Okay, I’m back! With a nice little bundle of posts for the coming week.
First things first, though, as promised, I wanted to write a little recap of the Imagine No Religion 2 conference, and a few of the things that stood out to me over the course of what was, all in all, a pretty awesome weekend.
As good a time as I was having, though, my brain has a hard time turning off, as does the parts of it that get irked by certain attitudes. Given that during most of the weekend there wasn’t much opportunity to respond to any of the things that got to me, and very little time before the next thingy that required my attention began requiring my attention, I had little recourse but to just settle those thoughts in some little corner of my brain and wait for a chance to get into them. This is that chance.
So… structuring this as several little mini-posts, here’s Everything I Wanted To Say At Imagine No Religion But Didn’t Get A Chance To Rant:
- I still don’t trust evo-psych
One of the very first speakers on the first full day of Imagine No Religion 2, Saturday morning, was August Berkshire. I have no idea who this guy is, and had never heard of him before, but apparently he’s affiliated with the American Humanists. I also can’t quite remember what the title of his talk was (probably “Universal Secular Ethics” or some such whatever) but I do remember that unanimously, amongst the kinds of people I hang out with and enjoy, his was by far the most disliked of all the presentations. And I remember gritting my teeth a whole bunch, and ultimately walking out early when he pushed a particular button (which is big and red and kept under glass and clearly marked “Natalie gives up on you”).
Anyway, the general organizing theme of his talk was about how God and Christianity provide an inadequate framework for constructing our morality and ethics, and that we should look instead to “universal” principles, based in… evolution or something… to figure out what our morality ought look like. Because nature has always been ever so moral and kind. What with all its endless hunger, desperation, violence, death and rape. What could go wrong?
The opening statements he made weren’t that bad, based as they were on the not disagreeable position that Christians really don’t have very solid ground on which to claim that they ought be the arbiters of human morality. Much of his perspective was based in rather unsophisticated theodicy stuff, like “But God does bad things! Like killing children!”, and I couldn’t help but recall that there are actually pretty solid apologetics that can, in fact, adequately respond to the claims he was making. Nonetheless, that didn’t bother me. It seemed just that he was failing to do what I expect of the better atheist thinkers, which is to break down the best arguments theists can make, not just go after the low-hanging fruit. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong, just that he wasn’t particularly impressive.
But along the way he began citing statistics meant to indicate that religiosity is in fact associated with less ethical, tolerant, compassionate behaviours and attitudes, in contrast to us TOTALLY kind, open-minded atheists (actually, as a side note, the amount of back-patting “congratulations on being SOOO educated and intelligent and free-thinking, you lovely badass atheists! You’re so much better than everyone else!” I witnessed at this conference, and the degree to which, as a whole, the audience absolutely lapped it up, really disturbed me). One of these statistics he cited was the degree to which Christians believe that homosexuality is a choice. Or don’t support gay rights. And the degree to which atheists believe that it isn’t a choice. Or support gay rights. I couldn’t quite tell which.
Because he treated the two issues as completely interchangeable.
Yes, you know, 100% of atheists SHOULD believe homosexuality isn’t a choice (he actually said this). Because that’s totally the definitive issue on the question of gay rights, yeah? And the entire conversation can be boiled down to that one question? Which is totally, completely scientifically settled now, apparently? I mean, of course, all of us poor queers desperately wish we could be nice, normal, decent straight, cis people like you are, but gosh-darned it, we just can’t help ourselves! So clearly we want 100% of atheists to have the beliefs of the kind Mr. Berkshire, and similarly take pity on our totally pre-determined, helpless existence, and thus support our rights. I mean, if it WERE a choice, of course it would be abominable, but it isn’t, so that’s why (the only reason why) you should support gay rights, right?
