holding hands with another woman is done for the sake of comedy.  The tension here is between an obviously not-acceptable situation of direct, in-your-face cheating along side the subsequent calm acceptance, tolerance, and ultimate capitulation to it.   Of course nobody is going to respond calmly to such a situation.  Of course these things are sinful and wrong. Of course this is comedy gold.  Just not for the reasons they intended.

The English idiom “of course” here is also telling.  It implies following the expected (mainstream) set of behaviors.  Except the “of course” used above is said mockingly, because that set of expectations only occurs within the rigid bounds of a monogamous (Christian, in this case) world.  My hope is that the fact that this video misses the point about homosexuality and the standard tropes about monogamy are equally understood by people.  I hope that this video is not just absurd because of the stupid analogy between “sins,” but because it teases itself where monogamy lies.

Because my worry is that for many people the calmness and acceptance of the quasi-polyamorous circumstance portrayed here will be missed.  That the effect of the joke will be at being offended by the effectiveness of the analogy.  The video is saying that just like the idea that your wife would calmly accept your “adultery” is absurd, so is the idea that we should accept homosexuality.  And the problem is that, for many people, this will land.  I am willing to bet that the producers of this video would be gobsmacked if they saw people who would accept what they would deem as “adultery” with calmness.  Granted, the actual act in the video is not polyamory, but the tension of the joke is embedded in the idea that no woman (or man, especially in a patriarchal system) would accept their spouse having another lover.  Without that “of course,” the joke cannot land, and we are left with the presentation of the equal acceptability of homosexuality and sexual non-exclusivity.

Sounds about right to me.

When I watched it all I saw was a hilarious pseudo-advertisement for polyamory via unintentional self-parody.  I saw the absurdity of having an issue with homosexuality compared to the absurdity of jealousy, exclusiveness, and monogamy.  And not only am I not offended but  I have a wry and mischievous smile on my face.  I love it when Christians do the work for me, I only wish they could understand it.

I never meta eulogy of an idea I didn’t like

In dealing with periodic depression and even moments of feeling invincible, powerful, and brilliant (which I know I am not), I sometimes have this sensation of this overwhelming sense of certainty concerning the thoughts which inhabit my mind.  When I feel confident, I believe it.  When I feel powerless, I believe it.  And sometimes, not often but significantly, I have another kind of experience associated with a different kind of certainty; not of the nature of the world, but of my relationship to it.

It is a feeling of transcendence, being able to comprehend issues in a way which are barely articulate, but which my mind is able to dance with freely for a little while.  And then it goes away, and I am unable to describe it well in many cases.  Sometimes, these ideas turn into blog posts.  This is not an example.

In fact, the idea I did have earlier today, while at work, fizzled away as I had no time to jot down the mnemonic phrase which would have stored it for me for later.  This post is, in fact, started as an attempt to resurrect this idea, but is turning into a meta-idea about a dead idea.  A eulogy of sorts.

The ideas contained here are the neighbors of this idea, vaguely related by adjacency and possibly kinship, but missing it almost entirely.  Like the dead, I can now only speak of it in vague, impersonal terms.  I knew this idea, for a moment, but it is gone now perhaps to never be met again.  So, rather than merely despair at it’s loss, perhaps we should meet it’s family and perhaps a piece of it will shimmer through them.

There is a feeling that I have, sometimes, which I could call spiritual.  In fact, I used to think of it in this way (sort of), until I started to think about the concept of spirituality and found it to be an empty, meaningless term.  It simply does not point to anything.  It seems to point to something, and this seeming is tied to very powerful parts of our mind, and so this seeming is overwhelming and convincing.

I am not sure, but I think that this type of experience is what people refer to when they talk about having spiritual experiences.  I’ve had them all of my life, but never associated them with either god or anything else supernatural.  What association I used to have with them, while younger, would have been with some sort of Buddhist enlightenment, Taoist insight into the Dao, or perhaps even apprehending a part of Tillich’s Ground of Being.

