Monthly Archives: July 2009

Tax $$ and the Right to Abortion: Pay Up, Even If You Oppose It

“No matter what your views are on abortion, you shouldn’t ask people to use their tax dollars if they think that abortion is taking a life,” Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. claimed in reference to the current debate over covering abortion in the new health care bill.

What a strange concept, being voiced by a Senator (*cough hypocrite*) who supported the Iraq War and is pro-death penalty, both of which are, oh yeah, tax payer funded (to the tune of $86 billion for military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, to name one 2003 vote). And I think it’d be hard to deny that war and capital punishment take lives.

Do I hate that my taxes fund killing? Yes. Do I wish the death penalty was illegal and that the U.S. didn’t go around invading other countries?  Yes. Do I support protesting these policies? Yes. Do I think civil disobedience in the form of not paying taxes is a legitimate tactic? Yes.

I strongly disagree with abortion rights opponents, but not with their right to engage in activism around their beliefs (when it doesn’t involve violent rhetoric and “taking the life” of people like Dr. George Tiller). On an individual level, that could mean acts of civil disobedience like refusing to pay taxes.

I support the taxation system as whole (despite flaws), so I consider it important to pay up and utilize other means toward social change. However, I understand the motivation for this form of protest, if anti-abortion rights activist chose to pursue it: I personally am disturbed by a sense of complicity in the war and criminal justice system because my (meager) taxes in part head that way, and civil disobedience has an honorable history around the world.

But this idea that abortion shouldn’t be funded because some–not even all–people think it’s taking a life, when we don’t say, “Whoops, can’t fund this war, even those there’s no controversy over the fact that we are indeed taking lives,” is not an argument any of our legislators should be listening to, much less voicing. I don’t agree with a lot of decisions elected representative make about my tax dollar; nonetheless, I accept it because that’s how our system works.

Not to mention, even if you see abortion as “taking a life” (which I don’t), many people still realize (as they ought) it’s a woman’s right, and it deserves to be an economically viable, insurance-covered, right. Due to this, I don’t like comparing funding abortion with funding capital punishment or the Iraq War, both of which I consider massive injustices that we have no right to engage in–but as I’m not arguing in this post why the right to an abortion is just, I’ve tried to restrict myself to examples that align with an anti-reproductive rights frame of mind.

Or–and perhaps more importantly–the frame of mind of pro-rights legislators who might be swayed by this argument and sacrifice women’s body in the health care bill. Democrats have an unfortunate tendency not to stand firm for abortion rights, treating it with kid gloves as a delicate issue people have strong feelings about. Buck up, Democrats! Abortion is a human right and a legal medical procedure in this country, and it deserves its place in federally funded health insurance. Sensitivity to other people’s beliefs does not require you to abandon your own.

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Filed under Reproductive Justice

Feminists and Atheists for War?

Codepink‘s  provided such splashy anti-war protests, I plumb forgot that feminism is not equated with peace. I was yanked from this pink dream by an angry  Alternet headline attacking the Feminist Majority Foundation for supporting increased peacekeeping troops to protect Afghan women and girls.

Then, on Monday, Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God, brought attentionto the warmongering of atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.

I recently discussed my frustration that today’s leading voices of atheism are predominantly male, despite my conception of the belief system as ideal for women, in bypassing the history of sexism (and misogyny) of most religion. Now feminism and atheism are bought being called out for their less-than-pacifistic tendencies.

I’m a recent convert to pacifism–I’ve always been primarily anti-war, but didn’t quite feel that I was a pacifist. After all, what about World War II? But under the influence of a close friend, I decided that I was a pacifist, though the deep imperfections of the world might mean you can’t always condemn a war (like WWII) as either right or wrong.

But I digress. Feminism and atheism are such core aspects of my beliefs, they feed into my support of pacifism in such a way that the links seem obvious. Of course, having studied the split in the international feminist movement and domestic organizations over support for the first world war, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Then, too, pacifists assumed that their feminist comrades would oppose war–and got a rude awakening by the hyper-patriotic jingoism of many leaders of the women’s movement.

