Mental and Physical — We Need Non-Supernatural Language

If you think there’s no spiritual or supernatural world, and that consciousness/ emotions/ intention/ etc. are all products of the brain and the physical world… then what language to you use to distinguish between the mental aspects of your body, and the other aspects of your body?

I’ve been talking with JT Eberhard, good friend/ fellow atheist blogger/ Secular Student Alliance high school specialist/ total badass,  about mental health issues. JT has anorexia, which he’s been blogging about; I have a history of mental illness in my family (alcoholism, mostly) and something of a personal history with it myself (depression — it hasn’t been a serious issue in some time, but I always have to pay attention to it and take active steps to prevent it from recurring).

So JT and I been talking about this stuff. And I frequently find that I want to say things like, “You seem like you’re in really good physical health right now, it’s your mental health I’m more concerned about.” Or, “I’ve been ignoring my physical health lately, and it’s really having an effect on my mental health.” You get the picture.

And then I stop, and think, “Wait a minute. Mental health is physical health. Our brains are part of our body. Our thoughts and feelings and impulses and intentions are physical, biological processes. Why am I implying that it isn’t? What can I say instead that doesn’t have that implication?”

And I get stuck. I’ve been trying to think of different language… and I’m coming up short. I’m wondering if we need new language. Or — better yet, since it works so much better — if we can re-purpose existing language to get this idea across.

I don’t just want this new/ re-purposed language when I’m talking about mental illness and mental health. We talk about the differences and relationships between our brains and the rest of our bodies a lot. And I do think this is a useful distinction to make. Yes, I think our brains are part of our bodies… but the brain/ mind/ thoughts/ feelings/ etc. parts of our body have some important differences from the muscles/ guts/ bones/ lungs/ circulation/ etc. parts. And it’s useful to be able to draw a distinction between them, and talk about the ways that they’re different, and the ways they’re similar, and the ways they overlap and interact.

But I want to be able to do that in a way that doesn’t invoke Cartesian dualism. When we say “mental versus physical,” it implies that the mental isn’t physical. I want to talk about the distinctions and connections between the mental and the non-mental parts of our bodies, without that implication. I want to talk about it in a way that acknowledges that the brain is part of the body.

And for those of us who are dealing with mental health issues, in ourselves and in people we care about, I have other reasons for wanting language that doesn’t separate the brain and the mind so radically from the rest of the body; for wanting language that acknowledges that the brain is a body part, and that mental health is physical health.

There’s a tremendous stigma and shame around mental illness — a stigma that’s not nearly as prevalent with non-mental illness. Yes, there’s some stigma around illness, some illnesses more than others… but we have much more compassion and acceptance of non-mental illness than we do with mental illness. Mental illness is still seen as a personal failure. Our society judges people who have depression or anorexia… in a way that we don’t judge people who have diabetes or cancer. I think if our language reflected that mental illness is a physical illness, it might mitigate that stigma and fear about it, and increase our empathy.

But I don’t know how to do that.

So I’m crowd-sourcing the problem. Thoughts? Is there a word we can use other than “physical” to mean “parts of the body that aren’t the brain and mind”?

I’m on Twitter! Follow me at @GretaChristina .

Greta Speaking in San Francisco and Stanford

I have a couple of speaking events coming up in the Bay Area — one about atheism, and one about sex. On Saturday Sept. 24, I’ll be doing the legendary “Perverts Put Out” reading series of Bay Area sex writers in San Francisco (along with several other first-rate writers and performers). And I’ll be speaking on “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” at Stanford University on Wednesday, October 5.

Details are below. If you’re going to be in the San Francisco or South Bay area, I hope to see you there!

