Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Fourteen Bible Passages that (Don’t Really) Address Transgender Identity

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Jeremiah Traeger

Transgender rights are now a large part of public discussion, which is good for a group that until recently has been invisible at best and completely demonized at worst. Since acknowledging that trans people are human and deserve to be treated as such would be progress for mankind in general, it’s conservative Christianity’s job to oppose it. This is done under the banner of “family values”, “tradition”, being against “sexual immorality”, and all the other meaningless dogwhistle phrases that they love so much.

 

It’s not difficult to find a pastor railing against transgender people, calling it immoral and against the Christian god’s plan. There are more transphobic religious leaders than you can shake a stick at. While they wave their Bible in the air, and cite scripture as the reason to oppose the existence of transgender people, there’s not really much that The Bible has to say about them positively or negatively. When I went to OpenBible.info, they listed 24 verses that (supposedly) address the phenomenon of transgender identity. A few on this list are duplicates, and some don’t really address gender whatsoever. When I took these out, what remained were 14 passages that address gender in a problematic way, indicate misconceptions about what gender is, or just flat-out don’t say anything relevant about the issue. While these verses don’t really make the case that transgender identity is “immoral” or “anti-Christian”, it doesn’t stop religious people from trying to use them to halt human progress. They are able to use these verses based on misconceptions and lies about what transgender identity means or what gender is When you actually are informed about these issues and concepts, you’ll find that these verses aren’t able to justify their hatred at all. For this reason, I’ve decided to expose these verses and explore why the Bible doesn’t actually have anything to say about transgender people or their identity, much less that it is a source of immorality.

 

Deuteronomy 22:5

“A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.”

 

There are a couple things to unpack here. The most relevant thing for this post, though, is that it doesn’t say anything about trans people. A transgender person is the gender they identify with, period. Just because someone was previously thought of and referred to as a man does not mean that they are (or even were) a man. Conservative Christians probably think that this verse says something about trans people because so many of them think that a trans woman is literally a man in a dress. In actuality, a trans woman doesn’t violate this rule, because she is not a man putting on a women’s cloak, she is a woman putting on a woman’s cloak.

 

Of course, then you have to deal with the problem of knowing what a “woman’s cloak” is. For the purposes of this verse I’ll be charitable and extend its meaning to “women’s clothing”. Clothes just don’t have genders. The social etiquette that we’ve set up of pants being for men and dresses being for women is arbitrary. There’s no good reason that dresses are “women’s clothing”. Furthermore, it’s hard to compare between the clothing that we have in Western cultures today and whatever people were wearing in the Iron Age Middle East. The rule proposed here is ill-defined.

 

The only case in which it really makes sense to call an article of clothing a woman’s garment is if it’s an article of clothing that happens to be owned by a woman. British comedian Eddie Izzard is famous for cross-dressing onstage, yet when asked why he wears women’s clothes he responds by saying, “They’re not women’s clothes. They’re my clothes. I bought them.” If a woman owns an article of clothing then it follows that that article of clothing is a woman’s garment. So when a trans woman owns a dress, it is in fact a woman’s dress. If I bought the dress off her it would then be a man’s dress, since I am a man and I own it. I guess this rule might be pretty good if it meant, “you shouldn’t be wearing other people’s clothes, because they’re not yours!”  But even if that were the case, it wouldn’t have anything to say about transgender people specifically.

 

Genesis 1:27

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Genesis 5:2

Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.

Matthew 19:4-6

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Mark 10:4-9

They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.

 

These might be the most common rebuttal verses to the existence of transgender people. Again, there’s a lot to unpack.

 

For the verses found in Genesis, this is clearly a reference to the creation of Adam and Eve. “Them” is not mankind, it is very clearly two specific people. The Matthew and Mark passages also mentions this creation, but it’s also specifically within the context of a man and a wife, and even more specifically within the context of divorce. A follower asked Jesus specifically whether a man should leave his wife. None of these have anything to do with transgender people specifically. The Gospel verses do certainly enforce a harmful patriarchal idea with some strongly implied gender roles, but that would be true whether or not the man or the wife are transgender. Whether it’s Adam and Eve or a divorcing couple, being trans is a non-factor for all participants.

 

The only thing it really seems to imply about transgender people is that it doesn’t indicate that nonbinary people exist. Of course, any conservative Christian on the street likely has no clue that there are nonbinary/genderqueer/genderfluid/etc. people in the first place, so they probably wouldn’t be informed enough to even make this argument. Even if the verses mention that the Christian god created male and female people, that doesn’t mean that the god only created males and females. There’s a lot of things that exist that The Bible doesn’t mention: Neptune, the electromagnetic spectrum, mitochondria, etc., but just because the Bible doesn’t mention them doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

 

I’m going to get charitable as fuck here, so hold on to your tushy. Let’s assume that these verses actually do mean that the creator only made male and female. That still wouldn’t exclude binary trans people. Trans women and trans men already fall under the category of “male and female”. So in actuality, these verses say nothing. Until the new “Anti-SJW Version” of the Bible comes out and specifically states that the Christian god made Adam and Eve cisgender, there’s no reason to think the Bible says anything about transgender people in these verses.

 

Romans 1:24-32

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

Leviticus 18:22

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

1 Corinthians 6:9-20

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

 

I mentioned earlier that some of the verses from OpenBible that I ignored didn’t address gender. These verses don’t really have anything to do with gender either so I could also choose to ignore them, but they address sexuality which is often tied to traditional gender roles. That’s why it’s worth addressing in this post.

 

Sexuality and gender are not the same thing. Heteronormative society and the Bible try and enforce the idea that the two are inextricably linked. Men fall in love with women, and women fall in love with men. That’s just the way things are.

 

Of course, we know that that’s not true. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and otherwise queer people exist, of course. But that’s not out of a desire of trying to be another gender or pretend to be something they’re not. It’s merely out of an attraction to someone of a particular sex or gender that’s outside of an arbitrary societal norm that enforces heterosexuality. I’ve talked to Christians that were very confused about this. “If gay men aren’t trying to be a girl, then why do they act effeminate? Why do they talk all high-pitched? Why do they all like to dance and wear bright colors?” Of course, I have to explain to them that this is just a stereotype. You’ll definitely find a lot of gay men who fit the stereotype, but you’ll also find plenty who do not. There’s a reason that both bears and lipstick lesbians are important terms, since there are entire subcultures of people who have a non-straight sexuality, yet align with the stereotype for their gender.

