This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists and skeptics about life, the universe, and everything.
We wanted to interview Greta Christina not only because of her prolific and thought-provoking writing on skepticism, atheism, and LGBT issues—on her blog and AlterNet, among other places—but because her writings often focus on a topic of particular interest to teens everywhere: identity.
In this interview, Greta talks with us about her own experiences and thoughts on identity: How we define ourselves, how we define others, how this identity changes and grows (and how it doesn’t), and how we can support each other in speaking out about who we are and in making changes to a society that pressures us, subtly and not-so-subtly, to be someone else.
As a teenager, did you identify yourself as atheist or skeptical?
Not really. To the degree that I thought about it at all, I thought of myself as an agnostic; but it wasn’t a central part of my life or my identity. My parents were agnostics, and they didn’t raise me or my brother with any religion. They decided to let us decide that for ourselves, which I’m obviously totally in favor of. But they didn’t really talk with us about religion much, and they didn’t tell us why they’d left religion, or explain the critical thinking skills that led them to make that decision. I can see why they did that—I think it was part of the whole “letting them make up their own minds thing”—but because I didn’t have those critical thinking skills about religion, I wound up picking up a lot of New Age woo beliefs when I was in college. Tarot cards, reincarnation, astrology, that whole thing. And that took many years for me to shed.
There was a triggering event—but the groundwork had already been laid, by a few different things. One was reading about how the brain and the mind works, which made me question my belief in an immaterial soul. Another was reading Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which I’d picked up almost at random because I knew my wife Ingrid would like it, and which led me to apply some of the critical thinking I was already engaged in (about astrology and psychic powers and so on) to larger questions of the soul.
Also, at that time I was beginning my relationship with Ingrid (now my wife), who’d had some very divisive and unhappy experiences with religion in her family when she was growing up. That got me to thinking, not about religion being mistaken, but about religion being harmful, and about it being important to criticize it.
Then I had surgery— minor surgery, just for a broken arm, but I had to have general anesthesia. And that experience made me TOTALLY let go of any idea I had about having a soul that was separate from my brain. I mean, if just a small amount of a chemical in my brain could entirely obliterate my consciousness, in a way that was entirely different from sleep . . . what made me think my consciousness could survive my brain’s complete destruction and decay? That was the triggering event, the final nail in the coffin.
And the final, final nail in the coffin was reading The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. Reading it didn’t change my mind about my actual opinions about religion and spirituality, but it radically changed what I called myself, and how I felt about it. Before I read it, I was calling myself an agnostic, and was blogging about religion and skepticism once in a while. After I finished it—and I fiercely argued my way through it, and called Dr. Dawkins a number of very rude names along the way—I was calling myself an atheist and had begun to make atheism and skepticism the center of my writing career.
I’ve written more about this on my blog, by the way: “How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist”
Check it out! Be aware, though: A lot of the material on my blog is for adults only. If you’re under 18, you have to promise me that you won’t read the adult stuff.
How do you think your life would be different if you were a teenager today?
Wow. That is a huge, huge question. I could write a whole book about that. The world has changed so much: technology is radically different, of course, and feminism, and the world for LGBT people, and so on.
So I’m just going to pick one thing: I think I would have come out of the closet as queer a whole lot earlier. It took me until my mid-20s to really accept my bisexuality, and to pursue relationships with other women.
When you were a teen, where did you see yourself going in your adult life? Are you the person you thought you would be?
Honestly? I was kind of an aimless teenager. My goal as a teenager was to get into a good college where I knew I’d be happy—and I was very focused on that goal. I actually graduated high school in three years (which took a lot of work) so I could get the hell out of there and get on with my life. But beyond college, my future was kind of a blur. And it was still very much a blur once I left college. I took a long, long time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and while I’ve been writing professionally off and on since my late twenties, I didn’t get serious about it until I turned 40. For many years, I drifted from job to job, mostly based on what was catching my interest at the time. (And on what jobs were available at times when I needed to find new work!)
