[Image: Entrance to St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, San Francisco.]
Today’s post on Medium is, as the title says, about gods, atheists, and comfort in crisis.
[Image: Entrance to St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, San Francisco.]
Today’s post on Medium is, as the title says, about gods, atheists, and comfort in crisis.
[Image: Protesters at the 2017 San Francisco Tax March hold a caricature of Donald Trump clutching fistfuls of money.]
Today’s post on Medium, “What it takes to be president“, discusses the dominance of money and religion in US-American politics.
[Image: March for Science San Francisco attendees hold up a large banner for the event.]
On Saturday, I attended the March for Science San Francisco, one of many March for Science rallies held on Earth Day throughout the world. Unlike some recent political protests I’ve attended, this event appeared to be very well-funded, with a professional sound system for once. Between the multiple speaker arrays, giant video screen, coordinated T-shirts, and laminated passes for the speakers and volunteers, it almost felt more like an industry trade show or rock concert than a rally.
The pre-march rally was held at Justin Herman Plaza, which was already filled with people when I arrived half an hour before the 11 a.m. start time. By the end of the rally, the plaza was so packed that it took me 45 minutes to get from the far side of the stage out to Market Street for the actual march.
The lineup of speakers was diverse, and support for immigrants was a recurring theme. ASL interpretation was provided, and a pre-recorded talk by a scientist paralyzed with ALS, Eric Valor, was shown . While I appreciated that scientists were in the spotlight, the speaker I was personally most excited to see was Adam Savage from Mythbusters, who billed himself as an inventor, not a scientist. I also enjoyed the talk by comedian and futurist Baratunde Thurston, who was a last-minute addition.
While advertised as non-partisan, many considered this to be another anti-Trump rally, and brought signs accordingly. Speakers did not call out the current administration exclusively, however. Many emphasized the need for funding and for assertions based on evidence rather than opinion, needs which transcend political parties. The rallying cry, as seen on several signs, was “What do we want? Evidence-based science! When do we want it? After peer review!”
I’ll be the first to admit that science is not a strong area of aptitude or interest for me. Science and math were the subjects I had the most difficulty with in middle and high school, though I still took Advanced Placement courses (in order to look good on my college applications) and managed to get passing grades. I’ve done computer programming, but have little formal computer science training, and struggled greatly in this area even when employed as a full-time web developer.
So my motivation for going to this rally was mostly to continue my documentation of the resistance. Resistance to willful ignorance is part of this effort, and ignorance comes from people of all political persuasions. While science and religion are not necessarily incompatible, science is absolutely not itself a religion, a claim I’ve heard made not only by fundamentalists, but also some very left-wing, “new age” people. (It’s ironic that just the night before the rally I’d attended a sing-along benefit showing of Jesus Christ Superstar, a movie I’ve always greatly enjoyed despite being an atheist.)
Regardless, ethics also plays a large role, especially from my stance as a vegan animal rights activist. I can’t simply ignore vivisection and animal testing, no matter how much these practices might benefit humans. Though I do look for products that are not tested on animals, my reliance on some medications and medical procedures is beyond my reasonable ability to control at this time.
Ethics applies to the hot-button issue of GMOs as well, concerns about which one of the rally speakers dismissed in the same breath as vaccines causing autism. While I agree that the latter has been thoroughly debunked, I am still not convinced GMOs are a great idea. This is not primarily because of concerns about the safety of the humans consuming them, but concerns about capitalism and patenting. I also believe that ending animal agriculture, not engineering more higher-yield or pest-resistant crops, is the ultimate solution to world hunger. But again, I am not a scientist.
During the short time I was on the march, I encountered someone marching while holding a cat, an unusual sight. We spoke briefly, and she commented that the cat would not exist without science, because domestic cats have been specially bred. This raised another animal rights issue, but I didn’t want to get into that discussion at the time, so I just snapped photos, thanked her and moved on.
Shortly afterward, I saw some people on the sidewalk playing live music, so I headed over and joined in the singing. By the time we finished the song, the end of the march had caught up to us, and I was peopled-out, so I headed home. Science-related activities continued for the rest of the afternoon at Civic Center.
My full set of photos from the rally is available on Flickr. I’ve also uploaded the photos to Wikimedia Commons, alongside those from other contributors. Please credit me as Pax Ahimsa Gethen if you use any of my photos, thanks!
[Image: Screenshot from NBC News of Donald Trump speaking in Iowa, with the caption “What did Donald Trump think of the third night of the DNC?” A quote from Trump reads, “I wanted to hit a couple of those speakers so hard… so hard their heads would spin they’d never recover.”]