 

It may also confuse people that “Transgender” is often lumped into the same category as Gay, Lesbian, or Straight. After all, why lump together dissimilar things? I’d argue that, for one thing, the confusion described in the previous two paragraphs causes people to treat trans people effectively the same as queer people. Ultimately, both groups eschew traditional gender roles, which is apparently scary as fuck for most people. This is a perspective I’ve learned from my dear friends Callie and Ari, who are both queer and trans. There are certainly more reasons explaining why the “T” is included in LGBTQ, since trans inclusivity is likely to bolster numbers politically for both movements. That being said, while both trans and queer people face many of the same flavors of bigotry, they are distinct identities that involve different life experiences, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

 

Deuteronomy 23:1

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.

Matthew 19:12

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Isaiah 56:4-5

For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

 

This may be the closest thing that the Bible gets to actually addressing behaviors that some transgender people tend to go through, but it’s highly misleading and inaccurate to say that it actually addresses transgender people. For various reasons, trans people often don’t get any reassignment surgery. In fact, apparently a majority don’t, such that trans advocates have put a lot of effort into emphasizing that surgery is far from the most important part of being transgender. The best that you could say about how well these verses address transgender people is that it addresses a behavior that some of them go through that the general population largely doesn’t. It hardly encompasses the entire transgender identity, which is just a state of having a gender identity that doesn’t conform with the sex assigned at birth.

 

The other point is that eunuchs existed largely to protect harems of powerful men, since they would be least likely to act sexually upon these women. There appears to be some debate on what the original Hebrew word indicated, but it appears that the word that the Bible uses indicates castration for the purposes of a career rather than identity. The Bible doesn’t really even indicate transgender people specifically.

 

There’s really not much more to say about that, but I do find it interesting that the first verse seems to be in direct conflict with the second two passages. It’s not exclusively contradictory, but it does seem strange that the god in question would ban eunuchs from entering places of worship on Earth, while at the same time having an apparently esteemed place in Heaven. Maybe I should give points to the Bible for specifically pointing out people who have been “eunuchs from birth”, since at least Heaven is apparently intersex inclusive.

 

1 Corinthians 11:14-15

Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

 

This one is wrong basically for the same reasons as the clothing-based verses previously mentioned. Instead of basically rehashing that, I elect to provide this image as a rebuttal instead:

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[Image: Jesus, including his silken, luscious flowing locks]

Matthew 6:25

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

 

This is the point when it’s apparent that you really have to grasp at straws to find anything in the Bible remotely related to transgender issues. Clearly, the only relevant part of the verse is where it states that people should not be anxious about their body. This would be a nice sentiment if anxiety were a controllable mental illness, but it isn’t. If I could control what I was anxious about, I wouldn’t be anxious about anything. Yet I definitely am anxious about aspects of my life, so while I am not transgender I already disobey this verse, along with anyone else who has some sort of anxiety disorder.

 

That being said, in a sense this verse addresses trans issues far better than the “eunuch” verses already discussed due to the high rate of mental health issues that trans people experience. 55% of trans people experience social anxiety, 50% experience depression, and a large part of the transgender experience is the phenomenon of gender dysphoria. While “being anxious about your body” is too simplified a description for these terms, if you tilt your head and squint a little bit you could assume that the Bible is referring to these mental health issues. If the Bible is in fact addressing them, that hardly makes it better by telling people not to do these. These issues are largely out of people’s control outside of seeking treatment, so if someone has a disorder or condition along these lines, then they are disobeying Jesus through no fault of their own! It’s almost as if people are often designed to be born sinners by a creator that will send them to Hell through no fault of their own. Huh.

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the reason that these health problems in transgender people are so prevalent is not because transgender people are inherently crazy. There is a narrative that trans people are going through life anxious, depressed, constantly upset, or otherwise out of their minds which should be discouraged. Trans people are capable of living wonderful, happy lives. It’s not the actual identity that causes the mental health problems, it’s the stigma. So just like we shouldn’t think of trans people as people who have had surgery on their intimate parts, we should also make sure that we don’t think of them as inherently mentally ill people either.

 

Galatians 3:28

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

 

Unlike the other ones, this is a verse that is touted by progressives as an example of the Bible actually supporting transgender people. If you’re going to focus on the one part of the verse that merely states that “there is no male and female”, then you could come to the conclusion that the Bible has come to the modern understanding that gender is a social construct. That would be awesome if it were true, but I don’t think that’s a good conclusion.

 

Read within the context of the verse, you also see other examples of things that apparently don’t exist. Galatians 3:28 also states that there is no slavery or freedom, and there is no Jew or Greek (since Jew is contrasted with Greek, I will assume that this verse is referring to cultural or ethnic Judaism, instead of the religious group). Like gender, these are also constructs. There is nothing in someone’s inherent nature that makes someone a slave, it is the fact that another human has imposed upon their autonomy. There is no inherent difference between someone from Greece or Israel, but people separated by distance cause both groups to develop different ideas, traditions, and values. Like gender, all these things may not exist as a result of someone’s biology, but they undoubtably have an effect on how we live our lives as a result of how humans treat each other.

 

The Bible is wrong about a great many things about reality, but again I will be charitable and assume that the writers of Galatians weren’t so foolish as to deny that people hold other people has property. After all, slavery certainly existed as an institution when Galatians was written, and slavery is discussed and endorsed in other parts of the Bible. Similar things can be said about the existence of other cultures. At best, this verse seems to imply that these differences don’t matter to Jesus, especially taking into account, “you are all one in Jesus Christ.” This is a decent sentiment.

 

Unfortunately, I don’t find this verse that reassuring, especially considering the emphasis on traditional gender roles you can find all over the rest of the Bible. For a book that doesn’t consider there to be much of a difference between male and female, there sure is a lot of misogyny in it. Women certainly are treated as dirtier than men from very early on. Women are certainly taught to be silent and subservient to men. Wives are taught to submit to their husbands. This hardly scratches the surface. There certainly are a lot of rules involved that go to great lengths to distinguish male and female and treat them differently. For this reason, even if this verse could in some sense support de-emphasizing gender differences, that support rings hollow within the context of the rest of the book.

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Both Saint and Sinner; Both Oppressed and Oppressor

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Trav Mamone

I used to be a Lutheran, and one Lutheran doctrine that always fascinated me was that Christians are both sinners and saints simultaneously. According to Kathryn Kleinhans of Living Lutheran, the saint part isn’t because of the good we do, but because of God’s grace. She writes, “We are called saints not because we change into something different but because our relationship with God changes as a result of God’s grace.” This always cheered me up whenever I would beat myself up over my imperfections.