But don’t worry, you have not lost me to any religious rebirth, or even a crisis of lack-of-faith.  In fact, I have been aware of such concepts, both intellectually and experientially, for many years.  I just never interpreted them as anything (much) more than my brain being weird.  In centuries past, I might have had little choice but to choose a religious life of sorts, having the proclivities to think about things in the ways that many mystics have in the past.  I’m glad I’m alive now.  This life is much more to my liking than that of a monk or strange religious hermit.

Yeah, I’m some sort of atheist mystic.  HA!  Saint ShaunPhilly, indeed.

This sensation usually leaves me with a strong feeling of community and connection to others.  I feel stronger emotional ties to people in my life after such experiences.  I have the sensation of being tied to people around me by some bond, almost tribal in nature, which is almost compelling enough to give the spiritual-but-not-religious some slack.


But because I’m also very prone to self-challenging moments of skepticism (OK, cynicism too), I realize that this sensation is an illusion.  And so when I talk with people who get caught up in describing things this way, and tie it to some religious worldview, vague spirituality, etc I am both amused and annoyed.  In such moments I’m watching people rationalize a completely natural brain phenomenon (an interesting one, no doubt) as a spiritual experience, and they are interpreting it as some truth about the universe, and not just a truth about how consciousness often does NOT correlate with reality.

Yes, such experiences teach us things about ourselves, but usually mostly in the context of how the brain processes which make us up operate in relation to reality, and not about reality itself.  Self knowledge and perspective are important, but we do need to have a skeptical method (science) at hand to check our conclusions against.  We need to check our biases, as well as we can, to make sure that we don’t draw the wrong conclusions.

Because when we draw conclusions (which often occurs in a cultural context which is drenched in religious and theological baggage) without skeptical checks, we start to divide ourselves into doctrinal tribes via the similarity of our conclusions.  But we have to be careful to not think I’m talking about religion per se here, because this is a thing we all do (atheists included) and is not limited to religion.

The tribalism which religion utilizes in order to build community, but also to build walls, seems tied to this sense of connectedness which I was describing above.  Granted, for some this connectedness is associated with a human family (these tend to be liberals) rather than a nationalistic or truly tribal connectedness (conservatives).  This sense of tribalism is more fundamental than religion, but religion uses it well.

Religion is not the source of anything accept its own peculiar theological logic puzzles.  Religion is, rather, a strange combination of various cognitive, emotional, and social behaviors and processes.  Getting rid of religion would solve nothing.  Instead, we need to be focused on improving our awareness of how the basic parts of human behavior–emotional blind spots, cognitive biases, and social herd behavior–influence our worldviews and beliefs, so that we can be sure that those beliefs are rational.

In short, we need to be more aware of how our private experience leads to emergent properties in human behavior.  We only have control (limited though it is) of our own mind, and our influence of others will grow from this.

Have you ever been socially talking with a bunch of liberal-minded people about religion?  You know, the types who are not religious themselves (or only vaguely so), but who will speak very respectfully about religions and view criticism as some angry and irrational hatred of other people’s beliefs? They don’t believe any of it (or most of it, at least), but they will not tolerate criticism of people’s sacred cows.  You know, those shouting “Islamophobia” recently.


Well, I have.  Hell, I graduated from  a Quaker school in liberal Philadelphia, so this was my upbringing.  What I learned, over the years is that in many cases what is happening in such encounters was that these spiritual thoughts, feelings, and experiences are somewhat common, especially among sensitive and educated liberals (remember, I’m a liberal in many ways myself, so this is in many ways an internal, and in some ways a self-,criticism).  To criticize the concept in general, and not just specific theological claims, is to criticize their own experience (and thus to criticize them).

And I hope I don’t need to tell you that while liberals are much better, at least where politics comes in, at maintaining a rational scientific literacy and understanding, they fail in many ways.  Profoundly.  Big Pharma, sophisticated theology, theistic evolution,  and…dare I say it…New Age….

This “spiritual” awareness it pretty ubiquitous, and pulling away the curtain to reveal the “wizard” behind it is pretty unsettling.  And when people are unsettled, they act tend to act poorly.  All people have qualities, deep inside and unchosen, which are good and bad.  The problem is that religion allows you to rationalize the bad ones, while giving you the sensation of having provided the good ones in the first place.  The sense of community of an idea, of connectedness and belonging, makes it feel acceptable to rationalize terrible thinking.  Because while most of us have the impulse to think certain things, having an organized group of people who call that idea the truth is a means of escape from thinking more about it.

