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!
Michael Halila says
” 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.”
Thank you for this. I’m sure evolutionary psychology is a perfectly valid field of scientific study, but I’ve yet to see any of its popular proponents be anything but a walking, talking naturalistic fallacy.
Irene Delse says
Pop evo-psych is appalling. And it’s sad that prominent atheist and humanist figures can’t seem to educate themselves a little better when they try to talk about what lessons we can learn from nature.
And it’s not difficult. A century and a half ago, Darwin was already writing about how we can’t reconcile the savagery we see in nature with the idea of a just and kindly God, for instance.
I’m also reminded of something I’ve heard Steve Novella say on the SGU podcast: it’s dangerous to base a moral stance, like opposition to racism or homophobia, on what the state of science says is true (that “gays are born this way”, or that race is a social construct and not a biological reality), because if the scientific consensus changes, we’re going to be left with no leg to stand on.
Learning how people come to have a certain gender, sexual orientation, skin color, etc., is useful in many ways, but it’s not sufficient grounds to say that it’s moral or immoral. The right question to ask should be “does it cause harm”? And if the answer is “no”, well, I say, let that person be.
Jadehawk, chef d’orchestre féministe says
the non-pop variety, the kind found in peer-reviewed journals, unfortunately also has some horridly irrational and cross-disciplinarily ignorant shit in it, unfortunately. *coughsatoshikanazawacough*
I would definitely say that there is a high probability that some human behaviors are hardwired into our brains for adaptive reasons, but we’re so heavily social and socialized that the innate behaviors are virtually impossible to separate from the learned ones with any degree of reliability.
Hence, evo-psych tends towards just-so stories because they mostly haven’t got a good way of separating the wheat from the chaff.
The first half of this is basically why I’ve been drifting away from movement atheism for a couple years now.
Emily Aoife Somers says
I’m pleased that you left the door open on ‘spectrum’ and as at least an elementary paradigm for getting people to reconsider (and reconfigure) entrenched models of gender as A or B boxes. I remember reading Riki Wilchin’s riff on spectrums as still in fact stratified with, what was her metaphor?, lost little satellites hanging somewhere in non-orbit. I got the point: the horizontal plane is still based on two ratified extremes.
And genderbread person has evolved as well to reflect this I think: GP’s previous incarnation followed a spectrum model, of progressive shades, and the current GP looks more like an arcane mixing board in a studio — various slides and meters. I would find current GP rather unworkable, at least initially, for educational purposes. The sleek simplicity (if also superficiality) of the spectrum model has given away to a more arcane indexing system where further microcategories are made, measured, and axised against other values. I see the value. And the case you make above is very powerful. But I’m not completely prepared to jettison the ‘spectrum’ metaphor, at leat initially, but I do understand the concern with strata (even if those are imposed as opposed to inherent in the diagram.)
Because really GP isn’t me, or you, or any of us. GP is a cartoon. We’re people. And people don’t condense well into gradiations.
I also appreciated your breaking down of the ‘born this way’ claim as being framed in the ways you reveal. But it has the virtue of asserting the innate realities that being queer entails. I think we all gnash our teeth at ‘studies’ that have come out that argue children who declare GD at age 6 are true TS. Adolescents and adults who come out are ‘latent’ TS who have learned this behaviour only later (and therefore can ‘unlearn’ it). Neither the ‘choice’ or ‘born’ extreme works for me, as both seem to interconnected to a political climate of rooting out the ’cause’ of our existence. I know the same debate has gone off with the ‘gay gene’. But I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that, as far as neurobiology is going, the evidence keeps coming up in one direction. And this is in opposition to the typical RadFem canard, and terrible misreading, about the famous de Beauvoir quote in relation to women . . . “becomes a women”. OK. But who is the one doing the becoming, for what reasons, and based on what agency, for what motivations? A woman may not be “born that way” but I don’t think she’s “made” that way either. I am just too leery of social constructivists who equate “choice” with “invention”. As I’m sure we’ll agree, we don’t need to go down that line of enquiry too far.