Look, once upon a time, the Born This Way argument made a bit of sense. It was trying to piggyback gay rights on established frameworks of civil rights that had been successfully integrated into the mainstream. People in the eighties and nineties had come to accept (more or less) that it was wrong to discriminate against someone on the basis of some arbitrary condition of their birth, such as race. So not entirely unlike otherkin trying to assert their identities are comparable to transgenderism as a means of bartering for acceptance by equating themselves with a group that has presently more mainstream acceptance, it made sense at the time (whether or not it was justified or wise is a different question) to try to assert that being gay, like being a racial minority, was simply the way one was born, and therefore was an unacceptable basis for discrimination.
But that was a long time ago. The conversation should have advanced by now. At this point, we can ditch outdated political conveniences and try to look at queerness as queerness, and our rights within the framework they deserve. For one thing, homosexuality is not some identifiable physical trait (or pathology). It is a series of behaviours and actions and…well, choices. A pattern of intimacy and love. The form our desires take is hardly under our control, but it isn’t exactly some innate, immutable destiny, totally free from any psychological or socio-cultural influence, either.
And honestly? This “not a choice” / “born this way” attitude, as the fiercely maintained dogma it’s become, has started to be unquestionably a destructive force in the conversation surrounding queerness and queer rights. Some people feel their orientations are destinies. Some people feel their identities are immutable. Some people experience them as fluid and shifting. Some people experience them as choices. And everyone (everyone) expresses and understands their sexuality, desires and gender through the framework (and lens) of their culture, background and experiences. And positioning “born this way” as THE central issue in the question of gay rights? Interchangeable with the question of human rights itself? EXTREMELY destructive. Extremely fucking heterosexist, cissexist stuff, with a privileged, old, outdated white dude on a stage talking down to us, suggesting us icky queers only deserve rights on the basis that we’re unable to be just like him.
Maybe we don’t want to be like you. And maybe that’s okay.
It’s time to move on.
Needless to say, that little bit set off my warning klaxons. But it wasn’t by any means the end of it. Moving on from the first part of his argument, that Christians are throwing stones from a very, very glass house, he began talking about from where we should derive our ethical principles. And, I absolutely kid you not darling readers, he said, to paraphrase:
“We should adopt universal ethics! Like those of the American Humanist Association!”
So…wait…um… the “universal” ethics, that we ALL should adopt, just happen to coincide with your particular organization, from your particular country, with your particular values, likely comprised almost entirely of people from your particular background and identity, with all of your particular interests? You believe that your values are unique in the whole world in being completely unbiased? That YOUR subject position, and YOUR particular values and needs, just HAPPEN to be the ones that are totally completely neutral, objective and universal? That all of humanity should adopt?
So there’s no chance whatsoever that MAYBE the fact that you exist in a very, very specific cultural context just MIGHT be influencing you a little bit, and causing your values and ethics to be a tad less universal than you think? No chance that you might be missing a few nuances or complications or ambiguities? So, without question, your ethics would work just as well for, say, a wage-slave diamond miner in Sierra Leone, a sex worker in Buenos Aires, an addict with three grandkids under her care in East Vancouver, a gay anarchist activist in Montreal, a migrant agricultural worker with a family in Romania, an abused trans woman in Taiwan, a Burmese freedom-fighter, an Iranian woman living under the heel of her devout husband? Etc? They should all just drop their individual values and needs and hop aboard the wonderfully UNIVERSAL principles of YOUR pet American humanist organization?
But wait! He has evidence for why! Evolution! (don’t you just love how whenever anyone starts talking about the kinds of behaviours evolution “predisposes” us for, it just happens to perfectly sync up with the values and attitudes they already held? Sort of like the will of God. It always inexplicably agrees with what the person preaching it already wants.)
We’ve heard this all before. We’re a social species. We evolved to be altruistic. Yadda yadda. Gloss over all the horrible fucking things we also evolved to do. Gloss over all the nasty instincts that being an ethical human being requires overcoming, suppressing, compromising or adapting. Gloss over what a coarsely anarchistic society, based solely on human instinct, would look like. Ignore everything that contradicts your position and paint a ludicrously rosy picture of nature.
