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Posted by on Jan 28, 2013 in Culture, Ethics | 32 comments

Greta Christina on puritan atheists

This article by Greta Christina resonates with me. Is some of it exaggerated? Probably. I’m not sure that atheists as such are as puritanical as she suggests – for example, I don’t see this sort of sexual puritanism among friends with whom I hang out with real life, and who happen to be atheists.

I also wonder about the very last line. I’m not sure how old you have to be to be a fuddy-duddy, but plenty of people who are older these days grew up in the 1970s when there was actually a lot more forthright, public pro-sex culture than I see now. I see a distinct regression into sexual puritanism across the culture as whole since, say, 35 years ago (though there is also a lot of demeaning sexual imagery that I don’t like and often comment on). So I’m not sure that what Christina is talking about is necessarily going to attract young people in particular. Many baby boomers, like me (and her) are quite comfortable with freely-expressed sexuality.

All that said, a lot of her article expresses things I’ve often thought or felt myself. So often, I see advocates of atheism buying into much of the miserable morality that typifies the wider culture and is so entangled with religion. Atheist advocates so often devalue the body and its beauty, go along with miserable attitudes to sexual pleasure, and so on.

Christina says:  “When believers accuse us of the dreaded crime of enjoying our bodies, we vehemently defend ourselves against the accusation rather than questioning the very premise behind it.” I wish she’d provided links at this point, because I can’t think of some killer examples myself. But I’ve also noticed this from at least some atheists, and I applaud Greta Christina for raising the issue.

  • Mike W

    I honestly can’t see where and by who “this atheist tendency to downplay physical pleasure” is being expressed. Is this something that’s come out of elevatorgate?

  • I have to wonder if Greta Christina might ever get around to questioning her own contradictions in that regard. After all, she’s one of the more militant members of the “anti-sexism” brigade who’s demands for a very expansive kind of anti-harassment policy include draconian bans “sexualized imagery” at conferences. In fact, my break with Greta Christina (once a favorite writer of mine) was precipitated when I called into question the basic sex-negativity of this aspect of proposed anti-harassment policy, and was quite viciously attacked by her and her commentariat for questioning any aspect of the proposed policy.

    In regards to “boomers” etc, I think there’s been a mixed legacy of how things have progressed since the 70s. In a lot of ways, yes, the 70s had a more open pro-sex culture in many ways, but were quite retrograde in others. Heterosexual sleeping-around was very accepted, but same-sex sexuality was a lot more stigmatized than it is today, and the idea that this was a group that deserved some kind of protection against discrimination was only just being breeched. I distinctly remember how BDSM was considered incredibly shocking to the general public when it first started gaining visibility around 1980, and it practitioners were often painted as psychopaths.

    Generationally, there really were differences – I’m a GenXer who grew up with a liberal Boomer mom, and while liberal Boomers were tolerant and open in theory, she still had the capacity to be shocked by a lot of things that people my age took for granted – for example, she had a low opinion of bisexuality (though not gay people), for reasons I never thought made sense at all. I also remember her recommending Gloria Steinem’s “Erotica vs Pornography” essay as a sex-positive critique of pornography, and found that to be one of the biggest load of unchecked incredibly dated assumptions about sexuality I’d ever seen. But I’m glad I read it, because it indeed helped make me aware at an early age that there were people in liberal secular culture who were laboring under a lot of the same sexual superstitions that religious conservatives were.

    Less sure about the attitudes among “Gen Y” that came after me. They seem very confused, torn between, on one hand, being super-casual about sex, even hypersexual, but often missing some key lessons about consent, and on the other hand, many young people, women and girls especially, backlashing against this, which ironically has led to the revival of a lot of sex-negative second-wave tropes about sexuality.