Really enjoyed this post. So happy to see you in great form again!
Irene Delse says
I think the quote by Beauvoir is “women are not born, they are made”, because it was important when she wrote to stress out the huge societal forces which go into shaping up what “being a woman” is all about. (For instance, there’s still a meme that if you are not a mother, you’re not complete as a woman, etc. Or that women are “naturally” emotional, “naturally” more into relationships than facts, etc.) It doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as genetic factors at play, but that in a given society, what “being a woman” means includes a lot of learned behavior.
Jeffrey Nordstrom says
All the summaries from different attendees of INR2 are making me wish I didn’t move out of Hope last year. I was only living 2½ hours from the conference. I would have loved to participate in the discussions about these ideas in person. But now I’m 11 hours from Kamloops, and, well, it doesn’t look like I’ll have a chance to attend any time soon. It might be my only regret from the move.
Irene Delse says
Solid apologetics? Hmm. For my part, I’ve never found come across any religious apologetics responding convincingly to critics of religion who point out that God-sanctified murders are still, well, immoral.
Unless Mr. Berkshire was not talking about the way religious people behave, but was referring to the most bloodthirsty parts of the Bible, which any educated Christian or Jew who isn’t a Biblical Literalist can reason away as either metaphor or a bit of actual ancient history stuck in the Biblical text. Like the verses in Leviticus who enjoin to kill gay people (and children who don’t respect their parents): it was a brutal interpretation of God’s law by people barely out of barbarism, we’ve gotten better (but not in Saudi Arabia, or Iran, or Somalia, or…) since, etc.
Natalie Reed says
I don’t mean solid in an absolute sense. I mean “pretty solid” as in “solid enough to counter THESE particular arguments”, not solid enough to stand up to a sophisticated criticism.
This is the closest I could find. From Hank Hanegraaff’s (The Bible Answer Man himself) The Complete Bible Answer Book.
I don’t think he understands philosophical naturalism as well as he thinks he does, but whatever. This is an answer from a guy who is pretty big in Christian Apologetics.
This is a good call out on a couple of issues that have bothered me for years now. One, declaring whether a person has any control over their sexuality as morally relevant. It’s not. Treating it as though it would be fine to discriminate if it were is a kind of subtle prejudice of its own. I see an implicit fallback to the old mentality of queerness as a crime or a mental illness in the idea.
Two, misstating scientific knowledge on the formation of sexual desire and behavior. We actually don’t know as much as many people claim we do about how minds work in this respect. It is not proven fact, for instance, that sexuality is formed in the womb or at a very early age. To prove that, one would need a highly accurate distinguishing test which sorts out randomly chosen individuals’ orientation well in advance. We have no such thing in reality.
What we have learned from study is that sexuality is very, very complicated. Sexual development has nuance layered upon nuance. As with any sufficiently complicated behavior or mental state, there will be influences from many sources. We’ve shown potential influence from several of those, including genetics, epi-genetics, hormone balance, neurological development, socialization, and yes, personal will. However, the exact breakdown of how these factors interact and which tend to dominate in each person’s case is still largely unknown. If someone were to discover the equivalent of a “gay gene”, laughable as the idea is, you would hear about it very quickly. Instead, all of the simple explanations have failed to fully describe reality. That’s no cause to be discouraged, since this is exactly what we should expect in modern science.
Yes, a Kinsey-style spectrum is an over-simplification. The adoption of that schema was mainly in the historical context of a society that believed sexuality could be split into a hetero/homo binary, however, so it was an improvement at the time. The public at large has simply failed to move on from the spectrum to more accurate models, and part of this may simply be too much effort that has to be spent fighting the holdovers from the old binary model.
Combinatorics is a good choice, since it allows for scaling to arbitrarily levels of complexity. Since the number of levels of distinction in sexual preferences and behavior does appear to be arbitrarily great, this is very suitable.
