True Love Waits
 And The Rest Of Us Get On With Our Sex Lives: The Blowfish Blog

Wedding_and_engagement_ringI have a new piece up on the Blowfish blog — True Love Waits… And The Rest Of Us Get On With Our Sex Lives — about the not-so-joyful joys of waiting until you get married to have sex. The jumping-off point is a letter I saw on Scarleteen (the sex ed for teenagers website), about a couple who had decided for religious reasons not to have sex until after they got married… and found themselves stuck in a marriage with a seriously disappointing, incompatible sex life. Here’s the teaser:

There are so many directions I could go with this. I could talk about the ridiculous over-emphasis our society places on marriage: the absurdly high expectations we place on it, the idealistic glow we place around it, the assumption that it will magically transform everything, including and especially sex. (And that’s speaking as someone who is herself married — ritually, if not legally — and who does think that her marriage has changed both the relationship and the sex for the better.)

And of course, I could get on my atheist high horse, and talk about the fucked-up effect religion so often has on sexual happiness. That would certainly be a fruitful direction. Of all the dreadful sources of sexual misinformation and general bad sex advice in the world, religion has to take the cake — because it can’t be argued with. It isn’t based on evidence, it’s based on scripture and religious authority and personal faith… and it’s therefore singularly resistant to change, to adaptation in response to evidence or data. About sex, or anything else.

But I want to go in a different direction here.

I want to express my gratitude for the fact that I — and most of us — don’t live in that world anymore.

To find out why exactly the whole “waiting for marriage” thing makes me kind of sad — and why exactly I’m grateful for the sexual world I live in — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Blind Watchmaker Makes a Watch: A Nifty Video About Evolution

This is beyond neat.

This gets at both the precision and the beauty of the theory of evolution in a way that’s completely clear, and really fun to watch. (If you’re a nerd like me, anyway.)

It’s an animated video demolishing the “watchmaker” argument for creationism.

Watch_1If you’re not familiar with the “watchmaker” argument, it goes roughly like this: The awesome complexity of the human body proves that it had to have had a designer. It could not have evolved naturally, any more than the parts of a watch will evolve naturally into a watch. (Or, as the more modern version of the argument goes: The complexity of the human body evolving by “chance” or at “random” is as likely as a bunch of machine parts in a hurricane assembling themselves into a 747. “Chance” and “random” in quotation marks, because natural selection isn’t random chance… that’s the whole point.)

The main problem with this argument is this: Of course watches and 747s don’t evolve naturally. They’re not alive. They don’t mutate, and they don’t reproduce.

Clock_partsSo cdk007 (who has a bunch of other evolution videos on YouTube) created a computer program putting a bunch of clock parts together that could combine, mutate, and reproduce; put them in an environment where the ones that kept time the best were more likely to survive; and ran the program. Several times, with an assortment of different parameters such as rate of mutation and number of teeth on the gears, to make sure his parameters hadn’t been accidentally fine-tuned.

And got clocks.

Functioning, accurate clocks.

Several times over.

Transitional_fossilsWhat I really like about this video — apart from just, you know, everything — is how neatly it demolishes the “transitional forms” argument against evolution. You know: “Where are all the transitional forms? Why are there these sudden jumps in the fossil record?” Of course there are transitional forms in the fossil record — lots and lots and lots of them — but there are also some sudden (well, “sudden” by geological standards) jumps. This video makes it very clear, in a vivid, visual way, exactly how and why that happens in a completely natural system of natural selection. If a mutation comes along that’s a very big improvement, it’s going to spread very quickly indeed — so quickly that it probably won’t be captured in the fossil record. Note in this video the rapid transition between the Age of Pendulums and the Age of True Clocks.

BTW, you don’t need sound for this video. There’s a very nice song in the background by Coldplay, but the actual content is all visual. (Not that I’m saying you SHOULD watch it at work…)

Video after the jump, since putting videos before the jump screws up my archives.

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“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant On What Consciousness And Selfhood Might Be

4rainbow_3“I think the soul is something like a rainbow. It is not a thing in itself, it is a relationship between physical things. The most important of these things is the body, and under all conditions we understand by evidence are possible, the soul dies with the body and sometimes expires before the body.”

This was said by Eric, in a comment in the Daylight Atheism post Emptying the Haunted Air. It struck me very strongly as both beautiful and true, and it crystallized a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately re: consciousness and selfhood. So I wanted to quote it and talk about it a little.

First, I should explain what Eric means about the rainbow. I’ll just quote him again:

Rainbow_2“Without science we might have mistakenly believed a rainbow is a thing just independently out there. It is not. A rainbow is a *relationship* between an observer, a light source, and water vapor.”

