Does Atheism Hate Women?

“The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger. -Mary Wollstonecraft

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There’s been a stir on the subject of misogyny within the atheist “community” lately, with predictable cracks and fissures between the male-guru caste of  new atheism and their anointed bloggers, and a number of outspoken atheist women who say, in a nutshell, Enough is enough.

Rebecca Watson

The origins of the latest tension are explored in an article by Julia Galef for Religion Dispatches.  In it she examines an “incident” involving Skepchick blogger Rebecca Watson and an unnamed man at a July Skeptics’ conference.

Watson produced a video on the episode which has become a point of reference in a larger discussion of the status of women in the atheist and skeptics movement.

New atheist hierarch Richard Dawkins and outspoken anti-religionist P Z Myers responded to Watson’s concerns, Myers with unusual tenderness, and Dawkins by suggesting that “zero harm” had come to her in the “elevator incident” (Watson was propositioned), suggesting that (a) her situation could not be compared to the indignities foisted on women in Islamic theocracies (small comfort if not irrelevant) and (b) the incident itself had no specific relevance to the atheist community, being part of much broader social patterns of marginalization (read: the genus of sexism is not atheism).

The remarks were interpreted as male thuggery and seemed to lend credence to Watson’s complaint:  Even atheist men are Martians. Many of us back on earth were unaware that the simple profession of atheism had taken us to equality-heaven.

I knew this was coming.  A-many years ago, when Madalyn “Murray” O’Hair was dubbed the most hated women in America by no less a cultural beacon than Life Magazine, atheism was closely identified with the ridicule of religion, a kind of cultural side-show that seemed strategically incapable of making itself sexy and appealing to large numbers of people.  Those who watched her did so for the same reason they watched other freak TV sensations like Tiny Tim and the Loud Family.

There wasn’t much more to it:  Try repeating the mantra “There is no God” fifty times, eyes shut.  Feel better?  Of course not.  It’s like saying the rosary.

Madalyn O’Hair

Now try lighting in to some of the absurd beliefs that religious people want to perpetrate on non-religious people (some of them lost or dormant battles, but not forgotten): there’s a better life after this one, if you play your cards right; prayer and Bible readings in school,  creation science, God on the currency, myths of the “Christian” founders, selective ignorance of the First Amendment, especially in political seasons, and a dozen or so social and even economic policy issues for which the  engodded public think the Bible has the answer–beginning with the “right” to life, death with dignity, and harvesting stem cells in medical research (the last, not an issue in 1972).

Strictly speaking, these issues are independent of the God-question and in some cultures where spiritual traditions and ideas of the divine flourish these issues are irrelevant.

But this is America, and to the degree that domestic atheism is at least as much about how religion expresses itself in real time as it is about metaphysics, women until very recently have been under-represented in the fray.

It did not begin with Rebecca Watson’s video, or a proposition in an elevator that could have as easily happened at a real estate brokers’ convention.  But the video has raised the spectre that big top modern atheism, as opposed to the atheism of the fringe solists like O’Hair, may have developed along hierarchical lines not altogether different from the religious structures it condemns: a community of bishops (like Dawkins), priests, and down-the-scale nuns with little to say about the agenda, the issues, or how the show is run.

It also raises the question of why God-denial requires or assumes any ethic at all, or at least one transcending what we expect of real estate brokers.

*****

About the same time as Madalyn was doing the talk-show circuit in the seventies, another formidable presence, this one in England, was speaking out about atheism, sexuality, and secular values: her name is Barbara Smoker (b. 1923), and she presided with magisterial importance over various British humanist groups, including the National Secular Society, and at the post-biblical age of eight-eight is a current Honorary Vice Presdient of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.

Smoker, with whom I was once associated through the Council for the Critical Study of Religion in Oxford, far outdistanced her male contemporaries as an advocate for euthanasia, non-religious marriage and naming ceremonies, and separation of religion and state (which, recall, are not officially separate in the United Kingdom).

Hardly any work being pursued in these areas today by secularist and humanist organizations does not owe something to Smoker.  Equally outspoken humanist advocates followed in her footsteps–notably Jane Wynne Wilson in England and June Maxwell in Scotland.  If their sex, in any sense, marginalized them in the movement it did nothing to impair their organizational abilities or distract them from their goals.

The difference between Smoker and O’Hair is, or was,  a difference of cultural contexts and métier, as the French say.  O’Hair’s battle–to the extent it was ever coherent–was uphill and almost hopeless in God-besotted America.  What it gained in media coverage it lost in influence.

Smoker, with plenty of help from her intellectual consort Harold John Blackham (d. 2009) and dozens of friends within the British Humanist Association–many of them academics–worked at a distinct advantage.  –Interestingly, both Smoker and O’Hair were army veterans, neither “highly” educated, but tactically smart and possessed of a certain battlefield savvy that made them both personally formidable and able to stand up for their unbelief.

Whether their Gibraltar-like advocacy excited onlookers or turned them off is anybody’s guess–the Church of England and the Catholic Church had at least one thing in common in 1970: their hatred of Barbara Smoker.  And while atheist advocacy does not have a strong record of success in über-religious America, unbelief in Europe has been the result of cultural forces (collectively, “secularization”) which nourished humanist advocacy but are not explained by it.  Smoker prided herself on a terse and effective literary style; O’Hair (who was five years Smoker’s senior and a dismal prose stylist) on stump speeches, “encounters,” and interviews.  The clear impression is, however, where the atheism of the era was concerned, there be women.

