Sunday, January 31, 2010

A heat map of religiousity and social ills

This nifty graphic is pretty cool, even if you're not a biology dork who sees it and thinks "Ooooh, it's like a heat map for gene expression! Yay!" ...Or something along those lines. (Click image for larger, readable version) While nifty, remember this type of visual shows correlation, not causation. Religiosity doesn't necessarily cause poverty, lower IQ, and increase crime. If I had to make a hypothesis, I would say it's likely that education or the lack thereof is the real driving force behind these things, including religious belief.

Regardless, this does nicely illustrate one thing: Religious belief doesn't necessarily lead to a better, safer, happier world. The next time someone claims that theists are morally superior and that all of our societal ills are caused by godless heathens, show them this nice little chart.

Church is too girly, and this article is too sexist

Rarely a day goes by that I don't find something on the internet that makes my head explode. Seriously, this blog is starting to get so negative. I get linked to so much mind boggling garbage; you guys need to start sending me happy awesome stuff to renew my faith in humanity.

But until then, here's more stupid shit:

Real men don't like going to church because they don't want to "sing love songs to a man", because the "vicar wears a dress", because they feel like "mongrels on parade at Crufts" and because they want to be waited on by women rather than queue for coffee after the service.

Okay, that's an interesting hypothesis. It would annoy me if this was the case, but I'm being realistic. I'm sure there are plenty of guys out there who like to make ludicrous gender stereotypes. What exactly should churches do about this? The charity Christian Vision for Men has some suggestions:

These include redesigning the interiors of church buildings to make men feel more at home. Instead of the usual flowers and statues of the Virgin Mary, they suggest, "How would it go down to decorate with swords, or pictures of knights, or flaming torches?"

Because I know all men decorate their abodes with swords and knights and torches. Well, at least the ones into Dungeons & Dragons.
The charity continues: "Maybe it's not 'politically correct', but men quite like the attention of women! They also like to be waited on - so long as they are not made to feel guilty. Instead of having to queue for coffee, why not ask some of the women to go round with trays of coffee and biscuits or chocky bars? Coupled with a charming smile, many men would find that very attractive!"
...So let me get this straight. Christianity, which is notorious for its patriarchy and oppression of women, is still not manly enough? We need to go back to the 1950s and have women do their duties of serving men? I'm surprised they didn't suggest the women make them a sandwich while they're at it.
"Jesus, I am so in love with you," or "Beautiful one I love, beautiful one I adore," - many men wouldn't sing that to their wives, let alone another man, the charity advises. ...

Men don't want to feel brainwashed by reciting words that they don't believe: "The language can be offputting, even the word 'love' has undertones of the love of a man for his woman - they'd rather 'admire' or 'respect' another man. Think how they will respond if called to be Jesus's lover, or to be 'intimate' with him. Don't play into Satan's hands by using language that he has corrupted."
So not only is it unmanly to love your wife, it's kind of gay to love Jesus, because Satan changed love to include icky homosexuality.
I was going to make an "I love Jesus! No homo" joke, but the internet beat me to it.

Oh, and the brainwashing part? Yeah, I think that's always been a bit of a problem, girly decor or not. Kind of may explain why so many people are becoming atheists. But apparently women love being "brainwashed by words they don't believe," because we're just mindless coffee-serving baby machines, after all.

Other suggestions to attract more men:
  • Don't talk about "Jesus’ love, compassion and grace" because they're "not male concepts." Men are all robots and leave all that silly worrying to the little ladies.
  • "Men want to know about his great decision making and leadership," because men have to be the head of the house, you know!
  • When holding men's group discussions, pick topics like "pornography," which men obviously love and women have no interest in talking about (lest we offend their fragile sensibilities).
  • Play the World Cup during services. Because all men love sports, and much rather watch them in church than in the comfort of their own home or a pub.
  • To correct for the previous point, start holding church services in a pub! The only downside to offering free beer is that you'll likely attract a bunch of godless heathens who are just using you.
You know what? I kind of like this marketing idea. Yeah, it's horrendously ignorant, offensive, and constructed on both male and female gender stereotypes. But it's going to attract manly testosterone filled douchebags who are too homophobic to sing songs and expect women to wait on them. Religion can have those assholes. Atheism will gladly take all the thoughtful, open-minded, non-douchebag men that you scare away.

Though the one flaw in that plan is all the religious women who will have to deal with being transported back in time 60 years. We'll take them too, once they realize they need to escape.

Ask President Obama to support Darwin Day

DarwinDay.org has a petition online asking President Obama to issue a proclamation recognizing Darwin Day.

Dear President Obama,

As an American who values scientific inquiry and integrity, I urge you to issue a presidential proclamation recognizing Darwin Day on February 12. Darwin Day is celebrated every year on the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday in 1809, and is a day in which people gather together to commemorate his life and work. Charles Darwin was the first to propose the groundbreaking scientific theory of evolution by natural selection—a theory that has done more to unify and bring understanding to the life sciences than any other—and Darwin Day is a celebration of this discovery and of scientific progress.

I believe that issuing this proclamation will send a powerful message that scientific discovery and integrity in our society are top priorities—priorities that are needed now more than ever as extremists with narrow ideological agendas are attempting to undermine science in our schools.

Please stand with me and countless others who value science and discovery by issuing the following or a similar proclamation on Darwin Day.

As an evolutionary biologist and a big Darwin Day fan, I urge you to go sign it. I'm not sure what the odds are that Obama would want to go pissing off a significant amount of creationist Americans, but might as well try.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why do people forced to convert keep that religion?

Forced conversion and religious warfare is common throughout history. Millions of Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam from 1000 to 1500 AD, conquistadors forced Christianity on indigenous people in America, African slaves in the Americas were forcibly converted to Christianity by their white masters...and of course, let's not forgot the Spanish Inquisition and Crusades.

I don't blame people for converting when faced with death and destruction. If my life or my friends and family were on the line, I would be speaking in tongues and praising Jesus in a heartbeat.

But why do people keep believing long after the threat is gone? This question baffles me, especially with more recent converts like those with indigenous or slave ancestry. I hear so much about retaining culture, not succumbing to white influences, being proud of your heritage...but this is hardly ever applied to religion. So many Hispanic people have some indigenous heritage, yet Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion. African Americans are known for their lively, charismatic churches that are a large part of their culture. Why would you want to hang on to something that was forced on you by oppressive, murderous people? How can such cruelty convince someone that that religion is worth joining? Is it just that religious belief is so powerful that you can trick yourself into genuinely believing something for your own well being?

