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Lane reading Screwtape August 23, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
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I feel like I’ve linked to this before, but my brother is still going on his terrific series of rereading The Screwtape Letters as an atheist. Lane and I grew up with the works of C. S. Lewis pretty much right next to the Bible in prominence and influence, and I love his project of looking back on them to extract the good and criticize the bad.

Some choice quotes from recent entries in the series:

Part Nine:

Self-hatred is not humble. Objectivity is humble. Telling somebody their hair looks nice is humble. Humility is reminding yourself that life is not a competition and you don’t need other people to suck for you to be awesome.

Part Ten:

I do often hear “live in the present” stated in a way that encourages complacency. It is often paired with ideas about leaving the future to itself, which is advice that is hard to take seriously when our action and inaction really does affect the future. Furthermore, it often comes paired with images of smiling people in pretty dresses looking out at the beach or some such thing, communicating the idea that living in the present always means being happy in the present. Sometimes the present is troubled and unhappy. Sometimes the person who is experiencing the present has depression or anxiety disorders. Being told to be happy now is not helpful when you are sad now. It’s not happiness or sadness in the present that Screwtape cares about, but use or neglect of what the Patient has in the moment. Fear and complacency are both potential allies, but if neither anxiety nor comfort are obstacles to the Patient doing today’s work or enjoying today’s pleasures, they are losing the battle.

Part Eleven:

Here’s where I agree, though; I think he’s trying to make the point that when you set yourself up as a judge, you take from yourself the ability to be a scholar. A judge is stuck between good and bad, guilty and innocent, winner and various degrees of loser, but a scholar gets to investigate and pick the good out from a message, no matter the flaws of the messenger, and use the good for their own edification. That, I think, is a point worth remembering.

He’s a smart dude and I’m proud to be related to him, is what I’m saying.

emotions can be a distracting drug November 6, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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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.

An open letter to a Christian trope July 16, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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More specifically, this is an open letter to one Christian blogger who apparently ‘liked’ my post from earlier today and who wrote an open letter to doubters of god.  The letter I sent to him just a few minutes ago is quoted below.

[edited to fix formatting issues]


So, through and email notification, I was informed that you liked a post of mine from today.  The notification linked me to this post of yours:


As well as a couple others.  But I have only looked at this one, since it is, at least I think it’s intended to be, directed towards me (in part).
The reason I am writing to you is that you are making a common, but annoying, error here in your classification.  In order to try and educate you, I want to give you a brief run-down of who I am and what I (dis)believe.

Philosophically, I am a skeptic first.  Not in the tradition of radical skepticism from the ancient Greeks (although I appreciate that as well, to some degree) but as in the Skeptic movement, which is related (though there are tensions) to the atheist community.  Skepticism, in this sense, is the position whereby one accepts a proposition as true iff sufficient empirical and logical evidence has been demonstrated which supports said proposition.  In the case of theism a skeptic, if they are applying their skepticism, will hear the claim “god exists” and will ask for evidence, then iff evidence is presented (which should not be logically fallacious, is at least somewhat empirically demonstrated, and repeatable) then the skeptic can rationally accept the claim.  They should keep themselves open to new evidence always.

You don’t want to argue, so my point in the following is not to refute theism, per se, but rather to clearly explain my position.  I see no valid evidence for the existence of any gods. especially the ‘omnimax’ variety which tends to come from the Abrahamic religions.  I see YHWH/ALLAH/Jesus as a non-demonstrated proposed being, and I also see no evidence for any “philosophers’ god” or even a deism.  After many years of reading theology, religious apologetics, and criticisms of religion, I have concluded that no evidence for any gods exist.  If there are any gods, then I want to know.  So either none of the gods want me to know about them, the gods do not care, or there are no gods.  And if gods exist that don’t care whether I believe in them, then so what?
I am an agnostic-atheist.  That is, while I cannot, logically, disprove the general concept of god (specific gods which are logically impossible can be disproved, but not all gods are clearly defined enough for this), I lack belief because there is insufficient evidence.

