My Beliefs as a Pagan, Part 1: An Agnostic Ethic

•September 3, 2015 • 5 Comments

agnosticI’m planning on posting several entries on my blog delineating my beliefs. In this first post of the series, I will describe my approach to agnosticism.

Most people define agnosticism as either a state of not being fully certain about one’s beliefs given the available evidence, or they define agnosticism as a state of uncertainty which runs so deep that formulating a belief is not possible. For example, a person who is an agnostic theist believes that evidence indicates the existence of a god is likely but they are not fully certain of this existence. A person who is purely agnostic and neither theist nor atheist would assert that they can not take a position on the existence or non-existence of gods because they do not feel there is enough information to formulate a position. An agnostic atheist believes that evidence indicates the existence of god is unlikely but they are not fully certain of this non-existence.

Simply put, I am an agnostic pagan. I am not certain that my particular cosmological perspective is accurate. Consequently, I am open to the possibility that I might be wrong in my understanding and analysis of my spiritual experiences. I believe that I have no way of truly being certain, ever. My limitations as a human being tend to favor cosmological questions remaining within the realm of mystery and the unknown. My perspective is birthed at the confluence of spiritual experience and guesswork interpretation. What beliefs I build upon that confluence are speculation and I accept that.

For me, agnosticism takes on an additional dimension beyond a component of uncertainty in my cosmological perspective. My agnosticism also includes a set of behavioral standards which governs how I interact with perspectives that are different from mine and how I interact with the people who hold them. In other words, my agnosticism includes an ethic which guides my interactions with others whose spiritual paths differ from mine. My approach, ideally, is one of reserve, respect, empathy, and humbleness. I’m am not a cosmological exclusivist. I accept that others have very different beliefs from mine and that those beliefs might be as valid or more valid than mine. I am not a repository for the universe’s secrets and I refuse to behave as one.

My reasons for this ethic are threefold. First, if I can’t be certain my cosmological perspective is accurate, how can I truly be certain that someone else’s perspective is inaccurate? Put another way, I approach these issues as one small human being who’s scope of perception and knowledge is limited and consequently, much of my understanding of these esoteric matters is simply guesswork. If I’m running on guesswork, what right do I have to dismiss another person’s perspective out of hand? We both have our strengths, weaknesses, differing sources of information, differing experiences and so on. Second, from personal experience, I know that a person’s experience with spirituality and the cosmology that informs it, are often very personal in nature. These perspectives can be rich, deeply emotional, deeply intuitive experiences that run down to the core of a person’s being. Such experiences come with a deep degree of emotional vulnerability and I do not wish to tread upon and harm that vulnerability. Third, I embrace treating others with the same kindness and respect that I wish to be treated with. Having someone verbally tear apart something that is so integral to my sense of being is deeply off-putting if not painful. I wouldn’t want to visit that experience on another person. Because of these considerations, my agnosticism requires that I approach a person of different cosmology with care and respect. These understandings, commitments, and acknowledgments form the core of my agnostic ethic.

My decision to formulate and embrace this ethic was motivated by witnessing far too much hatred, prejudice, and dehumanization being exchanged between various communities of differing cosmologies and religions. There is far too much tribalism in the world, sourced from many factors. While there are indeed different levels of power and privilege accorded by group, and that difference governs how negatively one is impacted by conflict, our universal humanness too often leads to the fanning of glowing tribal embers on all sides. Innocence is a state rarely maintained. Bringing relief to this fiery entanglement and coping with the downside of our humanness starts with oneself. Derision, condescension, patronizing language, and other forms of unkindness rarely fail to accelerate tribal conflagrations and so, I embrace an agnostic ethic.

