Ain’t that America

12 02 2015

Three Muslim students were gunned down by an atheist and somehow the more reassuring story is that the murders were not over religion, but a parking space?

God don’t like it

28 10 2009

Posted by Hemant Mehta  October 21st, 2009 at Friendly Atheist

(h/t: Goldblog —who usually pisses me off, but this is funny)

Now, if only there were a religion based on frozen Oreos, black coffee, sleeping in, psychopathic kittens, and deep fried cheese.

And gin, of course. Gin. (With generous dispensations for the substitution of any old-school liquor.)

That shouldn’t be too hard, should it?


God sometimes you just don’t come through

27 10 2009

Goddammit. Time to write the goddamned God post.

Bad way to start? Too. . . insulting? Too glib-without-being-funny?

Look: Two lines in and already I’ve succumbed to the meta!

Okay. Let this post be born again. . . . All right, all right, I’ll stop.

Long discussion over at TNC’s joint on atheism and belief and who’s better and worse and why [not] believe, et cetera. As Emmylou sang, Yet another battle in the losing fight/Out along the great divide, tonight.

Ta-Nahisi Coates writes a great blog, and he attracts great commentators, but this thread follows the usual  progression:

  • God kills!
  • No He doesn’t!
  • Yes he does!
  • Well, okay, maybe, but so does Hitler/Stalin/Mao
  • It’s about ideology
  • It’s about human nature
  • It makes no sense to talk about atheists as a group
  • Then why are there atheist groups?
  • Those are activist groups. Atheism is simply a-theist, i.e., without god(s)
  • To not believe requires faith
  • ????
  • ‘Lack of belief is not a belief. True. But belief in a lack is.’
  • ????
  • Religious people are mean
  • Atheists are mean
  • Mean people suck
  • Flying Spaghetti Monster!
  • Faeries!
  • Unicorns!
  • [sigh]
  • You need to read more
  • No, you need to read more
  • You’re dumb
  • If I’m dumb, you’re super-dumb [Oh, wait, that was a couplet from The Brady Bunch, Jan to Peter]
  • Can’t we all just get along?

In other words, same as it ever was.

[Tho’ as an aside, can I vent a wee? To state that ‘is’ and ‘is-not’ are, in fact, the same, is a kind of infuriatingly useless word game. If you don’t believe in God, then you believe in a no-thing, which is itself belief, which means atheism is a form of religion. If all you’re doing is engaging a Wittgensteinian wit—for which that actual Wittgenstein would probably eviscerate you—fine; but if you think you’re making a serious point, you’re not. These arguments are not simply about the formal structure of language, but the content contained, however unsteadily, within that language. And yes, at some point, I’ll probably bore you with another post about why this distinction matters.]


So. I’m a-gnostic (lack knowledge), which may have a-theist (lack god) implications, but I’m not particularly dogmatic about it.

I doubt, and I’m fine with my doubt.

When I was a kid, I believed in God. I was an altar girl (the first, which somewhat discombobulated poor Father K., tho’ to his credit he brought me along) at the local Episcopal church, and, overall, I thought God was pretty cool.

Jesus was fine. I liked looking at the various crucifixes in the church, but, honestly, I thought more about God than Jesus. (I clearly lacked an understanding of the subtleties of the Trinity.)

I read a children’s bible. I wore a cross. I prayed. I mostly didn’t pay attention, but when I did, I thought it was all good.

Things changed, of course. Everyone has his or her own [de-]conversion story; mine has to the do with the rise of the Religious Right, and my disdain for any belief that could be connected in any way with the Moral Majority.

Have I ever mentioned that I started reading Ms. in the eighth grade?

Anyway, baby, bathwater: Out!

Things changed, again. I never really believed, again, but I did start to think about religion and belief, to learn more about its varieties—to pay attention.

Oh, so, so much more to this story, but let me, pace Lenin, telescope my history: I got to like hanging out in (empty) churches, a close friend and her husband became much more deeply involved in their faith (they don’t like the term ‘born again’), I read a grown-up bible, I had some good conversations with a local (NYC) Episcopal priest and. . .

