What about the “Moderate” Muslims?

In episode 153 “Islam: Take 2,” Dan and I asked the question, “Are there moderate Muslims?” In order to make the point that the teachings of Islam itself are extreme—death penalty for adultery and homosexuality—we played the following video:

One of the things that stood out to me while watching the video is how hard it would be as a Muslim to disagree with the speaker’s position. On what legitimately Muslim grounds could you make your case that a woman who commits adultery shouldn’t be stoned?

The following video from the BBC did shed some light on this question:

What do you think? Is Islam unique in its threat to liberal western values?

I QUIT! The Importance of Resigning From Church (With FREE Offer!)

Frank and I have been talking about church resignation. On episode 142, I interviewed Kyle, who was participating in a “mass resignation” from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (you know- the Mormons!). While the event itself was underwhelming, I was incredibly moved by Kyle’s honesty, his integrity, and his bravery. He talked about the journey that led him to leave his faith behind, and the very real fear he felt that his intensely religious family would abandon him when they found out.

For Mormons, this is not an uncommon experience. The decision whether to resign from the church is often a hand-wringingly fraught one. The risk of losing one’s family is only one part of the issue. Equally difficult is the fact that you’re formally and (somewhat) irrevocably severing your ties to what you’ve been told your whole life is God’s one true church. The only way to heaven. The key to eternal happiness. It’s a psychological minefield.

After a lot of discussion, we here at TGIA have decided that those are exactly the reasons why you absolutely should resign from your church. The psychological hold that churches have on their parishioners isn’t always as intense as that of the LDS church, but it’s there. Even if your former church has plenty of space for “lapsed” or even non-believing members, and you don’t feel any psychological connection to them at all, TGIA feels that you should still resign. While a clean break from your former spiritual affiliation may not be necessary for everybody, there really is something to it. We’ve decided you don’t get your full “Atheist Card” unless you’ve done it.

With that said, we’re offering this very real incentive:

If you officially resign from your former church and let us know, WE’LL SEND YOU AN ACTUAL, HONEST-TO-NO-GOD ATHEIST CARD!

That’s right! You’ll finally be an official, card-carrying atheist!* How exciting is that???

We also want to read the letter you send, hear all about the aftermath (good and bad), and be there for you as a community as you take this step. Just head over to the contact page, and start yourself on the road to having one more thing taking up space in your wallet/purse.

More to come (including a look at the design of the card itself)!

In the meantime, however, the ex-Mormon community has some great (if overly intense) resources to get you started. It’s geared toward the LDS church, but you kids are clever and can make modifications for whatever church you used to be a part of:
http://www.mormonresignation.com/resign_legalrights.html
http://www.mormonnomore.com/

Happy resigning!

*Obviously, nothing we do could actually make your atheism any more or less legitimate. This is just ’cause we like to have fun, and thought you might enjoy it.

Come Out Come Out Wherever You Are

6

In honor of “coming out day”:

I salute those who are brave enough to be themselves. In any venue, regardless of how supportive those around you are, it is an act of courage just to be you.

That said, some stand to lose A LOT more than others when they simply speak their truth. For many, simply being honest about who they’re attracted to puts them in jeopardy. They risk being ostracized, disowned, and sometimes verbally or physically assaulted. People die, just for daring to admit that, through no choice of their own, they are attracted to somebody of the same gender.

It seems to me that an even greater risk lies in admitting that you don’t identify with the gender your body was born into. Those who must face the decision to take steps to change their gender identity or live what feels like a lie are in a truly harrowing position, and I don’t envy them for that. But I do admire them. Whatever their choice, simply admitting their situation to themselves is an act of bravery.

As a straight white man, American society at the beginning of the 21st century goes pretty damned easy on me. I can walk down almost any street without fear. I can go to a job interview with the warm understanding that my qualifications are the only considerations that will be taken into account. It takes virtually no bravery whatsoever to write this post. What could I possibly stand to lose?

The only experience I have had that comes close to a “coming out” is that of being open about my lack of a god-belief. Atheists are more hated and less trusted in America than almost any other group (one poll showed atheists on a par with rapists in terms of trustworthiness- ouch). So I guess there’s that. But even though being an atheist has exposed me to very real scorn and ill-treatment, I still feel like I get off easy. It’s pretty low-risk. Nobody has threatened to beat me up (yet). If I don’t want you to know that I’m atheist, I have the option of simply keeping my mouth shut (a luxury not every gay or trans person has).

So here’s to you, out-comers of all sorts! I support you, I honor you, and, in whatever way you need me to, I got your back.

