I've posted this on my LJ and disabled comments here because I really want to have all comments in one place, especially given how controversial this issue has already been. I hope you will go to my LJ and comment there.
This post is a response to comments in the WisCon LJ about my essay in the WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 4. It is very long, and even includes a p.s. and excerpts from panel descriptions at the end.
Just so that everyone is aware, lovesmasher is banned from my journal. Based on his comments in last year’s conversation, and again in his recent posting, I do not believe he is interested in constructive discourse, and in fact, believe his attitude of ‘striking out first and cleaning up later’ to be an impediment to discourse, so he is not welcome here. I am open to thoughtful discussion, spirited debate, and impassioned pleas of all kinds, but I do not believe that personal attacks or name calling have any place in constructive conversations, so please keep that in mind as you comment or I may have to remind you. For anyone who wishes to invoke the “tone argument” theory here, daedala had some things to say about one commenter’s use of the tone argument that I think match my sentiments (this is not to say that deadala necessarily agrees with what I am saying here).
So you know some relevant things about who I am, I am a Jew By Choice (I converted in my early 20s). I am a practicing Jew; I started out Conservative, and now consider myself more of a Reform Jew. I have been attending WisCon for 10 years. I served on the WisCon concom for several years, but took last year off for a variety of reasons.
At WisCon 33, there were several panels on religion/religion-related topics (see list at end). Most of them made no value judgment about religion, but the descriptions of two of them, We are the Apes Who Pray, and Are We Done Believing in God Yet? were problematic and offensive to many people, both religious and atheist. Two friends of mine were at one of the panels lovesmasher moderated and were offended by what happened at the panels and told me about their experiences. I posted about that on LJ as part of my WisCon report, and lovesmasher responded with his experience on the panel. I then wrote about the panels and my feelings about them in my essay in the Chronicles. Lovesmasher responded to my essay, and received more than 200 comments. So, here is my response.
I would like to begin by defining some terms, as I realize that last year’s conversation was not as productive as it could have been had I done that earlier.
I mention “anti-religion” panels in my essay and some folks have interpreted that to mean panels that talk about atheism. That is not what I mean. Just as I don’t believe feminist means man-hating, or anti-racism means hating White people, I don’t believe atheist means anti-religion. Anti-religion as I use it means to be against religion. Not as in the personal choice to not believe in God/gods, but rather, antagonistic speech or actions against religion merely for existing, or working toward the elimination of religion or religious people.
I also talk about respect, and I want to be clear about how I mean that as well. When I say respect, I don’t mean the honor and reverence that we give to good people. I mean respect as in respecting rights and boundaries. For example, if someone invites you to their home for a potluck dinner and they are vegetarian, you don’t bring a meat dish. If your host has a non-smoking home, you go outside to smoke. Respecting their home does not mean that you convert to vegetarianism or give up smoking, it means that for the evening you are in their home, you will respect the fact that they choose to live their lives in a particular manner. Conversely, when that person comes to your home, they should expect that there will be meat served to others (hopefully not to you), and that there may be smoking in the home. Neither person needs to change their mind about the issue at hand, merely recognize that there is a difference and respect the other person’s right to make different choices than one’s own.
In both last year’s and this year’s comments, some folks seem to think that when I ask for respect for my beliefs, I am asking either for honor/reverence/agreement or that I not be challenged on the negative aspects of religion. I think because beliefs can and usually do lead to actions, this is an incredibly difficult distinction to make, so I hope I can parse this adequately.
First, I do not believe that a critique of religion in general or one religion in particular is a personal attack on all religion or on all religious people. I am well aware that there are negative aspects to some religions (I can only speak for the religions I know anything about, so I don’t want to make broad generalizations about all religions). Things like the inconsistency between religious teachings like ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and things like the Crusades and the Inquisition are valid criticisms and are things about religion that should be challenged. There are also all sorts of other topics related to religion that could be relevant for a WisCon program: the refusal of some religions/denominations to ordain women as clergy; the gender/power issues involved in ‘modest dress’ issues such as some Christian and Jewish women not being allowed to wear pants, or some Muslim women wearing head scarves or full body covering; the refusal of some religions/denominations to acknowledge/perform same-sex marriages; female genital mutilation is decried, yet Jewish male circumcision is perfectly acceptable; the fact that in the US, the first amendment to the Constitution guarantees separation of church and state, yet our money says “In God We Trust;” the fact that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and Barack Obama being a ‘secret Muslim’ were campaign issues; these are just some examples of other, perfectly valid topics for WisCon to include in the program, especially when discussion power and privilege issues.
