atheism

Baby Problem Steps: Atheist Edition

There are a lot of reasons to point out media that fail this or that marginalized group.  The euphemism “problematic” acknowledges media that traffic in stereotypes, show gut-wrenching physical or emotional violence for shock value, discuss the mere existence of marginalized groups as though it were funny enough to be the punchline of jokes, or otherwise promote the deadly ideals of kyriarchy.  It’s largely a matter of public record that it’s not really possible to totally eschew “problematic” media.  Our ability to even recognize things as problematic is dependent on the axes of oppression of which we’re aware, so one person’s seemingly innocent pleasure is another’s dehumanization-for-entertainment.  Additionally, many problematic tropes are so entirely because they are pervasive, dominating depictions of members of the groups in question, rather than because they are directly insulting or damaging, and so can only be redeemed by other depictions becoming common enough to offset their impact.

There’s something that gets lost in discussions of problematic media, however, and that’s how they can be a necessary stepping stone for people on their way to better things.

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Guest Post: The Stigma of Mental Illness and Religiosity: A Dual Insult

Guest post by Katrina Halfaker

 

My life is defined, to some extent, by my mental disorders. To be chemically different is to be a lesser. It is to be stigmatized. We’re cast as violent, deranged, and irrational even though we are ten times more likely to be victims of abuse, often by those in positions of power, whether they be police officers, academic administrators, loved ones, or strangers on the street.

 

I’m an atheist with OCD, which is comorbid with other anxiety-based disorders, and I noticed clues of their onset as early as when I was ten, as did my family, though they never took me to a doctor. In the last year, I’ve dealt with mild pubic trichotillomania. Years before, I developed a binge-eating disorder (which led to childhood obesity). It went quiet for a while, but still, it occasionally asserts itself in relapses. Every single person in my immediate family has been or is currently affected by at least one major disorder (diagnosed and undiagnosed: SAD, borderline personality disorder, and depression). I was raised in a religious household and educated until teenage-hood in a low-key Creationist school. We never had a licensed school therapist or nurse, or any provisions outside of an occasional hearing and vision test – but we did have chapel every week.

 

So, yes: I know the difference between reinforced frameworks and chemical diversity.

 

Many of you, my fellow secularists, need to understand one very crucial aspect of this dilemma: you have made it personal when you call religion a mental illness. And you have transgressed in ways you believe you have not. And you are unwilling to acknowledge it.

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Interview for Bi Any Means

I sat down with Trav Mamone of Bi Any Means to discuss my book, my new vlog, disability activism, atheism, and more. You should take a listen if you get the chance.

Listening through the podcast I realized that I accidentally used  an expression I’ve been trying to eliminate from my vocabulary because of it’s ableist implications. A good reminder that even people who care about these issues make mistakes and it is up to us to make amends when we do. To those who were hurt, I apologize and endeavor to do better in the future. Mea Culpa. I’m sorry.

Teal Haired Ania Cartoon blushing and looking apologetic

I’m sorry

As such please note: CN for use of Insane as a pejorative.

Listen to the Podcast Here

Art and the Robot

A few years ago, I attended an art museum with Ania and one of her friends from her hometown.  There was friction between the three of us.  Ania hadn’t been in much contact with this friend for years at this time, and importantly, had come into her atheism and become involved with me in that gap.  Her friend, in turn, was still religious.  I earned some of her friend’s future antipathy to me by being a little too insistently flirtatious, which is not a good thing for a perceived cis straight man in a relationship to be toward a woman who is clearly uninterested, but most of it preceded that unfortunate buildup.  A lot of it coalesced into a rather unfortunate turn of phrase she used during that art museum trip:

“[S]he’s not one of those atheists, is [s]he?”

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Unpacking the Red Pill

I’m actually sort of upset that internet hate groups have managed to co-opt the matrix red pill analogy. It is actually a really good metaphor for social justice and the way that becoming aware of privilege and systemic injustice works.

