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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Clarifications on bullshit

As you have almost certainly surmised if you read Dan Savage's apology, it isn't an apology for much. It's more of a clarification-- an explanation of 1) how the distinction between how you act (pansy-assedly) and who you are (a pansy-ass) matters, but not as much as we sometimes like to pretend, and 2) the presumably uncontroversial-to-anyone-but-bible-literalists-and-people-who-want-to-portray-LBGT-advocates-as-bullies point that noting the existence of non-truths in a holy text is absolutely not the same as insulting the minds and practices of everyone who treats that text as holy.

Call me biased, but I wouldn't call Christianity "bullshit." That's because I know that Christianity is a lot more than a set of propositions that may or may not be true and practices that are demonstrably counter-productive-- unlike, say, the so-called Law of Attraction. But if the Law of Attraction inspired the practice of charity, the creation of beautiful and enduring art and architecture, the gathering of families across the world in a single silent night of appreciating each other's company, well...I wouldn't call that bullshit either. I have a Tim-Minchin-like regard for the celebration of Christmas with one's family, even if for us it almost never involves actually drinking white wine in the sun:


If that doesn't get you at least a little bit misty, I suggest that you might be a cyborg. Best to get that checked out.

Christianity is an identity, for some people a highly consuming one. It's kind of disconcerting to see atheists forget that, as if they have no recollection of why the process of deconversion was so arduous in the first place. Some of us took our faith very seriously, and it was that same seriousness that caused us to consider it and consider it and examine it closely with tweezers and microscopes and fine-toothed combs, and eventually after so much examination and analysis...cast it aside.

That's why I can't agree with commentaries like this one, and understand why Savage felt the need to elaborate on precisely what he was labeling "bullshit" and why. I still don't think any apology was necessary, but it's unfortunate to see so many complaints that the brush he was painting with just wasn't broad enough.

Bullshit

In today's news, a group of high school students were offended and walked out of a talk because they were told that they are too moral to do things like stoning women for being non-virgins on their wedding night or owning slaves. The person giving this talk called them cowards for doing so. When word of this event reached certain sources afterward, they loudly condemned the speaker for being a bully. The speaker then apologized.

Yes, I'm serious.

What, you want more details? Fine...

The speaker was sex advice columnist and gay rights advocate Dan Savage. The talk he was giving was about bullying of LGBT students and causes of such. And what happened was....well, just watch the video:


It's important to actually hear what was said and done, yes, but mostly so that you can recognize the correct interpretation of what happened rather than what is being reported, which is that Savage went on an "anti-Christian tirade." No, he did not. Nor did he go on an anti-Christianity tirade, or even really an anti-bible tirade. He did not bully Christian students, he didn't abuse anyone, and-- let's note-- he didn't offend most of the Christian students in the room, at least not enough to make them walk out. I don't find it likely that the loud cheers and applause when Savage dryly remarked "It's funny, as someone who's on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the bible, how pansy-assed some people react when you push back" came from a group made up of all atheists, Muslims, and Jews. I think it included at least a few Christians who recognized how absurd it is to be offended at the suggestion that the Bible includes descriptions of and outright commands to do some silly or even horrible things, and modern Christians are content to leave such things to history rather than interpret them as rules for living today. And that if Christians can do that with stoning and slavery, they can do it with attacking homosexuals.

Because that's what Savage said. Only he chose to describe those silly and/or horrible things as "bullshit," which apparently was a bridge too far. Or at least I hope that's what got so many outraged posteriors out of uncomfortable-looking conference hall seating. I hope it wasn't a belief that it's actually really unfortunate that we can't stone fornicating women to death anymore, because such is God's true and enduring will.

I realize that language was the primary concern that caused the movie Bully to ironically be rated as appropriate only for ears older than those of the victims depicted in the documentary. But really, no high school student hasn't heard the word "bullshit" countless times. As the title of a popular long-running show on Showtime, it barely rates as profanity. But was it an inaccurate word for what Savage was describing? In his apology, he says
On other occasions I've made the same point without using the word bullshit...
We can learn to ignore what the bible says about gay people the same way we have learned to ignore what the Bible says about clams and figs and farming and personal grooming and menstruation and masturbation and divorce and virginity and adultery and slavery. Let's take slavery. We ignore what the Bible says about slavery in both the Old and New Testaments. And the authors of the Bible didn't just fail to condemn slavery. They endorsed slavery: "Slaves obey your masters." In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris writes that the Bible got the easiest moral question humanity has ever faced wrong. The Bible got slavery wrong. What are the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? I'd put those odds at about 100%. 
It shouldn't be hard for modern Christians to ignore what the bible says about gay people because modern Christians—be they conservative fundamentalists or liberal progressives—already ignore most of what the Bible says about sex and relationships. Divorce is condemned in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus Christ condemned divorce. Yet divorce is legal and there is no movement to amend state constitutions to ban divorce. Deuteronomy says that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night she shall be dragged to her father's doorstep and stoned to death. Callista Gingrich lives. And there is no effort to amend state constitutions to make it legal to stone the third Mrs. Gingrich to death.
...and maybe I shouldn't have used the word bullshit in this instance. But while it may have been a regrettable word choice, my larger point stands: If believers can ignore what the Bible says about slavery, they can ignore what the Bible says about homosexuality. (The Bible also says some beautiful things that are widely ignored: "Sell what you possess and give to the poor... and come, follow me.” You better get right on that, Joel.) 
Finally, here's Mark Twain on the Bible:
It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies. 
 I'm not guilty of saying anything that hasn't been said before and—yes—said much better. What is "bullshit" in this context but "upwards of a thousand lies" in modern American English? 
That part, at least, doesn't sound very apologetic. What Savage was actually apologizing for is calling the students who walked out "pansy-assed," which sounds like a pretty good description to me for rising up from one's chair and walking out almost the moment a speaker even mentions your holy text in a discussion on atrocities that once were seen as acceptable but are now easily recognizable as abhorrent. That is what happened, and I've seen claims in a few places that the walkout was planned in advance, before Savage even hit the stage.