Skeptics and atheists are not, qua skepticism or  atheism, mean or overly-critical people.  But without a doctrine to appeal to, a skeptic is forced to use reason (and hopefully they will do so) when faced with a challenge.  But those who are attached to the spiritual, the religious, and to theology have a bubble around them which keeps them further away from the skeptical tools they have access to.  They are capable of using those tools, but when emotions come into play, they seem to be too far away to get  hold of.

Here’s to more people abandoning that bubble.

And here’s to an idea, lost, but which was born within the family of these ideas and which may one day be raised again.

Maybe on the third day.  I do go back to work then, so it would make it most annoying for it to be then since I’ll likely forget it again.

I swear, if the universe is somehow conscious, it’s a total dick….

What has contentedness with monogamy got to do with polyamory?

I’m happy with my relationships.  Not directly related to this, however, is the fact that I’m not looking to meet anyone right now.  That is, I’m not actively seeking new partners right now, but its not merely because I’m happy.

There are women I’m interested in, to varying degrees, with whom I interact somewhat frequently but I either do not have any reason to believe my interest is reciprocated, or I know that this interest is not, in fact, reciprocated.  But I’m OK with that, because I’m not really looking anyway.  That may change at some point, but right now I’m content with the number of relationships I have.

Yesterday I was reflecting on this happiness and this contentment and it occurred to me that this was a feeling I had had while monogamous, in the past.  There were times, when exclusively committed to a girlfriend, where I had periods of genuine happiness with my life and contentedness with the nature of my relationship.  And this, in context to where I am now, made me realize two things about some of the reactions I hear from monogamous people upon being confronted with the possibility of polyamory.

The first is that that sense of happiness, when in a monogamous relationship,  does not imply that a person is built for monogamy, necessarily.  That would be mis-attributing the source of the happiness to the structure, rather than the contents, of their relationship.  Such a person, being happy and content with their monogamous relationship, could still pursue polyamory and be equally (and possibly more) satisfied with that alternative to sexual and romantic exclusivity.  The feeling of contentment with one’s relationships does not have to mean that one must merely tread the cultural water of mono-normativity, because perhaps being content, or even happy, is not always enough to stop the pursuit of each.  There are many potentialities in life which too many people miss because they are merely content where they are.  Perhaps they are capable of more, and don’t pursue more because they are merely ‘content’ or ‘happy enough.’

I call ‘bullshit’ on that.

A monogamous person who is happy with their partner may, in other words, be interested in other people but much like with other aspects of our lives (such as where faith comes in), be subject to confirmation bias when it comes to attributing that contentment to their exclusive relationship per se.  That is, they remember all the great aspect of the commitment they have (remember, commitment does not imply exclusivity), but forget all the times they have desires to love—erotically, romantically, etc—another person.  They feel a general contentment but may be mis-appropriating that contentment to the nature of the relationship, rather than the person they are with.  And being with other people does not (necessarily) take anything away from that great relationship, now does it?

If you answered yes, you are delusional.  Exclusivity does not a better relationship make, and loving two (or more) people does not necessarily diminish the love you have for any one of them.  If you really believe that then I will file you next to the creationists in terms of being un-attached to reality.

While I’m not actively pursuing anyone right now, or even feel a strong impulse to do so, I may in the future.  Hell, I might start doing so tomorrow, for all I know.   And this does not necessarily mean that my relationships are broken or that I’m lacking anything from my current partners, it just may mean that I might meet someone really awesome (as I did when I met Gina) or that variety in itself may be valuable to me (it is, just not all the time).

In short, I’m open to the fact that what I may want, need, etc will probably change throughout my life, and I want to keep my life open to all those possibilities out there (and, more importantly, I want to keep those opportunities open for those close to me).  And if someone else, say some monogamous person I’m explaining polyamory to, were to take their contentment at any given time  as a sign that the structure of their relationship is the cause of that contentment, then they are making a leap in logic which is not warranted.

The awesomeness of people bring us happiness and contentment, not how many of them you are romantically/sexually involved with.  How can adding more awesome people to your life be anything but, well, awesome?