  • Chill Chick

    The link to Greta’s article doesn’t seem to work so I don’t know what she said, but I agree there is a great deal of sex-negativity from the A+ crowd. The whole “Schrödinger’s Rapist” meme seems to be predicated on the idea that all men are filthy rapey beasts. Plus Watson’s reaction to the elevator incident assumes that it’s impossible for a man to be attracted to a woman and at the same time respect her as a person – he only thinks of her as a slab of meat, and she is somehow despoiled and contaminated by the mere fact of his sexual interest in her.

  • All she’s trying to do is generate controversy and thereby, more hits and more ad revenue over on her blog. It’s all these Atheism+ idiots do, yet people fall for it over and over and over again.

  • I am not sure how you get from having a harassment policy at a conference to being sex-negative? Also how do you make the leap to draconian bans on sexualized imagery? I had a harassment policy in place at my last conference when Dr. Darrel Ray gave a very interesting, amusing talk on Secular Sexuality complete with images.

  • RussellBlackford

    One of the main harassment policies does, in fact, have a blanket ban on “sexual images”. I support harassment policies, but I don’t support a provision like that. I think that a lot of these policies are badly drafted, but I support the concept.
    That said, this wasn’t meant to be a thread about those sorts of issues to do with harassment policies – more the general sort of thing that Greta Christina seems to be talking about, and which I’ve also seen over the years, of atheists defending atheism partly on the basis that atheists are just as “moral” as anyone else, apparently in sexual ways. Darrel Ray is an honorable exception in that regard, as is Greta Christina, even though I have my differences with her.

  • RussellBlackford

    Really, this is not meant to be an Elevatorgate thread. Indeed, that debate has polarised the community so much that people who might have had fairly complex views if it had all proceeded differently have been more or less forced to choose sides. I resolved a long time ago never to blog about the issue, as it would merely bring a flame war to my blog, something I want to avoid. Whatever goes on elsewhere, I want this to be a place for civil discussion.
    What I was thinking of in this case, and I assume what Greta Christina was thinking of, isn’t especially to do with Elevatorgate. It’s more a cumulative thing that I could never document, although now she’s raised the point without providing good examples I’ll look out more for it… maybe it’ll turn out that I’ve formed an impression from a small number of cases.
    One example that comes to mind was that when I’ve published pieces about how the state should not be making value judgments that favour monogamous relationships over other sorts of relationships and should, ideally, get out of the marriage business entirely, I tend to get feedback (from atheists) about the wonders of monogamous marriage, how the state should, indeed, be encouraging it, etc.
    But that’s just one not-very-good example. I’m not putting any of this as more than an impression that I’m reporting – it’s not something I could prove or document, and I may be wrong. But I was interested to see that Greta Christina has a similar impression.

  • RussellBlackford

    Yeah, there now seems to be something wrong with the link. Don’t know why – it was working fine yesterday, so I assume they’ll fix it. The article is part of the online content of the new Free Inquiry, so it should be easy enough to track down.

  • RussellBlackford

    I think that’s a bit unfair. I can easily imagine her writing an article like this two or three years ago before Elevatorgate, A+, etc. I was a bit of a fan of hers back then, and this particular article seems quite in character with what she was like then, and not especially of a piece with the whole A+ thing.

  • While I was not alive in the 1970s, my impression is our current culture is less puritanical, at least in America. TV shows, movies and magazines feature sex more often and blatantly. Both fashion for young people and celebrities seems “sluttier” as judged from a conservative viewpoint. The advent of universal, free, anonymous porn via the internet has surely raised the amount of pornography viewed by at least an order of magnitude. The same has no doubt increased exposure to ‘alternative’/’fetish’ sexual lifestyles. Homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendered people are more accepted than at any previous time and given more positive media exposure.

  • RussellBlackford

    Thanks, Mickey. I think that iamcuriousblue above is in the right that it’s been a mixed legacy. The popular culture is more full-on in its depictions of sexuality – some things that were still being fought for in the 1970s are now well and truly won and more reflected in the media.

