Dear Jesse, please don’t give up your day job

Jesse Bering, the evolutionary psychologist, has decided to play Agony Aunt and has penned a collection of suggestions to reader questions. The gorge rises; one struggles to avoid flinging the laptop across the room. Take his answer to a “Deep-thinking Hebephile” who thinks we ought to reconsider age of consent laws, to make it easier for him to have sex with the objects of his desire.

Whenever society screams about some demon or another, it’s probably just caught an especially alarming sight of itself in the mirror. Given the historical flux in age-of-consent laws, there are few among us who aren’t the direct descendents of those who’d be incarcerated as sex offenders today.

This is true. We probably all have rapists in our pedigrees, too, and thieves and murderers, and even priests. That does not imply that we should accept these behaviors because they just are; even if you are doing your best to be the dispassionate observer of an evolving group of animals, you should also wonder whether rapists/pedophiles, even the ones who manage to reproduce, are actually selectively better at reproducing than individuals who favor consenting, willing, cooperative partners. This is not part of Bering’s perspective, strangely enough.

And then he tells this bizarre, disturbing story.

Rind points out that it’s foolish and manipulative to demand that all teens frame their consensual trysts with all adults as inherently negative. He tells of a 14-year-old Jewish boy who lost his virginity to a prostitute in her 20s on the eve of the Holocaust only to soon perish at a concentration camp. On learning after the war from his son’s friend that the boy died a “man,” the boy’s father smiled and wept with pride. The irony, of course, is that today’s moral panic dictates that this teenager should be called a “survivor” of sex abuse had he actually escaped Auschwitz.

Holy crap. I’d think he was a survivor of sex abuse if he escaped that warped old deviant he called a father. I would find no consolation in the idea that a child of mine suffered stress and torment leading to death, but managed to put a penis in a vagina. I also wonder, if it were a daughter, would he have wept with pride at learning she’d managed to protect her virginity before death? The irony here is that this strange old man attached so much importance to virginity.

So Bering is deep into boring pedant mode and pretending to be the objective observer, but he really exposes his own biases. The other thing completely missing from his discussion is a recognition of the fact that sex involves at least two people — to Bering and his correspondents, the targets of their passions really are just objects, and consideration of their interests and desires is simply off the radar. It’s a bit like eavesdropping on psychopaths talking about their next victim, and it’s distressingly creepy.

I won’t even touch the letter from the obese anti-feminist looking to improve his social relationships (Bering’s advice: testosterone supplements), or the woman who finds teenage girls infuriatingly shallow (Bering notes that at 29, she’s “a young, reproductively viable female with diminishing mate value in the throes of intense intrasexual competition with potential rivals for a desirable mate.”) Allow me to suggest that if what you really want is a completely non-judgmental referee to provide biological rationalizations for any behavior you exhibit, Chris Clarke has the routine down cold.


Perhaps the Hitchens piece I just posted wasn’t curmudgeonly enough for you; seasoned Pharyngula veterans are already deeply cynical. If that’s the case, I have just the thing: Matt Taibbi has posted A Christmas Message From America's Rich, in which you can read about how corporate CEO’s are allowing you to have cake.

Most of us 99-percenters couldn’t even let our dogs leave a dump on the sidewalk without feeling ashamed before our neighbors. It’s called having a conscience: even though there are plenty of things most of us could get away with doing, we just don’t do them, because, well, we live here. Most of us wouldn’t take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life’s savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities.

But our Too-Big-To-Fail banks unhesitatingly take billions in bailout money and then turn right around and finance the export of jobs to new locations in China and India. They defraud the pension funds of state workers into buying billions of their crap mortgage assets. They take zero-interest loans from the state and then lend that same money back to us at interest. Or, like Chase, they bribe the politicians serving countries and states and cities and even school boards to take on crippling debt deals.

What I’d like to give them for Christmas is a revolution, and a metaphorical row of pikes for their heads.

Why I am an atheist – Bernard Funk

My story is similiar to Nick Martin’s: I grew up in Germany in a traditional Catholic family. As a child I went to church (1-2 times a week) and I was also an altar boy. Nothing uncommon when you grow up in a rural area. Between the age of ca. 10-12 I was so devoted that my family suspected I would become a priest (though I myself never had this idea).