It really is like suddenly opening your eyes and realizing that everything you thought you were seeing you were actually seeing incorrectly your whole life. It’s incredible. Where the analogy fails is by painting it as a single pill.

The truth is that becoming aware of social justice issues is really like swallowing a whole bunch of different red pills, each one exposing you to yet another level of interconnected systems of oppression. This is why we get some atheist activists, and other social justice activists, falling into this same trap over and over again of thinking that they couldn’t possibly be sexist, racist, transphobic, classist, etc. because they “already swallowed the red pill” so now they could see the whole truth.

There is also this idea that swallowing one red pill makes every additional one easier to see, but that’s not true. Sometimes you can swallow multiple red pills at ones at once. But the truth is that each one is painful to take. Each one produces its own side-effects, its own difficulties. Swallowing the red pill is never easy.

It’s not just one easily exposed system that once you see a part of, you essentially get an idea of the whole. It is more like a self-replicating computer virus that infects different system files. You can cut one out, but unless you get them all, it will just rebuild again.To really solve the problem, you have to root out every single individual corrupted system file. Otherwise, the program rebuilds itself, just using a different pathway, but ultimately yielding the same result.

Take the evolution of feminism throughout the years. Each wave of feminism exposed layers of patriarchal oppression, however, by failing to consider the interconnections of various issues and the level to which the system was self-replicating, rather than fixing the problem is shifted the scope of it. Such as when the response of women trying to prove that they were every bit as capable in “masculine” fields and tasks ended up reinforcing the gender binary. The focus was on showing that women can also do “masculine things” rather than on showing that the division of actions into an either or option was not based on an accurate social model of gender. The resulting surge in femmephobia reinforced a lot of harmful patriarchal concepts that are now that much more difficult to dismantle. It’s not that second-wave feminists went too far, it is that they didn’t go far enough. It failed to take into account how the system is also supported by race, by cis-centrism, by ableism. It failed to look at the matrix as a whole.

Imagine if the matrix actually existed as a series of levels. With every successive pill you see a little more of the matrix. But if you don’t realize there are more pills to take, you might be tempted to think you see the whole matrix. Agent Smith is counting on that, because as long as you believe you are outside the matrix, they can use the parts of the matrix you are still connected to to shift your perception of the world around you.  As long as you are still within levels of the matrix however, you continue to power the system.

If we take the premise of the matrix movie that human beings are being turned into a potato battery, becoming aware of different spheres of oppression is like discovering that your potato battery is charging other batteries and working to shut off those batteries so that your battery doesn’t die. Those are the first red pills you usually take.

The hard pills to take are those that reveal that even while you are struggling to unplug the connections that are causing other batteries to drain your charge, you are recharging your own battery from other people as well. These are the pills that make us choke, that stick in our throats. These are the ones that make us want to fight and reject what we are seeing, because more than anything the matrix relies on our denial that we could be harming people even if we have no intention to.

You didn’t know. The plugs were in your back and you couldn’t see them because you were in the matrix level whatever. But intentionally or not, you have been draining other people’s batteries. Whether you knew or not, you may have been the connection that added just that extra little drain needed to completely empty someone’s battery.

So now you have to make a decision, which do you pull out first?  The ones draining others or the ones draining you? Or do you try to pull them out at the same time? Do you leave others to try and pull out the ones draining them out themselves? Do you go back to pretending you never saw the ones in your back or deny that they’re there? Do you address some but not others? What makes you decide?

The choice you make is ultimately yours, but the one you make says something about you as a person.

My choice is striking a balance between pulling out both sides. I need to pull out my own because I can’t take out the system if my battery is completely dead. But I also need to work on pulling the ones that are charging me. Sometimes, when my battery is draining too fast, I need to take a break. I might need to focus on pulling out my own for a few moments, though I never forget about the ones in my back. Sometimes, I am being drained slow enough that I can forget about pulling out my own for some time in order to focus more on pulling out the ones that I benefit from. In fact, often when I am puling out my own, it is so that I have the surplus energy to spend more time pulling out the ones that charge me.

