Why I Do “Social Change,” Not “Social Justice”

Nota bene: “Social change” and “social justice” mean many different things to different people, and my notions of “justice” are heavily influenced by my social location as well as by my perception that justice in America is often no more than a brand name for things which are incredibly unjust. My goal in this post is not to offer some kind of authoritative definition of either “social change” or “social justice,” nor to challenge people who are dedicated to the idea of “social justice,” but to describe some ways in which “social justice” is not a simple term with which good people should reflexively agree.

Now, to the post!

“Justice” — retributive, distributive, restorative or transformative — is an ideal. It involves the address of past wrongs.

It is righteous; it is critical; it is evasive; it is unreal; and it is insufficient.

Justice happens by degree, and it can happen to a seemingly-sufficient degree without ever really challenging the status quo. Even restorative justice can take place as a way of protecting the powers-that-be. Think about it: Someone can be “restored” in the view of society, though reparations (either paid by the one being restored or paid to the person, their family, or their descendants) or through rehabilitation, and still nothing will have altered whatever caused the original injustice.

We say “social justice” to distinguish it from “criminal justice,” but in both instances, justice asks, “What wrongs do we have to right?”

On the other hand, my social change asks, “What do we have to destroy so we can role the dice on building something better?”

Let’s look to a current case: Sandra Bland. For those of you who haven’t been following the news out of Texas, Sandra Bland was a black woman detained after a traffic stop who later turned up dead in her jail cell. The official story of her “suicide” is almost comically inconsistent.

Sandra Bland deserves justice; there is no question in my mind about that. And if that justice was vast and encompassing enough to prevent all future deaths in police custody, that would be pretty good. I couldn’t be critical of that kind of justice.

But justice as I know it, as I’ve seen it practiced, is incapable of such a project. Once you get too far from where you began, conventional ideas of “justice” begin to think that one thing has nothing to do with the other. Social justice that starts to seem inconsistent to the uneducated lay person is going to be stymied by accusations of injustice (when you ask the powers-that-be for too much, too quickly, you get silenced with accusations of injustice). Our concept of “justice” is just too. damn. small.

What I believe we should do is gather wisdom (and determination) from tragedies, such as the death of Sandra Bland, and use that wisdom to critically examine everything, everything, everything.

Test everything, everything, everything. Then try to change whatever fails the test, even if it doesn’t fit neatly into the box of a past wrong we need to set right.

And as long as you are doing that, you can call it whatever you’d like.

Demons and Heathens: Mental Health is an Atheist Issue

During spring quarter, which happened to also be the final quarter of my program, I took a class called Sects, Cults, and New Religious Movements. As with most of the classes in my Methodist seminary, we didn’t really spend much time on the non-Christian point of view, even though a pretty sizable percentage of cults and new religious movements are non-Christian. Instead — as was typical for at least 80% of the courses I took in graduate school — we spent time talking about how uncomfortable the Christian students are made to feel by non-mainstream Christian beliefs, non-Christian beliefs, and (non)believers themselves. There was a lot of…how should I put this? Well-meaning liberal Christians feeling the crap out of their feelings. (The one evangelical Christian in the class was my buddy, but that’s a different post about how sometimes an honest enemy is the best friend you can have.)

I’ll be honest, it was boring. Until it was infuriating.

One day, a student got up on his little soapbox to talk about his time interning as a hospital chaplain. Both the internship and the soapbox are extremely common experiences in seminary; it wasn’t at all surprising that this man — let’s call him Gus — had worked in a clinical setting and wanted to preach about it. It was a little bit unusual for Gus to discuss working with psychiatric patients, though. Seminarians share the biases of the wider culture, and in general, we’re all terrified of talking about mental illnesses.

Gus, as it happens, had a different point of view. He had been counseling a patient who was being treated for, in his words, demon possession. It was her third hospitalization and medical science was obviously not helping because it was not treating the underlying spiritual cause. According to Gus, this patient believed (and he agreed) that there was no point in continuing hospitalization when the needed treatment involved getting right with God. Brimming with righteous anger, Gus told the class that the doctors ignored him or laughed at him when he brought the need for an exorcism to their attention.

In the discussion which ensued, I learned that perhaps only 25% of our classmates believed in demons; probably fewer believe in actual possession. But it turns out that they all fervently believed in spiritually-integrated care that addressed the possibility, however remote it was seen to be, of demonic possession. Mainline Christian conclusion: Doctors have no business telling a patient with psychosis that the symptom can be treated with biomedical interventions if the patient would rather go to a priest or a faith-healer.

