SBNRPhoto by Kristiina Wilson

With every new survey, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans grows. Some self-identify as atheists, some agnostic, and in a 2012 Pew poll, nearly one in five checked the box for “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).

But what does that mean?

“Not religious” seems straightforward enough. The SBNR (as this cohort has come to be known) are not affiliated with any institutional religion. But to say “I’m spiritual” suggests an openness to religious wisdom—without the false trappings and mendacity of religious dogma, rituals, or hierarchies. At the same time, the statement can be ascribed to those who canvass multiple traditions, mining their spiritual wisdom and practice not for dry doctrine but for the juice of peak experience.

In being suspicious of organized religion, SBNRs contest any claim to absolute authority and point out the complicity of organized religion in sustaining gender inequalities and structural racism and in perpetuating unfair forms of economic, social, and political power.

Instead, the spiritual-but-not-religious champion individualism, free creative choice and expression, egalitarianism, a psychological/therapeutic approach to spiritual growth, and a seeker/quester/consumer mentality. They come from diverse educational, ethnic, and racial backgrounds and lean to the left politically. They see humans as basically good, are liable to participate in diverse forms of community, are on the whole pantheistic/monistic in outlook, and affirm a liberationist ethic.

In this special section, religion scholars and journalists share some of their work on SBNR, with particular attention to the context of American Buddhism. During a year of research among the religiously unaffiliated, for example, the American writer Kaya Oakes encountered many more people who dip in and out of various Buddhist traditions than people who actually identify as Buddhists. To help with background, historian Matt Hedstrom sheds some light on little-known Protestant educational trends that may have paved the way for contemporary mindfulness. Religious studies scholar Andrea Jain offers an example from the world of yoga that parallels some of the strongest critiques—familiar to Tricycle readers—of spirituality as a consumer product. And finally, Diane Winston, a journalist and historian of religion, relates her experience teaching an undergraduate class in which students seem neither religious nor spiritual.

Whether spiritual, religious, neither, or both, today’s shifting pursuits and practices have roots that run deep in the American tradition—some of which can be traced in the history of our understanding of spirituality. The historical drift has been from a classic spirituality, tethered to scripture and doctrine, to modern unchurched spirituality. For that shift we can look back at adherents of the liberal religious traditions (such as the Transcendentalists, Unitarians, and Quakers), their values (individuality, solitude, inner silence, ethical reforms, creative self-expression, tolerance), and their representatives (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Howard Thurman, Rufus Jones, Margaret Fuller, Sarah Farmer), who produced, through a variety of cultural mechanisms, a specifically American version of spirituality.

Walt Whitman announced this shift when he observed in 1871 that the “spirituality of religion” would issue forth only in the “perfect uncontamination” and “solitariness of individuality”—an utterance that signaled the move to an unchurched, nontraditional, even anti-institutional orientation toward the divine. And this historical form of SBNR was socially active; reform, one could say, was at the crux of their efforts.

In the 20th century, one of the very first references to SBNR was in 1926 in the journal The American Mercury, where the the then President of the Rotary Club describes the service organization as inclusive, nonsectarian, and as a “spiritual force” rather than a religious one. The journalist, reflecting on his words, comments notably, “spiritual but not religious?” In 1934 in an article about the great Lusitania shipwreck, the Washington Post described various memorials for the lives lost as “spiritual but not religious.”

And while other snippets like these can be found scattered in magazines and journals, it was the force of a therapeutic system—that of Bill Wilson and his 12-step AA program, which he and others described repeatedly in the 1950s to the ’70s as being “spiritual but not religious”—that helped the term stick. In 1990, the phrase was taken up by the Gallup poll, becoming one of three options for describing one’s beliefs—“religious,” “SBNR,” or “neither” (with 30 percent choosing SBNR)—and the die was cast. SBNR was here to stay. Here’s what we know: The SBNR, seen as a social movement, tends to flourish in democratic and capitalistic societies; thus one can point to such phenomena as separation of church and state, pluralism, and the rise of film and social media as cultural fertilization for the growth of SBNR.

And of course, the triumph of the therapeutic, as the cultural critic Philip Rieff put it, looms large in the evolution of SBNR. In the work of Freud and other pioneers in the field of psychology, religion was analyzed, deconstructed, and deemed an element of human projection—not divine ordinance. Enter the suspicion that religion only reflects our very human baggage, whether that of class, race, gender, or sexuality—that is, traditional forms of religion might be nothing more than expressions of social and cultural power.

But another strand of psychological theory, associated in part with Freud’s contemporary Carl Jung, proposed that religion was not outside us, in institutions, but inside, in the very deepest part of our unconscious. In fact, the essential truths at the heart of organized religions can be known by diving deeply into the self. Terms like “peak experience,” “self-realization,” and “individuation” are all legacies of this approach. We may have forgotten the theorists, but the SBNR movement simmers in the cultural soup they helped to brew.

And finally, there’s the academy itself, whose secular orientation has certainly contributed to the growth of SBNR. When you take a college course on religion you agree to hold religion up as an object of critical scrutiny. Indeed, after students read Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, and others, it becomes more difficult for them to take institutional religion as it is presented without a large dose of salt.

But scholarship does not all line up on the side of spirituality over religion. With regard to the SBNR movement, there is plenty of debate. One problem, for example, is the accusation of spiritual narcissism. Once freed from tradition and doctrine, those invested in the consumer approach to religion, the critique goes, are just navel-gazing. So what happens to social activism?

Another critique is social. Some point out that there is no “there” there for the SBNR movement, no community. In response, others point to the reality of the American cultural soil. There is a kind of spiritual community, but one that is suitable for the culture in which we all live. The Rothko Chapels and the Esalen Institutes are the new cathedrals and churches; the raves and retreats—whether at Spirit Rock or a Benedictine monastery—are the new ecstatic or ascetic social spaces; and the multiple, varied forms of social media are the textual glue.

And on it goes. Whither the SBNR movement? Perhaps it is like a train without tracks, whose path we will be able to discern only in retrospect. In the meantime, the pilgrimage continues.

By William B. Parsons

Posted by John the Revelator

With Easter coming, some people are debating whether the resurrection of Jesus really happened. Others are debating whether Jesus was even real. In ten years of writing for news and…

With Easter coming, some people are debating whether the resurrection of Jesus really happened. Others are debating whether Jesus was even real.

In ten years of writing for news and opinion sites, my most popular article about religion was one titled, “Five Reasons to Suspect Jesus Never Existed.” The article emerged from a conversation with history writer David Fitzgerald and was based on his book, Nailed.

Fitzgerald holds the controversial perspective that the figure of Jesus at the heart of Christianity is historicized mythology, meaning that the original kernel was a set of ancient religious tropes or myths that got historical details added as they were told and retold by people who believed them to be real.

By contrast, best-selling New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (and most secular historians and mainline Christian theologians) argue that an actual radical rabbi provided the kernel of the stories, but that accounts of his life then got overlaid with fragments of mythology drawn from Judaism and surrounding religions. In other words, they hold that the Bible stories are mythologized history.

The third perspective, of course, is that held by many (though not all) Christians—that the gospel stories are gospel truth.

Outsiders can debate all they want, but Christians need to believe that Jesus was real, and defenders of the faith line up a series of proofs that they claim settle the question. Now Fitzgerald has produced a three-volume set, Jesus: Mything in Action, in which he tackles those proofs one by one and then lays out how Christianity could have emerged even in the absence of a historical Jesus.

Tarico: What first made you wonder if, perhaps, Jesus never existed?

Fitzgerald: It’s funny; for the first thirty-five years of my life, the very idea that there might nothave been a real Jesus never occurred to me. Ironically enough, it wasn’t until I became curious to know what Jesus really said and did that I began to seriously look at our evidence for Jesus. That‘s when the doubts set in. At first, I just wanted to figure out which parts of the gospels were later legendary add-ons. Over time I became increasingly convinced that Jesus himself is a completely mythical figure of the early Christians. That led me to write Nailed.