The Origin of our Title

This is typical:

Somebody: "What's your podcast/blog called?"

Me: "It's called 'Thank God I'm Atheist."

Somebody: [Blank pause]

Me: [Expectant facial expression]

Somebody: [Quizzical look, followed by wash of understanding] "Oh…. That's cute."

Having a silly joke in your title can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it hopefully conveys a sense of lightheartedness and play. It says that we've got a sense of humor about the subject. On the other hand, not everybody gets humor, so it spurs comments like "but if you're atheist, then you don't believe in God, so…" (a comment we've heard/ seen more than once). This forces us to either A) say something banal like "Yep, that's the joke…" or B) say something sarcastic like "You know, I've never thought of it that way!" Neither option is particularly pleasant, as both are just means of staving off the impulse to despair for humanity.

For the most part, people seem to like the joke, which makes it slightly more difficult every time I have to admit that I didn't make it up. As much as I would love to get credit for it, this gag goes back a bit. A long bit, as it turns out.

This post was spurred on by a couple of people who have approached me to ask who first said it (or to give me a lecture entitled "Did you know that the first person to say that was…"). Well, that got me to thinking. Who did actually say it first? I had long attributed it to Bertrand Russell, but that turns out to be me just making shit up. So here's what seems to actually have gone down:

The earliest version of this pithy statement that I could find came from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a German scientist who lived in the late 1700s (1700s? I know, right?!). He said:

"Und Ich dank es dem lieben Gott tausendmal, dass er mich zum Atheisten hat verden lassen."

I think we can all agree that this is a remarkable and touching statement.  Unfortunately, it's in German, so we may never know what it means. Just kidding! Roughly translated, it means "And I thank God a thousand times that he made me an Atheist." A little wordy, perhaps, but good nonetheless.

[Update: I have revised my translation here, because, as commenter Katja and my own mother have pointed out to me, the phrase "dem lieben Gott" does not translate, as I had originally thought, to "the god of love". No, despite the fact that "dem" means "the", "lieben" means "love", and "Gott" means "god", this is a colloquialism that just means "god" or "the kind god" or "the God who, in His wisdom, created the confusing German language". Ich hoffe ihr könnt mir verzeihen für diesen schrecklichen Fehler.]

The next specific instance I could find of the phrase (or a variant thereof) was from George Bernard Shaw. His version was:

"I'm an atheist, and I thank God for it!"

Nice and pithy. Sure to ruffle a few feathers over at the London School of Economics. Did you guys know that G.B.S. co-founded the London School of Economics? 'Cause I sure as hell didn't. Wikipedia? More like WTFpedia!

The most famous use of TGIA (until I took it over and pwned it like a boss, obviously), was from a dude named Luis Buñuel. He was a Spanish-born filmmaker who made most of his films in Mexico, but just for kicks, he said this quote in French:

"Je suis toujours athée, gràce á Dieu."

Roughly (because that's the only way I can translate), this means "I am still an atheist, thank God". Buñuel eventually got sick of being asked about this, however, and later in his life backed off of it, going so far as to call the aphorism "accidental." So maybe he just stumbled into it. Who knows?

Anyway- the long and the short of it here, is that no, I did not invent the phrase "Thank God I'm Atheist". I just perfected it. And bought the domain name. Which means it's mine. ALL MINE! YOU CAN'T HAVE IT!

Take THAT, Buñuel!

What The Fuck… TGIA Tackles Potty Mouth

Zounds.

 
No swirl-lightning-number-exclamation!

Some stuff has happened recently which has forced me to examine the topic of swearing. It's something I've actually had to give quite a bit of thought to, both in deciding the tone of this site (my mom now reads it…) and in examining how to interact with the lovely people I encounter in my life.  Here's the thing: I like swearing. I think "bad words" add to the richness of our linguistic landscape. My life is made better through profanity.

Actually, that's testably and verifiably true according to several studies (most recently this one, but this is also notable). In addition to pain relief and stress abatement, swearing, used properly, can create a sense of camaraderie, can be an instant humor boost (again, I said used properly– used badly it can easily kill humor), and can be a very effective zealot repellant. Beyond that, however, it's just nice to have certain words which are strong enough to instantly evoke powerful reaction. Sometimes you just want to elicit a specific response or make your audience understand the gravity of what you're discussing without having to get too verbose.  I don't care who you are, saying "I cannot overstate the enormity of the moose we saw… it was gargantuan" will never match "We saw this HUGE FUCKING MOOSE!"