Barbara Smoker

*****

And yet. The new atheism  and even its weirdly named predecessor “secular humanism” has primarily been a man’s movement with female contributors, financial supporters, and fans.

I can point to a dozen names of personalities–Margaret Downey, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, and a range of younger women such as CFI’s Lauren Becker and Debbie Goddard, and Watson herself–who were energized for unbelief before the current wave of atheism washed onto the scene, beginning roughly, if not exactly, with the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 2005.

As other literati joined ranks the fan club grew.  That the team was half  British (Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on the British side, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, though Oxford-educated, on Yankee Doodle’s) and highly intellectual situated its influence within the ranks of the university educated–especially young secularists,  the culturally disaffected, and those who were simply fed up with the nostrums of religion.  Its intellectual base distinguished it from the rough n’ tumble atheism of the previous generation, the names of whose promoters were conspicuously absent from the New York Times best sellers’ list.

Humanist groups, skeptical groups, and secular groups–whose edges often blur–were equally affected. And I think it would be fair to say that while the horsemen were men, the base included women and men in surprisingly equal measure.

Ophelia Benson

There are also some key women independent thinkers, who would probably prefer to be judged by their work rather than their political allegiance to a movement: Jennifer Michael Hecht, whose work on Doubt is a thoughtful exploration of the integrity of skepticism as an act of faith in human reason; Susan Jacoby (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism), who is on record as deploring indiscriminate nastiness towards all religion; and, above all, Rebecca N.  Goldstein, whose new work of fiction (36 Arguments for the Existence of God) is an ironic and deflationary account of philosophical atheism (and thus also of  faith) quite unlike anything that has hit the market before now.

Not all women atheists were movement atheists, and some, just like their male counterparts, were squeamish  about the requirement to self-identify with an atheism that was simply about hating religion.

There is, bluntly put, now as then, no shortage of women writing and speaking out on the subject of unbelief, though in my opinion the most eloquent and creative ones are not necessarily the ones that get the most attention, nor are they the ones who feel entirely comfortable with the intellectual constraints imposed by “movement atheism” and labels like new atheism.  They are also the ones least likely to think that their nuanced approach to the topic is in any sense less deserving of credit than the flatfooted atheism of their activist contemporaries.

*****

At least some of the blame for the constraints felt by women involved closely in atheist advocacy has to be pinned on the movement itself and on organisations like the American Humanist Association and the Center for Inquiry (CFI) with their almost unpunctuated history of men on top.

Kurtz

The secular movements that were founded after World War II included theorists like Corliss Lamont and Paul Kurtz, who absconded from AHA to found the constituent bodies of the Center for Inquiry.  Collectively, along with other groups, like O’Hair’s former bailiwick American Atheists, they laid much of the groundwork that made (an ungrateful) new atheism possible.

Secular sectarianism (seculatarianism?) emerged early on between these groups and became entrenched in the way the organizations competed with each other for supporters and did business.

While women’s and later gay and lesbian rights movements swirled outside the doors, for example,  the humanist  movement paid only glancing attention to them.  The recipient of the 1975 Humanist of the Year Award and a contender for the title most influential feminist of her generation, Betty Friedan, went so far as to question whether humanism was suited to pursue the feminist agenda.  Part of her concern, as expressed in a 1988 address to the International Humanist and Ethical Union,  was that movement humanism did not seem fully engaged in the social and equality- battles of the generation–that secular humanism was theoretical while women’s equality and civil rights issues were practical.

Scores of atheist writers, intellectuals, poets, artists, musicians and others declined to self-identify as “atheist,” not because their unbelief was tepid, nor even because the position was politically unpopular and even, sometimes, economically risky,  but because the whole style of American atheism–in particular its science worship, religion-bashing, and naive view of cultural intellectual history–made the option unappealing.  In fact, the degree to which American atheism was marked by contrarian impulses and a odd kind of humanistic anti-intellectualism has yet to be fully explored–and won’t be here.

But turf was turf:  Paul Kurtz, to take one example,  was determined not to have secular humanism identified with the the bold, brash, ridicule-based (and gaffe-prone) atheism of Madalyn O’Hair, whom he more than once accused of giving atheism a bad name.  Thus was born the “Let’s not call it atheism” form of atheism, a move that created further divisions between full-frontalists (“Atheist and Proud of It”) and fig-leafers (“Ethically Disposed Philosophical Naturalist”).

By the same token, even the erstwhile “Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism” (now the Council for Secular Humanism), wasn’t very “democratic” when it came to women.  I can remember any number of all-male meetings where the principals around the table wondered why more women weren’t signing on, why more women didn’t accept invitations to speak at CFI conferences, or why, if they did accept,  sometimes changed their mind late in the game.  When, in 2004, I organized a conference on the topic of religious violence which included eight women, all experts on the subject, out of a dozen speakers, a senior CFI operant at the opening cocktail hour asked, in all earnestness and simplicity, when the scholars  (already all present) were going to arrive.  No one savoured the moment more than the women.

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And so, the question lingers, why have things not changed more quickly?  Why is organized humanism more like the Catholic Church than a big tent?

I have two answers.