Hemant Meta's discussion of this says that Savage should not have used the words "bullshit" and "pansy-assed" because they are alienating. Perhaps they are, but that isn't necessarily an argument against using them. For one thing, the students Savage called "pansy-assed" were already feeling good and alienated. And I thought it pretty clever to use one of the predominate epithets hurled against gay men for the past few decades to describe a walkout in response to the suggestion that the bible is a source of bigotry and bullying. It's not the source, however, as Meta surprisingly claims:
So did he go too far in talking about the Bible? Nope. If you’re a journalist covering this subject, you should know about the root cause of anti-gay bigotry: The Bible. I don’t know how anyone could give a speech like this without talking about religion.
"The Bible" ! = "religion." It wouldn't even be accurate to say that religion is the root cause of anti-gay bigotry, but it would be a lot closer. Many religions contain moral codes in which some notion of sexual purity and prescribed gender roles are important and therefore men who "act like women" and women who "act like men" by sleeping with members of the same sex are regarded as unnatural and profane. Ultimately, however, mistrust of any and all people who step outside of rigid gender roles is so widespread that I believe it precedes and is imported into religion by people who want to believe God not only shares but is the source of their bigotry. Indeed, you can't-- or at least, shouldn't-- give a talk addressing bullying and general mistreatment of gays without addressing how religion contributes to it. But that doesn't mean holding all religious people solely accountable for homophobia, which Savage took great pains not to do. That was the point of noting that there are all sorts of things good religious people no longer believe or practice even if old doctrines say they should, because they (the people) are good. People who have been taught that God considers homosexuality sinful change their position on this all of the time, usually because they are actually exposed to the existence of homosexuals who are decent, kind, normal people who aren't harming anyone.  "Therefore," the non-homophobic religious person concludes, "I must have been given bad information about what God thinks is sinful in this regard. Surely in order to be considered sinful something must be harmful to someone, and homosexuality isn't."

The existence of this sort of person must be acknowledged and respected, and my hunch is that Dan Savage's audience was largely composed of them. Those are the people who laughed when he said "The bible guys in the hall can come back now because I'm done beating up the bible," because they knew he wasn't really beating up the bible. And he sure as hell wasn't beating up Christianity or Christians. He was beating up the notion that it's acceptable to hypocritically discard other relics of religious hatred from 2,000 years ago because they don't apply to how we should live today, but not when it comes to beating on the gays. And that's a message for which nobody should apologize.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Weekend web readin', special edition: sex work

