Sexists, Skeptics, Symbols, and Sepsis

I feel as though I owe the disclaimer: I do not consider myself to be drunk while writing this, but others may actually do so. I’m not abdicating responsibility for my words so much as I am making an observation.

Please, Joss Whedon, stop telling me about words that I have known deep in my body since I was a child.

“I hate ‘feminist,'”says he, presumably understanding much more about the word as a sensual, tangible part of his experience far more than I, a mere female, a mere feminist, a mere person-whom-society-gathers-is-of-the-lady-persuasion can.

At least, he thinks he does.

Joss Whedon, sir, whose Avengers movie I enjoyed a great deal, I am sometimes what you could call a “writer.” I have written my fair share of words, although nowhere near what you have. I have studied the precise shades of words within contexts–of which they are never absent and can never be. I have had every syllable I’ve written carefully scrutinized by every eye to cross it, by partners who judged me inadequate, by commenters who judged me as insufficiently intellectually rigorous, by professors who took every possible care to ensure that I was careful in a way that no amount of precision can make me be despite a passion for rhetoric.

I can tell you about living inside the smallest part of every word, and the smallest part of an identity that makes you fit just that much better. I can tell you about mellifluousness, as a female Marine, as a former third-grader who wanted to be called “JEF,” because that’s what my initials spelled and I sensed it means something different, who waned to be a dude but knew that I never would be (because, despite whatever queerness was bursting underneath my skin, cis-ness was also innate to my identity). Please don’t tell me about what a word means when, despite your being nominally aware of what it means, it will never mean to you what it can mean to me.

“Fem. Is this promising? It’s nice, but it’s strong. It’s a porous letter.” Please tell me more. I will note here that I am a synesthete. (A gift from my father, if you must know.) I will also note that every color, every texture, is informed by my time existing as a person who is unbothered by my being female and perplexed by others’ vexation at said status. Please do. Tell me more about how F is porous, when F is the deepest blue of my deepest blue jeans, impermeable except through the deepest of compassion. “-ist,” because “tonally, it’s like watching a time-lapse video of fresh bread,” because heavens fucking forbid we have thoughts about a thing, heavens forbid we spend our lives developing into things like bread grows into things that are soft but sometimes hard to chew, that burst with flavor that we have to learn to love about ourselves. Don’t tell me about words. I can tell you about the textures and colors of words in ways that a vast majority of people’s senses are not prepared to take in. I can tell you more about what feminism means, academically *and* texturally *and* in the deep blue of “f” and the crimson of “e” and the purple of “m” and the white of “i” and the yellow of “s” and the green of the ending.

The word, altogether, is a bright red that burns my eyes and that hurts me and that always will because I just wanted to fit in before I realized that I wasn’t the only one who never would, and I didn’t want to in this fucking system, that I deserve better, that literally everyone deserve better. It is the red of the blood that my comrades-at-arms have shed in pursuit of privileges that are a part of my everyday life, that they continue to shed in pursuit of those same privileges (I am Texan) and more. It is a red that shames me in my failure to comprehend sacrifice beyond what I already know. “Feminist” tastes like the blood of my foremothers, like the blood of slaves in chains, like something that I will never quite grasp but will never have the sheer, unmitigated gall to say sounds ugly. Of course blood sounds ugly. That blood bought my vote, my right not to be raped by my husband, my right to join the military. That blood bought the rights of (some) women not to be sterilized for having the unmitigated gall of being mentally ill or non-neurotypical or just a shade too brown. Do not fucking impugn it if you do not understand the blood of your own rape flowing between your thighs, if you have never had a child taken from you, if you have never felt the horror of knowing that it is the twenty-first century and you are being punished for having children, or black and female, or of any number of things that may or may not apply to me because any feminism worth its name is not just for me.

I understand things about words and about the way that they feel on my tongue and inside of my eyes and on my skin that you cannot even begin to comprehend as a (presumably) neurotypical  male who has had the world handed to him on a platter because of his combination of white maleness and undeniable talent (which I will not deny, not being that self-defeating, even while I could never get into Firefly as a former waif who has always been mildly nauseated by the entire genre of waif-fu,).

