Butterflies and Wheels At Camels With Hammers. My Interview with Ophelia Benson

This is the seventh of eighteen conversations as part of my 24 hour blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance. In this interview, I talk to Ophelia Benson of Butterflies and Wheels. She is the author of Does God Hate Women? and Why Truth Matters See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.


Daniel Fincke: So Ophelia, first things first, how did you come to be involved with The Philosopher’s Magazine when, by your own description you are “not a philosopher”?

Ophelia Benson: By a series of accidents, or more like serendipities.

I’d been doing a little amateur reading in philosophy, and at the same time dipping a toe in this funny thing “the Internet.” The two came together one day when I read a review-dialogue on Slate that was supposed to be about Simon Blackburn’s just published little book Being Good. I like the format of dialogue on Slate, but the reviewers were silly about the book. One of them said something fatuous about the book’s uselessness on a death march, and I waspishly pointed out that it was a book on ethics. I checked back in a few minutes and was staggered to find a reply to my comment by Simon Blackburn.

So I became involved with TPM.

That leaves out a lot in between, but I like the story!

Some of the intermediate steps have to do with finding a discussion board that was attached to TPM Online and doing a lot of discussing there, and via that offering to help the editors – Jeremy Stangroom and Julian Baggini - with editing. I wrote a column for TPM Online for a few years, I was a sub-editor for the magazine for several years, I still write a column (on philosophy and philosophy-related blogs) for the magazine (now with James Garvey as editor).

Daniel Fincke: What do you see as weaknesses in the atheist community or its arguments that could be combatted with a better understanding of philosophy?

Ophelia Benson: I have no opinion about weaknesses in the whole community or its arguments. The community is too large and varied for that…but then I think any community is too large and varied for that. I can only think about such things one at a time. The one that jumps out at me is Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, which I found profoundly irritating, and all the more so because so many Harris fans (ok here’s a place where I do talk about a part of the community) talked about it as if no one had ever before seen ethics as having to do with the well-being of sentient creatures. The chief weakness there I suppose was that he just didn’t seem to realize he wasn’t making arguments; he wasn’t getting the reader from here to there, he was just leaping and expecting the reader to follow.

Daniel Fincke: I couldn’t agree more on that book. Were you ever religious? Did you have specific awakenings to atheism and to feminism at any point in your life?

Ophelia Benson: A reader asked me the first question (or a version of it) when I did the blogathon on Sunday, so I’ll just give my reply to that:

I don’t generally like to talk directly about Me Me Me, but talking about how we come to our beliefs/lack thereof is another matter. It’s always interesting, at least to me.

I came to my lack of theist beliefs mostly by never really having theist beliefs in the first place, as well as I can remember. I was told things, as a child, but I think they must have always been hedged. I know they were sometimes, because I can remember bits of discussions with my mother and they were hedged. I don’t think “God” ever sank in. I don’t think it can have, because I had stronger feelings about tv characters and characters in children’s fiction than I ever did about “God.” If the idea of “God” really sinks in, you surely have strong feelings about “God.”

But atheism was mostly in the background for me, until the publication of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-haunted World. It wasn’t the book itself that changed that so much as it was a couple of interviews he gave to promote it, one on Fresh Air and the other on Science Friday. They galvanized me, somehow. That became my way of making the world a better place: not just being a non-theist but arguing with theism and the way of thinking that makes it “normal” and beyond dispute.

That’s not a very full account, but in fact it sums up quite a lot.

The second question…No I don’t think so, not really – I think I was all but born a feminist. The only really specifiic impetus I’m aware of was my older sister’s…um, career path. She graduated from Radcliffe, and then almost instantly became A Housewife. It bothered me. It made me think about the implicit rules for this kind of thing, and where on earth they came from. Our mother was a journalist, so it’s not as if they came from her.

Daniel Fincke: Okay, if you’ll indulge just one more question about you you you (because I find it fascinating I know so little about you though I’ve followed your writing and traded e-mails for three years total now). What was your own career path like?