Yes, my math-ignorant browser, combinatorics is a real word.
That is a matter of long debate on the semantics of opposites. What makes sense depends a great deal on what one is trying to say in the context.
Does opposite mean that something lacks the qualities displayed by another, or does it mean that one concept possesses qualities which contrast that thing with another?
Are love and hate opposites? Or is it love and indifference? If the latter, doesn’t that suggest that hate and indifference are also opposites? (Is it allowed by the definition to have two opposites?)
Hot is opposite of cold, one would suppose. However, if the opposite of hot and cold is really the absence of temperature, it is a little difficult to understand what this would apply to. Perhaps it is the idea of the same temperature.
Defining either as the “true” meaning is not feasible.
As far as I can tell, it’s a related conflation of meanings. The absence of any clear action to reject is seen as acceptance or tolerance, and that is itself unacceptable by the governing norms. If one has to pin down exactly which part is wrong, it would be the idea that disgust is expected, not that disgust and adoration may be opposites.
This is just one facet of the queer-phobic standards of heteronormativity, overall. We might label it the enforcement or shunning aspect.
Right. It’s a not-very-well disguised attempt to define a community out of existence. A few fools are, in essence, complaining that someone has hijacked their very narrow definition of the word atheist. It’s self-defeating nonsense, because any amount of arguing over the issue becomes itself prima facie existence of an atheist community.
I had forgotten about the “100% of atheists should believe being gay is not a choice” line until you reminded me of it, but I definitely bristled at it at the time.
I notice you didn’t bring up Joyce Arthur’s “the biggest difference between men and women is the ability to have babies” which was probably the most troubling thing I heard in the course of the conference… Ugh.
Also (not as offensive, but just as questionable) when she said that “hundreds of thousands, possibly millions” of women were burned as witches during the inquisition. Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t seem like you’re going to win over skeptics by misquoting statistics by several orders of magnitude.
If I can ask a personal questions, I was one of the folks you came to dinner with on Saturday. I was really excited you came (‘cuz, I mean, you’re awesome!), but it also seemed odd to me that just because there was a trans woman at the table, trans issues *had* to be what we talked about. There was also one guy who seemed like he needed to point to you everytime he said the word “trans”. The next day there was a woman who came up to you and wished you “good luck on your journey” whom you thanked but then turned to us and muttered under your breath that you weren’t on a “journey”. As someone who hasn’t ever had to deal with that, it all just seemed weird to me that everyone was fixating on your gender. Do you ever feel like even among supportive folks like you’re not able to just hang out and just have a good time? Or do you not mind always having to play educator to privileged guys like me? Or do I just have a shitty sample size and maybe this isn’t a very common occurrence.
James K says
Also (not as offensive, but just as questionable) when she said that “hundreds of thousands, possibly millions” of women were burned as witches during the inquisition. Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t seem like you’re going to win over skeptics by misquoting statistics by several orders of magnitude.
This one is particularly annoying because as far as I’m aware the standard punishment for witchcraft was hanging, not burning. The Inquisition (and Protestant countries too, this wasn’t an all-Catholic thing) burned a lot of people, but it was for heresy, not witchcraft. I would have thought that would have been a good point to make to a room full of atheists.
William Burns says
Actually, witch burnings were common in most areas where witches were executed. Witchcraft, as devil-worship, was defined as heresy, so burning was considered an appropriate punishment. The key distinction is not Protestant/Catholic, but the English common law (which also applied in the American colonies) versus the Roman-derived civil law common on the European continent. In common law areas, punishment by burning was not part of the law except in very exceptional cases, such as treason, and hanging (as at Salem) was the usual way of executing witches. But yes, the figure of millions is a vast exaggeration.
James K says
That’s interesting, thanks for correcting me.
Natalie Reed says
No, that’s pretty much what my whole life is like. At least around cis people, anyway.
