What Women Want, and the Myth of the Psychic Lesbians

Gabrielle_d_Estree_-_LouvreI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It ties together the notion that lesbians naturally know how to please another woman sexually better than straight men, with the age-old question, “What do women want?” It’s called What Women Want, and the Myth of the Psychic Lesbians, and here’s the teaser:

I want to talk about the myth of lesbian sexual infallibility.

And I want to talk about the fundamental flaw inherent in the very question, “What do women want?”

The Times article got me thinking about this very pervasive myth about sexuality, one that I held myself for many years. (I hate those, don’t you? I always get more cranky about misconceptions that I once believed.)

The myth is this:

Lesbian sex is better than straight sex . . . because who knows better how to make love to a woman than another woman? Who knows a woman’s body better than another woman? Who knows what sex and arousal and orgasm feel like to a woman, better than another woman?

Okay. So. Can anybody tell me the flaw in this myth? You, there. Making out at the back of the class. What’s the flaw?

That’s right. Gold star for you. The flaw in this myth is:

To find out the flaw in this myth, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Rachel Maddow and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Rachel MaddowHaven’t seen this on any of the atheist blogs I usually read, and I thought y’all might like to know about it in case you missed it:

Rachel Maddow gave a nice big shoutout to the Flying Spaghetti Monster on her show on Darwin Day.

A whole little story, even. The first half of this video snippet is devoted to the FSM, may we all be touched by his noodly appendage. (The second half is an interview with history and law professor Edward Larson, some dumb old Pulitzer- prize winning writer and scholar, on the history of anti- evolution sentiment in the U.S.)

Video below the fold.

[Read more...]

Good Arguments for God?

Creation_of_the_Sun_and_Moon_face_detailWhat — if any — are the good arguments for God?

And what do we mean by a good argument?

I recently got an email from Andy Blood, commenting on my recent 10 Myths and Truths About Atheists piece for AlterNet. And one of the things he asked me was:

I would like to know what you think the BEST anti-atheist arguments are. By that I mean, not the ones that persuade the most people (those are often based on lies, or purely emotional), but the very best ones, the ones you would have the most trouble refuting. I think the “trend” argument, for instance, suggests that many new atheists might be phonies. That doesn’t address real atheism, of course, but it’s something. There’s this Oxford prof. who wrote a book about The Twilight of Atheism or something, and he had one point — atheism is effective and liked because it’s freeing. As soon as religion (non-traditional, I guess) becomes freeing, atheism will lose it’s relevance. Again, this is refutable, but at least not the regular thing that we hear all the time.

I wrote back and said that, honestly, I didn’t think any theistic or anti- atheist arguments were good. I not only don’t find any of them persuasive; I find all of them seriously weak. Andy wrote back with what I think is an interesting notion:

I don’t think there are any WINNING arguments, but the better ones can at least make you pause and think. It’s a good brain-storming technique any way. Like: Why have humans been religious for so long — before churches and all that, many, many years ago? Isn’t it at least possible that this means that humans are innately religious? I don’t agree, but it is at least something to think about. (I was asked this question, and didn’t have a super fast answer).

So here’s my question:

ThinkerWhich arguments for religion — or arguments against atheism — do you think are good? I don’t mean “good” in the sense of “irrefutable” or even “persuasive” (although if you’re a believer and think there are some of these, I’d be interested to see those too). I mean: Which arguments for religion or against atheism made you think harder? Which arguments made you clarify your thinking, or even modify it?

A couple of mine:

“Maybe atheism is just a form of color- blindness. Maybe religious believers are perceiving something real, and atheists just don’t have the capacity to perceive it.”

Not a persuasive argument, I think; mostly because believers can’t come to any sort of agreement on what it is they’re supposedly perceiving. But thinking about this question made me think harder about perception, and how it is that we know what we know. It made me think harder about standards of evidence, and what kinds of things can be “known” intuitively and what kinds of things can’t. And it made me more rigorous in my thinking, not just about religion but about lots of things.