My contribution to this discussion was sadly limited by my classmates’ general disagreement with the facts I tried to offer, such as the correct medical definition of psychosis or the fact that types of religious preoccupation can very often be manifestations of an underlying disorder (which is not to say that having religion is a mental illness; it isn’t, and atheists need to stop saying it is). My experiences as a mental health advocate were voted down in the low democracy of the graduate classroom.

Looking back, I regret not taking a more aggressive stance. My diplomacy got us exactly nowhere. I should have said: Demons are fiction. Your mental illness is no more caused by demons than it is caused by a tiny troll living in your stomach.

I don’t have a romanticized view of medical science, and I certainly have no illusions about involuntary hospitalization, which is the least effective way to combat a mental illness. Involuntary treatment is and should be the treatment of last resort, and only should be used in cases where there is obvious risk to the self or to others. The fact that patients with mental health conditions are trapped in the jaws of a medicolegal system wherein psychiatric advance directives — one of the few ways to anticipate how one will be treated in the case of involuntary hospitalization — are abrogated at the whim of the clinician is nothing short of a crisis. Defensive medicine is not helping anybody, and neither is the 17 year lag it takes for new research in mental health to make its way into medical practice. In short, we’re talking about a very serious, very complicated problem.

But…let’s talk about adding demons to this mix. We’ve spent the last 300 years trying to get demons out of medicine. Evidently we haven’t had much success with the church-going rank-and-file, but, thank the God I don’t believe in, we’ve had better luck with the doctors. We know we’ve had better luck with the doctors because, as just one example, an anticonvulsant is the first treatment for epilepsy (or, if you live in a civilized place, you can try MMJ), and skull trephination to let the demon out is not.

To say that we — as graduate students, as doctors, as religious leaders, or whoever — should treat mental illness as though it is spiritually different from other bodily maladies is, to say the least, infantilizing. To say the most, it is criminally irresponsible and will lead to unnecessary human suffering. In extreme cases, you will continue to see children killed by their parents by either neglect or by smothering/stabbing/beating to eradicate the “demon.” Those of us who know that demons aren’t real have no business tolerating this belief, damn that it’s “sincerely held.”

Because I realize that demons aren’t real isn’t the argument that will carry the day with mainline Christians, let me make the Christian argument as well: Jesus of Nazareth came so that you may have abundant life. People who are suffering are not living abundantly. People who claim that their suffering is in the service of Jesus are misinterpreting the Gospels they hold so dear.

Ed Snowden is an Atheist Issue

Changing the world from an atheist perspective encompasses a ton of different issues. Gamer culture, philosophies of science, principles of good dog ownership…these are all atheist social change (ASC) issues. It shouldn’t surprise anyone when I say that the surveillance state is an ASC issue. This is not mission drift. Our mission should be to make the world safe for (non)believers.

In a world where (non)believers can be imprisoned for blasphemy or executed for apostasy, we can’t take an easygoing approach to social control. Without a certain amount of security — the kind of human security where private conversations are kept private and where speech doesn’t carry a death sentence — we can’t be (non)believers. We can’t be in community and we can’t be intellectually rigorous. In America, we might lose our jobs or our homes. In other countries, we might lose our lives.

Edward Snowden has been living in exile for two years because his belief in liberation technology over the power of the modern nation-state compelled him to take radical, heroic, self-sacrificing action. Two years in exile would be an enormous price for any of us to pay, and Snowden isn’t done paying. His anniversary in Moscow is presently causing the nastier corners of the Internet to rage over the US government’s inability to serve up his head on a platter — and by nastier, I don’t mean “out of the mainstream” or “insignificant.”

My (non)believer friends and colleagues, you don’t have to agree with what Snowden has done. You are permitted your squeamishness moral discomfort about whistle-blowing and breaking the laws of Empire. But you need to have Snowden’s back, because he has yours. You, of all people, will not be free in a Panopticon.

Against Hope

As I said in my last post, I encountered some offensive nonsense coming from the instructor during my Saturday class. She asserted — without any subtlety — that religious organizations are better at peacebuilding than secular organizations are (!). Having already dealt with 9/11 and moon-landing conspiracy theorists, as well as “quantum morality,” I was not in a good place to be told that religions are peaceful entities.

Me: “On what do you base this claim?”

“Religions offer hope.”

Me: (actually losing my cool) “WHOA. Stop. Hope has absolutely no place in this.”

Rather than take on the question of whether or not secular or religious organizations offer more “hope” — because, honestly, where would that discussion get us? — I’d like to use this post to explain one of my core philosophies: Hope is oppressive.