I am not content because I’m polyamorous (again, per se), I’m content because the people I’m closest to are amazing, beautiful, and satisfying people.  In my case there just happen to be two of them who are willing to share me, but if their happened to just be one (or three) that would be awesome and contentment-inspiring.  But if I were monogamous, perhaps still married to Ginny, knowing and being around someone like Gina and wanting her constantly would NOT be a position of contentment for me.  And if I were monogamous thusly and intended to stay that way, I would therefore have to avoid being around someone like Gina (who I just can’t help but love) if I wanted to maintain the illusion of perpetual contentment with my hypothetical monogamy.

And this is what I think many monogamous people are doing; they are content often (perhaps very often), attribute that contentment to the exclusivity itself (hopefully tying it to the awesomeness of their partner), and ignoring or pretending that their extra-relationship desires don’t exist or would destroy that contentment by some magic unknown to me.  So they go on convincing themselves that monogamy is better for them, that polyamory would not work for them, etc while the truth very well may be that they would be happier being polyamorous if they were just willing to do the work.

This is why polyamory is superior.  Not because being with more than one person is better per se, but because being polyamorous, even while only involved with one person at any given time, allows open-ended pursuits of happiness and contentment rather than keeping us deluded that we are content in circumstances where we are unnecessarily limited, romantically and sexually.

Are you content with your monogamous relationship? Fine, what does that have to do with polyamory?

What is marriage, and why should we keep it around?

I’m very thankful to Libby Anne for asking about marriage in the latest of her Forward Thinking prompts. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and my thoughts have been steered in new directions by a few conversations and experiences I’ve had. I’d like to propose a redefinition or restructuring of the entire concept of marriage, which is both radical and extremely traditional.

The redefinition I’d love to see our society accept is this: marriage is the creation of family. (Long version: Marriage is the intentional creation of family among adults who aren’t already close relatives.) It has nothing to do, per se, with romantic and sexual bonds between people. A romantic bond is one of the strongest motivators in human life for creating a family relationship with someone new; a sexual bond may raise the possibility of children, who tend to create a lifelong connection between their parents simply by existing (although there are exceptions, and it’s obviously not always a connection based in love for each other.) For these reasons, it makes sense that marriage, the intentional creation of family, is most often practiced between lovers. But there’s no reason it has to be.

So two questions emerge: Why is family important, and why should a government have any involvement in the formation of one?

As much as we in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) culture would like to think it, humans are actually quite dependent on other humans. We spent the first and last couple of decades of our lives being dependent, and in the interim time only some of us are able to support ourselves, resource-wise, for a majority of that time. Illness or injury, natural disasters or becoming the victim of crime, economic fluctuations or just bad luck can leave us in need of not only emotional but material help from those closest to us. Ultimately, I define family as the people who will give that help when it’s needed. Family are the people that will stand between you and homelessness. Family are the people that will rearrange their lives to care for you when you’re sick, injured, or disabled. In WEIRD culture, this kind of material dependence is usually looked on as a sign of weakness and inferiority, and possibly being a lazy “user” who takes advantage of others’ willingness to help. We don’t like to think of ourselves as being one really bad day away from dependence, reliance on those who love us the most. But we all are.

I’m talking mostly about material support here, but love is the basis and the prerequisite for giving it. (I suppose pride can stand in in some cases.) Family is not necessarily the people we enjoy the most or have the most in common with, but they are the people we love the most: the people whose pain wounds us most directly, whose achievements we take the most pride in. Familial love is deep-rooted and stable, marked by compassion more than passion. It yields, over a lifetime, the willingness to sacrifice our own resources for the people we love.

In most cultures through human history (at least since agriculture), this immediate support network consisted of blood relatives and spouses. The rise of individualism has weakened a lot of those blood ties in WEIRD culture. People move far away from their families of origin to pursue a job or an education or an interest. People choose a career, or a religion, or a lifestyle, that their parents disapprove of. In some cases this merely results in increased distance, and in some cases it creates total estrangement. On the “total estrangement” side, a lot of people begin to identify “chosen family,” the people that are long-term, stable parts of their lives, that love them and have their back.