Everyone is interconnected into the system, but not everyone carries the same number of output and input energy. Some people only have maybe one or two output cabled, while being charged by several sources. Even when this happens, you might not be retaining a high charge, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are still draining others. The opposite extreme also exists with some people being almost completely output cables and none or almost no input cables.

The system is like a web and everyone is plugged into it.

It is essential that we all disconnect and break the system. When you have any system that depends on batteries basically sharing charge in a single continuous system, that leads to combustion. Just ask anyone who has had keys and batteries in their pocket, and ended up with burning pants because the two connecting created a single circuit.

The system is a path to destruction as long as it exists because either your battery gets completely drained or you combust. That’s ultimately why systems of oppression like patriarchy end up hurting even those they privilege.

A World Gone Comfortably Mad

Anyone who has played Dungeons and Dragons with me knows that my favorite themes and monsters always tie back to the aberrant.  The D&D category of “aberrations” is where the particularly bizarre composite creatures, the monsters with mind-control powers, and monsters that manipulate the forms of others tend to be.  Here reside the giant paralytic tentacle-caterpillars, formless multiple-minded masses with the ability to attack through moveable portals, and mounds of flesh that constantly shriek alien curses from their thousands of mouths.  It is difficult to beat their thematic potential and stage presence, even with such iconic creatures as manticores and sphinxes.  Fantasy adventurers who encounter an aberration don’t get to dismiss it as “we fought a dragon”—they always require a description.

In recent years, these strange creatures became not just strange for its own sake, which is good enough, but strange in a cosmic sense.  Recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons, as well as dozens of other fantasy properties, draw on the fictional universes created by H. P. Lovecraft to provide background for their aberrations.  Once upon a time, many of these aberrant creatures simply were, but now, most of them are implicitly or explicitly tied to a distant dimension whose laws bear no resemblance to those of the rest of the cosmos; owe fealty to alien masters that wish to unmake the universe; break the minds of those who attempt to understand them; or otherwise unsubtly nod to the antics of Lovecraft’s creations.

Lovecraft’s fiction first appealed to me as an atheist.  Lovecraft had no fondness for religion, and few of the religious characters and themes in his fiction say anything good about any variety of it.  Deeper than that, though, the central conceit of Lovecraft’s world is that the underlying nature of reality is far beyond humankind.  Lovecraft’s world is not for us.  Earth is a blip in a teeming cosmos; life on earth is the youthful dalliance of an insignificant planet.  A full description of Lovecraft’s universe begins eons before the emergence of humankind and proceeds for millions of years after the last human is forgotten.   Humans are a footnote, tiny against the cosmic impact of creatures such as the Elder Things and the Great Race of Yith, and still smaller against the power of beings like Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Hastur, and Azathoth.  These beings command forces utterly beyond the physics known to Lovecraft’s humans, reshaping life into new servile forms and manipulating hidden dimensions of space.  To all of these creatures, humanity is a diversion at best, and a distraction at worst; our irrelevance to them is as the irrelevance of seaside huts to a tsunami, or, sometimes, as deer to a hunter.  Learning that the commanding forces of the cosmos have no affection or regard for humanity and would no more consider us in their actions or goals as an earthquake does is the final straw that undoes the sanity of numerous Lovecraft protagonists, the truth that fills his stories with their supposed horror.

I always found the thought…comforting.

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Easter Reflections

The Easter weekend always brings back a lot of memories for me, some of them pretty intense. The Catholic Church was a pretty big influence in my life growing up. It always played some role in my life growing up. My family was very religious.

Growing up, my parents liked to go for long drives to pray the rosary. I remember several nights, falling asleep in the backseat to the rhythmic droning of their prayers. Road trip songs were often Latin religious rounds, although we also sang a lot of Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel.