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EVENT/ HOSTS: Perverts Put Out – Folsom Street Fair Edition
DATE: Saturday, September 24
TIME: 7:30 pm
LOCATION: The Center for Sex and Culture, 1349 Mission Street, San Francisco
TOPIC: Sex. Probably kinky sex. I haven’t decided which piece I’m going to read yet. You’ll just have to be surprised.
OTHER READERS: Blake Aarens, M. Christian, Marlo Gayle, Robert Lawrence, Kirk Read, horehound stillpoint, hosts Dr. Carol Queen and Simon Sheppard, and more!
COST: $10-15, sliding scale

EVENT/ HOSTS: Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at Stanford (AHA!)
DATE: Wednesday, October 5
TIME: 7:00 pm
LOCATION: Building 160, Room 124. (Also known as “Wallenberg Hall”, NE corner of the Main Quad.)
TOPIC: Why Are You Atheists So Angry?
SUMMARY: The atheist movement is often accused of being driven by anger. What are so many atheists so angry about? Is this anger legitimate? And can anger be an effective force behind a movement for social change?
COST: Free

Greta speaking in Minneapolis and St. Cloud 9/18 & 9/19

Just a quick reminder that I’m going to be speaking in Minneapolis at St. Cloud this Sunday and Monday. The time on the St. Cloud talk has changed, btw. It’s now starting at 7:00 pm.

I’m going to be speaking to the Minnesota Atheists in Minneapolis on Sunday Sept. 18, and to the Secular Student Alliance at St. Cloud State University on Monday Sept. 19. I’ll be speaking on the topics “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” and “Atheism and Sexuality.” I’ll be doing Q&A at both talks… and after the Minneapolis talk, we’ll be going out to dinner. So if you have something you’ve always wanted to ask me — or if you just want to say howdy — be sure to come by!

And if you can’t make it in person… call me! I’ll be doing the “Atheists Talk” live radio show in Minnesota on Sunday Sept. 18, and you can call in with your questions.

Details are below. If you’re in the area, I hope to see you there!

*

EVENT/ HOSTS: “Atheists Talk” live radio
DATE: Sunday, Sept. 18
TIME: 9:00-10:00 a.m. Central Time
LOCATION: KTNF AM 950 Radio, broadcast from Eden Prairie, Minnesota
Listen live on-air at AM 950, or stream live (you must enter a Minnesota Zip code)
Call the studio line with your questions 952-946-6205, or send them via e-mail: [email protected]
The show will be posted as a free podcast later on the Minnesota Atheists website and on iTunes.
COST: Free. It’s the radio.

EVENT/ HOSTS: Talk at Minnesota Atheists
DATE: Sunday, Sept. 18
TIME: 1:00-1:15 p.m. – Social time
1:15-1:45 p.m. – Business Meeting
1:45-2:00 p.m. – Break
2:00-3:30 p.m. – My presentation: talk, plus Q&A
LOCATION: Southdale Library (meeting room upstairs), 7001 York Ave. S., Edina, MN 55435
(Meeting for nosh afterwards, 4:00, Q.Cumbers Buffet Restaurant, 7465 France Ave. S., Edina, MN 55435)
TOPIC: Angry Atheists?
SUMMARY: “Why are you atheists so angry?” The atheist movement is often accused of being driven by anger. What are so many atheists so angry about? Is this anger legitimate? Do the firebrands and diplomats in our community deal differently with this anger – and how can those differences be resolved? And can anger be an effective force behind a movement for social change?
COST: Free

EVENT/ HOSTS: Talk at Secular Student Alliance at St. Cloud State University
DATE: Monday, Sept. 19
TIME: 7:00-9:00 pm
LOCATION: Glacier room in the Atwood Memorial Center, 720 4th Avenue South, St. Cloud, Minnesota 56301-4498
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality
SUMMARY: The sexual morality of traditional religion tends to be based, not on solid ethical principles, but on a set of taboos about what kinds of sex God does and doesn’t want people to have. And while the sex-positive community offers a more thoughtful view of sexual morality, it still often frames sexuality as positive by seeing it as a spiritual experience. What are some atheist alternatives to these views? How can atheists view sexual ethics without a belief in God? And how can atheists view sexual transcendence without a belief in the supernatural?
COST: Free

Sexual Fantasies and The Road Not Taken, Part Two

This is Part Two of a two-part post. Reading Part One first might help it make more sense.

So if fantasies — and sex fantasies in particular — are a signpost to the road not traveled… how do we know whether to travel them?