This does not mean that I'm ok with any words used any time.  I am not a fan of abusive language. That stance is, however, much less about the language, and more about the fact that I'm simply not a fan of abuse. Thus, I pretty much never use epithets of race, gender, sexuality, or physical or mental disability. Well, actually that's not true. I will use certain words of abuse as terms of endearment when I am totally confident that they won't be misinterpreted. But that's a dangerous game and I've seen many instances where someone felt "in" enough to use an epithet without offense, only to find that they definitely weren't (why are so many white guys so desperate to be able to be able to use the N word? It's pathetic, really). 

I also believe in respect and propriety. Not to the extent that many people wish I believed in them, but I do believe in them. I will not, for the most part, curse in somebody's church (well, not loudly enough to be heard, anyway) or in front of people who I believe do not have a modern understanding of these words (old folks). I use swearing to add emphasis and color- I rarely wish to offend. By the same token, however, I will not hold back from swearing just because somebody has decided that they're going to take offense. If the context is not offensive, objecting to a little mildly colorful language is arbitrary enough that I feel no need to show deference.

 
 But my duck likes to sit in a ditch…

All of my stances on profanity are colored by the fact that I live in Mormonland.  Though Salt Lake City proper is quite liberal and predominantly non-Mormon (meaning the Mormons only account for, say 40% of the population as opposed to 70-90% in the rest of the State), you still can't drop an f-bomb without some poor Mo taking some shrapnel.  The Mormons. . . y'know what? I'm going to stop myself here and rein in the sweeping generalization I was about to make (meaning I will still make a sweeping generalization- I just won't sweep quite as far).  I need to differentiate between Utah Mormons and non-Utah Mormons.  Utah Mormons (or Utards as they are sometimes known around here) are a unique breed. They have all the quirks of Mormonism, but are so insulated from the rest of the world that they are completely unaware of the fact that they are considered a weird fringe religion (they were shocked when the Country was worried about a Mo candidate for president- they thought everybody would love the idea).

[Author's note: I see the irony of me using the epithet "Utard" just two paragraphs after declaring my opposition to abuse. What can I say- I'm a complicated person] 

[Author's other note: Or maybe I'm just an asshole]

Anyhoo, the Utards are extremely sensitive to the swears. They seem to take it personally- like you're attacking their beliefs to say these words in their presence.  Case in point: my girlfriend's sister. She's a lovely, intelligent, artistic woman, but she so hates to hear the word fuck that she's weeded herself out of seeing some amazing films just to avoid that word. And she loves film. This is the stupid false dilemma of the profanity-averse.

Here's the deal (and I see this as emblematic of a much larger issue): like many religious people, the Utards have trouble seeing the difference between something that is culturally less acceptable, and something that is religiously forbidden. Everything is black and white. You're either doing the right thing or you're sinning. There is no room for things that some don't like, but that are still fine (see Utah liquor laws).

The problem with that is that if all actions are simply put into category a or category b, it makes everything in each category the same.  Thus, when you swear, you are committing a sin, and sin is sin.  To be fair, folks believe in a hierarchy of sin, so it's not like anyone's equating it to, say, beating up an old lady or something.  But the fact that anyone thinks that swearing– English swearing, that is– is a sin is fucking absurd.

"English swearing?" you may ask… "Why would you single out English swearing as being less likely to be sinful?" 

 
 Anyone know what "jeffin" is?

I'm so glad you asked! You see, English swearing isn't even swearing, in the true sense of the word.  "Swearing" used to refer to taking an oath, and the reason it was deemed offensive is that people would swear in the names of holy people.  That, at least, I can understand people getting worked up about as a sin.  Someone in Shakespeare's time would say "Now, by Saint Ann, I'll kill you for that!" or "Set down that wench or I'll flog you, by Jove." (Jove was a name they used for god). That was some strong language.  

[Clarification: As someone calling themself "Marimba Ani" in the comments points out, Jove was actually a reference to the Greek god Jupiter.  However, the reason Elizabethans would use Jove was because it was illegal to invoke the christian god in print or on stage, so Jove became a useful stand-in.  Why the hell would Elizabethans care about Jupiter?]

In modern English, very few of our "swear" words are remotely religious in nature.  As a matter of fact, they're almost entirely "nature" in nature. Our naughty words are about bodily functions, not divine personages. Pooping and sex and whatnot. Its not even profanity in the true sense of the word.  The fact is that religious people should be way more offended by phrases like "by Jove" or "by George" (referring to Saint George) or "Jeeze" (short for Jesus) or any of a number of quaint-sounding anachronisms than by shit or fuck. Even seemingly innocuous words like gee, heck, gosh and darn all have holy derivations.