But as far as being expected to play educator… well, I’ve sort of ended up taking that role and just trying to run with it as best I can. The idea that keeps me going is that I’m doing this so that other people won’t have to, and hopefully someday it won’t really be necessary.
The reason I didn’t bring up Joyce’s intensely cissexist comment is that I’m not really sure what I would say about it that wouldn’t just be going back over certain themes I’ve done-to-death here. It WAS the most annoying comment I heard any of the speakers say, and the fact that I was sitting two seats over from her at the time made it a bit worse, but I’m just not sure there’s much productive I could draw from it. Other than just, like, saying for the bajillionth time that womanhood is not defined by any particular biological trait.
If I ever see you at a conference again, I promise to talk to you about MLP or comic books or something. 🙂
Likewise. First topic: Until the season finale, was there even a hint that Twilight even had a brother, let alone that her family was so high-status?
Ugh, that is awful. I promise if we ever meet we will talk about pangolins, dendrites and what the hell an appletini actually is, anyway.
Having to be a cheerleader for a particular issue because of an accident of biology SUCKS.
Technically, all of our lives are our own personal journeys, so she could have just responded “and good luck with yours” and it would have made just as much sense.
Jadehawk, chef d’orchestre féministe says
he was at an atheist event here in town a while back, having a “Theism vs. Atheism: Which is the More Reasonable Worldview?” debate with his friend-the-creationist-pastor (I ranted about it on my blog, but only about the pastors side. Berkshire’s side wasn’t sufficiently memorable). In which the pastor strawmanned the living fuck out of utilitarian ethics (among other ignorant, bigoted, and assortedly stupid things). But now I’m thinking, judging by your writeup, that if the pastor got his impression of what secular, utilitarian ethics are like entirely from Berkshire, then I can’t entirely blame the pastor for getting it so thoroughly wrong.
Also, someone needs to sent a copy of this book to Berkshire. It’s far from perfect, but it’s miles ahead of the deeply stupid “the Y chromosome made me do it” stuff.
Jadehawk, chef d’orchestre féministe says
that’s an interesting and troublesome possibility. I would have interpreted Matt’s comment as either a clumsy admission of previously suppressed bi-curiosity, or alternatively a clumsy way of expressing a higher level of comfort with non-macho homosociality.
but given that I have seen revulsion of (male; always just male) gayness explained by various flavors of “well, I am straight, after all”, you may well be right in your interpretation O.o
In conversation, I have taken to explaining the ‘spectrum’ thing as a sphere.
I start out by asking that they imagine a spectrum as it is usually shown, with red at one end and violet at the other.
e.g. this one.
Then I ask that they replace that with the kind of spectrum shown in many computer art programmes as a disc with green at the bottom, red at the top and purple and orange, blue and yellow, at either side; each colour gradually changing into the next.
e.g. this one.
Finally, I ask that they imagine the disc inflating into a gaseous sphere, with black and white as the new poles, and all the colours changing in hue and intensity depending upon where in the surface or interior one looks.
e.g. this one.
And that any human being can find themselves anywhere in any sphere.
That there are different spheres for sexuality, gender, neurology, libido, attractions, presentation, sociability, mental ability, physical ability, tolerance… etc. (every aspect of personality and physical construction imaginable) and that humans are so complex that no-one should make any assumptions about another.
Just because someone occupies a particular spot within one sphere doesn’t mean that they necessarily occupy a particular spot in another. e.g. if you know someone has a female body and is solely attracted to men doesn’t mean you can assume that they have a straight female gender. They may see themselves as a gay male.
Also, the position in each sphere isn’t fixed, either. Some aspects of a human are situation-dependent, some change with age and others change following different experiences.
Having said all that, for simplicity (such as Facebook arguments) the GP is considerably better than the simple box view of people (“Born female? You get put in the het, femme box. Male? The het, butch box. And you’ll get labelled ‘defective’ if you don’t fit” Yay). The ‘multiple-sphere’ model only gets wheeled out for in-depth conversations with people who actually give a damn.
