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May 18 2013

[#wiscfi liveblog] The History of Atheism, Feminism, and the Science of Brains

The WiS2 conference logo.

Now up: Jennifer Michael Hecht, a poet and author of three books about history. She has a PhD in the history of science from Columbia, and teaches at the New School and Columbia.

4:05: The first thing we can do to forward the goals that we have is to show up. To do what you’re doing right now. From The Happiness Myth: “It’s great to come out of the closet, but you also have to leave the house.”

Also, it’s important to remember that we’ve been here for a while. There have been atheists/secularists throughout history, including women. I’ll be focusing on one story, but I had a smorgasbord of women doubters, atheists, secularists to choose from. Even in the bible: Job’s wife says, “Curse god and forget him.”

4:14: Margaret Sanger was an atheist–”no gods no masters” comes from her. But she brought birth control to women in the U.S. Of course, there’s the whole thing with the eugenics…

4:16: Today I want to talk about someone you’ve never heard of. Her name is Clémence Royer. She translated Darwin’s work into French and claimed (unlike Darwin) that it proves atheism. Because she wrote an introduction to the French translation in which she connected Darwin’s ideas to atheism, she had a profound effect on how evolution was perceived in France–as atheist and anti-religion.

It’s not just building on Darwin, though, but also on Paul Broca’s work. Broca basically founded anthropology and neurology and discovered that a lesion on a certain part of the brain–the third left frontal convolution of the brain–you will have trouble speaking, even if your intelligence is perfectly intact. This came to be known as Broca’s area, and the affliction as Broca’s aphasia. The Catholic Church was troubled by this because the belief was that the brain has nothing to do with thought.

4:21: Broca was an atheist, and he and his atheist friends decided to form the Society of Anthropology based on Royer’s interpretation of Darwin. At first it’s men only, and Royer petitions to join and is denied. But she appeals to Broca and he lets her in.

The members later formed another group: the Society of Mutual Autopsy. It was intended to annoy the Catholic Church. For 30 years, as they died, these scientists dissected each other’s brains to try to find more phenomena like Broca’s aphasia. In her last will and testament, Royer states that she wants to donate her body to science. These scientists were lending meaning and ritual to their deaths while also advancing science.

4:26: The 1893 Freethought Convention was dedicated to the rights of women, and Royer was celebrated there. But we’ve forgotten that this is part of the history of secularism.

Royer believed a lot of the things people said at the time, and believed that she’d been born with a man’s brain.

4:29: The idea of science being on our side comes up a lot and people love to talk about who’s brains are like this and whose are like that. Maybe we should ask them why they never study the difference between the brains of tall men and the brains of short men. They have all sorts of social differences, too. But only certain differences are politicized.

Atheism used to be much more respectable. Edison was an open atheist and declared so right on the cover of the NYT. He got some backlash, but he survived. But the Soviet Union was atheist, and so it became treasonous to be an atheist. The 1950s were when god went into our money and into our pledge.

But our most murderous enemy is no longer the atheist Soviet Union, but rather places that are more religious than us.

4:31: Just by showing up, we see each other and see the crowd and encourage each other. Even if you don’t see exactly how you’re helping each other. Learn your empowering history. The knowledge of it may have been lost, but the change in the culture persists. We don’t remember these French anthropologists anymore, but at the beginning of the 20th century France separated church and state for the first time.

4:33: Know some feminist theory, even though it can be dense reading. It teaches us the subtle ways we take advantage of our privileges, such as where we live or our skin color or our money. You have to give away a little bit.

4:38: Audience asks Hecht to spell all the French names. lolz

4:41: Audience question: :What’s the best way to repopularize the atheist-ness of these historical figures?

Hecht: Micro histories tend to include atheists, but the larger, more general accounts leave them out. I have no doubt that there have been more nonbelievers in history than believers.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Gender Equality in the Secular Movement (Panel)

Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today

How Women’s Concerns Can Best Be Advanced within the Context of a Secular Agenda

2 comments

1 ping

  1. 1
    Lindsay

    (I tried to write this comment before, but there was an error. I’m going to try to recreate it.)

    This is amazing; I hadn’t known hardly any of this stuff! Particularly about the differences in how evolution was … culturally digested? … in France vs. the US. I’d like to know if it being even more explicitly tied to atheism in France hindered its acceptance by the French establishment, or if they accepted it because it was true and the tie to atheism helped make France more secular? I’d love to see what a scholar of modern French history thinks about this.

    (Although I am a little fuzzy on just how much of a difference there was? Certainly evolution and atheism have been linked in the popular American mind for a long time!)

    Anyway, I’d never heard of Clemence Royer before, and she sounds immensely interesting. If it weren’t for the unfortunate overlap between women, dogs, and a certain sexist epithet, I’d say she belonged in the company of T.H. Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog) and Richard Dawkins (Darwin’s Rottweiler). Maybe she could be Darwin’s French Poodle?

    I also hadn’t known there was less of a stigma about being an atheist in the past. I knew there was a renewed emphasis on American religiosity during the Cold War, to distinguish us from the Godless Commies, but I guess I still thought atheism always carried the same stigma it does now. Like, Thomas Jefferson may have been a Deist and a rationalist, but I don’t think he ever called himself an atheist — his enemies called him that, to discredit him. So there must’ve been *some* stigma, even in the flower of the Enlightenment.

    I’m also surprised to hear Hecht say she thinks there have been more nonbelievers than believers in history. I guess I thought nonbelievers have always existed, but have also always been a minority. I guess I thought there was a religious instinct or impulse that most people felt but that we, by whatever accident of genetics or brain development, did not.

    Finally, I LOVE her point about some brains being more “politicized” than others. So true, even now!

  2. 2
    A Hermit

    Hecht’s book “Doubt; A History”“should be on everyone’s shelf.

    Hell, take that back; it should be on everyone’s bedside table full of sticky notes and bookmarks….

  1. 3
    WiS and Liveblogging Wrap-Up » Ashley Miller

    [...] [Jason] How Women’s Concerns Can Best Be Advanced within the Context of a Secular Agenda [Jason] Jennifer Michael Hecht [Jason] Maryam Namazie [Jason] What the Secular Movement Can Learn from Other Social Movements [...]

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