Hope is oppressive because hope is paralyzing. Hope keeps people from taking action, from asserting agency, from rationally weighing potential outcomes and from deciding what is an acceptable risk. Hope is a gamble that you are guaranteed to lose, because while the hoped-for outcome might come to pass, the passive nature of hope is disempowering. Hope just keeps people in line.

Hope is also oppressive because hope is accompanied by the emotions of anxiety and disappointment. Hoping for something is stressful. Hoping for something and not getting it can be devastating.

Hopelessness, on the other hand, is liberating. You’ve heard the expression “beware of the person with nothing to lose,” right? Hopelessness is the space of commitment, the space where we find out who we really are and what we are ready to fight for. Hopelessness is the place where we discover radical self-reliance, because no one is coming to save us. Hopelessness is the place where we make our stand because it has become unbearable to wait any longer, and hopelessness is where justice gets done.

Let me be clear: Hopelessness is not despair. To despair is to lose hope — what happens after hope. Hopelessness is to not waste your energy on hope in the first place and to instead focus your energy on getting things done.

Feminist Atheist, or Atheist Feminist?

“Atheist” and “feminist” are two identities which don’t get along so well. It’s a shame, because both are unfairly stigmatized, and I think the “a-word” and “f-word” could gain a lot in a collaborative partnership. Which is why I (of course) claim both identities and discuss how both inform my work as a social change agent.

The trickiest thing — at least as far as the low-stakes issues go — is deciding how to present myself. Am I a feminist atheist, or an atheist feminist? The first noun will become the adjective, informed by the core identity of the second, whether or not I would wish it to be.

So is my brand of atheism an explicitly “feminist atheism,” or is my feminism informed by atheism, just as many schools of feminism are molded by an outside source (i.e. ecofeminism, Marxist feminism, Christian feminism, etc.)? I’m not being asked to choose between the two identities, but I am interested in how just changing the order of the words shifts the theoretical foundation in a significant way.

Give the options, I’d have to say that I think feminism reflects my core motivations better than atheism. The reason for this is simple: I could stop thinking, talking, and writing about atheism, and the supernatural would still be a lot of hooey. The ontological argument, while fascinating and important, is not the issue on which social change currently hinges. In contrast, to stop talking about feminist issues would be to surrender to a politically-regressive, theologically-oppressive movement prioritizing the cis-male of the species over the cis-female (and just forget about the trans* people). Giving up on feminism is a tangible step backwards.

Let me put it another way. Richard Dawkins is a rape apologist. I do not mean this pejoratively, even though that’s a pretty rotten thing to be. I mean that anyone who compares being a victim of sexual assault to being a drunk driver has clear, well-defined loyalty to rape culture. There is nothing essentially atheist about Dawkins’ victim-blaming, but there is something essentially misogynistic. If my primary concern was with the ontological argument, I wouldn’t care. But instead, as an embodied female, living in rape culture like a fish lives in water, I simply cannot “do atheism” without the bedrock philosophy that I am deserving of personhood. I demand to be seen as a whole person. If Dawkins feels the need to ‘splain to women how rape culture really isn’t so bad…well, forget him. No one died and made him god.

What is meant by feminism (in this space)? 

For me, feminism is a political philosophy which promotes choice in all things. In a consumer-oriented culture, choice is often reduced to “would you like fries with that,” so let’s specify choices as being related to embodiment.

Far-reaching conclusions can be drawn from this one philosophy: Stop-and-frisk is a feminist issue. Prison abolition is a feminist issue. Marriage equality and trans* liberation are feminist issues. Animal welfare is a feminist issue. Palestine is a feminist issue.

All of these issues are about how our embodiment is perceived and interacts with the world around us. Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin were both executed because of their embodiment. Those deaths are, in addition to being a racial issue and a criminal justice issue, a feminist issue.

I cannot be safe in my own body unless everyone else is also safe in their own bodies. Feminism means all of us or none. This, more than anything else, is the ethical commitment that gets me out of bed in the morning.

Atheism is the arena in which I would like to enact feminism. Atheism without feminism means absolutely nothing. You might as well go out and join the Quiverfull movement.

An Atheist Looks at Systematic Theology

What is Systematic Theology?