In your post, you respond to agnostics and “militant atheists,” leaving out non-militant atheists.  In fact, I will point out that despite having been part of the atheist community for more than a decade, I have never met a militant atheist.  I’ve met some angry ones, and often their anger is justified (not always), but never a militant one.  In what way are atheists militant? Have we taken up arms? Have we been violent towards the religious (as a group; individual examples are anecdotal and do not address atheism per se.  Also, Hitler was a Catholic and Stalin/Mao/etc killed in the name of an absolutist political regimes, not atheism.  What person or group has done anything militant in the name of atheism?)?

I do not wish to eradicate religion.  I find that to be a fruitless goal.  My concern is with faith.  I see faith as a fundamental problem for human psychology, groups, and ultimately the progress towards greater understanding of the universe.  I’m using faith as it is defined in Hebrews, where it is belief in things not seen.  In other words, belief in things despite the lack of evidence.  This is a dangerous phenomenon.  Would you apply that methodology in any other aspect of your life besides religion or spiritual pursuits? Isn’t it fascinating that the more we understand the universe, the further away god is pushed into that gap of what we don’t know?  Compare the concept of god as it was understood hundreds, even thousands of years ago, and how modern theologians talk about god (the “ground of being” and such).  The more we can explain, the more vague and abstract gods become.

I find that fascinating–and telling!

But I don’t hate religion and want it gone merely because it does bad things. While I am very bothered by the many atrocities that people have committed in history, often in the name of some religion, god, or other type of doctrine, my larger concern is with the lack of critical thinking, skepticism, and willingness to transcend oneself towards a greater potential for humanity.  Skepticism, science, philosophy, and even humanism are what is needed, not superstition.
Your post does not seem to carry sufficient understanding of what an atheist is, what many of our goals are, and even what “militant” means.  So while I am not seeking to eradicate religion (I’d prefer people organically outgrew it, which I doubt will happen anytime soon), I am trying to eradicate poor comprehension of atheist arguments and tropes which perpetuate the othering of our community.  I have seen posts like this many times from Christian bloggers.  In fact, I looked at the date it was posted to make sure I had not read this post previously, since it was so predictable and trope-laden.

I suggest reading an atheist blog or two regularly.  Perhaps read a book by a former-Christian atheist, who can communicate that issue much better than I can.  I can refer you to some if you are interested, since there are many.  In fact, this one, by my friend Jerry DeWitt, was recently published and looks excellent (I have not read it yet).
But in general, keep up the conversation, so the next time you write a letter to agnostics and atheists, you at least have a better grasp of the relevant issues.  I wish you the best.

In reason,


Writers Block June 3, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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So, in an attempt to not have PolySkeptic disappear into complete (rather than relative) obscurity, I’m deciding to write about the fact that I have been unsure what to write recently.

I feel like I should be writing more often.  But here’s the thing; I feel like I’ve said most of the things that I think should be said about atheism, polyamory, etc already.  Yes, when issues arise I find ways to comment on them using those same themes, but I don’t want to be one of those bloggers who just writes the same posts over and over, in different ways, just to keep content flowing.  When I write something, I want it to be at least a little fresh, even if never completely original.

I’ve considered writing about every day life, living as an actively polyamorous person, but that seems sort of uninteresting.  As I thought that, I thought about how that idea itself is sort of interesting.  I mean, I live with my wife, my girlfriend, her husband, and his girlfriend (they are actually getting married, non-legally, next year).  That is abnormal from the point of view of our culture, even for those who are familiar with polyamory.

But the fact is (and I believe I’ve said this before) that it does not feel abnormal.  I mean, there are house chores, shopping, budgets, and all the other things that families do here at the PolySkeptic compound.  We all have our schedules, routines, times when we do things socially (my birthday just passed, and we all went to have some delicious Moroccan food, for example).  It’s just life, settled into a polynormal framework.