Timid Atheist says
Thank you for this. I was slowly creeping toward this idea myself, but your comment has crystallized this in my mind for me. I appreciate you taking the time to explain it like this. I’ll be using this as a reference from now on.
I’m doing what I can to listen and learn and not comment unless I’m invited to when it comes to issues that I have no experience. This certainly helps me understand things a great deal better than I did before.
As I told Timid Atheist on Twitter, this is how I have viewed spectrums for a long time.
I had to re-think how I viewed the whole spectrum thing years ago when so many people in our family started to get ASD diagnoses. Since the diagnosis was often the only thing they had in common, it occurred to me that it isn’t realistic to assume things about people from just one label.
ASD can be accompanied by hyperlexia or dyslexia, sociability or social anxiety, mathematical genius or dyscalculia, prosopagnosia or an abnormal facility in recognising people; in fact, any trait may or may not be displayed in anyone ‘on the autism spectrum’ as in neurotypical people.
People like to classify things; heck, life classifies things. Almost every living thing on Earth at the very least classifies things into ‘me’ or ‘not me’, even if only at a chemical (i.e. not conscious) level. ‘Not me’ can then be subdivided into ‘things I can/can’t eat’, ‘things that are trying to eat me’, ‘things I can/can’t reproduce with’ and ‘harmless/useless’.
I wonder how much of human-made misery in this world is down to this overwhelming instinct to classify leading to the labelling of some people as ‘not normal’ and therefore ‘less-than’?
One hopes that you’ll eventually organize these thoughts into smaller bites for future posts. It’s quite a lot!
Of all the things you said, this is the one I really disagreed with. This is sort of a question of concrete importance in asexual communities… are you more genuinely asexual if you are repulsed by sex, or are if you are indifferent to it? The correct answer is neither, because it’s not a hierarchy. Both groups exist. We need to recognize that diversity, not explain it away to fit our theories.
You also argue that repulsion is culturally determined and mutable. But I do not think this means people are obligated to get over it just because it might be possible. I think we are obligated to recognize the difference between an activity we’re personally disgusted by, and an activity that is morally wrong and should be discouraged. Putting in the effort to desensitize yourself to an action you don’t intend to partake in anyway is kind of pointless.
Natalie Reed says
Except that, at the very least, actively vocalizing disgust actually ends up harming people. It’s part of the process by which queerness is policed, and heteronormativity enforced. Disgust ends up playing into other issues to, such as the manner in which transsexual bodies are shamed, and trans people made to feel awful about ourselves, cut ourselves off from sexuality, and is also part of the means by which the construct of trans people as either unfuckable, sexless eunuchs or creepy, deceptive rapists is maintained.
No one’s obligated to “get over it” just because it’s possible, but there IS an obligation to at the very least address this, talk about it, on the basis that it causes harm.
I hold that sexual orientation, our feelings of both desire and disgust, is never either purely innate and immutable or purely socially constructed. It’s an interplay between different factors. Neurobiological predispositions filtered and expressed through the lens of culture, personal experiences, disposition and, yes, free will.
I agree, vocalizing disgust causes harm. There’s actually some interesting discussion within about how to create a space for newbie asexuals who might not know any better, but still need space to vent and learn. Plus these spaces also need to be safe for sexually active folks. But I’m off-topic.
All around me when I walk outside, people *holding hands*, in public no less. Disgusting! There ought to be a law, etc…
That might seem like I’m creating a strawman. But there are millions of ‘disgusting’ but harmless situations that happen everyday, that you have to ‘desensitize’ yourself to in order to function. Unless you plan to shut yourself off from society or worse, discriminate against, abuse or use violence upon hand-holders, there really is no other option.