Everything related to Polish culture that I experienced and absorbed was related in some way to the Church. Among all that, the most important time in the Catholic Church is Easter. It is the basis for the existence of the church altogether: Christ’s death and resurrection and thus conquering of death. But Easter is not Easter alone but also Lent.

It starts with Ash Wednesday, which for my family was a fast day. The light version of this fast was avoiding meat products for the day, while the more intense side saw one small meal followed by nothing else for the rest of the day. You were allowed to drink, but that’s it. We would still go to work and school during this time. The Catholic school I attended, participated by not serving meat in the Cafeteria. After my first communion, I was expected to start participating in at least the light version of the fast. After my confirmation, the more intense one, as I was now considered a full adult member of the church. I grew up knowing that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from burning the blessed palm fronds from the previous year.

I’ve always hated fasting. It’s not the hunger. Truth is that I often have to be reminded to eat, and will go most of the deal without food. It has to do with a sense of discomfort over the reasons for fasts. The stated purpose of fasting is to mortify the flesh.

‘The Rev. Michael Geisler, a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature in St. Louis, wrote two articles explaining the theological purpose behind corporal mortification. “Self-denial helps a person overcome both psychological and physical weakness, gives him energy, helps him grow in virtue and ultimately leads to salvation. It conquers the insidious demons of softness, pessimism and lukewarm faith that dominate the lives of so many today” (Crisis magazine July/August 2005).’ – Wikipedia

Basically, by reminding themselves of their mortality and weakness through pain, they were to give up fleshly or earthly pursuits in pursuit of freedom. As someone who struggles with daily reminders of weakness through ongoing pain, I find this idea to be profoundly insulting. There is this nearly fetishistic obsession with suffering as being a conduit to holiness: Christ suffered of the cross and in the hours prior; many saints are martyred in gruesome ways, the beatitudes canonize this by promising rewards for different types of suffering.

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A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

On December 28, 2014, the internet was rocked by the final words of Leelah Alcorn who committed suicide. Leelah took her own life because after revealing herself as Trans to her family, she was systematically abused and tortured until she would give up her identity. Her parents refused her access to treatment that would have helped her body develop in a way in line with her identity. She was isolated from any systems of support and repeatedly told that what she was and who she was, was wrong.

Her final plea was to create a Trans inclusive world where others wouldn’t share her fate.

First a quick introduction to what it means to be Trans: Someone who is transgender was assigned the wrong gender at birth. They weren’t, as is sometimes said in reference to Trans women: “born a boy/male”. They were never boys to begin with. This is not to excuse refusing to accept a trans person’s own narrative. If they chose to speak about their own story in this way, that is their prerogative and not for you or anyone else to argue with.

They go through a process called transitioning where they seek to reclaim their real gender identity through various means. These means may include a change of outward presentation through the use of clothes and jewelry, hormones, surgery, and other such actions. A Trans person may use all, some, or none, of these means, and their use of them is in no way indicative of the “realness” of their identity.

Over the last several days many people have shared her story and there is a push to make the changes that Leelah was hoping for.

I have also seen, however, in the last several days, people sharing memes about how religion killed Leelah. Even a well-known organization, American Atheists, shared her image with quotes from her note. Specifically, only those listing how Christianity was used as an excuse for her torture and abuse. What’s more, while the photo gendered her correctly, there was no mention made of the fact that she was trans. The focus on the picture was entirely on religion’s role.

While there is something to say about the religious enabling that made the bigotry possible, the level of appropriation demonstrated in this picture is sickening and an insult.

While Christianity did play a role in this abuse, it did so as an excuse to justify bigotry not as the cause. Religiously motivated bigotry exists in a chicken-egg state. Which came first the bigoted opinion or the religion that justifies it?

In this case however, the question of which came first is irrelevant. Regardless of their religious affiliation, statistical likelihood is that they would have reacted badly to her coming out. It is true that they employed their religion as a tool for their abuse, but it was not the only tool available to them. Our culture is pervaded with transmisogyny and trans antagonism. Men in dresses continue to be a major source of amusement. Gender identity is still struggling to be recognized legally as a protected right/class from discrimination. The murder of trans women is not recognized as a crime in the court system, let alone as a hate crime.

