Greta’s Secular Students Week Blogathon! Episode 3: Neuropsychology, or, On Reading Science You Know Will Be Obsolete

SSA Week logo

I’m doing a mini-blogathon today for Secular Students Week!

This week is Secular Students Week, when people around the Internet are celebrating the fantastic work the Secular Student Alliance is doing to empower students. Their goal is to get 500 donations now through June 17th: if they do, they’ll receive a $20,000 challenge grant! Help them keep up their amazing work by giving this week. A gift of $5, $10, or $20 will go a long way towards helping them reach this goal and empower secular students: please give today!

In today’s mini-blogathon, I’ll post a new blog post once an hour, from now (a little after 9:00 am Pacific time) until 5:00 pm Pacific time. In addition, for every donation that’s made today via my blogathon, I’ll post a new cat photo!

This hour’s blogathon post: Neuropsychology, or, On Reading Science You Know Will Be Obsolete.

I’m a big fan of books on neuropsychology. I’m fascinated by how the mind works: I mean, how could you not be? Consciousness, thoughts, feelings, experiences — made out of meat. That’s so cool! And there’s something exciting about how much the science is still very much in its infancy. We’re pretty darned sure that consciousness is produced by the brain — but we’re just beginning to start to think about maybe getting a grip on how exactly that works.

But the very fact that this science is in its infancy means that much of it is almost certainly wrong. And that’s a little weird. It’s a little weird to be reading books about science that, in one or two hundred years, will almost certainly be looked at the way we now look at two-hundred-year-old books on biology or geology. They didn’t know about evolution! They didn’t know about plate techtonics! Heck, it wasn’t that long ago that they didn’t know about atoms! Their scientific explorations were lacking in the fundamental truths underlying their science, the fundamental truths necessary to truly understand it.

In one or two hundred years, our current understanding of neuropsychology will be seen like that: historically interesting, worth paying attention to for an understanding of how the science developed, but not much more than that. Some of it will possibly even be a source of hilarity or horror (“They thought THAT?!?!?”), and people will be fascinated by which things we happened to get right, and which things we got hilariously wrong.

This is not to dismiss or trivialize the science. Quite the opposite. That’s how science works: we explore things we don’t know, until we know them. The fumbling around in the dark that we’re doing right now is laying the foundation for the fuller understanding we’ll have in one or two hundred years.

It’s just a little weird, is all.

Once again — please support the Secular Student Alliance! Help them get their challenge grant of $20,000 by reaching their goal of 500 donations now through June 17th. Even small donations help. Please support them today!


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

How the Issue of Death Affects Coming Out as Atheist

There’s an interesting piece up on Vice by Simon Davis, my friend and colleague and Vice’s death correspondent. He’s writing about the research that recently came out, suggesting that part of the reason for anti-atheist hostility is people’s fear of death. In these studies, a subtle reminder of death increased disparagement, social distancing, and distrust of atheists — and asking people to think about atheism increased the accessibility of implicit death thoughts. (For the record, I think the research is very preliminary — if for no other reason, the research only looked at a few hundred college students at one particular college — but I do think the findings are plausible, and are worth further study.)

Coming Out Atheist cover 150Simon interviewed me for his piece on this question, asking how often the issue of death and mortality had come up in my research for Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. He quoted me in the article, but was only able to quote a small portion of my response. I thought some of you might be interested in my full response.

*****

Yes. In the over 400 “coming out atheist” stories I gathered for my book, the subject of death came up a lot. When atheists come out (to Christians, anyway), the first reaction is often about Hell. Sometimes it’s manipulative or hostile, an attempt to scare atheists back into belief. More often, though, it’s genuine concern or fear — they sincerely believe atheists will burn in Hell, and they don’t want that to happen to the people they love.

Even if they don’t talk about Hell, believers do often respond to atheists’ coming out by asking about death. They ask what we think happens when we die, or how we cope with death, or how we think life can have meaning if it’s finite. Again, sometimes this is just hostile, a way to dismiss our humanity: in one of the ugliest stories I read, a military atheist taking a class was told that his grandfather had died, and the officer teaching the class told him, “Well, since you don’t believe in god I guess you won’t have any need to go to his funeral, I mean you believe he is just going to rot in the ground, right?” But more often, it comes from concern, or curiosity. If someone has used religion to cope with death for their entire life, it can be upsetting, or simply confusing, to imagine their friends or family living without that coping mechanism.