Tarico: What are a couple of the key points that took you from that first wild, trippy thought—Whoa, what if Jesus never existed?—to your current position, that he probably didn’t.

Fitzgerald: Honestly, I’d put it even more strongly than that – now, I actually can’t see how there even could have been an actual Jesus. The first red flag for me was realizing just how little evidence actually holds up to inspection at all. Another was seeing how differently Christians talked about Jesus before and after the gospels were written. And then there’s the general level of bluff and bluster and just ridiculously overstated claims of Christian biblical scholars. The closer you look into Jesus, the more the cracks in his story keep appearing.

Tarico: Since writing Nailed, you have spent several years amassing evidence in support of your argument. Why?

Fitzgerald: Just to be clear; it’s not my argument – many of these ideas aren’t even new. Critics have been pointing out some of these problems since the first and second centuries. Nailed laid out the top ten ways the official story of Christianity just doesn’t hold water. For the most part, I’m incredibly pleased and gratified that the book has been so well-received by the secular community. But I was quite surprised by the reaction from some atheists. It wasn’t that they just disagreed or thought I was wrong; that’s not special. It was the ferocity with which they insisted there WAS a Jesus and it was crazy nonsense to think otherwise. So I wrote Jesus: Mything in Action to answer my fellow atheists who think we have good reason to accept that Jesus was at least a real person, if not the Son of God. Spoiler alert: We don’t.

Tarico: Why do you think there is so much resistance among non-believers to the idea that the person of Jesus could be a composite or a religious myth? Obviously, someone like Bart Ehrman would say that it’s because the evidence is against you.

Fitzgerald: I think there are several reasons, including the reaction I had when I first developed this growing realization: Hmmm… I’m starting to think this guy never existed… at all! The idea blew my mind; I couldn’t get my head around it. How could we have this gargantuan, feuding Christian world if there had never been a Jesus? And I suspect for many atheists, such a jaw-dropping notion raises the same alarms they get when they see crackpots talking about Atlantis or Bigfoot being real, or the moon landings being fake. To be fair, there are several Jesus myth theories that are just nonsense (for instance, the idea that Christianity was invented by the Romans as social control.)

Tarico: But don’t most secular historians also believe that Jesus actually existed in some form? Not the Christ of the gospels, I mean, but a reformist rabbi who amassed a following and got crucified by the Romans?

Fitzgerald: Well, that is part of the problem Albert Schweitzer identified over a century ago. There’s no consistency to the portrayal of Jesus in the gospels. Mark’s Jesus is a humble, fallible, suffering human. Matthew’s Jesus is a new and improved take on Mark’s, correcting his mistakes. By comparison, Luke’s Jesus is a Zen master and John’s is a ridiculously egotistical SuperJesus, repeatedly making blasphemous comments that should have had him stoned to death right out of the gate.

Consequently, the hypothetical reconstructions of Jesus we see proposed by different historians are radically different from each other and often fundamentally incompatible. With that little convergence between scholars, it becomes clear that whether intentionally or not, Jesus historians are making things up.

Whatever you want to say Jesus said or did or was, our first question should be: what is our source for that claim? And the second is: how reliable is that source? The answers to these questions don’t bode well for any certainly about Jesus – whether he actually existed or not.

For starters, we have no ancient sources that corroborate Christian claims about Jesus. In my books I detail why the most cited so-called sources outside the New Testament are considered forgeries and why the rest only provide evidence for the existence of Christianity rather than Jesus himself. They all draw their information about Jesus from Christian sources.

Of course, among non-secular scholars, the situation is still worse. It should surprise no one that the majority of biblical studies departments are in religiously affiliated universities and seminaries. Equally unsurprising, Christian biblical scholars have a serious bias problem against any Jesus myth theory. What is surprising is that this bias is not just from their faith (already a considerable hurdle) but to a considerable extent, is compelled by their conditions of employment. In many cases, scholars are required to sign and adhere to statements of faith that set constraints around the range of questions they can entertain. Even in the absence of these, biblical scholars are under tremendous pressure to toe various theological lines. So perhaps the question shouldn’t be: “How many historians reject mythicism?” but: “How many historians are contractually obligated to publicly reject mythicism?”

I discuss the problematic state of modern Jesus studies a great deal in Jesus: Mything in Action. Basically, more than a few secular historians have inherited the automatic Christian dismissal of any kind of myth theory. Ultimately, however, this isn’t a fight between mythicists and historicists; it’s a fight between those that take mythicism seriously (mythicists and historicists alike) and those that simply dismiss it out of hand as something long-since settled.

Tarico: Walk us through how Christianity could have emerged if Jesus never existed.

Fitzgerald: There’s nothing implausible about Christianity beginning with a wandering teacher and his followers. And it’s no skin off my nose if there was – but that’s not what our evidence points to. The further we go back in Christian history, the more diverse it appears, and the less likely it began with a single founder. Instead there are abundant indications that its origins are tied to the pagan mystery faiths.

Not that Christianity is some cookie-cutter copy of the mystery faiths – it is a mystery faith; a uniquely Jewish version of this Hellenistic theology. When the Gospel of Mark is written generations later, the mystery faith savior of Paul, the book of Hebrews, and the earliest Christians becomes an allegorical figure built from pastiches from the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus doesn’t fulfill prophecy; Jesus is a collage constructed from prophecy and other writings. And his story grows by leaps and bounds in the second century.

As Bart Ehrman and other biblical scholars have demonstrated beyond a doubt, most of our New Testament books are forgeries. None are written by anyone who actually knew a Jesus. The only genuine books are seven of the letters attributed to Paul (though even these have been tampered with). And of course, Christian scriptures were edited and re-edited to suit the needs of different religious factions over centuries. We have no way of knowing how much has changed from the original writings; for the first 150-200 years, we have a blackout period with nothing but tiny fragments of New Testament texts until complete books begin to appear at the end of the second century. Our earliest complete New Testaments only go back to the 4th century; although they differ from each other – and from ours.

And of course Christianity continues to evolve and mutate for the next two millennia, a process still alive and well – a perfect textbook example of Darwinian evolution in action. Modern Christians would have a hard time recognizing their religion in the beliefs of their earliest spiritual ancestors. In fact, most Christians of today would be the heretics of 500 years ago. Please note that all these problems of evidence remain – whether there was a Jesus or not.

Tarico: As a non-scholar, I myself am agnostic on this question, and I generally defer to the preponderance of relevant experts. But you are pretty convinced. How would you persuade a Christian that their savior is a myth?

Fitzgerald: Personally, I don’t think the historical Jesus question is worth debating with believers, precisely because it is such a discussion-killer. Nontheists don’t need Jesus to be a myth. If it turns out folks like me are wrong and one day some good evidence for a real Jesus gets uncovered, it’s not as if Christianity will suddenly start making sense. We’ll still be just fine. Christians, however, can’t say that. They can’t even enjoy a relaxed agnosticism about the mere possibility of mythicism. They need Jesus NOT to be a myth. 

Unfortunately for them, their Jesus is a myth, and that’s true, no matter whether it’s the mythicist camp or the historicist camp that ultimately comes out on top. The “Jesus of Faith” gets debunked either way.

Tarico: Apart from the question of whether or not the god-man of Christian theology existed–and died to save our souls–, does it really matter whether there was an actual human at the heart of the myth? Not only does it seem unknowable, but as a former Evangelical who left biblical Christianity for what I see as very solid reasons, I find it somewhat hard to care. Do you think the existence or non-existence of an historic Jesus is important?

Fitzgerald: Only if Jesus is important; and honestly, maybe he isn’t so much, anymore. The number of Christians – actually, the religious population across the board – seems to be in a steady decline in America and elsewhere. What is important about this argument –and what makes it worth arguing about–is that it shows what we can and can’t know about who or what Jesus really was. Everything we learn from the back and forth of this historical argument – on both sides – helps us call the bluff of anyone who says they know how Jesus wants you to behave or think or vote.

And that is a very valuable thing for all of us – believers and nonbelievers alike.