Do not tell me about words. They live inside my body in a way that they don’t for most people because I feel them vibrate and see the colors and feel the constance of having been raped solely for the reason of having been female and okay with sex deep inside of my fucking skin. Please don’t tell me about feminism, please, Joss Whedon.

I knew feminism when I was twelve and read Anne of Green Gables, I knew feminism when I knew that I was Jo March at the age of ten, I knew feminism when I knew that I understood Laura Brown from “The Hours” when I was a pregnant nineteen-year-old (but you would know nothing about that), even when I knew that I was poor because I had the misfortune of getting pregnant before it was dignified to do so (while having the privilege of carrying the best kids ever). I knew feminism before I knew the word for it, and I read it to the fucking skies when I learned what it meant and I hope to cry it, through my pores when possible and through my words when not, because it is my duty to impart to everyone else what I have learned.

I am a person. I am whole. So are you. I deserve better. So do you, whoever you are, even Joss Whedon, with your ridiculous pretensions to understand a word that has been a vital part of my being since before I understood that I was not and could never be one of the boys around me. Lay claim to it or, if you can’t, don’t fucking presume to lecture me or anyone else who has felt the word vibrate in their skin as a manifestation of what they have always known to be wrong with the universe. If you do not understand then, no matter how much you write the guilty male fetishization of tiny women beating the shit out of big men, you need to get the fuck out of the way and let the grown-ups talk. Don’t presume to talk to me bout “genderism.” Give me a world where “genderism” is possible and then we’ll talk. Until then, I know how words, how sounds, how my experiences, feel in my skin, and I don’t need yet another white male in the creative class to lecture me on what it means to touch sounds and to know, from the very beginning, that something was wrong.

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Since I’m writing on a group blog now, and that group blog is part of a backlash against the misogyny of the skeptical movement, we’ve chosen to include male voices only once a week. It’s not that we have any problem with men as men, or with what men have to say simply because they are men, but we wish to make it clear that we believe women’s voices to have value in and of themselves without men having to approve of it. This is a tricky thing to do, since we actually care a great deal about men and their issues, but I believe that it is important to have a space for women to speak. There are many spaces in which only men speak, both online and off, so we feel valid in going about our business this way. (I’ll also take this opportunity to highlight our Token Dude’s post about toxic masculine scripts.)

That being said, although “What About the Menz Wednesdays” is a tongue-in-cheek concept–as is our tokenization of the men who will post on our site–I actually, personally, care very deeply about mens’ issues. As a feminist, I find that “gender studies” is a more apt term than “women’s studies” because it acknowledges that men have gender every bit as much as women and non-binary folk do. While it’s true that feminism, as an establishment, is more interested in the empowerment of women than the empowerment of men (who are already, in a lot of ways, more empowered than women), intersectional feminism has room for the discussion of men’s issues both as pertain to their gender and as pertain to other marginalized identities that they might inhabit.

I look at the men around me and I often see deeply wounded bodies who are denied even the ability to speak of or acknowledge the wounding that is part and parcel with becoming and remaining a man in our society. I see bodies shaped with violence that is meant to impart to them that their only value is as distributors of the same violence. I see psyches scarred by the socially-constructed notion that there are only a few emotions that “real men” have. I see people who are often so terrified of being thought effeminate that they will deny core aspects of their being so as to be permitted to remain in the man box.

I see my father, laid off at fifty and suddenly denied the only value he has been taught he has. Defeated. Failed. Unable to provide for his family, no longer a man.

I see men who return from combat with post traumatic stress disorder and are incapable of speaking the pain of what they have witnessed because real men thrive in combat; their wounds should be physical, not emotional. Sick. Hurting. No longer men.

I see the bodies of men, who comprise the largest demographic to successfully commit suicide, and I see the gun manufacturers who exploit their desire to be manly and thus put in the hands of many of these men the instrument of their own self-destruction. They may die, but at least they die as men, I suppose.

I see queer men and men whose gender expression is non-normative and the physical and psychological violence that they undergo, usually (but not always) at the hands of other men who are threatened by masculinities other than the Man Box. If you let men fuck you or you wear nail polish then you’re not a man.

