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The Monogamy Delusion? March 29, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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So, I just finished reading Greta Christina’s new book Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off The Godless (Kindle version), right after having met her after the Reason Rally, and I will briefly say that I recommend it as a great resource for both believer and heathen alike.  It is a great read for anyone who does not quite understand why we get so fired up about religion and faith.

I use this as a premise for talking about goals of social movements, a question that Greta addresses in her book concerning the goals of the atheist movement specifically, and what this might have to teach the polyamory community.  After watching the atheist movement grow and mature over the last 10 years or so, and given that I am usually thinking about polyamory, I inevitably will ask whether there will ever be a large, organized, coherent polyamory social movement.

And if there were, what would it look like?

As Greta talks about in her book, there are fundamental problems which the larger atheist community addresses through various means.  There are the basic issues of confronting stereotypes, discrimination, and hatred of atheists.  Such things range from moral, legal, and to philosophical issues and are fought for by both theists and atheists.  There is also the front of the atheist community which actively responds to theistic claims, both to truth and socio-political access of levers of power (in the US, this is usually through Christian privilege), with counter arguments of varying levels of intensity.  On the farther end is the ultimate goal of ridding the world—through persuasion—of religion.  Greta and I share that goal.

With that in mind, what types of issues could a polyamory social movement address?

  • are there fundamental cultural, legal, or philosophical problems which polyamory addresses?
  • is there any real and significant discrimination against polyamorous people in the world? If so, is it primarily cultural or legal in nature?
  • Would such a movement be essentially a struggle for equal rights or would it also include questions of truth, such as whether polyamory is the best model for relationships that all people should emulate? (I a thinking about that last point in terms of Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape)

I don’t have any definitive conclusions to these questions right now, nor do I think anyone does.  I ask these questions to tease out some stark differences in the types of problems that the atheist community is dealing with from what the polyamory community has to deal with, whether it will become a larger social movement or not.

 

Will there ever be a poly equivalent to accommodationists?

In the atheist community, there are those whom like to argue that religion is worthy of respect, should not be criticized, and that there is much about religion that we should perpetuate, learn from, etc.  I have addressed this question numerous times over the last few years, and will not say more than I disagree with this view.  Strongly.

On the other side are people, like myself, who believe that religion is more harmful than not, untrue, and perpetuates the worst parts of our humanity; specifically faith.  I will resist urge to rant about that here.  Resistance is not always futile.

(In other words, urges to rant about faith can be countered with Star Trek references)

So, the question is whether this pattern holds for the polyamory community?  Are there people who will argue that, for example, monogamy is more damaging than not?  That monogamy cannot be a healthy relationship structure? Will people argue that polyamory is objectively better than non-polyamory? Will there, in short, be anti-monogamists? Not merely people who prefer polyamory, think it a better way to live given more options, but actually against the practice of monogamy as an irrational and delusional lifestyle? Will someone write a book called “The Monogamy Delusion”?

Again, not mere amonogamy–the lack of monogamy–but the active social activism against (through persuasion) the continuation of monogamy as a cultural practice.

(Some of you are thinking about Brave New World.  Or, if you are uber-literate, you are thinking of WE.)

Now, I don’t doubt that there are a few people out there who might try to make such an argument.  I’m sure that a rare poly bird out there, or a few, will argue that monogamy is fundamentally wrong, irrational, and possibly a bowing to the worst instincts of humanity; things like jealousy, social conformity, and living against one’s true desires (living inauthentically).

And on some points, I will agree with such people.  I might, in fact, agree with many of the points they will make, and make some of those points myself.   But despite this affinity for such arguments, I am not, at least not right now, one of those people who will make such an argument.  And I want to explain why.

 

Theism v. monogamy

Theism is a hypothesis about the world, specifically the existence of some supernatural being commonly referred to as a deity, god, etc.  It makes a specific claim which is either testable or untestable.  If it is testable, it has not survived skeptical/scientific analysis so far, and does not appear as f it will ever pass such a standard.  If it is not testable, it is a worthless hypothesis and should be thrown out on those merits alone.  Atheism is the lack of that hypothesis, whether made out of ignorance or through informed analysis, and the arguments it makes are in response to a proposition of how the world is.