Brain question markAnd then there’s, “If there’s no soul or immaterial spirit, then what is consciousness?”

Again, not a convincing argument. Mostly because, even though we don’t really understand consciousness, the one thing we’re pretty sure of is that it, whatever it is, it seems to be a product of the brain.

But for me, when I was letting go of my spiritual beliefs, this was the last argument to go. (I never believed in what Ingrid calls the Omnimax God — omnipotent, omniscient, and omni- benevolent — and the “god” I believed in could scarcely be called a god: it was more like the World-Soul, an aggregate of all the souls of all the living things that I thought had souls.) My personal experience of consciousness as what seems to be a vaguely immaterial substance floating around in the vicinity of my head… it’s not intellectually convincing, but it’s very hard to shake.

Phantoms-in-the-BrainAnd the process of shaking it is largely what’s sparked my interest in the study of how the mind works. I don’t think I understand consciousness — I don’t think any of us do — but I think I understand it better for my attempts to answer the question, “If consciousness isn’t the immaterial soul, then what the hell is it?”

So what about the rest of you? Are there any arguments for religion, or against atheism, not that you find persuasive (although I’d like to hear about those too), but that have made you stop and think? Any that have made you shift the way you think — about atheism, about religion, or about the world in general?

Breaking_the_spell(Oh, and BTW, Andy: If you want a good counter to the “if religions isn’t true, why have so many people believed it for so long?” argument, I strongly suggest you read “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett. That’s the whole topic of the book. Fascinating and important. Quick answer: Religion is a by-product of ways that people are wired by evolution to think, including the tendency to see intention even where none exists, the tendency to see patterns even where none exists, the tendency in children to believe what their parents tell them, the tendency in adults to trust authority figures, and the tendency to rationalize beliefs that we already have and decisions that we’ve already made.)

Left-Handers Threaten Nation’s Moral Fiber: Same-Sex Marriage, Handedness, and the History of Bigotry

Seven conversationsIn case you haven’t noticed, this week is Freedom to Marry Week, and bloggers all around the LGBT blogosphere are blogging up a storm. Today, as my part in this blogswarm, I’m proud to feature my very first guest post in this blog — written by my aunt, Laurie Muelder. This piece originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Galesburg Register-Mail, shortly after the November election and the passage of Prop. 8 and other anti- same- sex initiatives, under the title “Propositions limiting marriage unfortunate.”

Obama left handInterestingly, one characteristic of President- elect Obama’s, which historically aroused vilification, has generally been disregarded. Like presidents Ford, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton, he is left- handed. In the past, and still in many parts of the world, left- handedness is viewed with suspicion and forcibly suppressed.

While learning to write Chinese characters I asked how left- handed people did this and was told “there are no left-handed people in China.” In much of the Islamic world the right hand is to be used in bodily functions above the waist — the left below. Originating in a desert country where there was little water with which to wash, this makes sense; it also reinforces scriptural prejudice against the left- hand. Lefties here who went to school in the last century have described being physically forced to become right- handed, in both public and parochial schools. Justification for this kind of bias and behavior was found in the teachings of all the Abrahamic religions, think of the sheep and goats passage in Matthew with the righteous on the right and the evil on the left. The Buddha similarly described the left- hand road as the wrong way in life.

Left hand 3Gradually, as human knowledge progressed and handedness was increasingly recognized as the result of brain organization, this bigotry, religious and otherwise, diminished. Although preference for the left hand has occurred in all cultures and throughout human history — there are stone tools identified as having been used by lefties — what varies is the response to it. In the West it is now generally regarded as unusual (10-15 percent) and sometimes inconvenient, but among educated people there is little if any outright prejudice against left- handed people.

