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?

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


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 fiancé.

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.

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?

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.

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.

Ray Comfort Tampon Case

Usually I wouldn’t want to associate Ray Comfort with things that go in my vagina, but this was too cute to not share:Need something to hide your tampons in? Look no further than the Banana Man himself. I know if I saw a Ray Comfort shaped container lying around, I’d be too afraid to open it lest ignorance spill out ala Pandora’s box.

If you’re not sold, the profit goes to a program supporting young female paleontologists. Definitely a good cause!

(Thanks to Jason for the tip!)

PZ Myers dominates the Other category for Most Influential Female Atheist

I don’t know if I’ll ever “officially close” the Most Influential Female Atheist of 2009 poll, but this much is clear: PZ Myers is clearly dominating the “Other” category (though he’s still near the bottom overall). Or should I say, Ms. Paula Z. Myers. What I find most amusing is that he specifically asked Pharyngulites to not write his name in – seems like he doesn’t have complete control of his followers, after all. Our twitter conversation amused me greatly:

Me: @pzmyers is currently winning the “Other” category for Most Influential Female Atheist. Oh pharyngulites
PZ: I told them not to! RT @jennifurret: @pzmyers is currently winning the “Other” category for Most Influential Female Atheist.
So, @jennifurret , if I win…I don’t have to get That Operation, do I?
Me: @pzmyers Yes, yes you do. You better get control of your minions quickly, or I’ll be waiting for a photo of you in a dress
Me: @pzmyers Is still winning “Other” for Most Influential Female Atheist. When do I get the photo of him in a dress?
I think my mom has one. I’ll see if I can find it when I visit late this month RT @jennifurret: When do I get the photo of him in a dress?

And my favorite comment over at Pharyngula:

I’m not sure which is more intriguing: How Jen makes Little Pee Zed do it, or (assuming she succeeds) What Little Pee Zed then looks like. On the other hand, I’m not entirely certain I want to see pictures of either the convincing or the result…

The former will remain a mystery (insert evil cackling here). But joshing gets a million internet points for giving us a sneak preview of the latter:Excellent choice of dress, if I do say so myself!

No G-Spots?! …Wait, what?

If you have the same taste in blogs that I do (aka you’re obsessed with sex), you’ve probably been inundated with posts about how a new study has proven that G-spots don’t exist!

The scientists at King’s College London who carried out the study claim there is no evidence for the existence of the G-spot — supposedly a cluster of internal nerve endings — outside the imagination of women influenced by magazines and sex therapists. They reached their conclusions after a survey of more than 1,800 British women.

Well, I’ll be damned. I was fairly certain from personal experience that G-spots do exist, but I can’t argue with scientists, can I? They must have carefully inspected all 1,800 of those British women (what a lucky grad student!), right?

In the research, 1,804 British women aged 23-83 answered questionnaires. All were pairs of identical or non-identical twins. Identical twins share all their genes, while non-identical pairs share 50% of theirs. If one identical twin reported having a G-spot, this would make it far more likely that her sister would give the same answer. But no such pattern emerged, suggesting the G-spot is a matter of the woman’s subjective opinion.

And what was that questionnaire? Just a single question:

“Do you believe you have a so called G spot, a small areas the size of a 20p coin on the front wall of your vagina that is sensitive to deep pressure?”

…Alright boys and girls, it’s time for a lesson on why this is “Bad Science.”

Questionnaires are always a bit subjective and iffy – especially when asking someone about their anatomy. If you ask people how many chambers their heart has, and some say 3, that doesn’t mean they’re actually missing a chamber. Simply asking people if they have a G-spot doesn’t confirm it’s existence or lack thereof. I can’t believe that this study would rely on opinion rather than medically examining females to see if it is there or not.

The fact that they didn’t see any correlation in identical twins just illustrates that personal opinion about the existence of a G-spot is not genetically determined. Their initial logic that genetically identical twins should have identical sexual responses is flawed. Sexual response has a huge environmental component, which the study finds but apparently ignores:

While 56% of women overall claimed to have a G-spot, they tended to be younger and more sexually active.

That makes perfect sense. Finding the G-spot isn’t easy. It usually takes a patient partner, sex positions other than missionary, or specialized sex toys – all of which are more likely to be found in younger, sexually active people. What’s more likely: that these women are partaking in activities that make them more likely to find their G-spot, or that the majority of women are all delusional about a specific area that causes intense pleasure? I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to hallucinate a pleasure button, I’m going to put it somewhere I little easier to reach.

A quote from the researcher also sends up a red flag for me:

Andrea Burri, who led the research, said she was anxious to remove feelings of “inadequacy or underachievement” that might affect women who feared they lacked a G-spot.

Yep, it’s always great to go into research with an agenda and preconceived result in mind!

This all may be the result of bad science reporting, which is always a likely cause, since the actual paper is coming out next week. I’ll look forward to reading it and seeing if it’s also so strident in its claims.

A large list of awesome female atheists

In a perfect world, we shouldn’t have to have a separate list for female atheist activists. Some commenters even said such a list was “patronizing” by insinuating that women couldn’t play with the big boys. But when other polls, lists, and posts seem to forget our existence, every little bit of awareness helps. We have just as insightful things to say, but we need people to listen. Once more people realize this, you’ll start seeing more females listed amongst the likes of Dawkins, Hitchins, Harris, Dennett, Myers, etc…

So, without further ado, here is a list of some great female atheists who you should check out if you haven’t already done so:







If you know someone who’s missing and you think deserves a shout out, let me know in the comments and I’ll add them. Or if I listed someone but didn’t link to their blog or a more relevant site, let me know. Consider this a growing reference!

To clarify, this list is for living women who are known for their vocal support of atheism, skepticism, and/or scientific thinking – or, likewise, speaking out against religion and supernatural beliefs. There are plenty of women who simply happen to be atheists but never ever speak about it – this isn’t intended for them.

A little backstory:

My previous post asked readers who they thought was the most influential female atheist of 2009 – and it has become very popular. All of the comments have reinforced one major theme: Too many incredible female atheist voices are unknown.

When I started to make a list of influential females, I asked around for names. Half of them I hadn’t even heard of, and some of them I was only vaguely familiar with. I did some Wikipediaing and Googling to try to figure out who should make it to the list. I didn’t want to exclude people just because I wasn’t personally familiar with them, but I didn’t want a list of 30 choices either. I tried to focus on active voices of 2009: those who had written new books, been consistently blogging, appeared on the news, etc.

Of course, I’m not perfect. Some excellent ladies didn’t make my poll because of inadequate research, my own obliviousness, or most likely a combination of both. Apparently the list was also very US-centric, which I promise was not intentional, but again a result of my own biases. And for every atheist woman I missed, there was someone on my list a reader hadn’t heard of. I think this lack of awareness speaks strongly. If a fellow godless lady who trumpets the importance of female voices in atheism doesn’t know so many of these people, how will everyone else?

My best solution at the moment is to make a giant list. I can’t make people click the links, follow the blogs, or even care – but I think it will help. In all the comments here and at other sites, I’ve seen a curiosity – a “Why haven’t I heard of these people before? Time to check them out!” So hopefully people will click the unfamiliar names on this list and find a new favorite blogger, author, activist, or whatever.