I see the men who are victims of assault, both sexual and physical, at the hands of other men, and remain silent because it would be unmanly to speak.

I see my fellow Marines, men, who are beaten in boot camp for no pedagogical reason and do not speak out against their drill instructors because they desperately want to be men, to be Marines.

I see men who are taught that violence is the only way that they can achieve their goals and who are so emotionally stunted that they attempt to get their way through violence against others, and I even have some pity for them, however small.

I think that men deserve better than this. I think that men deserve better than to spend their time absorbed in a media that portrays them as too stupid to be self-sufficient, as raping machines without consciences, as incapable of forming emotional bonds with other people except over shared adherence to a certain form of masculinity. I think that men deserve better than to be told that they need a gun to be a man and then to find themselves with an easy way out when they, like everyone else, suffer from devastating depression. I think that men deserve better than to be taught that their only value is in how much money they make for their families.

And I do think that feminists should talk about this more. A lot of men, because of poverty or race or disability or sexuality, will ask the question that a lot of feminists deride: “But what about teh menz?!?!?!?!” And my answer is: it’s fair to ask that question. It may not be fair to ask that question in every space; for instance, a discussion of the income disparity between men and women is not a fair place to bring up that individual men may make less than individual women. It is, however, fair to ask this question on the broader scale. What about the men? Have people forgotten that they have gender, and that this gender is often formed through violence and abuse?

I haven’t. I care. I care if you feel as though you haven’t done anything wrong and you are being mistreated simply for being born with a particular type of body, although I hope to demonstrate to you the way in which that perspective lacks in understanding of the bigger picture. I care about the distress of the privileged. I may not care about it as much as I do about the cries of the marginalized, but I do care about it, and I think that you deserve an answer, sometimes, to “what about the men?”

It’s almost cliche by now, but the patriarchy hurts men, too, and my feminism is the kind that cares about men’s struggles. After all, if men are socialized to perpetuate violence against women, then women cannot be safe until we expect more of men and demand better for them. We cannot have safe women until men are safe. It all comes back to men; that, my friends, is “what about the men.”

Note: This post will largely be focused on Wicca since Wicca is the only religion I have serious experience with outside of Christianity; however, the criticisms can be generalized to belief systems in which specific traits are essentialized to a specific gender.

I vividly remember the appeal that Wicca held for me as a newly deconverted Christian. Although my Christianity hadn’t been too noxious in its patriarchal worldview, it was still anti-sex, anti-choice, and held that women could not hold leadership positions in churches. I wouldn’t have identified patriarchy as a reason that I had left, but the sudden experience of a religion in which my gender was not considered a liability was unbelievably refreshing. Having never realized I was dying of thirst, I drank, endlessly cherishing my value in my new faith.

In the tradition from which I sought initiation we repeated this, ad nauseam, , like a prayer:

The Lord and Lady are equal.

It was so very refreshing to hear this coming from the mouths of people who were training me to be a priestess–a priestess!–in a religion that could finally accept me as I was, as a woman. Rather than pretending that we did not exist, that the divine could not wear our face, that we were the bodies in which sin originated, this religion celebrated us for being fully woman. We learned about the correlation of elements to gender-specific traits: air (“communication, reason, and memory“) and fire (“inspiration, passion, and courage“) were the realm of the masculine; water and earth, however, correlated to femininity. Water–the element of “intuition, dreams, and emotions“–was obviously feminine, since women are intuitive and emotional. Earth–the element of “fertility, stability, and practicality“– was obviously feminine as well because women bear life within their bodies and provide the stability and practicality that keeps households running while men pursue outside interests. The Goddess was fertility and light and intuition; she was the sow that eats her own young and Sekhmet drinking rivers of blood. She was complex, but her beauty and her terror were uniquely feminine rather than neutral or masculine.

It seemed, at first blush, as though this new religious framework was taking the traits that made females women and turning them into positives instead of denigrating them after the fashion of more patriarchal religious traditions, and I was more than happy to accept this. Without spending time in a religious tradition (one, might I add, out of many; the divine feminine is far from exclusive to neopaganism) that recognized a feminine face of deity, I would not have come as quickly or willingly to feminism.