Ophelia Benson: You know that line in The Big Chill, from the rather at a loss cleric officiating at the funeral? “He found fulfillment in a series of seemingly random occupations”? That’s me! I had no career path. I thought for years that I wanted to be a novelist. I interrupted that idea to be a zookeeper for awhile, which was fantastically fun and interesting. I worked as a laborer for awhile. I finally realized I didn’t want to write fiction at all, I wanted to write essays, I wanted to do what Montaigne and Hazlitt and Hitchens did.

If I were completely different – more ambitious, more disciplined, more sociable, more extroverted, more patient – I suppose I would be an academic (or perhaps a failed academic), but since I’m not completely different, I’m not an academic. In other words in some ways that seems the best fit for my peculiar tastes, but in other ways it doesn’t. I’m rather self-indulgent; I don’t do things I don’t like.

Daniel Fincke: That’s great. I am learning more and more to appreciate the charms of  the nomadic career path the further along I get on my own.

So, what do you say to atheists who insist that specifically atheist activities should be about atheism and that it is a distraction to talk about issues like feminism? They say there are already contexts for talking about feminism. They finally want to talk about atheism!

Ophelia Benson: I say a lot of things. It’s a long, ongoing conversation! Much of it acrimonious, unfortunately.

One thing I say is that it’s hardly in the interest of atheism for it to be yet another geeky boiz clubby hostile-to-women enclave like gaming or computer science or (alas) philosophy. There are plenty of atheists who do want it to be exactly like that, but that’s schoooopid.

And let’s face it: God is male. God is behind lots of the practices and beliefs that make men the Preferred Sex and women the Second Best one. Nearly all theists think of God as a super-inflated man. This means women are the non-god sex. Atheism can use this! It’s a crowbar to help bring down the structure.

Daniel Fincke: I know you have argued against the idea that there is such a thing as “islamophobia”. What do you say to replies that it is an apt word for the sort of misapplied fear of Islam. I agree that there is a healthy fear of any religion with violent texts and contemporary people who appeal to them. But there are plenty on the far right (or even in middle America) who want to paint every instantiation of Islam as its worst embodiments. Is not that an excessive and irrational fear that is counterproductive to peaceable coexistence with Muslims and even towards tempered critique? If we don’t distinguish ourselves as atheists more clearly from those who paint in such broad strokes, how will our more precise critiques be heard and not be associated with the far right’s by association? I’ve seen us tarred as all right wingers on account of Sam Harris, for example.

Ophelia Benson: I don’t think we need a one-word label for everything. If we want to condemn misapplied fear of Islam we can just call it that. If we want to object to people on the far right who paint every instantiation of Islam as its worst embodiments, then we can spell that out. If it’s a complicated thought, then it takes more than one word to express it.

I don’t think I’ve actually argued that there is no such thing as “Islamophobia.” I’ve argued that it conflates two things – Islam and Muslims – and that it muddles the issues for that reason. There is such a thing as bigotry about Muslims, of course, and there is such a thing as uninformed hatred of Islam. The word “Islamophobia” however fails to pick out one and stick to it. It also implies that dislike of Islam is self-evidently unreasonable, and that just makes no sense. It’s not self-evidently unreasonable to dislike any particular religion, or all of them, or some of them.

It gets tricky though when dislike of Islam slops into suspicion of all Muslims, which is indeed very worrying and undesirable. It’s a risk with any set of ideas though. Gabrielle Giffords is probably a victim of that – she’s a perceived “liberal” and therefore hated as such.

The people I know who say the most ferocious things about Islam are ex-Muslims and people from Muslim backgrounds. They certainly don’t want to bring down violence on their families and friends, but they do want to be very clear about what’s wrong with Islam. (One could say the same thing with “Catholic” or “Hindu” or “fundamentalist” substituted for “Muslim.”)