This is just an honest question I've thought about occasionally, and was currently prompted by a post over at Womanist Musings about retaining African American heritage. I'm not trying to troll or be culturally/racially insensitive - I freely admit that I'm ignorant about this issue, which is why I'm asking. I'd especially like to hear from minorities whose ancestors were affected by this sort of thing, or people with background in sociology/psychology/history/etc.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Feminist Roundup

No, I don't plan on making this a weekly tradition - I'm not organized enough to have required themes for certain days. I just have a bunch of feminism related articles that I've accumulated throughout a busy week, and I figure I'd dump them all at once.
  • Australia bans porn containing female ejaculation and small breasts. Why? Apparently they think female ejaculation is just urination and fake body fluids. Yeah, not sure how it can be both. And the small boobies? Apparently if you're an A cup, that's too close to pedophilia. Thank you Australia, as if women weren't insecure enough about their bust size, now a huge group is too creepy to think about sexually because they're not womanly enough. Awesome.
  • School district pulls Diary of Anne Frank because Anne, a developing young woman, dared to talk about vaginas. Apparently female genitalia is the most horrifying aspect of the book, not the fact that she was forced to live in hiding from fear of death and then later died in a concentration camp. Overprotective parents are awesome.
  • In case games for girls weren't mollifying enough, you can now get a Ouija board in pink! Because apparently the gender neutral versions don't channel ghosts who can answer girl specific questions like "Who will call you next?" and "Will you be famous?" Come on, we all know girls only care about talking on the phone, becoming the next Paris Hilton, and pink woo bullshit.
  • Being attractive and feminine in the sciences isn't easy. Go read about this chemist who also happened to be an NFL cheerleader, and the stereotypes she faced along the way. I actually think being more of a tomboy has helped me avoid negative stereotypes - which isn't necessarily a good thing.

The creationist persecution complex continues

My friend Mike, who blogs over at Politics and Pucks, recently posted a little rant on the conservative and religious environment around Cincinnati, OH. Such a rant cannot be complete without mentioning the Creation Museum, which he did several times. Apparently the Creation Museum is a lot like Beetlejuice - say its name too many times, and one of their representatives will pop up crying "Persecution!" Mike, feel honored that you hurt their feelings enough to get a comment from Mark Looy, co-founder of the Creation Museum:
So the implication is that Bill Cunningham is also a bigot because he supported the Creation Museum after the Cincinnat Zoo -- during the Christmas season -- stopped its promotional package that offered families a discount to visit both attractions. The zoo yielded to the pressure of dozens of intolerant (often hateful) people who demanded that the zoo stop its ticket partnership with us. And somehow Mr. Cunningham is a bigot for exposing this intolerance and hate? Mark Looy, CCO, Creation Museum, Petersburg, Kentucky
Dear Mark Looy and other Creationists who Just Don't Get It,

I am tolerant of your outright lies and delusions in the sense that I will never threaten you or your families and I support your right to freedom of speech. Shame on anyone who has done so, atheist or not. However, tolerance does not equal respect or support, which you have to earn.

Your museum (which I had the misfortune of visiting) is a complete sham and an insult to human intelligence, reason, and curiosity. Having a place that supports learning and scientific inquiry even associate itself with you is totally inappropriate. The Cincinnati Zoo should not support the Creation Museum, a World War II museum should not support Holocaust deniers, and an Astronomical Observatory should not support flat Earthers. You are absolutely no different from these wacky fringe groups. Freedom of religion does not mean we have to think you're awesome and suck up to you.

Until you realize this, I have every right to point and laugh at you, just as you have every right to put dinosaurs munching alongside Adam and Eve. Crying about how you're a victim and those godless scientists are the real meanies is only going to continue making you the laughing stock of America.

Sincerely,

Godless Scientist Meanie

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fatwa demands isolation and 101 lashings for 16 year old rape victim

There are times to be eloquent, level headed, and respectful in our discussion of other cultures and religions. This is not one of those times. What the flying fuck?

Rape victim receives 101 lashes for becoming pregnant

A 16-year-old girl who was raped in Bangladesh has been given 101 lashes for conceiving during the assault. The girl's father was also fined and warned the family would be branded outcasts from their village if he did not pay.

According to human rights activists, the girl, who was quickly married after the attack, was divorced weeks later after medical tests revealed she was pregnant. The girl was raped by a 20-year-old villager in Brahmanbaria district in April last year.

Bangladesh's Daily Star newspaper reported that she was so ashamed following the attack that she did not lodge a complaint. Her rape emerged after her pregnancy test and Muslim elders in the village issued a fatwa insisting that the girl be kept in isolation until her family agreed to corporal punishment.

Her rapist was pardoned by the elders. She told the newspaper the rapist had "spoiled" her life.

"I want justice," she said.

...

I don't need to point out how disgusting this is, but it's something that needs to be shared. People need to know that misogyny and down right insanity is still alive and well in our world. We can argue back and forth if this is the fault of Islam, culture, or some mix of the two. There are those that will argue that religion isn't the problem, it's simply people using religion as an excuse for their horrible actions.

But you know what? Religion isn't exactly helping the situation, is it? A religious ruling to isolate and whip your daughter because she's a rape victim is just a tad bit scarier to disobey than a law or social stigma. You may still face legal ramifications or ostracism, but you get the added bonus of God's disdain, eternal damnation, and all sorts of legitimately horrifying things to a believer. It's a bit harder to institute social change when you're being told it's a divine commandment.

Not all Muslims are women-hating extremists. Let's hope the moderates continue speak out against these sorts of immoral acts.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Over 100 Russians hospitalized after drinking holy water

This is yet another example of what can happen when people ignore scientific facts for superstitions. The Orthodox Christian holiday of Epiphany was January 19, and the Russian Orthodox have an interesting superstition that goes along with it:
The Holy Spirit, coming down upon the water, changes its natural properties. It becomes incorrupt, that is, it does not spoil, remains transparent and fresh for many years, receives the grace to heal illnesses, to drive away demons and every evil power, to preserve people and their dwellings from every danger, to sanctify various objects whether for church or home use.
Yep, God is apparently so good at water purification, he changes its natural properties...whatever that means. The Russian Orthodox take this very seriously:

People line up in churches to fill their bottles with the holy water which is believed to have a curative effect. Many defy sub-zero temperatures and take a dip in an ice hole to cleanse themselves of sins and take advantage of the heath-giving properties of Epiphany water as it is thought that any water on this day, be it tapped water or a pond, becomes baptismal. The number of "walruses" increases by the year. In Moscow, some 60,000 people are expected to enjoy Epiphany bathing. The holy water doesn't spoil and therefore needn't be kept in a fridge.
And what's the result?

More than 100 Russian Orthodox believers have been hospitalized after drinking holy water during Epiphany celebrations in the eastern city of Irkutsk, an official said Monday.

A total of 117 people, including 48 children, were in the hospital complaining of acute intestinal pain after drinking water from wells in and around a local church last week, said Vladimir Salovarov, a spokesman for the Irkutsk Investigative Committee.

Salovarov said 204 people required some medical treatment after consuming the water, the source of which was a stagnant lake. He said, however, that it was too early to say what caused the illness.

You know what? I have a feeling they'll discover that it's caused by some sort of bacteria or parasite in the stagnant lake, not by the priest praying incorrectly.

While these sorts of studies are fun for giggling at people who hold ludicrous beliefs, they're also useful. People often argue that religion and science occupy different realms of knowledge, and that science cannot test religious claims. That is totally false when religion claims to affect the natural world. Here's a simple test:

1. Get water from a pond on January 18th (this is your control)
2. Let priest pray on it for Epiphany.
3. Collect water from the same pond on January 19th.
4. Make observations:

  • Have all (or any) of the microbes in the water been destroyed?
  • Has the concentration of harmful chemicals decreased?
  • When left out, does the control water spoil and the holy water not?
  • When administered to ill patients in a double blind study, does the holy water significantly increase their health? (Okay, maybe giving pond water to sick people isn't ethical...)
5. Repeat at multiple water sources.

