Have we learned nothing from Comstock?

Have we learned nothing from Comstock?

Have you even heard of Anthony Comstock? I didn’t learn about him in classes in American history, and never heard the name until I became involved in the atheist and freethought movement. Anthony Comstock was the champion of a set of regulations that made it illegal to send “obscene” materials though the mail.

What qualified as “obscene?” For starters, and for the purpose of this post, any information or objects having anything to do with contraception were forbidden from being sent though the mail by the Comstock Laws. For the crimes of distributing educational materials about birth control, such notable women as Margret Sanger and Elmina D. Slenker were arrested and/or imprisoned. The laws also banned anyone from sending materials having anything to do with sex or sexuality, whether it be porn or medical information. Many others faced arrest and persecution and the shutting down of their magazines and newspapers.

Anthony Comstock was the founder of the eerily named "New York Society for the Suppression of Vice."

The Comstock Laws were passed in 1873, and while they have not been officially repealed they have time and again been crippled due to being found unconstitutional. However, comstockery still pops up its ugly head from time to time in American law and politics.

This is a quote from an apparently approving article in Harper’s Weekly in 1915, where Anthony Comstock’s views and those of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice are described:

If you allow the devil to decorate the Chamber of Imagery in your heart with licentious and sensual things, you will find that he has practically thrown a noose about your neck and will forever after exert himself to draw you away from the “Lamb of God which taketh away sins of the world.” You have practically put rope on memory’s bell and placed the other end of the rope in the devil’s hands, and

though you may will out your mind, the memory of some vile story or picture that you may have looked upon, be assured that even in your most solitary moments the devil will ring memory’s bell and call up the hateful thing to turn your thoughts away from God and undermine all aspirations for holy things.

Let me emphasize one fact, supported by my nearly forty-two years of public life in fighting this particular foe. My experience leads me to the conviction that once these matters enter through the eye and ear into the chamber of imagery in the heart of the child, nothing but the grace of God can ever erase or blot it out.

Finally, brethren, “let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap if we faint not.” Raise over each of your heads the banner of the Lord Jesus Christ. Look to Him as you Commander and Leader.

Then, as now, the excuse and justification for limiting the liberties of others comes down to religious belief.

Later in the article, here are the words of Comstock in describing the effects of birth control in response to the questions of the interviewer.

“But,” I protested, repeating an argument often brought forward, although I felt as if my persistence was somewhat placing me in the ranks of those who desire evil rather than good, “If the parents lack that self-control, the punishment falls upon the child.”

“It does not,” replied Mr. Comstock. “The punishment falls upon the parents. When a man and woman marry they are responsible for their children. You can’t reform a family in any of these superficial ways. You have to go deep down into their minds and souls. The prevention of conception would work the greatest demoralization. God has set certain natural barriers. If you turn loose the passions and break down that fear you bring worse disaster than the war. It would debase sacred things, break down the health of women and disseminate a greater curse than the plagues and diseases of Europe.”

Compare this to Santorum’s words.

Santorum pads his opinion by saying he supports Title X from a “governmental perspective” but quickly says that birth control is “bad for women and bad for society.” Implicit in his statements is the idea that sex for any reason other than procreation is sin, and that couples who try to avoid pregnancy when they have sex are avoiding their responsibilities. These are purely religious ideas and nothing based in the realities of human experience.

These are the kinds of motives and ideas behind “abstinence only education” (harkening back to the Comstock idea that educational material about sex is obscene). Also the recent push to allow employers to block insurance coverage of contraception in the name of religious freedom, along with the attempt to do anything possible to prevent women’s voices from being heard in the hearings. There is nothing new here, and nothing that should be surprising to us if we know a bit of American history. Those who would take away our freedoms almost always do so under the guise of good and morality and responsibility, but those ideals are not what is at stake. Let’s take care that history does not repeat itself and take women’s rights back over a century in the process.

Sources and More Information:

Stamping Out Indecency, The Postal Way — A article on the Comstock Laws, and their effects and continuing influence.