I’m going to say right now: I am not a psychologist, or a sexologist, or any kind of expert on this topic. I have not done controlled, double-blinded, peer-reviewed research on the connection between fantasy sexual activity and sexual activity as enjoyed in real life. (As far as I know, no research on this topic exists: if anyone knows of any, please let me know.) I’m just a smart, thoughtful person who thinks sex is important, and who’s thought a lot about this question, and who’s paid careful attention to how it’s played out in her own life. (And in the lives of the friends and lovers who have been kind enough to let her in on how it’s played out for them.)

So that being said: Here are a few guidelines that have worked for me, and that have helped me sort out my sexual fantasies from my real-world sexual desires. If you have ideas and insights on how this has played out for you, I’d love to know about them. [Read more...]

Bad Religion to Play at Reason Rally!

Big news! The band Bad Religion will be playing at the Reason Rally for a one-hour performance immediately before the closing remarks!

The Reason Rally, for those of you who aren’t yet familiar, is the upcoming atheist/ humanist/ skeptic/ secular March on Washington, scheduled for March 24, 2012. It’s expected to be the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history. Having Bad Religion play there will go a long way to making this expectation a reality.

Scheduled speakers include Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Jamila Bey, James Randi… and, oh yeah. Me. I’m speaking there, too. I am bursting with pride and excitement at the prospect of getting to be on that stage, in this company, at this historic event. And it’s going to rock even hard, now that Bad Religion’s playing!

This is going to be super-fun. It is going to be made of 100% pure awesomenium. You do not want to miss it. Make your plans now! March 24, 2012. Put it in your calendar, and make it happen!

I’m on Twitter! Follow me at @GretaChristina .

Sexual Fantasies and The Road Not Taken

What do our sex fantasies tell us about our desires?

It’s commonly believed that our sex fantasies tell us what we “really” want in bed. If we fantasize about gay sex, it means we’re really gay. If we fantasize about kinky sex, it means we’re really kinky. If we fantasize about wearing a hockey mask and getting fucked in the ass in the middle of the Roman Coliseum with a crowd of thousands cheering us on, then that must be our deepest desire, and our sex life will never be fully satisfying if we don’t somehow make it happen.

And I think this idea is a huge mistake. It makes no sense to think that what we fantasize about is what we “really” want. We fantasize all the time about things we don’t really want to do. Sexually and otherwise. We fantasize about things that in reality would be immoral, and things that would be unpleasant, and things that might be marginally fun but would be waaaaay more trouble than they’re worth. (More on all that in a tic.)

But while I think it’s a huge mistake to think that our sex fantasies accurately reflect our “real” desires, I do think they can offer us a clue about them.

I think fantasies can be a clue to what’s missing in our lives. A portrait drawn in negative space. A signpost to the road not taken. [Read more...]

Progressive Religion and the Cherry Picking Problem

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

“Sure, I choose the parts of the Bible/ Torah/ Koran/ Bhagavad-Gita/ etc. that make sense to me, and reject the ones that don’t. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Think for ourselves? Isn’t that better than being a fundamentalist?”

When atheists criticize religion, one of the things we harp about most is cherry-picking: believers embracing the parts of their religious teachings they like, and ignoring or rejecting the parts they don’t. We point out that sacred texts — the Bible, the Koran, etc. — are typically filled with anachronisms and absurdities, internal contradictions and factual errors and moral grotesqueries, and that nobody actually adheres to all their teachings… not even self-proclaimed fundamentalists. (Are there any Christian fundamentalists who decline to wear blended fabrics, or who stone their disobedient children to death?) And we point out that believers conveniently pick the parts of their sacred texts that they already agree with, or that they would most like to agree with, or that they happened to be taught by the accident of which faith they were brought up in.

Now, fundamentalists and other conservative believers will hotly deny this charge. They’ll insist that they really do follow the literal word of their sacred text. And they’ll come up with any number of contorted excuses for why they embrace parts of their religious text and reject others: why they’re wearing cotton-poly blends, why their disobedient children are still alive.