From Skepchick, Guest Post: IGN Agrees, Women are Whores
Money quote:
There aren’t many words more denigrating to women than ‘whore’. It’s the one that summons mental images of domestic violence, of the worst sort of reduction to a sexual object. That Deadwood smack of ‘disposable, beatable hole’ makes me physically cringe. When I see ‘attention whore’, I grit my teeth, but plain old whore? You can’t call a woman much worse. 
So when is it appropriate to use it? I know! As a punchline in a parody video to replace a horse! You know that Old Spice commercial from a few years back that everyone had forgotten about by now? Ends with “I’m on a horse”. Ripe for parody! It works out beautifully because not only does ‘whore’ sound exactly like ‘horse’, but women and horses are roughly equal! Especially funny is getting the woman on all fours in a supplicant position and sitting on her like she’s your sex worker. Sorry, whore.
From Greta Christina's Blog, "Feminists have made sex workers' lives so much more difficult": A Guest Post from Sarah van Brussel
Money quote:
During the conference I had the opportunity to talk to sex worker activists who work on human rights issues from all over the world. One thing I kept hearing over and over again was how feminists have made sex workers’ work so much more difficult. I usually wear my ‘feminist badge’ with pride, but this shocked and shamed me. An activists from the Turkish organisation Kadin Kapisi said that when she became a sex worker activist she expected to be fighting with fundamentalists, traditionalists, bigots and other conservative people, but instead she spends most of her time fighting feminists and socialists. An activist from the English Collective of Prostitutes said it even more succinctly: “we live in fear of raids and ‘rescue’”. The experience of speaking directly with sex workers has made me even more determined to be the best ally I can be. 
I know these activists women and men as incredibly passionate, smart and above all brave people, and it fills me with rage when people like Taslima Nasreen dismiss them as victims and deny them their agency. 
One of the highlights of the AWID Forum for me was the launch of the first fund led by and for sex workers, the Red Umbrella Fund (Mama Cash is administratively hosting the Fund). The mission of this new fund is to “strengthen and ensure the sustainability of the sex worker rights movement by catalyzing new funding specifically for sex worker-led organisations and national, regional and global networks.”
From Feministe, Why the Sex Positive Movement is Bad for Sex Workers
Money quote:
Emphasizing sex and pleasure harms the sex workers who aren’t firmly in the self-defined population of being sex positive and sexually educated, by unintentionally shaming them for not being enthusiastic participants in the sex they have at work. When engaging in the trade or sale of sex is helping an individual to meet their basic physiological needs, they often do not have the personal resources to channel energy into making the experience of transactional sex perfectly pleasurable for either themselves or their client. Not every sexual experience, whether paid or not, has to be perfectly erotic. This is an unreasonable expectation, and one that makes it more difficult for people who have negative experiences to speak openly about their truths with sex work or sexuality more generally. 
The “‘poor abused whores’ lobby” spews plenty of toxic garbage about the experiences of people coerced into the sex industry and their preferred (unattainable, abolitionist) solutions, often without letting people with those experiences speak for themselves. However, if feminist sex positive sex workers also silence these voices, we are not contributing as positively to the cause of sex workers’ rights as we want to believe. 
“Happy Hooker” vs “Exploited Victim”: Defeating the Dichotomy 
In the media trainings I do, I ask the participants to come up with a main message that, if they had two minutes, they want their audience to receive. They then need to back up this message with two or three talking points, one sentence statements that can be evidence-based, use logic or other rhetorical devices to give the audience a different perspective. Every time I have done the training, someone is eager to express the message that sex workers are average people with many dimensions: we are mothers, brothers, taxpayers, neighbors, pet enthusiasts, gourmet cooks, etc. Inevitably, one of the supporting talking points they come up with is, “You wouldn’t be able to distinguish me from anyone else you walk by; I’m not a street worker or a junkie.” But some sex workers – maybe not sex workers in your immediate circle – are street workers and junkies, and we cannot throw them under the bus as we have been doing. To define oneself as essentially normal, in opposition to drug-using, street based workers, is to imply that they are not as worthy as rights as those of us who fit better into society. Furthermore, when we define ourselves in opposition to what we view as negative portrayals of sex work, we silence people who have had these experiences, and we communicate to them that they are not welcome in our community.
From Greta Christina's Blog (again), Sex Work and a Catch-22 
Money quote:
When I was writing yesterday’s post, asking current and former sex workers to talk about their experiences in the industry and describing my own, I stumbled across an interesting Catch-22… one that I realized makes it harder to talk about my experiences in the industry. This particular Catch-22 has to do with my motivations for getting into sex work: did I do it out of economic necessity, or for personal and sexual pleasure, or for some combination of the two? 
The Catch-22 is this: If I say that I became a nude dancer primarily for the money, then I feed into the stereotype of sex workers as victims. I feed into the stereotype that nobody really wants to do sex work, that sex work is always horribly unpleasant at best and abusive or exploitative at worst, and that there is no reason anyone would ever do it other than coercion or desperation. 
But if I say that I became a nude dancer primarily for reasons other than money, I get targeted as a dilettante. My experiences in the business gets dismissed as trivial or fake, not the “real” experience of “real,” in-the-trenches sex workers. It’s basically a No True Scotsman fallacy. If you got into the business for any reason other than economic pressure, and/or if you enjoy working as a sex worker, then you’re not a “real” sex worker — since nobody could possibly enjoy anything about working as a sex worker. And if I didn’t feel great economic pressure to get into the business, and felt like I had other choices, then speaking about my own experiences is somehow seen as diminishing the experiences of people who did get into the business out of necessity. 
Plus, of course, if I say that sexual pleasure was my primary motivation for getting into the industry, or even a significant part of it, I get dismissed as a slut. 
The reality, for me, is that economic pressure and sexual pleasure were both motivating factors.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Weekend web readin'

