Dogma comes in many flavors

Ask an atheist, and they will tell you that religion poisons everything. There is an understanding that human nature is not fixed, but is susceptible to all kinds of influences — people make decisions based not simply on what they are, but on how they were brought up and shaped by their environment. They are likely to note that an American is most probably a Christian, not because they thought it through and worked out the logic and evidence, but simply because they were brought up in a predominantly Christian culture; if they’d been born in India they’d most likely be Hindu, in Italy Catholic, in Iran Muslim, in Sweden Lutheran, etc.

Where this awareness fizzles out, though, is in domains where we’ve absorbed and accepted the dominant worldview — suddenly, the conventions become not a plastic response to history and contingency and idiosyncratic circumstance, but “human nature” and the arguments become all about the necessity of maintaining the status quo: “that’s the way it is”, “are you some kind of freak?”, “we wouldn’t be this way if it weren’t adaptive.” There is a pressure to conform, because everyone is expected to behave the way everyone else is.

We wouldn’t hesitate to be iconoclastic if the issue is one of faith. Break it down, we’d say, shatter those chains and think for yourself. Other topics, though, are suddenly taboo. Try to go to most atheist meetings and question, for instance, conventional notions of masculinity. A significant number of those radical superstition-breakers will be appalled and start whispering about you, and divisions will form and some will cast you out. There will be references to such distinguished defenders of the fixity of gender norms as Steven Pinker and Christina Hoff Sommers when they want to appear highbrow, and mutterings about cucks and SJWs when they don’t care. They are willing to be infidels only on narrow matters of religion, but on anything else, they are as hidebound and inflexible as the most dogmatic Catholic.

But they are wrong. Masculinity is not one simple thing. There is no rulebook that says “You must have short hair; you must enjoy football; you must sneer at queers; you must eat steak and work out on weekends.” Having a penis does not imply that there is a suite of behaviors you must accept, while not having one means you cannot engage in them. There is a link between biology and behavior, but it’s weaker than you think and requires constant reinforcement from culture in order to sustain itself. We know this is true because different cultures have different notions of masculinity. There is no one true male nature.

Cartomancer has a long and thorough post on the nature of masculinity in ancient Greek culture. It’s amazing. Right there at the root of contemporary Western culture, they can’t even get this fundamental biological essentialism right — different cities had different perspectives on what it means to be a man, almost as if the Y chromosome does not dictate every aspect of your identity.

I have spent some time outlining the Homeric models of manly behaviour, because they show us threads that continued to be important in the culture of the Classical city-states of the 5th and 4th centuries BC, widely regarded as the high water mark of Greek culture. But to talk of one Greek culture is clearly a mistake. The different city states each took their shared Homeric inheritance and distorted it in different directions, placing emphasis on different aspects of their shared culture and in so doing creating different and competing conceptions of masculinity.

Spartan culture, for instance, was radically authoritarian, militaristic, anti-intellectual and anti-capitalist. Full Spartiate citizens were expected to be full-time warriors, living in communal barracks with their fellow men and spurning the trappings of wealth, comfort and sophistication. To them courage was everything, the model of Achilles their ultimate goal. The Spartan approach to courage comes across well in the saying, recorded by Plutarch, that Spartan mothers expect their sons to come back carrying their shields or on dead on top of them (that is, having won the battle or having died trying – throwing away your heavy metal hoplon shield to better escape a pursuing enemy was an unforgivable crime in Sparta). The Greek word we usually translate as “courage” is andreia – literally “manliness”, and the two were pretty much synonymous in Sparta (compare the Latin virtus, from vir, man, which is the root of our “virtue”).

They don’t say much about femininity — there’s another lengthy essay that needs to be written — but it’s too often implicit that the feminine is the mirror image of the masculine. If courage and virtue are manly traits, then women must be timid and weak, or they are violating norms. If men of other cities are less diligent in pursuing glorious death in battle, they must be “pussies”, or that universal put-down, “women”. If a woman expresses courage like a man, she must be “butch”, a “dyke”, and must therefore be ugly and less desirable as a woman.