The mere inclusion on the program of any of these topics should not be considered offensive, nor should the inclusion of topics relating to atheism or theism be considered offensive. The offense that I spoke about came from the way the topics were described, which leads me back to respect. When I ask for respect, I am not asking for anyone to treat me any nicer or more ‘special’ than they treat anyone else. Where this is relevant here is that I while I don’t expect special treatment, I also don’t expect to be treated worse than anyone else. The descriptions for the 2 panels I mentioned were extremely disrespectful; they presented religious people as ignorant, naïve, freaks, fearful, and outdated. I find it hard to think of any group of people that would not be offended if they were presented in such a fashion. Imagine if the same panel descriptions were re-written to discuss GLBT people instead of religious people. Or POC instead of religious people? How about fat people? Or any other group you can think of? Would that kind of panel item ever have made it onto the WisCon program? Absolutely not. Yet these 2 panels were included. I found that incredibly offensive. I also found it not in keeping with the welcoming, open, thoughtful convention that I was used to.
Now, some folks have pointed out that belief leads to actions and that they cannot respect a belief that is distasteful or even dangerous to them. I agree and would not expect them to feel otherwise, but I want us to be careful about conflating particular beliefs within a religion with any particular person or persons. Just as I don’t think all White people are racists because they are White, I would hope that folks would understand that not all (if any) religious people think that the Crusades or the Inquisition were good things just because they’re religious people. And this is not to say, oh, look at us ‘special’ religious people, we’re different from those mean religious people! This is to say that religions, like governments and conventions, are made up of many people and many beliefs, and not all of them are perfect, but that doesn’t mean we should denigrate people merely because they are part of an imperfect system.
I say imperfect and not irredeemable, and that’s an important distinction. Firstly, within religions themselves, there has been change over time. Women may not be getting ordained in all religions/denominations yet, but there are certainly more of them that are today than there were 20 or 50 years ago, and it looks like there were continue to be more in the future. Same goes for same-sex weddings. Religions make progress and adapt their views the same as other organizations do. And as for the truly egregious stuff that written right in the sacred texts, does anyone really think that Jews and Christians think it’s ok to sell their daughters into slavery or give them to a mob to be raped because it’s in the Bible? Seriously?
Some atheists have commented (last year and this year) expressing genuine lack of knowledge of anything redeeming about religion. They’ve only seen the bad things about religion, and never the good. To the folks who I felt were genuinely asking for information, I suggested some resources. For some of the other folks who I felt were not actually interested in learning, I would like to say “duh! Of course not!” I say that because 1-if you never associate with religious people (or organizations), why would you know about any of the good things religion brings to their lives? And 2-if you’re antagonistic towards religious people, why in the world would they stick around long enough to disabuse you of your negative view of them? I don’t say this to be snarky, but seriously, imagine replacing ‘I don’t know anything about religious people’ with ‘I don’t know anything about POC,’ and you can begin to understand my frustration.
hari_mirchi commented this year about the positive force that religion is for some people, and others agreed that religion has served as a source of support and succor for some communities. Religious organizations provide a variety of social services in their communities, and in others. Catholic Charities and the Jewish United Fund are but 2 examples of organizations that put ‘feed the poor, clothe the naked’ into action, and they do not restrict their efforts to their respective faith’s followers. There are also Protestant and Jewish organizations that work on issues related to separation of church and state, and there are organizations of all kinds of religions that work on GLBT issues. And on and on. These efforts are not as well publicized as some of the negative the things the Religious Right is doing, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening, or that they are the efforts of just the ‘special’ religious snowflakes. So again, when I ask for respect, it’s not because I’m one of the special snowflakes, it’s because while there are negatives to this religion thing I do, there are also positives, and I shouldn’t be judged by the negatives of the institution, but rather as a whole person.
One of the other things that was offensive about the panel descriptions is the attitude behind them that religion is something that we will outgrow once we’re smart enough or stop being fearful enough, or something to that effect. For many religious people, their religion is a part of their cultural identity. How are we supposed to feel when we read that our fellow convention members are impatiently waiting for the day when part of our culture will be wiped out?