Daniel Fincke: Are there any aspects of religion you are sympathetic to? And what things that people presently get from religion do you think the atheist or humanist communities should actively try to provide alternatives and what, if anything, do you think is irredeemable? How far should we go in replicating the stuff that is strictly not identical with false beliefs or harmful outdated ethics and practices?

Ophelia Benson: There are some, though mostly I think they’re things that it’s very hard for atheist or humanist communities to replace. One of course is just community, and the pretext for gathering once a week (or more, or less, but once a week as a normal option). I was on a panel about “after God what?” at QED in Manchester last March, with our FTB colleague Maryam Namazie and DJ Grothe and Paula Kirby, and we talked about just that during the Q&A. Geoff Whelan, one of the organizers, pointed out that we were doing community right then and there, and I asked, in the voice of a child asking for a treat, “Can we do this every weeeeek?” That got a laugh. (Geoff said “No!” very energetically, which also got a laugh.) It’s a real thing though – QED was huge fun because of the community aspect. But we can’t do it every week. Then again, as atheism and secularism spread, maybe that will become more possible.

I talked about a related item for Comment is Free a few years ago, so I’ll just paste that part in, again:

I once went to a suburban megachurch for a Friday evening service of some kind. It was nothing like “church” – it was more like a rock concert crossed with a pep talk. There was a lot of perky music, and a huge hall full of bouncy young people, all very chatty and energetic and cheerful. Still – there was also an abundance of God-talk, so it was a religious occasion of some kind, and this is the aspect of religion that is so hard to match with anything else. A weekly meeting of atheists? To do what?The sad thing about this is that church is, among other things, a way to get together with other people and focus the mind on being good. The religious version of being good is not always on the mark, to put it mildly, but even the opportunity to contemplate goodness seems valuable.

This is something it’s truly hard to reproduce with secular institutions. Politics seems like the closest thing to a substitute, and it’s not a very close match.This could in theory be something humanist groups could attempt, but in reality the idea seems hopeless. Why? I suppose because it’s like the proverbial herding of cats. Who would deliver the sermon? I don’t want to go sit in a pew and listen to some secular sermon, and I doubt many other people do either. We’re used to the idea of a cleric standing up and lecturing people about some facet of being good; we’re not used to the idea of anyone else doing that. Habituation explains a lot.

I don’t think clerics have any special expertise in moral matters; on the contrary; but I do realise that they at least have practice in talking about them. How useful this is depends very heavily on the quality of their moral views: lectures on the duty of women to be obedient and the duty of men to enforce obedience are not helpful, for instance; but the habit of focusing on morality, at least, seems in some ways enviable.

Daniel Fincke:  One last question and thanks so much for doing this again. Where is the line with respect to tone? Where if anywhere do you think atheists go too far?

Ophelia Benson:  A line, a line…can I have a circle instead? Or a star? Or maybe a squiggly organic shape like a leaf or a pile of sticks?

No but seriously. I just posted a reminder of one line yesterday (or was it the day before…): no threats or threatoids; no rhetorical violence, however obviously exaggerated-therefore-not-serious. I dislike the obviously exaggerated-therefore-not-serious line, because the more exaggerated it is, the uglier it is, and I’m fed up to the back teeth with that kind of ugliness.

So maybe that’s the line. No ugliness. Totally subjective, so about as squiggly-organic as it gets, but there it is. No ugliness.

This certainly covers all racist, sexist, orientationist, ethnic, etc etc etc epithets. It covers the kind of thing no decent person would say to a child or a parent. “Hey, gee, your kid is really ugly.” No. Somebody did say that to Justin Griffith recently, about his baby daughter Zoe. What a horrible thing to do.

Maybe “ugliness” is just another way of saying “personal” – don’t get personal. Say “that’s a foolish idea about a bit of religious dogma,” but don’t say “you’re a fool.”

Mind you, I make an exception for people with real power, who abuse it – people like the pope. But I don’t think the pope reads my blog.

Daniel Fincke: Oh don’t sell yourself short. :)

Your Thoughts?

See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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