Interestingly, death or mortality is often the catalyst for atheists’ coming out. Death or serious illness is often the time people discuss religion and religious beliefs, even among people who aren’t very religious. It’s not the ideal time for the coming-out conversation, of course: in fact, this is one of the reasons I recommend that atheists come out sooner rather than later, if they can so so safely. When a family is stressed over death or serious illness, it can be extra hard on everyone to add the conversation about “Hey, by the way, I don’t believe in God or Heaven.” It’s generally better if that conversation is already behind you, and everyone’s already adjusted. But I understand why it happens. If atheists know that their coming out will be upsetting, they often don’t want to rock the boat — then all of a sudden, someone’s sick or dying or dead, and things like funerals or last rites become an issue, and everyone’s praying and asking you to pray, and you can’t just put it on the back burner anymore.

***

Here, by the way, is ordering info for Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. [Read more…]

How Dare You Show Me My Mistake! My Reply to Phil Zuckerman About the Global Gender Breakdown of Atheism

So when I wrote that globally, there’s no gender split in atheism, and that men being more likely to be non-believers than women is a localized phenomenon — was I mistaken?

Phil ZuckermanPhil Zuckerman — professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, author of Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion, and the upcoming book Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions (scheduled for publication in December) — thinks so. Here’s a link to his article. The tl;dr: He says most of the current data supports the conclusion that men are more likely to be atheists than women, pretty much around the world. How much more likely varies — the gender difference in non-belief varies from country to country — but with a couple of exceptions (example: self-designated agnostics in Japan and Belgium are about evenly split between women and men), men around the world are, on average, more likely to be secular than women. The poll I was citing in my piece — WIN-Gallup International “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism 2012,” August 6, 2012 (PDF, Table 8, page 20 of 25) — is an outlier. To quote Dr. Zuckerman about this poll, “It may very well be valid. But for now, it is such a major outlier — so much so, that until we have more studies and more data confirming these unique and exceptional findings, we should remain skeptical.”

For the record, Dr. Zuckerman doesn’t think this gender difference in non-belief comes primarily from innate differences between the sexes. He doesn’t know where it comes from, although he posits a number of possible explanations, mostly sociological (although he’s “not going to totally, utterly discount or disregard biology outright”). And he says, “Of course, none of the above means that this gendered difference is fated and eternal. In 25 years, we could find different results.” But he does think that the poll I was citing is an outlier, and that when I said there there’s no global gender split in atheism, I was mistaken.

A number of people have pointed me to Dr. Zuckerman’s piece, and have asked me to respond. Here’s my response:

How. Dare. You.

HOW DARE YOU?!?!?

You’re deliberately misunderstanding what I obviously meant! You’re going out of your way to twist my words and make me look bad! You’re determined to be offended! You’re looking for people to be angry at! You’re trying to stir up controversy! You thrive on drama and attention! You’re trying to get rich through blog traffic and book sales! You’re being politically correct! You’re on a witch hunt! You’re the thought police! All those people who say how horrible you are, the people who harass you and threaten you and spread disinformation about you and keep re-registering new Twitter accounts when you block them so they can keep harassing you — they’ve got it right about you! You are a horrible person, and you’re destroying atheism and freethought!

Or, to put it another way:

You’re probably right. You have more experience, more expertise, and more knowledge in this area than I do. My mistake.

I’ll say that again, and I’ll put it in boldface and italics so readers can’t miss it, and I’ll clarify for the irony-impaired that this is what I actually mean and the “How dare you?” rant was a snarky jab at public figures who respond poorly to criticism:

You’re probably right. You have more experience, more expertise, and more knowledge in this area than I do. My mistake.

I still think the bulk of my criticism of Harris was correct and fair. I think his original statement about the supposedly innate causes of the gender split in his followers was sexist; and I think his follow-up statement supposedly clarifying his original statement was sexist. As I wrote earlier: I think these statements were sexist, even if you do accept some degree of innate gender difference between women and men. And I think they’re still sexist, even if there is a global gender split in atheism (which I’m now convinced there probably is, although it’s interesting that it varies so much from country to country). Given how massive and pervasive gender policing is (and how extensively well-documented this policing is), I think it’s sexist to immediately reach for “the difference is innate, manbrains and ladybrains are born so different” as the default explanation for gender differences. (I’ve written a more thorough explanation of why this is elsewhere.)