Monogamy is a relationship style based upon sexual (and usually romantic) exclusivity between two people.  It is the lifestyle of having one lover, sometimes a spouse, at least at a time but possibly life-long.  It is not a hypothesis about the world, but it is a…choice? (is it really always a choice, given how many people are not even aware of alternatives? A question for another post!).  In any case, monogamy is a structure of one’s relationship, rather than a claim about reality.

What is the significance of this distinction? Essentially, it is the fact that polyamory is not a reaction to monogamy in the same way that atheism is a reaction to theism.  A polyamorous advocate could say something like “this is a better lifestyle for my wants and needs, and it may be better for you” and not “your lifestyle is objectively unproven to be best, true, and so your lifestyle is objectively wrong and you should give it up.” Polyamory is not a reaction against a claim to objective truth, as atheism is.  Polyamory has a relationship, and not always an antagonistic one, to a traditional cultural ideal of monogamy (traditional in much of the world, but certainly not all of it) that feels unnatural to many people.

To clarify the distinction between these two issues, let me ask two questions:

  1. Is it reasonable to consider all of the arguments for and against theism and rationally come out a theist?
  2. Is it reasonable to consider all of the arguments for and against monogamy and rationally come out monogamous?

In terms of (1), there are no good arguments for any gods’ existence, so any skeptic should become an atheist if they properly apply their skepticism to the question of gods.  As for (2), there are people who will, upon honest reflection, discussion, and consideration with their partner, find that they both are actually quite happy, satisfied, and feel no desire to be with other people sexually/romantically.  Those people will be what I call “accidentally monogamous.”  They have seriously considered whether they would want other people in their sexual/romantic life and have concluded that they need no rule about exclusivity but will end up living a monogamous lifestyle, for all practical purposes.

And before anyone thinks to point this out, I admit having argued that a true skeptic should be polyamorous, but I have also argued that monogamy is legitimately rational as a needs-securing lifestyle for at least some people.  To be clear, my view is that polyamory (not having an exclusivity rule) should be the starting position for all relationships, and monogamy is subsequently only fully rational if, and only if (iff), that is what both people actually, authentically, want with each other.  Which means that they would need no rule arguing for exclusivity, because doing so would be redundant because neither is actually interested in pursuing other people.

Wes would probably say that this lack of a need for an exclusivity rule is coterminous with polyamory, and I tend to agree. But I think there is room for debate here about the definition of polyamory, so I am allowing that room in my analysis here.  My views may change in the future, in that I may completely adopt his definition as being sufficient for polyamory.  The consequence of this would be that I might then conclude that all monogamy, unless it is reached “accidentally,” would be irrational and possibly harmful.

I’m not there right now.

 

Polyamourous evangelicalism?

The conclusion from all of this, as I see it, is that any movement to advance polyamory culturally, socially, or politically will probably be limited to providing information, legal and philosophical challenges, and the decreasing of any discrimination which polyamorous people experience or are legitimately worried about.

I don’t see a strong argument, parallel to atheism’s arguments against theism, religion, and faith, against monogamy.  I see arguments for being polyamorous, but that is not precisely the same thing as being against all monogamy.

There will be people who want to get rid of monogamy, and I will want to hear their arguments why they think we should strive for that (as I would hope atheist accommodationists should want to actually read new/gnu atheist arguments. I’m looking at you, Julian Baggini!).  But for now, I don’t see much room for a “new/gnu poly” movement.  But I suppose only time will tell.

If anyone feels I am being to accommodating to monogamy, I’m open to arguments.

Greta Christina, subjective irrationality, and NOMA December 31, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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It’s frustrating being so busy, because it means when I read something I want to comment on, sometimes it takes days to get to it.  Like this, for example.  It is a post from Greta Christina from three days ago, and when I first read it I wanted to respond.  But then this time of year brings about social activity for me, and I could not get to it until today.