If my hypothesis that Science Wins is supported, that falsifies their religious claims. They are outright wrong. It's not a matter of opinion, it's not a separate magisterium, and it's not something we should respect. It's a false claim with consequences. How many adults and children need to get sick with scientific explanations before people give up their superstitions? How is it ethical for churches to be telling all of these people that it's safe to drink from this water when it's not?

School bans the dictionary because it's too sexual

We can stop worrying about Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower when it comes to banning books. Folks, we have bigger fish to fry: Merriam Webster's Dictionary.

After a parent complained about an elementary school student stumbling across "oral sex" in a classroom dictionary, Menifee Union School District officials decided to pull Merriam Webster's 10th edition from all school shelves earlier this week.

School officials will review the dictionary to decide if it should be permanently banned because of the "sexually graphic" entry, said district spokeswoman Betti Cadmus. The dictionaries were initially purchased a few years ago for fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms districtwide, according to a memo to the superintendent.

"It's just not age appropriate," said Cadmus, adding that this is the first time a book has been removed from classrooms throughout the district.

...Really? The dictionary is now corrupting our youth? Give me a break. First of all, how many kids sit down with the goal of reading the entire dictionary and will accidentally stumble upon a naughty word? Or more importantly, who fucking cares if they do? Heaven forbid if parents have to explain things to their children. Are we going to require gender specific dictionaries now, so little girls can't accidentally find the word "penis"?

There are already plenty of fifth graders who know stuff about sex. The dictionary seems like a fairly benign source of information when you consider where else they're hearing things from - or not hearing things from, which is often the most dangerous scenario. I was in 5th grade during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, so I quickly learned what oral sex was. Did I immediately run out and start sucking dick? Of course not.

Thankfully some of the parents in that town are rational human beings, so hopefully the dictionary won't remain banned:
"Censorship in the schools, really? Pretty soon the only dictionary in the school library will be the Bert and Ernie dictionary," said Emanuel Chavez, the parent of second- and sixth-grade students. "If the kids are exposed to it, it's up to the parents to explain it to them at their level."
I dunno. Bert and Ernie are two dudes living together. That may be a bit to homoerotic for small children to handle.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Scientologists "heal" Haiti victims by touching them

"Volunteer ministers" from the Church of Scientology are descending upon Haiti to help quake victims. That's great! Oh, wait, how are they helping them? By using magical touching powers to reconnect nervous systems:

"We're trained as volunteer ministers, we use a process called 'assist' to follow the nervous system to reconnect the main points, to bring back communication," she said.

"When you get a sudden shock to a part of your body the energy gets stuck, so we re-establish communication within the body by touching people through their clothes, and asking people to feel the touch."

Thank you, Scientology, for being completely worthless and insane. People are injured and dying, and you're going around poking people. You're doing more harm then good by making people think that they've actually received some sort of medical care, when you haven't done diddly squat.

I love the skeptical quote from the doctor, which sums up things quite nicely:

Some doctors at the hospital are skeptical. One US doctor, who asked not to be named, snorted: "I didn't know touching could heal gangrene."

Indeed. Maybe the Scientologists could enlighten us on this wonderful healing power? It would certainly make universal health care more viable, if all we had to do was touch people.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Indiana still pushing for a constitutional ban on gay marriage

Want to know why I didn't apply to any graduate schools in the Midwest? Here's reason #1264:
A Republican-controlled Senate committee voted 6-4 to approve a proposal that could eventually lead to a constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions in Indiana. Even if the proposal clears the full GOP-led Senate, it will likely go nowhere in the Democrat-controlled House.

Democratic House Speaker Patrick Bauer of South Bend has repeatedly said that amending the state's constitution isn't necessary because Indiana law already prohibits same-sex marriage. The Senate has voted several times since 2005 to pass a proposed amendment banning gay marriage, but the proposals have not cleared the House.
Oh, what a great reason to argue against a constitutional ban on gay marriage! We already have a law! You know, not because it removes basic rights from a significant group of people and is morally reprehensible. Thank you, Indiana.

The kicker is that Indiana cares so much about hating on the gays that it's repeatedly wasted its time on this stupid law since 2005. Don't we have better things to be figuring out? Maybe, I dunno, the horrible budget that's resulted in tons of funding being cut from education across the state? Nope, an education would probably just make people more accepting of others who are different from them - therefor we gotta focus on banning gay marriage!

You know why Indiana suffers from such a brain drain? Because educated people like myself run the fuck away and never come back.

But since some people will be stuck in Indiana in the future, if you care about marriage equality, go here to tell your Senator to vote NO on SJR-13. Or better up, look up your Indiana Senator here and give them a call.

Morality: Philosophy vs Biology

This semester I'm taking an introductory course through the Philosophy department called Biomedical ethics. After four classes, I'm convinced I'm insane for taking this class "for fun." So far we've just been learning about ethics in general, and my brain is already melting. Somehow my mind manages to agree and disagree with about every topic we're presented, no matter how contradictory they are. I admit I'm totally unfamiliar with philosophy, but right now it just seems like a whole lot of bullshit that grad students pull out of their ass while at the pub.

I'm fine on understanding sound and valid arguments - those are based on logic, which I understand - but my mind explodes when we start talking about various moral theories. I think my problem is that I view things as a scientist and a biologist, and I have a really hard time getting into the mindset of a philosopher.

For example, our professor has spent the last two classes talking about how moral subjectivism (moral statements are true and false, but their truth is determined by the attitudes and beliefs of society and culture) and emotivism (moral statements are neither true nor false) are piles of crap. I don't know if this is the common opinion of the philosophical community, but it doesn't sit well with me.

As an atheist, I don't think moral codes were carved into stone or written in a book. Rather, evolutionary biology and instincts explain most of our moral behavior (I recommend Marc Hauser's book Moral Minds). We automatically and rapidly come up with moral decisions based on instincts and emotions, and then after the fact we come up with reasoning to support our opinion. So are we really all just emotivists, but trick ourselves into thinking we're being rational?

I also don't understand how you can prove something to be morally right or wrong without invoking evolved behavior/emotion/instinct. Let's say my professor is right and moral subjectivism and emotivism are totally and utterly wrong, and we're just little logical machines. Whether you subscribe to consequentialist or deontological moral theories (or other ones, I have no idea what I'm talking about), it still doesn't seem right to me. Let me play the annoying child for a bit:

Philosopher: Stabbing a child in the face is morally wrong.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: Because it lowers the happiness of others/causes harm to others, and that is morally wrong.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: Because that's the moral theory we're using.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: *fails Jen*

Alright, yes, I think stabbing a child in the face is morally wrong. And if you asked me to outline the certain moral "rules" I follow, they would generally be to reduce harm to others. But why should that be my rule? Why do we label reducing harm as good? The way this class is teaching it, it seems like right and wrong are some sort of voodoo mysterious universal constants that simply are.