In other words, a rainbow isn’t an object or substance. Not in the same way that, say, the sun or rain are.

Yet it exists. Sure, it’s essentially a relationship between light and water and an observer — but that doesn’t make it not real. It’s not an object or a substance, but it is real. It’s an actual phenomenon, one that can be observed and studied.

And the same could be said for consciousness, and selfhood. (What Eric calls the soul; although I don’t like to call it that, since the word has strong metaphysical implications that I don’t like.)

Brain_2I think a lot of people are troubled by the idea of consciousness as “merely” a product of the brain. I certainly was during my woo phase. And not just because I was frightened at the idea of the permanence of death, and desperate for some hope that my consciousness and selfhood might somehow be immortal. It troubled me because it seemed so reductionist, so mechanistic. It seemed to reduce the ineffable amazingness of human existence to a set of biochemical stimulus-response machines. Lumps of meat in a massive Skinner box; dogs salivating at the sound of Pavlov’s bell.

In other words, it made it seem not real.

Phantoms_in_the_brainWhenever I heard or read the idea that consciousness and selfhood were constructs of how the brain worked, it made them seem fake. Illusions, self-deceptions. Stories we told ourselves in order to live.

But now I don’t think that’s true.

NeuronmatrixThe rainbow is essentially a relationship between light and water vapor and an observer. But that doesn’t make it not real. And if consciousness and selfhood are essentially a relationship between the billions and billions of neurons in our brains — and between those neurons and the rest of our bodies, and arguably between our bodies and the rest of the world — that doesn’t make them not real, either. It doesn’t mean that consciousness and selfhood are fake, or illusory, or self-deceptive. They are real constructs of our brains and the rest of our bodies, every bit as real as emotions and ideas and sensations.

Now, while the constructed nature of consciousness and selfhood doesn’t mean that they’re false, it does mean that they’re transitory.

And that, we’re just going to have to suck up.

Alzheimers_disease__mriBecause the evidence is overwhelming that consciousness and selfhood are products of the brain. Everything we know tells us that physical changes to the brain chemistry and/or structure — even very small changes — can make radical changes to our consciousness and selfhood. Illness, injury, drugs (recreational or medicinal)
 all of these can drastically alter consciousness and self, even eradicate them altogether, temporarily or permanently. Talk to a stroke victim, a person with Alzheimer’s, a depressed person on medication, a club kid on Ecstasy, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. And of course, the greatest physical change of all — death — seems, from all the evidence we have, to completely eradicate consciousness and selfhood, very permanently indeed.

Gravestone(Don’t talk to me about near-death experiences. I’ve gone over that at length elsewhere in this blog. Near-death experiences are simply another form of altered consciousness, and if they do sometimes produce an unusual state of mind, it’s no more unexpected than the unusual state of mind produced by sleep deprivation or LSD. Near-death experiences may tell us something about what happens to the mind when the brain is temporarily deprived of oxygen for a couple of minutes. They tell us absolutely nothing about what happens to the mind when the brain permanently rots in a grave for years until it crumbles into dust and nothingness.)

JudgementThe evidence is overwhelming, and it’s increasing every day: Consciousness and selfhood are not independent objects or substances. There’s no metaphysical energy, no aura, no invisible self leaving your body on death to ascend to Heaven or burn in Hell or move on to inhabit another body. Consciousness and selfhood are products of the brain and the rest of the body. They change when the body changes, and they disappear when the body dies.

But that doesn’t make them not real.

It doesn’t make them illusions or self-deceptions.

And it doesn’t make them meaningless.

The Usefulness of Anger: No. 864,726

ScreamIn case anyone was still wondering about the usefulness of anger in the atheist movement — or any social movement — I direct you to new blogger Lee of the Stone.

Who was inspired to start her blog by my Atheists and Anger post.

I got (and am still getting) an awful lot of amazing feedback on the Anger piece. But of all of them, this is the one that’s made me the happiest.

She started a blog because of me.

I’m kind of speechless.

And it’s a very good blog. A new one, obviously, since it started about a week ago, but it already has a nice body of smart, interesting, well-written stuff. I encourage y’all to visit — I definitely will be.

Carnival of the Godless #78: Haunted House Edition

CarnivalSo you thought you’d take an innocent visit to the Carnival of the Godless? See the godless sights, ride the godless rides, make yourself pleasantly sick on godless cotton candy?

