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Liberal elites and Rural White America: a failure to understand or a failure of skepticism? November 16, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Religion.
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The internet is ablaze with various opinions as to whether the lessons that the DNC, and liberal America in general, need to learn is that we don’t understand the struggles and anger of most of America or whether it’s something else entirely. I’ve been sort of moping about trying to make sense of this, and then today something snapped into place, for me.

Now, in some sense I cannot answer this question on my own. I am a life-long East coast liberal elite, and so I’m looking at this through that lens. I am (over-)educated, I’m economically comfortable, I’m a progressive, and I’m privileged as fuck. But what I can do is tease out some complicated questions which are colored by some issues with which I have ample experience and understanding.

White American Christianity, Dominionism, and lack of critical thinking skills are a huge (yuge?) part of this story, and we cannot afford to lose sight of that while ruminating about what to learn from the US election of 2016. From fake news articles spread via social media, the conspiracy theories thrown about by conservative media for decades (including Trump’s chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, who worked with Breitbart.com), to the theocratic fear spread by Christianity since the 1960’s here in America, this past election cycle was a perfect storm of un-skeptical bullshit, perpetuated by a con-man and picked up by millions of American idiots all over the country.

Let’s start here. Read this post by Forsetti:

On Rural America: Understanding Isn’t The Problem

No, seriously, go read the post now. I don’t have to wait for you, but this perspective is what compelled me to write today. It was this article which sparked something to snap in place in my head.

If you didn’t read the post, (because I know you most-likely didn’t) here’s the conclusion, for context:

What I understand is rural, Christian, white America is entrenched in fundamentalist belief systems, don’t trust people outside their tribe, have been force fed a diet of misinformation and lies for decades, are unwilling to understand their own situations, truly believe whites are superior to all races.  No amount of understanding is going to change these things or what they believe.  No amount of niceties is going to get them to be introspective.  No economic policy put forth by someone outside their tribe is going to be listened to no matter how beneficial it would be for them.  I understand rural, Christian, white America all too well.  I understand their fears are based on myths and lies.  I understand they feel left behind by a world they don’t understand and don’t really care to.  I understand they are willing to vote against their own interest if they can be convinced it will make sure minorities are harmed more.  I understand their Christian beliefs and morals are truly only extended to fellow white Christians.  I understand them.  I understand they are the problem with progress and will always be because their belief systems are constructed against it.  The problem isn’t a lack of understanding by “coastal elites” of rural, Christian, white America.  The problem is a lack of understanding why rural, Christian, white America believes, votes, behaves the ways it does by rural, Christian, white America.

Them be some strong words, and they fly in the face of the narrative which I have seen dominate the liberal blogosphere, social media, etc in the last week. You know, the idea that Hilary Clinton didn’t win because she and the rest of the DNC have failed to understand the plight, fears, and anger of the parts of America which are not the metropolitan, elite, largely-coastal parts of the United States. That if only the elite Hillary campaign could have reached out better, addressed more of the concerns that many Americans have, and stopped being so damned arrogant and dismissive then perhaps Trump’s America would not be so opposed to the messages of those of us who want an inclusive, open, and diverse culture.

And maybe Donald Trump could not have rose to the power he so very much craves, and which threatens the future of so many.

It’s a compelling story.  It strokes the introspective and self-deprecating nature of most liberals and progressives. But isn’t that the very problem? Don’t we, liberal, educated, elites who live mostly in larger towns and cities, spend too much damned time making sure we are being understanding and respectful of those who don’t see the world the way we do? Are we too introspective and self-deprecating? Aren’t we failing in the very same way we failed in the George “Dubya” Bush era?

OK, let me breathe here, for a second, and spend a few moments reflecting on that message. For me, the strongest case made for the view that we didn’t sufficiently understand Trump’s America, written by Emmett Rensin several months ago (long before the election or nomination of trump) and which has been making the rounds recently, is the following article:

The Smug Style in American Liberalism


Here’s the conclusion I draw: If Donald Trump has a chance in November, it is because the knowing will dictate our strategy. Unable to countenance the real causes of their collapse, they will comfort with own impotence by shouting, “Idiots!” again and again, angrier and angrier, the handmaidens of their own destruction.

The smug style resists empathy for the unknowing. It denies the possibility of a politics whereby those who do not share knowing culture, who do not like the right things or know the Good Facts or recognize the intellectual bankruptcy of their own ideas can be worked with, in spite of these differences, toward a common goal.


In other words, we, smug elites will look down upon the rural, angry, and politically powerful (we know now) people but fail to understand them. And it’s true; I do not understand their perspective very well because I’ve never lived it. But I have been arguing, for years, that the tribalism, religious ignorance, and unwillingness to look past one’s own bubble is the cause of people’s continuing religiosity (in this case, white Christian privilege), conservative attitudes about relationships (default monogamy), sexuality (hetero-normativity) and the pervasiveness of gender binary among other staples of the conservative worldview underlying Trump’s message.

I have been arguing, for years, that conservatism (especially the Alt-Right) is anchored in fear, tribalism, and lack of understanding. I’ve seen, from the point of view of a polyamorous, atheist, skeptic, that the lenses through which most of our culture sees the world are skewed and built out of a lack of understanding. So yes, I live in a sort-of bubble, but that bubble is one mostly of privilege and the comfort that comes along with that; the world I live in is safe to be abnormal and marginalization is less severe here. But I do understand that ignorance and fear exist and informs worldviews–and I know what those worldviews are because I have seen pockets of them even here, and I make a point of listening to them when they aren’t.

But do those people in conservative rural America understand my perspective? Hundreds of conversations, over my lifetime, about religion imply that the majority of our culture does not understand the nature of their own religion, let alone other religions or atheism.  Similar conversations about relationships and sexuality indicate that most people have never really questioned why they are monogamous or why they are afraid of homosexuality/bisexuality in many cases. And most of the conversations I’ve ever had imply that basic skeptical attitudes are foreign to the majority of people, everywhere.