But the way I see it, morality evolved. We want to reduce harm to others because we evolved in a group situation, and the only way we could survive is if we stopped killing our family and tribe members long enough for us to all cooperate. If we evolved in a more independent environment, we may have a totally different moral system. Maybe the moral rule that would have evolved would have been caring only about your own children, and killing other children would be seen as a moral act.

Of course, maybe I'm totally wrong. I'm not familiar with philosophy, and it's quite possible that I'm over thinking it by wondering where morals even came from to begin with. But that seems like a really important point to me. If instinct decides what's morally right and wrong, what value do all of these various theories have? They're not merely trying to predict what humans do do, because we don't always act morally - they're trying to say what we should do. I have a hard time accepting that my professor 100% rejects emotivism when everything seems to start there, and then get tweaked by a cognitive theory.

Aannddd I've gotten to the point where I think I'm self contradictory and my brain has oozed onto the floor. I really don't know what I'm talking about and none of this stuff makes sense to me. As this is an atheist blog, I have a good feeling that I have a fair number of philosophers (amateur or otherwise) in my readership. Maybe you all can help explain this to me, because I'm not even making sense to myself.

There's still time to support Skepchicamp!

While I will no longer be able to speak at Skepchicamp, I still think it's a great cause worthy of support. If you want to help fund this awesome mini conference, there are still tickets left for the big godless party in Chicago this Saturday. For $30 dollars you get booze, food, and the company of awesome people like multiple Skepchicks, Hemant from Friendly Atheist, and me! EDIT: And Hilary Mark Nelson, who is so inconceivably wonderful not only because he is bribing me with chocolate, but he's also driving, which leaves myself and others able to imbibe alcohol. Woooo! How could you resist?

Oh, though if you're a single lady, you definitely shouldn't come. I don't want any competition in the auction for a date with Hemant. Though gay guys are still encouraged to come - if I'm going to lose, the outcome might as well be hilariously awkward for Hemant.

Now if you excuse me, I'm going to go hide from a certain someone who'll be angry that I'm scaring away all the cute females...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Greta Christina to speak at Purdue on Atheism & Sexuality

You want to know a perk of being President of an atheist club? You have a lot of say over what speakers get invited to your school. We've already had Hemant Mehta and PZ Myers speak here, and when I saw that Greta Christina was added to the Secular Student Alliance's speaker bureau, I knew I had to snatch her up! And I'm happy to announce that my Favorite Atheist Blogger Trifecta will be completed, and you're invited to see Greta speak at Purdue:
Atheism & Sexuality

Friday, Feb 5th
5:30 - 7:00 PM
WTHR 172, Oval Dr.
West Lafayette, IN

One hour lecture by Greta Christina with time for Q&A, free and open to the public

The sexual morality of traditional religion tends to be based, not on solid ethical principles, but on a set of taboos about what kinds of sex God does and doesn't want people to have. And while the sex-positive community offers a more thoughtful view of sexual morality, it still often frames sexuality as positive by seeing it as a spiritual experience. What are some atheist alternatives to these views? How can atheists view sexual ethics without a belief in God? And how can atheists view sexual transcendence without a belief in the supernatural?

Sponsored by the Society of Non-Theists and the Queer Student Union
If you're in the West Lafayette area, you should definitely come (and RSVP on Facebook)! Though if you're closer to Indiana University in Bloomington, Greta will be speaking there the night before - keep watching the Secular Alliance of IU's website for more information.

I'm happy to be hosting a great reply to that Porn and Popcorn nonsense that happened last semester!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Religiosity as a mating strategy

A new study out of Arizona State University has some interesting findings on people's self described religiosity as a mating strategy:

To probe the relationship between sex and God more explicitly, Kenrick and colleague Yexin Jessica Li presented hundreds of students at their university with dating profiles of highly attractive men or women, then probed them about their religious beliefs. A control group of 1500 students merely filled out the religion survey.

Men and women who looked at attractive members of the same sex reported stronger religious feelings than those who checked out prospective mates or just filled in the survey. They were more likely to say "I believe in God" and "We'd be better off if religion played a bigger role in people's lives."

"It's an interesting and surprising phenomenon," says Kenrick, who speculates that people ramp up their belief in a system that tends to enforce monogamy when they're confronted with fierce sexual competition.
This correlation is interesting, but I think you have to be careful on how to interpret the results. It's not saying that being religious makes someone a better mate or more faithful. Rather, these people think that others will view high religiosity more favorably. Religious people generally see religiosity as a "good" trait, so they may exaggerate their beliefs when in a competitive environment.

For some anecdotal evidence, I know I did this when I was trying to woo a Lutheran in high school. I was still agnostic then, but I would ramp it up to vague philosophical deist around him. I wasn't purposefully trying to deceive him; it was subconscious. But it worked - we ended up dating for nine months.

If you had a bunch of nonbelievers competing for a mate, we may have the exact opposite effect - we'd exaggerate our skeptical thinking because we see that as a "good" trait to have. We may be extra careful about saying something superstitious or making emotional arguments. Or if I was wooing a vegetarian, I probably wouldn't order a steak for dinner and wear a fur coat. It's human nature to modify your behavior in order to make others happy or find a mate, and this study illustrates that religious belief is no different - a behavior subconsciously used to suit your needs in social situations, not necessarily something you believe in for its truth.

God Hates Haiti

No, this isn't another post about Pat Robertson's stunning ignorance. It seems that the Westboro Baptist Church were inspired by his line of thinking and have launched a new website: God Hates Haiti (NOTE: Visiting their site probably gives them money, so visit at your own guilty conscience). You're greeted with an image of a smiling Westboro protester amidst the rubble in Haiti, and a list of links about why Haiti received God's wrath....

Yeah, I really have nothing to say other that fuck you, Westboro Baptist Church. You hatred is so fucking predictable that I'm having a hard time being shocked by it anymore - and that's pretty scary.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

How not to promote female atheists

Hey guys, remember that giant list I made of awesome female atheists? And how I talked about the importance of promoting this minority within the atheist community? Yeah, this is not the way to do it:

Dude: @jennifurret Is there going to be a bikini beauty contest in Skepchicamp?
Me:
This is the kind of sexist BS I'm talking about. Not funny RT @Dude: Is there going to be a bikini beauty contest in Skepchicamp?
Dude: @jennifurret How's that sexist? Nothing wrong with a bikini contest. As a matter of fact, it would be a great way to promote Skepchicamp.
Me:
@Dude Because it's a conference focusing on skepticism, intelligence, and empowering women, yet you reduced us to our boobs
Dude: @jennifurret Are you implying a bikini contest is all about boobs, no intelligence?
Me:
Uh, yes? RT @Dude: Are you implying a bikini contest is all amount boobs, no intelligence?
Dude: @jennifurret Why? I don't think boobs and intelligence is mutually exclusive, ie we can get only one but not both.
Me:
@Dude I think you should stop while you're ahead
Dude: @jennifurret To compete with Christianity, we need to package boobs and intelligence together as a killer product.
Me: Keep digging that hole RT @Dude: To compete with Christianity, we need to package boobs and intelligence together as a killer product.
Dude:
@jennifurret You are so evil!
Me:
I am merely repeating the things you are saying. You produce the consequences RT @Dude: You are so evil!