We are not throwing orgies every weekend (or ever, really), we are not always parading around naked (except in the hot tub, from time to time), and we are not knocking on doors together to sell polyamory (although that idea seems sort of hilarious to me).  No, we are just doing normal stuff in a non-normal relationship structure.

So, as I navigate this life of mine, I occasionally think that I should blog about stuff that happened to me today, just in case what seems normal to me would seem interesting, bizarre, or just identifiable to other people.   I mean, I come home from work at night and I say hello to those sitting in the living room (often Gina, Wes, and Jessie) walk over to give Gina a kiss, then usually walk over to the office area (where PolyBar Galactica is) and then kiss Ginny hello.  Is that weird to some people? Does that just seem fitting? I cannot tell how interesting, boring, or whatever that is to other people.  It seems normal to me, but then again so does atheism, feminist criticism of our culture, and having a wife and a long-term girlfriend whom I live with. I don’t know what other people think of as normal.

What I do know is that making a commitment to be with just one person, sexually and romantically, seems utterly silly and bizarre to me, knowing that it seems normal to many other people.  I know that believing in a god seems very strange and irrational to me, but it feels normal to other people.  I know that applying skepticism to as many aspects of my life is natural (now) and feels right to me, but most people do not do that nor would they want to.

So, my perspective on what is worth talking about here is skewed, and so most of the time when I have the thought, ‘I should blog this,‘ I don’t because of this uncertainty.  Perhaps I should just blog right through this uncertainty.


The Zen of why atheist men should understand #ShutUpAndListen May 20, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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OK, so I’m a man.  I am going to preempt this post by saying that his is an attempt to explain my understanding of an issue which I may be completely wrong about.  But I think it’s valuable to express it anyway, just in case I might flick on a light bulb for some people.


Ex-theists and perspective:

Many atheists used to be theists.  If this is true for you, then there was a time when they were involved in questioning your beliefs, and during that time you probably had conversations with atheists who were attempting to provide evidence, logic, etc in order to get you to see a point.  For whatever cognitive reasons, your past self was just not seeing it.  But over time, you started to digest the ideas, have them incorporate themselves into your mind, and one day it just sort of clicked.  It just made sense, perhaps suddenly, perhaps a little at a time, but one day it just made sense that belief in a god is not rational nor justified.  You were not necessarily exposed to a new idea, but you were exposed to a new perspective that shifted how you saw the issue.

I am willing to bet that a lot of what delayed this ‘getting it’ was trying to engage with the information.  A theist hears a logical point from an atheist, and they have to try and employ their current worldview against it; their mind has to address it with what content it already has.  In short, they are trying to respond to it as part of an intellectual conversation.


Click for link to article

Privilege is a tricky concept.  One of the important aspects of it is that if you have it, it works to blind you against seeing it.  In our culture, belief in god, mostly the God of Abraham, is widespread and the tradition called “Christianity” has a privileged position.  I’ll bet that most ex-Christians didn’t understand the privilege that theism and Christianity had before they started living as out-of-the-closet atheists.  And now that they are out of the closet (I hope, anyway), they start to understand that privilege because they see it from a new perspective.

Just like the theist could not understand the atheist position, intellectually or in terms of the cultural privilege such belief comes with, many men are struggling with the concept of male privilege right now, and the relationship between these two phenomena should be enlightening.


Male privilege as a perspective

A few women have told me that the ideas that some men are trying to communicate, in regards to feminism, sexism, and “Men’s rights” are ideas they are well-aware of.  On the other hand, many of the messages that many women are trying to communicate to such men, especially right now in the atheist community, are not being understood.  Feminist criticisms are based on ideas that are not part of the mainstream and which are marginalized in comparison with the ideas some men tend to make in such conversations.  So when some men respond, rather than listen, they are repeating the mainstream view which the feminist criticism is responding to in the first place.  It’s like a theist responding to an atheist claim by saying “but god really exists.  Just ask anyone!”