So, is the problem a lack of understanding? Yes. But I think that the majority of the lack of understanding does not come from those of us who are elite (but yes, some of it does). I believe the lion’s share of that lack of understanding comes from the people who do not understand how their own worldview, beliefs, and anger fits into the larger set of ideas about the world. Whether ignorance, fear, or simple inability to comprehend are responsible, the simple fact is that the majority of people do not understand the arguments of the elite communities everywhere. The privilege of a good education, including the skills of skepticism and doubt, supply some people with a greater understanding of the world around us. And cosmopolitanism provides an environment for that to exist, where rural areas tend to stifle it.

Those of us able to see that Donald Trump is a con man, unprepared for his role are POTUS, and a representation of almost everything wrong with our culture were screaming, for months, how dangerous he is. And a significant number, about half of those who voted, could not understand that. Or didn’t care. Or weren’t paying sufficient attention. I’m not sure which of those is worse than the others, but they are all bad.  This was the wrong time for an establishment candidate, so people were tired of it all and either protested at the ballots or stayed home on election day. They failed to understand how bad Trump’s candidacy was. And so we will all be forced to deal with the consequences of that ignorance, apathy, or deplorablility.



The Future

But let’s not forget that there is something to take away from Emmett Rensin’s article. Our reaction cannot simply be to call them idiots, morons, ignoramuses, etc and then go about sitting in our comfortable shells, feeling superior, with our “Good Facts,” feeling smug. No, we need to organize, reach out, and at least try to improve education, filter out poor sources of news and opinion (I’m looking at you, social media), and actually do the work to raise the level of dialog in our culture.

You know, like the good parts of the skeptic/atheist movement has been trying to do for years.

The time for blame is past, and now is the time for action. If we want our dialogue to change, so that our culture can change, and so our politics can change, then we need to do a lot of hard work.

We, skeptics and atheists, have been honing these skills for a long time now. Well, some of us have (I’m looking at you MRAs; You are part of Trumps’ America). Now we need to start utilizing those tools in wider circles. We need, in our culture right now, a serious injection of skepticism, curiosity, and (perhaps most of all) empathy and patience.

Because wherever the truth is, introspection, skepticism, and communication will dig it up. Not bigotry and fear.


A poem? Meh, whatever…. April 1, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal, Religion.
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[cn: sarcasm, wordplay, someone will hate this, and I suppose I’m ok with that. Wait, what’s the syntax of this content note? Is this thing unix? Can I use python? Isn’t all language merely metaphor and lies? Definitely the wrong syntax]

Is the irony of theater that to do it well one need not act?

Occasionally, one stops acting.

Stop acting, please.

All of us
So say we all?

Well (and let me not be impertinent) that would be a nice start, I suppose.

But I gave up hope for that many years ago, because I don’t think being the Borg is really the right historical influence.

Isn’t that weird?

The Borg, for this type of nerd, has a similar influence that “real” history has, because they are both just narratives echoing off the walls. Is that a sociological question, psychological feeling, or philosophical grant money. Wait, I meant field of study. Hmm, why didn’t I want to get a PhD again?

Scilon cylon, Borg, whatever. That was a little heavy with the word play. I’m amused, I apologize if you think I’m being serious.

Also, if I did offend you, then I’m sorry I hurt you, so I invite all comments and will consider them seriously, all of them. OK, when it’s obvious trolling, I’m peace out, but otherwise. Is this more of a rap or a poem? wait, what’s the difference again? Which one has the holodeck? I’m confused, sorry. I was too busy rocking out to Ziggy Stardust, because someone I once loved very much made it important to me once, but I still love it on its own.

Sorry, rambling again. It’s fun watching the show everywhere. The world is a stage, and all that whatnot. Forsooth!

Signed, your friendly neighborhood dudebro.

P.S.   Wait, that wasn’t right. local neighborhood weirdo who writes in the local bar, because he likes to be around people. Dude, syntax again. srsly.

Nevermind, I’ll stop being absurdist. It’s partially escapism, but it’s mostly actually just letting go, unlocking the gates of Hades, metaphorically. Always liked that metaphor. Old one. Still rocks.


Humility: The Song and the Notes February 8, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal, Religion, Sex and sexuality.
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Nietzsche_tastevanitySo, you know this concept of humility? Yeah, that one is rough sometimes. It seems like some people hear it’s tones as a discordant miasma of chaos, while others hear a well-trained symphony playing something seemingly divine. The truth is that it’s neither of those things, but the nuances of music are such that there is room for argument and taste.

There is the kind of humility which is supposed to be the theme song which follows you around. It’s like a master beat-box artist, or possibly an angel with a harp or even just some dude just wailin’ on that bass (tastes do differ, after all), but not matter what that arrangement is, it’s one of the presences in your life, ideally keeping arrogance, bias, and simple error at bay.

Listen, confidence is great. I’m all for confidence.  And I’m definitely not for deference or prostration to either gods, absolutist ideals (or Platonism in general), or traditions. But there are other sources of servitude than religions and traditions. Our emotions, desires, and cognitive biases will perpetually get in the way of our ability to navigate between the Scylla/Carybdis of our hubris/timidity. Humility, if played to an Aristotelian key, is a song of temperance, and not docility.

for my own reference as much as anyone else's

for my own reference as much as anyone else’s

So, given the tempo of this Aristotelian ballad, floating between Prestissimo and the Grave (perhaps an adagio today and an allegro tomorrow), I think that some sense of perspective of who, where, and how we are requires the ability to be self corrective more or less based upon the circumstances in which we find ourselves. That is, we need to listen to the other players if we want to make music well. Life is not all solos.

But also because sometimes it’s time for quiet reflection, and sometimes it’s time to dance! Sometimes we need to assert ourselves, and sometimes we need to step back and listen. And sometimes we might hear something new in our favorite songs or discover that upon further reflection, we hate this song (Hell, Nietzsche could tell you all about that, amirite?). Sometimes we can find new ways to interact with the world, as our desires and tastes change.