And then there’s atheism…with all the wars (crusades) that have been fought in the name of one religion or another, I breathe a sigh of relief from within my secular humanist belief system that there’s no god pushing me to the battlefield. Yet Hitchens et al are demonstrating that their loathing–and fear–of fundamentalist religion has lured them into a violent stance.

For me, feminism, atheism, and pacifism are all about equality, understanding, and peace. It looks like people who share this sense might have to fight for their beliefs–with the mighty pen, of course.

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Filed under Atheism, Feminism, International

Believing in God: I Just Don’t

A sure sign that my New Yorker instinct has yet to fully kick back in after four years of college in small-town New Hampshire: when a guy on the street asked me to stop and lend him my ear, I actually paused. Turns out he was selling God–or at least his church.

As  I gazed at my apartment building, just a block away, if asked if I’d heard about [insert organization of spiritual salvation here]. I hadn’t.

Then: Do you believe in God?

Me: No.

Him: Why not?

Me: I just don’t.

As he started in on something about Jesus Christ, I smiled, told him sorry, but I just wasn’t interested, and moved on. He said okay and let me go, which was a relief–religious or secular, salespeople on New York City streets can be very aggressive.

What kept me thinking about this brief interaction after, however, was my own answer: “I just don’t.” I just don’t? I’ve articulated why atheism is important to me on multiple occasions in my college newspaper, the Dartmouth Free Press“I just don’t” seemed a cop-out.

Actually, the first response that flitted through my mind was “personal decision,” but I dismissed that as really empty. I can easily write 3,000 words defending atheism, describing my own atheist and humanist belief system, outlining the background which lead me to this place, from “technically Catholic,” to agnostic, to firm atheist. I enjoy discussing atheism and religion. Why can’t I give a meaningful, brief response to why I don’t believe in God?

This isn’t the first time a random stranger has asked why I don’t believe in God. Visiting a friend’s college, a guy invited me to attend his church Sunday. I informed him that wouldn’t work out since I was an atheist, leading him to ask what led me to reject God, and was there a time I cried out to him and he didn’t answer? Um…no, I replied (actually finding the scenario pretty funny), and explained that I don’t reject God, a common misunderstanding, I simply don’t believe there is one–so there’s nothing to reject.

What it comes down to is there are many reasons I find atheism and secular humanism meaningful in my life, and as many specific problems I can point out with religion/Christianity. But, I realized, the question, why don’t you believe in God, isn’t asking about that. No meaningful response to that question exists for me.

Maybe next time I’ll try asking why the Christianity salesman doesn’t believe in Aphrodite or the rest of the Greek pantheon–maybe his response can give me an idea for a better soundbite. “God” doesn’t factor into how I live my life any more than Zeus, or Muhammad. Disbelief is the default. As Stephen Roberts stated: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” Many people may find (or feel) reasons for faith in God–that doesn’t mean anyone else should need a reason for not sharing their belief.

So I guess my answer truly is: I just don’t.

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Filed under Atheism, Religion

Don’t Read the Comments!

I know better. Once you’ve scrolled down to the end of the article, it’s time to move on, read something else, get some fresh air. You don’t keep going, down into the abyss, down–into the comments section.

Feministe’s Next Top Troll competition pits the worst comments posted on their blog against one another for that illustrious title. I admit: I read the entries, voted for my (least) favorite. It was seductive really; once I’d seen it, there was no chance of pulling myself away from the displays of ignorance and loathing, at once fascinating, hilarious, and nausea-inducing.

If you’re ever looking to really despise humanity, visiting a popular blog or news site sporting a controversial piece and reading the comments is an effective prescription. But, for the average person trying not to be a misanthrope, what should you do with those pesky thoughts from the public?

It isn’t as thought they’re ALL terrible. Often thoughtful, nuanced viewpoint abound below the official articles, and if you’re intrigued by the subject, isn’t the point of allowing comments to allow further pursuit and dialogue? Nonetheless, when I come across those little bigoted gifts, I’m always at odds about what to do.