For our purposes here, the (mostly Christian) theistic ideas that many ex-theists are familiar with are analogous to the anti-feminist ideas which many of those same atheists still defend.  Similarly, atheist arguments are analogous to feminist criticisms of mainstream gender concepts and behaviors.  The atheist talking to the clueless theist (clueless in the sense that they do not yet understand either their privilege or the superiority of the atheist position) is therefore also analogous to the feminist talking to the MRA or someone like Ron Lindsay (also see Amanda Marcotte’s open letter to CFI) who simply is not getting why they are being told to shut up and listen.

This is not about free speech.  This is NOT about silencing dissent or quelling men’s place in the conversation.

I will repeat.  #ShutUpAndListen is not about silencing dissent, conversation, or about bullying forward an ideology.  It’s about the fact that if you are not listening, you may not be in a cognitive position to understand because your mind is oriented along the lines of the mainstream idea being criticized.  In this specific case of male privilege, it’s about how one’s position as a male in our society gives that person unconscious, automatic, and unintended advantages that they will not see by trying to engage by using it.

One’s intellect is not in question here per se, but it is partially your intellect—your ability to engage with and converse about ideas—that is the cause of the blindness.  By engaging by use of your perspective, which is privileged, you are using your privilege rather than trying to see it.  There is a paradox at work here, in other words.

zen-circle-sheilan-sheilanIt seems to me that this is very much like a Zen koan.

If you try and use your intellect only to understand Zen, you will never understand the concept of Zen.  Zen is about transcending ourselves, consciousness-raising, etc.  It is about allowing you to take yourself out of yourself so you can see yourself from another perspective.  Once you see it, your perspectives shifts in a way that you could not have understood, or predicted, before the shift.   After you see the shift, you can engage with it intellectually, but not before.

Privilege is about perspective, perception, and is entwined with the very foundations of how we understand ourselves in relationship with other things.  It is not an objective concept to be apprehended, it is a way we see such concepts.  It is a method, not a fact.

Think about how it changed the way you understand the world to understand that your previous religious worldview (for those that had one) was fundamentally wrong.  Was it conceivable to understand what you understand now, then? When I first saw the shift of my own privilege (which happened much too late, when it comes to male privilege), it changed the conversation for me.  And so now talking with men who do not get it yet is much like talking with a fundamentalist Christian.  I simply cannot show either of those interlocutors either my atheist or feminist  perspective, but I can talk around it.  I can describe it and hope that they are listening to me, rather than thinking about their reply, but I cannot force them to.

All ex-theists had to spend some time really listening, whether live or via reflection, to what an atheist has said to them about belief. Some may do this on their own and without external argumentation, through genuine introspection and self-doubt, but it amounts to the same.  Understanding privilege is more about introspection than it is about understanding a concept.  it’s about understanding how our mind works (or, more correctly, how it doesn’t).

And that’s why we all, at some times, need to shut up and listen.  It’s like meditation; we have to shut down our privilege engines, our verbal and intellectual powers, and watch the mind in action to see how it’s skewing the world for us.  By insisting upon verbalizing it—by talking rather than listening or watching—we are not able to see the machine in action, and to fix it.

So, whether it comes to gender, race, etc, shut up and listen.  Sometimes, it’s the only way to understand.

It’s a Women in Secularism anniversary! May 16, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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One more day!

logoTomorrow morning, Ginny and I will be getting in the car and driving down to Washington DC to attend the Women in Secularism conference.  And on Sunday, Ginny and I will be celebrating our one year anniversary!  In fact, the reason we didn’t make it to the first Women in Secularism conference was because our wedding was the same weekend last year.  And while I considered skipping out on my own wedding for a conference, ultimately I decided it would not be a good decision.  Plus, our wedding rocked.