The path behind and the path forward

Our preferences are linked to things like memory, experience, and emotional associations.  These preferences are also intimately related to the ideals and goals which we revere. These ideals are immensely powerful motivators, but they can also be anchors and delusions.

Sometimes these ideals come from an ancient religion, steeped in history and buried into the very language, culture, and psychology of a community. That is where this blog started, as a log of ideas about how religion wove its way into the fabric of love, sex, and commitment in our culture. It was an exploration of the problematic concepts which underlie all of our ability to conceive of who and what we are as people living in a universe without gods, but within a culture drowning in the psychopathic, unconcerned, or impotent ideas of gods.

Yes, yet another Nietzsche reference. Get used to it.

Yes, yet another Nietzsche reference.
Get used to it.

This was a blog about exploring what was possible, if we stop adhering to the sexual, romantic, and relationship norms our society defers to. It was, in a sense, one more hammer to the old gods, ideals, and philosophies to which so many are still adhered.

And over time it changed. I started thinking about polyamory more.  I started having more experiences within polyamory. I had many wonderful and fulfilling experiences, I’ve had experiences which were fun but often challenging, and I’ve experienced the worst interpersonal trauma from people I lent some trust to.

And I’ve changed. Who I am today is not who I was 6 years ago, when this blog started.  And in the last several months, I came to a realization that has had a profound effect on my outlook for the future.  I realized that I was wrong about something very fundamental about myself; something that has been the cause of a very significant problems in my life. And I owe that knowledge to someone who I love dearly and who had to allow me to sink or swim on my own.

I swam.

What is it? Well, that’s not really important, is it? The specific lesson is not the point, at all. Besides, that revelation is personal, and while I would be more than willing to share that understanding (assuming I could properly articulate it) with the people I’m close to in my life (and I’m happy that I have people in my life who honor me with their friendship and love), it’s not necessary here.

Also, there are people who still read this blog (hi there! You can one star my post if you like, but that’s sort of childish, isn’t it?) who would attempt to bend and stretch such information against me if they could (narrative spinning is their specialty, after all). Also, because it can’t really be that interesting to most of the rest of you anyway. You don’t come here to be my proxy therapist. I tend to pay people to do that for me.

The last reason I’ll not explore this personal revelation here leads to another kind of humility which I’d like to talk about. This is the kind that comes out of nowhere and knocks you on your ass. These are the striking and emotionally intense notes in the song of your life, ones which have consequences for how you hear the rest of the song.

It’s the kind of humility (humiliation, perhaps) where you have found that you (perhaps) fucked up, big time, and now it’s time to shut up and start listening. Of course, one does not always shut up and listen, so one might talk themselves into a corner. And then, well, you’re in a corner having to decide what to do next.

And then you have to learn some things. Then you have to reflect one how you fucked up, what you are going to do about it, and even though you might hate doing it….

Now it’s time to walk the hard path.

And then, sometimes, while walking that path, you find that you didn’t know as much as you thought, especially about yourself.

I think there might be a metaphor in there....

I think there might be a metaphor in there….

My lovely girlfriend and I, with whom I’ve just celebrated a year together just this week (but who must remain anonymous, for unfortunate reasons related to social expectations and cultural taboos), went to see the movie Wild, which I liked quite a lot. Obviously, it’s a movie about self-discovery and traveling a difficult road (both literally and metaphorically) towards a goal which may be arbitrary, but which takes on new meaning as you approach it.

The problem is that by focusing on that destination, that ideal, you miss all the details all around you. It’s also not unlike hearing that note or phrasing in a piece of music which keeps dancing around a melody, harmonic, or note. If you do nothing but anticipate that note, that goal, or even that (perhaps) perfection then you are not paying full attention to the path itself. You start to miss the trees because you are looking for the whole forest.

If we, as listeners and as path-travelers, learn to pay more attention to the moment then we will notice that it changes our journey from progress to process. In other words, we become less-ends-oriented and we become more aware of the experience of journeying. Knowing precisely where you are is a humbling experience, sometimes. Whether we think of this humility in the cosmic sense of size or in the existential sense identity, it amounts to a humility which should offer us some pause.

And we should accept that offer, from time to time.

Eventually that destination, which was so dramatic and distracting to start, dissolves either into the horizon and becomes your theme song or it starts to fade into background noise, ultimately to be unnoticed or forgotten. And then all there is the path. And when you are bored on this path you start to see things differently. When it’s quiet, when you are alone without distraction, you have the opportunity to listen to yourself a little closer, and you will almost certainly learn something.

Since we're on a Cheryl Strayed kick today.

Since we’re on a Cheryl Strayed kick today.

Well, I’ve learned some things recently. And I think that I am feeling better than I have in a long time, at least in terms of being optimistic about my personal future. The dawn has broken, the storm clouds are retreating, and what I thought was going to be my end may end up being my greatest beginning.

I’m not saying that it will be easy, because it will not be.  I will not say that I do not fear it, because I do. But where it will be hard I will work harder, and where it will be terrifying I will allow myself to slow down, look at the path, consider the destination I may create for myself at that moment. As a practical result, I will no longer retreat from the world as I have been in recent months.

Now, the biggest challenge I have is to have the patience to wait for Spring, because this cold weather is not pleasant for me, at all. Is it May yet?

Bottom line? Well, I was wrong about some things concerning myself. But as a result I was able to discover that maybe I have an opportunity for something better, now. My advice is to be willing to listen, be wrong, and to imagine that perhaps the reason you find yourself where you are has more to do about what you are wrong about than anything else. Or, alternatively, you may find that you were more right than you knew, only you didn’t believe in yourself enough.

Not arrogance and not servility, but instead a humble sense of perspective towards finding a way to balance your individual strengths with an ability to weave those strengths into a larger whole. There will be times for solos, soap-boxes, and individual efforts, but working harmoniously and in symphony is often much harder and more rewarding.