By Valerie Tarico/Alternet
Posted by John the Revelator

Some people are angry with Jussie for what was said, but let’s not be so righteous to speak out in shock language. He’s no different than anyone else who lies, file it under human nature. We don’t know what was in his mind or what he was thinking. What I will say, if this is a farce he needs to immediately come out and get in front of it. The only reason people care about this story is he’s a celebrity and his case is good for business and attorney’s, twitter and all other social media platforms.

When did the Chicago police department become so credible all of a sudden, remember Laquin McDonald and how the cops lied to cover up for an officer(plenty of articles to choose from). Turn on the television or read the news about all of these hash tags of  men and women lying on innocent people and no punishment comes their way, legally. Think of #BBQBECKy #PERMITPATTY, what about Carolyn Bryant who may have started the civil rights movement when making false charges that causes a young boy to be brutally beaten and hanged, that young boy was Emmit Till. What about Ronald Ritchie who lied and because of his lie an innocent man John Crawford was shot to death.

We don’t live in a perfect world with a perfect system. We all need to try and do better. Stop being so outraged over this and him mentioning MAGA. There’s a lot we can besmirch about Trump from his policies on to his moral or immoral character. He sets the tone and a bad one he has set. Some Presidents get blamed wrongly for things they can’t control, but under our current President and due to his rhetoric crime has increased 30 percent. Remember the central park 5, your then billionaire playboy ran a full page article accusing them of their guilt and once exonerated he doubled down and never apologized.

If we are honest the good book says horrible things about gays and since people believe in the person that wrote it, guess what, you’re complicit also. Stop being naive about the world we live in and the horrible things people believe. We have good and bad folks in both camps but we can’t hide from truth. Did we forget about Sessions Launches New LGBT Assault With ‘Religious Liberty’ Task Force. In my neck of the woods the republicans tried to pass House Bill 65 asserting that gay marriage is a “parody” and a “religion” and therefore shouldn’t be recognized as valid. Marriage is a man made creation and endorsed by man. Marriage is simply a contract between two people. Sorry god did not create marriage. Since we live in an outrage country lets look at the Catholic Church and its epidemic of priest sexual abusing boys so much so that the Pope has to declare and all out battle against this action as of the writing of this post. We can’t forget about the rape of nuns that’s starting to make headlines. The Protestant Church is culpable for their abuse of women and financial manipulation. If we say we care about women and young boys, start there.

What I will rail against is fake news and fake is corporate sponsored news. News for the most part is in the selling business it’s important we support independent news sources. If we really care we should stop caring about brands or tribes. I don’t belong to any political party they both should be abolished, we have to stop giving them our power to only be disappointed later. I suggest you read and study foreign policy, it may be a bit boring but it does give proper perspective on how our world really works.

This is the trick that sets most people up without thinking twice about it, it is good for business if the working poor are fighting against one another. Yes, Jussie if found guilty should have to pay for his grievance at the same time we have to be even handed also. Jussie’s little stunt will not set back relations of any kind. People already don’t believe women when they come forward about rape or violence or grievances blacks may have. Our society is so fractured that truth of any kind is inconsequential.  Let us reiterate; people lie! Lets name a few more for balance, Yasmin Seweid,Ariel Agudio, Asha Burwell and Alexis Briggs, Ashley Todd, Susan Smith, Tawana Brawley. As a warning be careful for the energy you dispense for the outcome may not be worth it. Don’t worry the next story is coming that will dominate the news cycle, then we can be outraged all over again. We all dont have to like or love one another but we can be cordial or even nice to one another from time2time.

Written by John the Revelator

I was thinking when it me like a bolt of lighting that religion is a man construct in layman’s terms, made up. What furthered my thought on the subject was the so called missionary or thrill seeker John Allen Chau who was killed on the North Sentinal Island. His thought was to christianize the natives. Nothing good comes from missionaries afterward is war and subjugation.

My first thought was why? First you don’t speak the language and second they have their own belief system. Fanciful wars are god centered and yes certain groups used or believed in their practice to gain freedom. Look at Haiti who used vodun, voodoo, and the spirit of Ogun to defeat the largest most powerful military might at the time with primitive weapons, courage and again the spirit of Ogun.

America believes the same thing but in a more varied twisted way. The good Judeo Christian(nonsensical term) fought then communist Germany led by Adolf Hitler who’s mother was Catholic and him baptized as a Roman Catholic which was also the state religion. My point is only to give a brief example about the creation of your god not why you believe, but how religions can coexist. The problems are what is written in the text about dominion, domination of Nations, converting, and lastly war.

As you continue to create your own values take what good and honorable and use it for good. I didn’t finish my first thought thoroughly. When I mention man creating religions I came from this perspective; look how many there are. If god isn’t the author of confusion, why all the confusion and so many different religions that man created.

Written and Posted by John the Revelator

I had a free screener for the new Tyler Perry movie(Nobody’s Fool) very funny. Reason I’m mentioning this, the line was long so I had time to think and reflect on the article I posted. I ran to the car and grabbed my pink Moleskin and jotted this down.

Dealing with morality is more storied than we think or believe. The subject isn’t minor but major. The article does a good job but it doesn’t go deeper about the subject. First morality is only 5 or 6 thousand years old. Buddhism is 4 thousand years older than christianity, not comparing the two, simply mentioning that morality goes much further. The mistake generally made is that you receive morality from scripture but people bring their belief to it. If god is the author and finisher of ones faith he did a terrible in the old testament. Think of it this way, way does it seem that he has human emotions, that’s very problematic. He’s jealous, can’t control his temper, doesn’t believe in race mixing, he created good and evil and so many more issues. If we believe as he we would be put to death or the very least receive the serious side eye. As we continue to look at the current landscape we begin to fully realize that as a Nation society brings morality, not the church or bible. If people argue for the bible really don’t know or haven’t read it. This is not me coming against any religion but looking at a subject honestly. I’m not going to tell you what to read but read it for yourself to come to your own conclusions. Much more can be spoken about the issue, I believe I made my point. Some one once said “values are a human creation.”

Written by John the Revelator

Asked of Hispanic-Americans: “Are you in this country legally?” Asked of gays and lesbians and bisexuals: “How do you have sex?” Asked of transgender people: “Have you had the surgery?” Asked of African Americans: “Can I touch your hair?”

Every marginalized group has some question, or questions, that are routinely asked of them — and that drive them up a tree; questions that have insult or bigotry or dehumanization woven into the very asking. Sometimes the questions are asked sincerely, with sincere ignorance of the offensive assumptions behind them. And sometimes they are asked in a hostile, passive-aggressive, “I’m just asking questions” manner. But it’s still not okay to ask them. They’re not questions that open up genuine inquiry and discourse, they’re questions that close minds, much more than they open them. Even if that’s not the intention. And most people who care about bigotry and marginalization and social justice — or who just care about good manners — don’t ask them.

Here are nine questions you shouldn’t ask atheists. I’m going to answer them, just this once, and then I’ll explain why you shouldn’t be asking them, and why so many atheists will get ticked off if you do.

1: “How can you be moral without believing in God?”

The answer: Atheists are moral for the same reasons believers are moral: because we have compassion, and a sense of justice. Humans are social animals, and like other social animals, we evolved with some core moral values wired into our brains: caring about fairness, caring about loyalty, caring when others are harmed.

If you’re a religious believer, and you don’t believe these are the same reasons that believers are moral, ask yourself this: If I could persuade you today, with 100% certainty, that there were no gods and no afterlife… would you suddenly start stealing and murdering and setting fire to buildings? And if not — why not? If you wouldn’t… whatever it is that would keep you from doing those things, that’s the same thing keeping atheists from doing them. (And if you would — remind me not to move in next door to you.)

And ask yourself this as well: If you accept some parts of your holy book and reject others — on what basis are you doing that? Whatever part of you says that stoning adulterers is wrong but helping poor people is good; that planting different crops in the same field is a non-issue but bearing false witness actually is pretty messed-up; that slavery is terrible but it’s a great idea to love your neighbor as yourself… that’s the same thing telling atheists what’s right and wrong. People are good — even if we don’t articulate it this way — because we have an innate grasp of the fundamental underpinnings of morality: the understanding that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves, and that there is no objective reason to act as if any of us matters more than any other. And that’s true of atheists and believers alike.