Lovesmasher took issue with my being offended by panels that I hadn’t even attended, as if unless I had actually experienced what went on in the panel, I couldn’t have know if the material covered were actually offensive. I disagree. There are lots of things I haven’t personally experienced that I find offensive. I am not Muslim, but when an elected official calls someone a “raghead,” I find that offensive. I did not have a racial epithet hurled at me while walking in Madison, but when it happens to fellow convention attendees, I find that offensive. I could go on and on, but I think you get my point. Given this year’s comments, I know that I am not alone in saying that the panel descriptions alone were offensive. I am also not alone in saying I purposely did not attend because it was clear from the descriptions that neither of the panels would be constructive, and I did not want to enter an atmosphere were I was assumed to be a bad person before I even opened my mouth, as was the experience reported to me by at least 2 people who attended one of the panels.
So, to recap: I found 2 of the panels at WisCon 33 to be offensive, both in description and in content as reported to me. I do not equate an atheist pov with anti-religion sentiments. I think religion and atheism are both valid topics to be included on the WisCon program. I do not want a cookie for being a special religious snowflake, and I don’t want to be automatically insulted because I am religious.
And so, now what? As I mentioned on this year's Religion and Fandom panel, I think we should talk about these things. We will never get to understand each other if we don't talk about these things. I know that religion is one of the 3 big taboo subjects (sex and politics being the other 2), but WisCon is all about talking about taboo subjects and how they impact our lives. I would love it if my essay, lovesmashser's post, and the assorted other posts that have come out of both, would lead to thoughtful panels on the topics of religion and atheism at next year's WisCon. I know a few people have suggested some great panels, and I'd love to attend them.
I hope this incredibly long post clarifies any questions brought up by my essay. If I’ve left a stone unturned, please let me know.
Lest anyone think this is a new issue, here is a description of a panel from WisCon 29, in response to happenings at WisCon 28. I think the final sentence is great.
WisCon, Tolerance, and Acceptance of Difference
A lot of us who are dedicated WisCon regulars are used to thinking of this convention as a kind of safe home, a place where we can count on interesting and thoughtful discussion, but a place where we can also be comfortable expressing whatever kid of beliefs we have. A number of people left last year’s WisCon expressing frustration or anger though, at what they perceived as a general atmosphere of intolerance. Some participants in panel son religion were shocked at the overwhelming hostility and ignorance directed towards Christianity, for example, and a few WisCon members of a non-Democratic persuasion said that they were made to feel like the enemy when they thought there were in a group of friends. In the discussions after the convention opinions seemed to shake out into (roughly speaking) two groups. On one side, were people who were troubled by the lack of interest in having open conversations about the ways people’s opinions and beliefs are different, and troubled by the overgeneralizations like “Republicans are evil” and “Christians oppress women.” On the other side were people who feel that mainstream society gives space enough for some of those beliefs and opinions, and WisCon shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to accommodate beliefs that are in fact often used as tools of oppression. We don’t expect to come out of this panel with any answers, but it might be time to start the dialogue.
WisCon 33 panels dealing with religion, and some excerpts from their descriptions:
Not Exactly What We Expected: Bastard Gods in Chalion, Terre d’Ange, and Elsewhere
-how do they change the notion of godhood, how might such gods change our understanding of the nature of divinity? (for those unfamiliar, one of the gods is an actual bastard, that’s not an insult)
-How do the structures of Science, Religion and Art differ? What do they share?
What, No Rapture?
-Religious conflicts scar our planet with increasing frequency…Will there be a role for religion in the world a hundred years from now, long after the rapture is supposed to have happened, or will technology have washed it all away?
One God of Many-or None?
-What theology will we export to the stars?
An Uncertain God: A-gnostic Mysticism in History and Speculative Fiction
Where is the Goddess these Days?
We are the Apes Who Pray
-it is often challenging to foster an uncompromised discussion of religion and spirituality without bowing to the social pressure to ‘respect’ or treat ‘seriously’ beliefs and opinions which, ultimately, have no basis in scientific fact.
Are We Done Believing in God Yet?
-The freakish antics of true believers, the willful naiveté of not-so-true believers…Are we finally going to shake off the institutionalized fears of our ancestors?