† Note: At some point in recent history, people collapsed the position of pure agnostic into atheism because they claim that pure agnostics hold no belief in gods. However, the pure agnostic does not feel they can take a position on the god question and hence, to say they are an atheist is not accurate because theism and atheism represent distinct positions on the god question. Theists and atheists represent a yes/no response, respectively. The pure agnostic says, “I don’t know.” rather than yes or no. I see this collapsing of the pure agnostic and atheist positions as nothing more than a political stratagem crafted to increase polarization on the god question. “You are either with them or us. There is no in between. Choose a side.” This is designed to obscure and/or discourage neutrality on the issue. You can see this tendency in evidence when people dismiss pure agnostics as cowards unwilling to take a side.

On a personal note, I’m always disappointed in seeing people collapse a varied and diverse spectrum of possibilities into a simplistic binary. People do this with gender and sexual orientation, too and it’s very saddening. It draws lines right across the middle of people’s lives. It’s a very hurtful practice for those who do not live on the binary.

Cultural Conformity: Many Brands, Fancy Packaging, and Similar Unhealthy Ingredients

•August 10, 2015 • Comments Off on Cultural Conformity: Many Brands, Fancy Packaging, and Similar Unhealthy Ingredients

CrapBurgerOn many occasions, I’ve heard conservative Christians make the claim that atheism has Christianity to thank for many of the ethics, values, and cultural patterns New Atheists promote and take for granted.  That always used to make my fur bristle because Christianity has a habit of trying to take credit for nearly everything people praise as the more positive aspects of Western culture.

The reality is though, Christianity has enjoyed a cultural hegemony in the West for many centuries, and as such, it has influenced Western culture deeply.  That cultural hegemony is a consequence in no small part, of a missionary zeal to spread the cultural seeds of its beliefs to the far corners of the planet.  The body count of that zeal is written upon some of the bloodiest chapters of human history.  The destruction of indigenous peoples in continents outside of Europe, the exploitation of their land and resources, the eradication of their cultures… all of that rides on the shoulders of Christianity’s long history of destructive missionary projects.  Those projects, which center upon spreading Eurocentric culture across the globe, haven’t died and haven’t slowed down, not even with the increasing secularization of the West.  Those responsible for continuing this endeavor may change faces as responsibility shifts hands but the project remains nevertheless.

The thing about oppression and its many forms is this: they have a tendency to shapeshift and be reborn from one generation to the next.  We think we have rid ourselves of our grandparents’ shameful flaws when in reality, we embody and reproduce those flaws in abundance, and we fail to recognize those patterns, reborn in a guise which eludes our vision.

This pattern takes many forms and one of those forms has nestled comfortably in the culture war taking place between Christianity and New Atheism.  In many ways, they are mortal enemies.  Peer beneath the surface though, and this distinction becomes muddled.

I have noticed this similarity:

  • Conservative Christian apologists craft defenses for patriarchal religion, the Western Eurocentric culture that was founded on it, and the project of spreading that culture globally.
  • New Atheist apologists craft defenses for the Enlightenment, the Western Eurocentric culture that was fundamentally influenced by it, and the project of spreading that culture globally.

It’s interesting how one is derivative of the other and yet, neither group of people will fully admit how their histories and preferred modes of cultural colonialism are so deeply mirrored and intertwined.

New Atheism often portrays itself as a kind of cultural savior, spreading secular freedom across the globe and pushing back the “barbarism” of pre-rational religion, but as time has passed I have noticed that New Atheism’s drive to spread itself reminds me of Christianity’s evangelical mission to bring the globe in line with its cultural tenets.  Christianity has and still does view itself as a primary civilizing force in the world, opposing what it views as “backwards primitive” cultures.

These similarities are hardly coincidental.  New Atheism was born in the cultural cradle of the Christian West. The West’s tendency to see itself as the moral guardian of the world, especially in the form of US exceptionalism, is a cultural byproduct of Christianity’s Great Commission.  We in the West have a tendency to see ourselves as superior and we believe our purpose and mission is to “gift” the world with our supposedly superior ways.  At its heart, this attitude is a colonialist mindset, embedded with racism and brimming with global ambitions.  New Atheism was born under the influence of this exceptionalist mindset and it continues the project of a racist cultural colonialism just as Eurocentric Christianity has for ages.  They are both delivery systems for cultural domination and ultimately, they serve as an avenue for the exploitation of those outside of white-dominated Western countries.