Your visit is about to take a ghastly turn. Hand in your tickets, step through these gates, and abandon all hope. You are about to enter…

THE GODLESS HOUSE OF HORRORS!

Bwa ha ha ha ha!

Hell_houseThose right-wing haunted houses, with the blood-stained abortions and the same-sex weddings performed by Satan — they have nothing on us. I scoff at them. Ha, I say, and yet again: Ha. We have atheist nightmares far worse than Ray Comfort’s bananas.

Pregnant women, people with heart conditions, and children under four feet tall: please step this way to the simple list format version of the Carnival. No bad imitations of Vincent Price will emerge there to haunt your dreams.

Those of you with the constitution and courage to face the House of Horrors… come this way.

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Blog Carnivals: Liberals, Feminists, and Skeptics

Carnival_1Carnival time! Carnival of the Liberals #50 is up at That Is So Queer. Faith has done a lovely Edgar Allen Poe theme for this Carnival. And I’m extra excited this time: Carnival of the Liberals is a selective carnival, they only pick the ten best submissions for each roundup… and this time I have not one but two pieces in it! Short Memories: AIDS Denialism and Vaccine Resistance, and Atheists and Anger! They like me, they really like me! My favorite other piece in this carnival: I Write Letters by Melissa McEwan at Shakespeare’s Sister, on how slamming Ann Coulter for her looks makes you no better than she is.

Carnival of Feminists #46 is up at Cubically Challenged. My piece this time: Male Dom Female Sub, from the Blowfish Blog. My favorite other piece in this carnival: In Search of My Rhetorical Penis by Grrlscientist at Living the Scientific Life (a blog I clearly need to check out more), on why female science bloggers get overlooked.

And Skeptic’s Circle #72 is up at Quackometer. I’m not in the circle this time around, but it’s a good blog carnival nonetheless. My favorite piece: Holford Watch, on why newspapers only print “miracle cure” stories and not “negative findings.”

If you’re a liberal, feminist, or skeptic blogger and want to be in an upcoming Carnival, here are submission guidelines and info for the Carnival of the Liberals, Carnival of Feminists, and Skeptic’s Circle. Happy reading, and happy blogging!

The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many

1_gravestoneWe talk a lot about the meaning of life. I want to talk for a bit about the meaning of death.

In the most straightforward literal sense, when you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, there is no meaning of death. Not in any external, objective sense. In the godless universe, death just happens. It doesn’t serve a purpose — there is no purpose. There’s no intention behind its When and How and Why; no designer picking people off according to some mysterious master plan. Death happens because of the laws of cause and effect in the physical universe, the laws of biology and chemistry and physics. It happens because it happens.

Peace_sign_painted_on_rock_1And along with many atheists and other godless folk, I don’t find this idea depressing or nihilistic. This may come as a surprise to many religious believers, but it’s true. It’s taken me a while to get there, but I actually find this idea rather comforting.

3_potterySee, the cool thing about godlessness is that you get to create your own meaning. Contrary to popular opinion, a godless life isn’t a life without meaning. It’s a life in which we create our own meaning. Our meaning of life, of course — but also our meaning of death.

So that’s what I want to talk about. Not, “What purpose does death serve for the non-existent designer?” But instead, “What meaning can death have for us? How can death shape our understanding and experience of life? What meaning of death can we create?”

And one of the things that works best for me is to see death — permanent, designerless, physical cause-and-effect death — as something that intimately connects us with the universe.

My mother died of cancer at the age of 45, when I was 17, two months after I started college. I don’t talk about it much. It was terrible. It was traumatic. It was unbelievably shitty timing, mostly for her but for me as well. It was unfair.

4_scotland_skye_cliffsExcept that it wasn’t unfair. Any more than a star going nova is unfair, or a cliff collapsing into the sea.

5_god_sistineWhen you don’t believe that all death happens by design — the grand cosmic design of an All Powerful, All Knowing, All Good God who theoretically loves you — then you don’t have to torture yourself wondering what you did wrong. You don’t have to twist yourself into contortions trying to figure out why you’re being punished, what lesson you’re supposed to learn. When people die young, when people die in terrible pain, when people die freakishly for no apparent reason, you don’t have to pile onto your pain and grief any extra guilt about being punished… or any extra guilt because you’re trying to see a reason for it and can’t.

6_dead_treeInstead, you can see death as part of the way the world works. We are an animal species in the physical world, and animal species in the physical world get sick, or get in accidents, or get birth defects, or die in natural disasters. Sometimes good people, sometimes too young. And if it happens to you, or someone you love, it’s not because you/ they did something wrong. You can accept it, and grieve over it, and move on.