Which actually worked out really well for me. I know adults aren’t supposed to say that to teenagers—but it’s true. I do wish I’d gotten more serious about the writing earlier—I missed a lot of opportunities that I still regret. But drifting from job to job got me into some very interesting jobs. I’ve worked at an abortion clinic, a public library, a lesbian sex magazine, a gay newspaper, a sex toy company, a small press book publisher and distributor. Even my boring job at the ticket company exposed me to music and theater and dance and other culture that I never would have explored on my own.
And a lot of those “drifting” jobs opened professional doors. The job at the lesbian sex magazine was just a clerical job, but they were the first place to publish my writing. Ditto the gay newspaper—it was initially just a clerical job, but they eventually hired me to write as well. And most of my jobs exposed me to new political and cultural ideas, about feminism and sexuality and LGBT rights and censorship and so on—ideas I’m still exploring in my writing. I would much rather have a boring job at an interesting place than an interesting job at a boring place. I don’t know if I’d give that as general career advice . . . but it’s certainly been true for me.
Did you write often as a teenager? If so, how have your topics changed?
No, not really. I realize that’s not in keeping with the standard writer’s bio—writers are supposed to have been obsessively keeping journals and so on since they were five, right? —but that really wasn’t true for me. I’ve never been much of a journal keeper. For me, writing has always been about connecting with other people, and as a kid and a teenager, I mostly just wrote for school. I was always good at it, my ability to write helped a lot in high school and college; but I didn’t start writing much of anything other than papers until I was out of college.
Do you have any advice for young women on how to start a writing career?
If I knew how to make a living as a writer, I’d be doing it. :-)
Seriously. Making a living as a writer is very hard, and it’s getting harder. The Internet is an awesome thing for writers in a lot of ways—it’s a great way to make a name for yourself and get your work into the public eye—but because the expectation is that content on the Internet should be free, it’s hard for anyone to make money providing that content. And because of the Internet, many of the more traditional revenue sources for writers are drying up.
That being said: Advice for young women—or young men, for that matter—on starting a writing career? Write. A lot. Write and write and write. The more you write, the better you’ll get at it. Get feedback on your writing from people whose opinions you trust, and listen to that feedback; at the same time, ultimately trust your own instincts. Develop your own voice, and don’t be afraid of it. Learn the standard conventions about writing and grammar, and be sparing about breaking them—but don’t be afraid of breaking them if it makes your writing more clear. Strive for clarity above all else.
Make connections in the industry. Be open to multiple small revenue streams—don’t just look for one big lucrative job. Don’t be afraid of self-promotion. Pay attention to writers whose careers you’d like to emulate, and find out what they’ve done to get where they are.
And for the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla—blog. If you’re a writer in the early 21st century, and you don’t blog? It’s like being a pop musician in the mid-20th century, and not letting your song be played on the radio. You’re depriving yourself of one of the chief avenues for publicizing your work. It can be hard to reconcile yourself to it—you’re basically giving away what you’re trying to make a living at selling—but it’s how you build a reputation. (And remember how I said that to be a good writer, you have to write and write and write? Blogging is a great way to make that happen.)
I’ve written a lot more about this on my blog, by the way:
How do your sexual, atheist, and skeptical sides interact? How has this changed over time?
I’m a lot more skeptical about conventional wisdom about sexuality. Or maybe I should call it “unconventional wisdom.” The LGBT communities, and the sex-positive communities, share the bad human habit of confirmation bias—paying more attention to evidence that supports what we already believe, or what we want to believe, and ignoring or trivializing evidence that makes us uncomfortable or forces us to change our minds.
Before I became a serious skeptic, I accepted a lot of commonly held ideas in these communities about orientation, sex, gender, etc.—without really thinking about them, or asking if there was good evidence to support them, or even thinking about whether they made sense. I’m less willing to do that now. And I’m more willing to speak up when I see other people doing it—and to express unpopular ideas if I think they’re true.
Example: I used to be adamant about sexual orientation being learned, not inborn. Not because the data supported that, but because I found it appealing, and it dovetailed with my political beliefs. And it was the conventional wisdom among the LGBT people I was hanging out with. I’ve since changed my mind about that. This question is still open to some extent . . . but the evidence is mostly pointing in the direction of orientation being inborn, at least to some extent. So I’ve had to change my mind.