 

Of course it wasn’t until after I became an atheist that I realized how constantly reminding myself that I was a wretched sinner who didn’t deserve God’s love really damaged me. As Hemant Mehta once said in a video, “No one should repent for just being human.” However I still believe in this non-dichotomous way of viewing humankind. We think there are only two kinds of people in the world—good people and bad people, smart people and ignorant people—but the truth is people are way too complex to fit into just two boxes. In my few short years in the atheist community, I’ve seen really smart people believe in bullshit ideas, and I’ve seen good people act like jerks. So even from a secular point of view, we’re both saints and sinners simultaneously. Or as my friend Shiri Eisner wrote in her book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, “We are all oppressors and we are all oppressed—and we must all deal both with our oppression and our privileges” (p. 88).

 

Anyone involved with social justice activism can tell you this is a hard pill to swallow. I used to think that because I’m bisexual and genderqueer, being an ally to other groups would come naturally to me. However, when you live in a society that says, “All people are equal, but some are more equal than others,” you’re going to internalize a lot of racist, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic, acephobic, ableist, and classist messages, and eventually those messages will slip out of your mouth. You probably didn’t mean any harm, but intentions don’t negate the fact you fucked up. You have to own up to it, say you’re sorry, and learn from your mistake.

 

I got a rude reminder of this three weeks ago. I got called out for going into two feminist groups on Facebook wanting to be coddled, and then writing an angry blog post when people said they didn’t want my tears. Not only that, but I let MRAs spread their rape apologist fuckery in the comment section while I ignored it. Instead of owning up to all this, though, I got defensive and blocked everyone who was calling me out. I even played the “Don’t call me out because I was severely bullied as a child and now I have anxiety” card. That was a moment when the mask fell off my face and I was exposed. I panicked and decided to take a three-week break from my Bi Any Means podcast and blog while I processed everything.

 

Now I’ve been known to be overly dramatic, so maybe I made a bigger deal out if it than it is. After all, nobody blogged about it (The Amazing Atheist was the fuckboy of the atheist blogosophere at the time), and no one that I know of unfriended me from Facebook. But the incident made me rethink why I do all this social justice stuff. Do I really care about changing the world, or do I just want the attention? Is this simply another lesson in a life-long process of unlearning oppressive behavior, or am I really just a monster like Dan Lindford?

 

It’s easy to call out other people’s oppressive behavior, but it’s hard to call out your own. Fortunately, Kai Cheng Thom’s article “9 Ways to be Accountable When You’ve Been Abusive” helped me sort things out. It taught me to own up to my mistakes, not make any excuses, and not beat myself up for it. I tend to be either extremely defensive or extremely guilty, and neither one helps. Another article that’s really helped me out was Jennifer Loubriel’s “4 Ways White People Can Process Their Emotions without Bringing the White Tears.” And wouldn’t you know it, number 3 is “Excuse yourself if you’re having strong emotions.” Well hell, if I had done that, none of this shit would have happened! I guess sometimes you have to really fuck up in order to learn.

 

In fact, as A.C. Grayling wrote in The God Argument, “It is through failure and criticism that one has one’s best chance of learning the best lessons” (p. 168). I don’t believe in the whole “Everything happens for a reason” crap, but maybe it’s a good thing I fucked up. How else would I have learned how to be a better activist? I know it’s clichéd, but it’s true; you learn from your mistakes.

 

And I’m going to make more mistakes in the future. In fact, that’s why I no longer call myself an ally for other marginalized groups; instead, I say I’m practicing allyship. As the phrase suggests, you don’t just wake up one day the perfect ally because unlearning oppressive behavior is a life-long process with no magic formulas. The growing pains hurt, but eventually you learn to be a better person.

 

One of the best ways to practice allyship is to listen instead of talk. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion, but that you need to remember that your opinion might be wrong. I’m not a biologist, so whenever the topic of evolution comes up in online arguments, I share articles from biologists who can explain evolution better than I can. Likewise, I’m not black, so whenever the topics of racism and #BlackLivesMatter comes up in online arguments, it’s best for me to share articles from black people telling their stories.

 

I used to think that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who got their shit together and assholes. The truth is everyone is still learning how to be better people, and that includes me.

 

Trav Mamone is a bisexual genderqueer atheist/humanist writer who blogs about the intersections of secular humanism and social justice at Bi Any Means. They also host the Bi Any Means podcast and co-hosts the Biskeptical podcast with Morgan Stringer. They currently serve on the Advisory Council of the LGBTQ Humanist Alliance, and they regularly contribute to TheHumanist.com.

Open Thread: Avoiding the Negativity vs. Being Informed

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Jeremiah Traeger

Skepticism isn’t easy. It’s far more than just “disbelieving things”. It’s aligning your beliefs as best you can with the best available evidence. That takes work.

We know we can’t just consume media from one perspective. When a new controversial story comes out, I tend to look past the Huffington Posts and the Alternets to avoid my left leaning bias. I avoid Breitbart for just being untrustworthy, but the Blaze is often good for a laugh. It’s good to get a story from multiple news sources, even “fair and balanced” sites that claim to present the news as it is while still having a bit of a slant. Usually I’m able to see why they have the opinions they have, even if I find them based on faulty premises.

The “skeptics” I most disagree with tend to be people who make 20-30 long YouTube videos. Watching just one is exhausting, especially when their rhetoric and mannerisms are so condescending, reminiscent of the bullies who alienated and attacked me growing up. Yet when I don’t engage in watching the whole thing, suddenly I’m intellectually dishonest. Even though sometimes it will take pages and pages of blog posts to rebut a single video (Thanks to Stephanie Zvan and Martin Hughes for those). That’s exhausting.

I don’t even have time to listen to podcasts from people I consider friends and that I largely agree with. My podcatcher is filled with episodes from people I enjoy talking to a lot yet won’t listen to this week… or next week… or the week after. My rule of thumb is that if the next episode comes out before I’ve listened to the previous one, the previous one gets removed. The atheist podcast community is pretty oversaturated, unfortunately, and I just can’t be exposed to every point of view.

This also means if I want to be exposed to other viewpoints I have to actively carve out time specifically for that. I have to give credit to Secular Media Group’s Paleo Radio for providing a pretty reasonable perspective that occasionally is lot more centrist/libertarian than my progressive peers. I’ve recently listened to a No Religion Required listener’s Creating a New World, a podcast focused on eliminating government entirely, something that’s probably far out for most atheists. And whenever there’s drama within the community (such as one podcaster calling another podcaster out), I’ve tended to listen to the “other side” more often than not, if only to hear the specific grievances of what that person says and not just take the word of people on my side.