Feminism, however, came with skepticism for me, and the two combined into a powerful critique of the once-empowering divine feminine I had once worshiped (along with its corresponding divine masculine).

In order to understand a) how these correlations are gender essentialist and b) how gender essentialism is damaging, it is necessary to understand that we, as humans, communicate largely through tropes. (Some of you may, as I did, have come to be familiar with the concept of tropes through the website TVTropes. While that site is a fine way to spend all of your time for days on end, its definition of tropes is only half-useful here. If you are unfamiliar, my deepest apologies for introducing you to your new time-suck.)

The trope that is necessary in order to understand this discussion is metaphor, as defined by Kenneth Burke. According to Burke, metaphor can be substituted for perspective. To use metaphor is to see a thing in terms of, or from the perspective of, another thing, and the savvy reader will understand that this means that we are surrounded by metaphor. Language itself is metaphor; pictures are metaphor. We cannot function without metaphor. That does not mean, however, that we cannot choose the metaphors with which we populate our self-expression. The metaphors through which we communicate, both as individuals and as a society, actively shape the way in which we understand the reality that we live.

Some neopagans would argue as to whether the gods are metaphors at all, and hard polytheists would likely disagree with the softer polytheism that I was taught. From the relatively soft polytheist/pantheist perspective that I was taught, however, the gods are all metaphors for a genderless and/or all-gendered greater power that lies behind it all (some traditions, including mine, call it Dryghton; others may not have a name).

I would argue, however, that it does not matter whether you consider big-G God, little-g gods, or whatever other form of deity you may engage with to be actual distinct beings, metaphors for a generic higher power, or metaphors for aspects of our human experience. (Not all pagans identify as theists.) If we are going to argue, as I assume from experience most pagans would, that the misogyny that is endemic to the Abrahamic religions–particularly to the more extreme expressions of these religions–is in part derived from the view of God as male, then it is necessary to ask what, precisely, pagans are telling men and women about themselves through their own understanding of spirituality.

If women are, by nature, more intuitive and emotional than men, and men are more reasonable and passionate than women, there is very little to differentiate the neopagan understanding of gendered relations from that of the mainstream culture around it. It is true that paganism cloaks these interpretations of gender in the divine and does not claim that these attributes necessarily belong more to men or women (although many pagans would claim exactly this, just as many non-pagans would), but to view intuition and emotion solely as feminine is to perpetuate a dangerously gender-essentialist vision of what it means to be a woman. Rather than encouraging people to develop these traits because they are a fundamental part of what it means to be a complete human being, neopagans may be encouraged to “seek the Goddess” or “call upon Goddess energy.” The same process occurs with men.

If the Christians are right and you can know worldviews by their fruits, then the fruits of neopagans are rife with evidence of the ways that gender essentialism harms those who do not fit into neat gendered boxes. To provide one example, those who are familiar with the pagan community may remember the hubbub last year over a ritual at Pantheacon, led by Z. Budapest (a respected elder in the community), that called for “genetic women only.” The ritual purported to represent “the beauty and grace of the feminine form in all of her infinite variety” while limiting itself to cisgender women.

While many pagans were outraged with this exclusion (as was I, from a distance), if you are going to assert that certain traits are essentially feminine–even symbolically–then it leaves room for a situation in which only cisgender women are women, or only women who have given birth are women, or only straight women are women, et cetera, ad infinitum. To essentialize traits like reason and passion, or intuition and fertility, is to deny the true diversity of humanity. This is a steep price to pay for the sake of providing simple pigeonholes in which to slot human experience, god/s, the elements, or whatever other things that rituals and spirituality purport to represent.

The “divine feminine” is not feminist because it denies the essential femininity of women who lack the traits that are purportedly feminine. Some women are not expressive with their emotions. Some women are autistic and have difficulty sussing out others’ moods and intentions. Some women were born with penises and some women keep their penises. Some women are hotheaded and intellectual. It is not feminist to erase these bodies by claiming to uplift essentially “feminine” traits. A truly feminist paradigm would uplift intuition, reason, fertility, passion, emotion, intellect, all alike, as essentially human.

Why is it necessary for feminists, and particularly skeptical feminists, to be aware of these problems?