Comstock Laws — Women’s Health Encyclopedia

VIOLATING POSTAL LAWS.; A WOMAN ARRESTED FOR MAILING OBSCENE MATTER. — New York Times Article on the arrest of Elmina D. Slenker for distributing “obscene” materials though the mail. I recommend reading it, just for the shock of how they talk about her immoral ways and absolve her husband of all the wrongdoing and shame of her actions. The sexism and condescending tone of the article is breathtaking.

The Birth of the Pill — Article on the history of birth control and the effects of the Comstock Laws.

Women Without Superstition “No God’s No Masters”: The Collected Writings of the Women Freethinkers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, an anthology compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor.

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The Vagina Monologues: My Thoughts

The Vagina Monologues: My Thoughts

The Vagina Monologues has been in production since 2001, the same year that I transferred my college career to the University of Louisville. I never got around to actually seeing UofL’s annual production of the play until this year. Last Friday in fact, and with my husband. Nevermind that I was a bit nervous about telling him I wanted to go see a show with the word “vagina” in the title. I was open to going by myself if he was not interested, but in the end (and after looking up a few reviews online) he decided to come with me.

The Vagina Monologues at UofL

I was not sure what to expect, even though I had the book. I’d first purchased the book about the same time the play came out, and when I took my single Women’s Studies class at UofL to help fill a requirement in my general education. Women in American Culture. Many ideas that were discussed in the class were very new to me at the time. Things like the way women are sexualized and infantilized in a lot of ads (often at the same time). It was my first exposure to feminist ideas, and it was such a departure from my accustomed mode of thinking that it made my head spin. I remember commenting on a story about how a college-age woman was raped at a college party that maybe she should have been more careful and not gotten drunk. And got jumped on for it, rightly, though I didn’t quite understand the problem at the time. Blaming the victim? Novel idea to me. That I ever made a comment like that amazes me.

I read the class materials with fascination. Stories of fat women, skinny, blacks, whites, Latinos, lesbians, transsexuals… Especially the latter two. I’d been indoctrinated with stories about how it was bad and a perversion of God’s plan to be gay or otherwise live outside the “normal” sexual binary system. I don’t think I’d thought about gays as real people until I read the stories. It’s hard, at least for me, to judge someone as alien and other once they have let you into their story. This interest is what lead me to purchase the book for The Vagina Monologues and read it.

It has been several years since I read the book, though as I watched the play I remembered a few bits and pieces from my reading. It had been so long since I’d read it that I went into the play not really still not knowing what to expect. And reading a transcript and seeing a performance are quite different things, as this experience reminded me. With a book you can skim or skip bits that make you uncomfortable, but when you are watching a play it’s more of a commitment to see the whole thing.

The V-day logo

With my scant memory of the book I didn’t know if this was going to be, as one reviewer put it, an embarrassing “moan fest” or if there would be man-bashing (especially with my husband there). I didn’t want to be made to feel scared, like a victim, like the world is in conspiracy against my personal fulfillment. Those old stereotypes of feminism still haunt me. The play had none of those things, and rather than being angry many of the monologues were actually raucously hilarious. The discussions covered some intense topics like genital mutilation and the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Congo, which were horrifying as they should be and at time made me want to sink down in my seat, but still I listened and let the descriptions wash over me. And even they were not angry, but intensely personal. Then there was the monologue about different types of moans which was the most hilarious of all even though I had worried it would be awkward and embarrassing. The women on stage recounted the responses the interviewees had given to questions like what their vagina’s would wear (which stretches my artistic imagination to the limit) and what it would say and what do they call it?

The most wonderful part to me is that I identified with a lot of the stories myself. Face it, the vagina is not something that gets a lot of press. I recall parts of my childhood and teen years when “down there” was a total enigma to me…I was told that a guy can get you pregnant if he puts his penis there but other than that I was not told much else. I first was exposed to the ideas of “clitoris” and “orgasm” though a sneakily read issue of Cosmo. I know I am not the only girl who has dealt with this guilty silence about her own sexuality. Why such taboo and secrecy about something we all share? Presentations like The Vagina Monologue help.