Systematic theology is exactly what it sounds like — a system for studying theology. There aren’t many world religions where the holy book or revealed word or whatever comes in neatly organized volumes (although I’d appreciate the pitch, “If you buy all five angelic volumes, you’ll be the proud owner of a year’s supply of Turtle Wax!” because then you’d be getting something out of it). I mean, I’ve studied the book of Ezekiel and I still think it’s describing the floor plan of a sacred delicatessen. Clearly all the relevant content is in other books, hence the need for a system.

Look, you sign up for a program in a seminary, you have to get to know the lingo. I’ve accepted that. I’ve also decided that some of it is useful. Here are some of the areas commonly included in a study of systematic theology, and what I think we can do with them.

Christology

Christology is also just what it sounds like — the study of the nature and person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus was rad. He hung out with all the worst people, helped ’em out, and didn’t hate. Whether or not he was real is a good historical topic. Whether or not he was divine is a different topic altogether, and one that has caused Christian churches to schism more than once in the past two thousand years. Obviously, atheists are in good company (or at least plenty of company) when we doubt this man’s divinity.

Potential for Social Change: Jesus said, “I want you to live abundantly.” (That’s my paraphrase of John 10:10.) That is great advice! Abundant life is NOW, not in a future kingdom, not in an afterlife, not after you have gambled on salvation only to discover that salvation is only in this life. I for one want to have life abundant. I want to provide other people with life abundant. I wish that Trayvon Martin or Troy Davis could have had a chance at life abundant, and I hope you wish the same.

Eschatology

The final events of history — or at least, human history — constitute the topic of eschatology. It is an absolute HOOT that the can’t-wait-for-the-Rapture Christians think they have the market cornered on eschatology. There are plenty of humanist narratives of destruction. Nuclear winter. Global warming. Genocide. We know what to be afraid of. There are also narratives about the real end of time, such as the predicted heat death of the Universe.

“Judgment” is usually wrapped up in eschatology. Ugh, judgment. Judgment appears in the de-conversion stories of many, many atheists. Lots of us had a day when we decided that we haven’t done anything deserving of divine judgment.

Potential for Social Change: I already alluded to it, but let me say it again: Nukes, greenhouse effect, genocide. The world ends every day, for someone. If you’re willing to sit back and accept that, you’re a pathetic excuse for a human being.

Hamartiology

Hamartiology is the study of sin. For Christians, this involves a lot of talk about “original sin” and other nonsense like that. Christian sin is like a weird combination of an STI (transmitted through sex, obviously) and a Ponzi scheme (invest, or be damned!).

Potential for Social Change: Listen, sin is real. 1.) Sin is a metaphor. 2.) Metaphors are structures in our brain. 3.) Our understanding of “sin” is embodied. We can’t intellectualize our way out of this by saying that sin is just an offense against a deity.

Of course sin is not an offense against a deity. There are no deities. Sin is an offense against just relationships between human beings. When people die in the Sonoran Desert because of Operation Gatekeeper, that is sin. When children are deported and sent back to violence, that is sin. When people languish on death row or are slowly tortured to death on a gurney, that is sin. When teens are cast out of their families because they’ve come out as queer, THAT IS SIN.

I am an atheist, and I have no desire to stop talking about sin. If anything, we should talk about sin much, much more.

Pneumatology

Pneumatology is the study of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit (who used to be a Ghost). As an atheist, I find pneumatology to be one of the most frustrating theological subjects. The triune-god doesn’t even make sense to many Christians, so how can you expect it to make sense to atheists? Three can’t be one, because three is three. Three is one and one and one, not just one.

There isn’t supposed to be a hierarchy, and yet, unless your Christian church is Pentecostal, the Holy Spirit is basically ignored, trailing a distant third behind Father and Son.

Potential for Social Change: If we can bring the Holy Spirit back into the Trinity as equal-to and of the same Stuff as Father and Son, we could seriously think about what that equality signifies for human society.

Soteriology 

Soteriology is the study of doctrines of salvation.

Potential for Social Change: I have nothing to add here. I don’t need to be saved from anything. Your princess is in another castle.

Theodicy

Theodicy, or the problem of evil, asks why an omnipotent, omnipresent, all-loving God would let bad things happen. Atheists cut this Gordian knot right down the middle.

Potential for Social Change: I have no trouble admitting that certainly people and acts can be characterized as evil, and I have no trouble admitting that this is a problem. What I see missing from philosophical texts on the problem of evil is a serious consideration of the problems of sexual violence and gender-based violence. I think theodicy looks very different when you prioritize women and gender-variant people.