I wish for beautiful music along all of your paths.

Skepticism: Orthodoxy v. Orthopraxy August 13, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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One of the criticisms which has appeared over the last several years, in response to the rise of the atheist/skeptic community, is that we atheists/skeptics are just like those religious people (as if that were a criticism worth taking seriously). But even while that criticism is silly, we can still step back and take a look at commonalities of human behavior, including how these behaviors inform and compel behavior of people in both religious and non-religious communities.

In the skeptical community in particular, emphasis is often on methodology.  What tools are we using to figure things out? How much emphasis do we put on empiricism? How about rationalism? Most skeptics utilize, primarily, the scientific method which utilizes logic, empiricism, and applies a probabilistic approach to truth.

But these tools are used with the intent of discovering what is true (or at least what is likely to be true). And so once we have those answers, how certain should we be? Should we be willing, once a conclusion seems to be very certainly true, to defend it as the right answer?

This tension, between the best methodology and the best answers, is reminiscent of the tension throughout much of religious and theological history between orthopraxy (correct action/practice) and orthodoxy (correct belief/doctrine). If you look at the history of religion, this tension plays out over and over again and can teach us quite a lot about human behavior.

My general view of religion is that it follows the rules of how culture operates.  If you want to understand religious behavior, understand cultural, social, and idividual behavior. As a result of this view, I could also say that if we were to track some of the arguments between skeptics/atheists about whether it is the conclusions (or definitions) which matter more than the methodologies we use, you might see the similarities start to emerge from the mess.

The Best of Religion and Skepticism

If we were to be forgiving of the many atrocities (both of practice and of beliefs) of religion, we could take a look at the many mystical, introspective, and social boons which religion provides to so many people. At its best, religion provides a perspective of ourselves, our communities, and the world itself which is both beautiful and awe-inspiring. So long as we can avoid the metaphysical bird-catchers* that these perspectives are often glued to, we can walk into and within religion without detriment to ourselves or the world around us.

Of course, we could have those same perspectives and experiences without religion. Science and logic do not strip away such things, although they may often cause our minds to reject them for the sake of what appears to be a cleaner and more precise description of the world (and it often is such, but perhaps not always).

And whether or not we step away from religion, insofar as we are capable of practicing good skepticism, we will be armed with a methodology which can aid us in a plethora of ways and provide us with yet more peep-holes into reality, including the murkiest part of reality; ourselves.

Skepticism gives us a sieve through which falls bias, delusion, and deception. What remains is a jumble of truths, in need of structure and meaning, which we can push and pull with our fingers like children at play with rocks, toys, or sand. 

What may become a problem is what happens when we start to build castles out of that sand. For, in a sense, we are prone to see what we make as the truth. Objects made of truth do not necessarily make larger truths, for truth is also contained within structure, and not merely components.

Getting caught up in constructions

We create narratives, structures, and often monuments of truth. Now, I personally believe that a real world exists, and in many cases our descriptions of this reality are reliable and ‘true’, if by ‘true’ we mean that it coheres with our experience and stand up to scrutiny. Some Platonic TRUTH simply has no meaning, at least not one that we, sentient and subjective beings taht we are, can participate in. 

So I believe that it’s valid to say that we know something, insofar as that thing has survived skeptical analysis, especially if it has done so repeatedly and without significant contradiction. So we can say that our understanding of how gravity works (insofar as we understand how gravity works) is true because the description keeps predicting and explaining results. Similarly, we can say that evolution is a fact which is explained by the theory of natural selection (among the other parts of biological theory related to evolution) because the theory keeps being supported by evidence.

These facts about the world are real things which we can point to and demonstrate why we accept them as true, but this demonstration is dependent upon the methodology. Methodology is the thing that determines the structure of truths, after all. Again, trye structure is as important as true components. The “correct” answers which science provides for us would be meaningless without the methodology by which we discover and construct those answers.

If we are to have a new set of facts replace such an answer, it would be the methodology which would bring it to us.

Deconstructing our sand castles

Let’s go back to religion. I’m going to unequivocally say that the largest failure of religion, in general, is the set of facts it proposes as the truth. This is for two reasons.

The first reason is that when science and religion butt heads, science always either agrees or it wins. In the places where science and religion agree, all religion has done is either used, somewhere in the past, some skeptical methodology to find that answer or it simply got lucky. It is the accidental nature which leads us to the second reason.

The second reason that religion fails in the face of science is that when it comes to belief, the very methodology of religion is backwards. Where religion finds answers that work, it can only do so by borrowing from science or by getting lucky. Religion does not try to prove itself wrong, it looks for support for what it already believes or merely asserts without an attempt to provide evidence, and then calls it “faith.”

In the skeptical world, the tension between method and answer works differently than it does in religion; with religion, the tension between orthopraxy and orthodoxy ultimately revert back to the right answers; to orthodoxy. Even in religious traditions which tend to lean heavier on practice over doctrine, it is the doctrines, or at least metaphysical beliefs, which anchor it as a religion rather than a philosophy. 

Even with religious interpretations which focus on moral action, personal growth, etc, it is the beliefs of that group which act like a gravitational center. Otherwise, you would not have a Buddhist or a Muslim, you’d just have people who value certain ways to live, surrounded by Buddhist or Islamic scenery. The more individuals in religious communities move away from doctrine as their focus, the more they move away from religion and towards secular philosophies.

We humans must be more careful with how closely we attach ourselves to conclusions.  Conclusions create a center of gravity, which does help create a community, but it also can be the parent of tribalism, groupthink, and ultimately the narratives which become doctrine.

Within the skeptic/atheist world, certain centers of conclusion-gravity exist as well, and they define the borders between factions, not unlike what has happened with religion except that so far those lines have not become full walls which define different sects.