I’m glad I went to see it. Maybe I will go again next year.

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Why I am An Atheist: Science is better than Faith

Why I am An Atheist: Science is better than Faith

Since I am recently talking about The God Virus, it bears mention that religion is not the only viral idea out there. In my youngest years the “god virus” (to use the metaphor) was not the only viral idea I was exposed to. I was also infected at a young age with a high regard and respect for science and for logic. For a long time I thought these two ideas, the religious idea and the scientific and logical idea, were in no conflict with each other because, naturally, Truth cannot contradict truth.

Throughout my life I have been driven by the search for answers. Not just any answers, but answers that make sense, answers that I can understand well enough that I can competently explain and defend to another person. According to the evangelical religious tradition in which I was raised, it was my duty to “witness” to anyone that I could to bring them into the fold of Christianity so that they would be saved. But I had a problem….even at the point when I most deeply believed, when I tried to speak the ideas out loud I felt a conflict, like there was something unfathomable that was just not right. I didn’t really understand this thing that I was trying to convince others to believe, and I could just imagine all the ways in which a non-believer could shoot down every argument I had in my arsenal. This bothered me immensely. I had to resort to just parroting what others had told me, or just skip the theology completely and just invite my target to come to church with me. My lacking witnessing skills guilted me tremendously, and I prayed fervently that God would grant me boldness and tell me what to say.

So, in my search for sensible answers, I dug into apologetics books by authors like C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, and Max Lucado. Without going into the details of each one, I found the following pattern nearly every time: I would read the book and it would bolster my faith and make me feel good about what I believed. Then, a week or two later the doubts and uncertainties would creep in again and I would read another apologetics book and feel good again…then go back to doubting again in about a week. I ran to the apologists and gobbled up their encouraging words, but didn’t really examine the arguments they were using. I so wanted to believe their conclusions that I didn’t really care if their arguments made sense or not. So when I tried to explain to myself what I had learned from them later I remembered the conclusions and good feelings, but still couldn’t reconstruct the arguments behind the conclusions. So back into doubt I would slide. After several cycles of this I started to get really frustrated. 

Little did I realize, I had two conflicting viruses vying for dominance in my mind. I wanted verifiable, scientific, logical answers and I just was not getting what I needed from the previously mentioned apologists. Then I got into creationist literature, including my heavily anti-evolution home-school biology text, and thought for a while that I found what I needed. That science really did support the Bible and Christianity.

I found bits of the truth about evolution and creationism later in college, with the help of Astronomy 101 which explained to me about the Big Bang, and showed me a timeline of the universe including that of life on Earth. That piqued by curiosity and lead me to read more on my own. I was furious at first and felt I had been misled on clear scientific matters by Christian authors I had trusted in the name of God. I gave up on the apologists and creationists and started perusing the science section at our small local library. That is where I found the book form of Cosmos by Carl Sagan, and River out of Eden by Richard Dawkins. And I was hooked.

Cosmos (book)

I started checking out all the books in the local library I could find on both cosmology and evolution. I would bring them home read them guiltily in my room, hiding them under the covers when my parents knocked at the door for fear of their disapproval (I was a bit paranoid perhaps?). This was my rebellion, searching outside the family religion to find my explanations in science. Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins and other science writers I discovered didn’t simply rush to a desired conclusion. They actually explained each step in the progression of their arguments in a way that I could grasp, slowly building up to the conclusion while I followed along. And it made sense, and still made sense a week later (though I usually had to go back and review.) I was actually learning new things when I read, unlike when I read the apologists, and the new understanding I found was intoxicating. The more I learned, the more my former supernatural beliefs fell away in favor of natural scientific explanations, all the way back to the origin of humanity and the origin of the universe. I could see that there were still gaps in scientific knowledge of course, but science had replaced the supernatural explanations so many times in the past. I couldn’t see any sense in posing supernatural explanations for what we didn’t know yet. To insert “God did it” anywhere in the natural world just made no sense.

The viral idea that truth cannot contradict truth lead me to embrace science and reason over faith.

Happy Darwin Day!