The thing to keep in mind is that capitalism functions far more efficiently in a global monoculture.  Capitalism will tend to favor and promote institutions that help it promote its reach.  The Great Commission of Christianity is well suited for this task, as is the self-promoting Western ethnocentrism of New Atheism.   It is easier to market and sell products to a world if it shares the same values, beliefs, tastes, and ways of doing things.  It is also far easier to exploit labor forces and natural resources on a global scale if the world’s nations share similar economic systems and values—values which align with the ambitions of capitalism.  Both New Atheism and conservative Christianity serve as unwitting allies in the project of spreading cultural conformity in service to the global marketplace.  Even if religion were to disappear tomorrow, the keys of the kingdom would be handed to the corporate aristocracy of a newborn secularism.  One thing is certain: money will bear the imprint of whatever emperor mints it.

So the question is, do your prefer colonialism with the face of a white European Jesus, Halliburton, and McDonald’s, or the face of Sam Harris, Raytheon, and Coke?  Either way, their revolution will be televised.

A Quick Note: No Cosmological Solicitation, Please

•August 6, 2015 • Comments Off on A Quick Note: No Cosmological Solicitation, Please

solictors will be eatenIf you read my previous post, you’ll notice that I feel a degree of anger toward some parts of the atheist community.  I don’t feel that way toward all atheists, or even most atheists.  However, my stumbling block is with a certain brand of hard-edged antitheism: the kind that dismisses spiritual and/or religious people as overly-emotional, unthinking, or vacuous—the kind that tends to stereotype all spirituality or religion as a root of social dysfunction and oppression.  In other parlance, one would refer to this approach as a form of religious (or non-religious) supremacy.  I’m not much for religious supremacy of any type, whether it’s based upon a belief or non-belief in deities.

Having said this, I need to emphasize that I don’t like being proselytized to.  Proselytizing is a form of talking at a person rather sharing of oneself with another human being.  Please don’t write comments on this blog that are attempts to convert me to your particular understanding of cosmology.  I am not interested in the rhetorical equivalent of leaving behind virtual copies of The Watchtower or The God Delusion.  Whether your sales pitch is Christian, Atheist, or some other cosmology, I’m not interested in non-religious/religious solicitors.

Please skip my blog and knock on the next virtual door.

Thanks in advance for respecting my boundaries.

Brooms, Closets, and Canyons: A Coming Out of Sorts

•August 6, 2015 • 7 Comments

IMG_0803Life is startling in the amount of change that one encounters in the decades spent wandering across the surface of this little planet. Some change comes slowly. Some comes rapidly. Some change happens without even realizing what is taking place, until one stares into the mirror one morning, utterly transformed. This story has elements of all three.

I will say it outright, rather than meandering along, as I’m so apt to do: I am pagan. I am stepping out of the metaphorical broom closet into the light of day. I am not Wiccan, as the broom closet metaphor might imply. I am simply a generic pagan. I’m of no particular tradition nor do I have an associated group of people with whom I share these experiences. It’s just me, peeking through the door sheepishly, all on my own.

I have been standing at the edge of an emotional and spiritual cliff, staring over its edge for a while now. It would seem that it is time to find a path downward, down toward the verdant canyon floor below, where the specter of my other self wanders, a partially formed apparition now becoming visible in daylight. It is a relief to finally accept this destination, to stop wandering along the parched and cracked dirt of an abyss of shifting identity.

Until recent years, I had identified as an atheist. I rejected Christianity in my teens, having found its treatment of queer people to be frighteningly awful—at least in the 70s and 80s, the decades of my childhood and adolescence. I became an atheist in college, well over twenty years ago. I transitioned to agnosticism a couple years ago, finding atheism to be too absolute, too binding, and in general, a drag upon my experience of spirituality. The fact that internet atheism has the feeling of a boy’s locker room, mired in toxic masculinity, obnoxious verbal competitiveness, emotional constipation, transphobia, and misogyny helped accelerate the process considerably. It’s much easier to leave a community and a set of beliefs behind when you grow tired of the people you find in those environs embracing those perspectives. Ironically, I can also say the same of Christianity.