Not that some of the distinctions are not important; and not that I don’t think that some factions in the rift are more right than others, but I worry that the focus will become, just like with religion, the conclusions themselves, rather than the method by which they came to those conclusions. Tribalism breeds orthodoxy and diminishes focus on methodology–on orthopraxy.

Over there on this side, they all know that this thing is true that this person over there is like that and so they all dislike that person. This person becomes not part of the other group, and any contribution from them is suspect to them. Next thing you know, all the friends of this person have created their own narrative and then we have factions, tribes, and points of conflict. They have banners to put on flags, for when they arrive at the field of battle. They have identifiers to make sure they don’t kill their own.

You know, “friendly fire.”

And rather than focus on how we got to that battle field, why they chose that banner, or even what the other people with another banner think, the soldiers focus on the narratives, gripes, and injuries that their friends have suffered. And thus skeptics, atheists, and other people who think of themselves as intelligent fall prey to the oldest of humanities weaknesses; rightness.


What orthodoxy do you cling to? How do you know that thing and what are you going to do, how are your going to live, and what right actions are you going to practice to either confirm or deny that right doctrine. How are you going to justify that righteousness of yours?

Is skepticism or atheism like religion? No

Are skeptics and atheists like religious people? Yes

Because we’re all people.

Let’s focus on why we disagree, more than what we disagree about. Once we have a better handle on why we disagree, the disagreements will still be there, probably. In the end, we may still hate each other, but at least we didn’t merely bow to a flag that may or may not even be true.

Good luck out there.

*”To confront man henceforth with man in the way in which, hardened by the discipline of science, man today confronts the rest of nature, with dauntless Oedipus eyes and stopped-up Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird-catchers who have all too long been piping to him “you are more! you are higher! you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and extravagant task but it is a task” (Beyond Good and Evil,§230)

5 years February 12, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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On February 12th, 2009, I started a blog with this post.  I had just been laid off from a job that I really liked (and was good at), I was living in Philadelphia (it was several months before I moved to Atlanta), and the blog was called ‘The Atheist, Polyamorous Geek’. That was 5 years ago today.  Some things have changed around here.  New logo, writers, and more followers have been added since 2009, and I still enjoy writing.


remember this logo?

remember this logo?

In the beginning, most of my writing was about atheism and religion.  Early on, I dropped the “Geek” at the end and replaced it with “skeptic”, due to my increased exposure to the larger skeptical community.  It would be some time before I would add writers, some of which have moved on due to interpersonal issues.  Who will be writing down the road is something I don’t know.  Will it make it another 5 years? If so, what will it look like? I don’t know that either.  But with that said, let’s take a look at some of my posts that I like from over the years.

Theis XKCD comic epitomizes "agnostics" for me

I love XKCD

Very early on, I wrote a post aimed at agnostics, because I had had so many conversations with people who disliked and avoided the word ‘atheist’, even though they were one.  The word ‘atheist’ has become somewhat more mainstream in the last 5 years, but this post is still relevant, and will probably be so for years to come.  Shortly after that, another favorite of mine is this short story about a conversation with God, which was intended to be a response to the design argument and the special pleading fallacy inherent to irreducible complexity.  Recently, DarkMatter2525 made a video which reminded me of that post:

Shortly after that, a post about death and the appreciation of life was apparently translated to French, and then back to English, which prompted a post about translation (since, at the time, I was reading Douglas Hofstadter’s book Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in language).  This post actually led me to have a brief email correspondence with Douglas Hofstadter, who commented on the translation himself.

Of course, I would have to poke at Christianity now and then, and my favorite post about Christianity is this one about how Jesus’ death (even if it happened) is not a sacrifice at all.Also, I wrote about how the love of god is misplaced, with a little science geekery mixed in.  Late in 2009, I wrote a long, 3-part post about how God is a metaphor, which was originally not written as a blog post (hence the length). Parts one, two, and three.

One of my all-time favorites is the post, from 2011, where I argue that I prefer atheism to humanism, mostly because I find humanism to be atavistic and still steeped in the mistakes of religious history.

Also, there were a couple of posts looking at history and culture, and showing how religion (Christianity specifically) contribute to diminishing culture, rather than making it better.  I especially like the McDonald’s post.

Of course, I can’t forget my take-down of Alain de Botton (who I still despise).

I still wear this shirt

I still wear this shirt

Eventually, i started writing more and more about polyamory, and one of the posts that stands out for me is the one about jealousy, where I argue that jealousy is not a reason to not be polyamorous.  Also, sex-positivity is a good thing, and we should all be comfortable with being slutty (if we want to) and we should sin responsibly.  What else did I write about polyamory? When it comes to love, we should do so authentically.. We should be creating a new and improved polynormativity.  We were in some documentary, apparently. another personal favorite is my post about accidental monogamy, where I started thinking about how there is no reason to ever want to be monogamous (one should get there only by accident), which later led to a post about relationship agnosticism.  Of course, I got nerdy with set theory and polyamory, but much more recently I wrote about the space between being friendship and being lovers, which is still quite relevant this very day.

Of course, having a MA in philosophy means that I will occasionally become erudite…ok, more like smart-assed and long-winded. Some of my favorites include Facts or it didn’t happen: unhooking the bra of reality, Thorough and perpetual Sskepticism, and this post which got a little too meta, even for me.  Also, let’s not forget my tendency to try and simultaneously criticize monogamy and religion.

There is also my post about the history of Christmas, which I have reposted a couple of times and always put on Facebook around the end of December.

Sometimes, I got political.  I liked this short post where I quote from a book about the American Revolution that demonstrated that political tropes we use today are not new.  But my favorite post about politics was where I essentially declared that I could never be a conservative.

That's me!

That’s me!

Lastly, I wrote about the various wars going on in the atheist community.  In this post, I utilize Moral Foundation Theory to talk about the “great schism” (as it is called by some) in the atheist community.  I also talk about feminism, both in terms of the #shutupandlisten debacle (as it pertains to lessons from Zen Buddhism) of last year but also as it pertains to the history of technology.