Which, incidentally, was probably the only part of his talk I actually enjoyed. When he began stating examples of animals behaving altruistically, like a bat assisting another in giving birth, or an elephant saving a gazelle from a lion, stuff like that. This I enjoyed NOT because I actually agreed with his ridiculous premise that this collection of examples in any way suggests that nature has ethics (nature is nothing if not brutally amoral. Nature honestly could not possibly give any less fucks about ethics. Life just wants to survive long enough to reproduce, by whatever means are most efficient, regardless of how many “dawwws” it will or will not elicit from a conference audience). I only enjoyed it because it made me “dawww”. But even though it’s abundantly clear that we have no idea what motives any of these animals had in helping one another (they could have been trying to eat each other for all we know), and equally clear that these are extreme exceptions (if it was the norm, we wouldn’t find them so shockingly adorable), what really sold home what a completely pointless argument he was making was when his final slide in this series was about allegedly “altruistic” bacteria. If I remember correctly, it was weaker bacteria sacrificing their lives to help propagate stronger strains.
Those bacteria did not make a choice. They didn’t sacrifice themselves. They did simply what they evolved to do, which as always is just whatever happens to be the most efficient means of propagating the species. No more “altruistic” than a black widow spider eating its mate to provide nutrition to its gestating children.
If we’re to claim bacteria are capable of altruism, how about certain tissues or cells in a multicellular organism? Is my liver being altruistic in absorbing toxins in place of other organs, given that its more capable of regenerating after being damaged? All hail liver, my personal lord and saviour. Christ of the body. It dies, and is resurrected, for my sins. Every Friday night.
But the final straw, the part that made me walk out on this ridiculous presentation, was when he began talking about various “genetic” predispositions (in fact mostly epigenetic) towards unethical behaviours. Since you can’t have evo-psych without blatant sexism, guess what one of those predispositions was? To paraphrase:
“The Y chromosome! That thing that makes us male!”
Nope. Wrong. Just flat out wrong. Y chromosomes don’t make someone male. Not even when speaking strictly of physiological sex. Androgenic hormones do. All the Y chromosome does is, if properly activated and all the necessary secondary conditions are functioning normally, cause gonads to develop as testes. That’s it.
And what was he claiming the Y chromosome does? He wasn’t just fucking up by over-estimating its role in biological sexual dimorphism. He was straight up claiming it’s a behavioural influence, predisposing men to violence, crime, theft, blah blah blah. He backs this up with rough statistical correlations, which mean exactly nothing in terms of identifying the actual cause. These discrepancies in the degree to which men are the reported perpetrators of violent crime could at least as easily be explained as a result of socio-cultural conditions, gender roles, expectations, economic issues, legal system discrepancies and factors related to what data is and is not available or reported as being anything to do with actual biological or neurobiological differences between men and women. And discounting socio-cultural influence entirely is just absurd. I don’t, of course, wholly discount the influence of sex and hormones and gendered neurobiology on behaviour (I’d have to deny my own personal experience to do that), but to go for a straight-up 100% bio-essentialist explanation while ignoring the obvious social influence just doesn’t make any sense. It requires ignoring the painfully obvious.
And when you base this assertion on a blatantly false statement? When you make a fool of yourself demonstrating ignorance of how sexual differentiation actually works? When you apparently don’t realize that the Y chromosome has no connection to psychology or behaviour whatsoever?
Well, I stop taking you seriously, for starters. And you remind me that evo-psych is pseudo-scientific, unsubstantiated junk and “just so” stories, spouted off by ignorant, sexist twits as a means of justifying their own predetermined values and beliefs.
Kind of like God.
- Revulsion is not a condition of straightness
On Sunday evening, after all the official thingies were over, we had a nice little party up in the hotel lounge, consisting of most of the speakers, panelists, organizers and a few friends and guests. I got a chance to sit down and chat with Matt Dillahunty for a bit. Matt’s a great guy, but after confounding me with a rubber band magic trick for about half an hour, he did end up saying something that kind of weirded me out, and that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past week. I’ll be touching on it again later this week, but I wanted to talk a bit about it in itself first.