One is that the primary targets of movement humanism and atheism were, in the early days, men–and the battle, like all battles, was joined (mainly) by other men.  It’s easy to forget that beginning with the unctuous born-againism of Billy Graham and the faith-healing Oral Roberts, America’s repetitive Great Awakenings in the latter part of the twentieth century were associated with protestant prophets: Graham himself, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, and spit on the floor and call it polish charismatics like Jimmy Swaggart, Peter Popoff, Benny Hinn,  and countless others.

Some, like Bakker, were merely crooks; the majority of others a Crayola box of charlatans.  The threat of extreme forms of evangelical protestantism in political terms (which was real then and real now) seemed to call for a response that was not “mere” atheism but mobilization of large numbers of  smart people who (before the rise of the “Moral Majority” and its lineal descendant, the Tea Party) thought that protestant fundamentalism existed only on the fringes of American Christianity.

Evangelical Fright

To their credit, Kurtz’s organizations rejected that premise and actively sought to combine a critique of religious dogmatism with education in the  democratic and secular values that the Christian Right regarded as un-American.

Women were certainly part of the demographics of the disaffected, the escapees, but ex-born-again protestant males formed a significant majority of converts to the secular humanist form of unbelief.  Former Roman Catholics, adrift from the dogmatism of their church and its sexist politics (since unmasked as a pedophile paradise) were the second largest demographic, with secular Jews coming in at a healthy third–and increasing numbers of ex-Muslims at the dawn of the new millennium.

There were women within each group–talented, engaging, brilliant women.  But the “authoritative” voices–the teachers–were still almost exclusively male.

The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of O’Hair and her family in 1995 and subsequent (2001) discovery of her chainsawed remains on a Texas ranch was the conclusion of a sordid chapter in the history of American atheism.  O’Hair’s estranged son William testified that his mother had a tendency to hire “violent atheist criminals” because “She got a sense of power out of having men in her employ who had taken human life.”  The net benefit to secular humanism, which had always seen her as a PR problem,  may have been minimal, but the damage to atheism in America, and perhaps also to large-scale women’s involvement in movement atheism,  courtesy its female prophet, was enormous.

Studies of religious cults in my own tendentious field are instructive: while women often form the backbone of support for the leaders of religious-social groups, the “authority structure” normally consists of a charismatic leader who achieves prophetic status and beta- and gamma- followers who perform secondary services, the value of which is determined by the prophet himself. (Think Jesus-disciples-women attendants.)  It’s easy to overstate the relevance of this sociology, but what Rebecca Watson experienced was at least a vestigial form of secular tribalism.

In my opinion, it used to be far worse–though to the extent prophets remain males, the potential for abuse will always exist.  If anything, the new atheism reasserted the primacy of male opinion about God, while at the same time elevating the discussion in a way that made the atheist “option” intellectually respectable, as it had not been under O’Hair.  Doubtless the male leaders do not (cannot?) see it this way because their status  depends on the willingness of women to acquiesce in their authority.  It’s an old pattern.

The second reason for the implicit misogyny of the atheist community is more complicated, more directly explanatory, and might be instead a reason why women have often bypassed atheism in favour of other, more pragmatic,  struggles.

As a graduate student at Harvard in the ‘seventies, there was never a time when I sensed that women were  “underrepresented” or voiceless.  The professoriate, still largely male, was changing–but the student body of the Divinity School, where most Godtalk was analyzed,  was equally or about equally divided between men and women.

Harvard moreover was a microcosm of the secularisation of liberal religion in America during that era, and also expressed the fact that in most Christian denominations the carriers of tradition and the demographic majority of adherents are women.  And while male voices still tried to dominate the discussion professionally (as in published books and papers), women had seized the conversation.

While O’Hair did what she did, hundreds, if not thousands, of women were radicalized–in the positive sense of that word–in the liberal divinity schools of North America in the seventies and eighties, which were more closely in touch with radical trends in European universities and European feminist theology and philosophy than any equivalent groups in America.  By contrast with the generation of women theologians concerned with questions of religion and secularization between 1970 and 2000, the contributions of women associated with movement atheism was, to be kind,  unimpressive.

Judith Plaskow 

With its visceral tendency to dismiss theology as intellectual chintz, both men and women atheists have habitually overlooked the fact that the best and the most scorching critiques of religion in the last third of the twentieth century were produced by theologians, many of them women.  Furthermore, they did this not just against the odds but within structures, both ecclesiastical and academic, where male authority had predominated for centuries.

For many, the question of God’s existence was yesterday’s news; it had been soundly laid to rest in the nineteenth century.  The burning questions were now about the social implications of that death for systems still governed by male privilege based (directly or indirectly) on metaphors of male sovereignty over women.

To name only three of dozens of these women: Mary Daly, who died in 2010, was one of the first Americans to bring the discussion of repressive patriarchal structures based on biblical and other religious images to English speaking readers.  Trained in Europe, her first book, the Church and the Second Sex (1968) drew on the feminist philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, and her more popular book, Beyond God the Father (1973), challenged the authority structure of the Catholic Church directly as being an antiquated system of privilege based on outdated images drawn from tribal societies where God is an alpha-male who dominates others through physical stength, abuse, sexual dominance, and the demand for obedience:

“Patriarchy is the homeland of males; it is Father Land; and men are its agents…. Women who are Pirates in a phallocentric society are involved in a complex operation. First, it is necessary to Plunder — that is, righteously rip off — gems of knowledge that the patriarchs have stolen from us. Second, we must Smuggle back to other women our Plundered treasures. In order to invert strategies that will be big and bold enough for the next millennium, it is crucial that women share our experiences: the chances we have taken and the choices that have kept us alive. They are my Pirate’s battle cry and wake-up call for women who I want to hear….• The fact is that we live in a profoundly anti-female society, a misogynistic ‘civilization’ in which men collectively victimize women, attacking us as personifications of their own paranoid fears, as The Enemy. Within this society it is men who rape, who sap women’s energy, who deny women economic and political power.”