. . . I still don’t believe.

Let me amend that: Some days I believe (in a non-specific way), some days I don’t, and some days the belief and unbelief is layered on top of one another.

Faith, however, I completely lack. That there may exist a God does not mean (S)He wants or has anything to do with us.

Faith seems to me far more dangerous than belief, tho’ I’m not sure why. Perhaps it seems more uncontrollable to me, or more personal, or that it is far more often deployed as a weapon than belief.

Okay, I know: stop making sense.

C. might argue that, insofar as I accept the information gleaned from scientific processes, I have faith—if only in the reliability and validity of those scientific processes. And Karl Popper (the great orthodox-science defender) admitted that one cannot use the logic of the sciences to defend the use of the logic of the sciences; at root, he noted, there is a leap.

A leap of faith? I dunno. Seems more like a jump-start to me: it’s up to the engine [science, reason] to actually move the vehicle along. If one’s methods don’t work—if they are neither verifiable nor reliable—then they are to be abandoned. Faith won’t see you through.

But religious faith, it seems to me, is itself the engine—the faith is itself the point. And while some might seek natural justifications for supernatural faith, such justifications are kind of beside the point. They might have a role, but, again, they won’t see you through.

A few weeks ago I blew out a bunch of words about Legos and coins—those of us who seek to put their lives in lock-step, and those of us who cobble bits together, precariously. As a coin-er, I’m not much troubled (there are exceptions) by gaps and inconsistencies, unknowns and uncertainties.

I can’t be, given how often my ground shifts.

Is it faith that keeps me going? Doubt? I don’t think it matters. I am no longer pained by the fact of my existence, by the justification of my self.

I just go.


23 09 2008

Still workin’ on the question Lucretia asked, regarding respect/no respect.

Still workin’ on Rawls, for that matter. I paused to re-read Mary Ann Glendon’s Rights Talk, and I’m taking Chantal Mouffe’s The Return of the Political to Jobs1&2 tomorrow, but I don’t think any of these folk are going to get me where I need to go.

Why? The focus on procedure. ‘Here is how you set up a system of justice in a liberal society’ (Rawls); ‘we need to more nuanced understanding of rights vis-a-vis other values’ (Glendon). Neither is wrong, but neither gets to the guts of Lucretia’s question:

How do you deal with someone who can’t deal with you? That is, how do you deal with someone who won’t accept that you’re someone else? Who insists that you respect her but she won’t respect you? (I suppose the flip side of this question would be: How do you deal with someone who persists in error? Hm. More on that later?)

This is where I ended, last time (in the Ain’t no love post): I think I’m still missing a piece of a response to Lucretia. I’ve talked about a kind of constitutional or generic respect for persons, and about intimates, but what about those strangers or acquaintances with whom we interact in the social sphere? More acutely, what about those demands from citizens for respect for their views? Not generic persons, not friends, but fellow-travellers in the polity, in the social sphere? How do we meet demands for respect for mutually-exclusive beliefs? Ah. I thought I captured this in the idea of creating space against an overlord, but I didn’t: this is how we treat one another within that space. . . .It may be a matter of reiterating respect for you, but signalling disagreement with your beliefs. But I don’t think that’s sufficient, either.

It’s insufficient, I think, because respect is being overworked: I’m trying to stretch it to cover all of these different situations and levels, and it’s shredding. I gotta let it go. Yes, keep it at the procedural and constitutional levels, and even, perhaps, have it frame discussions, as a minimal condition for that discussion, but as to content: done.

This means, of course, that one may in fact not respect the other person’s views and, as a consequence, not respect the other person. That sounds harsh—it is harsh—but it gets at how we actually do respond to one another.

I think there’s a parallel to this in my reaction to ‘love-the-sinner/hate-the-sin’ argument: it seems a cop-out to pronounce one’s love even as one proclaims hatred for what the loved one does. It sounds simple to separate out who you are from what you do, but that sound is wrong. (I’ve gone too far in the other direction, hoping that doing could overcome being, but that’s another story.) We are beings who do, so even when it is possible to make such a separation, it’s rarely simple to, erm, do so.