Matt was describing his days in the Navy, back when he was still a conservative Christian, and told the story of how he once had to fire a guy who was a good sailor and good at his job because of DADT. He then talked a bit about how his views on homosexuality have evolved over time. Matt said that a long time ago he used to find two men kissing to be disgusting, and he had a reaction of revulsion to it. But while attending the recent wedding of two friends of his, gay men, his reaction when they kissed was one of happiness for them. No revulsion, just dawww.
That’s all well and good, but what jumped out at me was how Matt then stated that this leads him to believe that he’s become “more gay”, relative to the Kinsey scale, over time.
First of all, I don’t buy into framing sexuality or gender as spectrums. I find that way of thinking about it to be very problematic, inadequate and inherently heirarchial. So long as you frame things as a spectrum, you set up a situation where someone can be “more gay” than another person, or “more straight”, “more female”, “more masculine”, etc. And that leads quickly into stratification. I prefer to see issues of gender and sexuality in terms of combinatorics. Various little traits a person does or doesn’t possess, which occur in an immense variety of combinations. While an individual variable may exist along varying degrees of intensity, the sort of macro categories of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex are not individual variables. All four are in fact loose aggregates of a wide range of variables, that we cluster together and make some vague, generalized declaration: “straight”, “femme”, “trans”, “male”.
When we frame such broad ranges of things as being as simple as a spectrum between two poles, a whole lot of important nuances, and important variations on experiences, get left out. It only really works to describe the most basic and uncomplicated kinds of identities, but as I’ve been saying lately, a theory of gender that can’t account for the full reality of gender is just not a useful, adequate theory. We can’t take something that only manages to explain a few particular variations and position it as The Way Sexuality And Gender Are. At best, we could use something like that as a basic, day-to-day heuristic. But that’s not how we use it.
However, it wasn’t the spectruming itself that got to me so much as the description of his revulsion with homosexuality as being a condition of straightness. The thing I plan on touching upon later this week is how this seems to be one of many acts that I’ve been seeing lately where a cultural attitude (like homophobia) is enshrined within the framework of “sexual orientation” or “personal preference” and thereby held to be innate (under the dangerous, inadequate “born this way” mentality I addressed earlier) and thus not to be addressed, questioned, critiqued or discussed. “Don’t blame me for finding gay guys gross. Baby I was born this way.”
But also there’s a basic misconception here in what revulsion is, that I think ties into the problems with describing a “spectrum” of sexuality. Under the “spectrum” model, which takes multiple variables and treats them as though they’re a single variable, yeah, we could say that being disgusted by homosexuality is a “straight” characteristic and thus would position someone further towards the “straight” end of the line (with the most straightestest of all being guys who puke at the sight of a man wearing pink). But what about disinterest? Isn’t that a straight characteristic too?
And really, the opposite of attraction is not disgust. The opposite of attraction is boredom. Do I need to mention how many “chicks with dicks” sites are bookmarked by men who profess to find “trannies” disgusting?
Being repulsed by homosexuality is not a natural quality of straightness, nor does it make someone “more straight”. Likewise finding two men kissing to be sweet does not make someone “more gay”. Those attitudes are not connected to one’s own desires. A straight man who doesn’t give a shit about two men kissing is at least exactly as straight as someone who gags. And it’s entirely possible to find two men kissing to be an adorbz expression of affection without actually having any interest in such affection for oneself. It has literally fuck all to do with how straight you are.
The ONLY thing that has any bearing on straightness is the degree to which your sexual desires are exclusive to the “opposite” sex. So really, guys, relax. You don’t need to feign vomiting in order to prove to your brahs how totally into chicks you are.
Matt didn’t become “more gay” as his attitudes about homosexuality changed, and he ceased to find it disgusting. That’s not an expression of fluidity in his sexual orientation. He was straight then and he’s straight now. What that reflects is changing cultural attitudes. And more so it reflects the degree to which things we may sanctify as “sexual orientation” and inherent to our dispositions, our “personal preferences”, are in fact totally tied up with cultural attitudes. Mutable cultural attitudes.
- Are we a community?