Okay, I'll admit I'm kind of on a short fuse about this topic at the moment. Usually the first tweet (which came out of the blue) would illicit nothing more than an eye roll, but last night I watched the PZ vs the Preacher blogtv fundraiser. I was getting pissed how whenever Ashley or ZOMGitsCriss were on screen, the chat room devolved into "Show us your tits!" and creepy sexual comments. I hate how on one hand you have men talking about how we need more outspoken female atheists, and then on the other hand you have completely socially inept sexist creepers making us want to go back into hiding. Yes, it's the internet, and people will say things they usually wouldn't dare say in real life - but those thoughts are still there, and that's distasteful enough.

Good looks and intelligence are not mutually exclusive, but good looks shouldn't matter when judging based on intelligence. Is it a coincidence that when I think of the female bloggers and YouTubers I follow, a high percentage range from moderately attractive to smoking hot? I'd love to think that someone who would be judged as "unattractive" who was also smarter and wittier would be just as successful, but that seems like the exception rather than the rule. Males don't have to stand up to that sort of scrutiny.

Boobs should not be the marketing scheme for atheism, nor should we have to put up with subtle sexism in a movement promoting skepticism. I don't want to ban sexual discussion or humor - hell, I'd be the last person to suggest that. However, there is a difference between me talking about my sexuality and someone yelling "Show me your titties!!!"; between posing for a sexy Skepchick calendar and having someone suggest you should have a bikini contest during a conference; between us all trading juvenile boob jokes after I initiate it and someone making an irrelevant comment about my chest whenever I post a photo.

Think of it in terms of consent.

When I'm initiating a conversation or a joke, I'm giving you permission to join in. Bringing it up out of the blue, often in a crass way, is jarring because sexuality is so private. Some women will open up more than others - but just because I open up frequently doesn't mean it's a free for all. Off topic boob comments, marriage proposals, and sexy costume suggestions (I wish I wasn't making this up, folks) get old after a while, even for an avowed pervert like myself.

I don't think that most of the time there is ill will. I do think that most guys are oblivious at how such comments can make women feel like they're being reduced to their breasts. Especially in a community that cherishes intelligence, logic, reasoning, and wit, being judged on looks is just plain annoying.

So do me a favor guys: Think before you speak. And if your fellow man forgets this simple rule, please remind him.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A superbowl ad that manages to combine all of my favorite things!

I'll admit I'm one of those people who tunes into the Superbowl just to see the hilarious commercials. That's why I'm saddened to find out that my commercial viewing will be sullied by this nonsense:

Focus on the Family will air a 30-second "life- and family-affirming" television spot, featuring University of Florida star quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam, during the coverage. ...

Tebow and his mother will share one of their many positive personal stories, Schneeberger said, but he wouldn't reveal which one. One contender is Pam Tebow's decision to carry her son to term despite a life-threatening pregnancy in the Philippines, where she and her husband, Bob, were serving as Christian missionaries.

Why I want a cat in grad school

To help me do all of my lab work:Though in all seriousness, I am looking forward to getting a cat in grad school. Finding a pet friendly apartment is going to be important to me, because I'm pretty dead set on adopting. I've had cats my whole life, and undergrad has just felt empty without some feline love. My good friend literally invites me over for what we call "Kitty Therapy" where I basically get to cuddle with his lovable cats for a couple of hours. I think they do wonders for my mental health, which is something I'm going to need to try extra hard to preserve while working towards my PhD*.

Oh, and I'm excited at the added bonus of picking delightfully nerdy names. Darwin is, unsurprisingly, very high on the list.

Don't worry though; I'm a single cat kind of girl. The risk of me becoming a crazy cat lady is fairly low. ...Maybe.

*And before someone lectures me on the responsibilities of owning a cat: Yes, I know. I'm the one who had to clean litter, feed them, play with them, groom them. I realize they take time and money - but to me, it's worth it.

Mmmmm, mitosis

Biodork shows us a delicious new way of illustrating mitosis:I hate how every biology class I've ever taken feels the need to reteach us mitosis - but if this is how we learned it, I think it would be a lot more fun!

Friday, January 15, 2010

I am now a PUBLISHED twitterer, thank you very much

If you're from Purdue, a Lady Gaga fan, or follow me on Twitter, you know about the drama that went down last night. Lady Gaga was set to perform a sold out, super anticipated concert at Purdue, and after her two opening acts, she canceled the show. Apparently the whole day she was dizzy from exhaustion and dehydration and had even passed out at some point, and she wasn't allowed to perform because the show had too many potentially dangerous mechanics.

I didn't get tickets (thanks to all the assholes who bought 6 just to resell for $400 dollars), so I wasn't as upset as everyone who was there. Actually, I'm kind of glad I wasn't there, because there's no rage worse than a gay rage. Purdue students were anywhere from pissed to depressed, and the newspapers were probably creaming their pants.

That's not the interesting part, though. One of my sarcastic tweets got published in the student newspaper:
Ahahaha! This totally cracks me up. I almost missed it because I didn't pick up a copy today, but my friend told me about it. Yeah, I've made the big time, guys. My tweets are getting published. I can just smell that book deal around the corner.

...Shhh, let me have my delusions of grandeur.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

No Skepchicamp for me

I unfortunately must announce that I will no longer be able to speak at Skepchicamp, the awesome Chicago skeptical feministy conference on March 6th. I've already contacted them about it, but I figured I should also mention it on my blog in case any Chicago people were looking forward to seeing me there. I promise I'll be missing for a good reason - I'll be at Stanford for a grad school interview!

If you were planning on going, please don't cancel on my part - there will be a lot of awesome speakers there, including some of my close Purdue friends. And if you're in the Chicagoland area and you weren't planning on going...well you totally should.

I'm disappointed that I'll miss out on the awesomeness, and that I won't be speaking at my first skeptical conference after all. Hopefully I'll get invited somewhere else eventually. I promise I'm not a flake - grad school is a bit more important right now ;)

Amazon catches Catholic priests red handed

Or should I say, sticky handed?As Dan Savage wisely noted, "The pope will be furious but I'm sure the altar boys are grateful."

Though if you keep scrolling through the "Customer's Who Bought This Item Also Bought" list, you see the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Maybe it's just atheists using communion wafers (and lube) for nefarious purposes? ....Hopefully not at the same time?

(Via BuzzFeed)

No atheist will marry my daughter!

There's a new Pew Research study out called "Blacks Upbeat about Black Progress, Prospects," and there's a little nugget of information on atheists that I wanted to point out...
But there is one new spouse that most Americans would have trouble accepting into their families: someone who does not believe in God. Seven-in-ten people who are affiliated with a religion say they either would not accept such as marriage (27%) or be bothered before coming to accept it (42%).
Doesn't sound too good, does it? But how does this compare to people's views of interracial marriages? Is it just a couple percentage points higher?
Nope, there's a huge difference in the disapproval. I'm elated we've made such progress on interracial marriage, don't get me wrong - but this is yet another piece of evidence on the discriminatory views people have towards atheists. It's frightening that nearly 3 in 10 people will not be able to come to acceptance of such a marriage. What a loving, understanding way to treat your family.