But progressive and moderate believers take a very different approach. They freely admit to cherry-picking. “Sure,” they say. “The Bible says a lot of things — things that are anachronistic and absurd, factually inaccurate and morally grotesque. The Bible (or whichever sacred text we’re talking about) isn’t a perfect document written by God — it’s a flawed document written by people who were trying to understand God. You think you’re telling us something we don’t know? Yes, we cherry-pick. We should cherry-pick. We have minds, and moral compasses, and we’re supposed to think for ourselves. Isn’t that what atheists do? When you read works by thinkers you find inspiring, you get inspired by the parts that resonate with you, and you reject the parts you think are screwed up. Why shouldn’t believers do the same thing?”

Yeah. See, here’s the problem.

Actually, before we get to the problem, I should say this right at the outset: Compared to religious fundamentalism? Yes, this approach to religion is vastly preferable. I have serious objections to progressive religion — but they’re a lot less serious than my objections to fundamentalist religion. If all religion were in this progressive vein… well, I’d still disagree with it, and I’d still speak out about that disagreement, but I wouldn’t care nearly as much as I do. And while I disagree with progressive and moderate believers, I’m more than happy to share a dinner table with them, and to work in alliance on issues we have in common.

So. That being said. Here’s the problem with religious cherry-picking.

It’s this: How do you know which cherries to pick? [Read more...]

Further Thoughts on Fashion and Style

So as I should have expected, my recent post on fashion and feminism generated a rather substantial volume of conversation. Much of it quite vigorous. (In fact, as of this writing, the fashion post has substantially more comments than my post on diplomacy and accomodationism. I think this is hilarious. I love you guys.)

And of all the comment debates and conversations that this blog has generated since it switched over to Freethought Blogs, this is the one I feel most inspired to respond to. Which I also think is hilarious.

A lot of people made a lot of points in this conversation. Some of which I take issue with, some of which I think are valid. I want to get into a few of these… and I want to start with one of the most valid ones.

Namely, the distinction between fashion and style.

When I talked about fashion in the original piece, a lot of people thought I meant “the dictates from the fashion industry about what people should and should not wear.” Do’s and don’ts. What’s in and what’s out. Fashion magazines; women’s magazines; celebrity fashion icons; celebrity gossip magazines obsessively examining this week’s red-carpet looks under a microscope; designers telling women what to wear this month and what kind of body we should wear it on. Etc. And this, these folks argued, was not a form of personal expression that could be likened to a language. This was a form of oppression. They made a distinction between style, i.e. the individual ways that a person expresses who they are through their clothing and other personal adornment… and fashion, i.e. what some self-appointed arbiters in society tell us about how we should be expressing ourselves, and indeed what we should be expressing. Nobody quoted Lester Bangs — “Style is originality, fashion is fascism” — but they certainly could have.

I thought it was clear from context that, when I used the word “fashion,” this wasn’t what I was talking about. But I guess it wasn’t. And it’s my responsibility as a writer to make myself clear. If a lot of smart and thoughtful people don’t get what I’m saying, then I need to say it more clearly. Let me try again.

In my original piece, I used the word “fashion” instead of “style” somewhat deliberately. I wasn’t just talking about one person’s individual expression — I was talking about the cultural vocabulary, the global conversation that goes on through clothing and hair and makeup and jewelry and shoes and other forms of personal adornment. I was using the metaphor of language to talk about clothing and personal adornment as a shared vocabulary and grammar that we use to communicate. And “fashion” seemed like a better word for that than “style.” (I also couldn’t resist the title “Fashion is a Feminist Issue,” with its echo of the famous book “Fat is a Feminist Issue.”)

But yes. What I was trying to get at is probably closer to what many people think of as “style” rather than “fashion.” (Especially since the word “fashion” seems to rub so many people the wrong way.)

And in fact, this discussion has given me a new way of looking at the distinction between fashion and style, and a new way of looking at the entire issue of using language as a metaphor for fashion and style. This is a new idea for me, one of my “thinking out loud” ideas, and I want to run it by y’all.

Here’s the idea:

Fashion is a language.

Style is what we choose to say in it. [Read more...]

9/11, and the Shallow Comfort of Religion

When it happened, I wished that I believed in God.

For about four seconds.