    But the culture – including an intellectual culture – of “free love”, easy acceptance of nudity, etc., that existed through much of the late 60s, the 70s, and survived even into the 1980s, started to grind to a halt around about 1980, even before the AIDS outbreak. And then AIDS had a huge impact, almost erasing the 1970s culture in relation to sexuality. It’s largely gone, and it’s not even as if I’m trying to defend it. I’m just reminding us that it existed. I guess “polyamory” is the heir to it.

    Just on those cultural differences, think of fashion, which you mentioned. In some ways, women’s fashions may be “sluttier” (I hate that word, so I’m glad you put it in inverted commas) now. But back in the 1970s, it was common for young women to wear thin T-shirts with no bra underneath… or even chiffon tops with no bra underneath, so their breasts could be seen. Nipples were fashionable, and some feminist thinkers suggested this was a good thing (well, I seem to recall Germaine Greer going on about it). That wouldn’t happpen now. It was much more common, here in Australia at least, for women to go topless at the beach – a right that they had to fight for. The bikinis now may be even a bit briefer, if that’s possible, but the taboo on female nipples is more socially enforced (in fact, I was reading an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about this particular cultural change just the other day). I could blather on about the differences in fashions, but the point is that there was an almost (?) innocent idea of the pleasures of nudity, the pleasures of sex with people other than whoever you were “dating”, etc.

    All of this was in the immediate wake of the 1960s sexual revolution, flower power, Woodstock, etc., which I was too young to take part in, but observed happening around me as a child. During the 1970s its legacy and ideology permeated much of the everyday culture.

    I must say that I find it more attractive than the more stylised, sometimes oddly restricted forms of sexual expression that we often see now, but that’s probably just showing my age. And again, please let me be clear that I am not necessarily defending the 1970s post-hippie culture. Doubtless it was naive in many ways, had all sorts of blind spots, excesses, downsides, etc., etc. I was just observing in passing that those of us who are old enough to have participated in it are not necessarily going to be fuddy-duddies about sex and the body, or the “sensuality” that Greta Christina describes. We may have pleny of other faults that are common to our generation (everyone else loves to hate boomers!), but that’s not necessarily one of them.

  • jjramsey

    The whole “Schrödinger’s Rapist” meme seems to be predicated on the idea that all men are filthy rapey beasts.

    No, it’s based on the idea that would-be rapists are not readily visibly distinguishable from those who do not which to rape, and so many women look for various red flags to estimate if a man may have bad intent, make contingency plans, etc. There’s nothing puritan about a woman being wary of rape and taking steps to try to avoid it.

    (I won’t comment on the other thing that you mentioned because our blog host wants us to avoid that topic.)

  • Greta has simply turned the completely mundane observation that no one except blind people in a persistent vegetative state will have sex with her, and those that do immediately wheel their scooters into the nearest open elevator shaft, into a general indictment of atheism puritanism.

    People are having sex Greta. Lots and lots of sex. Hot sweaty bouncy sticky bonobo sex.

    They just aren’t asking you.

    And no, new shoes won’t make a difference.

  • RussellBlackford

    I do have views about the Schrodinger’s Rapist idea, but that would probably take me straight into Elevatorgate issues, as the use of this meme was one of the things that divided the community 18 months ago. Maybe some of my responses on the thread today will give a better idea of what I had in mind.

    I’d certainly like to avoid the merits of Elevatorgate… and most definitely character attacks (this is not the place to attack individuals, even if you think they are individuals whom I dislike), or flame warring. But I don’t want to be too restrictive about examples. Kind of difficult isn’t it? 🙂

    I started this thread with a bit of trepidation, but I think the things I actually had in mind are quite important – well, at least to me.
    Anyway, let’s continue to have a thoughtful, serious discussion with freedom to offer personal reflections, but minimal nastiness.

  • Oh dear fucking Jesus. Once again it becomes “a harassment policy” instead of the loaded language and contradictions discussed by the agenda-driven people promoting harassment policies.