(Hat tip to RHB)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is your vagina pink enough?!

Oh goodie! Just when I thought society was starting to run out of ways to make women shameful about their bodies, we get My New Pink Button, "a temporary dye to restore the youthful pink color back to your labia." I can't make this shit up, people.As if women didn't already have seventy billion "beauty products" marketed to them as necessary essentials, now we have to worry about the color of our fucking vaginas? If a guy complained to me that my vagina wasn't pink enough, I wouldn't have to buy this product because that guy would not be seeing my vagina again any time soon.

I'm not going to stop women from wearing make up, using creams, attempting bizarre diets, or dying their vagina. Whatever, that's your choice - even I enjoy getting dolled up once in a blue moon. But feeling beautiful is different from being shamed into body modification. Not only are we adding insecurities, but it's simply a waste of money. One jar is $29.95 and contains 20 uses, each which last up to 72 hours. If somebody is seeing your vagina frequently enough that you need it pinkified every day, minus a week each month for a period let's say, you'll spend about $140 on this stuff a year. I'm sorry, but I have better things to do with my money.

At least they give you options, though. You can choose from four shades of pink, cutely named Marilyn, Bettie, Audry, and Ginger, the last one specifically made for "Women of Color." ...Yeah, I don't need to say any more, do I?

(Via Womanist Musings)

I get mail: Redemption made easy

Ever since the Society of Non-Theists got an official mailbox at Purdue, we've gotten mail from fundies. We've been subscribed to a couple of Christian magazines, and this guy from Kentucky keeps sending us bizarre pamphlets, including one about how loving Jesus will somehow save you from Alzheimer's (might save that for another post). I have to admit, I get really excited whenever I see a new letter in the mail, wondering what new crazy thing I'm about to read. After the long winter break, I checked our mailbox and was very happy to find a new one!

You know it's going to be good when this is the first thing you see:The inside of the pamphlet is pretty boring compared to the Emo Jesus guilt trip on the cover. It's just a bunch of Bible quotes about why Jesus is so awesome and you should accept him into your heart, yadda yadda. This would be a pretty typical, boring type of evangelism if it weren't for the back cover, which made me laugh:Hmmm, I'm not sure which one to choose! This is way too tough. I wish I would have been given some sort of guidance. I am just a simple heathen, after all.

The whole thing cracks me up. The extensive highlighting and written instructions (as if I couldn't get the point from one or the other); the idea that they think simply telling me which one is the right choice will make me realize the error in my ways; the even more ludicrous idea that making a simple check mark on a piece of paper has any real meaning; or the mysterious use of white out. Did they accidentally write to choose the unhighlighted one or something?Sorry, Jesus. Guess I don't follow directions well.

Hmm, I wonder if that check mark applied to the club as a whole? Whoops, I guess I just damned almost 400 people to hell. Oh well, the more the merrier!

UPDATE:
Apparently the white out was used to hide the address of the sender. But with a little sleuthing (aka a flashlight and the internet) I've found our sender: Fellowship Tract League. Here's a PDF of the tract from their site. Wonder why they didn't want me to know who they were? Somewhat tempted to send it back.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Endangered Species Print Project

I just found out about a really neat project used to raise awareness and funding for endangered species: The Endangered Species Print Project.

The Endangered Species Print Project offers limited-edition art prints of critically endangered species. The number of prints available corresponds with the remaining animal or plant populations. For example, only 45 Amur Leopards remain in the wild, so for this edition, only 45 prints will ever be made. A different organization, whose mission is to the ensure the survival of the species depicted, is chosen for each print. 100% of the sales of ESPP prints are donated to these conservation organizations.
As both an artist and a biologist, I think this is an excellent idea. If your walls are looking a bit bland and you have a little extra money, consider contributing to this great cause. The also have a corresponding blog where you can keep up with information about endangered species.

(Via bioephemera)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The creators of "The God Equation" probably won't get this joke

Remember that nonsensical "God Equation" that was ripped apart over at Pharyngula about a month ago? Yeah, I don't think its creators will get this joke:I really think the amount you laugh* at xkcd could be a good predictor of nerdiness/science knowledge. I know when I stare at a comic scratching my head, it's because I don't know something. This frequently happens when the punchline has to do with programming. Sadness.

*Assuming laughter correlates with getting the joke. If you get it but don't laugh, I don't get your sense of humor. If you don't get it but laugh, you may be insane, really like stick figures, or have a judgmental nerd peering over your shoulder.

My first atheist wedding art commission!

My friends Julie and Don are getting married this summer, and instead of including a dorky photograph with their wedding invitation, they asked me to draw a cartoon of them! (Click image for higher quality)
If you can't tell, all of my friends are a bit nerdy. Julie is working towards vet school and takes care of shelter animals, especially exotics - hence the snake. And apparently Don is just a big super hero dork on the inside, because he requested the Spiderman outfit.

They're also both active atheists and skeptics, which is why they're getting a little plug here. Julie is a frequent member of the Society of Non-Theists and often comments here at the blog. And some of you may actually know Don - he blogs over at Action Skeptics and gave a talk at TAM 2009 on Kids Thinking Critically, a "strategy to bring critical thinking skills to at-risk and underprivileged youth." He's also working his butt of organizing speakers for the upcoming Skepchicamp in Chicago, which Julie and I are speaking at.

An early congratulations to you to! Who says us godless heathens aren't capable of love?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tourist in Dubai reports rape to police; instead is arrested for "illegal sex" with her fiance

What.

A British woman who alleged that she was raped in Dubai on New Year’s Eve has had her passport confiscated and may face a jail sentence after she was charged with having sex outside marriage with her fiancĂ©.

The 23-year-old woman, a Muslim from London, of Pakistani origin, said that she was attacked by a man who is understood to be a worker in the hotel where she had been drinking with her fiancé to celebrate their engagement during a three-day holiday in Dubai.

When she reported to the police that she had been raped, she and her partner, 44, were themselves jailed for sex outside marriage, which is illegal under the emirate’s laws. Unmarried couples are not allowed to share hotel rooms or live together, although many establishments turn a blind eye. The couple were also charged with being drunk outside licensed premises.

...Let me play the devil's advocate before anyone else does: Yes, Dubai has the right to come up with their own laws, and as a tourist you should know what's illegal before you go there, yadda yadda. That being said...

Never fucking go to Dubai.

The fact that this sort of misogynistic horseshit exists in the 21st century nauseates me. A woman is raped (and yes, it was raped - no level of inebriation equals consent) and when trying to get help from the police, gets sent to jail for a completely unrelated "crime" that would never have been discovered otherwise. Rape victims are often traumatized by the attack - and then she faces badgering questions about sex with her fiance? Is the law and purity of women so much more important than human compassion?

Apparently it is when you're dealing with backwards sharia law in a predominantly Muslim country. Only religion, and the misogynist culture generated by said religion, can make consenting sex a criminal offense. You can bet if this woman wasn't Muslim that they'd have a lot less interest in her personal life. Isn't it lovely when honor and the rules of an Invisible Sky Daddy are more important than human rights?