Doesn’t mean you have to partake in hand-holding, or be subject to objectifying offers to hold hands, or like holding hands or even not-be-disgusted by hand-holders. But you have to ‘desensitize’ yourself and get used to the idea that the next person you interact with could have firmly gripped the sweaty, micro-organism covered hand of a consenting adult.
I just spent the last 10 minutes writing that instead of working on a job application. I should desensitize myself to people being wrong on the internet 😉
Movius, I more or less explicitly opposed discrimination or abuse based on feelings of disgust, so strawman sounds about right. Being in a minority, it’s blatantly obvious that the choices are to deal or avoid, and I don’t need you to tell me so. If a person doesn’t like seeing hand-holding, the obvious solution is to deal. If a person doesn’t like seeing sex, avoidance is also feasible.
I think it’s more of a problem with disgust among people with normative sexuality. They don’t think it over as much because they don’t have to. And if they decide discrimination is the answer, they have the power to carry it out.
Yeah, I misread the intent most of your post I think.
I still wouldn’t say it’s pointless at all. Though it does suck when you have to adjust to the problems of others.
The question of whether being gay is innate or a choice is a red herring.
The real question should be: Even if something which causes no real, actual, quantifiable harm to oneself or to others was a matter of choice, would that make it OK to discriminate over it?
Or another possible question: “Choice or biological trait, what makes it any fucking business of yours?”
That as well 🙂
August is currently the president of Minnesota Atheists, http://mnatheists.org/. I don’t know what connection he has with any national humanist orgs, though.
Can I get that on a T-shirt? 😀
I’m not commenting on the rest of the post in detail because total agreement is boring, but that whole bit about how so-called “identity groups” don’t get to choose how the mass culture views them? I’m so sick of trying to get people to understand that. Usually around the time they say something like “why can’t [group x] just think of themselves as individuals?”, at which point my head explodes. Again. I never have the patience to explain it as well as you do. 🙂
The liver part made me literally LOL. It would make a great T-shirt, although I suspect many would not understand it.
Really glad you’re back!
As I read through your posts I begin to wonder why I’ve never heard anyone express these opinions outside of my circle of friends, and they certainly don’t see the light of day in academia very often. Which is rather sad because we should be able to expect more from higher learning, shouldn’t we?
I think this is why I was immediately drawn to Nietzsche’s writing. He critiqued everything, and refused to be held to any group or institution for fear of those groups expectations. There’s a lot of bad religion out there, and bad science. Both tend to have their extremist, tow-the-party-line advocates. This is particularly distressing to me, because scientific inquiry, and more importantly peer review, does not mean “validate”, it should however mean, “verify”.
I think your observations are very telling about people of all walks of life, no matter their education or beliefs. I often wonder if most people could actually cope with (much less understand)the implications epidemiologists deal with every day.
You have a new stalker, me that is, but don’t worry I’m only kinda creepy. And I’ll gladly buy you a beverage if you’re ever have the misfortune of being in Oklahoma.
Great post, Natalie.
I love your posts. Just, you know, FYI.
Also, I went to the INR2 conference pretty much welded to the idea that there was no real ‘community of atheists’, but you disabused me of that idea pretty damned quick. I was so hung up on the literal definition of ‘atheist’ that I completely failed to account for the social institution that is the atheist movement – which was a rather ridiculous oversight on my part.
Re: That August guy. His talk was painful. It made me sad – less sad than Joyce’s bizarro gender essentialism – but sad nonetheless. I kind of wish that the conference had rigorously vetted its lineup of speakers beforehand; I would rather have seen speakers with a bit more of a skeptical background than some of the ones that were there.
Emil Karlsson says
Why does a bird sing?
– Is it because its ancestors who had a propensity for singing had greater reproductive success?
– Is it because they have learned the song from parents and neighbors?
– Is it because the increasing length of the day trigger hormonal changes?
– Is it because they have a genetic predisposition for sining?
– Is it because air flows through the vocal apparatus and causes membrane vibrations?
– Is it because their brain has developed in a certain way?