I think individualism is great, and I also think family is really important and necessary, both emotionally and physically. Human culture has nearly always recognized the right to choose at least one person as family: a spouse. While in previous times the right to choose a spouse as family was important so that children would be born into a stable support network, today I think it’s just as important for the two adults, who may or may not have a familial relationship with their family of origin. It’s a way of reconciling individualism with the human need for interdependent, familial relationships. If the family you’re born into is oppressive, you can choose to create a new one.

And, as no one should be surprised to see, I don’t see why this should be limited to two adults. Chosen families can be big, as big as the extended aunt-uncle-cousin-grandparents families other cultures enjoy. There’s a lot of advantage to having more than two independent, resource-earning adults in a close support network. Most obviously, if one of those adults suddenly becomes dependent or stops earning resources for a time, it’s less strain on the others to pick up the slack.

To return for a minute to romantic love: one of the things romantic love does, in that first, 6-18 month flush of passion that we call NRE, or limerence, or eros, is give people a drive to provide and sacrifice for one another in the same way that long-term familial love does. That’s probably another reason marriage has been so closely linked to family-creation through human history. Romantic love can kick-start the “mutual interdependence and resource-sharing” dynamic that later is underpinned by familial love (storge, if you want to be Greek about it.) But it doesn’t need to. Even if it never becomes mainstream, I would like to see it considered more normal in WEIRD culture for people to form long-term bonds of interdependence with other adults they’re not romantically linked to.

Because so much of my understanding of family in this context includes resource-sharing and other material considerations, I do think the government should be involved in it, to the extent of recognizing the bond and making certain concessions based on it. Whether those should be identical to the ones currently recognized as marriage, or whether they should be adjusted somewhat, is something to figure out once a large portion of the population get behind this entire concept of marriage. I’m not holding my breath, but to me the idea seems so useful, so obvious, and so compelling that it’s well worth the couple of perspective shifts required to get there.

Racism and privilege 101, with a social experiment

This video is the best illustration I’ve seen for a while of how a majority of racism and privilege actually operate.

Two teenage boys, similarly dressed, are pretty conspicuously trying to break a bike lock at a park. The white kid gets questioned a few times within an hour, but is ultimately ignored even by those who questioned him. The black kid draws an angry crowd within a few minutes, and multiple people express their intention of going to the police.

Here are some things this social experiment shows, that might help people comprehend the way privilege and racism work in our culture.

1) It operates on a social level. None of the passersby were exposed to both the black kid and the white kid “stealing” the bike. It’s quite possible, even likely, that some of the people who ignored the white kid would have also ignored the black kid, and that some of the people who got outraged at the black kid would have also gotten outraged at the white kid. We can’t possibly pinpoint any of the individuals in the scene as “racist” or “not racist” based on their behavior. What we absolutely can do is observe that the culture of people in that park is, on the whole, racially prejudiced. (The only alternative conclusion is that the group of people passing by at a later time all happened to be much more proactive and concerned about bike theft. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge…)

2) Related to that, none of the passersby in the scene were confronted with whatever subtle level of racial judgement underlay their behavior. Whichever among them would have responded differently to the other kid won’t ever know it. If, on another day in another place, they react differently to another kid apparently stealing a bike, it’s all too easy to rationalize the different reaction by putting it down to how the kid was dressed, or the difference in the neighborhood, or even the difference in their own mood/circumstance. (“I didn’t call the cops on the white kid in the park because I was just trying to enjoy a leisurely day off… but I did call them on the black kid down the street because I was at home and trying to defend my neighborhood.”) The only people who acknowledged that race played a factor in how they reacted were the two black women (most of the other passersby were white.) White people, myself included, are really good at convincing ourselves that we are totally not racist at all, at all. It takes sustained effort and self-examination to start spotting the subtle race-based judgements we make day to day. (This is something I’ve begun doing over the last year or two, and it’s both uncomfortable and enlightening.)