Consider how you respond to someone who you truly do love who does something awful. Well, maybe just lousy: Your partner is arrested for drunk driving, say. You love this person, but you’re also angry that he behaved recklessly toward both himself and others. So what do you do with this love and anger? It depends: on you, on him, on his behavior after the arrest, whether he’s done this before, whether you’ve done this before, . . . Not simple, in other words. Even if you do get past it, you still have to get past it.

Now, to ratchet up the complications, consider behavior which is more intimately connected to being, say, sexuality (this is where the whole love/hate/sinner/sin missile often gets deployed). You’re gay or bisexual or ambisexual or just plain sexual. Sex is something you do, but your sexuality is also a part of who you are. Furthermore, you like both the act of sex and your sexuality generally, and are not inclined to see it as something in need of either fixing or redemption. If someone says she loves you but not what you do, do you feel particularly loved? Do you think this person even sees you?

This can be flipped around with regard to respect: If you demand that I respect you just for having an opinion, how likely is it that I’ll actually respect the content of that opinion? How much do you think I’ll respect you? In each case, the formula gets in the way of the person, and in so doing, cheapens both respect and love.

Thus, in cutting back on respect-talk, we may actually get to—have to—deal with one another as human beings. By allowing each other the, hmm, courtesy? understanding? recognition? that who we are and what we say and how we act matters, we may allow for a fuller sense of the other.

This fuller sense, of course, may only be possible in particular circumstances: namely, in a free society in which one person does not have authority over or able to invoke power structures against another. And there are other objections to this conclusion, as well, including that ‘may allow’ is a damned slender reed, and that I, too, am eliding content in favor of process—this time of understanding rather than respect.

It’s late, so I can’t offer a full defense, but I want to get this down before I lose these thoughts: One, yeah, ‘may allow’ ain’t much, but maybe that’s all we’ve got. In other words, Arendt’s admonitions on the frailty of human [political] affairs may be spot on. Two, I’m trying to incorporate content into the conversation, and to recognize when content overwhelms or matters more than conversation.

Sketchy, I know. But I think there’s something here.

Ain’t no love

2 09 2008

Finally, a frame of mind in which to respond to a comment from Lucretia (about my last bit on Nussbaum).

BUT FIRST: I gotta say something about the whole Sarah/Bristol Palin thing. Damn! I feel bad for the girl. She’s seventeen, knocked up, and a week ago she was probably freaking out about what her classmates were going to say or were already saying about her pregnancy. Now, for reasons that have little to do with her, she’s worldwide news. That’s tough. I hope the people around her (and her boyfriend) are as supportive as they say they are.

As for her mom? I don’t like her politics. No need to say much beyond that.

Okay, on to the question of nonbeliever respect for the religious, especially when the religious show so little respect for the nonbeliever. On August 26, Lucretia asked

‘It’s such a common notion in our culture, probably in Western culture as a whole – maybe all human cultures? – that we have to respect people’s religious beliefs. I find I’ve absorbed this idea without quite knowing where it came from.

Why do we have to tiptoe around other people’s quirky, bizarre, or moronic ideas? Particularly when, if a religious nut knows you’re an atheist, he feels perfectly free to declare open season on us?’

I’ve been batting this question around for awhile, and I think I’ve got the beginnings of a response to it. And, ironically, Nussbaum, in Women and Human Development, helped shape part of my response.

The first part, that which to which Nussbaum’s discussion of political liberalism contributes, is the notion of respect for persons. One can reject or accept this notion, but it’s a pretty standard precept of modern philosophical-liberal thought. We are free and equal beings, individuals with distinct desires and personalities, and endowed with sufficient reason to pursue our own, individual ends. (This is a bit of a mash-up of liberal thought, but, again, not an unreasonable one; similar kinds of notions anchor many human rights declarations & charters, for example.)