And when it comes to contemplating your own death, you can see it in much the same way. Death is the thing that will ultimately separate you from the universe… and yet, paradoxically, it connects you with it as well.

8_aerial_gardenferns_on_a_tree_2Death sucks, and premature death sucks worse. But it’s part of the package deal of getting to be alive. It happens because you, and all the people around you, are part of the world: the physical, natural world, with all of its wonders and horrors. It’s a world that doesn’t really care whether you live or die, whether you suffer or rejoice, and to some people that can seem bleak and cold. But it’s a world of which we are a part, a world which we are intimately connected to down to our very molecules — not a world that stands apart from us and punishes us for reasons we can never fathom.

GalaxyAnd without a God, you don’t have to figure out what purpose your death is serving. You don’t have to torture yourself trying to figure out the motivations of the physical universe. It doesn’t have any. So you can accept its inevitability, and get on with your life.

This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: This little blog post isn’t intended to answer this question for everyone on the planet once and for all. Hence the “Part One of Many” in the title. I’ve written before about death — Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God was the first piece of overtly godless writing I ever did — and I know I’ll be writing about it more in the future. And lots of other godless writers are wrestling with it as well.

On that topic: I actually started forming these ideas and putting them into words in a discussion on Ebon Muse’s Daylight Atheism blog, a discussion in which Ebon and many other people had thoughtful and insightful things to say on the subject. Parts of this piece were poached from my comments there. Other parts were poached from my piece on this blog, “Give her an out”: Prayer and Terminal Illness… which in turn was inspired by the Bless the Child? piece on Sid Schwab’s Surgeonsblog. So big shout-outs to Ebon and Sid on this one.

Atheists and Anger: A Reply to the Hurricane

Computer_keyboardWoof.

Okay. There is absolutely no way I can reply individually to everyone who commented on the Atheists and Anger post. The size of this thing took me by surprise. It’s still taking me by surprise. So please accept my apologies for this mass reply.

HeartFirst, I want to say to everyone who sent the love: Thank you so much. You have no idea. I’ve spent the last two days either bouncing off the walls with joy… or sitting at my computer on the sofa with tears in my eyes. I’m sorry if that sounds sappy, but I’m feeling sappy, so suck it up. The fact that this piece touched so many people, inspired so many people… that is huge. That is why I became a writer. That is the meaning of my life. Thank you for letting me know.

Thumbs_upAnd I’ve learned a lesson about commenting on blogs. I have a tendency to not bother commenting to a post when all I have to say is “Attaboy” or “You go, girl!” or “Thank you.” Especially when there are already dozens or hundreds of comments in a thread, and other people have already said what I was going to say. But I’ve read every single one of these comments, and I was touched by every “Attaboy” I read. So now I know: Even if all I have to say is “Attaboy,” I should say it anyway.

Now my replies to the critics. I suppose I shouldn’t bother, I suppose I should just let it go and focus on the love. But I seem to be constitutionally incapable of letting unfair or inaccurate accusations just slide. So here are my replies to some of the critical comments’ common themes.

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A Quick Note on Comments

Computer_keyboardJust a quick note on comments in this blog, since they’ve kind of gone Foom with the Atheists and Anger post:

I am not censoring or deleting comments in the Atheists and Anger post. Typepad has recently “improved” their comments format by splitting comments on a longer thread into chunks that you have to page through… thus making it harder to see the comments at the end of a long thread. (In addition, this “improvement” has caused a glitch in the system, so that clicking on a comment in the “Recent Comments” list won’t take you to that comment if it’s at the end of a long thread.) I’ve written to Typepad to ask if this “improvement”can be un-improved, but I haven’t heard back from them yet.

In the meantime: If you’ve posted a comment at the end of a long thread (such as the one in Atheists and Anger) and want to see it, or if you just want to read the comments at the end of the thread, you have to keep hitting the “Next Comments” button at the end of each chunk of comments. Keep doing this until you get to the end (or until you get to the chunk you want to see.) If you’re still having problems commenting or seeing all the comments, please email me and let me know.

I do occasionally delete comments in my blog, if they’re abusive, grossly off-topic, or obviously trying to pitch a commercial product or service. But I don’t delete comments simply because I disagree with them. And I have not deleted a single comment in the Atheists and Anger thread. Not even the duplicates. In fact, I’ve left comments up that I would normally be inclined to delete. I don’t promise that I won’t delete any comments in the future; but as of this writing, I have left the entire thread exactly as it is. My apologies of behalf of Typepad if their comment formatting has made it difficult to either read or post comments. Thanks.