Stand with those who celebrate equality….even if they are influential leaders

While many people on the left are elated at President Obama’s statement of support for gay marriage, many others are expressing cynicism about it, saying his prior reticence was just political calculation and his doing it now is just political expediency.

Those may be true considerations, but they do not detract from the importance of this moment: a sitting president has declared unequivocally his support for civil marriage equality. He has stopped the establishment liberals’ skirting around the issue, instead drawing a line in the sand: he will not be on the defensive any more when conservatives use this social issue to distract voters from the more material concerns of the economy and social services. This is huge.

Some argue that this doesn’t change anything. True, it doesn’t overturn the state laws and constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. It doesn’t overturn the “Defense” of Marriage Act. It doesn’t make opponents realize that their fears are unfounded and that their position is unfair to their neighbors.

What this does do is change the national dialogue, and that is huge. It gives the Democrats a moral issue to stand for, rather than to be on the defensive about. It makes it less taboo to talk about equal rights for LGBT Americans as an idea worth considering and embracing. It positions the Democrats on the side of progress. Not least, it is the right thing to do.

I worry that the left’s cynicism that Obama did this now and not earlier, that he wasn’t somehow “pure” about the issue, will detract from our support for him. Whereas we should be supporting this stand, donating time and money to advance the clearly better candidate, I fear from the blogosphere’s reaction today that many will simply tune out and not seize this moment. What a mistake that would be!

If you think you could be a better, more principled leader than Obama, then I urge you to run for office. If your views match mine, I’ll surely vote for you! But my guess is that you won’t get very far unless you learn to compromise, pragmatically delaying some issues or moderating your positions so you can make some progress with your opponents rather than being completely principled and making no progress at all.

By the same token, whatever reservations we may have about the motivation or timing of Obama’s announcement, the path forward is to celebrate, reward, and build on today’s symbolic yet incremental step. Progress will not be achieved by withdrawing from the political process because we haven’t reached our ultimate goal of civil equality fast enough.

Pragmatic Atheism

How do you practice your atheism? At first glance, this seems like a silly question, since atheism is defined by the lack of practice—specifically, the lack of religious practice. When you think about it, though, there are two deeper levels at which this question is sensible. The first is that atheism is generally a result of skepticism, and maintaining skeptical habits of mind, resisting blind faith and evaluating sources of knowledge, is an active pursuit. Many have written about this form of the “atheist practice,” and I will not dwell on it here.

The second interpretation of the question is what I want to discuss: as members of the atheist movement, how do we relate to the larger world? In other words, beyond simply interpreting our lives through an atheist lens, what contributions can we, as atheists, bring to society at large? How do we represent ourselves and “the movement” to the rest of society?

My contention in this essay is that in the pride of the New Atheism, not all our actions contribute towards the goals that we hold.

First and foremost, we seem to snicker a lot at theists. We do this because we’re so obviously right and they are so obviously wrong….but what does this accomplish? It reinforces the us-vs-them exclusivity, marking our membership in the in-group and their status as outsiders who just don’t get it. It is a way for us to be comfortable in our superiority. How useful is this sneering? It speaks to our basest impulses, those of demonizing the other, the very root of the ills we often decry in religion. As a practical matter, it does not make theists more receptive to our arguments: are you willing to hear someone else on the merits of their position when they are calling you stupid and baseless? Though we may get some enjoyment out of this ridicule, it does not advance rational discussion and makes us complicit in further fragmenting the town hall into a series of echo chambers.

Second, we proselytize. We tell people why atheism is the better choice, and why they have no grounds to be theists. Why do we do this? Because we’re right, of course! But now step back for a second. Think about the Christian proselytizers, or for that matter anyone who defends their religion. Why do they do this? Because they think they’re right, too. We are coming from the (eminently reasonable, to us) position that there’s no reason to believe things for which there is no evidence, and that it’s alright to admit ignorance of things we do not yet understand. Theists, however, are of the mindset, all too historically human, that the unexplained must involve supernatural agents and that traditional explanations must be true even if unverifiable. Given these fundamental differences, proselytizing is just loudly speaking past each other.

Third, we seek to make ourselves known to those who are seeking. There are those who are unsatisfied with the theist world view but don’t know of a better alternative. There are those who do but who are daunted by the prospect of being alone and ostracized by the social groups in which they are embedded. Knowing that there is a community of like-minded people who have thought about and are comfortable with these issues is a huge help for these folks. Note that this third point is somewhat analogous to the previous point about proselytizing, but the difference I am making is this: proselytizing is about converting people who have a different worldview and are not necessarily troubled by it; making ourselves available is about receiving with open arms those who are already predisposed to become atheists.