This isn't going to exactly help Dubai boost their tourism like they so hope. I'm damned sure I''ll never step foot in a country with such archaic laws - I'm not inclined to go to jail or fund their ignorance.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Fear of atheist groups: Now available in high schools, too!

As someone who founded a college atheist group, irrational fear and bigotry from the public is something all too familiar to me. We have to deal with flyers being torn down and idiotic statements on a fairly regular basis. Even though Purdue is a conservative campus, you figure a university is a place where you're more likely to find open mindedness, freethinking, and at least some level of maturity. I can't imagine what it would be like having an atheist group at a high school level, dealing with immature students and (sometimes even more immature) members of the community.

Skyler Curtis is dealing with just that at Rising Sun High School in North East, MD.
He noticed that there were different groups in his school, including Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He was recently inspired by atheist bus ads and had the idea of starting a group called Fellowship of Atheist Athletes. He asked a teacher to support his cause and approached the school administration for approval. It seems that the school administrators were concerned with his desire to use the word atheist. Maybe they were afraid that this word A-T-H-E-I-S-T would cause problems. Perhaps they were right. It was agreed that the group would use the name “NonReligious Solutions” or NRS.
I have to applaud the administration for not being complete jerks about the issue. When I was a senior in high school, a lesbian friend of mine tried to start a Gay Straight Alliance. Let's just say the Principal and administrators did everything in their power to stop us and doom the group to failure. I also have to applaud a teacher for being brave enough to sponsor the group. Many teachers are too afraid to be associated with controversial groups because of the alienation they may face from the rest of the staff.

But of course, that's where the nice part of the story ends.

Skyler got permission to put up flyers around the school. They only lasted a couple of hours before being torn down or vandalized. What did these horrible, antagonist heathen flyers look like?I'm pretty sure the thought process of his peers and community went something like "Oohh nooo! I can feel my faith crumbling because I know atheists exist! I better threaten him and act like a jackass before Baby Jesus cries any more!" And act like jackasses they did. In addition to the usually name calling common to high schoolers, Skyler has received threats:
I was told by a fellow peer that he would “Jack me up” and that he was not afraid of me because he was a “Crusader.”
Christians at his school have made an Anti-NRS page on Facebook, and the migraine-inducing letters to the editor have begun:
...
  1. Either the daughter or parent is too ignorant to get the freaking name of the club correct. We can tell what kind of standard of intellectual integrity we're dealing with here.
  2. Official school clubs are allowed to post flyers. He didn't slap them around willy nilly without permission. If this person's daughter wants to start a Catholic club, then she will be able to post flyers as well.
  3. "I have God on my side and you'll lose." And apparently this guy has the emotional maturity of a 5 year old. Yippee.
This really demonstrates why we so desperately need these sorts of clubs, whether they be for high schoolers, college students, or "adults." People can feel horribly alone before they realize they're not the only atheist around. Groups make great support networks where people can discuss common themes and not feel completely alienated by all the religious organizations.

And with these groups comes visibility for atheists. Students and parents are shocked not because this group is saying anything mean or against religion - they're merely saying that they exist. People are terrified of that. Knowing someone believes differently than you can shake your faith, or make you worried about the faith of your children. People aren't going to start accepting atheists until they realize that we're everywhere and that we're normal, moral human beings.

To Skyler, hang in there! There will be times where you take so much flack that you'll wonder if it's worth it. You have to remember that you're doing a wonderful thing and making your community a better place for atheists in the future.

If you want to support Skyler and the NRS, you can join their Facebook group.
(Via Skeptic Money)

My final semester of college!

Wow, typing that title was somewhat unnerving. On Monday I start my final semester here at Purdue. I can't believe that I'll be graduating in four months, but at the same time I am totally ready. I've had a bad case of senioritis this year because I'm so excited for graduate school - I'm mentally done taking required filler classes that have nothing to do with my interests. I'm ready to focus on genetics and evolution and to spend most of my time on independent research...somewhere. Still won't know where for a little while.

But until then, I still have to go to class. I actually have a super easy semester because I planned it that way - killed myself the last three years to finish on an easy note. So here's what I have in store:

Evolution - Yes folks, in four months I will graduate with two majors - Genetics and Ecology, Evolution & Environmental Biology - and I haven't taken Evolution yet. You can't take it until you junior year because of prerequisites, and last year the professor was on sabbatical so they just completely dropped the class. Somehow I have already taken Human Evolution, Evolutionary Psychology, Evolution of Behavior, and Sex & Evolution, yet I've never actually learned the basic introductory material about evolution. What the hell, Purdue.

I'm not sure how to feel about this class, really. On one hand I'm excited, because evolution is, well, awesome. On the other hand, I'm afraid that it's going to be boring because I already know so much about evolution. I have a feeling it's going to be fairly introductory, since none of the intro level Biology courses really cover evolution (which is a total shame).

Introduction to Social Psychology - My final psychology class to fulfill my minor (did you know I'm a Psychology minor? Well I am!). I'm feeling mildly apathetic toward this class. I really wanted to take Abnormal Psychology, but it was the exact same time as Evolution - the TWO classes I wanted to take of course had a conflict. Whatever, it's probably for the best - the last thing I need to do is come home convinced that I'm a bipolar hedonistic borderline schizophrenic or something.

Biomedical Ethics - I'm taking this class on a complete whim just because I needed something to fill up my schedule so I can still be a full time student. Topics include abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, and human experimentation. Depending on the professor and my classmates, it's either going to be really awesome, or I'm going to be in a frothing rage every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. For my sanity, I hope for the former. For blogging fodder, you all better hope for the latter.

Biology Honors Thesis Seminar - A one credit class where we meet once a week for half the semester to watch each other present about our research. Woo.

TAing - I'm teaching again, yay! It's a different class than before. Last semester I helped a professor and a grad student come up with the curriculum for a new NSF-funded freshman honors biology laboratory. The idea is to teach freshman lab skills by doing real research rather than cookbook boring labs. I'm not sure if I can talk about the project in detail, but it involves mutating bacteria and genetics, so what's not to love? Well, we'll see if the freshmen love it. I'm just happy I didn't get stuck teaching the Drosophila Breeding Genetics Lab From Hell, which would have been my other option.

Other than that I have the Society of Non-Theists to run (and to plan for my successors), two papers to finish and submit to journals, grad school interviews and visits, the blog, the Book Idea, and...yeah, okay, maybe this is going to be an insane semester like always. I don't understand the whole concept of "free time," do I?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Word evolution and the problem with "atheist"

The meaning of some words change over time. It's a common trait of the English language, but can have some potentially negative effects when the words are associated with controversial topics. Most people nowadays consider "idiot" to mean "stupid" or "foolish" and have completely forgotten it once referred to people with actual mental disabilities. The real trouble is when you're stuck in the middle of a word's evolution, and you see generational differences. Hearing "that's so gay" makes me cringe, but many young people don't bat an eye because they sincerely don't intend it to be derogatory - it's just the meaning of the word to them and has nothing to do with ill will towards homosexuals.