Why you shouldn’t ask it: This is an unbelievably insulting question. Being moral, caring about others and having compassion for them, is a fundamental part of being human. To question whether atheists can be moral, to express bafflement at how we could possibly manage to care about others without believing in a supernatural creator, is to question whether we’re even fully human.

And you know what? This question is also hugely insulting to religious believers. It’s basically saying that the only reason believers are moral is fear of punishment and desire for reward. It’s saying that believers don’t act out of compassion, or a sense of justice. It’s saying that believers’ morality is childish at best, self-serving at worst. I wouldn’t say that about religious believers… and you shouldn’t, either.

2: “How do you have any meaning in your life?” Sometimes asked as, “Don’t you feel sad or hopeless?” Or even, “If you don’t believe in God or heaven, why don’t you just kill yourself?”

The answer: Atheists find meaning and joy in the same things everyone does. We find it in the big things: family, friendship, work, nature, art, learning, love. We find it in the small things: cookies, World of Warcraft, playing with kittens. The only difference is that (a) believers add “making my god or gods happy and getting a good deal in the afterlife” to those lists (often putting them at the top), and (b) believers think meaning is given to them by their god or gods, while atheists create our own meaning, and are willing and indeed happy to accept that responsibility.

In fact, for many atheists, the fact that life is finite invests it with more meaning — not less. When we drop “pleasing a god we have no good reason to think exists” from our “meaning” list, we have that much more attention to give the rest of it. When we accept that life will really end, we become that much more motivated to make every moment of it matter.

Why you shouldn’t ask it: What was it that we were just saying about “dehumanization”? Experiencing meaning and value in life is deeply ingrained in being human. When you treat atheists as if we were dead inside simply because we don’t believe in a supernatural creator or our own immortality… you’re treating us as if we weren’t fully human. Please don’t.

3: “Doesn’t it take just as much/even more faith to be an atheist as it does to be a believer?”

The answer: No.

The somewhat longer answer: This question assumes that “atheism” means “100% certainty that God does not exist, with no willingness to question and no room for doubt.” For the overwhelming majority of people who call ourselves atheists, this is not what “atheism” means. For most atheists, “atheism” means something along the lines of “being reasonably certain that there are no gods,” or, “having reached the provisional conclusion, based on the evidence we’ve seen and the arguments we’ve considered, that there are no gods.” No, we can’t be 100% certain that there are no gods. We can’t be 100% certain that there are no unicorns, either. But we’re certain enough. Not believing in unicorns doesn’t take “faith.” And neither does not believing in God.

Why you shouldn’t ask it: The assumption behind this question is that atheists haven’t actually bothered to think about our atheism. And this assumption is both ignorant and insulting. Most atheists have considered the question of God’s existence or non-existence very carefully. Most of us were brought up religious, and letting go of that religion took a great deal of searching of our hearts and our minds. Even those of us brought up as non-believers were (mostly) brought up in a society that’s steeped in religion. It takes a fair amount of questioning and thought to reject an idea that almost everyone else around you believes.

And when you ask this question, you’re also revealing the narrowness of your own mind. You’re showing that you can’t conceive of the possibility that someone might come to a conclusion about religion based on evidence, reason, and which ideas seem most likely to be true, instead of on “faith.”

4: “Isn’t atheism just a religion?”

The answer: No.

The somewhat longer answer: Unless you’re defining “religion” as “any conclusion people come to about the world,” or as “any community organized around a shared idea,” then no. If your definition of “religion” includes atheism, it also has to include: Amnesty International, the Audubon Society, heliocentrism, the acceptance of the theory of evolution, the Justin Bieber Fan Club, and the Democratic Party. By any useful definition of the word “religion,” atheism is not a religion.

Why you shouldn’t ask it: Pretty much the same reason as the one for #3. Calling atheism a religion assumes that it’s an axiom accepted on faith, not a conclusion based on thinking and evidence. And it shows that you’re not willing or able to consider the possibility that someone not only has a different opinion about religion than you do, but has come to that opinion in a different way.

5: “What’s the point of atheist groups? How can you have a community and a movement for something you don’t believe in?”

The answer: Atheists have groups and communities and movements for the same reasons anyone does. Remember what I said about atheists being human? Humans are social animals. We like to spend time with other people who share our interests and values. We like to work with other people on goals we have in common. What’s more, when atheists come out about our atheism, many of us lose our friends and families and communities, or have strained and painful relationships with them. Atheists create communities so we can be honest about who we are and what we think, and still not be alone.

Why you shouldn’t ask it: This is a total “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” conundrum. Atheists get told all the time that people need religion for the community it provides: that persuading people out of religion is cruel or futile or both, since so much social support happens in religious institutions. Then, when atheists do create communities to replace the ones people so often lose when they leave religion, we get told how ridiculous this is. (Or else we’re told, “See? Atheism is just another religion!” See #4 above.)

6: “Why do you hate God?” Or, “Aren’t you just angry at God?”

The answer: Atheists aren’t angry at God. We don’t think God exists. We aren’t angry at God, any more than we’re angry at Santa Claus.

Why you shouldn’t ask it: This question doesn’t just deny our humanity. It denies our very existence. It assumes that atheists don’t really exist: that our non-belief isn’t sincere, that it’s some sort of emotional trauma or immature teenage rebellion, that it’s not even really non-belief.

And honestly? This question reveals how narrow your own mind is. It shows that you can’t even consider the possibility that you might be mistaken: that you can’t even conceive of somebody seeing the world differently from the way you do. This question doesn’t just make atheists mad. It makes you look like a dolt.

7: “But have you [read the Bible or some other holy book; heard about some supposed miracle; heard my story about my personal religious experience]?”

The answer: Probably. Or else we’ve read/heard about something pretty darned similar. Atheists are actually better-informed about religion than most religious believers. In fact, we’re better-informed about the tenets of most specific religions than the believers in those religions. For many atheists, sitting down and reading the Bible (or the holy text of whatever religion they were brought up in) is exactly what set them on the path to atheism — or what put the final nail in the coffin.

Why you shouldn’t ask it: As my friend and colleague Heina put it: “‘Have you heard of Jesus?’ No, actually, I was born under a fucking rock.”

Are you really not aware of how dominating a force religion is in society? In most of the world, and certainly in the United States, religion is impossible to ignore. It permeates the social life, the economic life, the cultural life, the political life. We’re soaking in it. The idea that atheists might somehow have come to adulthood without being aware of the Bible, of stories about supposed miracles, of stories about personal religious experiences… it’s laughable. Or it would be laughable if it weren’t so annoying. Religious privilege is all over this question like a cheap suit.

8: “What if you’re wrong?” Sometimes asked as, “Doesn’t it make logical sense to believe in God? If you believe and you’re wrong, nothing terrible happens, but if you don’t believe and you’re wrong, you could go to Hell!”

The answer: What if you’re wrong about Allah? Or Vishnu? Or Zeus? What if you’re wrong about whether God is the wrathful jerk who hates gay people, or the loving god who hates homophobes? What if you’re wrong about whether God wants you to celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday? What if you’re wrong about whether God really does care about whether you eat bacon? As Homer Simpson put it, “What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder!”

Why you shouldn’t ask it: There are so very many things wrong with this question. It even has a name — Pascal’s Wager — and I’ve actually written an entire piece on the many things that are wrong with it. But I’ll stick with two for today, the ones that aren’t just logically absurd but that insult the intelligence and integrity of both atheists and believers:

a) Are you really that ignorant of the existence of religions other than your own? Has it really never occurred to you that when you “bet” on the existence of your god, there are thousands upon thousands of other gods whose existence you’re “betting” against? Are you really that steeped, not only in the generic privilege of all religion, but in the particular privilege of your own?

b) Do you really think atheists have so little integrity? Do you really think we’re going to fake belief in God… not just to our families or communities in order to not be ostracized, but in our own hearts and minds? Do you really think we’re going to deliberately con ourselves into believing — or pretending to believe — something that we don’t actually think is true? Not just something trivial, but something this important? Do you really think we would pick what to think is true and not true about the world, based solely on which idea would be most convenient? How does that even constitute “belief”? (And anyway, do you really think that God would be taken in by this con game? Do you really think that what God wants from his followers is an insincere, self-serving, “wink wink, I’m covering my bases” version of “belief”?)