    Saying “it’s just a harassment policy” is like saying Rosa Parks didn’t like “seating arrangements” on buses.

  • jjramsey

    1) I think Greta’s wife Ingrid would beg to differ.

    2) You really are not helping.

  • RussellBlackford

    Mykeru I do understand the shoes reference, but it is not the sort of thing I want discussed here, and this sort of personal attack is not the sort of comment I want. It’s not about Greta Christina’s appearance or character or anything of the sort. Any further such comments from anyone will be deleted. My blog, my rules.

    The post is about an issue that has been raised by her that I find interesting.

    I’d hope she’d take the same attitude to protecting me from attacks on my character, etc., and to fend off any possible dogpiles, though of course that hasn’t been the usual way among her FtB colleagues.

    But again, just because I’ve now made a slightly bitter comment about that is not a reason for the thread to go off-topic. Please, everyone, participate in the spirit of the original post. I don’t want to have to close the thread or decide I can’t write about such topics without generating uncivil discussions.

  • Smacks of self-absorbtion to me. How does Greta Christina Know anything about what atheists are up to? The people who frequent atheist blogs and visit conferences are a self-selecting group and probably more likely to hold views informed by wymyns studies than your average atheist from Scandinavia or China, who probably has behaviours far removed from the identity atheists. These bloggers who think that they have some kind of right to steer the atheist community in whatever direction matches their politics appear to be under the impression that they embody atheism. Their shiny-eyed fervour is rather off-putting, to be honest.

  • I don’t see why non-believers would want to interfere in the sex lives of other consenting adults. That said, I’ve seen monogamists and polyamorists each marginalised on occasion, in the struggle to be normalised. Don’t get it. I feel no need to inflict my lifestyle choices on anyone.

  • Did you even read my post? Did I say “having a harassment at a
    conference is sex-negative”? No, I didn’t say that. I said, “I called
    into question the basic sex-negativity of this aspect of proposed
    anti-harassment policy”. “This aspect,” get it? If you’re going to
    debate my argument, please take the time to engage with what I actually
    said, and please don’t put words in my mouth.

    “How do I get to that” Well, simple – the most widely promoted version of an
    anti-harassment policy contains the following: “In particular,
    exhibitors should not use sexualized images, activities, or other
    material.” Sorry, but except for highly professional spaces where such
    material really might not be appropriate, I consider such a policy to be
    prudish and sex-negative. Such a policy would have very negative
    effects if they were adopted by spaces such as DragonCon, where vendors
    and exhibitors specializing in material up to and including outright
    porn are an established part of the culture of that convention.

  • I support the law, which accounts for all forms of harassment. These ‘policies’ where conceived as a tool to forward the very same agendas you oppose elsewhere and do misrepresent conferences as inherently unsafe places. Russell, I greatly respect you and your work, but sometimes you make incredibly ill-thought statements.

  • How do you know what they these policies were conceived to do, beyond that which is explicitly stated therein?

  • Many others have made this point more eloquently than I, so I won’t rehash the debate here, but we haven’t seen any empirical evidence of harassment and of the climate of intimidation and aggression that was peddled as the reason for the policies.

    All the “safe space” talk is bullshit, unless they can show that said space is inherently unsafe.

  • It’s about more than sex and more than atheism. There’s a seam of puritanism running through many ostensibly progressive movements. A suspicion of gratuitous pleasure can be found among socialists, environmentalists, feminists, even transhumanists too, and it extends to everything from intoxicating substances to cognitive enhancements.

    That’s not to beg the question as to whether pleasure – or particular pleasures – can ever be outweighed in our ethical calculus by competing considerations. But it’s good to see Greta (and Russell) sticking up for the value of enjoying ourselves.

  • Colin Gavaghan

    The Schrodinger’s Rapist post is one of the most bizarre things I’ve read in a long time, but no, it had little or nothing to do with puritanism.