In my environment there was, though it was quite traditional and convervative, never any anti-science sentiment. Like Nick, I later on had no problems to be fully convinced of the sientific method. One of my child-time heroes was Hoimar von Ditfurth, a German scientist who hosted a very good popular science TV-show (btw- his daughter was one of the founders of the German Green Party). I read most of his books. You may compare him to Carl Sagan, except that Ditfurth was convinced that there is a transcendent reality. Since this youth hero of mine (hey, one of his books is titled ‘In the beginning there was Hydrogen’) had no problem going the scientific and the ‘believe’-route at the same time it was of course also not a problem for me. Evolution was real, the big bang was real, and so was God. Aliens, homeopathy, aura-reading and all this crap was crap.

From my mid-twenties on I slowly drifted away from this belief and started to call myself an ‘agnostic’. I would flatter myself if I would say that this was the result of rational analyzis. It was more a gut feeling, more kindled by the large gap between claim and reality that I noticed with church (both Catholic as well as any other denomination or religion).

My conversion to the dark side is almost a twin of Nick Martin’s: Somewhere in the internet I stumbled across the name ‘PZ Myers’ (don’t remember the exact circumstances, but i’m pretty sure that it was in connection with some discussion on pseudo-science). His fervent insistence to apply the same scepticsm that one takes for granted in science to all belief/explanation systems (like religion) started a chain reaction. Actually his word fell on prepared soil. It lead to other names: Dawkins, Hitchens, Benett. Harris. Stenger. The (German) Giordano-Bruno-Foundation. I re-read Bertrand Russel and Schleichert (How to discuss with fundamentalist without loosing your sanity) and recognized the rhetoric tricks used by religion. I suddenly discovered that I was an agnostic no more. I was an atheist. Not an atheis by gut feeling. But by conviction. And I can take a rational stand on this every time. I can argue about it. I can back it. Something I was never able to do before, neither as a believer nor as an self-proclaimed agnostic. It is a matter of reason.

Bernhard Funk

Bah, humbug

(Let’s start Christmas right with a cheerful piece from Christopher Hitchens)

I used to harbor the quiet but fierce ambition to write just one definitive, annihilating anti-Christmas column and then find an editor sufficiently indulgent to run it every December. My model was the Thanksgiving pastiche knocked off by Art Buchwald several decades ago and recycled annually in a serious ongoing test of reader tolerance. But I have slowly come to appreciate that this hope was in vain. The thing must be done annually and afresh. Partly this is because the whole business becomes more vile and insufferable—and in new and worse ways—every 12 months. It also starts to kick in earlier each year: It was at Thanksgiving this year that, making my way through an airport, I was confronted by the leering and antlered visage of what to my disordered senses appeared to be a bloody great moose. Only as reason regained her throne did I realize that the reindeer—that plague species—were back.

Not long after I’d swallowed this bitter pill, I was invited onto Scarborough Country on MSNBC to debate the proposition that reindeer were an ancient symbol of Christianity and thus deserving of First Amendment protection, if not indeed of mandatory display at every mall in the land. I am told that nobody watches that show anymore—certainly I heard from almost nobody who had seen it—so I must tell you that the view taken by the host was that coniferous trees were also a symbol of Christianity, and that the Founding Fathers had endorsed this proposition. From his cue cards, he even quoted a few vaguely deistic sentences from Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, neither of them remotely Christian in tone. When I pointed out the latter, and added that Christmas trees, yule logs, and all the rest were symbols of the winter solstice “holidays” before any birth had been registered in the greater Bethlehem area, I was greeted by a storm of abuse, as if I had broken into the studio instead of having been entreated to come by Scarborough’s increasingly desperate staff. And when I added that it wasn’t very Tiny Tim-like to invite a seasonal guest and then tell him to shut up, I was told that I was henceforth stricken from the Scarborough Rolodex. The ultimate threat: no room at the Bigmouth Inn.

This was a useful demonstration of what I have always hated about the month of December: the atmosphere of a one-party state. On all media and in all newspapers, endless invocations of the same repetitive theme. In all public places, from train stations to department stores, an insistent din of identical propaganda and identical music. The collectivization of gaiety and the compulsory infliction of joy. Time wasted on foolishness at one’s children’s schools. Vapid ecumenical messages from the president, who has more pressing things to do and who is constitutionally required to avoid any religious endorsements.

And yet none of this party-line unanimity is enough for the party’s true hard-liners. The slogans must be exactly right. No “Happy Holidays” or even “Cool Yule” or a cheery Dickensian “Compliments of the season.” No, all banners and chants must be specifically designated in honor of the birth of the Dear Leader and the authority of the Great Leader. By chance, the New York Times on Dec. 19 ran a story about the difficulties encountered by Christian missionaries working among North Korean defectors, including a certain Mr. Park. One missionary was quoted as saying ruefully that “he knew he had not won over Mr. Park. He knew that Christianity reminded Mr. Park, as well as other defectors, of ‘North Korean ideology.’ ” An interesting admission, if a bit of a stretch. Let’s just say that the birth of the Dear Leader is indeed celebrated as a miraculous one—accompanied, among other things, by heavenly portents and by birds singing in Korean—and that compulsory worship and compulsory adoration can indeed become a touch wearying to the spirit.