Is it worth it to construct a dignified respond to a post that clearly has no thought behind it in the first place? You’re not likely to alter the viewpoint of someone whose contribution to the piece is that women are stupid and should be stoned. “Don’t give them the satisfaction” seems good advise here: they want you to be pissed off. Taking potshots probably won’t make you feel better either.

But what of the others who come across a truly troubling comment? Should you leave you’re “hey, I don’t believe this!” mark to assure them of another side of humanity? Worry that there are people who will be swayed by the comment? I’d like to assume that it’s idiocy is obvious in these cases, but the sheer volume of such commentary demonstrates that a lot of people are on the same crass wavelength.

Maybe the best thing is just to spend some time leaving opinions based off of the article at hand, hold your writing to a standard and hope most others will take the cue, and never read the comments before you’ve had your morning coffee.

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Filed under Uncategorized

Calling Atheist Women: The Public Needs You

A couple years late, I came across Christopher Hitchens’ 2007 article on why women are “backward” in generating humor. I was duly pissed off, but I’ll keep my entire unhumorous rant on the subject to myself, because otherwise I’ll never make it to my intended destination: the union between atheism and women.

A woman commented on the Katrina vanden Heuvel post I discussed on Tuesday, saying that atheism shared the same ol’ male-dominated network as religion. As fervent a feminist as I am an atheist, I wondered: is that true?

The four big names of what’s been dubbed the “new atheist” movement are best-selling authors Christopher, Richard, Sam, and Daniel. The Bible was clearly written by men, and it’s looking like the tracts of atheism are following in that patriarchal tradition.

And yet…freed from Eve-demonizing faiths, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and humanists served a major role of the women’s rights movement. American Atheists was founded by school-prayer challenger Madalyn Murray O’Hair (think the new atheists rile people up? O’Hair called herself the “most hated woman in America”), and the Freedom From Religion Foundation was launched by a mother-daughter duo. Female writers do exist in atheist bookstores, such as Annie Laurie Gaylor and Katha Pollitt, with works focusing on the place of women in freethought vs. fundamentalist traditions.

Though some churches in the U.S., like the Episcopal congregation, have grown out of their misogyny and now ordain female priests and bishops, religion has a poor track record with women, and entrenched institutions find it hard to catch up with modern equality, even with progressive men and women working within their ranks toward change. Atheism is a logical place for women to thrive because it doesn’t have to deal with that sexist baggage–there’s no one text riddled with sexism for liberal scholars to try to explain, no one text at all to bow down to as “the word” on atheism.

But as a belief system whose explanation rests entirely in the hands of its followers, the who’s who of atheist stars does matter. It’s not so much about individual flaws and foibles as the need for missing voices (in another post, I could comment on their racial homogeneity in the same manner). Whether or not Christopher Hitchens has penchant for promoting sexist/borderline misogynistic stereotypes in his writing, the voices of public atheism are too testosterone-filled–even if raised in defense of women, it’s better that the ladies take the floor, too.

The last thing we need is another boys club.

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Filed under Atheism, Feminism, Religion

Oh, to be Secular in the Summer

Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel blogged on something atheists had to celebrate this 4th:

“After eight years in the Bush wilderness — and an even longer period of ostracism by the Washington political establishment — a rising demographic of like-minded Americans and a new president are guiding us back to our roots as a secular nation.”

Jaws dropped when Obama referenced nonbelievers in his inauguration speech. Though the day had its issues, from Rick Warren to a multiplicity of religious references and figures, with one word Obama handed a vital commodity to “nonbelievers”: visibility.

Say what you will about Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, their snark snatched attention for atheism, which it desperately needed. (Now atheism has buses–I saw one of the mobile ads in New York yesterday.) While their less-than-perfectly-tolerant rhetoric might have offended some religious people, nonetheless I think they did more good than harm in capturing the spotlight. People often distrust the unfamiliar, so as long as atheists remain in the shadows, mistrust and misunderstanding proliferate.