To put it bluntly, pagans aren’t the only ostensibly feminist-friendly demographic that thrives on these gendered tropes. Skeptics have enormous problems with equally woo-based gender essentialism, and we need to kick the fox out of our henhouse. I will see you next time for that discussion.

This post is crossposted at http://feministhivemind.com and you lovely folks should go there because everyone there is awesome.

I have a new post in the works, but I am going to wait to post it here until it goes up on a new group blog that I’m participating in (along with a wonderful bunch of other non-dude types). Go check it out, and you’ll be hearing from me soon (at some length)!

http://feministhivemind.com/

Firstly, my apologies for taking so long to post again without warning. I suppose one of the privileges of having a relatively new blog, and one that is relatively invisible, is that not many people miss me.

Something that is probably important to say upfront is that this blog is more than just a place for me to vent political spleen or discuss things that interest me, however important they may be in the larger scheme. This blog is an exercise in self-discipline. I have ADHD, you see, and I have just graduated from college, leaving me with a gaping void where I so recently had structure, and I have to keep writing if I am going to maintain any semblance of discipline in my life.

One of the things you learn to live with when you have ADHD is the looming spectre of chaos. I mean, I suppose you would have to learn to live with this when half of your brain is a two-year-old that divides its time between finding shiny things very interesting and throwing fits punctuated by screams of “NONONONONONONO!” You learn what things in your life you need to take care of and which ones can wait for a while, and sometimes the latter end up waiting for a very long while. You learn that disappointment is inevitable; even if you appear to be very competent in some areas, you will be utterly without the ability to even consider others, and it will hurt and will disappoint people you care about. This is a very, very difficult lesson.

I’ve learned most of my lessons about speaking without thinking, and part of why the rhetorical training I’ve had in college is so important to me is that it has taught me to carefully measure my words. To be sure, they are still often too hasty, and sometimes I substitute an intense awareness of individual words’ connotations for a careful consideration of what a lot of words mean when they are thrown together. Still, it’s something. I’ve also stopped accruing speeding tickets (a common feature of driving records for those of us with this particular form of alphabet soup), stopped accruing unpaid bills, stopped feeling as though my life has to be defined by mistakes that have a lineage in this kind of disability (for the most part, although the feelings of worthlessness that come from a solid track record of failure are difficult to defeat). I’m a Person With A Degree, which I never thought would happen when I became a Homeless Single Mother at 23. (Never you mind the anxiety that comes from feeling as though that degree misrepresents my actual talents and abilities.)

But I’m still ADHD, and it still eats up a chunk of my time and spoons in a way that doesn’t happen with a lot of people. Because of this, sometimes, despite my best intentions, the blog is going to sit fallow for a bit. Right now is one of those times, both because of literal housekeeping (you remember the part where I said that some things get sidelined? Yeah…) and because of internal housekeeping. I need to set up a relatively stable schedule of what I will post and when, and I’m not sure what exactly the schedule will be yet. I think that the vagaries of keeping stuff up will be a topic that I’ll hit on sometimes, and it’ll be personal because my experience with this is personal and can’t be otherwise.

All of this to say, thank you for being patient, and I’ll be replying to comments soon. (Thank you, commenters! ::waves frantically::)

I’ll see you again on Monday if all goes well.

Why Sepsis?

The short of it is, it’s a short word that fits into my alliterative title and concisely describes a lot of what concerns me in our society.

Many of our societal issues are caused by our lack of awareness of the little things that promote intellectual and emotional rot in our society; before we know it, that little scrape we sustained when we, say, chuckle at Seth McFarlane’s ridiculous ditty about how he saw actress’ boobs, gets infected when we don’t let the fact that those boobs were presented mainly in movies where the characters were assaulted get in the way of us just enjoying some good, old-fashioned boob time, and goes septic when, in real life, one in five women experience sexual assault and we’re sitting here chuckling as the onscreen assault of women becomes nothing more than a vehicle for us to see boobs.

It’s in the little things, the details, the places where we want to turn our heads away because it’s just not that important. That’s where the diseases grow and spread, and the body politic goes septic, rendering our entire society ill and our wounds invisible to all except those who sustain them most personally.