Rosemary Radford  Ruether, who along with Daly (in Gyn-ecology, 1978) styled herself an eco-feminist, was one of the first women theologians to apply the Reformation idea of freedom of conscience to the early debate about abortion in the United States, challenged traditional ideas about God, and implicated the Church (in her 1974  book, Faith and Fratricide) in the pepetuation not only of anti-Semitism (which, she alleges, it virtually invented) but in the modern  political plight of the Palestinian people.

As to Christianity’s record:

“Christianity is riddled by hierarchy and patriarchy… a social order in which chaste women on their wedding night were in effect, raped by young husbands whose previous sexual experience came from exploitative relationships with servant women and prostitutes. . . . Modern societies have sought to change this situation, allowing women education, legal autonomy, paid employment and personal freedom. But the sexual morality of traditional puritanical patriarchal Christianity has never been adequately rethought.”

The critique continues in the work of countless women theologians and religious studies scholars; Ursula King (Religion and Gender, 1995); Hedwig Myer-Wilmes (Rebellion on the Borders, 1995); Judith Plaskow (Standing again at Sinai), Luise Schotroff (Lydia’s Impatient Sisters, 2000), Elisabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza (In Memory of Her, 1983, 1994), Phyliss Trible (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 1978).

Almost every issue the religious right considered “pivotal” and defining for their understanding of Christianity is explored and deconstructed in these works,  perhaps most memorably in the work of my former Harvard classmate Daphne Hampson who was one of the first writers to use the term “Post-Christian” to describe the critical work in religion that future generations of theologians needed to do:

“I am a Western person, living in a post-Christian age, who has taken something with me from Christian thinkers, but who has rejected the Christian myth. Indeed I want to go a lot further than that. The myth is not neutral; it is highly dangerous. It is a brilliant, subtle, elaborate, male cultural projection, calculated to legitimise a patriarchal world and to enable men to find their way within it. We need to see it for what it is. But for myself…I am not an atheist.”

For many observers of the current crisis about women’s voices, the question has to become, Where are you looking, and what are you hearing?  Are you aware of these voices? Or is half a century of women’s thinking and writing about the very structures that atheist women are only beginning to consider irrelevant to your analysis of religion?  Does the fact that their battles were fought with the Church or within the repressive institutions they tried to change nullify their critique or make it incomplete?

If the complaint against their writing is that they did not go far enough, the question then becomes How far is far enough?  And since when is mere polemic a worthy substitute for profound analysis of religious belief and hardcore scholarship in history and anthropology?  What additional weight is achieved by self-identifying as an atheist when the concept and images of the biblical and koranic god have already been carefully and systematically dismantled and when the conversation has, frankly, moved on to questions about values and ethics ?

That is what the atheology of the Dalys, the Hampsons, the Tribles and dozens of others has provided, with intellectual rigour and sophistication.  Furthermore, there are virtually no male voices here to distract us from their project–no one to say, “Come up to my room and we can compare notes.”

I very much doubt that the paradigm for women in the atheist movement will be greatly enriched by simply accepting the bluff and underanalyzed paradigms of the male atheist polemicists–who, by the way, based on more than a glance at their bibliographies and footnotes, are equally unacquainted with this strand of feminist thinking about God.  Why am I not surprised? Forgive us our debts.

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The Idiot Hero and Other Rick Perry Tropes

 

I am doing my best to understand Rick Perry’s appeal, even to the point of asking facebook friends whether it’s his rugged good looks that’s causing hearts to beat a little faster than they’re beating for Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann .

The answer seems to be yes: to a point.

A 2006 article in The Economist discusses how the evolutionary advantage of looking a little (how shall we say) novo erectus seems to communicate to females the survival benefit of choosing men with conspicuously high testosterone levels.  It’s what groups like when they feel a threat to their survival, and in these troublous times, when Washington teeters and the Rapture looms, Rick may just be the man with a plan:

“…Research has suggested that, regardless of their average preferences, women are most attracted to hyper-masculine features when they are most likely to conceive, and that the effect is particularly exaggerated in women who are in stable relationships. Evolution has thus arranged things so that if a woman does cuckold her man, she is likely to gain the maximum advantage in terms of children with good immune systems, and sons who will have similarly rakish good looks and behaviour.”

 

The downside is that men of this variety are also the most likely to love you and leave you.  A good reason to wonder whether you want the relationship to begin with. Are you listening, America?

There are other tropes we can use.  A handy website on the topic of Anti-Intellectualism as depicted in pop culture offers several, so I decided to compare the Rick Perry we know and are destined to know a whole lot better with the typology that TV, movies, anime/ manga, you name it–throws up.  Here’s what I came up with:

1.  The Idiot Hero.  Basically an action figure (a common character in shounen action series) the idiot hero has a short attention span and is too stupid to be afraid of imminent peril.  The trope also includes elements of This Loser Is You:  His appeal comes from encouraging the audience to believe that “If this idiot can do this, so can I”– a huge incentive in American politics where the statement “Anyone can grow up to be president of the United States” is convertible with “Anyone is dumb enough to be president of the United States.”