From Reason, Born This Way? Nature, nurture, narratives, and the making of our political personalities
Money quote:
The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories. Among the most important stories we know are stories about ourselves, and these “life narratives” are McAdams’ third level of personality. McAdams’ greatest contribution to psychology has been his insistence that psychologists connect their quantitative data (about the two lower levels, which we assess with questionnaires and reaction-time measures) to a more qualitative understanding of the narratives people create to make sense of their lives. These narratives are not necessarily true stories; they are simplified and selective reconstructions of the past, often connected to an idealized vision of the future. But even though life narratives are to some degree post hoc fabrications, they still influence people’s behavior, relationships, and mental health.
Life narratives are saturated with morality. They provide a bridge between a developing adolescent self and an adult political identity. Here, for example, is how Keith Richards describes a turning point in his life in his recent autobiography. Richards, the famously sensation-seeking and nonconforming lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, was once a marginally well-behaved member of his school choir. The choir won competitions with other schools, so the choirmaster got Richards and his friends excused from many classes so they could travel to ever-larger choral events. But when the boys reached puberty and their voices changed, the choirmaster dumped them. They were then informed that they would have to repeat a full year in school to make up for their missed classes, and the choirmaster didn’t lift a finger to defend them. It was a “kick in the guts,” Richards says. It transformed him in ways that had obvious political ramifications: “The moment that happened, Spike, Terry and I, we became terrorists. I was so mad, I had a burning desire for revenge. I had reason then to bring down this country and everything it stood for. I spent the next three years trying to fuck them up. If you want to breed a rebel, that’s the way to do it.…It still hasn’t gone out, the fire. That’s when I started to look at the world in a different way, not their way anymore. That’s when I realized that there’s bigger bullies than just bullies. There’s them, the authorities. And a slow-burning fuse was lit.” 
Richards may have been predisposed by his personality to become a liberal, but his politics were not predestined. Had his teachers treated him differently—or had he simply interpreted events differently when creating early drafts of his narrative—he could have ended up in a more conventional job surrounded by conservative colleagues and sharing their moral matrix. But once Richards came to understand himself as a crusader against abusive authority, there was no way he was ever going to vote for the British Conservative Party. His own life narrative just fit too well with the stories that all parties on the left tell in one form or another.
From The Agitator, "Convicted defendants left uninformed of forensic flaws found by Justice dept."
Money quote:
Taxpayer-paid employees of the Justice Department had direct and exclusive knowledge that there may be hundreds of innocent people in prison, they knew that flawed forensics in these cases needed to be reviewed, and their justification for not doing more as these people continued to rot in prison was, Hey, we did the bare minimum required of us by law. 
The immediately obvious problem here is that the ethical requirements need to be strengthened. If the task force charged with investigating possible wrongful convictions is only required to report what it finds to the prosecutor offices that won those convictions—and who obviously have a strong incentive to keep the new information under wraps—what the hell was the point of forming the task force in the first place? And why keep the task force findings from the public? 
But even beyond the problematic ethical requirements, I’m having a hard time fathoming how no one on this task force felt morally compelled to go beyond those requirements—to, you know, actually reach out defense attorneys, or attempt to actually reach the convicts or their families. How in the world can you possess this sort of information, then still sleep at night, year after year, knowing that (a) the information obviously isn’t reaching the people who have an incentive to actually put it to use,  (b) you’re one of the few people who could make that happen, and (c) because the information was only available to select group of people, if you or one of your colleagues doesn’t act, no one else will?
From Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Cops Slam Obama for Same Old "Drug War" Budget 
Money quote:
"The president sure does talk a good game about treating drugs as a health issue but so far it's just that: talk," said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and a former narcotics officer in Baltimore. "Instead of continuing to fund the same old 'drug war' approaches that are proven not to work, the president needs to put his money where his mouth is." 
The release of the drug budget comes just days after President Obama returned from the Summit of the Americas meeting in Colombia, where he was pressed to open up a debate on legalizing and regulating drugs by sitting Latin American presidents like Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala. 
"The chorus of voices calling for a real debate on ending prohibition is growing louder all the time," said Franklin. "President Obama keeps saying he is open to a discussion but he never seems willing to actually have that discussion. Polls show that three out of four U.S. voters think the 'war on drugs' is a failure and a majority now support marijuana legalization. The time for real change is now, but at the Summit of the Americas President Obama announced more than $130 million in aid to fund the continued effort to arrest drug traffickers in Latin America. This prohibition strategy hasn't worked in the past and it cannot work in the future. Latin American leaders know it, and President Obama must know it. Let's stop the charade and begin to bring drugs under control through legalization."
From Casaubon's Book, Context is Everything 
Money quote:
Quite a number of readers suggested I respond to James McWilliams' piece in the New York Times "The Myth of Sustainable Meat." McWilliams has garnered quite a bit of attention by critiquing the idea of local food, and in some cases, some of his analyses, as far as they go, are right. For example, McWilliams is quite right that if everyone in America eats as much beef as they always have, but converts to grassfed beef his figures are roughly correct. 
"... If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country's land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs)." 
In this case, the call for sustainable egg production I made last week (in response to a rather better New York Times article, in fact) would seem to be insanely misguided. After all, as several readers pointed out, eggs would be more expensive, and we probably couldn't eat as many of them. Woah - so that means eggs are totally unsustainable, right? 
Well, no, it doesn't - because while backyard and small scale egg production can't produce as many eggs as cheaply, we don't need them to - we need to eat fewer eggs and better ones..Neither McWilliams absolutism nor Kristoff's are an appropriate response to the problem of an unsustainable agriculture - any more than "hey, we can't raise billions of eggs easily in backyards and we couldn't possibly adjust our diets, so hey, factory farms it is."
From Blag Hag, Dear E.O. Wilson: Please retire or stick to ants
Money quote:
I want to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt. Maybe when he said “no one responded” he meant “no one responded in a way that we think invalidates our hypothesis.” But even then, the rest of his talk was incredibly sloppy. He asserted that human eusociality evolved via group selection, but didn’t offer a shred of evidence the whole time. No proposed mechanism, no genetic evidence, nothing. He just waved the Wand of Group Selection and asserted it happened. He asserted that humans first ate cooked meat by scavenging carcasses from wildfires. That’s one hypothesis among many, but he presented it as a known truth and gave no evidence or citation for it. He asserted that eusociality only evolved recently but again gave absolutely no evidence as to why he thought so. I mean, maybe he’s right, but eusociality isn’t exactly something that fossilizes well, so it could have possibly existed in past species. At least put some sort of qualifier or explanation of your reasoning out there. 
When someone in the Q&A asked him to explain why people disagree with group selection so much, he didn’t explain the objections or why he thinks kin selection was wrong. He instead stated that his paper was reviewed by a mathematician from Harvard and that it got into the prestigious journal Nature. Therefore it is right, or something. Here’s an alternative hypothesis: Your paper got published in Nature because you’re insanely famous and it was incredibly controversial, which Nature eats up. Nature is more about prestige and sexy topics than good science nowadays. Its retraction rate has increased ten fold in the last ten years when its number of papers published has only increased by 44%. 
Look, I’m not a priori against group selection. Maybe Wilson is right and group selection is applicable in more situations that we currently think. But I’m not going to accept it until he presents compelling evidence, which he utterly failed to do. You can’t just say “Harvard” and “Nature” and leave it at that.

Friday, April 20, 2012

My new favorite GIF

The Film Sack podcast discussed Dazed and Confused this week, so I watched it again...for something like the 20th time. And this GIF was the result:

So many potential uses. 