We are soaking in these attitudes. Fire up an online video game and do poorly, and watch the reaction: you must be a “pussy” or a “fag”. It’s gotten so bad that if you merely defend the equality of women, you are a damnable SJW who is betraying men.

But we can fix that! We tried to bring up our kids to be tolerant and open and willing to explore their identities beyond blindly accepting gender-defined paths, and I think they turned out pretty good. There are sub-communities within atheism that are conscious of other ways of thinking than the default patriarchal set, just as there are better ways of thinking about the universe than the indoctrinated godly explanations. We can learn to be better and recognize the artificiality of so many conventions in our society, so we can break them. This ought to be understood as the default position of atheist organizations everywhere. No gods, no masters, no dogmas about human nature.

There’s a flip side to human plasticity, though. If we’re flexible enough that we can be made better, then we must also recognize the possibility that culture can make us worse. If atheism is liberating, it’s also true that Catholicism is persuasive, and we could be living in a society that constantly tells us we need to be more Christian (hey, we do!). If the truth is that gender roles are more complicated and less rigidly dictated by biology than many people believe, there can also be a culture that promotes the lie that there is only one true way to be a man, and we have that, too, and it harms people as badly as the most demented religion out there. It’s called the alt-right, or the manosphere, or machismo, or any of a thousand names that some will automatically accept as virtuous (it’s built into the language that man equals virtue, after all.) Abi Wilkinson reports on her experiences with toxic masculinity.

In modern parlance, this is part of the phenomenon known as the “alt-right”. More sympathetic commentators portray it as “a backlash to PC culture” and critics call it out as neofascism. Over the past year, it has been strange to see the disturbing internet subculture I’ve followed for so long enter the mainstream. The executive chairman of one of its most popular media outlets, Breitbart, has just been appointed Donald Trump’s chief of strategy, and their UK bureau chief was among the first Brits to have a meeting with the president-elect. Their figurehead – Milo Yiannopoulos – toured the country stumping for him during the campaign on his “Dangerous Faggot” tour. These people are now part of the political landscape.

On their forums I’ve read long, furious manifestos claiming that women are all sluts who “ride the cock carousel” and sleep with a series of “alpha males” until they reach the end of their sexual prime, at which point they seek out a “beta cuck” to settle down with for financial security. I’ve lurked silently on blogs dedicated to “pick-up artistry” as men argue that uppity, opinionated, feminist women – women like myself – need to be put in their place through “corrective rape”.

I know about the “men going their own way” movement, which is based around the idea that men should avoid any sort of romantic or sexual relationship with women. I’m aware of “traditional marriage” advocates, who often argue that you should aim to marry a very young woman as she’s likely to be easier to control. I also learned the difference between an “incel” who is involuntarily celibate, and a “volcel” who makes a deliberate choice to avoid sexual activity, and sometimes also masturbation, often in the belief that ejaculation depletes their testosterone and saps them of masculine power.

I’ve read their diatribes, too, and what I find dismaying is how often they cite science as somehow backing up their views, but to their minds, “science” means rationalizing their rigid and deterministic gender essentialism. Good science says no such thing. Neither does history or philosophy or sociology or anthropology or psychology. We have a responsibility to stop these lies. They are as damaging to human psychological development as dogmatic Christianity or Islam, and if you are concerned about removing obstacles to our species’ potential, as most atheists will say they are, then you have an obligation to combat the propaganda of these pseudo-scientific Y chromosome worshippers as you do the propaganda of religion.

Love, fear, mortality

I am haunted by a dream, a dream that is far too likely to be true, and wakes me up in the middle of the night. In this dream, my wife wakes up in the morning to find my body cold and still in the bed next to her. I feel no pain for myself — I’m dead — but I burn with the agony of loss that she feels, and the pain that wracks her when she calls our kids, and the reverberations of sadness that I will be responsible for causing. If you live life in the embrace of friends and family, you know what I’m talking about. Love and happiness exact a cost, every moment filling a pool of tears that grows deeper with our closeness, and as we grow older they well close to the surface, until…they inevitably break and fall in sorrow and grief.

I’ve been married for thirty-six years. Thirty six years of inseparable mutual devotion in which a lachrymal ocean has grown, that we work together to shore up and contain, because there will be a flood of grief when that dark shore is crossed. I can imagine some grim shadow of it. I can dread it.