Of course, Obama doesn’t need to grab headlines with ploys like Dawkins’ or Hitchens’. All he has to do is make use of his Obama star power, bringing visibility and a modicum of support.

Now, maybe you could complain that he could stand to do better than just a shout-out–and that he steered clear of the term “atheist,” which, for some reason, people tend to have trouble with (I recall a comedian once talking about coming out to her parents as an atheist–they knew she didn’t believe in God, but an atheist?!). He’s paid a lot of lip service to the LGBT community that hasn’t come to fruition either, once citing his Christianity as his reason for opposing gay marriage, and the inroads the Religious Right has made have not been reset to neutral. Just because atheists have been so downtrodden doesn’t mean we should give too much applause to scraps from on high.

Still, I’m happy for any help in confronting prejudice toward “nonbelievers” and helping draw them out of the closet. And for giving atheists a momentary warm fuzzy feeling: though rising above is admirable, it’s easier to treat religion with tolerance and respect when you’re getting a little in return.

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Filed under Atheism, Obama, Religion

Red, White, and Blue: Bid Patriotism Adieu

It’s almost the Fourthof July: red, white, and blue color store windows, early (unauthorized) fireworks boom at night, and patriotism fills the air–leaving a sour taste in my mouth.

It’s not solely bitterness over the way conservatives cried “anti-patriotic” (stealing a page from McCarthy) to stifle dissent toward the Iraq War, the anticipated resulting disaster, and the tragedy of unnecessary death. Some might call this a “misuse” of patriotism, a manipulation for a corrupt political agenda. But I don’t think it’s a misuse at all: it reflects the essential nature of patriotism and what it’s used for.

Patriotism and nationalism divorce people from a sense of universal humanity. Sure, the well-being of friends and family is and should be more important to you than that of people you’ve never met–the ability to create these bonds of personal caring is fundamental to human nature. However, there’s little noble in determining one stranger’s life to be superior to another stranger’s based solely on their nationalities. It’s not personal connection or human feeling that creates this situation: it’s an us-versus-them, we-are-better-than-them, mentality, that treats members of other countries as subhuman.

Would over a hundred thousand dead Americans be an acceptable toll for the Iraq War in the eyes of the U.S. public? Doubtful–the few thousand American fatalities to date are seen as too much, and even in the much-protested Vietnam War we lost just half that number. Yet, over a hundred thousand Iraqi deaths are overlooked. That’s patriotism: believing the death of human beings means less if they hold a different passport from your own.

In response to a question regarding whether better means than torture exist for gaining intel, former CIA officer Michael Scheueur replied: “Why would you care? If we get the information we needed and America is better protected, who cares? …These are not Americans.” That’s nationalism. That’s patriotism.

As the 4th approaches, the American public is learningabout the 100 detainees who died under torture, while Obama considers an executive order that will allow him to continue the Guantanamo Bay practices of indefinite detention. Is this something to celebrate?

“Patriotism” is also the concept behind intolerant (sometimes violent) religious fundamentalism, just by another name; it draws from the same place as racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. It’s about division.

We learn patriotism from the get-go, from idealized stories of the Revolutionary War taught in elementary school classrooms and children’s books. Especially in a democracy, war-mongering relies on patriotism and demonization of the other; domestic industry utilizes it to gain protective tariffs and subsides, and to wage economic warfare; and countries claim “sovereignty” to keep free of international agreements that would “bind” them” to serve a global well-being, ruining the potential of organizations like the United Nations.

I’ll love seeing the light show over the Hudson on Saturday, but let’s not swoon over a little razzle-dazzle. And if you’re desperate for a substitute for nationalistic patriotism on the 4th, think about becoming a card-carrying Citizen of the World. Hey–while he might not be registered, even Obama called himself a citizen of the world in Berlin last year. (Let’s hope he remembers.)