I am concerned with moving beyond the obvious issues of sepsis and pointing to the little scrapes and cuts that let the disease in. Sometimes I might have some medicine handy; just as often, all I can do is point, and you may know more than I do about how to heal. Society isn’t going to heal at the hands of one person. It takes all of us, working together, critically analyzing what we’re conditioned to accept and presenting positive alternatives, to fix ourselves.

Sometimes we can do that by more closely examining the ways in which we are conditioned to be sexist, which manifest in a plethora of ways that intersect closely with race, gender expression, sexuality, gender identity, ability, class, and any number of other identities.

Sometimes this occurs through the application of skepticism, both as defined by the movement and as defined by the individuals who use it, although I think that feminism done properly is, on the whole, a skeptical project, whether or not it receives any official seal of approval.

Sometimes this can be done when we look at our symbol systems and how they coach us to violence, both rhetorical and physical. Since I approach symbol systems both as a skeptic and as a student of rhetoric, I will likely find this a point of extreme difficulty when these two hermeneutics cross ways, and I welcome input from both believers and nonbelievers when this intersection is the topic of discussion.

I hope we can work together to make things a little bit less septic around here.

Why Symbols?

I apologize, truly, for any imprecision in this post; this is an idea that is still not entirely firmed-up in my head, but perhaps you, as readers, can help me to refine it, and correct me where I seem to be going wrong. I would appreciate any input on this idea in particular because it is, as far as I have seen, I’m the only one saying some of this or, at least, the only one who has taken some of these critiques, which do not originate with me, to this conclusion.

I’ll open this with a rhetorical question (ha! I see what I did there!): Was Kore kidnapped and held against her will by Hades? More importantly, did this have to happen in the real world to be meaningful? Keep this in your head.

This also requires a bit of personal digression. You see, I am a freshly minted college graduate with a BA in Writing and Rhetoric. Much as I love writing, I honestly came to love the rhetoric side more than the listening-to-the-sound-of-my-own-words part, and engagement with rhetoric as a field has brought my conflict with skepticism, as outlined in my last post, to a head.

Although there are plenty of working definitions for the word “rhetoric,” my personal favorite is the first one that I received: Rhetoric is the study of how symbol systems move bodies to action. Keeping in mind that “symbol systems” references all manner of things–from language (which, at best, attempts to describe reality while failing utterly to encapsulate its entirety) to political ideologies to religions–this is a pretty broad operating framework and requires a great deal of care (particularly since I have my own preferred symbol systems and must disentangle those from the differing ones of others in order to attempt to observe the world with any fairness).

This came to interest me in regards to skeptics specifically as I was in the process of writing a long-ish paper about the issues that the skeptical community has with sexism. While trying to unpack the origins of sexism in that community–an issue that I am honestly thoroughly tired of, but will likely discuss here–I gradually came to realize something that I couldn’t fit into the limited space that I had to write. Skeptics have serious symbol problems.

Remember that I said earlier that language is a symbol system. An excellent example of this is the famous painting by Magritte (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), which serves to remind the viewer that a representation is not reality. Language is such an integral part of our function as a species that it can become very difficult to remember that language is the map and reality is the territory that we are attempting to describe, using deeply flawed physical equipment and sounds and images that can, at best, only approximate what we ascertain with that equipment. I’m not even approaching going so far as to say that we can know nothing about reality as a result; I think that it’s important to reach as much of a consensus as we can on what we can, and to use natural explanations where they exist without falling prey to the urge to use supernatural explanations solely because of the current absence of a natural explanation. However, we must be mindful of our own lack of precision which, although not our fault (excepting when it is a result of negligence, as it frequently is in the case of our horrible media coverage of scientific discoveries), is still a built-in part of our existence as a hodgepodge of evolved mechanisms. Symbol systems are, essentially, all we have with which to communicate with one another about our experiences of the world.

The problem with this is that a lot of skeptics do not seem to realize that words are not descriptions of reality. I think this stems from a lack of appreciation for symbols, which are, in the skeptical mindset, “not real”; this renders them as having no value because they do not bring us closer to understanding what is real. Since words are all we have to communicate with, they have to be able to describe reality, because otherwise we’re just working with shadows here. Make no mistake; I am not saying that your average skeptic is incapable of appreciating a work of fiction as having great meaning to them, or ceding that words are an imperfect means of communication, but I think that there is a problem with the sharp delineation between “real” and “not-real” that is usually a built-in part of the skeptical OS.