3) Whether or not particular individuals are “racist” or not doesn’t matter squat to the people on the receiving end of privilege or oppression. The white kid got away with bike theft (under the pretenses of the scene) and the black kid got photographed and would have been reported to the police. Both kids were playing guilty in this scene, even admitting when asked that the bike wasn’t theirs, but one of them would have ridden away with a shiny new bike and the other one would have been arrested. The white kid has an unfair advantage, and that’s just a reality of the world that this scenario took place in: each individual passerby could do whatever mental calculations they want to prove that they’re not racist, and it would still be a reality of their world that a white teenage boy gets way more benefit of the doubt than a black one.

4) There are exceptions, and they don’t outweigh the overall trend. Someone does finally go away intending to call the cops on the white kid. When the black kid says that yes, it’s his bike and he lost the key, a passerby helps him lift it over the post. The world is not uniformly inclined to suspicion of black teenagers and tolerance of white ones. But it’s overall inclined that way, at least in this area, so pointing out one or two exceptions and saying, “See? Racism isn’t a thing anymore!” isn’t a convincing argument.

Shane, come back!

When I was younger, say in my early to mid 20’s, I had a pretty close knit group of friends, mostly from high school, who I hung out with pretty regularly.  We were spontaneous, throwing a BBQ at the drop of a hat, and we were all very privileged, educated, 20-somethings living in Philadelphia.   This time in my life started towards the end of college, but really lit up around the time I started graduate school.  It was a little before I discovered the atheist community (my earlier exposure to any such community was limited to online conversations with the long defunct Knights of BAAWA. If any other atheists out there remembers them besides me, you get serious props).  And while I knew of polyamory, I was monogamous, at least when I was not single.,..which I was for a considerable part of my early 20’s.

Me, c. 2005 (earliest digital picture I could find of myself, for context)

It was long before I got any grasp of who I was, what I wanted, and even knew what the problems were, let along the solutions.  On any given weekend, I could be found with my buddies (mostly guys, most with money) drinking out on the town and generally being stupid young people.  It was a lot of fun, mostly, but I’m glad I’m past that part of my life.

There was a point for me back then, while drinking, where I go through a personality change.  I am there now more frequently while sober, which is part of my growth over the years, but back then it emerged almost exclusively after, say, 4 -5 beers.  This persona I became was more social, funnier, more forward, and would talk to strangers without any sort of self-consciousness or fear. He was flirtatious, got along with everyone, although he did slur a bit.   He was the me I wanted to be while sober, but couldn’t be because I was afraid.

He was “Shane.”  At least that’s what one of our group dubbed that part of me as.  He was this part of me, hiding inside, who was happy to be alive, and enjoyed it (often to the detriment of the “Shaun” that woke up in the morning).  He was not always ideal, however, as he was also known to be a little bit of an asshole (but in a funny and friendly way, except a few rare cases when I was angry which went a different direction…that’s a post for another day, or never.).  Shane was openly emotional, affectionate, and was not inhibited.  It was the same part of me that would, in high school (when the nick-name originated), get naked in the back yard with some of the other hippies in the circle, passing around a pipe, bong, or joint.  Hey, I went to s Quaker school, what do you expect?

(Crap, I just remembered that my mom reads this blog sometimes…)

Anyway, back to embarrassing myself publicly (you’d think I’d be used to it by now).

After some time, say my mid to late 20’s (after grad school), this character began to show up a little bit in every day life (and not because I was drunk all the time, either), and became part of “Shaun.” I was able to find this part of me more easily, as I learned to allow this part of me to surface as I grew comfortable with it.  It became a perpetual part of my growing, a part that I think may have slowed too much in the least few years.  I know that I have another part of me that’s buried most of the time.  Ginny and Gina (and to a lesser extent Jessie and Wes) get to see this person more frequently, and he is certainly amplified after a couple of drinks, but around people I know, trust, and like, it has become the case that I no longer need “Shane,” because “Shaun” has become more and more like that person inside.

I think that all of this is great, but I’m slowly becoming more and more aware that there is more to me inside.  There is another level within me that I need to explore, an urge to grab life by the horns and ride it hard.  Well, that’s not exactly right.  My personality is not the kind which will be consumed by burning the candle at both ends, and this is not what I mean anyway.  What I mean is I feel a strong impulse, buried under emotional control and fear, that has a lot to teach me.  I would very much like to know now what I’m going to know about myself in 10 years.