And so here I am, embracing the mushy-minded “woo” some atheists call out as a root of evil in the world. I have become monstrous, mentally defiled, and weak-minded, or so some might claim… and I shall encourage the worst in humanity, or at least, so some would fear. Thankfully, I’m used to embracing the monstrous for I am also a trans woman. I’ve always been dangerous. I’ve always been a threat. I have always been an abomination. In the end, I usually do whatever I want, regardless of what my peers think, whoever those peers might be in the moment. I have a habit of wandering to the edges of whatever group I’m a part of. I have done this my entire life. This is normal… for me.

But, I want to end this first essay positively. I’m excited about this transition. I’ve experienced tension between my spirituality and my atheism for so long, now. There had been some pain prior to this change but mostly there was a lot of confusion, a feeling of being emotionally imprisoned, and an accompanying sense of listlessness. It feels liberating to finally shed one form and move on to the next. It’s exciting to feel a sense of being more “whole”, of finding myself again, of meeting that apparition walking along the canyon floor, and staring into her eyes, eyes which I have secretly known in my heart for some time now, eyes I can now look into directly, in the light of day, and whisper questions I’ve longed to ask…

What land lies ahead, my love? What land lies ahead?

Queer Identity, Patriarchal Fears, and Communal Self Destruction

•July 29, 2015 • Comments Off on Queer Identity, Patriarchal Fears, and Communal Self Destruction

Currently, there is great concern among some feminists regarding trans people’s identities and the potential for those identities to reinforce patriarchal notions of gender.  Simultaneously, our identities are also seen as a threat to the dominant social order by cultural conservatives.  It would seem that trans people wind up serving as a kind of living Rorschach test for people’s insecurities. People tend to project their fears surrounding gender and sexuality upon us.  In our daily lives, our transitions, and our mere struggle to exist, we stick out, and we violate cis people’s sensibilities.  We are highly visible outliers.  We are media curiosities.  We are made of the stuff that parents hide children’s eyes from.  We have unwittingly come to don the collectively forged masks of cultural monsters, a threat to all who dare set eyes upon us.

More specifically, our disruptive visibility has led us to symbolize the gendered cage which restricts everyone’s lives.  We are the mirror which cis people stare into and see their greatest fears staring back.  To conservatives, we are a threat to cherished cultural restrictions surrounding gender and sexuality.  We are a bohemian atrocity, born of loose morals and a culture drenched in sexual debauchery and satanic chaos.  To progressives, we are a living signifier of patriarchal gender norms which are far too common and far too intractable. Our identities are perceived as exaggerated, farcical representations of gender conformity, warping the natural fabric of humanity into a binaristic patriarchal prison.

Ironically, we are neither the cause of patriarchal gender norms’ tethers, nor are we the living exacerbation thereof, but we have come to serve as a proxy for people’s anger and discomfort in these matters.  We have become the focus of people’s frustrations with the tethers that bind them.  In reality, our gender expression is just as varied as cis people’s—probably more so—and that holds true post-transition.  However, it is far easier to attack a fellow prisoner rather than challenge one’s jailer.  These patterns are old.  They repeat generation upon generation.  There is nothing new in these conflicts but the people who play the roles.  We have done this all before.

Let us review a brief bit of history from our not so distant past.