Anyway, as free, equal, and distinct beings, the ends we choose for our lives ought to be left up to each of us. That is, whatever meaning we assign to our lives, including whether that assignment includes a supernatural element or not, is up to each of us.  Unsurprisingly, this means we are likely to choose different meanings, different ends. Some are so discomfitted by this plurality of outcomes that they seek to favor some meanings and outcomes over others, to say, in effect, that no rational person would choose these lesser ends.

Nussbaum argues, rightly, I think, that one can’t have it both ways: either you allow for respect for persons to choose their own lives, or you don’t. (There are issues about the conditions for choice, and choosing for others, especially children, but that’s a separate topic.) She distinguishes political liberalism from comprehensive liberalism, such that under conditions of political liberalism one creates the conditions for choice of ends, whereas under a regime of comprehensive liberalism, one seeks to shape those ends, to favor some over others.

Another, shorter, way to put this is to state that I will respect your ability to choose your own way, and you will respect my ability to choose my own way. Reciprocity.

This works, I think, as a formal model of respect, especially as regards respect among strangers, and as creating a kind of space against an overlord (government, religion) which seeks to choose our ends for us.

But while such formal or process-respect can help remind one not to trample on another’s ability to choose, it’s incomplete. It doesn’t get at that deep frustration over lack of respect for the choice of ends. In other words, while Nussbaum would like to bracket off discussions of ends (and which, in the context of her larger argument about constitutions and states, makes a great deal of sense), the issue of ends-respect remains.

And it is much harder to deal with, because we connect the ends a person has chosen with that person herself. In other words, it’s personal. So Lucretia’s question looms: why respect shitty ideas? why respect shitty beliefs which belittle the nonbeliever?


That, finally, after many years of trying to square my principled belief in respect for persons with the batshit things we believe in, is my answer. I will maintain my respect for you as a human being, but not so much for you, personally. If you believe menstruating women are polluting and to be avoided, if you think black people are inferior to white people, that Jews run the world, if you think anyone who doesn’t believe exactly as you do isn’t worth as much as you, then expect the ridicule you so richly deserve.

This sounds, hm, if not contradictory, at least, not right: Aren’t I, after all, expecting others to believe exactly as I do? Aren’t I saying dissenters to my view aren’t worth as much? No, and yes. No, insofar as I distinguish between the formal- or process-respect and personal- or ends-respect. I’m not saying you don’t get to believe what you do, or that you deserve less protection of the law than anyone else. You should never lose the respect owed to you as a human being, or, to put it more politically, as a citizen.

But we are not simply citizens, not simply occupants of the formal-human-being role. We are also individual personalities, with our own desires and flaws and beliefs, and to state that we can have whatever beliefs we want, but that we ought not take them so seriously that we form judgments in relation to them, is to miss something vital to our humanness.

You can go on and think I’m going to hell because I don’t pray or don’t pray to the right god or don’t pray to the right god in the right way—and you can say you condemn me out of love—but why on earth would you expect me to respect a position which denigrates me? If you judge me because of who I sleep with or how I sleep with that (consenting) person, why should I, who don’t think this matters to anyone but me and that other person, take your side against my own?

If the only way to respect your view is to belittle myself, well, I ain’t respectin’ your view.

I respect absolutely your right and ability to hold whatever views you choose, but I don’t necessarily respect those chosen views.

And this is where it gets funky, because we tie a person’s views to our own view of that person. If you hold to views I find abhorrent, I’m not going to respect you. And given that I think respect IS important, that bothers me a bit. But I also have a fairly wide range of views outside of my own which I find worthy of respect, so I’m not too worried that I’m going to whittle my interactions down to people who are just. like. me.

That could, and does, happen, of course: align with me, or be gone. And if that happens too often or infects too much of our civic life, that could be problematic. But on the personal level, well, who we want around us is going to vary from person to person. Some want family near, others, far. Some seek many friends and colleagues, and others choose to cultivate a few. Whatever. The point is, we use our judgment in determining who we want around, and, on a personal level, that’s as it should be.