Greta is concerned about the criticism of rationality when it comes to subjective matters.  Well, I’ll let her own words tell the story:

But I’ve been noticing a type of disagreement cropping up in atheist conversations, and it’s bugging me. It’s when atheists and skeptics criticize each others’ rationality… about entirely subjective questions.

“Purely subjective questions.”  This phrase tickled my skeptic bone as soon as I read it.  The reason is that I have a philosophical sensitivity to the distinction between objective and subjective (which is related to Hilary Putnam’s Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy, which I have a copy of and has been of considerable effect upon my thinking).  See, the thing is that I’m not sure that the distinction between “objective” and “subjective” questions (especially as Great is using them here), is clean enough to make the points she is making in her post.  And so with some quoting of her post, I would like to deconstruct some of these questions and possibly throw a few ideas out there.

But first, a disclaimer.  I actually usually agree with Greta Christina, and this post is not an attempt to show that she is irrational or anything.  She says she likes the fact that this community is critical of each other, and so I am criticizing what I see as a small oversight.  It’s a consciousness-raising exercise.  I want to illuminate a philosophical problem with her post as an illustration, and also clarify a few disagreements I have with this particular post.

Irrationality

What is irrational? Well, what is rational?  I use the term such that something is rational if it is consistent with known demonstrably true facts about the world as well as with reason or logical analysis.  Of course, the question then is how do we apply this?  Well, that’s part of what Greta is tackling here in talking about the Straw Vulcan question, where media and pop culture has created a trope that described rationality as being absurdly logical (essentially).  Part of Greta’s post was inspired by Julia Galef’s recent talk at Skepticon, which I have previously seen, and which was a continuation of a series of posts that appeared on Julia Galef’s blog as well as Rationally Speaking (Massimo Pigliucci’s blog).  Here’s the video of Julia at Skepticon from earlier this year, in case you have not seen it.

A good talk that I recommend (even if for another time).  But rather than address Julia’s points, I want to get back to Greta’s post.  See, she has concerns about the fact that, perhaps, we are not being rational.  Well, what she says is this:

I’ve seen atheists argue that it’s irrational to enjoy drinking. Follow sports. Care about fashion and style. Love our pets. And it’s bugging me. I think it’s pointlessly divisive.  I’m fine with being divisive if there’s a point to it — I want us to debate our differences, I don’t want us to march in lockstep — but pointless divisiveness, not so much. And I think it’s a mis-application of the principle of rationality. The “more rational than thou” attitude towards subjective matters is, ironically, not very rational.

The “fashion and style” link makes reference to a discussion that started a little while back about whether fashion and/or style was a rational endeavor.  I don’t want to dwell on it except to point out that the question, as I remember the comments on her fashion posts, were not about whether Greta was rational for liking fashion, but whether her thoughts about fashion were rational.  It’s an old argument and frankly I don’t care enough to say more than that right now.  But generally I agree with her point.  I think there is a point where we focus on unimportant things about each other and get caught up in them to the detriment of our community.

So drinking, sports, and pets?  These are all mere personal preferences and choices, right? To argue about what you like, subjectively, is pointless and possibly absurd, right? Also divisive.  One might be temped to point out that talking about the personal question of religious belief being subjective too, but Greta saw that coming:

Let me start with a premise: Yes, rationality is the best way of determining what is and is not most likely to be true in the external, non-subjective world. What causes rain? Why do people get sick? How did life come into being? Do we continue to live after we die? These are questions with answers. The answers are true, or not, regardless of what we think about them.

Here, she is dividing up the world, perhaps not cleanly and unambiguously, but a division is being identified.  She is saying that there is a difference between the “external, non-subjective world” and the subjective world inside us.  This is important, so I wanted to highlight it before continuing:

And the best way to find those answers is to suspend/ counteract our irrationality and our cognitive biases, to the best degree that we can, and gather/ examine the evidence as rationally and carefully as we can. Flashes of irrational insight can sometimes point us in the right direction… but to determine whether that really is the right direction or a ridiculous wild goose chase, rationality is the best tool we have.