If we can accept that these are all legitimate answers, just at different levels of analysis, then why can we not accept the same for the causes of sex and/or gender?
Saying that androgenic hormones cause physiological sex instead of the presence of an Y chromosome is as limited as saying that learning causes birds to sing, not hormonal changes due to increased length of the day.
It does not matter that some individuals with an Y chromosome may not develop as physiologically male; some birds may have the required hormonal changes, but may have (let’s say) sufficiently impaired learning, so they never learn to sing. Clearly, this argument does not undermine the importance of hormonal changes in birds as the day length increases (or any of the explanations on any other level of analysis).
There existence of additional levels of analysis (say, hormones) does not refute the importance of any other level of analysis (say, chromosomes). It just provides additional layers of complexity.
In fact, hormones are proteins that ultimately encoded at the level of genes. This is even true for hormone replacement therapy, although these hormones are probably manufactured using recombinant DNA technology.
No genes, no hormones.
As for your distaste of evolutionary psychology: if we accept that the mind is what the brain does and that the brain has an evolutionary origin, then there must be (1) a genetic influence (no heredity, no evolution) and (2) evolutionary psychology is a legitimate scientific field (just as the evolutionary study of any other organ). The fact that you dislike some of its conclusions (calling them “pseudo-scientific, unsubstantiated junk and “just so” stories, spouted off by ignorant, sexist twits”) has hardly any relevance. Even if a scientific disciplines was deeply sexist, it would not necessarily be empirically wrong. Offending human sensibilities is not an accurate method for determine reasonableness.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and so your rejection of an entire field of study would require strong evidence indeed.
Since you are an opponent of EP, I will give you a challenge: please provide rigorous, evidence-based arguments that the model of, say, MHC-dependent mate selection is a “pseudo-scientific, unsubstantiated junk”. I’ll even give you a couple of references to get started:
Chaix R, Cao C, Donnelly P (2008) Is Mate Choice in Humans MHC-Dependent? PLoS Genet 4(9): e1000184. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000184
Leinders-Zufall, T., Brennan, P., Widmayer, P., S., P. C., Maul-Pavicic, A., Jäger, M., . . . Boehm, T. (2004). MHC Class I Peptides as Chemosensory Signals in the Vomeronasal Organ. Science, 306(5698), 1033-1037. doi: 10.1126/science.1102818
Jordan, W. C., & Bruford, M. W. (1998). New perspectives on mate choice and the MHC. Heredity, 81(3), 239-245.
Singer AG, Beauchamp GK, Yamazaki K (1997) Volatile signals of the major histocompatibility complex in male mouse urine. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 94: 2210–2214.
In other primates, males are often more aggressive than females. This comparative ethology shows that male primate aggression is probably not primarily due to “socio-cultural conditions, gender roles, expectations, economic issues, legal system discrepancies”, as most of this do not exist in other primates.
Finally, personality traits usually have a heritability of about 0.5 (Passer et. al. 2009). The effects of shared environment is almost always negligible (Defries et. al. 2008), driving a final stake through the heart of some of the convoluted sociological clichés presented in this blog post.
Emil Karlsson says
I think I found a better way to phrase the argument.
“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.”
This is like saying that androgenic hormones do not make someone male, because it is really hormone receptors, intracellular signaling and the resulting cellular activities (such as differential gene transcription) that does. All hormones do is, that if properly released into the system in the right concentrations and all the necessary secondary conditions are functioning normally (hormone receptors, intracellular signaling), cause changes in gene transcription. That’s it.
Clearly, such an argument I just made above would miss the point: hormones are important, but they do not tell the entire story. They do not act in a biological vacuum, free from other factors. They just provide one level of analysis, just like genes. To be true, it is a mistake to exaggerative the causal influence of genes, but the same goes with any other level of analysis or partial explanation. In a complex, multifactorial situation, it is hardly never as easy as “it is genes” or “it is hormones”.
dj sentimancho says
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