Even in a nation of dummies, the idiot hero is so dumb that the dumbest onlooker feels superior. Think Homer Simpson, Family Guy, American Dad.  Now, put them in the White House, boots on desk, and watch things explode.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2.  The Fool.  Not to be confused with the British trope (as for example Archibald in the P.G. Wodehouse story), the American Fool is distinguished by admirable imbecility that is not only forgivable but likable, and to be emulated by “real men.”

The trope is often associated with an unusual physical characteristics like craggy facial features or Christian hair.

Christian Hair

Idiot Heroes and Fools enjoy fighting, seek out conflict (e.g., the bar room brawl, a quintessentially American fracas) and almost always end up hurting other people. They are usually shown smiling amiably as bombs explode around them and walk away from the devastation they have caused with hair intact [cf. George W. Bush, 2000-2008]

3.  The Texas (aka I Ain’t No Pussy) Messiah.  The Messiah trope in comic book terms is a naive figure who “loves everyone. Loves them with a deep, spiritual love that means they will shake heaven and earth, destroy gods and planets, bring nations to their knees, etc., for the person they just met yesterday. They will believe the best of everyone, and constantly give someone a second chance.”

The Texas Messiah thinks people should take care of themselves, and people who don’t ought to have the crap beaten out of them. If people are unemployed, it’s their fault because they’re lazy bystanders along the track of life.  If people are ill, they are probably being punished by God for some sin they thought they got away with in Mexico.  If people are old, they should consider the alternative and make sure their taxes are paid, unless they are billionaires–in which case they can live as long as they want tax free because God has proved that he loves them.

4.  Texas Badass.  The Badass, subspecies Texas Badass, is a man beyond the age of twenty five who still thinks he’s the meanest motherfucker in the universe. A Badass is successful if he can convince his followers that he has balls of steel, or in the case of women badass heroes, that she has boobs of steel like Action Girl. This means no mercy for those who disagree with you.  No compromise with people who have insulted you or your grandma’s pie. No pat on the back for someone who called you a pinhead (See Fool) in public or said that you really didn’t know how to fly a fighter jet or use a grenade launcher in a cow pasture.

You look okay in a suit, though you’re tough to fit in the collar department and your throat sags, but you’re really only at home in jeans and look just fine in fatigues and  lace-up army boots. When some Butterballs says  “You’re not as big as you think you are” you’ve dropped your pants to around your knees in seconds, snarling “Grab your ankles, Little Joe.”  Someday, you will morph into Badass Abnormal. That’s when an ordinary person can shoot lightning bolts out of their hands and punch deities in the balls.  But for now you’ve got those pussy Democrats for practice.

5. Determinator: A determinator is a type of crouching moron (q.v.) who is also skilled at obfuscating stupidity.  Tact and diplomacy are marks of weakness: there is no problem so small that F-16s and boots on the ground cannot solve it.  Drones are a pussy’s way to settle scores because only real men can be idiot heroes and go on the quest…

“The Determinator does not Know When to Fold ‘Em, and it’s a waste of time to tell them the odds. No one can reason with them. They’ll do whatever they have to without question.”

The question of right and wrong is irrelevant to the Determinator because his real stupidity rather than his obfuscating stupidity determines the course of action.  Facts cloud judgment.  Science is useless, school is for losers, and plans are what gays make.

The Determinator is on a quest, which may be delusional, and driven by the conviction that he is the one chosen to fulfill the mission and that everyone who challenges him is a man-eating Demon like Vallejo, though possibly smokin’ hot.  Demons only understand one thing: the Bible.

The Determinator is operating under the will of a higher power and unlike his followers he knows this higher power on a first-name, personal, suds-and-sausage basis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Convictions are Killing Us

"One Nation, in Jesus' Name, with God's Justice for all."

The second Republican presidential debate confirmed all suspicions that we are confronted by intellectual pygmies vying for the chiefdom of the American tribes.

The promised entry of Rick Perry into the race, and if we’re lucky (and her van stops long enough for her to make further wowsers about American history) Sarah Grizzly-Mom Palin, won’t substantially raise the intellectual ante or the tone of discussion.

"The British are coming! Oh, you are British..."

What all of these aspirants have in common besides being emblematic of how easy it is to succeed  in American politics  is that all claim to have convictions. Lots of  ’em

We’ve all seen small candidates in our time.  We’ve even seen an amazingly stupid underachiever hold on to the office of president for eight interminable years, once presumably because he won the election. But we’ve never seen it this bad.

And the reason we’ve never seen it this bad is because three, at least, of the wannabes keep talking about their convictions–not ideas, but beliefs they hold doggedly and think other Americans, as Americans, should hold them too.

Some of these convictions are religious. Some are economic, and some are social.  But their classification doesn’t matter: there is no high falutin’ epistemology involved in having these core convictions, because,  according to this troop, convictions are what made America great and what keeps America going–one nation under God, in whom we trust.

In the Republican debate, when she wasn’t just venting gas about making Obama a One Term President, an idea overwhelming in its piscatorial crassness, Michele Bachmann said a number of times that she  has more convictions than any of her competitors.  “I have demonstrated leadership and the courage of my convictions to change Washington, stop wasteful spending, lower taxes, put Americans back to work and turn our economy around….”