Lastly, I wrote a book.  This is significant because I started writing that book around the same time I started the blog.  And as I move towards another 5 years of blogging (perhaps), I will also consider finishing the second book (I’ve written 3 chapters or so).

Thank you to everyone who has liked, commented, and continues to read.  I do this because I love it, and I also love when other people love my work.

If you think I missed a post you loved, let me know in the comments.

I’ll leave you with this song.






Brighter Than Today December 22, 2013

Posted by wfenza in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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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.



Yesterday was the winter solstice. While the solstice has significance in many religions, it has always been a powerful secular symbol to me. The solstice is literally the darkest day of the year. While a powerful metaphor in itself, darkness and cold have real consequences. There is seasonal affective disorder, the cold prevents me from doing a lot of my favorite outdoor activities, and there are even links between emotional warmth and physical warmth.

Winter is also a dark time in other ways. December is prime breakup season. The winter holidays are a stressful time for many people. The new year is often a source of disappointment as we inventory our goals from the previous year and realize how short we’ve fallen. There is often family drama. For atheists, this time of year can be especially isolating as overt displays of religion reach an all-time high, especially among those who have religious families.

The solstice has meaning before me because it means that, though the world is wreathed in maximum darkness, every day for the next six months will be slightly, imperceptibly, but undeniably brighter. It means that every day is the brightest it’s been since December 21st. It means that we have 365 full days before the world is ever this dark again. To me, the solstice marks the turning point from things getting worse to things getting better.

Last weekend, I attended Brighter Than Today: A Secular Solstice in New York City. It was a celebration of secular values through music and storytelling. While I had some criticisms of the event, I truly enjoyed being able to spend the solstice with a group of like-minded people (including my partners and some of my favorite people from the community) celebrating secular values like togetherness, hope, and beauty. I recommend that anyone who can make it next year, do so.

I want to wish everyone a happy solstice, and to remind you that no matter what, tomorrow will be brighter than today.

emotions can be a distracting drug November 6, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
Tags: , , , ,
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So, I seriously get annoyed with some aspects of liberal culture, especially where it intersects with religion.  I’ve written about this before, many times, so I don’t need to sat too much (and yet, I will…).  But it is a thing which grinds my gears fairly frequently, including today when I found this good criticism of Francis Spufford’s article at Salon.com by professor Ceiling Cat himself.  Go read Jerry Coyne’s post.  As usual, he makes good points.

While reading the post, however, I was thinking about this argument, which I have heard before, about how religion is a spiritual or emotional experience.  Some atheists, while being smug and disrespectful (as we are wont to do) will compare religion to a drug, and there is some justification for this crude comparison.

But more generally, emotions act in addictive manners in more arenas than religion.  It is certainly something I am familiar with.  The the poly world, there are sometimes discussions of NRE being addictive, which leads some people to pursue new relationships almost unceasingly.  This sometimes leads to situations where one starts to neglect those with whom they share intimacy, simply due to spending time pursuing more and more novelty.

As a Borderline, I am familiar with the desires to pursue the thrills of both intense joys and of (the illusion of) control.  The highs are great, but the pretend goal of maintenance of those heights, and avoidance of the lows, is delusional. In my worst memories, I have images of having gotten the emotional reaction my anger–a result of fear in the absurd pursuit of being loved–was after, which is accompanied by the fleeting, deceptive, addictive pleasure of it all.  Fleeting because a few seconds later it is clear that not only will the reaction not lead to them loving me, but that they will probably never want to be close to me again.

And yet the mind craves it, all too often.  All too often because ever is too often.

And so here we are, back to religion, with Mr. Spufford arguing that we new new atheists are wrong because we do not get that religion is about the emotional experience and not primarily about truth.  The turn-around, here, seems to be that it is Mr. Spufford who does not understand.  I, a life-time student of religious history, theology, and its relationship to culture know all too well how emotion can lead us to belief.

Spufford says:

It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.

which is, of course, reminiscent of the old Catholic idea of belief prior to understanding (which, if memory serves, was Thomas Aquinas’ dictum.  Correct me if I’m wrong).

This idea is not inspirational.  I am not led to see religion as more understandable because of feelings people have.  Good feelings do not imply a good worldview, moral sense, and especially not good ideas.  I am not less critical of you and your religion  because you have pleasant feelings, which religion provides you with.

And then I think how often, we as humans (even within the atheist community) rationalize terrible ideas, policies, or moral worldviews based upon feelings.  How much is misogyny the result of genuine feelings? How much is homophobia based upon feelings? Etc.

And the feelings don’t have to be bad ones.  Perhaps some misogynistic MRA out there is motivated by a genuine desire to right the wrongs where the system is actually slanted away from men? Well, that instinct is generally good, but without a larger perspective to compare those instincts and feelings to, those feelings (if they are, in fact, good) are insufficient.  Because while motivated to right a structural wrong, many MRA’s miss the larger point that the vast majority of structural injustices in our world are stacked in the favor of men.  Our friendly MRA, and his good feelings which lead him to beliefs contra-feminism, are not sufficient.

Similarly with religion.  Spufford and his family go to church, have good feelings, and so they believe the things believed by the people who are there when they have the feelings.  How absurd is that? We, new atheists, know that you have good feelings while singing about Jesus.  We are glad you are capable of good feelings, we want you to have good feelings, we just want you to get your head out of your ass and realize that the time and place of where those good feelings happen may have nothing to do with the feelings per se.

Or, if they did, then perhaps those feelings are not worth wanting anymore.  Perhaps good feelings are not sufficient reason to keep doing something, you selfish asshole.

At some point, this conversation about truth/experience, science/art, etc comes down to moral principles; things like authenticity and integrity (which I am teased about, by more than a few people, for sharing with hipsters apparently.  I was doing it before there were hipsters, so there…:P).  These moral principles are structures by which we decide how to go about daily living.  Do we care about other people, our environment (immediate and/or global), and what is true or don’t we? Are our good feelings we have at church (or whatever selfish pleasure we are pursuing) more important than the larger picture of our lives and those close to us?