(What's the Film Sack podcast, you ask? What, have you been living under a rock? Go here, and enjoy.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

How to be an atheist who doesn't hate religion

Are you an atheist? Do you hate religion? "Well, I don't hate it," I can hear you say. "Or at least, I don't hate religious people. I just think that fundamentally it's better not to be religious, because religion isn't true. And I do really hate a lot of what people do in the name of their religious beliefs, such as trying to pass laws to make me follow them. It's not like I go around being a jerk to religious people and telling them their beliefs are wrong just for the hell of it." I hear you. "I'm not even going to say that religion is a greater force for negative than positive in the world because clearly a lot of people have religious motivations for being moral." I hear that too.

Let me give you two cases to consider of atheists who are not altogether opposed to religion, along with a suggestion of who to emulate.

Case #1: Jonathan Haidt
Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who studies morality. His stance is that the vast majority of moral judgments are intuitive in nature, reached more because of gut feelings than deliberate reflection. In order to better understand the bases from which people from different political factions derive their emphasis, he has articulated separate domains of moral concern such as reciprocity, purity, and liberty and argues that the reason liberals and conservatives so often talk past each other is because they assume priorities for these domains differently. He says:
What's an atheist scientist like me doing writing good things about religion? I didn't start out this way. As a teenager, I had contempt for religion. I was raised Jewish, but when I read the Bible, I was shocked. It hardly seemed to me like a good guide for ethical behavior in modern times, what with all the smiting and stoning and genocide, some of it ordered by God. In college, I read other holy books, and they didn't make me any more positive toward religion. 
In my 20s, I obtained a Ph.D. in social psychology and began to study morality. I ignored religion in my studies. We don't need religion to be ethical, I thought. And yet, in almost every human society, religion has been intimately tied to ethics. Was that just a coincidence? 
In my 30s, I began to study the emotion of "moral elevation." That's the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you see acts of moral beauty. When you see someone do something kind, loyal, or heroic, you feel uplifted. You can feel yourself becoming a better person -- at least for a few minutes. 
Everyone who has watched an episode of Oprah knows the feeling, but there was absolutely no scientific research on this emotion. Studying moral elevation led me to study feelings of awe more generally, and before I knew it, I was trying to understand a whole class of positive emotions in which people feel as though they have somehow escaped from or "transcended" their normal, everyday, often petty self.

I was beginning to see connections between experiences as varied as falling in love, watching a sunset from a hilltop, singing in a church choir, and reading about a virtuous person. In all cases there's a change to the self -- a kind of opening to our higher, nobler possibilities. 
Now, one may or may not agree with Haidt about the importance of religious kinds of "moral elevation" (which you can read more about in his book The Happiness Hypothesis and apparently the newly published The Righteous Mind, which I haven't read yet but am eager to). Haidt believes that the moral domains are evolved tendencies-- and that includes the domain of purity, which is tied most directly to religion-- and there is considerable room for disagreement there. However, Haidt recognized some things which really shouldn't be a surprise:
  1. Religion is both causal (it makes things happen) and caused (things make religion happen), 
  2. We don't understand nearly enough about how either one works, and
  3. The causes and effects of religion can't be nearly summed up in the truth or falsity of religious beliefs
The latter proposition might seem questionable-- isn't it bad to believe false things, and good to believe true ones? Well, sure. But people reach beliefs for all sorts of reasons besides those beliefs being true-- in other words, because of biases-- in every part of life, in every culture across the world. Rather than thinking of biases as being deviations from our ordinary path of rationality, it would be more accurate to say that rationality is a deviation from our ordinary meandering path of bias. People have to be taught how to think critically, how to be skeptical, because it isn't intuitive. Once Haidt discovered this about morality generally, he started applying it to politics and religion and suddenly disagreements about such things started to make a lot more sense. 

Case #2:  Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton is a Swiss philosopher. In contrast to Haidt, who came to understand the relevance of understanding religion scientifically, de Botton seems almost allergic to science. However, he doesn't hate religion-- in fact, he's enamored enough of it to title his new book Religion for Atheists, and some statements he has made in it and elsewhere have a lot of atheists scratching their heads. Such as "Probably the most boring thing you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is 'true'." This matter might be boring to de Botton and others who reside in countries where religious belief is more settled in the realm of the theological and less in public life, but it's a top concern to theists and atheists alike in places where this is absolutely not the case, and it's startlingly myopic for him not to recognize that. Further, de Botton's characterization of the abandonment of religion and pitfalls that he alleges exist in the process are so bizarre that I've seen several question whether he is, in fact, an atheist:
In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to lose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked. 
Now, it is important to stress that it is quite possible to believe in nothing and remember all these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I simply want to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what is missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely. By all means, we can dismiss him, but with great sympathy, nostalgia, care and thought.
This sounds like a list of concerns of someone desperately trying to hang onto faith-- not someone who has left it behind. There is no real evidence to support the idea that these are things to worry about, and arguably more showing that these tendencies, especially "placing the human being at the center stage of everything," might be far more encouraged by religion than the lack of it. Describing atheists as "believing in nothing" is a good way to piss off many of them (there being all kinds of things to believe in besides gods, most of which are non-controversial), but more irritating to me is the unspoken assumption that in order to lose one's faith properly, a person must take great care to do so with "great sympathy, nostalgia, care and thought." How does one do that, exactly-- pause for a few months in between concluding that there is no such thing as Hell and deciding that the same thing is probably true of Heaven in order to focus empathetically on the concerns of people who believe in both?  