Then there’s the big problems that the general public would know more about than those involved in atheist communities. We have to be informed about Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Syria. In this year’s election season, I need to know about climate change, the tax code, our border policy, religious freedom, women’s healthcare, police violence, election reform, police violence, party corruption, Hillary Clinton’s emails, Donald Trump’s bigotry, GMOs, vaccines, gun control, LGBTQ rights, the Trans Pacific Partnership, student debt, and where people should be allowed to pee. These topics intersect with each other, yet any one could take hours to get a decent perspective on any of them.

What doesn’t help is that for a good many of these, I could easily not care about them. No nondiscrimination law is likely to affect me in the near future. I’m in a largely white city with low police violence, and due to how I’m perceived I’m unlikely to get pulled over for a busted taillight. But if we make the wrong choice on LGBTQ issues, people die. If we make the wrong choice on gun control, people die. If we make the wrong choice about our poverty problem, families get kicked out of their homes and then they die. For a lot of minorities and marginalized folks, these discussions are far more than just intellectual academic disagreements, they are life or death. We can talk all day about what makes women uncomfortable in bathrooms, but encoding transgender bathroom rules into law can lead to them getting killed. We could argue forever about our local housing communities, but blacks will continue to be disproportionately targeted by gentrification. These topics are exhausting for me to be informed about, and none will affect me in any personal way. I do not envy anyone who has to end up arguing with people every day where they get to urinate, something so basic that I barely give a thought about doing it when I need to. This has some serious mental health implications (something I also need to be informed about).

At some point, it’s important to take care of ourselves. I like to go home, read blogs, cook dinner, and see if I can catch some new pokemon. I already wrote why it’s ok to focus on your personal problems even in a world filled with such massive issues, and that should extend to taking care of yourself. But how am I supposed to compensate? I’m privileged to have a job that I can sometimes listen to podcasts (I also have to be informed on the relevant scientific literature for my job, which is more of the same problem I’ve been discussing here). That’s often not possible, so then I have to catch up on the news and media once I get home, where I have limited time to take care of myself before going to sleep and going to work the next day. I’m not capable of finding out the whole spectrum of opinions on every topic that was in my Facebook feed today. I’m exhausted once I get home from work, and according to some people if I don’t take the time to watch a bully on YouTube that’s even more exhausting, I’m intellectually dishonest? And if I’m exhausted getting home from work, how more exhausted would I be if I were a trans woman coming home to my news feed with people threatening to beat up “a man in a dress walking into my daughter’s bathroom”? I’d have a choice to let that bullshit go unchallenged and give myself a mental break, or taking time and energy to call someone who clearly doesn’t value my humanity. I don’t blame someone taking either choice, but there is some negative outcome either way.

I think it’s awesome that we can so easily connect with like-minded people via the internet. This allows us to find communities. Yet I’m always aware that I need to expose myself to others who disagree with me. It’s one reason why I never really unfriend people for disagreement (I’ve only done it twice, one for blatant transphobia and one for blatant racism, and I had already called both of them out on that before). But I’m also sympathetic to people who just can’t put up with bullshit. I’m also definitely not going to criticize anyone cutting someone out of their life or blocking someone for being abusive. But even sometimes, one person’s “intellectual disagreement” can have drastic consequences on the life of another. May I remind you about LGBTQ teens who are homeless cause their parents “don’t agree with the lifestyle”?

Does maintaining intellectual honesty conflict with taking care of yourself? Does being a good skeptic mean trying to be informed on every single issue all the time? Obviously no. No reasonable human would mind someone cutting off all contact with someone harassing them. But being informed about the ills of the world brings some stress into my life, to the point where it can impact my daily life and productivity in a hugely negative way. Perhaps this isn’t a problem with anyone else, but wanting to be exposed to the “other side” certainly makes it a lot harder for me to share the memes that encourage people to cut all the negative thinking out of their life.

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[Image: Beautiful things start to happen when you get away from the negativity. Source: positiveoutlooksblog.com]

About the only conclusion I’ve come to myself is that I will never be informed on every issue. While it’s not ideal, it takes a lot of weight off of my shoulders. I’m more interested in how other skeptics deal with this problem. Where do you draw your lines? At what point do you stop following certain media or unfriending people? How do you make sure you have time to take care of yourself, while at the same time making sure you’re not clueless about the world you live in? Do you expose yourself to hatred, knowing that you could use that exposure to correct some of the problems you see? And if so, how? How do you spend your time at home, when you are able to relax and effectively shut out the world? How do you balance that out?

Please comment below.

Anti-Prescriptivist Pedantry: The Word “Knowledge”

Language Prescriptivism is the idea that words have inherent meanings. This leads to very unproductive conversations and other problems. As a descriptivist, I thought I’d start a regular series talking about the various usages of different words that come up here and there that cause regular problems in theological and other debates. While I will always have a preference for certain word usages over others, the label we apply to ideas is not as interesting as the ideas themselves, so I will do my best to present multiple usages behind words in the most charitable way while still defending my preference.

 

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Jeremiah Traeger

“You don’t know that there is no god!”

 

Yes, yes, this is a tired argument, and anyone who has seen this already understands the problem: it’s a shifting of the burden of proof. If you want to see good responses to this there are plenty of resources out there, here’s a favorite of mine. But the standard response that atheists usually give is that they don’t actually hold the position that they know a god doesn’t exist. That actually depends largely on two things:

 

  • What someone means by “god”
  • What someone means by “know”

 

This post is all about the second bullet point. How do we come to “know” something? What counts as “knowledge”? Can we really “know” anything?

 

There is certainly a lot of value in acknowledging our uncertainty in life. It’s useful when we are discussing our perspectives that we assign things as being more or less likely to be true. But does that require throwing “knowledge” out the window? Just because we are uncertain about something does that mean we don’t “know” it?

 

One way that people define “knowledge” is by making it absolute. This is certainly a favorite of presuppositionalist apologists. All you have to do is watch the mind-numbing and baldness-inducing debate between Matt Dillahunty and Sye Ten Bruggencate. Whenever Sye would ask Matt if he could know anything, Matt had to clarify whether Sye meant if this was “absolute knowledge” or some form of knowledge with lower certainty. This certainly frustrated Sye, who didn’t have the tools to deal with someone who wasn’t willing to play his game. Sye repeatedly tried to insist that without his god that we can’t know anything. Unfortunately for him, this is all a bunch of word games. It’s true that in a naturalist universe we have no guarantee of absolute certainty (this is also not true in a theistic universe). Of course, this doesn’t eliminate knowledge.