Hm. I think I’m still missing a piece of a response to Lucretia. I’ve talked about a kind of constitutional or generic respect for persons, and about intimates, but what about those strangers or acquaintances with whom we interact in the social sphere? More acutely, what about those demands from citizens for respect for their views? Not generic persons, not friends, but fellow-travellers in the polity, in the social sphere? How do we meet demands for respect for mutually-exclusive beliefs? Ah. I thought I captured this in the idea of creating space against an overlord, but I didn’t: this is how we treat one another within that space.

Getting at that is gonna have to wait. It may be a matter of reiterating respect for you, but signalling disagreement with your beliefs. But I don’t think that’s sufficient, either.

Damn. And I thought I had a handle on this. Maybe not.

Martha, Martha, Martha (part III)

25 08 2008

This will not be nearly as long as the previous post, I promise.

I mentioned in the last post that I found her discussion of gay marriage offensive. I over-spoke. It’s glib and ill-argued, and she seems to think that as long as gays and lesbians are no longer in danger of criminal indictment, there’s not really any problem. Sure, she notes parenthetically, ‘they continue to suffer many civil disabilities by comparison to heterosexual couples married by the state’ [338], but what are a few ‘civil disabilities’ among a free and equal citizenry?

No, what is offensive is her treatment of the non-religious. Yes, she duly includes us in her laundry list of A to Z minority beliefs which must be respected, but when agnostics and atheists are separated from the rest, our beliefs are apparently downgraded from ‘respectable’ to ‘tolerable.’ We are ‘smug’, ‘arrogant’, ‘condescending’, ‘outspoken’, and ‘contempt[uous]’. Oh, and we’re all ‘leftists’ or ‘liberals’. (I am a leftist, but doubt and skepticism are hardly the sole province of the pink (or blue, if you prefer) side of the political spectrum.) All of this serves to separate us from the rest of the majority of Americans to whom Nussbaum so often alludes, to make us, in some sense, less American.

Some examples:

On evolution: ‘It would also be good if opponents of evolution did not associate it with irreligiosity. Proponents of evolution have a wide range of different views, theistic, nontheistically religious, agnostic, and atheist. [. . .] On the other side, it would be great if scientific people who are themselves atheists would not speak dismissively or condescendingly about religion, suggesting that religion is only for dummies, or even suggesting that religion is basically a source of strife and bad behavior. [. . .] It would be best if all people would focus on combating bad behavior wherever it arises, rather than smugly suggesting that if we were all atheists, the world would be a more peaceful place. The history of Marxism certainly did not support that contention.’ [326-27]

Okay, it’s bad for opponents to paint science as irreligious because. . . it’s not accurate? Hm. Or because irreligion is bad?

And the suggestions the world would be better if we were all the same come only from smug atheists? No Christians or Muslims or thought or think that if we all prayed to the same God everything would be hunky-dory? At least they wouldn’t be smug, I guess.

On the pledge: ‘From the vantage point of these practical concerns, it was extremely unfortunate that the case that went to the Supreme Court was brought by an outspoken atheist who openly scoffs at religious belief.’ She goes on to note that it’s good that Hindus and Buddhists are beginning to push back against the Pledge, and wishes Confucianists, Taoists, Christians and Jews would get more involved in the fight. [314-15]

Again, outspoken atheists are apparently not good enough on their own; they must be hidden behind other believers.