One of the common themes running through the conference, and through several of the conversations I had with people, was the question of whether or not there really is any such thing as an “atheist community”. Speakers asked what we want from our community and movement. Some implored us to take advantage of that structure. Some pointed to issues within it. The usual jokes were made about herding cats.
And yet, as was rather strange in an environment explicitly based on the premise of there being such a thing as an atheist community, there were people making the argument that there’s no such thing. The usual argument was trotted out that atheism simply means not believing in deities. That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a non-position. So to describe an “atheist community” makes about as much sense as describing a “non-stamp-collector community” comprised of people who don’t collect stamps.
Well, there aren’t any non-stamp-collecting conventions.
But if we existed in a culture that placed a huge degree of importance on stamp collecting, that insisted stamp collecting was the only true morality, that said stuff like “America has always been a stamp-collecting nation!”, that vitriolically opposed scientific evidence that contradicted the values of stamp-collectors (such as the fact that certain kinds of glue will eventually dissolve paper), that enacted legislation on the basis of stamp-collecting and getting everyone to conform with the principles of stamp-collecting, yeah, you bet there’d be non-stamp-collecting conventions. And in such a world, a non-stamp-collector community and movement would absolutely make sense.
Religion, of course, is the truth claim. And it’s the one that, under scientific principles, bears the burden of proof. Atheism, under scientific principles, is the null hypothesis and doesn’t need to prove anything. It’s just, quite reasonably, the underlying assumption. But cultures don’t operate on scientific principles. They operate on the basis of normativities. In-groups and out-groups. Standardized values and abberant ones.
Within our culture, here in most of North America, theism is assumed as the given. That’s what most people are taught, and is what the majority believes. It’s the normative system of thought, and therefore, whether or not atheism is a null hypothesis doesn’t mean anything. We’re nonetheless the marked category. And atheism takes on the character of community and sub-culture not because there’s any particular belief we collectively adhere to, but because they’ve shunted us into a category together.
Take for instance homosexuality. It would be somewhat silly to argue that in the 21st century there’s no such thing as a gay community and lesbian community (as well as a wider LGBTQ community). But homosexuality, as a category of person, did not always exist. That emerged as a byproduct of the medical pathologization of homosexuality. In actual fact, homosexuality is, as I mentioned earlier, just a set of behaviours and actions. Desires, intimacies and love. Bodies and pleasure. Basing a community on such a thing is arguably just as silly as our non-stamp-collectors.
But like the non-stamp-collectors, it’s not us that makes the call on whether or not we’re categorized and marked. It’s the cultural attitudes. When the culture as a whole treats something like non-stamp-collecting, religion, homosexuality or race as important and marked, as categories of human beings, it becomes important simply by way of that shared oppression, shared experience, shared political interest and collectivization, regardless of how arbitrary the underlying issue is (not collecting stamps, not believing in deities, fucking people with roughly the same kind of genitals as you, having some particular category of phenotypes).
Just like “color-blindness” in relation to race is a pretty useless attitude to take in attempting to fight racism, we’re not going to get anywhere by simply insisting over and over again that the basis on which they’re categorizing and marking us is arbitrary. The actual cultural realities are what counts. And within our actual cultural realities, there are gay, lesbian, black, trans, latin-american, francophone, vegan and atheist communities and cultures (and many, many, many more, of course), and if we want to get anywhere, we need to learn to embrace that fact and figure out how to use it to our advantage.
We need to accept our communities, and decide what we want from them. Participate. Act. Discuss. Once you accept you’re part of a community, you get to also accept you’re part of a movement. And when you’re part of a movement, well… then you get to start fighting for things, instead of just sitting in a corner complaining that you’re being lumped together with a bunch of other people on such an arbitrary basis.
Sure, maybe we’re lumped together arbitrarily. But that means we have eachother. A community’s not a burden, it’s a blessing. It’s a shared response. It’s a cooperation.
So maybe instead of pretending there’s no uniting factor in atheism other than what should be the given assumption about the universe, how about we start looking at the plainly evident reality that there is an atheist community and movement, and that we do have common experiences, goals and values.
Let’s enjoy it, and make the most of it.
DOWN WITH STAMPS!