Decades ago, second wave feminists expressed concern that butch/femme lesbian relationships served to reinforce the notion that masculine/feminine pairings are required for any intimate relationship to function well. It was feared that these variations of lesbian intimacy only served to reinforce stereotypical notions of gender and binaristic gender roles. Butch/femme lesbian relationships were feared as yet another avenue for patriarchal gender norms to manifest and thus reinforce larger cultural patterns which confine the lives of all women. Butch/femme relationships were pathologized as sexist, artificial, inauthentic expressions of intimacy, born of a desire to mimic hetero-patriarchal notions of intimacy.  Their lives, relationships, and identities were disparaged as counter-revolutionary.  Alternatively, androgyny was valorized as the preferred, politically aware way of expressing lesbian relationships and identity.  Those engaging in this marginalization were quite often queer, middle class feminists.   Today, these concerns have largely faded and no longer hold the obsessive focus they once engendered.

In contrast, mainstream and conservative culture viewed all lesbians as a threat, regardless of gender expression, or combinations thereof.  Pathologizing one particular mode of intimacy between women didn’t do a thing to challenge the ways in which larger patriarchal, heterocentric culture strove to eliminate queer people from the world.  All that was accomplished was the demonization of a portion of the queer women’s community in the name of feminist revolution, effectively cannibalizing its own rather than challenging forces higher up the social pyramid.  It is far easier to turn our collective insecurities against those in our own marginalized communities and against those of lesser social power than to bring our forces to bear against those who wield power.  We unwittingly become soldiers in service to those who pull the cultural puppet strings.  We eat our own.  We destroy those beneath us.

I see cis feminists’ fear of trans women’s identities in a similar fashion. It’s analogous to feminists bemoaning the supposed patriarchal implications of butch/femme relationships upon all women’s lives. We now recognize that lesbian pairings come in many variations, expressing gender/sexuality in many different ways, just as trans women currently express gender in many different ways across a broad spectrum of being. There’s room for the many variations of gender which take place in a community of people.  Sadly however, cis eyes are accustomed to seeing trans people via stereotyped lenses and cis media portrayals of us tend to reinforce the legitimacy of this distortion.  Our identities are judged as disruptive, narrow, and wanting, and we are viewed as a threat.  We are seen as illiberal throwbacks by progressives and harbingers of cultural chaos by conservatives.

We are neither.  We are uniquely ourselves, as varied as any other body of people, and equally deserving of respect and dignity.  See us as people, fully human, simultaneously flawed and wondrous, rather than a mirror of your worst fears.

Hello There, Pro-LGBT Christian Person. Why Can’t You Be More Like Me?

•July 21, 2015 • Comments Off on Hello There, Pro-LGBT Christian Person. Why Can’t You Be More Like Me?

narcissism_wormAdam Lee at Daylight Atheism has a message for Pro-Gay Christians:

Wouldn’t it be such a relief to just be, to live your life honestly and without apology, without all this worry about bigotry and rejection? You can. All you have to do is walk away from this rigid, cruel and hidebound religion, give up these beliefs that have caused such enormous guilt, pain and suffering to LGBT people throughout the ages, and come join the rest of us outside, in the sunlight and freedom of the secular community. Your life could be so much easier, so much happier. What’s holding you back?

Adam, did you just walk out of a tie-dye time machine?  It’s not 1975 anymore.  There are actually a good number of LGBT affirming churches. I’m not Christian, but I’ve known about the following directories for a while now:

-directory of LGBT affirming churches in the US, Canada, and other countries:
-directory of European LGBT affirming churches:

Besides the increasing availability of queer affirming churches, many people can’t turn off their belief in a god at will. Their spirituality is deeply a part of who they are and how they experience the world. Religion and spirituality serve as foundational sources of culture, community, and identity for many people.  Spirituality is a fundamental aspect of being, regardless of whether some people view theists’ beliefs and their religion as being in error.  It’s both unrealistic and lacking in empathy to expect that pro-LGBT Christians can spontaneously abandon their religion, traditions, identity, and social spaces just because you think it is expedient to do so.