I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends, meeting some new ones, and generally having a great weekend.  I may be blogging, or at least tweeting, from the conference (@polyskeptic), but if I don’t I will certainly have something to say after I get back.

I do hope to avoid any and all potential absurdity from some certain persons who will be attending, and broadcasting, from the conference while there.  I will reiterate that I am really not interested in interacting, socially or for the sake of argument discussion, with people who perpetually fail to comprehend the intersectionality of social issues as they relate to the drive that pushes atheists to be active.  The same motivations I have to be active in this community lead me to care, and act, about other issues.  And since (with atheism and feminism, for example) there are overlapping concepts and goals, having a space for people who contain the multitudes of social justice concerns makes sense.  Again, nobody is claiming any necessary logical relationship between atheism and gender equality as envisioned by feminists such as myself.  The point is that the desire to be an activist for one set of concerns—such as the separation of church and state, education and theocracy, and atheist civil right protection—is related to the desire to see other issues dealt with in society.  And since these different issues have some overlapping concepts (like privilege), experiences (like discrimination and misunderstanding), and similar goals (general human rights) it makes sense that some people talk, write, and act on their intersectionality.  The whole point of intersectionality is that various cultural concerns have overlapping affects and experiences, and some of us care about how atheism, skepticism, gender issues, racism, ableism, etc intersect.

The problem, for many critics of this view, is that they don’t agree with or care about the kind of feminism that we espouse.  That’s fine.  They have the legal protection of believing whatever they want, and they can still do pure skepticism/atheism, if they want (I think that’s getting old and boring, personally).  On the other hand, this critical view has nothing to do with the fact that we we plussers and other atheist advocates for third wave feminism comprehend, care about, and argue for the active intersection of these issues.  Nobody is forcing anyone else to contribute or cooperate, and nobody is redefining atheism or trying to enforce community standards.

Why the fuck can’t some people comprehend that?



In any case, I will be there and I expect it to be a great weekend.

Will you be there? If you are reading this and plan on being there, feel free to come say hello to either of us.  I will likely be wearing the blog shirt or something equally offensive to mainstream sensibilities.

The atheist culture wars; applying moral foundation theory to the great schism May 13, 2013

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

This morning I found myself pondering the idea of cultural relativism, tribalism, and how it relates to the various fights which have emerged in the atheist and skeptic communities.  Cultural relativism is a concept in anthropology which developed as a reaction to a kind of tribalism which is called ethnocentricism.  Just think of Bush-era conservatives with their nationalistic, jingoistic, and what they called “patriotism.”  Ethnocentricism is exemplified by the idea that America was getting it right (well, at least their red-state America, anyway).  Those of us on the political Left, those who voted for Al Gore and who saw Dubya as an awful president surrounded by an awful administration (which dragged us through scandal after scandal) would sometimes point out that perhaps we were not doing it all right.  Perhaps some relativism was necessary…which led to us being told we hated America.

culture_warsIn other words, the culture wars.

As writers such as Jonathon Haidt and the (discredited, but largely for different work) Marc. D Houser have pointed out, much of these political and cultural differences are based in differing value-sets.  There are different ways that we perceive information, in emotional and moral ways, which change how we draw conclusions about reality.  In short, what values we have will influence our intellectual opinions.

Both of these writers have emphasized two primary narratives which lead in two major directions concerning how we think about our tribe, other tribes, what kinds of rules our tribe should have, etc.  In American culture, this translates into the conservative “red state” America and the “blue state” America.  You know, the culture wars distinctions we have been talking about for more than a decade now.

I think this is what’s happened to the atheist community.  I don’t think that the main differences are precisely the same as they are in the larger culture, but I think this is the type of thing that has happened to us, and I am not sure anything can be done to fix it, just like with the larger culture wars.