9: “Why are you atheists so angry?”

The answer: I’ve actually written an entire book answering this question (Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless). The short answer: Not all atheists are angry about religion — and those of us who are angry aren’t in a constant state of rage. But yes, many atheists are angry about religion — and we’re angry because we see terrible harm being done by religion. We’re angry about harm being done to atheists… and we’re angry about harm done to other believers. We don’t just think religion is mistaken — we think it does significantly more harm than good. And it pisses us off.

Why you shouldn’t ask it: This question assumes that atheists are angry because there’s something wrong with us. It assumes that atheists are angry because we’re bitter, selfish, whiny, unhappy, because we lack joy and meaning in our lives, because we have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. The people asking it seem to have never even considered the possibility that atheists are angry because we have legitimate things to be angry about.

This reflexive dismissal of our anger’s legitimacy does two things. It treats atheists as flawed, broken, incomplete. And it defangs the power of our anger. (Or it tries to, anyway.) Anger is a hugely powerful motivating force — it has been a major motivating force for every social change movement in history — and when people try to dismiss or trivialize atheists’ anger, they are, essentially, trying to take that power away.

And finally: The people asking this question never seem to notice just how much atheist anger is directed, not at harm done to atheists, but at harm done to believers. A huge amount of our anger about religion is aimed at the oppression and brutality and misery created by religion, not in the lives of atheists, but in the lives of believers. Our anger about religion comes from compassion, from a sense of justice, from a vivid awareness of terrible damage being done in the world and a driving motivation to do something about it. Atheists aren’t angry because there’s something wrong with us. Atheists are angry because there’s something right with us. And it is messed-up beyond recognition to treat one of our greatest strengths, one of our most powerful motivating forces and one of the clearest signs of our decency, as a sign that we’re flawed or broken.


The list of questions you shouldn’t ask atheists doesn’t end here. It goes on, at length. “How can you believe in nothing?” “Doesn’t atheism take the mystery out of life?” “Even though you don’t believe, shouldn’t you bring up your children with religion?” “Can you prove there isn’t a god?” “Did something terrible happen to you to turn you away from religion?” “Are you just doing this to rebel?” “Are you just doing this so you don’t have to obey God’s rules?” “If you’re atheist, why do you celebrate Christmas/ say ‘Bless you’ when people sneeze/ spend money with ‘In God We Trust’ on it/ etc.?” “Have you sincerely tried to believe?” “Can’t you see God everywhere around you?” “Do you worship Satan?” “Isn’t atheism awfully arrogant?” “Can you really not conceive of anything bigger than yourself?” “Why do you care what other people believe?”

But for now, I’ll leave these questions as an exercise for the reader. If you understand why all the questions I answered today are offensive and dehumanizing, I hope you’ll understand why these are as well.

If you want to understand more about atheists and atheism — that is awesome. Many of us are more than happy to talk about our atheism with you: that’s how we change people’s minds about us, and overcome the widespread myths and misinformation about us. But maybe you could do a little Googling before you start asking us questions that we’ve not only fielded a hundred times before, but that have bigotry and dehumanization and religious privilege embedded in the very asking. And if you do want to know more about atheism, please stop and think about the questions you’re asking — and the assumptions behind them — before you do. Thanks.

By Greta Christina / Greta Christina’s Blog

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Many evangelical Christians believe that President Donald Trump was chosen by God to lead the United States, despite the fact that he has a long history of marital infidelity and financial fraud.

Leah Payne, an assistant professor of theological studies at George Fox University, and Brian Doak, an associate professor of Biblical studies at George Fox University, write in the Washington Post about the conspiratorial mindset that has been part of mainstream Christian thinking for centuries — and that’s led many Christians to conclude that Trump’s election was divine intervention.

The first major Christian conspiracy theory that mixed religion and politics, they write, dates all the way back to the Roman Empire. The “Nero redivivus” conspiracy theory posited that Roman Emperor Nero, who was notorious for persecuting Christians, would one day rise from the dead and lead a Satanic army to slaughter his foes.

Looking more toward recent American history, the scholars write that “whether the theories involve Salem ‘witches,’ Freemasons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Skull and Bones or even rock music played in reverse, there seems to be an endless supply of creators and perpetuators of stories about small groups that, through some engagement with the spiritual world, shape the nation.”

But where does Trump fit in? According to Payne and Doak, many evangelicals believed they were at an inflection point after former President Barack Obama’s reelection that showed they had lost control of the country to secularism.

The fact that Trump won, despite being a heavy underdog and despite receiving fewer votes than his Democratic rival, was seen as a divine sign that God was not forsaking Christian America.

“Trump’s surprising win — despite his overt rejection of traditional Christian morals — offers proof of the president’s status as God’s chosen leader,” they write.

Read the whole piece here.

By Brad Reed/RawStory

Posted by The NON-Conformist


If you put your religion/faith above the abuse of children your faith is in vain and you are complicit and equally culpable!

pope francis, sex abuse report

A tweet by Pope Francis on Tuesday, posted only hours before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a highly disturbing grand jury investigation into widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in six state dioceses, has prompted some frustrated reactions.

“Still today there are so many martyrs, so many who are persecuted for the love of Christ,” Pope Francis wrote. “They are the real strength of the Church!”

Still today there are so many martyrs, so many who are persecuted for the love of Christ. They are the real strength of the Church!


The report, which is being called the most comprehensive dive by a U.S. state into clergy sex abusers, identifies 301 Catholic clergy members as “predator priests” who, the grand jury says, sexually abused more than 1,000 children while serving in active ministry.

Residents and officials, including Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro, have asked Pope Francis to weigh in on the report’s findings, including allegations of a systematic sexual abuse cover-up by top church leaders. The report names Pittsburgh bishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl, one of Pope Francis’s U.S. advisers, claiming that while Wuerl reported priests’ abusive behavior to the Vatican, he allowed alleged offenders to continue serving in ministry. Wuerl has denounced those claims.

Some Twitter users found Francis’s tweet puzzling — or at least felt inclined to respond.

Still today there are so many martyrs, so many who are persecuted for the love of Christ. They are the real strength of the Church!

Are children molested by catholic priests martyrs?


In Philadelphia (which was not covered in this particular report), Archbishop Charles Chaput released on Tuesday a statement on the investigation, calling it “difficult to read” and “painful for everyone, most especially survivors of sexual abuse and their loved ones.”

“We deeply regret their pain and remain focused on a path toward healing,” Chaput said. “We encourage victims to come forward, and we will continue our extensive efforts to help victims of sexual abuse heal.”

But like reactions to Francis’s tweet, not everyone was comforted by Chaput’s message.

full story/tweets by CLAIRE SASKO

Posted by John the Revelator/my comment

Americans are abandoning religion in droves, continuing a trend that has persisted over decades. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of Americans who didn’t identify with any religion jumped from 36.6 million to 55.8 million, according to Pew Research Center.

New data from a Pew survey of 1,300 non-religious people published Wednesday provides deeper insight into what is driving this phenomenon, as told by the non-religious themselves.

When asked why they don’t identify with any religion, a majority of respondents — 60 percent — said that they question a lot of religious teachings (respondents were allowed to give multiple answers). Forty-nine percent said they opposed the positions taken by churches on social and political issues, which should be unsurprising given that the nation’s young people skew liberal and churches are seen as largely conservative institutions.

Only 37 percent gave not believing in God as their reason for rejecting religion, highlighting the fact that many non-believers do not necessarily identify as atheists or even as agnostics. Forty-one percent said that they don’t like religious organizations, while 36 percent said religion is irrelevant to them and 34 percent said they dislike religious leaders.