We also need to approach this as a matter of equal access, too.  Why should we LGBT people be forced to give up on our spirituality and our associated social networks when cishet people can take it for granted that they can walk into any church and not have their sexual orientation or gender identity held against them? Speaking as a queer person, I want to see other LGBT people have access to the same institutions and spaces as their cishet peers.  Regardless of whether we’re talking about the military, places of employment, congress, wedding cake bakeries, or the church, it pisses me off to see the unfair levels of privilege cishet people wield in accessing most social spaces and institutions while the rest of us have to settle for less… way less.  Look, I’m not enamored with Christianity. I certainly have my qualms with Abrahamic religions but I think I’d be a poorer friend and ally to Christian LGBT people in my life if I didn’t support them in their right to access and reform those institutions.

Furthermore, calling for pro-LGBT cishet people to leave Christian institutions means that you are also calling for the bigoted population in those institutions to become even more concentrated.  The outcome of this demographic shift will reduce the chance for these institutions to be reformed for the better.  Consequently, those LGBT people who do remain, especially the LGBT children growing up in those faith traditions, will face increasingly concentrated levels of bigotry in their spiritual spaces.  Calling for a mass exodus of pro-LGBT people from religious institutions can not be separated from the terrible consequences of that exodus.  You are effectively calling for the cessation of any reform of those institutions.  You are calling for the abandonment of those LGBT people who remain.  If you do that, you aren’t being a ally to queer Christians.  You are being quite the opposite.  And given that so many queer people are still involved in religious institutions, you are being a terrible ally to LGBT in general.

On a personal note, I have a friend who is a Methodist pastor and she’s a lesbian. I know how important Christianity, theism, and the church is to her and I want to honor that. I’d be a rotten friend if I said, “The Methodist denomination still hasn’t fully accepted LGBT people. So why don’t you just give up on the Christian god, your traditions, and your community and become more like me?” That’s pretty horrible and it reeks of a kind of narcissism. And if I can’t do that to a friend—someone who I care about very much—why should I do the same to a stranger? Because I feel less empathy for them? I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t make sense.

Again and again, I find that the antitheist variant of atheism fails at advocating for social justice in practical, caring, empathetic ways.  It privileges the abolition of theism and religion above all other considerations and causes.  In doing so, these efforts often come at the expense of resolving intersecting social justice issues.

Mr. Lee, go back to the drawing board and rethink your approach because the one you’re suggesting doesn’t work well.  It’s also a terrible path of action to suggest if you actually care about being an ally to LGBT people.

In Which I Respond to a Garden Variety Transphobe

•July 9, 2015 • 4 Comments

BurpeeSeeds1945So says the transphobe in the comment section of an article on trans people’s bathroom rights:

What about the real woman in the stall next door who suffers stress from hearing a “girl” whip out her penis and take a leak?

You’re not a woman.. you’re a man in a dress.

The “man in a dress” comment is a stock response which people toss in trans women’s direction, 24/7, across the internet. Do you think we haven’t heard this before? In spite of ill sentiment, we’ve collectively said, “To hell with the majority’s notions of sex and gender.” and we go about our daily lives, doing what we must to survive. Peeing in a public washroom is a part of basic, everyday survival. It’s not glamorous. Everyone has to get rid of bodily waste somehow.

Here’s all you need to know about our lives:

1) We aren’t living our lives to please your sensibilities.

2) We aren’t living our lives to obey your rules.

3) We live our lives in spite of the judgmental vitriol of these common place insults.

Every day lived, every year survived, is a flesh and blood rejoinder to the small-spirited abuse that is encapsulated by sentiments such as yours.

The authenticity of our lives and our being isn’t dependent upon others’ prejudicial notions.  I’m not going to magically de-transition to male because you think I’m a “man in a dress”. I won’t spontaneously masculinize because of your ill sentiments. I will continue to walk though life, being the woman I am, without notice from others. The woman sitting next to you at the bus stop might be me and you’ll continue reading your paper and sipping your coffee because my everyday life and my everyday appearance are as mundane as most peoples’.

Besides, I don’t even wear dresses. I hate them.

But, I tell you what, the next time I whip out my imaginary penis while I’m sitting in the women’s room, I’ll think of you as I relieve myself.