She also has convictions about lightbulbs, fuel emissions, gays, the “unborn,” as she sepulchrally calls fetuses, the nature of marriage, and a dozen other things that flow from her weird teaology.

Michele Bachmann and some of her two dozen foster convictions

She’s doubly dangerous because like a lot of people with convictions, she can’t admit when she’s wrong: take the “Our founding fathers worked night and day to abolish slavery”- comment.  Not only historically outlandish but perverse in her attempt to defend her wrongness.  The “founding father” she tried to name (9 years old at independence and 19 when the Constitutional convention was convened) was the son of a real founding father whose views on God, religion and the Bible Michele Bachmann would find disturbing, if not incomprehensible.

On Saturday, the cast of this folies bizzare will be joined by an aging fraternity lout who is not only unimpressed by the concept of separation of church and state but frankly can’t bother to make the distinction.

That would be a scandalous posture if most Americans cared a farthing about the Constitution, but polls have repeatedly shown that if the document were up for grabs today it wouldn’t look much like the Enlightenment icon we possess, warty amendments, like the Eighteenth, and all.

No one really wants to contemplate what a President Perry would say if a committee of Pentecostal ministers suggested  amending “We the People” to “We the Christian People of the United States,” or putting a tasteful cameo of Jesus in the center of our currency to mark us out as a holy nation of God-fearers, beloved and protected by the Almighty.

Two of the contenders, Romney and Huntsman, are Mormons, a group so strange in its beliefs that the best that can be said about them is that they aren’t scientologists. The remainder, in  shades of ecclesial gray are simply losers, though “Rick” Santorum is also a religious nutcase and Catholic pro-life extremist who refuses to attend any Masses that aren’t in Latin.

In additon to the six children Santorum holds up as proof of his commitment to the Gospel of Life, his wife Karen in 1996 gave birth to a son (Gabriel Michael) when she was twenty weeks pregnant. The dead fetus (born with a closed posterior urethral valve) was brought home and “introduced” to the other children as their brother.  The couple slept with the fetus overnight before returning it to the hospital the next day.  The story is told in lurid detail by Michael Sokolove in his 2005 New York Times Magazine feature “The Believer.”  In the same piece, Santorum is quoted as saying that in his view George W. Bush was the first “Catholic president of the United States,” and that John F. Kennedy “shed his Catholicism.”  Convictions.

The Republican race for the nomination is not about choosing the most qualified candidate but about trying to determine who’s the least crazy.

Unfortunately, the American people have a huge appetite for crazy–prime time Jersey Shore and Biggest Loser crazy. Their political focus on winners and losers, American idol-style, is so far removed from the debates, the ideas, the burning issues that formed the republic that history is only considered a distraction, and a boring one at that.  I can easily imagine viewers who wondered if, at the end of the debate, the participants would be called over in small groups by Tyra Banks.  In my mind, she’s wearing something silky in red, white and blue, with dangly silver star earrings:  “Jon, you’ve got a lot of talent. I really expected you to shine out there tonight.  But you just didn’t come through. Your sentences were too long and I just felt you were holding back.” —Or maybe that wouldn’t be a worse process than the one we have.

We liked your number--we really did--but you just didn't, you know...

As it is, in the discounted political process we’re stuck with, convictions matter more than facts and looking decisive carries more weight than being right. The media calls it optics.  Winners and losers are determined by how tenaciously wrong opinions and worthless convictions can be defended.  Who cares when John Quincy Adams lived?  It’s my conviction that my contempt for pro-choice Americans is the real American value: end of story. The optics of conviction-holding may be the most serious threat democracy has ever faced.

There are certainly things that disappoint me about Barack Obama. But I sense that he wouldn’t lie to me about history, or claim to know something for certain that he doesn’t know.  Maybe that comes from his being a college lecturer, or just a nice guy, since truth-telling and history were not his predecessor’s strong suit.

But unless history proves me wrong (and not his slanderers) Obama is as close as we’re likely to get in the twenty-first century to a politician still in touch with the spirit of the founders, still interested in the American experiment as an experiment and a work in progress.  As a matter of experience he understands that America isn’t finished.  As a matter of dogma, his opponents believe that America reached its pinnacle of perfection in some golden age, whose mythical history they have substituted for the far messier but real story of America’s past.

That “scholarly,” tentative view of democracy as an idea in need of exploration and improvement is a dangerous one in Rick Perry’s done-deal Exceptional America, where God is king, presidents are his stewards, and only men with strong religious convictions are entitled to serve.

The political free fall in which we find ourselves is frightening enough without the supernatural maps being offered by the Republican horde.  This is too far down the road from John Kennedy’s most famous dictum about religion for any of us to feel complacent: ”I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.” Where did we make that wrong turn? And where did these guides come from?

God Responds to Rick Perry’s Prayer

At a Christian prayer rally called “The Response” in Austin, Texas on August 6th, Governor Rick Perry closed his remarks on the state of the nation with the following prayer:

“Father, our heart breaks for America, We see discord at home, we see fear in the  marketplace, we see anger in the halls of government. And as a nation, we have  forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us.  And for that we cry out for your forgiveness.”