I wasn’t an atheist blogger then. I wasn’t even calling myself an atheist. If I’d had the language, I’d probably have called myself a strong agnostic. Whatever the word, I definitely didn’t believe in God. But I had a moment on that day of wishing that I believed. I had a moment of wishing I believed that the people who had their lives stupidly and brutally cut short on that day would get some sort of life after this one. I had a moment of wishing I believed that the people who had flown the planes into the buildings would get some sort of punishment after their death. I had a moment of wishing I believed that this terrible day was part of some larger, benevolent, super-intelligent plan… a plan that I was too dumb and too freaked-out to see. I had a moment of wishing that I believed, and of envying people who had the comfort of that belief.

For about four seconds.

And then I realized:

If I believed in God, I wouldn’t be comforted.

If I believed in God, I’d be furious. I’d want to find the biggest ladder I could, climb up to Heaven, and punch God right in the face.

That was ten years ago today. I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot more since then. That day is, in fact, part of why I’m an atheist, and why I’m an atheist blogger, and why I think about these questions so much.

And here’s one of the conclusions I’ve come to:

I think the comforts of religion are only comforting when you don’t think about them very carefully. [Read more...]

Greta Speaking in Minneapolis and St. Cloud, Sept. 18-19

UPDATE: The time for the St. Cloud talk. It’s now starting at 7:00 pm.

I have two speaking gigs coming up soon in Minnesota! I’m going to be speaking to the Minnesota Atheists in Minneapolis on Sunday Sept. 18, and to the Secular Student Alliance at St. Cloud State University on Monday Sept. 19. I’ll be speaking on the topics “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” and “Atheism and Sexuality.” I’ll be doing Q&A at both talks… and after the Minneapolis talk, we’ll be going out to dinner. So if you have something you’ve always wanted to ask me — or if you just want to say howdy — be sure to come by!

And if you can’t make it in person… call me! I’ll be doing the “Atheists Talk” live radio show in Minnesota on Sunday Sept. 18, and you can call in with your questions.

Details are below. If you’re in the area, I hope to see you there!

*

EVENT/ HOSTS: “Atheists Talk” live radio
DATE: Sunday, Sept. 18
TIME: 9:00-10:00 a.m. Central Time
LOCATION: KTNF AM 950 Radio, broadcast from Eden Prairie, Minnesota
Listen live on-air at AM 950, or stream live (you must enter a Minnesota Zip code)
Call the studio line with your questions 952-946-6205, or send them via e-mail: [email protected]
The show will be posted as a free podcast later on the Minnesota Atheists website and on iTunes.
COST: Free. It’s the radio.

EVENT/ HOSTS: Talk at Minnesota Atheists
DATE: Sunday, Sept. 18
TIME: 1:00-1:15 p.m. – Social time
1:15-1:45 p.m. – Business Meeting
1:45-2:00 p.m. – Break
2:00-3:30 p.m. – My presentation: talk, plus Q&A
LOCATION: Southdale Library (meeting room upstairs), 7001 York Ave. S., Edina, MN 55435
(Meeting for nosh afterwards, 4:00, Q.Cumbers Buffet Restaurant, 7465 France Ave. S., Edina, MN 55435)
TOPIC: Angry Atheists?
SUMMARY: “Why are you atheists so angry?” The atheist movement is often accused of being driven by anger. What are so many atheists so angry about? Is this anger legitimate? Do the firebrands and diplomats in our community deal differently with this anger – and how can those differences be resolved? And can anger be an effective force behind a movement for social change?
COST: Free

EVENT/ HOSTS: Talk at Secular Student Alliance at St. Cloud State University
DATE: Monday, Sept. 19
TIME: 7:00-9:00 pm
LOCATION: Glacier room in the Atwood Memorial Center, 720 4th Avenue South, St. Cloud, Minnesota 56301-4498
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality
SUMMARY: The sexual morality of traditional religion tends to be based, not on solid ethical principles, but on a set of taboos about what kinds of sex God does and doesn’t want people to have. And while the sex-positive community offers a more thoughtful view of sexual morality, it still often frames sexuality as positive by seeing it as a spiritual experience. What are some atheist alternatives to these views? How can atheists view sexual ethics without a belief in God? And how can atheists view sexual transcendence without a belief in the supernatural?
COST: Free