And as Dr. Zuckerman himself stated, there are lots of possible explanations for this gender split. Possible causes that he cites are that having less power and privilege and agency (as women do) can make people turn to religion for consolation and support; that women are socialized to be less assertive and less independent, making them more vulnerable to religion; that it could have to do with women’s expected roles as caregivers, or with the greater expectation that women work inside the home. I would add to that list of possible causes: the cultural expectation that being religious and passing religion on to children is women’s work; a culture that equates being religious with being civilized and moral (especially sexually moral), and that sees enforcing civilization and morality (especially sexual morality) as women’s work; the fact that religion is one of the few arenas where women traditionally have some power and social status (women often do much of the day-to-day running of religious institutions, even though men are usually the most visible leaders); the pervasiveness of sexism and misogyny in organized atheism. Given that we know all this, and given that the gender split in atheism does vary so much from country to country, and given that the evidence for significant innate gender differences in behavior and psychology in humans is tenous at best, I think it’s extremely sexist to immediately reach for “innate differences between manbrains and ladybrains” as the explanation for this gender split in atheism.

But when it comes to the specific question of whether there really are more male atheists than female atheists worldwide, it seems likely that I was mistaken, and that the study I was citing was an outlier. My apologies.

Now. How hard was that? [Read more…]

Four Reasons “God Made Evolution Happen” Makes No Sense

This piece was originally published in AlterNet.

“Of course I believe in evolution. And I believe in God, too. I believe that evolution is how God created life.”

You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality — including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.

In the narrowest, most literal sense, of course this is true. It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.

I’m saying that this position is untenable. I’m saying that the “God made evolution happen” position is rife with both internal contradictions and denial of the evidence. You don’t have to deny as much reality as young earth creationists do to take this position — but you still have to deny a fair amount. Here are four reasons that “God made evolution happen” makes no sense. [Read more…]

Why You Can’t Reconcile God and Evolution

4 reasons that “God made evolution happen” makes no sense.

human skull evolution“Of course I believe in evolution. And I believe in God, too. I believe that evolution is how God created life.”

You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality – including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.

In the narrowest, most literal sense, of course this is true. It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.

I’m saying that this position is untenable. I’m saying that the “God made evolution happen” position is rife with both internal contradictions and denial of the evidence. You don’t have to deny as much reality as young earth creationists do to take this position — but you still have to deny a fair amount. Here are four reasons that “God made evolution happen” makes no sense.

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Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why You Can’t Reconcile God and Evolution. To read more about why this well-meaning attempt to reconcile science and religion makes no sense, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

“The drugs are hurting us more than they are helping us”: How Not to Talk to People With Mental Illness, Episode 563,304

From Facebook, a comment responding to my post, On Being on Anti-Depressants Indefinitely, Very Likely for the Rest of My Life, in which I discussed my diagnosis of depression and the meds I’m taking for it.

If you haven’t read Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker it’s a must. The director of a leading psychiatry association finally acquiesced and said he was right. The drugs are hurting us more than they are helping us. I’ve been on a slow ween and feel so much better. I drive my husband crazy sometimes, more than I used to, but it’s nice to be me again.

(I’m not going to name the person who said this, since people on Facebook often expect marginally more privacy than they do on blog comments and other public Internet spaces. If they want to disclose who they are, they may do so.)

Here’s my response.

I realize that you probably mean well, but can you please not tell people with mental illness to ignore their doctor’s advice? Unless someone tells you that their health care provider is prescribing actual quackery (like homeopathy or something), or unless you have some more substantial evidence for your position than “I know that the established standard of care is (X), but this one guy disagrees and wrote a book about it,” it is seriously fucked-up to undermine people’s relationships with their health care providers.

What’s more, people with chronic illnesses, especially mental illnesses, get a bellyful of unsolicited amateur medical advice along the lines of “I know better than you how you should take care of yourself.” It is really not helpful.

If the preponderance of hard medical evidence starts shifting away from “A combination of meds and talk therapy is often effective at treating depression, and right now for most people it’s the best we’ve got” and starts shifting towards “Meds are not generally effective and they can actually do harm,” I will reconsider my treatment plan. In the meantime: There are appropriate places for debates about how the medical establishment should be dealing with depression and other mental illness. A personal post from someone with depression talking about their experiences with it is not one of them. Thank you.