“Those who identify as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ tend to give different reasons for their lack of affiliation, showing that they are far from a monolithic group,” wrote Pew research associate Becka Alper. “For example, about nine-in-ten self-described atheists (89 percent) say their lack of belief in God is a very important reason for their religious identity, compared with 37 percent of agnostics and 21 percent of those in the ‘nothing in particular’ category. Atheists also are more likely than others to say religion is simply ‘irrelevant’ to them (63% of atheists vs. 40 percent of agnostics and 26% of adults with no particular religion).”

Previous Pew research has found that the shift away from religion has a very broad base. The trend persists across genders, generations, and racial groups. However, about two-thirds of those who identify as agnostic or atheist are white men with higher levels of education.

Overall, though, atheists and agonistics make up a minority of the non-religious, with a majority saying they’re just nothing in particular in regard to religion.

“At the same time, however, a significant minority of ‘nones’ say that religion plays a role in their lives,” wrote Michael Lipka, an editorial manager at Pew. “Indeed, about 7 percent of U.S. adults say their religion is ‘nothing in particular’ but also say that religion is ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ important in their lives, despite their lack of a formal affiliation.”


Posted by John the Revelator


I was having a conversation with a fellow that happened to be white he brought up the game barrel full of monkeys. I mentioned I never let my kids play that game because of the racial connotation associated with it. I told him about the time when barrels were strategically place so that blacks couldn’t laugh in public, they had to put their face/head in the barrel in case they laughed in public. I also said I’m not sure if the game was based on that concept but I did say it would have made sense when you look at the negative associations by calling blacks monkeys. Simply look at the words picnic and nibs. He usually calls me pessimistic which I find funny. History is an odd subject based on who’s teaching it, but black history is a different matter. Because someone doesn’t read or study that is their fault and theirs alone. It’s the single reason why people vote the way they do or associate themselves with others. The main reason history is so mangled and misaligned! I also mentioned to him about women and laughter in public…that really set him off…to my pleasure off course. Then magically I came across this article…enjoy. Last thing, don’t prove shit to people allow them to be their authentic selves. 


On January 10 2017, Desiree Fairooz, a 61-year-old Code Pink protester, was forcibly removed and arrested for laughing at Jeff Sessions during his Attorney General confirmation hearings. Fairooz’s eruption was provoked by an extremely laughable punch line, when Republican Senator Richard Shelby stated that Sessions has an “extensive record of treating all Americans fairly under the law,” adding that this claim “is clear and well-documented.”

As a description of a man who was once denied a federal judgeship due to concerns about his racism, who openly advocates anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ policies, and who casually jokes about the Ku Klux Klan, Shelby’s utterance was patently absurd and very deserving of public mockery and voluble laughter. For her protest, Fairooz now faces up to a year in jail and $2,000 in fines.

Her conviction in early May elicited a viral storm of outraged responses, including headlines such as “A Woman Is on Trial for Laughing During a Congressional Hearing,” “Activist’s Giggle Leads to Conviction,” and a piece authored by the Medusan disruptor herself, “I’m Facing Jail Time After Laughing at Jeff Sessions. I Regret Nothing.

How unprecedented is Fairooz’s indictment? Women are held in contempt of court all the time for laughing out loud at devastatingly inappropriate moments. In February 2017, a woman was sentenced to 93 days in jail for her voluble mirth at the gruesome details of a man’s death in a DUI accident, while the family members of the deceased were present in the courtroom. Laughing in disrespect of the dead has a legacy of retributive punishment: in 1862, a Confederate woman named Eugenia was arrested for laughing at the funeral procession of a Union soldier (she had also encouraged her children to spit on the uniforms of Union officers).

However, it was not the fact of Fairooz’s laughter that caused her arrest, so much as what it signified: to “impede and disrupt then Senator Sessions’ confirmation hearing by drawing attention away from the hearing itself and directing it instead toward the Defendants’ perception of the nominee’s racist views, policies, and voting record” (from a government motion filed against her). Her laughter evokes the anti-patriarchal outbursts in the classic feminist film, A Question of Silence (Marleen Gorris, 1982), in which three unruly women laugh exuberantly at their own murder trial, in response to the prosecution’s outlandish pretense that they live in a post-sexist society. (The women are on trial for killing a male boutique owner, whom they beat to death in an unpremeditated outburst of joyful fury due to his harassment of a female shoplifter.) In the film’s courtroom, this “question of silence” refers to the tyranny of lacking a voice against routine injustice, which then can only be articulated through defiant and disruptive laughter.

Laughter, and the power to dictate its meaning and address, has always been at stake in the law—at least since the Ancient Greek demos. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle associates laughter with the expression of scorn. He warns: “Most people enjoy amusement and jesting more than they should…a jest is a kind of mockery, and lawgivers forbid some kinds of mockery—perhaps they ought to have forbidden some kinds of jesting.”[1] Indeed, God’s laughter in the Old Testament distinctly stems from anger and hostility, and is intolerable when enjoyed at His expense. In the Book of Kings, a group of children laugh at the bald prophet Elisha (just imagine their reaction to a dyed yellow comb-over), and God punishes the children by sending two she-bears to kill them: they “came out of a wood and mauled forty-two of them.”[2] Thomas Hobbes viewed laughter as a warlike tactic: a weapon for asserting political power. He argues in The Elements of Law that “men laugh at the infirmities of others…For when a jest is broken upon ourselves, or friends of whose dishonour we participate, we never laugh thereat.”[3]

If we’ve come a long way with our laughter since the English Civil Wars of the 1640s—learning to laugh in empathy, in playful recognition of absurdity, or out of sheer muscular relief—this message has since been lost on Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Professor of Law at the University of Michigan and long-term visitor at Harvard Law School, has offered comment:[4]

Criminally charging and potentially sentencing Ms. Fairooz for a brief spontaneous injection of political laughter as ‘disruptive’ when it, at least, so clearly was not looks like an overly thin-skinned reflex reaction to a woman appropriating what is usually a masculine form of power: ridicule, public humiliation by humor, in this case political speech against racism.

Trump’s Administration has been particularly paranoid when it comes to female mockery—evidenced by Trump’s repeated Twitter rants against feminist comedian Rosie O’Donnell, his avowal that “Americans will thank [him] when Lena Dunham moves to Canada,” and condemnation of the very idea that Sean Spicer would be burlesqued by a woman in drag (i.e. Melissa McCarthy). Like many authoritarian personalities, Trump associates laughter with weakness. His pandering to delusional fears that America’s participation in the Paris Climate Accord will make it “the laughingstock of the world”—that the “world is laughing at us”—is part and parcel of his warlike mania for never landing on the wrong side of a punch line.

Histories of Female Laughter and Criminality

Although Fairooz’s case is singularly unjust and ridiculous, she is not the first woman in U.S. history to be criminalized for laughing in the face of injustice. In Puritanical New England, laughter (especially during fasting or prayer times) could be used as evidence to prove women’s sinful covenant with the devil. Susannah Martin, who was executed for, among other things, breastfeeding Satan with her “witch’s tit,” laughed at “such folly” during her own juridical interrogation. As Thomas Brattle remarked in his 1692 letter condemning the Salem Witch Trials, “such folly” would make Salem the laughing stock of the entire world: they “will laugh at the demonstration, and conclude that the said S.G. [Salem gentlemen] are actually possessed, at least, with ignorance and folly.”[5]

That female laughter would be litigated as Satanic in Puritanical New England is not particularly shocking. (One woman was executed on evidence of her awkwardly hemmed coat.) Since the founding of America’s constitutional republic, the criminalization of female laughter has for the most part remained rare and exceptional. Modern societies have other means at their disposal for establishing female guilt and censoring anti-patriarchal pleasure. For example, etiquette manuals and advice columns widely instructed women to inhibit their laughter—lest they exhibit uncouth decorum or, even worse, uncontrollable physical convulsion. Women were even terrified into believing that their laughter could kill them.