 

There are also plenty of apologists who would state we have absolute certainty of things such as gravity and the beginning of the universe, something which I disagree with in the other direction, since I think absolute certainty in gravity goes too far. Regardless of how you define knowledge, though, you would probably define absolute certainty as at least a part of knowledge. In that instance you could certainly state that we have at least some knowledge of the universe.

 

This even drifts into atheist circles. A surprisingly large amount of atheists describe themselves as “agnostic atheists”, meaning that they don’t think that a god exists, but that they also don’t know whether or not a god exists or not. Seeing as the root word in Greek, “gnosis”, means knowledge, the term agnostic seems to describe that someone is “without knowledge”*. This has thrown a wrench into a lot of discussions with the general public who describe themselves as “agnostic” in an entirely different sense, that they aren’t sure either way about a god so they throw the question out altogether. This causes a lot of confusion, as people who would call themselves agnostic but not atheist describe themselves in a way that implies that atheists are “certain” that there isn’t a god. Meanwhile, many if not most atheists wouldn’t describe themselves as certain that there isn’t a god anyway.

 

Seeing as “agnosticism” is based on what “knowledge” is, does that mean that everybody is really agnostic? Theists claim absolute certainty about their beliefs sometimes, does that mean that they’re the only people who aren’t agnostic?

 

I’d argue that this form of the word “knowledge” is useless. If knowledge requires absolute certainty, then there are very few things I can know. The only thing I can know is something Renee Descartes demonstrated almost four centuries, stating, “I think, therefore I am”. About the only thing that I’m 100% certain of is that I am experiencing life and creating thoughts, therefore I exist. I could possibly be in a simulation, or I could be experiencing life as I currently understand it: laying on a couch typing into a computer and eating far too many chips. But either way, I am experiencing something, so I know I exist, which is true whether I exist as a simulation or a dream or as a fleshy bag of meat in a very real natural universe. In that sense, I can only pretty know one thing. That is fucking useless.

 

Have you ever asked your coworker if they knew whether or not that the coffeemaker had been refilled, and they stated that they couldn’t know because they could just be a brain in a vat? Unless your coworkers are a bunch of snarky philosophers, this probably hasn’t happened. And if you do have a lot of snarky philosopher coworkers, where do you work, the existentialism factory?

 

No, we have much better usages of knowledge. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines knowledge as justified true belief. This means that we have knowledge when we think something is true (belief), when as far as we can tell it aligns with reality (true), and we have plenty of good evidence to show that it’s true (justified). There are a few problems with this definition that philosophers have with this definition. At what point do we have enough evidence in our belief for it to be justified? Furthermore, we could be supporting our belief with evidence that happens to be bad, as illustrated in the above link with “The Gettier Problem”.

 

Still, this seems to work well enough as a definition. At some point, we have enough evidence to state that we are pretty certain about something. If I asked my coworker if the coffeemaker is full and he just saw our buddy Steve refill it, he could reasonably say that he knows that it’s full. Any number of situations could still make that untrue while Steve can reasonably say that he knows it’s full. In the time since he saw it a horde of caffeine deprived workers could have shown up all at once and filled their cups, emptying the machine. The coffeemaker could have also broken and spilled coffee all over the floor. Or there is no coffee machine and we are living in the Matrix. All of these have varying degrees of plausibility, but all are at least somewhat out of the ordinary for someone who just saw Steve fill the coffeemaker, so our coworker can still be pretty certain that it is full and that he knows so.

 

This seems far more useful as a usage of “knowledge”. It is a type of belief that is more certain than other types of belief. While the line between belief that is justified and not justified might be a bit fuzzy, we know that when someone says that they know something they have a higher degree of certainty than normal about that belief.

 

 

knowledge venn diagram

[Image: A venn diagram. The negative space is labeled “Stuff I don’t believe”. There is a circle labeled “Stuff I believe” and a circle within that circle labeled “stuff I know”, and the more certainty in the belief indicates that the belief is more justified as “knowledge”]

Of course, under this model a lot of theists may be able to claim knowledge of the existence of their god. According to them, they have a lot of evidence, whether through scripture or personal revelation. Their indoctrination has led them to a high degree of certainty that their god is real. This usage of the term knowledge does not always mean that stuff you know is necessarily true. At this point you may accept their use of the word knowledge, but you may also want to question whether or not they are justified. Certainly the evidence they have is fairly poor, so that would be a good point to attack whether they actually know that to be true or not.

 

Conversely, you could also use this definition to actually say that you know that certain gods don’t exist. The quote at the beginning of the piece questioned whether we actually know that gods exist, which is often something said to dismiss someone’s atheism. While many will retreat into a weak atheist or “agnostic” position stating that they don’t know that gods exist, it may be actually a better idea to actually push back and say that you do know that there isn’t a god, at least not in the sense they are proposing. Assuming that this person’s god is a Christian one, there are a lot of contradictory behaviors that he engages in in the Bible. Furthermore, thhe dogma and tenets that people hold about this god lack consistency. The evidence that we have discovered in the real world has only ever supported natural physical causes for the universe’s existence and behavior. Again, we can’t be absolutely certain, but there is a lot of evidence to not only show that the Bible is unreliable, but that it is demonstrably false. This is why I am personally comfortable in stating that I know that there isn’t a Christian god. As AronRa has stated about the Bible, it is, “not evidently true, or evidently not true”. I’m less willing to say that I know there is no god whatsoever. A vague or Deistic god could potentially exist and I don’t have evidence against it, but I certainly have no reason to start believing it in the first place. But for certain gods that have been proposed I’m certainly not an “agnostic atheist”, I am certain of their nonexistence.

 

Hopefully this was a thorough investigation on two different usages of the term “knowledge”. There are certainly more ways people use the word, but these two seem the most common within theological debates, and seem to have the most to discuss. I find the latter usage far more useful. I’d like to think that I’ve made the case enough for you here, but I don’t know that for sure.

 

*The opposite term gnostic could hypothetically be used to describe that someone has knowledge. That being said, Gnosticism is a type of religious sect whose tenets go far beyond merely “knowing that a god exists”. While most people probably don’t know the term “gnostic” anyway, just be careful with your terms should you ever discuss your theistic dissents against a theology professor.

Do Not Stand By My Grave And Weep

This piece was written last spring when the author’s aunt died. It was written to help us through some recent periods of grief in the atheist community, so we can get through the hard times.