OK, I’m with her so far.  I still have that annoying tingling about the clean split between the subjective/objective which has been hinted at, but that is not a mortal sin here so I am overlooking it, at this point.  However, that shakiness because a low rumbling with the next paragraph.

But not all questions are questions about the external, non-subjective world. Some questions are subjective. The answers aren’t the same for everybody. If you enjoy drinking/ sports/ fashion/ pets, then you do. If it’s true for you, then it’s true. [my emphasis]

On the surface, I agree with what I think she is trying to say, but as I read this I get a double layer of meaning which I don’t think are coherent.  Let me try and parse these meanings.

1) Some things are external to our direct conscious awareness, and others are part of our internal experience and not accessible to other people generally.  The former are subject to empirical verification, analysis, etc, the latter are not.  The things that you have as internal conscious experiences, which are not accessible to others, are just brute facts that you have to accept.

2) Some facts about the world we can test easily, other we cannot because they are not part of the inter-subjective world which we can all share.  And even if we could test them, we would find that they are not the same for everyone, so we should just accept those things as they appear, no matter what other people seem to think about them.

My problem is that Greta seems to be saying that our internal conscious facts are things which cannot be subject to analysis.  She seems to be creating a space for things that, if we simply find we like them, we should just accept them because they are not subject to comparison or possibly even analysis.  Now, to be fair I don’t think she actually thinks this; as a person who has written a lot about how she thinks about her own choices, beliefs, etc I don’t think she actually believes what it looks like she is saying here.  I think she just missed the philosophical implications involved and I would like to talk a little about that.

She follows the above with this:

Yet atheists and skeptics often treat these subjective questions as if they were objective ones… and scold one another for being irrational when some else enjoys different things than we do.

Again, I agree and disagree.  But I think the nature of my disagreement is that I would prefer to say that rather than claim that some things about us are inaccessible from rational analysis, we should simply be saying that while we might be able to apply rationality to every aspect of ourselves, we shouldn’t.  The way she puts it, it seems as if she is saying that we cannot apply reason to our likes, dislikes, and possibly even values.  So that if I like to drink, I cannot apply rationality to this liking because it is merely true, and thus I should accept it and, I suppose, drink.  I don’t think Greta wants to say that, so allow me to make one more point because you toss away my criticism as mere philosophic semantic-trolling.

You might be asking why I’m being so careful and choosy with language.  You might be saying “Shaun, you know what she means, and you are just nit-picking,” but one more elucidation might get you to see what I’m identifying.  It is this phrase; “Yet atheists and skeptics often treat these subjective questions as if they were objective ones…”.  It is here where I get tripped up.  It is here where I think Greta misses the boat and mis-emphasizes the wrong aspect of this issue.

NOMA of the subjective/objective

I think that those “subjective” questions really are objective.  Well, to be more precise, I believe that there is no such thing as “objective” when it comes to perspectives, but only a continuum of subjectivity, starting with the private world inside our heads and bleeding out to the external world which must be apprehended with perception via our senses (inter-subjectivity) and the tools we use to enhance them; empiricism.  Thus, I believe that the “objective” world is really subjective, but the distinction between them is one of accessibility; how much can we analyze the facts involved?

Our likes and dislikes, our values even, are facts about the world.  We don’t yet have a full enough understanding of how to empirically test, verify, or even identify all of them, but they are real things in the real world, just like rain, sickness, and propositions of gods.  Thus, my like of hockey, Greta’s like of fashion, and your like of this blog (maybe) are all subject to rational analysis.  They are indeed “brute facts” that we cannot ignore as realities, but there is a difference between admitting a fact and placing it off-limits to analysis; it is this distinction which I think Greta is missing.  This means that while I agree with Greta’s main point in her post (generally), I think she got there a little carelessly and sloppily.