Last night, along with the rest of the world, I watched the election returns come in with a growing sense of dread and disgust. Unlike many of my friends reacting on Facebook with shock and horror, however, the result was not entirely surprising to me. This country was built on a foundation of exclusion and oppression of everyone except for straight cisgender white Christian men, and those are the people who Trump correctly predicted constituted the “silent majority” that would carry him to victory.
Although I did not endorse or vote for Hillary Clinton, I don’t want to talk about her flaws, perceived or actual. I don’t want to talk about e-mail servers or Wikileaks or Russian interference or what might have happened if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic candidate. And I definitely don’t want to talk about third party “spoilers”. Anyone blaming or shaming progressives who voted for third parties, or who didn’t vote at all, needs to keep your comments out of my space.
The only thing I want to address right now is that millions of US-Americans voted for a man who ran on a campaign of unbridled bigotry, bullying, and blatant dishonesty. The people who say they want to “Make America Great Again” are thinking of a time when people like me—a queer black trans atheist—were invisible and openly oppressed, and ridiculed with impunity without any fear of repercussions. A time when joking or bragging about sexually harassing women was more socially acceptable, inside or outside of locker rooms. A time when religious freedom applied only to people practicing different flavors of Christianity.
This oppression and invisibility and rape culture never actually went away, which is what many of those who were shocked with the election results didn’t understand. You all need to understand it now. Donald Trump is the product—the very embodiment—of white supremacy. His people have spoken, and they want to “take back” a country that they never actually lost in the first place.
I am not willing to take this result quietly. I am a pacifist, but not passive; I support loud, angry protests and civil disobedience. Last night, people in a number of cities took to the streets, and that will continue today and likely for the forseeable future. This will not be a peaceful transition of power.
In the meantime, for anyone in the LGBT+ community who is feeling suicidal, please know that there is help out there. You can call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Our community is under attack, but we are resilient, and we will get through this if we have each others’ backs.
I had already planned to spend time with fellow black trans people (and our allies) over the next two days, tonight at the Black Excellence Tour with CeCe McDonald and Joshua Allen, and tomorrow night at the Free CeCe documentary that opens the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival. I will have to miss the Trump protests in San Francisco and Oakland tonight, but it’s important for me to be with some of the people who are most impacted by his bigotry.
I am not OK. I was not OK before the election, and I don’t know if I ever will be OK in the future. If you want to support me, please amplify the voices of the marginalized people who have been speaking out against institutionalized oppression all along. Make our country great, for the first time.
[Image: Bishop Gene Robinson speaks into a microphone, accompanied by four other ministers.]
Back around 1990, I took a class called “Religion and Politics” from Professor Garry Wills* at Northwestern University. The man—a practicing Catholic—was so unassuming that I mistook him for a janitor on first encounter; I only found out later that he was actually rather famous. I learned from his class that the USA was one of the most religious—Christian, specifically—countries in the world, second only to Ireland in regular church attendance. Twenty-odd years later, I read Society without God by sociologist Phil Zuckerman, and learned that the USA was still far more religious than most other Western countries.
I had these facts in mind when reading an article in The Guardian about the Wikileaks revelation of an apparent DNC strategy to discredit Bernie Sanders based on his supposed atheism. As the article states and as I can verify from my own experience, many Jews in the USA are atheists or agnostics; one can claim a Jewish identity without a belief in God. (Green presidential candidate Jill Stein is an agnostic Jew, for example.) The same cannot be readily said of Christianity, although from reading Society without God I learned that there are many “cultural” Christians in Europe who are actually atheists. (In fact, the countries Zuckerman visited that had official state religions had far, far fewer religious adherents than the USA, where we supposedly have separation of church and state.)
In the article about Sanders, a Jewish supporter of Hillary Clinton states, “I’m gay and America would have less of a problem with a gay president than an atheist president.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true. Our country is and always has been overwhelmingly religious, and overwhelmingly Christian. Outside of progressive hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, atheists are still looked upon with distrust.
Some Christians are becoming more tolerant of the LGBT community, and I’ve spent a lot of time around queer religious people as part of the fight for marriage equality. I took the photo at the top of this post at a Eucharist ceremony (the only one I’ve attended to date), just prior to the 2011 San Francisco Pride Parade. Gene Robinson, pictured speaking, became the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop.