Fourth, we seek to gain acceptance and humanize ourselves to others. A common trope is that atheists are evil, and that we cannot possibly be moral without a revelatory holy book to guide us. Debunking these myths is an important and critical part of who we are. It dignifies us as individuals in the face of others’ contempt. It protects us as a movement of like-minded individuals. It helps us in welcoming newcomers, by removing the fear that we might be some strange, inhuman “other.” And it is the foundation for fighting for a place at the political table, which brings me to the final point:

Fifth, we argue for public policy. While minority religions are often good about supporting the separation of church and state, that support often wanes as those religions gain ascendancy. From our non-religious perch, we are in a good position to fight for the underdog, for those world views that are not those of the majority religion. At some point in the (unfortunately) distant future, should we ourselves become a majority, we will have to remember these lessons in tolerance as we allow others to hold what views they will, even if we personally think them wrong.

As atheists come out of the closet and gain more visibility in America, we face an important opportunity to present humanism as a viable world view for individuals, one that can act as a strong defender of a secular society that makes decisions rationally while protecting freedom of conscience. We’re more likely to achieve this if we stop the sneering and the proselytizing, and instead focus on visibility, outreach, and public policy. Given the theocratic bent of current political discourse, it is vitally important that we get this right—the stakes couldn’t be higher.

My Social Justice Story

I was one of a handful of people asked to tell my “social justice story” at the Social Justice Fund Northwest’s annual dinner tonight. These are my prepared remarks.

As with many other people, my awareness of social unfairness began at home. My parents pointed out and lamented the injustices that plague the lives of the poor—both individuals and societies. Coming from Latin America, we were acutely aware of our differences with the First World—which is to say, aware of the widespread impact of American culture, consumerism, and foreign policy. I was to learn much later that my parents had actually been involved in progressive causes earlier, but growing up, I did not experience their angst and concern being translated to action. Instead, there was always this attitude that charity was just throwing money away: a feel-good measure that did nothing to advance the systemic change needed to solve the root problems. That stance certainly has some merit (“teach a man to fish” and all that), but it can all too easily become an excuse for inaction and helplessness.

As I grew up and my newspaper reading shifted from the comic pages to the front pages to the editorial pages, my sense of urgency around social issues grew. What also changed is that I finally had money of my own: first my grad school stipend, and then a real, honest-to-goodness salary. I now had much more motivation and many more resources than I had ever had before, but I was still confused as to the best means to effect change. I gingerly became an online member of one or two national progressive groups (they were pursuing systemic change!). I soon became inundated with solicitations from many more. Most seemed worthy, and I had money, so I sent fifty dollars here, fifty dollars there, fifty dollars everywhere, and got a walletful of membership cards. But was spreading my money around really effective? Was there a way to become more directly involved in creating change without either giving up my day job or throwing money at the problem as though it were somebody else’s job to fix?

And then 2000 happened. The suspense and non-resolution that followed that election felt to me like the beginning of a nightmare, one in which (I’m ashamed to admit) I disengaged in despair for eight painful years. I knew that disengaging was not helping anyone, but watching the social and political discourse was just too painful, when all I could do—all I knew how to do—was wring my hands at my own powerlessness to make the world right.

But soon enough, I wasn’t alone anymore. I eventually dated and married Knox. One of the many remarkable things about him is how centrally he values reaching out to others and building community. He’ll stop to help or chat with a neighbor just because; he’ll organize a community harvest to glean fruit that would otherwise be going to waste; he’ll spend much time helping folks throughout the country organize Soup Swaps where they can rediscover the fun of cooking and sharing and telling stories. In short, through Knox, I came to understand more viscerally how communities get built from the ground up based on individual interactions. At the same time, I noticed that this community-building was also happening on the national stage, as the left began to coalesce around the Obama campaign. Thanks to what was happening at both the national and very local levels, I came to realize that by fostering community, the isolated helplessness to which I had succumbed could instead become collective progress.

And so this year, at the urging of my friend Jessan, I got involved with the the Next Generation Giving Project run by the Social Justice Fund. I was fascinated by the discussions we had around wealth, class, and privilege—a complex of topics I want to keep exploring. We learned about fund-raising: I wasn’t very successful at that, yet I was still pleasantly surprised at how receptive people were to my pleas. And we evaluated a heck of a lot of applications in a few short weeks. Every night I would grumble at how long that process took, and yet, when I read each application, I would feel guilty about my complaining when it was them doing the hard, amazing, often thankless work down on the ground.

Now, unlike most of the really great SJF members with whom I worked this year, I don’t have a background in social work nor, as you see, in activism. I can’t say “intersectional analysis” without feeling self-conscious. That makes me feel like a bit of an impostor among all of you here tonight. But I know I’m not, because of course this is where my social justice journey has taken me: SJF is working for systemic change, by channeling resources to effective groups while building and sustaining a community working toward a shared vision.