And I can sympathize when the partner of long-time commenter Nerd of Redhead dies after 43 years of marriage. That is a rending I don’t want to contemplate…and yet it’s what haunts me, too.

Terry Pratchett, the author for our times

io9 has compiled 10 most appropriate Pratchett quotes for those of us feeling a bit unhappy right now. Here’s two I really like..

Commander Vimes didn’t like the phrase “The innocent have nothing to fear,” believing the innocent had everything to fear, mostly from the guilty but in the longer term even more from those who say things like “The innocent have nothing to fear.”

There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty.

The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: ‘What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass! And at the other end of the bar the world is full of the other type of person, who has a broken glass, or a glass that has been carefully knocked over (usually by one of the people calling for a larger glass), or who had no glass at all, because they were at the back of the crowd and had failed to catch the barman’s eye.

They left out the one I’m feeling right now.

If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.

I bet some of you have a favorite Pratchett quote. Share.

Another sign of doom: the climate change denial of Rex Tillerson

I’ve seen moderate Democrats actually say that Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, seems reasonable, especially compared to the crew of ratfucking incompetents he’s packing into the rest of his administration. It’s not true. He’s as bad as the rest of them, and what we’re seeing is a gradual acclimation to the new politics of corruption and ignorance.

He’s a former ExxonMobil CEO. Do you think he’s going to lead our country’s work to resist climate change? No, he is not.

After more than six hours of testimony, Tillerson backtracked even further, telling senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) that though the evidence of a changing climate was clear, the cause wasn’t. “The science behind the clear connection (to human activity) is not conclusive,” Tillerson said, an assertion as false as the scientific consensus is clear.

He’s just flatly wrong, in defiance of the scientific evidence. That ought to be enough to scuttle his nomination, but you know it won’t be.

He knows what his mission is. It’s to undermine funding and support for initiatives that might hurt the profits of the coal and oil industries.

Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), who believes government money currently spent fighting climate change could be “better spent” elsewhere, pushed Tillerson to commit to abandoning US funding for anti-climate change initiatives. Specifically, Barrasso opposes support for the Green Climate Fund, an international program set up to help developing nations deal with the effects of climate change. The US under Obama has pledged $3 billion.

“In consultation with the president, my expectation is that we are going to look at these things from the bottom up in terms of funds we’ve committed toward this effort,” Tillerson said.

Even in his non-answer, it’s clear Tillerson was open to dropping such funding. Instead, he opined on the power of electricity to lift people out of poverty. A noble aspiration, perhaps, but one that would provide little consolation to communities ravaged by climate change now and in the future. In today’s hearing, Tillerson may not have out-and-out denied the existence of human-caused climate change or the need for the US to help combat it. But his tepidness on global warming betrayed one clear fact: if confirmed, the US will no longer lead on climate change. It will be at the table, sure, but as a difficult guest, not the host.

This is where we’re at. We are the Soviet Union of 70 years ago, when the science of genetics was rejected for ideological reasons. The comparison to Trofim Lysenko’s career is obvious; just substitute climate science for genetics, Tillerson for Lysenko, and the whole damn Republican party for Stalin.

By 1948, scientific dissent from Lysenko’s theories had been outlawed in the Soviet Union, even though the vast majority of Soviet biologists, with increasing (if surreptitious) access to Western publications, knew that those theories were nonsense. The theory that human-induced climate change is not real is likewise nonsense. It is a theory that is only held by those who do not wish to face facts. Those facts, such as record atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and inexorably increasing global temperatures, speak for themselves. We are already in a situation where the 1.5C temperature increase that was the center of the Paris agreement seems to be an absurdly optimistic goal. It is almost sure to be exceeded, although we don’t know where, and we don’t know when.

This uncertainty has been taken as an opportunity by today’s climate change Lysenkoists. Like the cigarette manufacturers who refused to accept the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer in the 1960s and 1970s, the new Lysenkoists will grab on to any expression of uncertainty to justify their self-interested beliefs. They include, but are not limited to, the representatives of the fossil fuel industry and their political allies. Their pernicious influence is not just confined to the U.S. In my own country of Australia, for example, the Government has been lobbying strongly for more Chinese purchases of coal, and is also about to advance a loan of $Aus 1 billion for the establishment of a giant new coal mine near the already-threatened Great Barrier Reef.