To Give Itself Pleasure

This is the piece that I read at the recent Godless Perverts Story Hour, the one that was livestreamed as part of the Freethought Blogs Con online conference. The entire event was recorded: you can watch the whole thing if you like, and videos of the individual performances, including this one, are being posted on the new Godless Perverts YouTube channel. Visual video quality from the livestream isn’t great, but the sound quality is lovely.

We are a way for the universe to give itself pleasure.

Big Bang timelineThere’s a famous quote by Carl Sagan — well, famous among atheists and skeptics and other people who think of Carl Sagan as super-famous. There’s this quote by Carl Sagan: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” And yes, that is (a) true, and (b) mega-cool. We are how the universe knows itself. 13.7 billion years ago, the universe went Foom, and it’s gone through countless configurations since then — and one of those configurations, one that’s happening right here and right now, is conscious life. Not just conscious life, but conscious, curious, exploring life that’s capable of looking around, and carefully examining what it perceives, and sorting out better ideas from worse ones, and figuring out what exactly is going on out there. The matter and energy of the universe has been morphing and morphing and morphing, and right now, it’s morphed into a state that is capable, in a small way, of understanding itself.

This makes me so happy. Yes, the universe is amazing — but without conscious life, the universe has no way of knowing just how amazing it is. It has no way of experiencing amazement. We are the experience, not only of knowledge, but of amazement at that knowledge. We are a miniscule piece of the matter and energy of the universe, looking carefully at some of the rest of the matter and energy, and saying, “Wow. Really? Black holes? Moving continents? All life on the planet sharing a common ancestor? Are you freaking kidding me? That is wicked cool.”

But we aren’t just that.

We aren’t just a way for the universe to know itself. We are a way for the universe to give itself pleasure.

For 13.7 billion years, the universe has gone through countless configurations — and one of those is the configuration, not just of consciousness, not just of knowledge, but of ecstasy. When we come, we are shifting the matter and energy of the universe into the form of euphoric, all-encompassing pleasure. When we fuck, when we suck, when we lick, when we finger, when we spank, when we pierce, when we tie each other up, when we masturbate, when we make good porn and enjoy good porn, when we dress up like saloon girls or ponies or 1950s biker gangs, we are the universe getting itself off.

Take a moment. Really appreciate that. We are not just how the universe knows itself. We are how the universe enjoys itself.

Serotonin and DopamineA friend of mine has a nerdy T-shirt that says, “Serotonin and dopamine — technically, the only two things you enjoy.” It made me chuckle… and then, me being me, I started to analyze and quibble, and I replied, “Well, if you’re going to get technical about it, serotonin and dopamine aren’t things you enjoy. Technically, serotonin and dopamine are your enjoyment.” Enjoyment is a particular set of configurations of the goop inside our skulls. I know that many people find this view of human experience depressing: cold, mechanical, reductionist. But for me, it’s exactly the opposite. Chemicals turned into different chemicals, which turned into different chemicals… and eventually, over billions of years, they turned into chemicals that generate joy.

And we aren’t just capable of experiencing our own pleasure. We’re capable of experiencing each other’s. We’re capable of giving each other orgasms, and taking pleasure from them. We’re capable of fingering each other’s pussies and sucking each other’s dicks and spanking each others asses, and having it flood our own brains with the chemicals of joy. As much as we are hungry for our own pleasure, we are also capable of being desperately, feverishly hungry for each other’s. We are a miniscule piece of the matter and energy of the universe, looking carefully at some of the rest of the matter and energy, and saying, “How would you like to get off?”

I love that this is how life perpetuates itself. I love that one of the chief ways that evolution works is that the experience of survival and reproduction is a pleasurable one. Life, almost by definition, is that which survives and reproduces — and I love that one of the central mechanisms by which this happens is that, for hundreds of millions of years, survival and reproduction have felt deeply, intensely, overwhelmingly good.