Being non-religious doesn’t prevent you from being trans antagonistic or trans misogynistic. There have been many examples within our own atheist communities. You can be an atheist and be a bigot. The two are not mutually exclusive. The graphic borrowing Leelah’s words, while denying her identity and her ultimate goal, implies heavily that that is in fact the case.

This is particularly dishonest, since American Atheists recently made headlines over asserting publicly that being pro-life and atheist are not mutually exclusive.
The purpose of the graphic was to harness the outrage over Leelah’s death and point it instead at a goal of their choosing. A goal that is not the one that Leelah gave her life in pursuit of. They are taking advantage of her death to persuade their cause. They do so with no indication or proof that their goals in any way change the lives of trans people for the better.

Let me lay down a few terrifying statistics for you:

  • The Average Lifespan of Trans women is 30. The most common causes of death are murder and suicide.
  • The ‘trans panic defence’ is the defence used by murderers of trans people for killing trans people. The defense is literally: “They were trans” and that is deemed a good enough excuse for taking someone’s life.
  • Trans youth and Queer youth make up the largest demographic of homeless youth. In the US and Canada between 40-50% of homeless youth identify with at least one letter of QUILTBAG. That percentage is higher in more conservative states.

Making atheism more accepted in the mainstream, and possibly even encouraging more people to become atheists, in no way does anything to address those statistics. This is especially the case when the organization refuses to admit that social justice concerns have a place within atheism: to wit their association with known anti-feminists, their assertion that being anti-choice is not against “atheist values”, and other such examples from their own recent history.

(EDIT: I have been told that Leelah called herself an atheist in public.Here is verification. Even if true, it doesn’t excuse the rest)) What makes this an even more shameless appropriation of the outrage at Leelah’s death is the fact that there is NO INDICATION THAT LEELAH WAS AN ATHEIST! (We don’t know! Perhaps she was, but she could have just as easily been someone who maintained a faith in a god. This appropriation just gives her parents one more fucking excuse for what they did. Her community one more fucking excuse for their bigotry. It makes fighting her fight just that little extra bit harder.

American Atheists owes trans people, and Leelah Alcorn, their apology. In the future they should show their support for trans people not by stealing the attention away from where it belongs, but rather by devoting their own organization towards creating a safer world. Either put up, or shut up.

The End.

“Dialogue”

Imagine an abusive family. Imagine a family that at every opportunity does what they can to tear you down. To scream at you and tell you how everything that happens is your fault. Imagine that it gets to the point where you cut off contact with them, block them out of your life. You do this, because every time you speak it ends up with them screaming at you.  It gets to the point where you are afraid to answer the phone on the off chance that it’s them. You watch every word you say or write because you worry it will somehow get back to them and trigger another fight, even if what you are saying had nothing to do with them. They look for excuses to be angry. You have to yell to be heard, but when you raise your voice, you are attacked for being too angry, for not listening, for being too aggressive. You are told to shut up and stop yelling, all the while being yelled at.

You cut them off, except cutting them off doesn’t give you any peace. They manage to get in touch with you through someone else. Someone they have convinced that they want to talk to resolve things. The person urges you to make up with them. After all family is family and it is not good to be divisive. You want to agree; you want to hope that this time finally you can have an honest discussion about everything that has gone wrong, on how their actions have made you feel. You want this to be over. You want your anxiety to end, and go back to talking about the things you both care about instead of being called names. But you also remember the last time they promised to work things out, when the dialogue ended up being nothing more than an excuse to yell at you some more. To tear you down just a little bit further. So you ask for a show of good faith; something small, but something to show that they are sincere. Or maybe something not that small, but something that has to be done for any resolution to take place. But they aren’t willing to make that sacrifice. Because it is not about resolution, it is about further abuse. It is about getting the chance to yell at you and abuse you further, but in a new location; a location, where if you don’t show up, you are accused of being the unreasonable one. It is nothing more than an attempt to get at you again; to circumvent your attempts to cut them out of your life for the sake of your health, or peace.