Same sex symbolsWhen I first read of the negative associations with left- handedness I was reminded of the kinds of intolerance and disgust expressed about people who are physically attracted to people like themselves, (which has also occurred in all cultures and throughout human history) and I hoped that as the scientific evidence of distinct brain differences between gay and straight people became more widely known that this prejudice too would abate. I was, therefore, saddened by the passage in Arizona, Arkansas and California of propositions to limit marriage to opposite sex couples. (Arkansas voters were especially heartless ordaining that “unmarried cohabiting couples” — a phrase aimed at gay couples — could not adopt children; every study done has shown they make just as good parents as mixed sex couples. Surely what is most important is children having secure and loving homes with two parents who are committed each other — I’m with Judge Judy on this!).

Slc_mormon_templeIn California the Catholic and Mormon churches were the primary financial backers of Proposition 8 which proposed to amend the state constitution to say “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid.” Eighty- three percent of evangelical Christians supported Proposition 8, which is somewhat ironic as the general population has a divorce rate 22 percent lower than the Christian Coalition; maybe they should worry about their own marriages instead of other peoples’. Black churches, which led the way in the struggle for equal rights for African- Americans, generally supported this effort to deny civil rights to their fellow citizens; more than 70 percent of blacks voted to support proposition 8. And, this week, the Peoria based Episcopal diocese of Quincy voted to leave the national church and join a South American Anglican church which shares its preference for male supremacy — no women priests — and their distaste for gay rights. Wasn’t it Jesus who said “judge not lest ye be judged?”

WeddingUltimately it is a question of fairness and of equal treatment under the law. The best solution would be for the government to deal only in civil marriage, leaving religious ceremonies to religious institutions, which could then decide as they wish without trying to legislate their standards and impose their rules on everyone. Some of the best arguments in favor of gay marriage come from conservative writers like New York Times columnist David Brooks, who E.J. Dionne describes as seeing “society as having a powerful interest in building respect for long- term commitment and fidelity in sexual relationships. Gay marriage underscores how important commitment is. Prohibiting members of one part of our population from making a public and legal commitment to each other doesn’t strengthen marriage; it weakens it.”

Straight against h8In California those under 30 voted 66 to 34 percent against Proposition 8. In another couple of generations the majority of Americans will be comfortable with same sex marriage and like left- handedness, homosexuality will increasingly come to be understood not so much as “unnatural” but simply as less usual in its frequency of occurrence in our population. In the meantime, if religious youth group leaders would reconsider what they are doing to the naturally gay adolescents in their flocks, perhaps teen suicide might decline.

10 Myths and Truths About Atheists: Greta’s Version, On AlterNet

ScarletLetterBlack.svgMaybe you’ve read 10 Myths — and 10 Truths — About Atheism, Sam Harris’s famous op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, which was an attempt to clear up the most common misunderstandings about atheists. The piece is a good idea. But something about it bugs me. Specifically, it bugs me how much time Harris spent dissing religion.

Don’t get me wrong — I think religion deserves criticism. But here, I think it’s inappropriate. If you’re writing a piece saying, “Here’s who we are and why the myths about us are incorrect,” you shouldn’t go off on a “here’s why the rest of you are losers” tangent. It’s not persuasive … and it’s seriously off-topic.

So here’s my own version. (Very much riffing off Harris’, and with all due credit to him.)

*

That’s the teaser. I’ve written a piece for AlterNet, my own version of the ten most common myths about atheists and the truths are behind them, titled — imaginatively enough — 10 Myths and Truths About Atheists. I think this is one that my atheism readers are definitely going to want to read: it’s a piece I’ve been thinking about and working on for some time, and I think you’re going to like it.

If you’re inspired to comment, feel free to comment here as well as on AlterNet. Enjoy!

Helping the Poor or Vengeful Homophobic Pissery? Father Geoffrey Farrow and the Catholic Church

I haven’t seen this story around much. And it seems like it ought to be all over the news… or at least, all over the atheosphere. So you know what they say. When you don’t like the news, go out and write some of your own.

FatherGeoffreyFarrowYou may have heard the story of the Catholic Priest, Father Geoffrey Farrow, who, back in October, went against the request of his bishop and preached a sermon against Propostion 8… and was removed from his post as a result.