Obituary columns were populated by reports of women’s “DEATH FROM LAUGHTER,” such as the woman who went to the theater “to enjoy a comedy, and [instead] furnished a tragedy” in 1902, when she “became convulsed with merriment.”[6] In 1908, the widow Mrs. Anna Ferrer attended a dinner party where she was told a funny joke: “unable to stop the laughing paroxysm” she reportedly “died before a physician could be summoned.”[7] (The exact joke was withheld from printing due to concerns about public safety.) Miss Barbara Barr could consider herself lucky when, in 1907, her uncontrollable laughter at a romantic suitor’s joke about dentistry was finally subdued with anesthetics. (She was unable to remember the joke the next day, and fortunately no one repeated it to her—though it was divulged in several reports: “A man went to the dentist to have a tooth pulled and it hurt. ‘Oh, doctor,’ the patient said, ‘If only humans were born without teeth!’ The doctor replied, ‘they are, you know.’”)[8]

While women infiltrated the public sphere—as shoppers, workers, theater-goers, and amusement-seekers—the spectacle of their bodily pleasure posed repeated crises for social governance. Even women’s hats were subject to prohibition in the theater, in church, and at film screenings—though, to be fair, the “Merry Widow Hat” was nearly a foot high, and made it virtually impossible for spectators in the rear to see anything beyond the towering fruit baskets, flower arrangements, and avian taxidermy that adorned female millinery at the time.

Despite the obsessive social regulation of female bodies in public spaces, the rule of law was rarely deployed toward the specific end of suppressing female laughter. There were exceptions of course—in 1899, two women in Chicago were arrested for their laughter and disorderly conduct. “The trouble was caused by caused by a new joke on the kissing bug,” a local newspaper reported, quoting the arresting officer: “‘And then they both laughed so loud they awoke the entire neighborhood.’”[9] The presiding justice, who had a much better sense of humor than the judges of the Salem Witch Trials, observed: “Well, I guess it certainly is a joke to arrest a person for laughing.” Both defendants were subsequently discharged.

The Terror of Female Laughter

If you have never heard of gelotogynophobia, it is because I just made it up. But what is it? Well, if gynophobia refers to the extreme and irrational fear of women, and gelotophobia to the terror of being laughed at, then gelotogynophobia would be a handy (if not slightly clunky) term for designating the overwhelming fear of women’s laughter, or of being laughed at by a woman. As Virginia Woolf remarked in 1905, men so fear women’s laughter because, “like lightning, [it] shrivels them up and leaves the bones bare.”[10]

Tracy Thomas, Seiberling Chair of Constitutional Law at the University of Akron, suggests that being laughed at by a woman is perhaps “one of [men’s] greatest fears.”[11] In a correspondence with her, Thomas referenced a survey from Nancy Dowd’s The Man in Question, “where women report their greatest fear is rape and murder, while men’s greatest fear is being laughed at.” Or, as the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood has put it, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” To this point, the journalist and American humorist, Helen Rowland, wrote in 1922 that “a man will forgive his wife for committing robbery, or murder, or breaking the Ten Commandments, yet threaten to leave her for laughing at the wrong moment”[12]—should she be so fortunate that he doesn’t beat or kill her. In 1893, a New Haven court heard the divorce petition of Emma B. Phelps, who described the time “she laughed at her husband…and he ‘knocked her senseless’” (another time he threatened to kill her with a carving knife because she would not give him her watch).[13]

In 1897, the Baltimore Sun reported a suicide in which a man blew himself up with dynamite after a woman rejected his marriage proposal by laughing at him. He “had a dynamite bomb with him and threatened that if the woman refused him he would blow himself to pieces. She laughed at him and he went to the stone yard, a block distant, and killed himself.”[14] Lucky woman to have escaped the fate of Alice Henninger, who was murdered by Frederick Strube in 1903: he beat her “with a monkey wrench because she laughed at him when he pressed her to marry him.”[15] (He was later arrested after burying her body.)

As Jacqueline Rose notes in Women in Dark Times, there is no positive correlation between women’s attainment of equal rights under the law and their protection from domestic violence and secret abuse. If legal punishment for feminist laughter remains exceptional, it is unknowable how many private laughs have resulted in sexual assault, violent beating, and gruesome murder.

Intersectional Laughing Politics: Race, Class, and Masculinity

While women’s laughter is censored through any number of means (including the fear of death and threat of violence), it is the laughter of white men and people of color that has been explicitly criminalized. White male laughter was often viewed as predatory, exemplified by the case of a white man in Chicago who was fined $25 in 1894 for laughing at a woman in bicycle bloomers.[16] Such laughter was regarded as a symptom of profound anxieties about sexually integrated public spaces that could make white women physically unsafe while potentially undermining the financial interests of businesses that thrived on female patronage.

Though the expression of laughter carried strong class implications (the coarse guttural laughter of the working-class vs. the refined melodious laughter of the bourgeoisie), it was often gents of the upper crust whose public laughter posed a special nuisance. Men were frequently ejected, and sometimes arrested, for laughing too boisterously at the theater. In 1929, four white teenage boys, all sons of prominent families, were arrested and forcibly removed from the Varsity Film Theatre in Evanston, IL when the manager felt that “they laughed at the wrong time…and in a tone he didn’t like either. The show was not a comedy.”[17] The decorum of laughing off genre was a highly controversial issue, and widely debated among journalists, critics, and social reformers.

The New York Times published an editorial on “The Right to Laugh”[18] in 1907, after a man was arrested and fined for laughing too loudly during a tragic play. The author considers the extent to which genre prescriptions should dictate an audience’s entitlement to enjoyment, weighing the pleasures of collective tears against the man’s individual reaction of amusement. As he observes pithily, “recent experiences on Broadway go to prove that the serious plays are often the funniest, and that the comedies are very often nearest tragedy.” In the author’s account, women’s presence at these shows is implicitly culpable for their topsy-turvy genre advertising. Against the somber ladies, who take excessive pleasure in tears (“women’s sobbing clubs” were incidentally a thing during this time), the author asks: “Could not the prisoner have urged with equal justice that having gone to the theatre for a pleasant evening of laughter he had a right to be protected from the depressing influence of snivelers?”

Despite this editorialist’s slippery logic, men continued to be disciplined routinely for laughing off cue or against genre, particularly at shows marketed to women. For example, a theater-goer in Pennsylvania “laughed so long and loudly at the performance of a melodrama that he stopped the play. After vain appeals to him to cease he was arrested and fined.”[19] The humorous trigger involved a Saint Bernard dog who had been cast to save a woman’s life, but the dog had to be replaced at the last minute by a smaller terrier, and “the contrast sent the spectator with too keen a sense of humor into hysterics.”

Like the suspicion of women’s laughter as evidence of sin or immorality, the prohibition of laughter at tragedy was a Puritanical inheritance. From the transcription of a “1734 Theatrical Notice,” that was widely re-published in 1894: “The audience are absolutely forbidden to laugh during the performance of a tragedy.”[20] Second to the scandal of inappropriate laughter at the theater was the crisis of disruptive hilarity during church services. In 1868, national newspapers covered a series of incidents in Indiana involving multiple arrests of men who laughed aloud in church—and a similar cluster of episodes resulting in arrests afflicted Shasta County, CA in 1885.

The church of Zion was actively bedeviled by uncontrollable male laughter that required juridical intervention. A notable example occurred in 1891, when Thomas Blount, “overcome by laughter…and prolonged merriment,” was vigorously removed by church officers “with such violence as to tear the clothes from him.”[21] Revealingly, the laughter erupted during a visiting Yale Law Professor’s lecture on “Frederick Douglass as a Diplomat.” (Who could have imagined the mirth that Douglass would still provoke in 2017, though in a very different context?) A reporter for The New York Age remarked that “any person who disturbs a religious meeting should be punished to the extent of the law,” adding that “the only way to abate this evil, which has a tendency to render the church unpopular, is to place in office good, intelligent and Christian men.” Notably, the journalist refrains from commenting on the lecture topic at hand (i.e. Douglass’ work and legacy), instead emphasizing the violence of Blount’s forced removal. The central problem of re-instilling the dignity and authority of the church is thus put into direct conflict with the speaker’s discussion of anti-racism and abolitionist diplomacy.