A Movement Of Disappointment

•April 12, 2012 • 9 Comments

As I sit here pondering my new embrace of agnosticism, I am brought to contemplate events of past and present.

I identified as an atheist for quite a while—long enough that I can no longer remember precisely when I first embraced the identity. This era lasted approximately two decades. My atheism was a reaction to the injustices I saw perpetrated by dominant forms of religion. During these two decades, my critiques focused upon the human flaws of prejudice, hierarchy, and authoritarianism which interlaced so many religions (quite similar to my critiques of many secular institutions, actually). I didn’t care about others’ faith so long as their beliefs excluded these three social ills. Abuse of power and the spreading of oppression were the horrors that offended me.

I have happily welcomed Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim friends into my life. As long as one’s beliefs respected the lives of others and one’s faith brought a sense of peace, I took no issue. Although I could not personally believe in such things, their belief was fine by me.

My sense of fear and dislike centered mostly upon Christianity, which has served as a source of oppression for religious minorities, women, and queer people in the US. I admit to being quite distrustful toward the religion—to the point of hating it at times—but after meeting Quakers and various other Christians of a leftist persuasion, I relaxed my animosities as my knowledge of the faith grew more nuanced.

I’ve even personally toyed with spirituality over the years. Although I’ve not embraced a belief in deities, I’ve tried my best to engender a deep sense of connection with nature and people. Yes, I’ve had experiences of woo and weirdness, and believe it or not, I actually value those experiences (there goes my last few hard-core materialist readers). I’m not certain what to make of these experiences, but the sense of lasting connection they have engendered has been extremely important in my life. You could call me a kind of Pagan who remains neutral on the existence of deities. Although Pagans’ spiritual embrace of the gender binary is sometimes off-putting, I find these folks to be generally awesome. I’ll happily share coffee and laughter with a Pagan any day.

So, what I’m trying to say is this: in spite of having an uneasy relationship with some forms of religion, I’ve never viewed religion as THE ENEMY. Many variants of religion are terrible because they hurt and oppress people, and many variants are beautiful because of the sense of peace and connectedness they bring into people’s lives. I’ve witnessed the beauty that spirituality and religion bring into the lives of people I know. Happily, I have also discovered a window of understanding into these experiences as a consequence of my own godless experiments with spirituality.

So far, so good.

Then, along comes 9/11, the Bush administration, and a sudden upswing in the power of conservative Christians. In response, we have the genesis of a wave of mistrust, fear, and hatred of all forms of religion that starts to grow within a large segment of the secular left. Because of the previous oppressive influences of traditional Christianity, this animosity has always been present in the left, but after the events of the early 2000s, the bubble of animosity starts growing to immense proportions. Then, several books are written which declare all religions to be irrational, dangerous, and worthless. The expanding fear, mistrust, and hatred in the secular left is then harnessed as an organizing tool by these authors, and thus, the new atheist movement is born.

I have not been swept up in this storm tide of irreligious animosity. I think of the many kind, open minded, and intelligent religious/spiritual people I have known, and I fail to see the ugly specter that new atheism has made of people’s religious impulses. Some forms of religion are indeed harmful, but to declare all forms as horrid, worthless enterprises is to form an ugly stereotype of religion and religious people. This is nothing more than an all-encompassing religious intolerance. Not surprisingly, the words of those who populate this movement reflect the negativity of these stereotypes. Their goal is not to foster a spirit of pluralism. Rather, the intent is to shame others into conforming to a template of being that excludes religion and spirituality. If you wander outside of the confines of this template you are a deluded fool, playing with barbarism and irrationality. Your beliefs place you squarely in the midst of a stupid and dangerous mode of being.