Abusers know how to make themselves look like the good guy. They convince everyone else that you are ungrateful, a liar. They trot out edited or incomplete versions of stories to explain how you are a troublemaker and really, they are the ones that are wounded and they are just trying to make peace for everyone’s sake. When you show other people the examples of the harmful things they’ve done to you, they insist it is out of context. They explain how it was all a misunderstanding and all you need to do is talk about it to make it all better. And there is nothing you can do, because it is physically impossible to bear your wounded heart. It is impossible to show everyone the scars that exist in unseen places; the anxiety, the depression, the despair. Even if they catch a glimpse of it, it is not the full story. Unless they have gone through the same thing, they cannot understand the pain and the hurt that comes with that kind of abuse and so they accuse you. They accuse you of being stubborn, divisive. For fairness sake, they grant that some of what might have happened to you is unfair, but they take “the middle ground”. All this, not understanding that there is no middle ground, because they compare an amputation, a fatal wound, to a paper cut and call you both equally injured.

Now instead of a family, imagine that this is a community. Imagine it is a group where you found acceptance for believing something different then everyone else. Imagine that this community talked about the persecution they faced for this common belief. They welcomed you and told you that they understood your pain. You felt so thrilled about the acceptance that you opened up. You talked about the problems you had because of your faith and they accepted you. You talked about the problems you faced because of people who denied reason and evidence and they accepted you. And then you talked about the problems that you have because of your gender identity, or your race, or your income level, and they shunned you. They shunned you and accused you of making it up. They yelled at you for being divisive when you point out how people in this very community sometimes treated you differently or badly because of things beyond your control. You think, they must have misunderstood, you don’t want to blame someone, you just wanted to offer suggestions on how to make this better.  But it didn’t matter. By bringing it up, you opened the doors. They no longer saw you as one of them and so they derided you. The screamed at your and harassed you. They sent others who thought like them to harass you. They screamed at you, they spread rumours about you and insulted you. While they did this they told everyone about how you had created a division in the group. They mentioned how you were spreading untrue stories about your oppression. They called you professional victim. They covered their tracks like abusers do. They smiled their way into people’s trust.  Then when you cut them off, when you finally said enough, they talked about how you were destroying the movement.  They convinced people that you were looking for attention. And then you insinuated that you would be willing to make up, to “have a dialogue’, for ‘the good of the movement’.

But this isn’t about dialogue. This isn’t about the good of the movement, or healing the rift. It is a chance to further harass you. To further show you that they can push you around and out of the movement, and still have everyone stay “in the middle”. If you try to defend yourself, you are blamed for being uncooperative, while their continued attempts are shutting you up are ignored or painted as childish pranks. What used to be your source of support is instead a source of anxiety. Your life’s work is mocked and ignored. But you are forced to put up with the harassment in the interest of discussion. Any show of faith you ask for is blown out of proportion.

When you point out that despite the beautiful promises of discourse, the harassment still continues, you are accused of being unfair. The other parties all want to be “neutral”. You are asked to ignore all the spiteful, hateful, in some cases illegal things people do to you in the name of “healing and dialogue”.  Maybe you were too harsh in telling people about your oppression. Maybe you didn’t have it that bad really. Maybe you did want the attention didn’t you, and maybe you exaggerated how bad things were just a little bit; for effect? They don’t realize that their neutrality is nothing more than silent consent, silent legitimization of the abuse you suffer. It is saying your black eye must have been the result of walking into a door at the same time that they ignore you being pushed down the stairs.

Albert Einstein said it best: “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”

Neutrality is not always the best choice. Not when neutrality means ignoring the suffering of others in favour of false unity. Not when neutrality is hurting those who have not found their voice yet and keeping them from speaking.