Science and Social Change

Here is another basic proposition that will inform my writing on this blog: Hard science is a liberating force. While I don’t like the word spirituality at all (if a more poorly defined term exists in the English language, I certainly haven’t heard it), I wouldn’t hesitate to apply the connotations of “spirituality” to science. The worth of my life — the essence of what it is to be human for me — is increased by the Hubble Deep Field. That is the spirituality of hard science.

It is interrelated, but by no means interchangeable, that I approach life as an atheist and that argue atheism is a valid religious view and deserves a seat at the table.

Here are the three reasons why science is liberative.

ONE: Science is anti-authoritarian. Anyone can do it (normal disclosures about kyriarchy apply, but examples like Mary Anning defy the notion that all science has always been solely institutional), anyone has access to the fundamental tools (yes, YOU can use and/or identify variables, controls, and the scientific method), and the final arbiter is evidence, not authority (i.e. the Catholic church eventually had to admit that the planets orbit the sun, ’cause, ya know, they do).

TWO: Science is fundamentally an attempt to better the human condition, and mistakes that have been made in the name of science are not an argument against that goal. The epistemology of science is not malicious. Some scientists have been — and so have members of every other human population. Things get blamed on science that are correctly blamed on racism (Tuskegee), imperialism (the atomic bomb), capitalism (Big Pharma), or sadism (Nazi medical “experiments” — which were not even scientific). I assert that science is fundamentally an attempt to better the human condition because the universe is a complex, dangerous place, and knowledge is power. We should be celebrating that Eve ate the apple; I cheer the fall of ignorance before knowledge.

THREE: Science is not a zero-sum game. I can “win” science without someone else losing. I’ve heard the argument advanced — over and over and over, ad nauseam — that “we shouldn’t send people to Mars when children are starving in Africa,” as if the 0.48% of the federal budget that goes to NASA is genuinely what’s going to make or break world hunger. We know perfectly well that the redistribution of resources from the center-of-empire to the margins-of-empire would have an immediate and lasting effect on the well-being of people in the two-thirds world, whereas a mere tweak of the federal budget makes no guarantee as to the distribution of resources or even regards the amount of knowledge we could potentially lose out on. There never has been, and I doubt there ever will be, a trade-off between spending on sciences and spending on humanities or human welfare.

Geekdom

I’m going to take some time before school starts to lay out a few basic propositions that will inform my writing on this blog. The first proposition I want to go over is the importance of geekdom.

Millennials — those of us born between 1980 and 2000 — are just as capable of being serious academics as the generations which preceded us. The major distinction is that millennials really like to do their theory with a dash of pop culture. As a graduate student, if I can’t relate my theological studies to my personal pantheon (think Star Trek, Terry Pratchett/Discworld, and the Whedonverse), it seems like a wasted day in the academy. I feel particularly lucky because, in recent years, geekdom has gone mainstream. I would casually place the emergence of popular geekdom in 2007/2008, with the premier of The Big Bang Theory and the first Iron Man movie.

As with atheism, making geekdom safe for women, gender-variant and/or gender non-conforming people is a major arena of social change. Just this week, Anita Sarkeesian was driven from her home by death threats. Making geekdom safe for people of color is equally critical. The first examples that come to mind are both involving blockbusters: When Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor, white supremacists freaked out. The “real” Heimdall, they claimed, would have been white — as if the Marvel universe isn’t stretching Norse mythology already. (This is also an atheist issue in that there is no “real” Heimdall and therefore accurate portrayal is a moot point.) These same people further freaked out upon the release of The Hunger Games, claiming that the character Rue shouldn’t have been “made Black” for the sake of “political correctness” — regardless of the fact that Rue is described in the book as having brown skin.

Documenting incidents such as these is an endless project and not very rewarding, so I’m not going to do it. I’m just introducing the idea of geekdom as a feminist issue and a social change issue.

Geekdom is also an atheist issue, although the reasons are perhaps not as overt. It’s the little things, like how we are valued in sci-fi; Captain Picard is revealed to be an atheist in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Who Watches the Watchers” while the high-profile television atheists are sociopaths (Alan Shore from Boston Legal, Dr. Cox from Scrubs, BBC’s reimagining of Sherlock Holmes).

Geekdom can be a culturally appropriate vehicle for atheist voices, from Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (in which Captain America, who personally knows two gods, continues to insist that there is only one god) to Terry Pratchett’s defense of existential atheism through the mouth of Granny Weatherwax in Lords and Ladies.  Perhaps the Force is divine, but there is no god in Star Wars. Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien was Catholic, but Samwise Gamgee is not.

Geekdom is my culture. I’m not letting the theists claim it as their own just because C.S. Lewis was a Christian apologist.