Why do you think writing and speaking about atheism, skepticism, and LGBT issues is important?
Wow. Another huge question. I think it’s almost always important to talk about things people don’t want to talk about. And it’s certainly entertaining!
More seriously: I write and speak about LGBT issues because terrible, real-world harm is done by homophobia/ biphobia/ transphobia. I write and speak about atheism because I think religion isn’t just mistaken—I think it does harm, terrible harm, significantly more harm than good, and I would like to see the world let go of it. And I write and speak about skepticism because I care about reality. I think reality is, by definition, more important and more interesting than anything we could make up about it. And I think skepticism is the best method we have of understanding reality.
With more teens speaking up about state-sponsored religion in their schools, do you think the backlash will ever lessen?
I think so. Increased visibility usually brings an initial backlash, and things may get worse at first before they get better. But increased visibility is also how we fight bigotry and hatred and myths about us. And increased visibility is how we organize politically. Look at the LGBT movement. We’ve made HUGE strides in the last 50 years, even in the last 20. It’s still hard to be queer, especially if you’re a teenager—but it’s much, MUCH easier than it was. And queers coming out is a huge part of how that change happened. I think if atheists and skeptics keep coming out and organizing, that will happen with us as well.
What do you think we can do as a community to support and encourage teens to speak up for who they are and to speak out against discrimination and bigotry, toward ourselves and others?
I think the main thing we need to do is to make the world a safer place for teens to land when they do it. We need to provide both emotional and practical support for teens who are coming out, and are facing discrimination and bigotry.
Example: When Damon Fowler spoke out about the graduation prayer his public high school was planning—and when he got ostracized by his community and kicked out by his parents as a result—I was totally impressed with how the atheist community stepped up to the plate. We raised over $30,000 for this guy, so he could have the college education his parents were denying him. (See more on the Damon Fowler story here.)
But we can’t do that every single time an atheist kid gets harassed and cut off by his parents. We need a safety net—an ongoing, sustained support system, maybe even a scholarship fund—for teens who have been alienated from their families by coming out. And we need to do more to publicize and support the resources that already exist. Organizations like the Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry are already providing practical, on-the-ground support for atheist students. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has scholarships for atheist students—but it’s not much money, not really enough to help all the atheist kids who need help, and not enough cash for the few it does help. And obviously, online forums like Teen Skepchick need our love!
What advice do you have for atheist and LGBT youth who are struggling for acceptance in their communities?
I wish I had a good answer for that. I think this can be hugely difficult, and I wish I had an easy answer. I have a few not-so-easy answers, if that helps.
First: Get support. From peers locally, from organizations, on the Internet. If there isn’t an atheist/ skeptical support group at your school—consider starting one. The Secular Student Alliance is there to help atheist students do exactly that. And if starting or joining a group is too risky for you, you can get anonymous support at hundreds of blogs and online forums.
Second: Come out if you can—but don’t do it until you can do it safely. Coming out is probably the single most important thing that atheists, skeptics, and LGBT people can do to make the world better for ourselves and each other. But don’t do it if your parents are going to kick you out or cut off financial support. Be smart about the timing.
And mostly—hang on. It really does get better.
Greta Christina is one of the most widely read and well-respected bloggers in the atheist blogosphere. She was recently ranked by an independent analyst as one of the Top Ten most popular atheist bloggers. She is the regular atheist correspondent for AlterNet, the online political magazine with over 1,200,000 hits a week, and has been writing about atheism and skepticism for her own cleverly named Greta Christina’s Blog since 2005. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, including Ms., Skeptical Inquirer, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the anthology Everything You Know About God Is Wrong. She has been writing professionally since 1989, on topics including sexuality and sex-positivity, LGBT issues, politics, culture, and whatever crosses her mind. She is on the speakers’ bureau at the Secular Student Alliance and theCenter for Inquiry.
This post is cross-posted from Teen Skepchick.