I'm sure people write whole dissertations on this topic, but I'm going to focus on one word with particular interest to me and my readers: atheist.

I think we're seeing the meaning of "atheist" slowly change because of the new vocal atheist movement. Some of you may be thinking, "How can the meaning of "atheist" change? It's simple!" Hang in there for a minute and let me try to explain, first looking at the typical dictionary definition you'll get for "atheist."

From Merriam Webster's Dictionary:
atheist (n): one who believes that there is no deity
Look okay? It seems to get the key point correct - no deity - but the wording is different than what the majority of modern atheists would use. Here's how I would define atheist:
atheist (n): one who lacks a belief in a deity or deities
I think there are two key differences between the definition atheists give for themselves, and the definition others give for us:
  1. Some of you may think this is just semantics, but I think there really is a difference between "active belief that something does not exist" and "an absence of belief in the existence of something." The former requires some sort of proof to validate it, and it is practically impossible to prove a negative. The latter, however, is a completely reasonable view and in line with scientific thinking - it is the null hypothesis, that we will assume the simplest thing (nothing existing) until given evidence that falsifies that. (Nearly) everyone uses this sort of thinking when it comes to unicorns, fairies, and the boogieman under the bed.
  2. The original definition only includes "deity," which is very monotheism-centric. Atheists do not believe in any deities, not just the one (probably the Judeo-Christian God) that the dictionary assumes we're talking about (I mean, obviously all those other silly ones don't exist, right?)
Maybe these things aren't really a change in meaning, but rather an illustration of the past biases of dictionary creators (and the populous they're drawing their definitions from). The majority of American-English speakers are theists, so it makes sense that we'd see these artifacts in official definitions.

Being able to define ourselves is great, but the problem comes when we keep changing how we use the word atheist. Often times I see it expanded to be:
atheist (n): one who lacks a belief in a deity or deities and the supernatural
This is different from the original meaning, but most atheists don't have too big of a problem with it because they also don't believe in the supernatural. However, there are atheists out there who believe in ghosts, astrology, Qi, and other woo-filled superstitions that aren't supreme beings. Does that mean they're not atheists? No. It just means the the majority of atheists, or at least the vocal ones leading the "New Atheist" movement, tightly associate skepticism and atheism.

If we stopped right there at "not believing in any supernatural BS," we'd probably be okay. But atheists have recently developed a very bad habit - they use "atheist" interchangeably with "secular humanist." These are the tenets of secular humanism, stolen from Wikipedia:
  • Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
  • Reason, evidence, scientific method – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
  • Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
  • Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
  • This life – A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
  • Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
  • Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
Atheists are constantly promoting these tenets under the guise of atheism rather than secular humanism - probably because most atheists are also secular humanists, and the term "secular humanist" would likely generate even more confusion than "atheist" to a layperson. When have you heard an atheist activist simply say "I don't believe in God" and then leave it at that? They wouldn't be an activist then. We talk about how religious and supernatural thinking effects politics, we promote science, we debate ethics, and we contemplate the existence of God in a search for truth. Dawkins does it, Hitchens does it, Myers does it, piddly random bloggers like me do it...it's more common than not.

So what's the problem?

The problem is our answer to the "Atheism is a religion!" trope. No, I do not think atheism (or secular humanism for that matter) is a religion. There is no dogma, no churches, no rituals, no scripture, no official leaders. Even though we have books and public figures, we often disagree and still think for ourselves. We're a diverse group, and our most common answer to the "Atheism is a religion!" assertion is usually something like "Atheism is merely the lack of belief in god(s). That is the only commonality we have."

But is it? I think the meaning of atheism is starting to change to encompass the tenets of secular humanism. There's nothing inherently wrong with this other than the fact that we're going to confuse the hell out of many theists and maybe come off as disingenuous. They can easily shoot back with "Nothing in common? But you just went on about how atheists have these certain ethics!"

I think the best thing we can do is be careful in our wording. When you're talking about a trait other than a lack of belief, qualify it by saying that "most" or "many" atheists feel that way, but that there is no dogma about it. Mention that "many" atheists are also secular humanists before diving into the tenets. Or at the very least, admit that the word "atheist" is slowly changing into something more complex and human - that we're finally defining ourselves by our positive qualities rather than what we don't believe in.

Maybe this really isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But I know I'm excited that the atheist movement is something more than a lack of belief, and I'd really like to be able to properly define it to an outsider.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sherlock Holmes too gay? Is that even possible?

Robert Downey Jr., sexy sexy man and star of the new Sherlock Holmes movie, was recently on Letterman and made the following statements:
Letterman: “Now, from what I recall, there was always the suggestion that there was a different level of relationship between Sherlock and Dr. Watson.”
Downey: “You mean that they were homos…”
Letterman: [Laughs.] “Well…”
Downey: “That is what you’re saying?”
Letterman: “In a manner of speaking, yes…that they were closer than just out solving crimes. It’s sort of touched on in the film, but he has a fiancee, so we’re not certain. Is that right?”
Downey: “She could be a beard. Who knows?”
Paul Shaffer: “What are they, complete screamers? Is that what you’re saying?”
Downey: “Why don’t we observe the clip and let the audience decide if he just happens to be a very butch homosexual. Which there are many. And I’m proud to know certain of them.”
If anyone saw Sherlock Holmes, you can't deny the occasional homoerotic subtext. I admit my Gay Subtext Dial is turned up higher than most, and I can titter girlishly at almost anything, but some things in this movie were just blatant. Holmes's jealousy over Watson's sudden new fiancee. The constant couple-like bickering. Holmes's devilish sounding "Don't get too excited" as he's digging through Watson's pocket.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the movie.

And needless to say, others did not.
The US copyright holder, Andrea, Plunkett, has threatened to withdraw permission for a sequel if Holmes and Watson become gayer.

She told Total Film: “I hope this is just an example of Mr Downey's black sense of humour. It would be drastic, but I would withdraw permission for more films to be made if they feel that is a theme they wish to bring out in the future.

"I am not hostile to homosexuals, but I am to anyone who is not true to the spirit of the books.”

Oh boo.

Is it really not in the spirit of the books? People have been contemplating Holmes's sexuality for a long while now. He's attached at the hip to Watson, shows varying levels of fear, disdain, and disinterest in women...and the late 19th century wasn't exactly a time where one hopped around flamboyantly and wore their homosexuality on their sleeve, so his actions are in alignment with closeted homosexual behavior. It's personally reasonable to take that sort of interpretation.

And you just know when someone starts with the effective "I'm not a homophobe, but" that they're about to say something stupid. Renee sums up my sentiment nicely:
When we watch a Sherlock Holmes movie, is it really that disturbing to have the character portrayed as gay? He is not going to whip out his penis instead of a magnify glass to solve crime. It is just a facet of his life, in the same way that it would be a part of heterosexual mans life. Honestly, the hand wringing and whining over teh gay really needs to end. We need to acknowledge that gay men and women are a part of every single society and as such, portrayals of them should be considered acceptable.
And for the people who think that gaying up Holmes would scare people away from the box office...well, I've already talked about that. With much fangirling and drool.