How can you change someone’s values? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do things like criticize other people’s values (I, for example, think that liberal values–such as care and fairness–are actually superior to largely conservative values –such as loyalty, authority, and sanctity.  But of course I would say that; I’m a pinko ‘Murica-hatin’ liberal).  The question is  how, assuming that I am in any meaningful way objectively (or at least inter-subjectively) right that my values are better, can I convince a loyal, authority-loving, sanctimonious…sanctified conservative of that?

That’s a harder thing to do.

imagesEver talk to a creationist? How about a “pro-life” (or pro-choice, if you are on the other side of that fence) activist? There is more than a distance of facts (although there often is that), but there is a distance of language-games, values, and worldviews.  Such a conversation needs more than a good moderator, it needs a cultural anthropologist in order to shake out the worldview distinctions.

Ever read a blogger who uses the term FTBully not ironically? Ever read a post by PZ Myers or Rebecca Watson? I do, fairly frequently.  And guess what; I think one side of that fight is crazy, and I think that they are fundamentally wrong from the bottom up (guess which).  The problem is not the factual disagreements (that is a symptom, not the cause), the problem is the fundamental worldview distinctions.  The problems are fundamentally about what values matter to us.

That is, they are not wrong because of their bad logical argument itself, but of their assumptions, worldview, and moral values. This is because logic is only a tool.  It can only manipulate information given to it.  Just like a Bible-toting evangelical conservative Christian can use logic to make their points, so can the atheist they are arguing with.  And while both may make logical errors (guess which I think is likely to make more), the source of the problem is at the level of things like values, assumptions, and biases; not mere facts.

Those who oppose the efforts of inclusion in the atheist community are not wrong because they are opposing inclusion.  In fact, the very framing of that statement was (intentionally) worded to lean one direction (hey, Fox News does it, so can I…).  They are wrong because they are valuing the wrong things.

Value divisions in the atheist community

Surely, there are both political liberals and conservatives in the atheist community.  But how the foundational values we have get expressed in the larger political sphere will differ from how they will create splits in our smaller atheist culture.  The values which split us here; values such as authority, loyalty, and sanctity being expressed in the atheist/skeptic communities as opposed to liberty, care, and fairness will illuminate the foundations of our disagreements.  In other words, I’m applying moral foundation theory to this split, and I’m claiming that it is largely analogous to the conservative/liberal split in the larger community.

Let’s take a look at the third moral foundation, for a clue:

3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

I will bet that both sides of this split will identify with this, but in different ways.  Clearly, some people feel bullied by others in the community, and claim that those people are trying to wrangle authority over everyone else.  Those people trying to define what atheism, skepticism, etc mean when it’s clearly not what it means (to them).

But on the other side, the argument is that mere philosophical or semantic precision are not what matters.  PZ Myers’ concept of the “dictionary atheist” was not an attempt to redefine atheist in the philosophical sense, nor to force this definition on anyone, but to recognize that those philosophical senses are secondary to many people.  And he’s right.

See, we are not primarily rational beings.  We are emotional beings who believe things for largely non-rational reasons, and then we rationalize (or explain) the causes of our beliefs.  Hopefully, we are willing to change our minds based on new information, but believing (or not believing, in the case of atheism) is an emotional phenomenon which we later rationalize.  Some people are not aware of this and get overly focused (as I have, in the past) on the semantics and philosophical side of the question.  This is, I believe, Justin Vacula’s primary fault, as a thinker, and why he fails to get it so often.

In other words, rationalized arguments about semantics when the difference is one of values.

Let’s get back to moral foundation theory to see more facets of this disagreement.

Some people want to employ fairness:

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

If we interpret this in the sense of giving everyone a fair chance to participate, then there are at least two ways that we can go.  The question concerns the issue of whether we should treat everyone the same or whether we should treat people in the way which produces equal outcomes.  The question of privilege, which has become a lightning rod in recent years, is relevant here.  Treating people the same, irregardless of their place relative to privilege, often leave people in different outcomes (says this liberal pinko).  This is part of an old argument which is reminiscent of not only recent atheist discussions, but culture war arguments over the last few decades.