In short, are your jollies more important than all the things that you could do besides them?

Are your emotions more important than the effect they have on the world around you? Are they more important than mine, your neighbors, etc?

Spufford, and others who make this argument, seem to essentially be saying that the good feelings that religion give them are more important than the larger question of whether religion is harmful to society as a whole–let alone whether they are true. They seem inclined towards associating their religion with emotional and spiritual self-improvement, rather than a larger cultural phenomenon with consequences upon history, power structures, etc.  Because their religion only makes people feel good, unlike the fundamentalists who just hate everyone.  Excuses.


Feeling good is great.  But there is a reason I don’t want to try heroin.  I have a feeling I will like it, if I tried it.  That isn’t the question.  If I try it, my intelligent mind will find ways to rationalize using it more, despite the detrimental effects it will have, upon extended use, on my life and the world around me.  Spufford’s article is a rationalization of his addiction.  It is a human behavior so common, so ubiquitous, that we forget that we need to step back and apply skepticism, rationality, and logic to the world to make sure we are not getting caught up in our addictions.

Emotions are not inherently bad.  Emotions are an integral part of the tool-kit of decision-making and enjoying life.  But when we see people so blinded by their preferences, biases, etc that they are incapable of seeing the larger picture, we need to be able to say that it is time to stop being led around by our religious dicks.

World Religion Tree September 7, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , ,

So, this is pretty awesome.  I have spent many years reading about the history of religion, and i think that the subject is very interesting.  I could have spent all of those years doing nothing except reading about religion, and still only scratched the surface of this:


Just a segment of the awesome.



That’s just a snapshot.  To see the whole thing (and to zoom in and scroll around), click here or the image itself.  The complex history and sheer number of religious traditions is astonishing to see displayed this way.  I could get lost in this image for hours.

Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that the fact that we can categorize religious traditions into a tree says something about the nature of religion, and of human culture in general.  Human culture, including religion, does not come out of a vacuum.  Religion is not revelations from up high, it is natural, organic, and growths from us.

In one sense, religions are beautiful in that they represent not only what is amazing and sublime, but also what is terrifying and dangerous, about our ability to create and to interpret the world.  They are windows into our “souls;” glimpses of what we could be–both good and bad.  They are dreams and nightmares all at once, prying under our mundane lives into the engines of possibility.

And yet, for all that is good in them, there are paths which can clean up the mess and the grime attached to these fantastic reveries.  There is a way to drain out the dirty water of fantasy and to know what is real, and as we advance in our understanding we learn more and more about how to do this.  The growth of this religion tree will not cease, but it may be pruned by this method.  There will always be branches of this religious tree, I’m willing to wager, but the branches which survive will have to contest with another tree.

Science, empiricism, and skepticism generally owe much of its existence to the  intellectual traditions of this religion tree, but it is a different type of organism.  Entangled, all too often, with this massive faith tree, skepticism takes root in a part of us which seeks to avoid the siren songs of Nietzsche’s old metaphysical bird catchers.  That ground is fertile, but for many it is foreign soil.  I hope that changes, because our culture needs better soil, if we are too grow, thrive, and survive.

So, once again I get to quote my favorite passage from Nietzsche, referred to above, because I think it encapsulates my values better than just about any collection of words I’ve yet seen:

To translate man back into nature; to become master over the many vain and overly enthusiastic interpretations and connotations that have so far been scrawled and painted over the eternal basic text of homo natura; to see to it that man henceforth stands before man as even today, hardened in the discipline of science, he stands before the rest of nature, with Oedipus eyes and sealed Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird catchers who have been piping at him all too long, “you are more, you are higher, you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and insane task, but it is a task

Sin responsibly August 17, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Religion.
Tags: , ,

You know how people, after reaching a rock bottom point in their lives, often find religion? You know, the old redemption and salvation story.  They have had evil done to them, did evil themselves, but now they walk the righteous path!  It’s a powerful narrative, and the times it has been utilized in story-telling (both in text and in personal behavior) are countless. It’s a ubiquitous narrative structure of religion, literature, and personal psychology.

In sort, it’s one of the most fundamental aspects of being human.

Now, I could go on about how this narrative is flawed, especially in how it is utilized by religion as a vehicle for more than mere narrative, but of actual truth, but that’s obvious and banal.  Besides, many atheist commentators have made that point numerous times, and blogs which keep pestering the same points get stale after a while.

So, how about this; Let’s try and take that narrative and fit it onto a different vehicle.  Let’s see how, perhaps, this narrative relates to how we create a false dichotomy in terms of relationships, specifically when it comes to cheating and exclusive commitments.

Similar to the penitent sinner, there is the repentant adulterer.  Yes, there are the people who have cheated and who try and commit themselves to being successfully monogamous, but I’m interested in the less obvious versions of this story.  I’m interested in a story of the person who struggles with the desire to cheat, and who fights of this desire with an ideal of monogamy and exclusivity.  I imagine that this struggle has many facets that we would recognize in man other tropes, including many “romantic” ideals which include concepts such as “one true love,” “soul mate,” and “belonging” to someone.

Somehow, the natural, and undoubtedly widespread, inclination to be attracted to many types of people is shrugged off by rationalizing some special exceptionalism or superficial romantic notion of exclusivity by people who are struggling to fit into respectable expectations.  To fit in.  They see their desire as a roadblock, rather than as an alternate route.  They probably don’t even see the path less traveled.  They see the road, the obstacle, but not the other lanes of traffic.

Why is this narrative so clean and obvious in our culture? Is it as simple as the fact that many cultural forces, including the conservative influence of religion, have tried to battle our animal nature, trying to beat the swords of our lust into ploughshares of civil monogamy?  Is it as simple as groupthink and herd behavior?