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The “god virus” and American Culture

The “god virus” and American Culture
In the environment where I grew up, ideas of patriotism were mixed in closely with those of Christianity. It was “one nation under God” and after I came to disbelieve in God it took me a while to stop seeing the American Flag as a Christian symbol.
American flag

Not a Christian symbol.

In the book The God Virus, Darrel Ray use a model of a “virus” to describe how religious ideas “infect” people and attempt to gain control and then spread to others. In case you are unfamiliar with the concept of the meme you can think of it this way: Meme theory compares ideas (or pop song hooks, or jingles, etc) with viruses that infect the mind, duplicate themselves and then try to spread to other minds. For instance, when you get a song stuck in your head, you might start singing it out loud within the hearing of others who might get the tune stuck in their heads. If you have ever heard of a YouTube video going “viral,” you have seen this metaphor at work.

Like a biological virus, a meme does not have thought or intention of its own. It’s almost a tautology that the better the idea is at spreading in a population of minds, the more successful it will be. The “virus” only “cares” about replicating itself and staying around as long as possible–it does not necessarily care about the happiness or well-being of the host mind. How often has your mind been infected with a pop tune that you absolutely despise?

English: A simplified diagram of the Hepatitis...

In Chapter 3 of The God Virus, Ray talks about the ways that “god viruses” try to gain a safe and secure place in society by integrating themselves with the broader culture. I have long thought that religion and culture were inseparable, but this book has caused me to question that notion. If a religion can so integrate itself with a culture, to the point where it is impossible to live in that culture without being affected and controlled by it, an environment can be developed where few people would be willing to question that virus for fear of repercussions both external and internal. For a contemporary example of this, take a look at Saudi Arabia, and some other Muslim nations, where violation of religious rules comes with strict civil penalties.

For the past few decades, the Christian virus has worked really hard to get itself inseparably coupled to the American culture and way of life. Hence the difficulty I had in my earliest years as an atheist with decoupling Christian ideals from the meme of the American Flag, as I had seen the two memes meshed together so much that I had come to associate them. Even today, there are powerful forces trying to equate Christian religion with American life, from attempts to place Ten Commandments plaques and statues in courthouses, to GOP presidential candidates practically falling over each other to prove their Christian credentials. In recent news, the Catholic Church is attempting to enforce its religious directives on the lives of the employees of Catholic-affiliated hospitals, schools, and charities, under the guise of the American ideal of religious freedom. (I doubt that the Catholic hierarchy cares nearly as much about religious freedom in the countries in which it is fully entrenched, but fitting right in the metaphor, the virus will make concessions in specific environments if that is what it takes to survive.)

Ever since Europeans landed on the American continents, the god virus tried to mesh itself with the newly developing cultures, and with some success. In various colonies, religious tests for office or even for full citizenry were established. Baptist minister Roger Williams, the originator of the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” and founder of the state of Rhode Island, recognized that there were serious problems with meshing civil law and religious life. And for this, he was banished from the Puritan colony of Massachusetts. I was told repeatedly as a child that the Puritans and other non-Anglican groups came to America for religious freedom, but in large part it looks like they came to try and do the same thing to other religions that the Anglican Church had done to them in England. After all the worst enemy of a god virus is a competing god virus, and no virus is totally secure in an environment where all virus can compete freely.

Roger Williams statue in visitor center of Rog...

A civil sword (as woeful experience in all ages has proved) is so far from bringing or helping forward an opposite in religion to repentance that magistrates sin grievously against the work of God and blood of souls by such proceedings… Religion cannot be true which needs such instruments of violence to uphold it so. -Roger Williams (source)

We should not be surprised that religious groups are jockeying for control of the American political system, nor that religious groups that were once vicious enemies due to theological differences are now banding together to reach for power. And it is not only legislative and judicial power that are being targeted. Recent claims that America is a “Christian Nation” imply that one cannot fully participate in American life unless one accepts and acknowledges a particular Christian version of the god virus. Difficulties and dangers faced by people who dare to be openly atheistic in certain regions of the country (see Atheism in America for examples) testify to the non-official power that religion can get in a culture. Religious freedom is a beautiful ideal that allows everyone to follow and be influenced by a religion if they wish, or also to avoid religious influence if they do not wish. But an environment of full religious freedom hinders the efforts of individual god viruses to gain dominance and maximum conversion of a population. Therefore we should expect these grabs at power by religous groups that perceive themselves to be in a place to obtain it.
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Being an atheist does not mean you have to be alone.