That sounds nice...I suppose...but it's not how making one's mind up works. Not all atheists used to be theists, of course, but for many of those of us who did, the de-conversion process was long and emotional. It involved consideration of how religious people can behave so poorly, if God is the source of morality. How to know the truth, when so many religions claim to have it (accompanied by penalties for those who disregard their particular brand of truth) and faith as the only "evidence" offered. Whether to be open about our doubts when it could cause detrimental effects in terms of family alienation, the workplace, and possibly even backlash in the greater community (as happened for Jessica Ahlquist). Whether there actually is any argument out there in support of God's existence that is easily logically refuted and has been, over and over and over (spoiler: nope). There really is nothing new under the sun when it comes to that-- nobody seems to have been converted to theistic in the first place by the argument from design, Pascal's Wager, the cosmological argument, and so on, but boy are those ancient arguments revived and reformulated to battle those philosophy text-pounding atheists! (After hearing Pascal's Wager for roughly the 4,000th time, I became strongly tempted to just link to the episode on that topic of Logically Critical). Point being, telling people that they need to exercise great care in the process of leaving their faith behind is not only misguided and impractical but also patronizing and insulting-- if there is something to think of, they have thought of it. 

Ed Brayton called de Botton a "concern troll" today, and I can see his point-- a concern troll is a person who presents him/herself as aligned with whatever cause is being discussed, but makes suggestions and recommendations which purport to be helpful but actually sound like they're coming from someone who is actually highly ignorant of and/or opposed to the cause. de Botton really does sound like if Ken Ham decided to re-brand himself as an atheist. 

So...quiz time! Which atheist-who-doesn't-hate-religion is a better role model?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Q: Who whines more than a feminist?

Ji Firepaw: Reformed cad
A: Why, whiners whining about feminists, of course!

1. A calm, well reasoned but pointed piece runs on WoW Insider criticizing the fact that a male NPC quest-giver in the Mists of Panderia beta greets male players by complimenting them on their strength, but female players with "You're some kind of gorgeous, aren't you?"

2. Blizzard alters the quest text so that the character simply tells male and female characters alike that they appear fit for battle.

3. Players throw a raging fit on the game's feedback forum declaiming the power of a few "PC" feminists to ruin everyone's fun with their hypersensitivity. The first post in the thread is marked as "highly rated," and the thread is currently at 45 pages and counting. All to bitch about a slight modification to make an NPC not sound like a lecher and strike a small blow against the male power fantasy/female sex fantasy dichotomy.

Yeah, I'm sure it ruined the game for you...this thing that you never would've missed if the dialogue had been different in the first place, and which doesn't bother you so it must not bother anyone. At least, not anyone who isn't a raging PC feminist, and we all know they don't count. Well, except to get a good whine on-- they're excellent for that.

The video WoW Insider included with their commentary isn't specifically related, but is awesome and deserves a watch:

More letter to the editor fun

All from the Wichita Eagle:

April 7th:

April 10th:

April 12th:

Today:


I'll be interested to see how long this goes on-- also whether any letters will be published from men unhappy about being portrayed as tricking women into using birth control so they can get the milk for free. "They" meaning the men, of course. Women don't like milk.

Weekend web readin', special edition: religion in video games

From Game Front, Questionable Religious Content
Money quote:
The game industry as a whole sends a really ridiculous message when it backs away from religious commentary. It’s an industry where beheadings, total body disruption, overt sexuality and jokes about poo run rampant, but where everybody gets suddenly very timid and serious whenever religion is brought up. I hate this idea that you can cut off heads, you can shoot old people in the face, but you can’t ever mention a real world religion. That is an absolutely bloody ludicrous position for an industry to be in. If I had to choose between murdering a person or criticizing a Biblical story, I know which one I’d pick as the lesser of two evils. Yet the videogame industry has it the other way around — depictions of extreme violence are acceptable, depictions of religion being imperfect are not.
From Gamespot, Escape from Mount Stupid: Religion 
Money quote video:

From Lousy Canuck, Religion in video games: more problematic than reality?
Money quote:
There are most certainly video games that laud faith, that reward peaceful resolution to conflicts, that equate being good with being angelic and being evil with being demonic, that operate morality as a binary sliding scale where your choices are between saving the box of kittens, or exploding them with a fireball spell. These games reify the morality as set forth by the Abrahamic religions, as with the BioWare offerings, or they ignore it altogether to present a wholly secular system for punishment as with the Elder Scrolls games. And yet, in many or all of these fantasy offerings, these deities actually exist within the context of the game world. They have tangible effects on the plot and characters and leave evidence for the players to collect and use as they see fit. 
It is only in this way that video games’ depictions of religion are generally problematized. No religion here in the real world can make any such claim to evidence. Otherwise, religion’s influence on humanity (or whatever race exists in the particular game world) is pretty much described to a tee in every one of the games Perreault examined.

Weekend web readin'