In unusually swift turnaround time, the Texas Governor’s office received the following reply from God at 4.30 PM, CST:

“Dear Governor Perry, Rick if I may–

My heart breaks too.  It breaks everytime I hear the voices of brainlesss politicians saying out loud what they know in their cheating hearts isn’t true.  Most world leaders don’t do this anymore.  It’s a blessing, really.  Lets me get on with my nap.  But even when I was younger I didn’t listen.  Speaking of cheating hearts, I love that song. How does it go again?  I’m guessing that it and Turkey in the Straw are the only songs you know, so I thought I’d mention it. I’ve always believed in finding the common ground. Just ask the Palestinians.  That’s called jest, Rick. It wouldn’t hurt you to smile at something other than Yo Mama jokes.

One of the few places where Nazi airheads like you still get an audience is America. Especially Texas. And Pakistan and places like that.  Places where there are lots of guns.  With all those guns, I don’t think I’d be much good to you really.  Never learned to use one.  My brother Zeus used to be good with thunderbolts. Guns, not so much.

Just a couple of corrections, though.  Since you’ve only got fourscore years and ten and have used up more than two thirds of that already, no reason to waste your breath asking for things that I can’t make can’t happen in your lifetime.

First of all, I don’t have any control over the marketplace.  That’s way out of my league, complexity-wise. I didn’t even give instructions for the ark–it was Noah’s idea.  He was afraid it wouldn’t float, so he reckoned that if everybody in his family drowned he could just say, “Don’t blame me. God gave me the plan.”  A lot of my official story, the one that’s in the book you keep in your top desk drawer next to your old copies of Maxim, is like that–stuff that you humans screwed up and came crying to me too late when it was already fucked. It worked for a couple of thousand years, but it’s played hell with my reputation.

No one could decide whether I was a sadistic old bastard who liked hurting people who couldn’t keep my rules or a nice old dad-type who sends a helping hand when things look hopeless. Like when junior runs his credit card into the ground in his first semster at Amherst.  Or when the bills come due on all the wars you Texas boys seem to like so much. Or when your daddy had that chat with the dean about whether you were going to be able to graduate with a 1.o average.  Money talks Rick.  God doesn’t.

Let me tell you something else,  Rick: I didn’t give you those commandments and I didn’t send my only begotten son to help you out.  I don’t care whose ox gores a foreigner or what you do with your neighbour’s ass.  And I certainly never had an interest in first century Palestinian virgins.  They’re all stories Rick, stories.

The fact is, I’ve never really done anything, so you can’t count on me to change the market place, or people’s cheatin’ hearts, or fish you out of the financial swamp you’re making for yourself. You know how you prayed to me (you used to call me “Merciful God” and cry when you were loaded) to make “everything OK” with the girl you thought you got pregnant ?  Sorry I couldn’t help–not even offer you a tissue.

I didn’t create you, or your lovely wife, Anita Thigpen, or anybody else.  I didn’t even make the little green apples.  And I hate it when people call me “Father”.  I mean for Christ sake, you’re sixty years old.  Grow up a little.  How much protecting and saving do you need at your age?  It reminds me of the time Abraham came running to me when it was pretty clear that Sodom was going down the sewer.  “Won’t you help us?,” he said, “What if I find a few good men who believe in you?”  “Believe in me?  What does that even mean? It won’t make any difference,” I said. “It’s going down.”  And down it went.  I know, I know: in the black  Bible book in your top drawer you have Abraham’s version–but that’s the way it really happened.  Sodom was a cesspool, full of people whose ways were continually evil, like Texas. Shit happens because people like you make it happen and then expect me to clean it up. Not my fault, Rick.  Your fault.

I know you’ve heard a lot of stories, Rick, and you’ve sung about how great I am, but really I’m just an idea.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great big idea, in the right minds,  so when imbeciles like you treat me like a slot machine asking for divine mercy, favor, protection and toys I have to laugh.  Is it only cowboys like you who got straight D’s in college that still believe in a god so softheaded that he would protect bumblers like you from certain disaster, a God just like your daddy, Joe Ray.

A first-class, omnipotent God would make sure you fail–maybe even wipe Texas off the face of the continent just as a precaution .  But it’s not in my power to do that or improve America’s credit rating, anymore than I can raise the average IQ of the Tea Party.  Maybe being good with a grenade launcher will help. But I’m skeptical.  I’m about as effective as your idea of me, and your idea of me is–well–pathetic.

Frankly Governor, if I did exist I’d have gone to school, and read books, and learned some science–learned about the way the world really happened, and how good governments operate, and what we can do to help each other out by using our brains. I wouldn’t have wasted my time jumping out of planes, setting off fire crackers in the men’s toilet at fraternity parties, chasing skirt and pretending that the world was all ok because my Imaginary Friend would always make things better when I got caught.  I wouldn’t waste my time making deserts out of gardens the way you have and then praying to a supreme being for more rain and another chance.  You humans have always been a big disappointment on the evolutionary tree, but you Republican humans are really making survival of the fittest an act of faith.

So, Rick, much as I hate to disappoint you, and I hope I have, there is no quick fix here, no prayable moment.

To quote someone I’ve always admired named Benjamin Franklin, God helps those who help themselves, not buggers like you who don’t use the brains Nature gave you.

Yours,

God

Secular Rock and Religious Roll

Get ready to rock America: Deliverance from the forces of darkness and superstition is at hand.  No, I’m not talking about the Republicans being on vacation.