But right now I have two problems; I am not sure how to let it out, and I’m terrified to do so.  And so I find myself thinking, this night, whether Shane might have some use.  Not that I need to start drinking heavily with 20-somethings, but that I might need to start pushing myself harder to let myself explore the limits of my capabilities.  I need to be more assertive, flirtatious (for a poly guy, I am very shy around women…especially if I like them), and I need to talk with more people about things that are not merely safe topics for me to talk about.

Let me explain.

I tend to talk about things like philosophy, polyamory, and atheism.  I have other interests, of course , but those are the things I know well, and so I feel comfortable talking about them more than other topics.  I am intimidated to talk about other things because I have this completely irrational fear about sounding stupid or dorky most of the time.  It’s irrational because sometimes I do stupid shit and I’m a bit of a dork sometimes, and so the fuck what?  The bottom line is that I need to engage with people more, and get over myself.  And I think that finding spaces, times, and people to do so with would be a good step in figuring out how to do that.

Oh my good lord what was wrong with me? (c. 2005)

So, I don’t want to bring back Shane, per se, but I do want to utilize the part of me that was able to tap into a deeper part of me, to be an archaeologist of my soul (as Nietzsche put it) and find what yet lies beneath these layers of control and fear.  I want to do so because it will help with my anxieties (which are usually about wanting to do things I’m not doing, or doing things I don’t want to do because I have not been assertive enough) and will therefore help me be happier and more fulfilled.  I want to do so because I think I will like myself better if I do.

Also, chicks totes dig that side of me, or something….

But in all seriousness, it may help me gain new friends, lovers, and partners in my life, where sitting back thinking about it is gaining me acquaintances at best.  I can do better.

So, that is my project for myself for the next few months, and for the rest of my life.  If you are reading this and will be seeing me regularly or at all, you might have to give me a nudge now and then and tell me to let a little Shane out of the bottle.

But for me, that starts tomorrow morning.  For the moment, I need some sleep.

BTW, if you are not familiar with the reference of the title of this post, watch this clip from the movie, Shane:

On Depression and Reticence

I periodically go through bouts of depression.  It isn’t usually serious, but it has real-life effects on me.  I become less social,  I am much more cynical than usual, and I write a lot less.  It’s why I have not been writing recently, and the shift out of feeling depressed is why I am writing today.

One of the other things it does is causes behavior which causes stress to my relationships.  I become less affectionate, responsive, and it can lead to arguments which would otherwise not happen (because my depression leads to non-ideal behavior).  When I’m feeling depressed, I’m not much fun to be around, especially for my partners.

Another side effect can be a lack of pursuit of my desires.  I’m less likely to ask for what I want, to speak up for myself when I disagree, or to be assertive in any way.  And because live with a few extroverts (although Ginny is certainly an introvert), that can often mean I feel intimidated and shrugged off.  There is no competition, from the depressed introvert’s point of view, with confident extroverts around you, and so I don’t try to participate as much.  Not that anyone is trying to shrug me off or intimidate me ( I don’t think), but that I just feel that way and so I sort of disappear and don’t pursue what I want, and so I don’t get it.

I have thoughts, desires, and feelings during such times, it’s just that in times like the last few days I was not voicing them except where I was compelled to.  And today, feeling more energetic and happy, I am able to reflect on this periodic depression and think what I can do better next time, while still thinking that this is fruitless.  See, I am feeling somewhat confident now; right now I believe that I can continue to grow and improve as a person.  Two days ago, I did not believe that.  All I could bring myself to believe then was that I’m not really worth much, and I’d be doing the world a favor by just shutting up and going away.

And so I was not writing.

It’s anxiety-causing to admit this publicly  but it is also part of the healing process.  I know that sometime in the future I will feel crappy again, and while I’m feeling crappy I will be intellectually aware that I will feel better again soon, but while I feel crappy I am reticent–I am reluctant to speak out, up, or about much at all, and it affects those close to me.  I don’t know what to do about that.

Now that it is Spring (although it’s still too goddamn cold!), I will be starting to get outside more, get more exercise, and this will result in another cause for less writing; enjoying life.  But don’t worry, I’ll still be around disrespecting faith and finding monogamy quaint.  Ain’t much going to stop that completely, just periodically.