Every person on Trump’s team is a shill for a fraud. Don’t be fooled. Every one of them is purest poison, not just to America’s future, but to the whole of humanity.

They can move quickly when there’s the opportunity to kill people

I’m almost afraid to go to sleep at night any more. The rats are busy, busy, busy, plotting destruction.

Last night, while most of us were unconscious, the Republican senate pulled some procedural games to allow them to act unilaterally. They really are determined to destroy people’s health insurance.

Thursday’s Senate procedural vote will set up special budget rules that will allow the repeal vote to take place with a simple majority in the 100-member Senate, instead of the 60 votes required to move most legislation.

That means Republicans, who control 52 seats, can push through repeal legislation without Democratic cooperation. They’re also discussing whether there are some elements of a replacement bill that could get through at the same time with a simple majority. But for many elements of a new health care law, Republicans are likely to need 60 votes and Democratic support, and at this point the two parties aren’t even talking.

They also discussed what they don’t like about the Affordable Care Act. Among the things they definitely want to kill are preexisting conditions protections, the ability for young adults to stay on their parents’ plan, and, of course, contraception. Those all sound like wonderful things to me, and I can’t understand how anyone can think we ought to dispose of them, so the logic escapes me — the drumbeat of hatred for all things Obama has led to people voting to demolish even those accomplishments that help them.

Oh, and also, Trump is going to announce his Supreme Court pick within two weeks.

We are so fucked. And by “we”, I mean all of the American people, including those who voted for these Republican scum.

(Important: Even if you stay awake all night, wide-eyed and staring in terror, the Republicans are still going to do everything they can to ruin your life and the lives of your children. You might as well try to get some sleep.)

We growed a little more

Quietly, in the dead of night and in disguise, we stealthily slipped in some new people on the FtB roster. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.

You can go visit them yourselves, but keep it on the down low. If it ever got out what a hive of rapscallions and scallywags we were nursing at the SJW teat, they might call us rude names or something.

I can’t claim to be a prophet…yet

A reader has warned me that I might be guilty of the sin of prophecy. Back in 2014 I wrote this:

I will make a prediction, right here and now. The number of people identifying as “nones” will grow in this country in coming years, because we’re on the right side of history, and because organized religion is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on other-worldly issues that don’t help people. The number of people identifying as atheists will stagnate or even shrink, because organized atheism is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on irrelevant metaphysical differences that don’t help people.

And then they pointed out the results of this Gallup poll from the summer:

beliefingod

Nope. Not going to claim I’ve been sadly vindicated yet. As the article from Gallup points out, there’s a lot of wobbliness due to the precise wording of the question. I’d also suggest that the previous year’s abrupt downswing in religiosity looks more like noise, so this year’s upswing is nothing but regression to the mean. There are still signs of a slow trend away from belief in gods, but it’s nothing dramatic, and we’re not seeing widespread acceptance of overt atheism. As the article explains, the variations may not be meaningful of any kind of shift in ideas.

The exact meaning of these shifts is unclear. Although the results can be taken at face value in showing that fewer Americans believe in God than did so in the past, it is also possible that basic beliefs have not changed — but rather Americans’ willingness to express nonreligious sentiments to an interviewer has. Whatever the explanation for these changes over time, the most recent findings show that the substantial majority of Americans continue to give a positive response when asked about their belief in God.

I’m still going to argue that atheism needs something more than a denial of the existence of gods if it is going to achieve wider popularity. We’re riding on a slow swell of anti-clericism, but we need to get into the curl of a more active social relevancy.

We also can’t deny that we hold a minority view. But the “good” news is that the resurgence of Republican theocratic meddling might yet inspire more anti-religious views!

Another one down!

Today was Genetics day, the other big class I’m teaching this term. Syllabus done! Lab supplies ordered! Now I’m just going to work on redoing my introductory lecture (I’m completely revamping that to set the students up for some of the upcoming complexity.)