In spite of the rancor, I’ve spent several years delving into new atheist discussions and I’ve seen a particular mantra repeated in many places: “We are criticizing the person’s beliefs rather than the person.” On one level, this assertion comes from a place of ignorance, and on another level, it is a self-serving lie. Ask anyone who has experienced a deeply held form of spirituality or religion, and they will tell you that this experience runs down to the core of their being. Religion and spirituality are more than a mere set of ideas and beliefs: they are a way of being. And so, when you criticize a person’s religion/spirituality, you are also criticizing a way of being that is deeply incorporated into the person’s persona. The place where belief and spirituality begin and the person ends is a boundary that can scarcely be drawn.

Hence, when you leave civility behind and you ridicule a person’s spirituality, you are showing contempt for something that is deeply incorporated into their sense of self and their sense of connection with the world. You are no longer merely criticizing ideas, but rather, you are attacking the person themselves. Thus, you are leaving the realm of discussing beliefs and entering the realm of bigotry.

Here is an excerpt from Richard Dawkin’s speech at the Reason Rally:

So when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is: “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you until you tell me do you really believe — for example, if they say they are Catholic — do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?” Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!

Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.

When I first read these words, I was completely unsurprised because Dawkins said this in April of 2009:

Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

You might say that two can play at that game. Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt, how would we like it? I think the answer is that there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it.

As you can see, this isn’t an unfortunate loss of temper for Dawkins. Endorsing mockery, ridicule, and contempt at a rally in the US capitol is more than a momentary lapse of reason.

This is hardly a novel approach in new atheist realms. If you spend any time on new atheist blogs and comment threads, you can see Dawkins’ recommended mode of discourse play out on a daily basis. In the weeks following the rally, I have searched new atheist spaces for a critique of Dawkin’s “advice” and what I have encountered has been rationalizations in some venues and a deafening silence in others. This is more than the misdeeds of a few bad apples. This is endemic to the movement itself.

These common place bouts of intolerance and bigotry drive me away from the new atheist movement. If this is the way new atheists wish to engage religion and spirituality, then the movement is only a few steps shy of becoming a hate group. This saddens me, because this movement could be so much more than it is. This could be a truly progressive movement which encourages not only the acceptance and understanding of non-belief, but also a movement that encourages the acceptance and understanding of all philosophical and religious minorities. Instead, the excitement and energy of the moment are being squandered in a celebration of petty insults and aspirations of religious conformity. New atheism has distorted the social insights of secularism into a negative form of religion, replete with tribalism, dogma, and leaders who spew exclusivist drivel.

I am angered when I think of the haphazard denigration of the many kind, progressive spiritual people in my life—people who interact with others in a far more humane and rational way than many new atheists do. Consequently, I hope this movement will mature as time passes and finds a place of constructive engagement with religious and spiritual oppression. Should it fail to mature, it is my sincerest hope that it founders under its own dysfunction.

May calmer, more humane voices prevail.

House Rules II

•April 10, 2012 • Comments Off on House Rules II

I have reworded #3 of the House Rules to be as inclusive as possible. If you wish to denigrate another person or group of people based upon their religion, belief in deities, or non-belief in deities, find another blog. I am proudly non-inclusive of bigots of all stripes. If you have the flag of hatred flying upon your mast, cast anchor somewhere else, mate.

3. I will not tolerate bigotry or prejudice of any kind. I find such attitudes to be deeply triggering and I see them as generally harmful to society. If you are a racist, homophobe, misogynist, or bigot of any persuasion, don’t bother posting here. This includes those who express bigotry toward others based upon the targeted person’s religion or theism-related philosophy (for example: islamophobia, antisemitism, anti-theism, or prejudice against atheists and agnostics). I will not print your invective. If you really must share your hatred and you live within the US, I suggest that you go here to find a more welcoming gathering.

Rational Rationalizing

•April 6, 2012 • Comments Off on Rational Rationalizing

Lately, I have noticed an interesting pattern. Those who fancy themselves to be superior rationalists are often quite superior at rationalizing.

It takes great intelligence and creativity to craft a maze of logic whose byzantine passages lead to one’s starting point. The intricacy is dazzling, but the end result is still unconvincing.