In today’s cultural and political climate, “family” (usually meaning a man and a woman who have children) is often held up to be the foundation of our society and culture.  This structure, solidified in monogamy, sexual exclusivity and (ultimately) ownership, is thought to be what holds all of this together.  If it disappeared, it would lead to anarchy (“yay” the anarchists may say).

So to not struggle against our instincts is to invite destruction.  Not merely of our relationships and our personal salvation and redemption story, but to that of our entire society.  This is why I think that the insights of both atheism and polyamory, founded by skepticism (the method, not the community), are so radical.  They question the very dichotomy of not only our instincts with many assumed ideals, but they present an alternative perspective through which to view these instincts.  They seek to deconstruct the problem, very much in the tradition of the best of postmodern criticism (yes, there are good aspects to postmodernism, believe it or not!) so that we can see the problem from a different perspective.

At bottom, the answer is not to repress, struggle against, or transcend our instincts, but rather to find a way to make our instincts the fuel for creating a responsible, mature, and enjoyable life.  The answer to desire is not always denial; sometimes it’s merely to re-think the nature of that desire in terms of what is possible, even if not popular or easy.  Our instincts are not good nor are they bad, but they are real and they will continue to pester us, so we might as well get comfortable with that.  And since we are getting comfortable with them, we will have to live with giving them some limitations, boundaries, and maybe even rules.

Monogamy is not the answer to variety of sexual and romantic desire.  Monogamy is the answer to a genuinely limited set of such desires.  Monogamy is what happens when happiness involves one person.  Religion is not the answer to our metaphysical needs (cf Nietzsche).  Religion is only such an answer when it happens to be true (and unlike monogamy, religion may never fit this bill.  That is, monogamy may be rational, but religion may never be so).

We have the capability to re-define things such as “family,” “commitment,” and “love” to be broader than the exclusive and restrictive definitions which are common today.  We, if we are to care about progress over the conservative impulses of some of our culture (conserving a system that simply does not work), must continue to demonstrate that progress is not only inevitable, but that it is morally superior.

We should be struggling along with our instincts and desires, rather than against them.  It’s not only a pragmatic strategy, but an authentic (and thus moral) one.

In short, keep sinning because it’s not actually a sin.  But do it responsibly.

Descriptive Norms, or Why Your Beliefs Affect Me August 11, 2013

Posted by wfenza in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.

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.




Scientific American has an article up discussing the difference between descriptive norms and prescriptive norms. The gist is that descriptive norms describe how things are and prescriptive norms describe how things ought to be. When it comes to affecting people’s behavior, descriptive norms tend to work much better:

In a classic study, Cialdini and colleagues manipulated the signs that were displayed in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, a site often plagued by tourists who end up grabbing some of the petrified wood to take home as a souvenir. In situations like this, the first inclination of well-meaning environmentalists might be to set a strong prescriptive norm — perhaps by saying something like, “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest. This is bad, don’t do this.” The idea here would be to invoke a sense of shame and severity before asking visitors to refrain from taking the wood. But read that prescriptive message once again. Is there anything descriptive in there? Yes, of course there is. That message is not just telling you that you shouldn’t take the wood — it’s also telling you that most other people do. In fact, people were actually more likely to steal wood from the forest when they saw the sign telling them how many people tend to do it themselves, even though the very next sentence was asking them to refrain. But when the researchers simply tweaked the message to read that “the vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, helping to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest,” the thievery plummeted.

We don’t really care so much about what we should do. We care about what other people do. And then we really, really care about not being different.

The article suggests that making your support of marriage equality public on Facebook may actually make more of a difference than a lot of people think. I agree. When we make our positions publicly known, often that can be more convincing than anything else we can do.

This relates to the main issue with moderate religion. There are a number of religions out there (and other faith traditions that may or may not be classified as “religions”) that do no real direct harm on society. I was raised by a Quaker mother, and attended meeting up until I was allowed to make choices for myself. I have Unitarian Universalist friends. I know several pagans, and other religious moderates who practice non-mainstream, non-coercive religions.

These religions aren’t causing any direct harm that can be easily identified. However, that does not mean that they are not causing harm. I live in a country positively saturated in religion. Religion pervades public life in America in ways that are unheard of in other developed countries, and it leads to all sorts of horrible outcomes.

All public expressions of faith exacerbate the issue through the power of descriptive norms. The more people who identify as religious, the more it encourages other people to be religious also. Even the most non-proselytizing expression of faith reinforces the cultural message that religion is normal, and a lack of religion is weird. Nobody wants to be weird! So people are encouraged to overlook their doubts about religion in order to fit in, even if nobody is explicitly sending that message.

American Cross

People often ask me why I care that people hold religious beliefs. This is often coupled with a spoken or unspoken assertion that their religious beliefs do not affect me in a negative way. Often, I will attempt to explain that beliefs inform actions, an in any society, and especially in a democracy, everyone’s actions affect everyone else. But there is also the problem of descriptive norms.

I believe that, all other things being equal,  a more secular society is a better society. Religion, even moderate, “harmless” religion, impedes that goal. Of course, moderate religion does less harm than fundamentalist religion, but it’s still making it more difficult for our society to move in a more secular direction. It still encourages the general population to value faith above reason. It still contributes to the social stigma of atheism.

This is, of course, not to justify being a dick about it.* The fact that moderate religion is a problem doesn’t mean that it’s ok to be rude. It doesn’t mean that religion doesn’t serve useful purposes in people’s lives. It doesn’t mean that people are justified in attempting to impose their lack of religion on other people. It just means that as an atheist, I have a stake in the beliefs of my fellow members of society. This is not meant to discuss tactics at all.

This is another reason why coming out is so important. When we proudly identify as atheist (or polyamorous for that matter), that declaration speaks louder than any argument we can make. When we create a society in which it’s no longer weird to be an atheist, then we create a society where there’s one less reason to turn to religion.


*I sincerely wish that this disclaimer didn’t need to accompany every post discussing this topic, but such is life.