In the atheist community, this has been most obvious in terms of the treatment of feminism, which some see as exclusive of the rights of men, but which other’s see as learning from the experience of women to make it better for everyone, regardless of gender.  If we seek to include more women, do we treat them like men or do we try to dig deeper and understand that the assumptions about gender need to be revisited so that we stop perpetuating gender roles and expectations, hopefully leading to a more gender equitable community where the varying perspectives are better seen and understood? Seems simple to me, but other people have different values and view equality either secondarily or as a simple function of treating everyone the same, even if that means people get to different places.  One of these values is superior to the other.

Then we can ask whether this foundation is more or less important than purity, or sanctity:

6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

But don’t let the description fool you; this is not a strictly religious behavior pattern.  This pattern of behavior, in my opinion, is not religious per se, but was usurped by religion just like morality and rituals.  The feeling that something does not belong; social justice is not relevant to atheism (for example) is a deep and important value for many people.  The question is whether this or the desire to include those affected by social injustice, and trying to counteract that, is more important.

For me, the sanctity of pure skepticism or atheism (as it is seen by some, say Jamy Ian Swiss) are not more important than addressing the intersectionality of skepticism with atheism, racism,gender inequality, etc.  But if someone else feels disgusted by that degradation of the purity of the cause of skepticism (or atheism), they will reject movements such as Atheism+.  They will feel that to include gender issues, race issues, etc into the larger cause is a form of contamination; it just is not what atheism/skepticism is about! (says our sanctimonious friends).  Again, this is a difference of values more than a difference of facts. Again, one of these sets of values is superior.


Remember the old argument about accommodationism? One of the issues was whether it was important to care about people, despite their beliefs.  How nice were we supposed to be? Well, that’s all about the care/harm foundation:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

Take that in balance with other values, such as the liberty/oppression foundation:

3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

and we can see why the anger at oppressive religious institutions and doctrines might override the care/harm value.  Some people were so angry, justifiably so or not, that they were not concerned about being sensitive to people’s feelings. Who cares if some Christian’s feelings are hurt when their beliefs are criticized when you balance that against the harm Christianity is doing to so many people! On the other hand, argued others, if we do not accommodate their beliefs, we will never change their minds and we will simply push them further away.  Whether this is true or not is relevant too, but at an emotional level it exposes how our values are the origin of such arguments, not the facts per se.

Big Tent Atheism

What about our desire to create a large umbrella organization or a big tent? The goal of coming together as atheists no matter our differences, for the sake of our shared rights? Well, that’s the value of Loyalty/betrayal:

4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

Here, anyone who is perpetuating the drama is a traitor.  They are betraying their larger cause in the name is stupid arguments over secondary concerns.  This is, I believe, the motivation behind my long time friend Staks’ anti-drama pledge.  It is a value I understand, but which I do not share as a primary moral concern.  I am more interested in making our community better than making it bigger and closer.  That is, I would rather be a part of a smaller, more inclusive atheist community than one which is more concerned with what I see as a false sense of community around the answer “no” to the question “do you believe in any gods?” I’m more concerned with addressing social justice and the intersection of issues around atheism than focus on merely getting along for the sake of what I see as short-term atheist rights issues.

As I see it, any movement that focuses on its own civil rights over the intersectionality of all human rights is participating in short-term thinking, and will eventually be left behind with the conservatism of history.

As our community continues to grow, transform, and gain political and cultural influence, we will become institutionalized, inevitably.  How we think of ourselves now will effect how we will leave our mark on history.  I would rather leave a smaller, but more inclusive mark on history than a larger but more conservative and exclusive mark.  With this in mind, I want to address the fifth, and as of yet unmentioned, moral foundation; the Authority/subversion foundation:

5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

Five years ago, this foundation would have had no place in this discussion.  Five years ago, we were all subversives, pulling away from a larger tradition of hierarchical religious institutions which dominate our culture.  And, of course, this is still largely true.  But in another sense, this has become a point of division within the atheist/skeptic community, now that we have at least established, at least internally, some traditions (or at least tendencies) and some leadership.