The racial politics of making laughter a crime bear special emphasis. The African-American newspaper, The Washington Bee, put it bluntly in 1898: “It is against the law [for a Black person] to laugh at a policeman in the street.”[22] In 1899 in Trenton, NJ, “Louisa Roberts, a colored domestic” was fined $2 for “being disorderly on the street,” after “Patrolman Hutchinson arrested her for ‘sassing’ some white women.”[23] Echoes of Roberts’ unruly laughter reverberated in 2015 when 11 women were forcibly ejected from a Napa Valley wine train for laughing out loud while participating in a book club (“Sistahs on the Reading Edge”), which spawned the viral Twitter hashtag #Laughingwhileblack. (For more on the racial politics of Black female laughter, see Brandy Monk-Payton’s excellent article in Feminist Media Histories.)

Ralph Ellison writes of the Southern mythology of the “laughing barrel,” which was literally a public barrel into which African-Americans were told to deposit their heads whenever they felt a laugh coming on. This laughing barrel was meant to purify the civic sphere of the primitive irrationality assigned to Black laughter in the segregated Jim Crow South. In this same essay, “An Extravagance of Laughter,”[24] Ellison recounts his own experiences being harassed by the Phenix City police force while an undergraduate at Tuskegee College in Alabama, emphasizing the “homeopathic power” of laughter to make “grotesque comedy out of the extremes to which whites would go to keep us in what they considered to be our ‘place.’” He adds, “Once safe at Tuskegee, we would become almost hysterical as we recounted our adventures and laughed as much at ourselves as at the cops.” However, Ellison admits, “My problem was that I couldn’t completely dismiss such experiences with laughter.”

Laughter has always been a double-edged sword when enlisted as political recourse against minoritarian oppression. This is particularly true of Black laughter, given the racist imperatives for African-Americans to perform as burlesque minstrels, Zip Coon dandies, and happy-go-lucky Sambos for white entertainment. The unthreatening idiocy of permanent Black laughter was meant to assuage white terrors of any malice or resentment lurking beneath the surface. Yet, to invoke Ellison again, even denigrated laughter can become indiscriminately contagious. At the scene of the Jim Crow laughing barrel, the abject absurdity of Black bodies laughing uproariously with their heads stuck inside of whiskey casks became irresistible, causing whites then to “suffer the double embarrassment of laughing against their own God-given nature while being unsure of exactly why, or at what specifically, they were laughing.” As Ellison puts it, this “meant that somehow the Negro in the barrel had them over a barrel.”

Beyond the small-town square and back into the court room, an African-American man named Sam Johnson was jailed in Gulfport, MS in 1916 for laughing out loud in a circuit court during a seduction and adultery case. As the Gulfport Daily Herald commented, “Sam Johnson is a negro but he has never let his color bother him and believes in putting in a laugh on each and every occasion. But he misjudged the occasion this morning and had to pay the penalty of indiscretion.”[25] As this report suggests, Johnson’s laughter, not unlike Fairooz’s, appeared menacing not as such, but because it revealed itself as overly intentional. “First, he laughed when he thought Judge Neville was not looking at him. Then he grew careless and laughed anyway.” Unlike the rowdy white boys in Evanston, IL or the tormented theater patron who took too much comedic delight in melodramas, Johnson laughed on cue at the details of the seduction case. It was not the noise or even presence of his laughter that caused disruption, but the threat of what it might signify in a courtroom attended by “a number of other colored people.” The article concludes: “The negro [when jailed] could not have been more dumbfounded had a ball hit him from out of the blue, and if he ever laughs again it will be because he does not know it.” In other words, Black laughter must remain completely guileless and unknowing (i.e. “out of the blue”), lest it render its laugher all black and blue.

Just Laughter or Humorless Injustice?

Arresting Someone for Laughing Might Sound Funny, But It’s No Joke,” as James Bovard has put it in a recent Washington Post article. Bovard compares Fairooz’s arrest to his own forced removal from the press box during a 1995 Supreme Court case. The case involved police no-knock protocols during drug busts (i.e. what conditions can permit the police to forego knocking on the front door to avert the destruction of evidence). Bovard recounts the audience’s laughter at a derisive quip that Justice Rehnquist made in mockery of one of the lawyers’ sneaky tactics—a laughter explicitly sanctioned by the power hierarchies of the highest court. In contrast, at one point Bovard laughed out loud in response to the defense lawyer’s reductio ad absurdum (i.e. use of absurdity to dismantle an irrational argument): so “the more drugs you’ve got, the more right you have to an announcement,” the lawyer remarked. Unlike Rehnquist, Bovard found this comment hilarious, and was soon ejected on a weak pretext for failing to comply with the dress code (he was wearing a Lord & Taylor dress shirt, but not a coat and tie).

Bovard warns us of the dangers of censoring laughter in official spaces:

While my ejection, and Fairooz’s case, may seem funny, it’s a dangerous precedent to permit the Justice Department to prosecute people who laugh during official proceedings. Will applause and raucous cheering be the only legally permitted noises that citizens can make while listening to politicians?

Laughter, like the right of the people to peaceable assembly, is constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. To admonish laughter through the rule of law is not only unjust, it is absurd. Even if Aristotle and Hobbes (and in a very different vein, Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump) equate unwelcome laughter with pointed malice, who is to adjudicate the laughing threshold between involuntary eruption and intentional disruption? Fairooz’s laughter was both things simultaneously: automatic and motivated. But really, who could have resisted laughing at such an absurd punch line? (I would have howled!)

Fairooz was charged on two counts with “Disruptive and Disorderly Conduct” and “Obstructing and Impeding Passage” on U.S. Capitol Grounds. The government has since petitioned to enjoin Fairooz’s case with that of Tighe Barry and Lenny Bianchi, two other Code Pink protesters who were arrested for dressing up as Klansmen and waving banners, “KKK #1” and “Go Jeffie Boy.” Barry and Bianchi were also arrested on a third count of “Parades, Assemblages, and Displays Forbidden.” According to this government motion,[26]

Defendant Ali-Fairooz…let out a loud burst of laughter, followed by a second louder burst of laughter. Capitol Police Officers then attempted to quietly escort Defendant Ali-Fairooz from the room, however, she grew loud and more disruptive, eventually halting the confirmation hearing. Her disruptive behavior included yelling that then Senator Sessions’ “voting record was evil” and waving a sign that read: “Support civil rights, stop [S]essions.”

Ariel Gold, the Code Pink campaign director who was sitting next to Fairooz at the time, has adamantly contradicted the government’s accusation. Gold describes Fairooz’s laughs as “merely a reflex” and “fainter than a cough.” Evidently, her laughter did not interrupt Shelby’s speech (just watch the video), so much as undermine its authority for anyone within earshot. Her behavior does not become actively disruptive to the proceedings until her forcible removal from the building (when, it is worth noting, Shelby’s comments had already concluded and Senator Susan Collins was then speaking). Evoking the mass arrests of suffragette protesters, who compared President Woodrow Wilson to the German Kaiser in 1917, Fairooz shouted: “I was going to be quiet and now you’re gonna have me arrested? For what?! For what?! You said something ridiculous.”

The priority of transgressions becomes murky here, because these charges against Fairooz could only have applied after the fact—to her behavior upon forcible ejection, once her guilt had already been established by the security guards who were humiliatingly dragging her out of the room.

By either way, it is a slippery slope to tyranny when any laughter against the grain of state power can result in punitive arrest, unjust indictment, and unforetold sentencing. To invoke Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose forceful testimony against Jeff Sessions was also silenced when she attempted to read aloud from a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King, “They can shut me up, but they can’t change the truth.”

By Maggie Hennefeld/LAProgressive

Comment/Posted by John The Revelator