As a matter of fact, the only commonly used phrases I can understand religious folks really having trouble with are "God damn" and "Jesus Christ" used as exclamatory utterances.  And I admit that it could be argued that there's something slightly off about an atheist like me appropriating religious phrasing to add salt to my dialogue. However, for better or worse, these phrases have fallen into the domain of the culture at large.  Nobody actually thinks I'm talking about somebody's savior when I shout "Jesus Christ" after hitting my thumb with a hammer. We all own these phrases now, and as long as they are useful, we'll keep on using them.

The truth is that the whole reason I'm writing this screed is that I'm annoyed.  I'm annoyed when someone objects to something and they don't really know why. I'm annoyed when social norms are based on bullshit religion, especially when it flies in the face of reason. But most of all I'm annoyed because I really like my girlfriend's family, and I want to just hang out with them without being on my guard all the time.  I want to be able to watch movies with them without becoming hyper-aware that they're wincing every time somebody says "shit".  I just want them all to FUCKING RELAX!

FUCK!

TGIA Tackles Abortion

Oh abortion... who don't you piss off?So I was reading up on the social/political positions of various churches this morning and was forced to think about my own position on several issues.  One issue that they all seem to be totally hung up on is abortion. I tell you they’re positively obsessed with it. I guess you probably knew that…

Here’s the thing [brace yourselves]: when it comes to abortion, I sympathize with the believers who feel so strongly about the issue.  To be clear, I do not share the view that many believers hold on the topic. That is to say, I don’t believe that abortion is tantamount to murder.  But I gotta say, I get where they’re coming from.  The fact is that there is no clear and obvious philosophy to turn to on the matter.

When we’re honest with ourselves, there’s no definitive way to determine when “life” or “humanness” begins- when a bun in someone’s oven switches from collection of slightly specified cells to murderable human. Morally, it’s just a question with no perfect answer.

That doesn’t prevent fanatics on both sides of the issue from declaring (loudly) (and often rudely) that they have the answer, and anyone who disagrees is morally bankrupt.  The anti-abortionites are adament that life begins at ejaculation (or whatever) and the pro-murderites are adament that life begins somewhere around toddlerdom. If I’m totally honest with myself, I’m not entirely clear where I stand on the matter, but I can tell you that I feel my life didn’t truly begin until I discovered coffee…

 They’re right- dead babies would make horrible presidents.

The fact of the matter is that there is no common ground to be found here, and, again, I sympathize with the worries of the believers. They think murders are taking place- what are they supposed to do, sit idly by?  It’s not like they’re out picketing because they’re worried about rampant state-condoned serial jaywalking…  And I’m sorry, progressives, this is much more than simply an issue of a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body. We’re not talking about whether or not it’s ok to get a boob job. As tempting as it is to use the conservatives’ trick of “framing” the issue in terms that suit our purposes but pretend that there is no other way of seeing it, it’s just not that simple. Whether or not we agree with it, we have to acknowledge that the position that a fetus is a human life worthy of protection is a logically viable position. It’s a tricky issue. That’s all there is to it.

So, considering the intractable nature of the issue, the question becomes what guidelines do we use to create public policy? There can really be only one answer and it is this: it doesn’t matter what your personal beliefs are.  I don’t give a flying fart if Jesus came to you personally with a choir of dead fetus spirits singing in the background declaring abortion the worst thing in the world. Until he visits the rest of us and we all (or at least a dominating majority of us) agree, the correct course of action is to keep it legal. I know, believers: that sounds unfair.  It’s not.

 
 Horrible side-effects: abortion causes beards!

If abortion is legal, then those who believe an aborted baby is Satan’s party hat can still choose not to do it, and those who feel that a fetus is less a human and more the moral equivalent of a houseplant or small woodland creature and are therefore fine with killing them, can do so.  Sorry, believers, but it’s really the only honest political solution.  If it is not absolutely clear (and it certainly is not) where the moral lines are to be drawn, and there is roughly equal support for both sides of the issue, then society must call a draw and allow the individual to make the choice for herself. End of discussion.

Despair not, however, oh sad believer- there is a chance for you to stop abortions without employing explosives! There is even a way to get it outlawed completely and still honor the ideals of democracy: simply convince your fellow countrymen that your position is correct. Do that, and you win! That’s how pluralistic society works.

So there are your marching orders anti-abortionists: forget politics and stop trying to get laws passed for a while- that’s putting the cart way before the horse. Your first job is to convince the citizenry that you’re right. Try to win their hearts and minds. Work on that for the next century or so, and then, when you realize that you’ve gotten nowhere and we’re all in the same position we were in when you started, please… I beg you… shut the hell up.