From Rationalist International, Sanal Edamarku under attack for exposing Catholic "miracle"
Money quote:
On 10th March, Sanal Edamaruku flew to Mumbai. The TV channel TV-9 had invited him to investigate a “miracle” that caused local excitement. He went with the TV team to Irla in Vile Parle to inspect the crucifix standing there in front of the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni. This crucifix had become the centre of attraction for an ever growing crowd of believers coming from far and wide. The news of the miracle spread like wild fire. For some days, there were little droplets of water trickling from Jesus’ feet. Hundreds of people came every day to pray and collect some of the “holy water” in bottles and vessels. Irla was about to become a pilgrimage centre. 
But Sanal Edamaruku spoilt this prospect. Within minutes, he clearly identified the source of the water (a drainage near a washing room) and the mechanism how it reached Jesus feet (capillary action). The local church leaders, present during his investigation, were far from pleased.
From Casaubon's Book, The Eggs are Yummy and Definitely Worth It!
Money quote:
Anyone who doesn't know that factory egg and poultry production is a nightmare - a nightmare of cruelty to chickens, contamination of your food, a nightmare of manure and dead animal disposal issues that threaten human health is not paying attention. Eating commercial chicken or eggs is an act of willful blindness, and the investigation into Kreider farms is just par for the course. 
This information has been available to everyone in the US for a decade and more, and promulgated in media, film, etc... Anyone who cares even a tiny bit about what they eat knows this. Most people who do not are actively choosing not to know.
From Greta Christina's Blog, Prostitution Is Not Sex Slavery 
Money quote:
Yes. Prostitution is often abusive and exploitative. So is the garment industry. So is the chocolate industry. In fact, abuses in both the garment and the chocolate industry are so widespread as to be endemic. It does not follow, however, that wearing clothes and eating chocolate are inherently and by their very nature abusive and exploitative, that nobody ever freely chooses to enter these industries, and that anyone who participates them is either an abuser or a victim. If we’re going to work to stop abuses and exploitation in the garment and chocolate industries, shaming and marginalizing people who wear clothes and eat chocolate — or who make clothes and pick cocoa beans, or who work in clothing stores and chocolate shops — is not a good place to start. 
Yes. Prostitution is often abusive and exploitative. I absolutely stand with you against any form of prostitution that is enslaving, patriarchal oppression, violent, not freely chosen, abusive, or in any way harmful. I am eager to find solutions to the all-too-common abuse and exploitation of prostitutes. But these solutions need to be based in reality. They cannot be based in the denial of the real experience of thousands upon thousands of people.
From Pandagon, The general election has started and the stupid levels are already off the charts
Money quote:
Oh boy, Rick Santorum is out of the race for five minutes and already there's stupid and disingenuous media outrages stemming from the general election. Buzz Feed has the story. It started when Mitt Romney started saying he understands the concerns of working women because he's married to one of those lady-things. This, of course, is part of his larger plan to appeal to female voters, which goes like this: 
1) Act like the only woman he's met in his life is his wife. She is All Women.
2) .......
3) Win the female vote.  
Hillary Rosen sensibly goes on TV and points out that this claim doesn't even make sense, since Ann Romney is hardly the expert, being a lifelong housewife married to an incredibly rich man who doesn't know the first thing about what it's like to try to live off a paycheck. 
But Romney has a secret weapon up her sleeve: Housewife Romanticization. She knows the feminine mystique still runs strong in this country, and that there's a strong tradition of idiotic platitudes about the greatness of housewives that exist to conceal very real concerns about inequality and female dependency, concerns that were raised in the 60s and haven't ever been completely killed off despite heavy use of meaningless platitudes.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Screw PETA"

"Be very, very quiet...I'm hunting squirrels."
This made my day:
Jennifer Lawrence is about to learn what it's like to have every little comment said in passing scrutinized -- yes, she's a bona fide star. 
The actress was dubbed "the coolest chick in Hollywood" by Rolling Stone, and in the magazine's latest issue she recounts her on-screen squirrel-skinning scene in the 2010 movie "Winter's Bone." 
"I should say it wasn't real, for PETA. But screw PETA," she told the magazine. 
Lawrence's interview has been on newsstands since March 30, but the comment went unnoticed until it was picked up by a hunting magazine, which praised Lawrence for the comment. 
In response to the actress's comment, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk told Gothamist, "[Lawrence] is young and the plight of animals somehow hasn't yet touched her heart. As Henry David Thoreau said, 'The squirrel you kill in jest, dies in earnest.' We are told that this squirrel was hit by a car, but when people kill animals, it is the animals who are 'screwed,' not PETA, and one day I hope she will try to make up for any pain she might have caused any animal who did nothing but try to eke out a humble existence in nature." 
Regardless, it doesn't sound as if Lawrence is going to be a PETA spokesperson anytime soon. The actress, who spent a month in Missouri with a rural family learning to shoot rifles and chop wood in preparation for "Winter's Bone," and was trained by four-time Olympic archer Khatuna Lorig for her role as Katniss in "The Hunger Games," also told Rolling Stone, that when she is done with her next movie she is “thinking about buying a house. And a big dog. And a shotgun.”
1. We could do with a lot more celebrities saying "Screw PETA," couldn't we? Maybe Lawrence could sit down and have a chat with these people.

2. I somehow doubt that Lawrence's youth is the reason her heart hasn't been touched by the plight of animals. Young female actresses and singers seem like PETA's bread and butter, all too ready and willing to support a disingenuous and vapid group that equates broiler hens to Holocaust victims and has tarnished the cause of animal rights so much by its antics that they should get kickbacks from ConAgra and shout-outs from Ted Nugent. Young women who have not so much as seen a farm in person seem like the best candidates to view all animals as cast members from Bambi, and to think that posing nude accompanied by the slogan "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" somehow draws attention and sympathy to the pathos of minks, foxes, rabbits, etc. bound for coat-dom rather than a mixture of eye-rolling, leering, and condescending chuckles.

3. I haven't seen "Winter's Bone" or "The Hunger Games," but am pretty sure that Lawrence's role in both films has something to do with...you know, hunger. That her character is herself trying to "eke out a humble existence in nature," and would be either an idiot or a masochist to turn down a nice bit of squirrel for dinner when it's offered. Ever watch one of those survival shows, like Out of Alaska or Man vs. Wild? The people on those shows try to shoot, snare, or catch animals for meat first and foremost for a reason, and it isn't because killing animals is fun or they don't care about their "plight." It's because meat is the best kind of food you can have if your goal is avoiding starvation most efficiently. Now, to be fair Newkirk's quote was reacting to Lawrence saying "Screw PETA" concerning the question of whether any animals were actually hurt in filming (at least, that's my impression). But Newkirk did toss out an unqualified statement condemning killing animals in general, so I feel comfortable calling it absurd and mindless without qualification.