This is not that story.

This, if you can believe it, is the even more fucked-up follow-up.

Father Geoffrey Farrow, now out of work, had applied for a position at an interfaith anti-poverty organization, CLUE, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice… an application process that was moving forward.

(An anti-poverty organization. That’s important. File it away.)

CLUE gets a significant amount of its funding from the Catholic Church.

Who told CLUE that their Church funding would be withdrawn if they hired Father Farrow.

The full story is on the Bilerico Project and at Pam’s House Blend.

So. Just to clarify.

The Catholic Church’s position on this matter is this:

It is more important to punish a former priest for speaking out in favor of same-sex marriage, than it is to help the poor.

Or, perhaps, more to the point:

It is more important to spitefully and maliciously block the career of a former priest who dared to defy the Church and speak out against it — not just to fire him, but to actively get in the way of him being hired elsewhere — than it is to help the poor.

New_testamentOkay. Quiz time. How many times in the Gospels is Jesus recorded as saying that it’s important to help the poor?

A lot, that’s how many. Exactly a lot.

And how many times in the Gospels is Jesus recorded as saying that it’s important to ban same-sex marriage? Or that it’s important for the church to be pissily vengeful when its priests follow their own conscience instead of obeying the Pharisees — excuse me, the bishops of the Church?

Zero times, that’s how many. Exactly zero. I counted.

Now. Granted, the Jesus character in the Gospels is one of the most complicated and self- contradictory figures in all of fiction. Many of his teachings are muddled and inconsistent, and it’s a bit churlish of us atheists to expect consistency from people who claim to follow them.

But on this one, the Jesus character is pretty clear. Helping the poor — central, oft- repeated tenet of the teachings. Banning same sex marriage — zilch. Doesn’t seem to be an issue. And pissy vengefulness — heck, he’s actually against that. What with the whole “turning the other cheek” thing and all.

And on this one, I’ve gotta side with the Jesus character. Totally setting aside the whole “gross, self-serving hypocrisy versus having some semblance of integrity about what you claim to be your own values” thing, purely on the merits of the actual question itself… yup, I’ve gotta go with this Jesus figure. Helping the poor — better and more important than hateful homophobic vindictiveness. Check.

Monty python papperbokBut of course, as His Eminence Vice-Pope Eric said in an interview with Monty Python in the Brand New Monty Python Papperbok: “After all, you can’t treat the New Testament as gospel. And one must remember that Christ, though he was a fine young man with some damn good ideas, did go off the rails now and again.”

And later in that same interview:

“Of course people accuse us sometimes of not practising what we preach, but you must remember that if you’re trying to propogate a creed of poverty, gentleness and tolerance, you need a very rich, powerful, authoritarian organisation to do it.”

Well put, Vice-Pope Eric. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Supporting an interfaith anti- poverty organization on the one hand. Rabid hostility to same-sex marriage, and ham-handed control-freak spitefulness towards a former employee who publicly defied them, on the other. Which did you think the Catholic Church was going to go with?

Oh, btw: If you feel like raising a squawk, you can do so at:

Archdiocese of Los Angeles
3424 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90010-2202
213 637 7000
info@la-archdiocese.org

Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage: A Review

I’m a little slammed with deadlines right now, so I’m re-running an old piece from back when my blog was smaller, one that a lot of you may not have read. This is one of my very favorite pieces — I hope you enjoy it, too.

Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage: A Review
by Greta Christina

A Dadaist masterpiece.

CoffeepotThis brilliant, unsettling work of contemporary installation art sets itself firmly within the Dadaist and neo-Dadaist tradition. With its blind alleys, impossible turns, and trajectories that lead nowhere, it echoes the functionless functionality of Meret Oppenheim’s “Fur-Lined Teacup,” Marcel Duchamp’s “Impossible Bed,” and, more recently, Jacques Carelman’s “Coffeepot for Masochists.” The influence of M.C. Escher on the piece is undeniable as well. Traffic patterns mysteriously blend from opposite directions; narrow passages twist in on themselves; and the piece as a whole seems to contain and entrap itself in a way that appears to be physically impossible.