As I said during the discussion about fashion before, on Greta’s blog as well as here, there is no reason to apply rationality or logic to everything.  There is nothing wrong with not being rational about some things.  As I said before, things like fashion, sports, etc are shallow but so what? So the response should not be to say that things like like of sports or fashion are not accessible to rational analysis (because they are, in fact, accessible to analysis of this sort), but that we are allowed to have likes, values, etc which are not completely accessed (even if they are accessible) by rational analysis.

In a sense, this is sort of like the question of NOMA (the idea that science and religion occupy different ‘magesteria’ and answer different questions).  See, Greta’s analysis here seems to create two separate (if not vaguely defined) realms of our personal world.  One is external and “objective,” subject to analysis.  The other is somehow not part of the real world, made of real things.  This division can only be philosophically salvageable by appealing to some ontological dualism.  That is, if our likes, dislikes, and values (our inner subjective brute facts which we cannot apply rationality to) are not subject to analysis intrinsically then they must occupy a different ontological reality.  They must be non-empirical and this not analyzable by reason, logic, or rational thought.

Greta seems to be advocating for a distinction between the things which our skepticism can be applied to and things they cannot be applied to.  I think this is a false dichotomy, as I believe, as a metaphysical naturalist, that all of reality is subject to skeptical analysis, including our base desires, preferences, and values.  So yes, we should recognize their truth in that they really are our preferences, we don’t have to accept them are simply true and leave them out-of-bounds for our skepticism.

Applying rationality to our desires, preferences, and values

The last thought I want to leave with you today, dear reader, is this.  It is only by the application of rational analysis to our subjective, personal, private selves that we can truly change ourselves in any meaningful way.  More importantly this is not only possible but essential as skeptics.  It is what allowed me to not only gain my perspective of religion, but also sexuality and relationships.  It was the process by which I became polyamorous and openly skeptical despite my intense insecurity, fear, and jealousy out of which I had to grow.  Had I accepted my fear and my jealousy as facts about myself that were true, I would not be the person I am today. The maturing, growing, and learning we do in our lives, despite what Greta Christina seems to be saying in her post the other day, is due to the fact that we can ask ourselves whether we should like and spend time thinking about baseball, style, or blog-reading/writing.  Are the brute facts about ourselves things we have to just accept or can we change them if we find them lacking in some way?

Because if Greta Christina is right, then we cannot hope to overcome those things.  “If it’s true for you, then it’s true” she says.  But I think this is defeatist.  It tells people that the inner experiences they have with the world are not subject to our changing them or thinking about them in a different way.  It puts them out of reach for our analysis (which is a rational exercise), and so it implies they cannot be changed.  Now, we may look at some of those things, whether they are drinking, sports, or fashion, and decide that we will pursue them despite their irrationality, decide they are rational, or that the joy they bring is sufficient to overlook the irrationality of them to some degree.  That is a lot of what being a rational person is about; not being straw-Vulcan rational, but applying rational analysis to ourselves and being responsible for the conclusions and behavior that derives from that analysis.

But by saying that the brute fact that we enjoy something makes them lay outside our ability to meaningfully question someone’s decisions is, well, irrational.  It is not sufficient to say that if someone enjoys something you see as irrational then you should stop being a dick by calling them out on it.  What Greta should be saying is that “hey, you don’t know what rational calculus I have used to decide to pursue this thing you see as irrational.” and then the other person can say “OK, so you have thought about this and decided to pursue it anyway? Well, if so, you are responsible for it, and even if I disagree with you I grant you that responsibility.”  And then if they want to, they can talk more about it.  I think that is what Greta Christina is trying to say in her post, with the minor oversight of, perhaps unintentionally, invoking a kind of ontological dualism into her worldview.

So, you can still think someone is irrational about something specific, even if you only have partial understanding of their reasoning, and simply walk away from it because it’s not your responsibility.  But when you spend time in a community of people who think about rationality, there are going to be people who think you have irrational beliefs, likes, or values.  That is simply something we will have to live with while not pushing those things out of bounds–a sort of skeptical move akin to moving the goalposts.