I don’t know yet what form my social activism will take in the future, but I do know that I take to heart the old Jewish saying: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.”

Thank you.

Why wait for marriage?

The same-sex marriage debate is, in part, about the separation of church and state. Should the government discriminate against some citizens simply because it offends others’ religious sensibilities? Or, formulated another way, how much should private morality be entwined with public policy?

This is well illustrated, of course, by folks like the town clerk in New York who resigned rather than perform gay marriages, which offend her religious convictions. (Whatever happened to “render unto Caesar…?”)

However, there’s another aspect to the private morality/public policy question that puzzles me. The media talks about the legalization of same-sex marriage as heralding a surge in gay weddings. Marriage licenses and civil marriages, I understand. But weddings? Are people really not getting married if the state doesn’t sanction it? Are we really acquiescing to second-class status? Has the wedding industry really been ignoring this market segment?

I’m not arguing civil marriage does not matter; of course it does. It matters a lot. That’s precisely why celebrating your union before your family and community, in defiance of a government that tries to render it invisible, is a radical, transformative, and liberating act.

Sex at Dawn

Everyone with a stake in the culture wars needs to read Sex at Dawn. It presents an idea that is often absent from public discourse: that monogamous pair bonding (our traditional idea of marriage) is not part of our evolutionary heritage and that, in fact, it is a social imposition contrary to deeply ingrained human inclinations. The alternative and, according to the authors, more natural behavior is a sort of promiscuity that they take pains to point out is not what we think of in the vernacular (sex with strangers and almost-strangers) but rather closer in spirit to polyamory: sex as a social bonding act between various members of a tribal group.

The authors advance three lines of evidence in favor of this thesis. The first is based on observation of the mating behaviors of our close animal cousins. Most animals are not monogamous but most species have a limited and advertised period of female fertility during which the males are fiercely protective of their (generally temporary) mates and aggressive toward other males. Bonobos and humans, by contrast, hide the period of female fertility and use non-procreative sex as a way to bond individuals in the tribe. Moreover, this shared paternity makes males invested in the outcome of all children in the tribe and is hence more rather than less adaptive for the group.

The second line of evidence relies on observations (from the days of European colonization to the present) of peoples that still have a forager lifestyle similar to how it is supposed our ancestors lived. Many (most?) have a very fluid sexuality where sex with multiple partners is often not only permitted but expected. Children are considered the community’s children. The authors claim that it was the shift from foraging to agriculture (which they describe as the most significant event in human history) that led to a preoccupation with individual property and its inheritance (as opposed to the shared resources heretofore used). That, in turn, led to shrinking the sphere of sharing (sexual relations, child rearing, resources) from the community to the nuclear family. This is where the “standard narrative” of sexuality arose (men want to spread their seed as widely as possible, women want to make sure their man will provide for them and their children) and led to the inferior status of women that has historically plagued Western societies. As an aside, the authors suggest that, after agriculture led to the notion of property, property in turn led to the notion of poverty.

The final type of argument is the observation that if the “standard narrative of sexuality” were really as natural as its adherents claim, we would not need so many strictures so often enforced to guard against pre- and extra-martial sex: those behaviors would be rare. Moreover, the fluid sexuality model provides a better evolutionary framework in which to understand homosexuality: it survives in the group because it is a form of pair-bonding.

One of the interesting themes running through the book is how easy it is for scientists, both social and natural, to be biased by their own culture. Darwin himself did not venture to challenge the Victorian notion of marriage (though there are some suggestions he may have suppressed thoughts heading in that direction), while modern anthropologists and primatologists appear to contort their interpretations to make our notion of marriage inevitable.

I expect many people will dismiss or attack this book because it is threatening—threatening to the way we’ve constructed our lives and society, threatening to “traditional marriage,” threatening to our human exceptionalism. This perceived threat does not mean the claims are false, of course. Indeed, if they better describe who we are and how we got here, then perhaps we can better understand how hard it can be to live up to our cultural ideals, and be sympathetic to each other when we stumble.

Should we change our society in light of these findings? That is a more complicated question. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that we today are members of a society shaped by a history of agriculture, property, differing sexual roles, and a monogamous definition of marriage. These legacies will not disappear overnight; it is not clear that they all should (do we really want to give up agriculture? can we?). That said, some parts of our cultural legacy we have been succeeding in improving (slavery, women’s rights), and maybe marriage, the concept that tries to capture the essence of our emotional and sexual bonding, will get its turn.


For Seattle readers: One of the authors will give a reading next week.