bizarre magazine cover woman in fetish bootsAnd I love that we’ve taken this powerful evolutionary drive to reproduce, and have taken ownership of it. I love that we’ve taken this drive, and have said, “Sure, this was once about reproduction, and sometimes it still is — but it doesn’t have to be. This can be about anything we want.” I love that we’ve dressed it up in studs and feathers, boots and stockings; that we’ve added personal theater and public theater; that we’ve spent millennia exploring it in painting and writing and film and pixels. I love that we can take this drive and use it to turn pain into ecstasy, shame into intimacy, helplessness into adventure, power into trust. I love that we’ve blended this drive with our uniquely human ability to make and use tools, in the form of dildos and vibrators and buttplugs and floggers and condoms and lube and violet wands and things that I don’t even know what they are. I love that we’ve blended this drive with our uniquely human ability to learn and explore and understand, in the form of books and videos and workshops and research papers and blog posts, about anatomy and sociology and psychology and sexology, about birth control and the psychological health of homosexuality and how, exactly, you tie someone to the bed. I love that we’ve blended this drive with our uniquely human ability to precisely communicate through language, so we can say to each other, “What I like is feathers and boots and floggings and vibrators and getting tied to the bed — what do you like?” I love that we’ve taken this powerful evolutionary drive, and have transformed it into expressions of love, friendship, companionship, consolation, community, art. In the words of Darwin, although not about this subject exactly — endless forms most beautiful.

And in the same way that I fall into rage and despair over people who deny their capacity to understand the universe because they think their god forbids it, I sometimes fall into rage and despair over people who deny their capacity to experience pleasure — harmless, honest, entirely ethical pleasure — because they think their god forbids it. In the same way that I fall into rage and despair over people whose religion leads them to not only deny their own capacity for knowledge but to suppress other people’s, I fall into rage and despair over people whose religion leads them to suppress other people’s capacity for pleasure. It makes me rage and despair to think that there are people who are taking their one short life, their miniscule sliver of matter and energy, and are devoting it to denying reality and obstructing joy, because they’ve been taught that this is necessary in order to experience an invisible, inaudible, intangible world that nobody has ever shown any good reason to think even exists. It makes me rage and despair to think that we have such a short time to create understanding and ecstasy, and there are people who are actively devoting their lives to throwing up roadblocks.

But I mostly don’t want to talk about rage and despair today. I want to acknowledge it, I want to recognize it and let it motivate me to make things better, and I want to move on. My own sliver of matter and energy is small, and getting smaller. As They Might Be Giants sang, I’m older than I’ve ever been, and now I’m even older, and now I’m even older, and now I’m even older. I have a small sliver, and I want to devote part of that sliver to demolishing the roadblocks to pleasure — but I also want to devote it to experiencing pleasure, and appreciating it. We have a miniscule sliver of matter and energy; we are an infinitesimal eyeblink in the vastness of time and space. But in that eyeblink, we get to be the universe giving itself pleasure. We get to be chemicals that generate joy. That is extraordinary. That is amazing. So let’s take a moment, and arrange the goop inside our skulls into the configuration of amazement, and let ourselves be amazed.

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Here, by the way, is the embedded video of the reading.

And I’d just like to say: I am betting that this is the only blog post in the world illustrated with an image of the Big Bang, an image of serotonin and dopamine, and an image of a cover of Bizarre Magazine with art by John Willie. If I’m wrong, please let me know — I really, really want to see that other blog post.

Where I Got the Science Nerd Chic Accessories

When I put up my recent post about my Science Nerd Chic outfit for the Academy of Sciences’ “Nightlife at the Museum” Fashion Night, several people expressed admiration for the accessories — especially the shoes. So I thought I’d let you know where you can get them.

Greta at Nightlife at the Museum Fashion Night 3

The shoes are the Icon, made by Hades. Mine are black, but they also come in brown or mustard. I got mine at Steamtropolis.

Greta at Nightlife at the Museum Fashion Night 4

The tights are the Universe style from Foot Traffic. They have them in several styles and sizes, in both gray and blue.

Greta at Nightlife at the Museum Fashion Night 5

The octopus necklace is actually pretty ubiquitous: I’ve seen pretty much the exact same thing in lots of places. I bought it at a second-hand/ vintage store, but a quick Google search for “octopus necklace” turned it up at Modcloth, in both silver and gold colors. Also, if you do a search for “octopus necklace” on Etsy, you’ll find the exact same piece with slight modifications — with an owl face, with a diving helmet, adorned with pearl beads, painted pink, and more — as well as straight-up.

Happy shopping!

(Oh, and the the computer-innard bracelet was made custom for me by my friend Josie, as a gift.)