Do Not Stand By My Grave And Weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sun on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.

 

~Mary Elizabeth Frye

 

Deb

Deborah McTaggart

This past spring, one of my favourite aunts died.  My Father’s sister, she was only 64 years old.  That’s younger than her own mother was when she passed.  My uncle has already been gone a number of years now, but my aunt, while it hit her hard, never let that phase her.  My aunt was fiercely independent and tough as nails.  She always did her own thing and fuck anyone who tried to get in her way.  Her life was a lot shorter than it should have been, but I think she had a good one, and I think she was happy.  She loved animals and kept horses most of her life, as well as dogs.  She had her own little hair salon in her home and did hair for the community for decades.  She was the first one to ever cut my hair and the only one for my entire childhood.  She raised my two beautiful cousins and enjoyed her three grandsons.  Again, far too short, but it was mostly a good life.

 

I know that death and loss is one of the hardest things we all have to go through in life, yet it is an integral part of life.  Unless we die at far too young of an age ourselves, we will all experience loss and grief at some point.  I am also keenly aware that this heartache and fear is primarily what drives belief in gods and religion.  What wouldn’t any of us do to be able to see and spend time with those we love whom we have lost?  It’s a hell of a lure.  The idea that we can divest ourselves of some of that pain and anguish with the knowledge that our loved one has just moved on, and we can eventually go with them.  It’s a beautiful sentiment, it’s a comfort to millions, it inspires people to do incredible things, and it’s all a fucking lie.

 

Those we have lost are gone.  They are never coming back in any form, and we will not be going anywhere to see them in the future.  This is reality, and in all honesty it fucking sucks.  Which is why billions of people in the world refuse to accept this reality.  Religion has known this for millennia and to me, one of the most despicable practices of religion is to manipulate and capitalize on that. Religion takes people’s deepest fears and pains and uses it against them and it is reprehensible.

 

I’ve heard it said frequently that if religion provides comfort to people, then we should just let it be.  Allow those people the comfort they seek because it doesn’t do any harm and it helps them.  Bullshit! It absolutely DOES do harm.  For every person we allow to believe this shit, they sell the same pack of lies to everyone else in their lives, especially any who have children.  By allowing this mirage to exist, we are harming billions of people who hang a good deal of their emotional well-being on something that is false.

 

We have allowed generations of people to cling to this ideal, that death is not death and that all have the possibility of more.  In doing so, we have deprived ourselves of the true value of life.  The pious deprive themselves of true living, and the fundamentalist often seek to deprive others of experiencing being alive.  Beyond that, we have also deprived generations of the opportunity to gain emotional strength through experiencing loss as it truly is.

 

When people say we should allow a grieving person that solace of believing in eternity, it sounds like a kind thing to do.  We think that it will ease the pain of the loss if we allow them to think their loved one will be waiting for them in the afterlife, whatever that means to them.  But it doesn’t.  It only deprives them of the ability to fully process and accept that loss, because they always doubt that it is actually a loss.  They have hope that it is only a temporary separation, so why would they seek to really accept the finality of death?

 

As a refresher, I looked up the stages of grief.  I’ve been through it enough times that I don’t even follow the stages as they are anymore so it had been a while since I thought of them.  Some schools of thought even claim there are more stages than I remember, but two very important things stood out to me.  One, is that the final stage, acceptance, is not reached by everyone.  Just think about that for a moment.  Millions of people will experience grief and never be able to fully accept the loss.  I have to wonder how much of that is caused by religion and the notion that the loss isn’t final.  I ache for those people who will never know what the peace of that acceptance is like, for those whose emotional pain will likely never ease.  If religion causes even a small fraction of this, it is an evil thing.  I suspect it is the cause of a lot more suffering than this.

 

I am a firm believer that adversity breeds strength.  I’ve lived it enough to be sure of the concept.  In the time immediately following my aunt’s death,  I had a couple of good friends tell me that I am a strong person.  I don’t mean to toot my proverbial horn, but I believe them.  I KNOW it.  I always tell them that I had no choice in the matter, that it was adapt, cope or die.  This speaks to the other thing that really stood out for me when I was researching grief.

 

In that piece, it said: ” As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that you experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it with alcohol or drugs.”

 

THIS is how I manage, how I get through every shitty situation that life has to throw at me and come out ready to take more.  I have to look that pain in the face and go through it.  Let it wash over me like a tsunami until I am left there standing.  And you know what?  I’m always left standing after it passes.  I cannot fear to feel these things, or it will consume from the inside out.  It will fester like a cancer, an infection that will slowly eat you alive.  That’s why I call the experience “lancing the abscess”.  It isn’t pleasant, it’s downright agonizing at times, it can be very messy, but it HAS to happen for me to remain healthy and strong.  I suspect this is the same for a great many people.

 

Yet what does religion do?  Clergy will give you platitudes meant to sooth your pain and encourage you not to feel bad because “god” will fix everything.  I have been to far too many funerals that I have seen this shit time and time again.  Your loved one is “in a better place,” “god wanted to take them home” “god needed a new angel,” and of course, the idea that your loved one will be waiting for you in heaven or be “risen” on judgement day.  Clergy assumes this is true, and does whatever they can to get the bereaved to believe it too.  The intent might be good, but in the end, the bereaved would be much better served by learning how to process that raw emotion, instead of pretending they don’t have a reason to feel that way.

 

Grief is not a standard issue item.  Grief is a mixture of emotions that evolves over time, from when the loss occurs. Just like love, which I talked about in a Facebook Note, there is no fucking way billions of people experience grief the same way.  I get so pissed when I hear people talk about how someone isn’t reacting “normally” to a death or that they are grieving too long or not long enough etc.  Hell people have been suspected of and I might say even convicted of murder based on how they grieved the loss of the victim.  Sorry but there is no “right” fucking way mourn the loss of someone.

 

As I mentioned, I have lost a lot of people in my life, and I have even experienced grief differently over the years.  I don’t follow the known stages of grief, and I’m not sure that I ever have.  I see nothing wrong with that.  Different people mean different things to me, regardless of DNA or affection or love and I’m an individual, not some kind of carbon copy person.

 

I’ve mourned people very profoundly, like my father; I’ve mourned people more for the loss they created in the lives of others around them, like my brother.  I’ve been relieved that the suffering of some people was relieved by their death, like my maternal grandmother.  I’ve been dismayed and shocked by loss, like my college friend who lost his battle with mental illness.