All is subject to rational inquiry in exactly the same way and exactly for the same reason that all aspects of reality are subject to scientific (skeptical) analysis.  In the same way that religion is subject to science, our like of sports, fashion, etc is subject to rational analysis.  The degree to which we pay attention to those things is a different question.

Fashion is shallow…not that there is anything wrong with that September 23, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I have avoided jumping in on the fray (parts one, two, and three) over at Greta Christina’s blog.  The reason is that I generally do not care about fashion, and so I didn’t feel motivated enough to add my thoughts.  The other reason is that another person I know, with whom I tend to agree on many things, already had jumped in.

I am one of those people who thinks that judging a person by what they wear, even if it is inevitable, is problematic and  shallow.  I think that there are things you can tell about a person by what they generally wear, and there is a very loose sort of language (I agree that body language is a better analogy than language per se) that comes along with clothing.  I would like to see the role of fashion in our culture mitigated somewhat, but I don’t think it’s a problem that is damaging enough to spend significant time thinking about.  As far as I remember, this is the first time I’ve ever written about this topic.  It very well may be the last time as well.

So, when I first saw Greta Christina writing about it, I read the piece because she generally has good insight about things.  I figured I would have something to learn.  It was not one of her better pieces, in my opinion, but it didn’t bother me too much and simply put it out of mind.  And then the second one came around, and I realized I had missed some interesting conversation in the comments, which I initially ignored out of lack of interest.  After having gone back and read the comments and the subsequent posts with their comments, I found myself a little disappointed, honestly, that Greta became so offended and affected by what some people said.  Considering her directness and highly critical comments on religion (which I tend to agree with and like), I would have expected her to have a thicker skin.  I think that her taking offense at someone demonstrating why fashion is shallow, vain, and trivial is, frankly, irrational and misses the point he was trying to make.

(full disclosure, “Wes” is someone I know personally, and is, in fact, my fiance’s boyfriend).

So, using these posts and subsequent comments as a springboard, I wanted to make a point or two about words like “shallow,” a point that I believe resonates with what Wes was trying to say over at Greta’s and which was misunderstood by Greta Christina and generally missed by people in our culture.  And it is simply this; being shallow is not a bad thing in itself.  We all have shallow interests, and “owning” this is a part of being adults.  The truth is important, even if that truth points to shallow aspects of ourselves.

We are shallow about all sorts of things.  My like of hockey is shallow.  My care about if my hair looks nice today is shallow.  When I do actually make an effort to wear nicer clothes, I am being shallow in doing so.  And there is nothing wrong with any of that, so long as I am aware that it is less important than other aspects of my personality and that I don’t pretend that it isn’t true.  Now, if I were to spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about these things, especially to the detriment of more profound things (such as improving my emotional maturity, being a virtuous person, etc), then there would be a problem.  I cannot spend all of my time in self-improvement and dealing with weighty philosophical, political, and cultural issues.  Sometimes I have to play a video game, get a hair cut, or buy a new pair of shoes.  These are things that should not matter as much as dealing with poverty, maintaining relationships, or trying to educate people about the inherent dangers of faith and anti-intellectualism (which may be somewhat trivial, in relation to some other things), but they do matter a little.  The fact that they matter less, that they have less depth of meaning in our lives, does not strip them of meaning completely.

They are just relatively shallow.

Now, many may respond saying that the word “shallow” has a different connotation than this use.  That referring to something as “shallow” is not merely saying the trivial thing that it is not particularly important or deep in comparison to other things.  It is really a dig, an insult, and should not be tolerated in a civil conversation.  But I think that this is too simplistic.  I, for example, do not think that Greta Christina is a shallow person.  Her thoughts and efforts in the skeptical and atheist community have demonstrated that she is a person of great breadth and depth, and I have held her in very high esteem for her writing and observations on culture, religion, etc.  She was, in fact, the very first blogger I remember recommending to my fiance, and I have read her blog consistently for about 2 years now.