On nonbelievers generally: ‘Many if not most Americans think that religion is enormously important and precious, and they do not like being told by intellectuals that they should not bring their religious commitments into the public square. [. . .] Many people think, then, that defenders of the continued separation of church and state are people who have contempt for religion. These people are right about something: religion is enormously important and precious. Not every American believes this personally, but all ought to be prepared to see, and respect, the importance of religion for many, if not most of their fellow citizens. [. . .] It is supremely annoying when intellectuals talk down to religious people, speaking as if all smart people are atheists.’ [9-10] She then goes on to discuss Daniel Dennett and his advocacy of the term ‘brights’ for nonbelievers, noting that his book Breaking the Spell ‘drips with contempt’ for believers. Newdow (of the Pledge) comes in for it as well, ‘a proud atheist who has evident contempt for religious beliefs and religious people. Many Americans of goodwill associate the very idea of the “separation of church and state” with this sort of smug atheism.’ [9-10]

And: ‘Seen in its right relation to the idea of fairness, the idea of separation of church and state does not express what the left sometimes uses it to express, namely, contempt for, and the desire to marginalize, religion.’ [11]

Finally (really!): ‘It seems to me that there is little point in simply adding to the swelling chorus of alarm over “the religious right.” The helpful thing is to produce a good analysis of religious fairness. But any such good analysis entails, I believe, that there are errors on the left as well, and that we should be, and remain, vigilant about them.’ [11] This, after the comment on p. 4 of ‘An organized, highly funded, and widespread political movement [which] wants the values of a particular brand of conservative evangelical Christianity to define the United States.’

Yeah, I’m beating this into the ground, but I wanted to demonstrate what set me off, namely, the inability to find an individual atheist who is not smug or arrogant or left-wing or (horrors) an intellectual. I’m not much for the polemics of Hitchens, Dawkins, or Dennett, not least because I think they’re wrong: I tend to think that intelligence (and idiocy) are randomly distributed across the population, hitting the religious and not, and all variations of ideology. But then again, I’m not much for the polemics of religious believers who smugly and arrogantly insist I’m going to hell, who condescendingly speak of their love for the sinner even as they hate the sin, who proudly state that all who don’t sign on to their beliefs are fools, and who drip contempt for and desire to marginalize all those who think they can lead a good life outside of religious belief.

Perhaps I’m being too sensitive: ‘The presence of agnostics, atheists, and people who are seeking truth for themselves in their own nontraditional way is now acknowledged as a big fact of our political life, and these people too are recognized as equal citizens, nominally at least.’ [358-59] These people. Nominally at least. Thanks for that ringing endorsement of our existence.

At least in the above quote she mentions politics. Most of the book is a mixture of Constitutional and American history, with the exposition of Williams’s ideas anchoring the beginning of the book. Had she stopped there, she would have written an unremarkable and largely unproblemmatic book. It’s when she veers into contemporary political controversies in chapter 8 that she goes off the rails, and it is perhaps her refusal to engage the political dimension of these controversies which so distorts her narrative. As she herself notes in the opening pages of the book, there are organized efforts to impose a particular brand of Christianity on the body politic—efforts which are hardly marginal.  No, I don’t think we’re in danger of a theocratic takeover, but the effects of some politicized religious folk to keep comprehensive sex education out of the schools, to prohibit funds for international contraception programs, to downplay the use of condoms in AIDS prevention, to impose language in international anti-AIDS programs which discourage outreach to sex workers, to continue the ban on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research,  to make it easier for health care practitioners to deny contraception and Plan B to their patients, and, lest we forget, to pass anti-same-sex marriage amendments and fight against domestic partnerships and the extension of civil rights to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered.

And yet all Nussbaum can see fit to discuss is the religious aspect of gay marriage—and declare it not an issue. Perhaps in a world confined solely to the religious, constitutional, and philosophical dimensions, she could get away with such an approach. But we Americans, whether smug or of goodwill, live in the political world as well, one in which power is wielded on behalf of and against others. Religion may be the space in which one’s search for meaning is constituted; it is also a political weapon, and one wielded not just against minority believers, but unbelievers. Thus, it is not unsurprising that some of us would fight back against its use in politics. Had Nussbaum been willing to engage the political uses and abuses of religious belief, perhaps she would have had more sympathy for those of us who live in doubt.

The book is titled Liberty of Conscience. Yet for all her words about preferring ‘respect’ to ‘toleration’ as truly recognizing the integrity of other views and other people, she does not extend this recognition to the consciences of the atheist or agnostic. We remain ‘these people’, tolerated, not respected.