Filed under International, Iraq War, Torture

Dictionary Deficiency: Defining Sex

Labels can also be misleading.  I saw a news report about a lesbian protest march, and the reporter said, “Coming up next, a lesbian demonstration.” My first thought was, “Cool.  I always wondered how those things work.” -Michael Dane

Last week, a queer friend told me she’d had sex with a woman for the first time–and it was good. Laughing and congratulating her, I realized after hanging up that I hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant.

The next time we talked, I waited through a couple minutes of small talk, and then asked: so, how does that work? One open conversation and half an hour of Googling later, what people mean by “sex” remains hazy.

When I started looking, I thought the main problem with the terminology was heteronormativity. And maybe a little reproductive-normativity too: penis + vagina = ability to make babies = sexual intercourse. Some definitions do recognize that sex doesn’t always involve a mixed set, conceding that sex can involve other forms of genital contact, but that still wasn’t perfectly satisfying.

My friend determined that she considers sex between two women fingering or oral–or, if you’re bringing toys into the equation, intercourse involving dildos. But, I asked, would you consider fingering or oral sex with a guy, well, sex? No…well maybe yes on oral…and then we brought up sex between two men and whether that would be anal, or oral, or hand-jobs…and got more confused. What it came down to in this case was that she and her partner orgasmed, that it was her first such experience with another woman, and she was excited by the contrast to with a guy.

Wandering the internet, I found a lot of confused LGBT and straight individuals asking similar questions about what sex means, or whether they’ve “lost their virginity.” I despise this particular phrase, with its connotations of innocence and purity and this idea of loss, rather than a gain, in sexual experience. But what about dropping the term virginity and wondering: did I just have sex for the first time?

In asking what sex means, I was asking the wrong question. Let’s take another term: hook-up. On a G-rated level, to “hook-up” can mean to get together and hang out. But when you say you hooked-up with a hottie the night before, the assumption is something a little more sexual—but how much so? At times it doesn’t mean much more than kissing; in other usages, it can mean fingering, or oral, anal, or genital sex—with many shades of seriousness, clothing, etc. The same person night to night uses it to describe different situations.

When a person qualifies what they mean by “hooking-up,” it might be for the sake of a more detailed, interesting story amongst friends. We like to tell people the good things in our lives, and, despite societal taboos that might keep us unusually quiet on the subject, sex is no exception. I had a great time dancing last night—I had a great time fucking last night.

However, often, especially for straight women, the qualification is to say, “oh, but I didn’t have sex,” to avoid–what? Being called a slut? Easy? The vagueness of the term “hook-up” is one of its perks—you don’t TMI friends who maybe don’t want all the details. If you’re not in the mood to give the gripping details of what exactly happened last night, then hook-up should suffice, sans defensive qualifications. (I’m not so sure what the situation is for straight men–if you prefer to claim sex, for macho points–or for queer men and women, on where the virtues of the chastity-to-stud scale lie.)

In any case, the weight we put on “sex” is too heavy a burden. It’s not just about heteronormativity; one of the things that fascinates me, comparing my generation (we’re the Millennials now, apparently) to my parents, is the perception of oral sex. Even in the time of free love, oral sex seemed generally considered a more intimate sexual act, while today, blow-jobs are on the serious side of hooking-up, but often as standard “instead-of-sex” fare. So is oral sex really sex? More than? Less than? This question applies whether you’re straight, bi, gay, trans, whatever–but does it matter?

The concept of sex (in bold) ties in with our cultural Puritanism mingled with sex-obsession (ever a nation of opposites and hypocrites, America), fundamentalist religion trying to turn it into a battleground of sin.  The fun of sex is—well, doing stuff that’s not so easy to define. Or the multitude of ways to define it.

What can sex be? Talking with my friend, I didn’t get a clear definition; however, like Michael Dane, I wondered how that worked, and my question got me a better understanding of what sex could be. I tend to be less concerned about TMI and more interested in people openly discussing sex—so we can find a multitude of (Ecstatic? Deep? Playful? Leather-requiring?) answers to what sex can be.

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Filed under Queer issues, Sex