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Okay, I’m ready. Becca tells me to watch what I say, so I’ll type with my eyes open.

One of the less helpful notions in orthodox religious thought is the idea that there is a very small circle in which we may dance.

Some of the sillier extremes of this are the various sects who try to live by the literal dictates of Leviticus. Never mix two kinds of thread in the same garment. Never plant two different crops in the same field. Wash your pots just so, don’t touch a menstruating woman, etc etc etc. So very many ways to bring down God’s fist.

For later sects, it became simpler but more insidious, since it moved inside your head: don’t lust, don’t covet, and most of all, don’t doubt. But the message was the same: every moment of your life, you are one false move away from the abyss.

Hard to enjoy being a conscious thing when consciousness dreams up this kind of self-paralyzing crap.

One of the frankly hilarious features of the freethought world is our tendency to reproduce this irritating feature of religion in our own way by twisting ourselves in knots just as Gordian, just as asphyxiating, defining ever-smaller circles around ourselves and spurning those outside the circle as insufficiently pure.

Let’s call this syndrome “unholier-than-thou” (UTT).

Do you have UTT? Some symptoms to watch for:

1. Insisting that anyone who does not share your taste for slurs and epithets against religious believers is “gutless.”

2. Arguing endlessly about labels (atheist vs. humanist, humanist vs. secular humanist, atheist vs. nontheist, disbeliever vs. nonbeliever vs. nonreligious, ad infinitum). Insisting that any one label is obviously right or obviously wrong is a classic sign of UTT. Seek professional help.

3. Attempting to banish another person from the (un)sacred circle by claiming s/he has a connection to some form of thought or way of life less rigorously rational and secularly pure than one’s own. The secular equivalent of screaming WIIIIITCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

As you may have guessed, I’ve dealt with all three of these so far regarding Parenting Beyond Belief. I will surely hear more of it in the months ahead. Here’s my carefully-considered response to all of them, once again quoting Python:


If you want freethought to be forever marginalized, forever a minuscule percentage of humanity, by all means, continue with your petty proscriptions. And if you want your kids to grow up with the same fear of the fatal misstep, teach them that there’s a very narrow path to secular salvation.

Myself, I have other plans. I want to normalize disbelief, to make it something that regular, non-zealot types can consider. That means setting up a big tent. Get used to people who do disbelief in a different way from you. Stick your loyalty oaths and litmus tests and pet labels where it’ll take a sigmoidoscopy to find them.

There. I feel ever so much better.

(Damn Duncan Crary, by the way, for realizing, before I did, that ‘unholier than thou’ is much, much better than ‘more secular than thou.’)

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.