EscherYet while “Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage” makes no attempt to conceal these classic influences, it nevertheless escapes being derivative. Both the gargantuan scale of the installation and its interactive nature give it a forcefully penetrative quality that differs significantly from smaller works of Dadaist and neo-Dadaist sculpture (which one can, after all, turn one’s back on). Once engaged with this unique work, it becomes virtually impossible to distance one’s self from it emotionally, or even physically. This quality is experienced in the details of the piece as well as in its massive scale. We particularly see it in the confusing and labyrinthine “exits” — indistinguishable from the “entrances” and even co-existent with them — compelling the participant’s awareness, not merely of the impossibility of escape, but of the absurdity of even contemplating it.

More significantly, the fact that the piece functions — although barely — as an actual parking garage merely serves to highlight the more disturbing aspects of the work. Poised on the liminal region between function and non-function, it forges a connection between creator and audience that is interactive and yet singularly hostile. Unlike typical artwork which attempts to create a bond of understanding and insight between artist and viewer, “Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage” seeks to entice and enfold the audience members, only to frustrate and alienate them. It is a self-contained paradox, a connection which seeks only to sever itself.

TowelsThe location of the installation in a literal urban shopping center brilliantly underscores this contradiction. The dreamlike — or rather, nightmarish — qualities of the work are thrown into sharp relief when one contemplates this juxtaposition. One wishes to accomplish simple tasks of survival or comfort: buying towels, or a coffee maker, or even merely bread and milk. And yet the “parking garage,” a construct ostensibly designed to facilitate these tasks, instead thwarts the participant at every turn, and tasks which should connect one with the warp and weft of one’s life instead become distancing and enervating. The audience participates in the work, even becomes one with it, and yet is entirely at its mercy. It is a vivid, haunting metaphor for modern civilization and its self-negating contradictions.

Bedbathbeyond“Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage” is located off of Ninth Street between Bryant and Brannan, adjacent to Trader Joe’s and Bed Bath and Beyond, in San Francisco. The installation is scheduled for an indefinite run.

Blinded With Science: Sex, Sexology, and What Women Really Want: The Blowfish Blog

Clitoris_anatomyI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about recent scientific research into female sexual desire, research showing (among other things) that women’s physical reactions to sexual images don’t tend to line up with our mental reactions (you know, the New York Times article everyone’s talking about)… and the dangers of jumping to conclusions about the “real” reasons for any particular sexual behavior.

It’s called Blinded With Science: Sex, Sexology, and What Women Really Want, and here’s the teaser:

It’s easy to come up with possible explanations for behavior. Especially when it comes to sex. It’s almost like a Rorschach test: in the absence of a truly excellent set of supporting data, the theories people come up with to explain sex tells you more about the theorizers than they do about the theories.

To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Oh, and a small favor: If you comment on this piece here, could you also cross-post your comment on the piece itself on the Blowfish Blog? They like comments there, too. Thanks!

First Lines

Game time!

There’s a game some book readers play: I heard about it many years ago, and have been playing it ever since. It’s called First Lines (or at least I call it that), and it’s pretty simple:

Find a first sentence of a book that is not only a great first sentence, but that neatly and beautifully sums up the essence of the entire rest of the book.

The classic example, of course, is possibly the best- loved first sentence in all of English literature. And it is from what’s probably my favorite book. So of course I have to include it:

Pride and prejudice“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

But I also have a strong fondness for this one, which both immediately sucks you into reading the rest of the story and sums up the essence of that story:

Fear and loathing in las vegas“We were somewhere outside Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

And I have to give a shout-out to this one — hey, credit where credit is due:

Bible“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Hey, it’s nicely written. And you have to admit — it does sum up the rest of the book.

So now it’s your turn. What are your First Line favorites? And why?