 

And yes, I have rejoiced in the death of someone, the grandfather who molested me.

 

How anyone grieves a loss is their own damn business, and no one should be trying to tell them they’re doing it wrong.  And religion shouldn’t be trying to tell people their grief should be muted or held in.  We have to let it out or we risk being consumed by it.

 

No one in my father’s family was ever religious.  I never had cause to discuss it with them, any of them, but judging by their actions, I would say they were likely a mixture of deists, apatheists, agnostics and maybe even the odd atheist.  Whatever their beliefs, church was only something you did when someone got married or died.

 

Except this time, there was no church.  It is often the custom to have a clergyman at the funeral and say some kind of religious shit like I mentioned above.  My beautiful cousins are apparently smarter than that.  There was no funeral, no clergy, no religious shit whatsoever. We gathered together as a family and remembered my aunt, talked about good times with her and were happy we knew her.  THAT is how it should be.  Find joy in each other; celebrate the life gone and the lives that are still here.  Fuck the sky fairies and their false promises.

 

Dysphoria

Me0001a

Melina Rayna Svanhild Barratt

Today I get to live in drab. That’s another way to say I am not presenting as my authentic self, and instead presenting as a male. Cross dressing in a sense. That’s the problem with transitioning, there is invariably a period of time you have to go back and forth between the two.  Part time in both roles, like one foot is stuck in cement like mud up to your knee. It takes time to get out for some of us. Between records, driver’s license, passport, educational papers and W2’s.  So much has to be done.  A few manage to do most of it before coming out, for some that’s just not possible. Either by regulations, or internal impatience, many have to present well before their official life can change. Often gender dysphoria is a commanding reason to begin to transition and present authentically.  But what is gender dysphoria?  How to explain it….. I’m not sure.  So many times I’ve heard others say they can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to feel this way.  Well, I think atheists are in a unique position to really understand, at least in this country.

 

 

To explain, let me take you down a road.  Before we go, remember that experiences are many and varied.  You’re an atheist, think of how you got there. Now think of how others got there, think of Ryan Bell (Life After God), think of Bobby C (No Religion Required), of Miss Suzy(Bar Room Atheist), Morgan Stringer(BiSkeptikal), Seth Andrews(The Thinking Atheist), Dan Barker(Freedom From Religion Foundation).  Think of how all these people and more had very different experiences getting to atheism.  In a similar fashion, transpeople experience the same variation even while the type is vastly different.  So with that in mind, let’s begin.

 

You have to go to a relative’s house for a night.  For whatever reason, you have to pretend to be Christian while you are there.  It’s not so bad, it’s just dinner. You take off your iam4th T-shirt, put something else on and go.  On the way there, about an hour’s drive, you pass a bunch of churches, many with signs demonizing atheists or gays. One combined those two to fight the Gaytheist Manifesto. Once there, you walk past a statue of The Virgin Mary. On the door is a big decorated cross and a Glory Be welcome mat.  With a smirk you notice a Hole next to the word Glory.  You knock on the door and after a few moments the doors opens, you can hear Amazing Grace playing inside. Your relative warmly greets you then asks you to join in a prayer to thank God for your safe trip.  Once inside you sit on the couch under the painting of Jesus and talk for a bit before dinner. As their honored guest, they ask you to lead the prayer. You bite back replies that come to mind and manage to get through it. After dinner you talk a bit more, before you go they insist on another prayer thanking God the Almighty for bringing such a wonderful God Fearing Christian to their home tonight and wishes He grant you a safe journey home.

 

Now that wasn’t so bad?  Was it?  It’s really easy to read, but seriously put yourself in that story. Now, let’s take it a step further. Easter weekend…..

 

Once again you find you have to spend time with that relative, but this time it’s an entire day.  Easter Sunday. You wake up, drink some coffee from your NRR mug, get dressed and go. This time you meet at the church.  The pastor at the entrances asks what church you normally go to.  Maybe you manage to refer to Sunday Assembly just enough to deflect any further inquiry. Right before the service starts, the pastor approaches you and asks you to fill in for an absent usher during the collection. They serve communion, they sing hymns, they read bible verses. You sit and stand and sit again, eat the wafer and drink the grape juice, going through the motions mostly to avoid any confronation.  After service everyone goes outside for the egg hunt. Before it starts there’s a benediction to bless all the children with God’s Glory. Afterwards there is a church potluck lunch served, before the lines are opened there is another group prayer with everyone holding everyone’s hands. You get your food and sit down with your relative and together have yet another prayer before eating. After lunch the events continue with all kinds of activities for hours, all bible themed stuff. Finally, that’s over but before you go home you go to eat once more with your relative, once again a set of prayers before and after and again as you get in your car.

 

Now how does that feel, as a Thinking Atheist?  Dwell on it.  Let’s go yet another step…… Vacation Bible School.  You’ve been enlisted to help manage VBS for a week at the church while you are staying with your relative for reasons that don’t matter (don’t argue, yes you have to go!  It’s a thought experiment, not a democracy). The whole week, from Friday night to Friday night nonstop Jesusing like one long God Awful Movie. And you have to play along….

 

How comfortable would you find those situations?  That is something of what dysphoria feels like.  And the degree of it will vary from person to person. Some atheists really miss going to those things and find a certain amount of comfort going back, if only for the experience even if they don’t believe.  Others don’t much care one way or the other and are just mildly bothered by it. Some would be fighting back so very many Scathing responses, silently screaming “this is not me!  Why am I doing this!?!”  Call it religious dysphoria, not so much different really.

The Worthwhile Problems Part II: “That Shit Isn’t As Bad As THIS Shit”

IMG_1924

Jeremiah Traeger

Last week I wrote a piece about the importance of giving a damn about yourself and your local problems. The purpose was to comfort those in times of loss and struggle, even though the problems of the world seem like much bigger and much more important problems. It’s advice even I struggle to listen to. That being said, it’s not that hard to arrive at that conclusion logically: we won’t be able to make the world better if we ourselves are not in a position to do that effectively in the first place. Usually the only people who are going to solve your individual struggles are you and the people close to you, so you might as well work on the problem if you’re one of the people who can fix it. This does not, however, only apply to immediate problems within our local everyday lives; this philosophy extends to much larger collective movements and many struggles that we fight against.