  • You don’t find Halley DeLay’s accounts of persistent harassment believable?

  • MosesZD

    I’ve tried for 30 minutes to write a response vis her article. The bottom line is it starts with a false premise and goes rapidly south as population the differences in sex/pleasure aren’t as big as she hyperboleates:

    Strict religions such as Mormons ranked highest on the scale of sexual guilt. Their average score was 8.19 out of 10. They were followed closely behind by Jehovah’s Witness, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, and Baptist. Catholics rated their levels of sexual guilt at 6.34 while Lutherans came slightly lower at 5.88 . In contrast, atheists and agnostics ranked at 4.71 and 4.81 respectively.

    So, clearly, many atheists do feel guilt after sex. Just not as frequently or, perhaps, as intensely.

    As for the rest of her ‘aren’t we atheists so special’ column.. Welcome to humanity and the stupid things we tell ourselves? We may not believe in God, gods or other supernatural things, but that doesn’t extend it to atheists being the Super Friends of F***ing (gratuitous comic reference)…

    BTW, I think, Russell, the reason you’re struggling to find “some killer examples” is because there really aren’t a lot of them. This issue is more made-up than real as far as I can put my finger on it.

  • Dave Kendall

    In my experience, in the UK at least, most of the puritanism in the atheist/humanist movement is down to the influence of the feminist lobby. Of course (with the exception of the “sex positive” fringe) that’s simply part of their ideology, and has little to do with Christian morals or “internalized atheophobia”.

    For example, from 2007 to the beginning of this year, the president of the British Humanist Association was Polly Toynbee. She’s also the patron of feminist anti-“objectification” organisation Object, who campaign for strict censorship of sex in the media (not just a ban on pornography) and criminalisation of the sex industry. They’re a secular organisation, but go further than a lot of conservative Christian “family values” campaigners ever did. While I don’t think that Toynbee blatantly used the BHA to push that ideology, there were certainly humanist articles supporting that feminist stance, and plenty of humanists/atheists who are part of their activism.

    Where I used to live most of the people campaigning to close down the area’s sex shops and strip clubs seemed to be atheists (a mix of humanists, socialists, trade unionists and feminist activists), while a local Church of England vicar was one of the few “respectable” people to march in solidarity with the strippers and publicly argue the case for liberal tolerance. I guess my social libertarian views outweigh my atheism, because I was definitely on his side of the debate.

  • RussellBlackford

    Not at all. I don’t think you understood how the law works, skepteaser. I’ve actually practised in this area, and I can assure you it does not work in the way you suggest, and it actually is often beneficial to have an explicit, well-drafted policy on what action you will take against obnoxious (but in many cases quite legal) sexual conduct. Even if the conduct is illegal under the general law, there can be advantages in having explicit policies about how you will deal with it as convention organisers. What you’ve written is a fairly popular misconception, but still a misconception. Of course, there are also many misconceptions in the arguments of people who’ve been activist about advocating these (often poorly drafted) policies.
    But that’s all a very long story with a lot of twists and turns, no one is paying me to give legal advice. and this was not meant to be a thread about harassment policies.
    It’s a rather modest thread about impressions (impressions that I have explicitly not claimed to be able to back up with proof) that publicly expressed atheism often seems to buy into the same puritanical sexual morality as the rest of the culture.

  • RussellBlackford

    Yes, I agree with this, but (good, well-drafted) policies can be a good idea anyway – as opposed to the narrative that’s been used to support draconian or poorly drafted ones.

  • EllenBeth Wachs

    Well, a blanket ban on sexual images and any sexual content is clearly going too far.

  • EllenBeth Wachs

    I am sorry if I misinterpreted what you said. I certainly had no intention of doing that. I am not in favor of those types of policies and didn’t didn’t think you were either.

    I agree that our community has a contingency that seems to be contradicting itself with respect to where they stand about sex issues. This is very problematic.