If you accept the idea that things are, ontologically, either real or not-real, and that there is no ground in between, then that doesn’t leave room for symbols. Symbols–be they words, deities (in religions and denominations that don’t require a literal, interfering god), or rituals–must either describe reality or be completely false, with no real room in between for them to bring meaning through metaphor. Words must be either true or not-true, without the possibility that the metaphors that we use to describe science actually elide the public understanding of science (Richard Doyle has done some great work on this topic) or that our metaphors actually create a space where we have entire gaping holes in our understanding. Words are either true or not-true, which means that either they describe reality or they don’t, and if they don’t then they are either fiction or lies.

Taking this into mind, and considering that I do not believe in the supernatural, paranormal, or pseudoscientific, it would seem as though I am stuck with religious-symbols-as-lies or I am an accommodationist. (If I am an accommodationist then very well; I have been called far worse in my life.) I disagree with this dichotomy, and think that this failure to understand the function of the symbolic in ordering people’s lives creates very real problems with communication between skeptics and liberal theists, who should be natural allies in the pursuit of a society that is more scientifically literate (despite our imperfect mental and rhetorical equipment) and more tolerant of a multitude of religious views. I, and many nontheists, can both believe that fundamentalist and literal interpretations of religion are dangerous lies and that there is a great deal of good to be found within symbolic readings of religious texts and praxis. It is unbelievably damaging and condescending to refer to religious practices as mere superstitions without any basis when, for many people, they create a symbolic order around which people make sense of their lives, and the supernatural nature of the beliefs is frequently secondary to their importance as symbol systems. Science as a working symbol system simply does not provide the richness of metaphor that many people require in order to feel fulfilled, and a lack of provision for people’s metaphor-hunger creates a skeptical movement that is impoverished both in its understanding of its own flawed symbol systems (which are “true” under the “true-not true” dichotomy) and in its understanding of why so many people do not feel satisfied with science as a symbol system, regardless of its accuracy in interpreting reality.

The problem with this goes beyond the ability of skeptics to empathize and communicate with a largely theist public. It extends into their understanding of how symbols, even when they are firmly in the not-true half of the dichotomy, influence the way that people view reality and so, not-true as they may be, create the realities that entire societies inhabit. This is part of why it is important to be intellectually honest enough to delineate between different religions and different forms of the same religion in order to make accurate critiques: the difference between, say, a member of Westboro Baptist and a Christian who attends a Unitarian Universalist church is vast, and the way that the latter interprets the symbol system around which they arrange their lives creates a reality around them that is far kinder and more open to people who think differently from themselves. We shape the reality around us, which includes reality for the people who disagree with us, through our interpretation of it and through the symbol systems that we choose to order our lives around. If we are not mindful of this, then we both have difficulty understanding the reality that others inhabit as well as understanding that our own reality is shaped by the symbols that we choose to interpret it with.

Stories aren’t just stories. I don’t believe that Kore descended to the underworld and emerges as Persephone, but I do know that that particular story resonates with me as someone who, as do too many women, entered into mature sexuality through sexual assault and coercion. That symbol, that story, is important to me, just as it may be important to someone else that a mad god condemned all of humanity to Hell until his son willingly died on behalf of them, or that a man sat under a tree until he reached enlightenment. They may not be Real, but they are real to the people who believe them (whether literally or metaphorically), and they shape the world.

Until skeptics understand what symbols mean to people and why, they are not going to be able to communicate, or understand how they are communicating. They will not be able to understand the ways in which they are making the world in their own image. They will not be able to understand that so many of them view the words of marginalized bodies as unreliable because they cannot trust others to accurately render their own experience through symbols, as opposed to white cisstraight wealthy educated atheist men, who describe Reality and impart it to the masses.

As a rhetorician, I’ve got to say: Skeptics, we’ve got a major problem. The inability to communicate keeps wounds in the shadows and, neglected, unseen, they go septic, poisoning the body.

SINMANTYX

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