I’m talking about the fact that the “Rock Beyond Belief” concert at Fort Bragg is going to happen sometime in March of next year.  Hooah!

In its tireless quest to appear newsworthy, the headline-chasing Center for Inquiry has spotted another star to hitch its galumping wagon to.  Here’s the Flash:

The secular festival Rock Beyond Belief will now cometo fruition at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, March 31, 2012, after military authorities there reversed course and approved the event that will feature an array of music and speakers including famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

The Rock Beyond Belief event was planned in response to Fort Bragg’s sponsorship,endorsement, and overwhelming support of the Billy Graham EvangelicalAssociation’s Christian evangelical concert, called Rock the Fort, held last year. When secularists around the country protested the government’s support of this event and requested that it be canceled, officials at Fort Bragg justified their support by stating the same level of support would be provided to anyone who organized a similar event.

That pledge proved to be untrue when Fort Bragg officials, led by garrison commander Col. Stephen J. Sicinski, initially denied Rock Beyond Belief organizers the use of an outdoor venue and financial support. The Center for Inquiry (CFI) previously condemned those discriminatory actions as both an outrageous misuse of power and potentially illegal, and applauds the base’s decision to approve and support Rock Beyond Belief.

Speaking only for myself, I can’t find the drama here, the Superman moment where America wins.

For one thing, there is an actual musical genre called Christian rock and it wouldn’t surprise me if some soldiers liked it. Including soldiers who weren’t Christians.   Given low wages and precious few other rewards for fighting two wars that nobody wants and the nation can’t afford, let ’em have what they like as long as they don’t scare the horses–the way they did at Abu Ghraib.

But othwerwise, as far as I know, rock is rock, and I don’t know that adding Richard Dawkins to the mix (even if he wears tight jeans and has his nose pierced for the occasion) creates a new genre called secular rock.

I always thought “secular” was taken for granted for music that doesn’t come out of a hymnal or a concert repertoire.  To the best of my recollection, most of the bad-ass lyrics I have to listen to as my daughter surfs the FM waves on my car radio are secular, but mainly  just bad (how’s your Bruno Mars knowledge: would ya take a grenade for me?).

True, they don’t include commercials from A C Grayling or supportive messages from Sam Harris on twilighting your faith and teaching others to do the same, but that’s the price we pay for life in a democracy, sort of.  If there’s a chance the atheist horsemen will  be touring (sort of like the Three Tenors but without Ave Maria) I want tickets.  Heck, I even offer my services as their booking agent. The only thing is, they can’t use regular rock spiked with a message and call it secular rock, as though they’re as smart as Lady Gaga or Stone Temple Pilots or Pearl Jam.  They have to write and sing their own atheist songs, just like the Christian rockers sing about Jesus. They have to play their own gee-tars.  They have to wear T-shirts and have a name. I suggest the GnuTonians.  Otherwise, no deal.

The GnuTonians, Coming to a Military Base Near You!

Secularists are really bad at negotiating these teachable moments. It might have been the understandable position of the much maligned base commander, Colonel Sicinski, who finally approved the concert, that 98% of what soldiers listen to is secular rock.  After all, this wasn’t a debate about church music, and balancing an evangelical rock event with a secular rock event makes about as much sense as balancing feathers and bricks, or rocks if you’ll forgive the obvious.  Enter the Myth of the Persecuted Atheist:  If they [overprivileged religious persons] get their event, we want ours.  Poor Colonel Sicinski, just trying to do his job in an atmosphere where new atheist Christian-sniffers are looking for new ways to be outraged.

At least, however, the Rock Beyond Belief (get it?) organizers had the courtesy to be civil and grateful to the Colonel:  “Colonel Sicinski, Fort Bragg’s Garrison Commander has now approved the event in full, and we’re extremely grateful to him for this opportunity.”  –Not CFI, which implies his actions were “an outrageous misuse of power.”  Nothing is really exciting unless it’s outrageous or illegal, is it?  Perhaps the story behind the story is why the event became polarized and litigious so quickly, when clearly the Colonel was not balancing two apposites–like hard- and soft- rock- likers where demand could be easily understood and accommodated.  Give him a break.  This isn’t Iran.  The food is much better there.

There’s another something wrong with Rock Beyond Belief and all the joining-the-cause pedantry that CFI does these days as it tries to squeeze a little more juice out of its withering fruit.  In offering its shrinking volume of customers this kind of news, they are really attempting to spin false victories for Godlessness and Country out of utterly dumb facts.  The spectacle of an organization that now chases more famous ambulances to the scene just so it can get its name in the blogroll and call it a victory for freethought is just a little pathetic, don’t you think?

Do I think atheists should have the same right to hold a messaged-rock concert same as evangelical Christians?  Sure I do.  I suppose Catholics, Jews, Pastafarians and Nuwabianists need to chime in to assert their rights while the environment is sweet for everybody’s songs.  Everybody but Unitarians.  They have really bad music.

But equal is equal, fair is fair, and the braintrust at CFI seems to think that secular rock needs defending.  As soon as I know what that is, I’m there–on the side of truth, justice, and free inquiry. If they play Freedom, I may just go myself.  But then we have to let the NeoNazis do their thing. White Boss or The Dentists, anyone?  Anyone?  Now that will test Colonel Sicinski’s powers of judgement –and his memory.