Her interest in fashion, however, is an exception to this rule.  It is a shallow and human thing that fills her out as a rounded person, and if she claimed to have no such interests I’d assume she was lying. Because she’s human.  I don’t fault her for having this interest, nor do I think I should.  It is obviously something she cares about, and it is one of many interests that she has which fills her out as a person, most of which is deep, considered, and important.  Hell, even her discussion of fashion is deeper than other conversations of fashion I have heard before.

I think that Greta, as well as many other people in our culture, need to take a second look at the word “shallow” and see if it really is an insult.  The same goes for “trivial” and “vain.”  These terms are not all bad, and in fact may not be bad at all.

Take, for example, the word “slut.”  In most of our culture, the word “slut” has a negative connotation.  It is an insult for most people, especially women.  But I, as well as many women I know, use the word as a positive one.  I proudly identify as a slut, and prefer to date sluts.  Why?  Because the insult of the term is predicated upon being sexually promiscuous and not ashamed of it as a bad thing.  If what the word “slut” refers to are not actually bad, then the term is not bad.  Similarly, “shallow” is considered an insult because it is assumed that to be interested in things without intellectual or cultural depth is a flaw.  But what is overlooked here is that what is bad (if anything is bad here) is a person who is predominantly or solely interested in shallow pursuits, not merely having any shallow pursuits.  Pointing out that an interest, like fashion, that someone has as being shallow is not an insult per se.  It is not an indictment of the whole person.

Now, whether a person is interested in predominantly shallow things is bad or not is a question that I will not tackle here.  I think it is a character flaw, but whether it’s bad…that’s a conversation I’m willing to have.

But for now, I am satisfied having addressed these points..

What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement August 13, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I watched this video of a presentation by Greta Christina earlier this week and many of the points have been swimming around my brain since then.

I have heard many people compare the recent atheist activism to the activism of gays 20-30 years ago, and this is perhaps the best presentation on the subject I have seen to date. (This is not to say there are no more comprehensive presentations, only that I have not seen them. If you know of another comparable one, direct me to it, please.)

And certainly there are parallels between the two movements, but since I am not gay (even though I have done activism in support of issues relating to LGBT rights) my commentary will not carry tremendous weight, so I will not say much about how similar they are. I’ll leave that to more authoritative commentators, such as Greta Christina herself, who does talk about many of the same issues as this very blog.

I will point out that the OUT campaign, affiliated with the  Richard Dawkins foundation, is in part modeled on the movement to “come out of the closet” that was started by queers of all types, and which has become part of our cultural language such that atheists’ use of the phrase automatically draws the parallel for most people.  I often wear a scarlet letter T-shirt that signifies this coming out, and will often get asked if I’m an adulterer, making obvious reference to The Scarlet Letter.

(The irony, as some friends have pointed out, is that the concept of adultery takes on different connotations as a polyamorous person.  This is not to say that adultery is impossible within poly lifestyles, only that not all extra-marital sexual relationships will be considered infidelity, causing one to re-think the concept of adultery in such contexts.)

Now, the double reference of the scarlet letter and the coming out movement, wrapped in a symbol like this will cause confusion for most, but it is one that leads to conversations.  Conversations are important to have.  I have have countless (and often) short and friendly conversations explaining what the symbol stands for, what atheism is all about, and why I wear it.  Small steps.

Now, whether the larger atheist community will learn from the mistakes of the LGBT movement or not, is yet to be seen.  I know I am certainly guilty of some of the errors of which Greta Christina speaks.  But it is important for us to keep in mind the lessons that previous social movements have to teach, so that the future will not reflect the past that we have learned from.

And I do believe that there will be a time when atheist (as well as polyamorous) social movements will be unnecessary.  As she says in the video, it is the goal of a social movement to make itself obsolete. Will this happen in my lifetime? I don’t think so.  But if we stop now, it may never happen.

Here’s to making social activism obsolete!