No, there is no atheist pope.  There is, however, some hierarchy and some power.  Richard Dawkins saying something about atheism carries weight.  Not for all of us, but he is a symbol of our movement and his opinions carry some weight.  We can and do disagree with him (some more than others, of course), and his words are not officially conclusive, but because so many people respect him his words have an effect on our thinking.  He’s just one example.

If you love PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, or Justin Vacula, then their words carry weight.  The people you are willing to listen to will influence your thinking, and those whom you vilify you will, tribalistically, either ignore or hate.

If you have written off someone like Rebecca Watson or PZ Myers (as bullies or whatever), then you will only see her words when someone you like quotes them, and your view of them is skewed.  If you hate Justin Vacula, the same is true from the other side.  Personally, I make a point to read the words of those I disagree with as well as those I tend to agree with.  I never agree with anyone all the time, but there are certainly people with whom I agree more often than not, and those with whom I rarely agree.  I am aware that this is more about values than mere facts.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m on board with Atheism+, that I am very appreciative of Skepchick for exposing me to many ideas and perspectives I did have 3 years ago, and that I abhor Men’s Rights Activists.  I’m a third wave feminist who makes the attempt to be aware of the privileges I have, and to understand my cultural blind spots.  I have chosen my side, not because I think my side is always right and the others wrong, but because I share values with them.  Just like I am not a Republican or a conservative politically (even if I might occasionally agree with them), I voted for Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama (twice), and I think that Fox News is pretty awful, I have a side in this atheist schism.  But I still listen to the other side.  I try to understand their values and arguments, and understand that I may never be able to get them to see what I see.

But, most importantly, I think that my values are superior.  Not such that I will force them on anyone, but insofar as I think that they lead to a better world.  Am I objectively right? Well, I don’t think that’s a meaningful question.  Am I intersubjectively right? I think so.   The difference between the two is that the former assumes an objective perspective, while the latter only assumes that such a perspective is always abstracted from a subjective one, and is thus not universal or authoritarian.  This is what I think many political conservatives do not see; liberals may think their views are superior, but they are not actually trying  to demand authority over others based on it.  We want you to see that we are right and join us, are frustrated when you don’t, and we are amused when you call us bullies or totalitarians.  We find it funny because the values which make totalitarianism or bullying possible are conservative values, not ours.

bulliesThe same is true for those in the atheist community who call people such as PZ Myers bullies, to whom the remainder of this post is addressed  The values we have do not include authority as strongly as do yours, so we are not natural bullies.  But since you have those values in stronger measures, you think everyone feels the same and so you project the authoritarian attitude onto us.  We’re not telling you what to do or what you should think, we are just saying what is better (and hopefully why they are better).  And we are sad when you don’t understand it and pull away from us, creating the schism.  We don’t create the schisms; we identify the sources of them and offer a bridge to join us where things are better, which you subsequently see as a demand, a redefinition, and as some sort of totalitarianism (a Horde, if you would).  We don’t seek to control you, we seek to have you understand that the controls already exist and that you are subject to them because you don’t see them.

We are not bullies.  The bullies are your projected values onto us.

The Deep Rift in Atheism: picking a tribe April 28, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Atheism is boring

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

I’m for feminism.

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

It’s time to move on

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

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

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

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

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

Christians mocking themselves while unintentionally advertising for polyamory April 25, 2013

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

Wait…have you seen this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are mocking themselves, without being aware of it.

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

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

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

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

Sounds about right to me.

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

I never meta eulogy of an idea I didn’t like April 21, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Here’s to more people abandoning that bubble.

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

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

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