I came across an article this weekend which highlight very well the difficulties with being an atheist in the United States, particularly in the small towns. I don’t have so many of these difficulties over the past few years, as I have been fortunate enough to be able to surround myself with sympathetic friends and an atheistic social circle. However, it was not aways like this for me, and I still remember the days when it was really a big deal to be able to tell anyone I had doubts about the existence of God without expecting an argument or a pitying, judgmental look. So for the last couple of years I lived with my parents I mostly tried to keep my mouth shut while these heretical ideas simmered inside of me, and the inability to express my thoughts and feelings made me very irritable. I have the strong feeling that this is where the stereotype of the “angry atheist” comes from: try living in a community where you have to keep who you are and what you think silent for fear social repercussions or other consequences, while being constantly bombarded with the message that those who think like you are, at best, abnormal, flawed, and “sinful.” It’s not a pretty picture.

I count myself as being very fortunate. When I was accidentally outed to my parents it caused some conflict, though the repercussions were not nearly as severe as I feared they could be. The worst that happened at my home was a few heated arguments and a creeping feeling that I was no longer fully accepted for who I was. It felt as if my family thought I’d gotten into something horrible, like I was an alcoholic or something as bad, because I had stepped out of their religious box in my search for the truth. But at the same time I was participating in an email list for ex-Christians, where I learned the story of one teenaged member of the list who was essentially kicked out of his home and denied unsupervised contact with his siblings because of his admitted godlessness. So I will count myself lucky.

About the same time I was discovering atheism, I was also discovering a wealth of information and support via the Internet. Websites like Meetup.com were just getting started, and that gave me the opportunity to meet with other people who thought as I did face to face. My dream of saying the word “atheist” out loud without fear was coming true. Since then I have found a priceless community of other atheists as well as people who prefer other labels but still see the world in essentially the same way.

Being an atheist does not mean you have to be alone.

I benefit a lot from living in a moderately sized metropolitan area, where it is easier to get in touch with other people who are interested in things like atheism. For people who live in smaller towns, things can be much more difficult. In the article Atheism in America, Julian Baggini tells the stories of a few atheists who live in smaller communities, which very often center their community lives around their church.

An atheist in Festus, Missouri, for example, has to deal with being brought up on the weekly prayer lists at his wife’s church even when he went with her weekly to be accommodating. If he wears his “scarlet A” t-shirt in public, he notices mothers pulling their kids closer as if he might be some sort of danger to them.

A man who was reunited with his family at the age of 46, having been a separated “GI baby” was first embraced by his family, but then rejected after he told them he told them that he was an atheist.

I don’t quite understand what it is about religion with some people, that for someone to express disbelief means that they are tainted and to be distrusted. I am currently reading the book The God Virus by Darrel Ray, who explains that for people in whom religious belief has fully taken hold, the “virus” will cause them to protect that belief at all cost…even at the cost of shunning people they love who might threaten it. I’m still thinking about and evaluating this idea, and I have to admit at times this model fits some of these circumstances.

But to me, the main lesson to be learned here is that atheists need community. Being the lonely atheist in a very religious town or family is no walk in the park. This is why I care about forming community, just simple social groups, for atheists where they can speak their minds and not be judged or feared for it. We are out there, everywhere, and the challenge is only how to bring us together. Meeting together with like-minded people is not a religious thing, it is a human thing. We are social creatures, and we all need community where we can feel at home.

If you are interested with meeting face-to-face with other atheists, check out Meetup.com, and use the search terms “atheist” or “atheism.” That is a great place to start, and as I find other resources on how to get in touch with local atheist groups I will post those as well on my “Atheist Activism” page.

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