4. In case it needs to be reiterated, I am concerned about animal rights. I think causing unnecessary suffering is wrong and should be avoided, which leads to a revulsion for all sorts of very common practices in the food industry that make many animals' lives torture from beginning to unfortunate end. But PETA is possibly the worst organization claiming to battle this suffering, and ridiculous hand-wringing over the death of any animal by Newkirk and patronizing denouncement of anyone who supports such a thing under any circumstances certainly earns the dismissal "Screw PETA."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Timesucker: Drawception

"Batman changing his pants"
Other people are currently obsessed with Draw Something, but I have neither iPhone nor iPad so I'm immune to the contagion. What has caught my interest lately (and time, and energy, but not money) is Drawception. It's a free browser-based game that combines drawing with Telephone. Their description:
1) A player begins a game with a short phrase - for example, "A cow jumping over the moon"
2) A randomly chosen player then draws that phrase
3) Another random player describes the new drawing
4) Yet another player draws the new description
5) Steps 3 and 4 repeat until 12 unique players have participated
When completed, the participating players can view the often unexpected and hilarious results!
They are indeed hilarious, and the two things that make this possible are a) the fact that it's random, and the only thing you will see when you click "play" is the drawing or interpretation of the person before you (or a box into which you type a phrase, if you're starting a new game) and b) it's timed, so each player only has ten minutes to finish his or her turn. This makes the game proceed relatively quickly. It is possible to skip a turn and not participate in the game that has been handed to you, but most people don't seem to do this. And most people by far are not skilled artists (though some are astonishingly so), so there's no need to get caught up in how pathetic your mouse-drawn sketches are. You just read things, draw things, and have fun. Here's a sample game in which I participated under the name Rillion. The game is still in its early beta, but has been getting all sorts of attention and new features are being added daily-- your profile now includes a list of games you've participated in, drawings you've done, favorite games you've seen, people you're following, and people who are following you.

Oh, and people who insist on drawing nothing but penises and poop, regardless of what the clue was? They get banned, quick-like. In addition to being able to upvote or downvote someone's drawing/interpretation, you can report them outright for screwing up the game. It's so much more fun to see people actually doing their best to figure out how on earth they're supposed to depict the bizarre phrases they were given, or figure out what the hell the drawing they're looking at is supposed to be.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

T-shirts for women

I really enjoy reading everything Greta Christina has to say on her blog. Sometimes I forget to check it, which is an oversight on my part, but every time I go and read through a new entry I feel edified by the experience. The same, sadly, cannot be said of the comment section. Which is not to disparage the comments-- they are usually dominated by insightful additions or reflections on the original post by readers. It's just that the more seemingly obvious the point Greta Christina makes, the more inevitable it is that someone will show up in the comments who missed that point entirely, and wants to use the opportunity to lecture her on how wrong-headed she is.

Exhibit AFashion Friday: Atheist T-Shirts in Women’s Styles.

Obvious, Seemingly Non-Controversial Thesis: When skeptical/atheist organizations have a conference, it sure would be nice if they offered t-shirts which come in women's sizes in addition to men's. This acknowledgement that the word "unisex" really is a misnomer when it comes to t-shirts (because the typical female is shaped differently from the typical male in important ways) would go a long way toward making women feel more included, and make it much easier for these women to fulfill the intended purpose of labeled t-shirts (wearing them, and thereby spreading the message of whatever that label represents) because the shirts will look better on them, not having been made to fit men.

Trollish disagreement: You are just trying to find ways to create discord and emphasize exclusiveness rather than inclusiveness. "Standard" t-shirts really are unisex-- they aren't for men, and they don't look any better on men. If you don't think they look good on you, then you should just not buy one and shut up about it. Or maybe we should get rid of t-shirts altogether. It doesn't matter because nobody wears those things anyway, and it's been this way for a very long time so you're just demanding something extra and special. In asking for this thing that suits you more, you have stopped fighting for equality across the board and are just pursuing your own interests.

Yes, seriously.

*facepalm*

I'm not going to go over the (obvious, shouldn't have to be said) response to this, because it has been made by Greta Christina and others on her blog post already and you can just go read them. I'm just saying that this kind of thing is really tiring. Tiring to read, tiring to rebut, tiring to contemplate that people can say write such things presumably with a straight face.

So if or when the urge arises to dismiss the very real and necessary work involved in combating this nonsense, think again. Certain people function as bullshit lightning rods. Greta Christina's one of them.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Thought for the day

When talking about laws impinging on freedom, laws that impinge on important freedoms matter. But laws that impinge on unimportant freedoms matter more.

Why?

Because a law that says you fundamentally may not say what you think or feel, own your own property, express a meaningful choice about your rulers and representatives, or conduct your personal relationships and interactions as you choose certainly represents an obvious threat to basic human happiness and flourishing.

But a law that constitutes a threat to a specific way or specific version of expressing one's thoughts, the ability to own one's own property, to vote as one sees fit, or to relate to others as one chooses, amounts to the government saying "Even this I may forbid." Certainly a government which can prohibit the most benign and superficial expression of a freedom can find justification to prohibit the more significant. And it is these admonitions, which address particular expressions and behavior that the majority do not desire, that the majority will not rise up and defend.