Our Christian enthusiasts are evidently too stupid, as well as too insecure, to appreciate this. A revealing mark of their insecurity is their rage when public places are not annually given over to religious symbolism, and now, their fresh rage when palaces of private consumption do not follow suit. The Fox News campaign against Wal-Mart and other outlets—whose observance of the official feast-day is otherwise fanatical and punctilious to a degree, but a degree that falls short of unswerving orthodoxy—is one of the most sinister as well as one of the most laughable campaigns on record. If these dolts knew anything about the real Protestant tradition, they would know that it was exactly this paganism and corruption that led Oliver Cromwell—my own favorite Protestant fundamentalist—to ban the celebration of Christmas altogether.

No believer in the First Amendment could go that far. But there are millions of well-appointed buildings all across the United States, most of them tax-exempt and some of them receiving state subventions, where anyone can go at any time and celebrate miraculous births and pregnant virgins all day and all night if they so desire. These places are known as “churches,” and they can also force passersby to look at the displays and billboards they erect and to give ear to the bells that they ring. In addition, they can count on numberless radio and TV stations to beam their stuff all through the ether. If this is not sufficient, then god damn them. God damn them everyone.

All right, get off the net all of you

It’s Christmas eve! Spend some time with friends and family!

My wife and I just had a lovely dinner with the kids at an Indian restaurant in Madison (Maharaja, highly recommended), and now my daughter has fixed us all glasses of potent glögg…after which we’ll pass out somewhere. Don’t you tell me what you’ve been doing! Go do it instead!

Should we try harder next year?

The “DefendChristians” website has a poll to determine the Top Ten Anti-Christian Acts of 2011. There are a few truly despicable things in there: apparently, someone threw a firebomb at an elderly woman protesting a reproductive health clinic in Kalispell, an action I would unambiguously condemn, if it happened. Unfortunately, it seems to have been news only among the fanatical anti-abortion websites; I can’t find any mention on more reliable sources, and it’s peculiar anyway: a fire bomb was thrown at someone, and no one was hurt, and the demonstration went on anyway? That’s a rather pathetic effort.

I would have voted for that as a bad act, if there were any reasonable confirmation that it happened. But the rest…well here’s a sample.

  • Old Navy began sponsoring the pro-homosexual “It Get’s Better” campaign by giving proceeds from certain clothing to the campaign. The television and online campaign shows a variety of people living as homosexuals encouraging other’s to come out claiming “It Get’s Better,” and that there hopeful future for those who live as homosexuals.

  • A National Public Radio (NPR) official was caught on video making vicious anti-Christian remarks to persons who identified themselves as members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were promising millions of dollars to NPR. In the video, the NPR official called Evangelical Christians uneducated racists who hate and fear all foreigners.

  • Alabama Governor, Robert Buckley, spoke on Martin Luther King Day at the historic Dexter Ave Baptist Church in Montgomery, the church Dr. King pastored. In his remarks the Governor said, “Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.” The Jewish Anti-Defamation League falsely labeled this anti-Semitic.

  • A Christian bakery owner in Iowa was boycotted after she refused to make a wedding cake for a lesbian’s couples “wedding.”

The most horrible anti-Christian oppression going on in the country right now is that homophobic/xenophobic Christians are being called out on their bigotry. And maybe some ineffective crank in Montana threw a flaming pop bottle at Christians demanding that women’s health be compromised.

We’re terrible at this pogrom business. And the Christians are really feeble, whiny martyrs.

Why I am an atheist – Jessica

Basically, I am an atheist because for me, the idea of a God, a ‘higher power’ or even just the universe being conscious and deliberate raises more questions than it answers. We all have the flaw of believing that because a question can be phrased, it can be answered. We ask ‘Why?’ and at first God seems like an easy answer, until you realise that you can always ask “But why?” one more time. Instead of torturing themselves asking ‘Why?’ to infinity, lots of people stop asking the question just after inserting God into the equation. I stop just before, because for me, the idea of a creator, or conscious universe adds nothing to my understanding or enjoyment of life, so it seems like an unnecessary step.

I haven’t always been this way. While I never followed religion as such, I certainly had my moments of “What does the universe have planned for me?”