I was hired to shoot the parade by Reverend Roland Stringfellow of the Coalition of Welcoming Congregations, pictured above in 2012 with his now-husband Jerry Peterson. Yes, in San Francisco we have plenty of openly gay interracial couples. But we still have respectability politics, and a dark-skinned black man with locs like Stringfellow is still at risk of police profiling, even if he is a Christian minister. (He and his husband-to-be had actually just been released from police custody when I took this photo, but their annual Valentine’s Day marriage equality sit-in at City Hall had been conducted with the police department’s prior knowledge and full cooperation.)
Religion and respectability politics are part of why I’ve heard nearly as much mention of God at the Democratic National Convention as I did at the Republican event. President Obama might have thrown a crumb to atheists by acknowledging “non-believers” in his inaugural address, but we’re still not fully trusted by the US-American public. Religious institutions get tax breaks, God is on our currency and in our Pledge of Allegiance (though the latter only since the 1950s), and most public officials swear in on Bibles. People who don’t care much about religion might not notice or be bothered by it, but when you’re a committed atheist, religion—and Christianity specifically—is very much in-your-face.
Our theistic, Christian foundation is part of why I don’t think our government can be reformed, even by third parties, to my satisfaction. What viable candidate is really going to call for complete pacifism? We now have a pair of vegan candidates in the Humane Party’s Clifton Roberts and Breeze Harper, but I’m still not convinced that continuing with our current system of government is a good plan.
Hearing Democrats at their convention compete with Republicans for who could praise our “great country” and military might the most just crystallized for me how unpatriotic I’ve become. I don’t agree that we’re the greatest country on Earth. I don’t have a better one in mind because I haven’t traveled abroad much. I’m just not into this “us versus them” mentality. I’m a US citizen by accident of birth, not by choice. And I’m questioning more and more every day whether or not I really want to stay here.
*ETA: Interesting analysis (from 1995) by Wills of the right to bear arms, in light of our country’s current debate over the Second Amendment.
[Image: Assorted kitchen knives on a magnetic strip.]
I’m having trouble coping in a world that seems resigned to the inevitability of killing. Deliberate, premeditated killing. Whether of our “enemies” in other countries, “thugs” on our streets, or “livestock” on our farms, there always seem to be exceptions to the commandment that billions of people claim to live by: “Thou shalt not kill.”
As a pacifist, I don’t want guns “controlled,” I want them gone. All of them, not just “assault weapons” but handguns, rifles, and every other tool designed for the specific purpose of killing another person. I include animals as people, so I’m not interested in exceptions for killing a charging bear in the wilderness (for example). Humans—with the possible exception of the few remaining indigenous groups that have kept mostly to themselves—have encroached on the territory of other animals far too much already. (I’m not opposed to using tranquilizers and other non-lethal means to fend off attackers, however.)
The abolition of guns and other lethal weapons cannot and will not take place through legislation alone. Even without guns, humans will just kill each other with cars or knives. Eliminating murder completely might be impossible, but I have to believe that we can evolve beyond this culture of killing, even if it will take what seems like a miracle.
As an atheist, I’m not praying to any gods for a miracle, but I leave open the possibility that help might arrive through extraordinary means. I recently re/watched the entirety of Star Trek, from the original series through Enterprise. The one episode that stuck with me the most was “Errand of Mercy“. This was not because it was the episode that first introduced the Klingons, but because of another species: The Organians. Disguised as humans, they revealed themselves to be powerful beings of pure energy. Without violence, these pacifists neutralized the weapons of both the Klingons and the Federation, bringing on a (forced) peace treaty.
Of course, this morsel of Gene Roddenberryesque idealism was isolated; fighting and killing continued throughout the television series, and the Organians showed little regard for human life in a prequel episode. Still, I sometimes can’t help but think that intervention from an outside source is the only thing that will stop humans from being such a murderous species. Though the idea of a Supreme Being that created and rules over the world makes no sense to me, I’m entirely open to the possibility of other lifeforms that are so powerful that some humans would worship them as gods. In fact, I would find it very depressing if humans represented the most intelligent beings that the universe could come up with.
Some say that philosophizing about “big picture” things like this is what separates humans from our fellow animals. Even if that’s true, it’s no justification for killing them or treating them as property. If we won’t even stop murdering the most defenseless among us, what hope do we have to stop murdering each other?
I don’t have all the answers here, and I’m suspicious of those who claim they do. I only know that I want the violence to end.
[Image: A church building with a sign in front reading “The Pittsburgh New Church – Welcome to Worship.”]
On Friday I watched a segment on the CBS Evening News that really angered me. It was about a black man who was framed by a white cop, spent four years in jail, and later came to forgive and even “love” his oppressor. Please watch or read the story for yourself before continuing (it’s three minutes long).