Many times when we advocate for a cause, we are met with pushback with the transparent purpose of derailing our fight because we aren’t solving “the real problems”. When last week’s murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers prompted justified outrage, status quo defenders came out of the woodwork to say, “Black-on-black crime is a much bigger problem. Why aren’t you focusing on that?” The atheist community in America often gets backlash from conservative apologists, who will chide us by stating, “Atheists have it pretty easy in America, why don’t you care about the ones in the Middle-East that are killed?” A similar tactic is used to dismiss feminist causes, since any injustices that women face in America are not nearly bad as honor killings and female genital mutilation that appear in certain countries as a result of religious hegemony.

I already brought up the quote by Richard Feynman in the aforementioned piece, but since I find it such an immensely useful quote, I will bring it back up as an example of wonderful advice from one of history’s most rational minds.

“The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to… No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.”

The problems we focus on are the ones we choose because we can do something about it. Let us not delude ourselves that every cause will be equally fruitful with the same amount of effort we put in. Furthermore, since we are finite beings with finite energy and finite time without an omnipotent force on our side, we will always have to pick our battles. As such, there is no shame in using our finite resources on apparently small potatoes, as long as we get some fruits out of our labor.

Black-on-black crime is absolutely a problem. So is white-on-white crime, since crime overwhelmingly tends to be intraracial, especially due to housing patterns where people of similar color will gravitate towards the same neighborhoods. White-on-white crime is the same problem as black-on-black crime, which is violent culture. This is a pretty hefty problem in a country that worships guns and the military. I’m absolutely not saying that it’s an impossible or unworthy problem to solve; changing hearts and minds is something many of us work on everyday as atheists and secularists. However, solving this problem is a large and abstract task. Racial justice advocates have very concrete plans that can be written into laws and justice system policies for police reform, and how to educate and advocate for these causes . Don’t get me wrong, this will hardly be an easy battle to fight, but we have a much more direct course of action with clear ways of achieving our goals than just attacking “violence” in general.

The same goes for any societal hurdles that atheists and women face at the hands of religious hegemony. Groups like the American Humanist Association (AHA) and Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) are known for filing lawsuits against seemingly frivolous offenses such as prayers at public school graduations, exclusively Christian representation in government meetings, or religious symbols on public property. There are certainly more harmful offenses being committed at the hands of religion such as religious-based workplace discrimination, public school indoctrination such as the teaching of creationism, and fucking Hobby Lobby. However, the aforementioned groups certainly seem to spend a lot of time focusing on apparently smaller issues. Certainly America is a great place for religious freedom already! We have no blasphemy laws. We have no rules against apostasy, unlike a variety of middle-eastern countries. We have no Raif Badawi over here. Why are we so focused on things as harmless as a mere cross in a park when ISIS still exists? Why are women so focused on silly and relatively benign gender roles in the United States when women in Saudia Arabia get lashes for being raped? These are BIG problems, why are we focusing on the small ones?

Simply put, because we can win them. I’m obviously firmly against the laws against religious freedom in the Middle East. While there are organizations that can help, we can only be so effective overseas. In comparison, FFRF clearly wins battles. If you give right-wing evangelcals an inch, they will try and take a mile, and we are far from having true religious equality in the United States as it is.

We should protest and speak out against laws in Saudi Arabia that prevent women from driving or walking around without a chaperone, but it will be difficult to make that change from here. By contrast, challenging traditional gender roles in the west is one of modern feminism’s best endeavors (in my opinion). When you begin to challenge people on things women cannot do compared to men, the arguments get pretty silly. Just look at some of the things said against Mad Max: Fury Road or having a woman president (not just against Hillary, women in general). I’m not saying that it’s a guaranteed win; fighting some of these battles can be just as fruitless as arguing against certain religious apologists. At the same time, our society is slowly becoming more egalitarian over time, and that’s a result of our efforts in these conversations.

Consider, then, that whenever you want someone to focus on a “bigger” problem that you come across as tone policing. Everyone fights their battles in their own way. Unless someone appears to be actively causing harm, I tend not to police people’s way of changing the world. It’s worth talking about why someone would choose to fight in one way and not another, and maybe both people involved in the conversation can learn from each other. But by being dismissive of a cause you are diverting the conversation away from where solutions are being developed. You are actively putting your energy into preventing problems from being solved, whether or not that is your intention.

Some reading this may protest, stating, “It’s only logical and reasonable that we focus on big problems? Why should we waste time on ones that aren’t as important?” I have to mention that you are also committing an informal logical fallacy when you make this appeal. The dismissal of certain concerns due to the presence of more pressing concerns is known as the Fallacy of Relative Privation. If we can’t care about prayers at board meetings because Saudi Arabia beheads people for blasphemy, then there are a lot of problems we can’t solve here anyway. We aren’t allowed to get food for our family because children are starving around the globe, we can’t care about violence in America because there are still bombings in the Middle East, and we can’t care about whooping cough while there are still AIDS epidemics in Africa. If you think this is a valid conclusion, I’m no longer concerned with your opinions because I think they are ludicrous.

There are pragmatic reasons to focus on the small issues. For one thing, change tends to  be more effective the more local the problem is. Not only will there be fewer institutional and legislative hurdles to overcome at the local political level, but we are far more motivated to be involved with problems that affect us directly. This doesn’t only apply to issues that hit close to home geographically, but also ones that directly affect our identities and the people close to us. If a trans person faces discrimination or they can’t even pee where they work, you bet your ass they are going to have a much stronger fire lit under them to affect change in that area compared to other problems. If they’re going to be effective at changing one particular thing for the better, why would you ask them to focus on something “way worse”, such as gays being thrown off of buildings in Iraq? If you are interested in diverting their focus, you are acting like the parents who want to force their child to be an engineer when they have no math skills or interest in that type of field. It’s simply not going to work.

And ultimately, there’s nothing preventing us from caring about multiple causes. While we have finite resources, we are capable of caring about crosses at public parks as well as blasphemy laws. Both are important causes. Both are worth discussing and doing something about. You may only have the resources to focus on one, or enough to focus on both, or neither, and all options are ok. Join FFRF or The International Humanist and Ethical Union if either seem like good causes to you. I’ve only put money into one, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value the other. And that’s because I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t really up to anyone to decide what cause is important for anyone else (unless that cause is actively doing harm). I am always willing to “sell” why what I care about is important, but I think dismissing someone else for focusing on something I’m not as personally motivated for is misplaced. I have no good reason to say X is bad because Y is better.

So please do not police causes you see as pointless or useless. Chances are, they are serving a purpose. After all, if a problem can be solved, the important thing is that it can be solved. Someone will have to do it, even if it means taking time away from your favorite cause. That’s ok, because the best problems worth solving are the ones that can be solved, however small.

 

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