I have been told that there were arguments over what I should be christened as it was expected that I should be Catholic because that’s what my father was (is that a convention? The children get christened what the father is? I don’t know.), but my mother had a vehement dislike of Catholicism, not only because of the beliefs, but also because she had had conflicts with Catholics in the past. I don’t think my parents would have bothered at all but for this social pressure, so it was decided that I would be Anglican, so I was christened (by a priest who later turned out to be a pedophile), and never went to church again until school. I spent my first two years of primary school at a Catholic school, because that’s where my cousins went. We had mass every Friday, and I remember sitting on the seat in church, swinging my legs, picking my nose, wriggling around thinking “Why does everyone keep saying stuff back to that weird guy up the front and why are we sitting down and standing up and singing and this sucks lets go outside and play.” I believed in God because I was told he was real, but for some reason I kind of thought that he was everyone else’s God, and that it didn’t apply to me. I changed to a normal public school afterwards because the Catholic fees were too high, and apart from some scripture classes and Anglican Sunday school (which I only wanted to go to to get the nice biscuits at afternoon tea), I never had anything to do with the church again. What sealed the deal for good with me not really believing in a deity was my innocent 6 or 7 year old cousin saying “If god put us here, who put God there?”. At the time, I believed in God as I said because that’s what I had been told, so I kind of just thought she was naive to ask (how wrong I was!), but it definitely got me thinking. While I don’t know what her beliefs are now, I certainly have to thank her for planting the seed.

The belief system I had after that was generally less “god says do it or you’ll go to hell” and more “karma, the universe, energy, spirits and ghosts and meant to be, that’s just their path, its for a higher reason which we’ll understand after we die” type stuff. I simultaneously believed in an afterlife as well as reincarnation, and had to do some crazy mental gymnastics for that to make sense to me. I had some superstitions, like if you hear the same song or something 3 times in a row, its significant somehow. I believed in ghosts and tarot cards, and that “the universe’ cared what I did and thought and that what I did now would be setting the tone for my soul’s afterlife. I believed that the universe had lessons and plans for us all, and I used to desperately search for some good reason why the universe wanted my life the way it was. I spent a lot of time confused as to why certain situations would come up over and over again, believing that the universe thought I hadn’t learned a certain lesson properly the first time or whatever. The thing that used to cause me the most trouble in my beliefs was not being able to come up with a good reason why the universe would care what I did. I got a lot of explanations of “its part of a bigger plan” but I could never understand why the universe needed or planned anything. Pretty much the non-deity version of asking “Does God ever wonder why hes there?”, really.

I honestly can’t remember why, but one day I just started researching religion and atheism and how it relates to politics and morality and things. I wish I could remember what made me look it up. Knowing how my interests get started, I probably read one line in a newspaper or something and sparked it off. I came across lots of atheist blogs which I still read regularly, and it really made me bother to sit and think seriously about why I do the things I do. I began to see that a lot of beliefs and attitudes that I had didn’t stand up to reason. It was a bit of a struggle at times. I came up with all the same questions that all theists must wonder about atheists, and for once, I had to answer them for myself instead of assuming the universe or God or whatever would take of it for me. I remember, with a bit of shame, reading a post on Hemant’s blog, The Friendly Atheist, about a woman saying that because atheists don’t believe in an afterlife, they must be amoral and just do whatever they want, and at the time, it seemed reasonable. I wondered, “I know now that I don’t believe I will be punished after my death, so why don’t I want to go out and steal and kill and do whatever I want?” It took a lot of reflection for me to realise why I’m not an evil person. If theists don’t commit evil (which we know some do, but just humour me) to avoid hell after death, then I don’t commit evil because I don’t want to be in hell now. Simple as that. I believe that we are capable of a happy, well functioning society without reference to any eternal punishment or reward, and I resent the hell out of the idea that me wanting to live in a nice world is somehow a less moral motivation than “God said don’t”.

As for my destiny or whatever, I have pretty much come to the conclusion that the universe doesn’t give two shits about anyone. I don’t believe that finding meaning in something that happens to you means that a higher power intended it that way. I believe it is up to us to give our own lives meaning and purpose, because we are ultimately in control. I don’t mean to say we are gods unto ourselves or anything, because we are at the mercy of nature and always have been, just that it is our job to try to understand our world in order to make the best of it, not to accept that it is part of a plan and we are mere pawns. Some people find it extremely off putting and lonely to think that we are really of no importance in something bigger, but I have actually found it quite liberating. Being an atheist has made me take more responsibility for the quality of my own life. Knowing that I exist in this amazing universe against extreme odds absolutely floors me at times, and knowing that this is my only chance has made me more proactive than I ever used to be.