I didn’t write anything about this at the time, but today read a post by Son of Baldwin which encapsulated all that’s wrong with this shitty “feel-good” example of white supremacy. I posted this reply:
This story made me so angry when I watched it on the CBS Evening News. Especially the last line: “And clearly, if these two guys from the coffee shop can set aside their bitter grounds, what’s our excuse?” Their bitter grounds? As if a racist white cop has any “grounds” for being angry with the innocent black man that he framed? As if having four years of your life stolen from you by a racist white cop is something you should just “set aside?” As if the racist prison industrial complex — where one of out three black men can expect to serve jail time —can be papered over by Christian forgiveness?
I’m an atheist, but I’m not going to blame Christianity specifically for white supremacy (though the #NotAllChristians excuse is just as bad as #NotAllWhites and #NotAllMen). Regardless, if this particular black man wants to forgive this particular racist white cop that’s his prerogative, but it is not, not, not incumbent upon anyone else to forgive their oppressors.
Make no mistake: This story is not just about a “crooked” or “bad” cop. This is racism, which does not have to look like the “n” word or hooded figures burning crosses on lawns. If you deny that this man’s arrest and the subsequent framing of this “feel-good” story is white supremacy in action, you seriously need to check your privileges.
I want to expand here on the part about Christian forgiveness. As I’ve written before, the only person who can forgive an oppressor or abuser is their victim (or survivor). No one else. I’m just going to say it: A religion that assigns ultimate judgment of human affairs to a supernatural being is a tool of the oppressors. Christianity in particular has been used to justify racism (including slavery), sexism, sexual abuse, heterosexism, and cissexism for centuries.
As I posted on Medium, I do not want to hear “Not All Christians” in response to this charge. Christianity is the dominant religion in the USA, and always has been. While church attendance and theism dwindle in Europe, Christian beliefs and practices remain strong here, and are reflected in our politics. It is incumbent upon Christians to reform their religion, not upon atheists and those who practice other religions to submit to it.
While Protestant faiths dominate here, Pope Francis, who gets news headlines for saying anything that sounds the slightest bit progressive, is also not a friend of the oppressed. I especially do not want to hear “Not All Catholics,” when the Vatican has made it clear that only straight cisgender monogamous men are fully deserving of rights. Catholics who support birth control, abortion, “extramarital” or homosexual sex, gender transition, or women holding church leadership positions are acting in direct opposition to the central authority of their church.
Believing in God might not be a choice, but in the USA, church membership is voluntary. Christians who oppose oppressive church doctrine ought to protest against it, loudly, or else leave those churches behind.
I take heart in sites like The Orbit for featuring black atheists (among other atheists of color) in a society that too often assumes that all black folks are Christian. While I never belonged to any church (or temple or mosque) to begin with, many atheists have left their religious communities, and that can come at a cost. Atheists need communities as much as any other group, and women/of color especially need supportive environments in a movement that is dominated by white men.
But I digress. The point is, when I point out racism or any other oppression, do not come to me speaking of forgiveness. Fix the problem, rather than blaming the victims.
Today, Greta Christina, one of the women I featured in my International Women’s Day post, announced her new blogging home on The Orbit, a site dedicated to atheism and social justice. As with animal rights and veganism, the atheist movement has a lot of sexist, racist, and otherwise oppressive messaging, which Greta and other feminist bloggers have been fighting against for years. A site created by and for atheists who care about social justice is a welcome development.
As I’ve written previously, I’ve been an atheist for 30 years – it’s my longest-standing identity – but atheism isn’t currently a high priority for my activism. It’s still important to me, however, and I’m always glad to see others writing about atheism in a non-oppressive way. Despite our theoretical separation of church and state, the USA is a very religious country, and being a nonbeliever can be challenging or even life-threatening in some communities. Atheists who are already facing discrimination on the basis of their skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, or other factors especially need safe spaces within the skeptic movement.
* Obligatory note/reminder: I’m no longer with DxE (and neither are several others in the montage on my post about privileges), but the main content of that post still holds true.
[Image: lauren Ornelas gives a presentation on the Food Empowerment Project.]
Happy International Women’s Day! In honor of the occasion, I’d like to say a few words about each of the women currently featured on my links list.* I present them here in alphabetical order, along with one recommended work for each.
Kat Blaque is a vlogger, illustrator, and activist, speaking out against sexism, racism, and trans-antagonism. She has created educational videos on these topics for Everyday Feminism, and has built a thriving, active community on Facebook and other social networks. I recommend her video explaining the difference between gender expression and identity.
Greta Christina is a writer on topics including atheism, feminism, sexism, cis/heterosexism, and sexuality. She has published several books on atheism, and speaks out against oppression in the atheist movement. I recommend her article on what not to say in response to misogyny.
Amie Breeze Harper
Dr. A. Breeze Harper is a speaker, educator, and author on feminism, veganism, and critical race studies. She founded Sistah Vegan Project and Critical Diversity Solutions, and is on the advisory board of Black Vegans Rock. I recommend her article on raising children in a world of oppression and hostility.
Aph Ko is a blogger, performer, digital media producer, and founder of Aphro-ism and Black Vegans Rock. She advocates veganism from black feminist perspective. I recommend her video on animal oppression and anti-racism.
Syl Ko is a writer, activist, and doctoral student, researching the human/animal binary from a black vegan feminist perspective. She co-founded Aphro-ism with her sister Aph, and is on the advisory board of Black Vegans Rock. I recommend her article on anti-racism and the human/animal divide.
Sophie Labelle is a trans activist, illustrator, and author of the web comic Assigned Male. Her comic challenges cissexism (including non-binary and intersex erasure) from the humorous perspective of a young trans girl. She has so many great strips that I can’t single out one to recommend; if you have time, just read them all from the beginning.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin is an author, primarily of fantasy and science fiction, whose books explore gender and sexuality, among other topics. Le Guin is my favorite author; I took my last name from her book The Left Hand of Darkness, which is my recommended read.
lauren Ornelas is the founder and executive director of the Food Empowerment Project, a vegan food justice organization that actively works to counter oppression of marginalized humans as well as our fellow animals. I recommend her post on experiencing oppression in the fast food industry.
Ali Seiter blogs about feminism, anti-speciesism, and anti-racism on Chickpeas and Change. The site has been on hiatus for awhile, but has many articles well worth reading. I recommend reading her thoughts on the origins of the term “intersectionality.”
Julia Serano is a writer, performer, speaker, and trans activist. She has authored numerous essays and books, including Whipping Girl, a classic on trans feminism and gender theory. I recommend her article on the “T” word and the language of trans activism.
Sarah K. Woodcock
Sarah K. Woodcock is the founder and executive director of The Advocacy of Veganism Society. She speaks out against all oppression of humans as well as our fellow animals. I recommend her article explaining why her organization stopped using the word “abolitionist.”
Corey Lee Wrenn
Dr. Corey Lee Wrenn is a lecturer, author, and founder of The Academic Activist Vegan and Vegan Feminist Network. She advocates veganism from a feminist perspective, and calls out oppression in the animal rights movement. I recommend her article on sexism faced by vegan women.
Several of the women on this list – A. Breeze Harper, Aph Ko, lauren Ornelas, and Sarah K. Woodcock – will be speaking at the Intersectional Justice Conference later this month, where I’ll also be presenting. I trust you will find much of value in their wise words.
* Remember that not everyone who has a feminine-sounding name or appearance is a woman; several people on my links list are non-binary.
[Image: People wearing red underwear and Santa hats run through the Castro in San Francisco.]
This Friday, I will be following my usual tradition of honoring Buy Nothing Day. My reason for avoiding the shopping frenzy goes beyond a critique of consumerism. I do not exchange cards or gifts for Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other religious holiday because I am an atheist, and I am not interested in secular celebrations of these events.
Many atheists, including myself in the past, are happy to exchange cards and gifts and otherwise participate in non-religious activities this time of year. I no longer feel comfortable doing so. I simply cannot ignore the theistic origins of these holidays, including the pagan Yule (which Christians co-opted). Despite what conservatives may claim, the USA is still a very religious country, and while I may not be able to avoid all entanglement with religion, I am under no obligation to observe any holiday traditions.
So am I just a Grinch? To the contrary, I believe that the ideals of peace, goodwill, and generosity should be followed year-round, and not just be given lip service around the time of the winter solstice. When I was gainfully employed, I frequently took my friends out to dinner and bought them gifts at other times of the year. I’m just not interested in doing so purely out of social obligation.
The family nature of the season is another stressor, as I am estranged from my birth family. Depressed people like myself often have a very difficult time during the holidays. Seeing images of smiling children gathered around Christmas trees does nothing to lift my spirits.
All that said, I am not an anti-Christmas activist. I’m not going to yell at someone for wishing me Happy Holidays or even Merry Christmas. I’m not going to tear down any decorations. I still enjoy some seasonal music, and I have no objection to fun activities like the Santa Skivvies Run pictured above. (Hordes of queer folks running in their underwear for charity is a great San Francisco tradition.) I’m just not interested in participating.
I look forward to longer days returning after the solstice, and hope that next year brings more true peace and understanding.