Art & Media

#SSAweek doodles!

Keep refreshing to see the new ones. Info about requesting a doodle is here.

Request: “Holland Lop Rabbit”

Dear readers:I’d be perfectly happy if all of your requests are adorable animals.

Request: “Owl, dancing”

I hope disco is okay.

Request: “8 kitties playing and ‘kitty mommy’ somewhere in the doodle. a gift for my wife :)”

Pixel wanted to use her expertise to help with that one, so she decided to fall asleep on my arm as I was drawing. Thanks, Pixel.

Request: Doodle of an alien reading the Bolingbrook Babbler.

Brb, taking a lunch break!

Request: Vampire Squid (cuter than you’d think)

Request: “something with a cat and a violin. You decide how they relate. ”

Bad kitty.

Request: “whatever “No Iguana for Z” suggests to you”

A trolly friend requests: “dignity”

Request: “Happy Atom sketch”

Request: “Draw DNA :)”

EDIT: Taking a doodle break because my cold is catching up with me. Will finish the rest soon!

Donate to #SSAweek and get a personal doodle from me!

EDIT: I’m closing submissions now so I can catch up on the doodles people have requested. I may make the same offer later in the week, so don’t despair!

So far #SSAweek and Blogathon are going strong. $54,337 has been raised, though $50,000 came from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation and the rest came from 86 other donors. I want everyone to know they can make a difference even if they only have $5 to give. That’s just one fancy coffee or beer you can skip in order to support a great cause. My mini-goal is to hit 100 donors by the end of today.

What’s in it for you? I’m sitting at home sniffling and hopped up on strong cold medicine. I’m a little loopy and a little bored. If you donate $5 or more to the Secular Student Alliance, I’ll draw you a custom doodle in EDIT: OpenCanvas, so it won’t be totally crappy! All you have to do is while making your donation, look for the “SSA Week 2012 Topic Suggestion & Mailing Information” header, fill out Blogger with “Jen” or “Blag Hag” and tell me what you want to draw with “Topic Suggestion.”

In case you need further encouragement, you should know I’m armed with a Bamboo drawing tablet and this is some of my past artwork (more examples in this link):

So, donate and give me things to doodle! Let’s reach 100 donors or more by the end of today!

Apparently female musicians are extremely disappointing

At least, that’s the message I got from Buzzfeed this morning when I saw their article “12 Extremely Disappointing Facts about Popular Music.”

  1. Not a single female musician exists in the examples of good singers or bands.
  2. 8 out of 12 of the “extremely disappointing” musicians are exclusively female or have female lead singers
  3. Yes, we know you hate Justin Bieber. Because he’s not hyper masculine and appeals to young girls. Therefore he sucks. Yawn. Old news.

Yes, yes, it’s a dumb site that pumps out top 10 lists and memes. But this sort of sexist thinking is everywhere in our culture. These female bands and singers are all just shitty compared to real music.

Not to mention this bothers the scientist in me. Of course newer artists are going to sell more albums and singles than 50 years ago, because you didn’t correct for the increasing rate of singles and albums sold. But science doesn’t matter when your goal is to laugh at female musicians.

This is why I haven’t been blogging

My new distraction: Draw Something for iPhone.

My favorite part: Taking way too much time to draw something where a stick figure would have conveyed the message. For example, my drawing for the word “Obama”:

This is what I did for “alone”:

Feel free to add me – the username is jennifurret.

The genetic “proof” for ancient aliens

I have a new, horrible obsession – the History Channel’s show Ancient Aliens.

On Saturday I found myself drinking with a group of my boyfriend Sean’s friends, when one of them announced that we must play an Ancient Aliens drinking game. I had no idea what the show was, but became intrigued when they started discussing the rules of when to take a drink:

  • Whenever someone being interviewed has no relevant credentials like a PhD
  • Whenever someone says the phrase “Some scientists say”
  • Whenever someone says the phrase “ancient astronaut theorists”
  • Whenever an ancient manuscript is displayed
  • Whenever there’s a terrible CGI reenactment
  • Whenever Giorgio starts talking

Me: Who’s Giorgio?
Them: Oh, you’ll know who Giorgio is soon enough.

This is Giorgio, by the way:

…That’s all I’m going to say.

They decided to reduce the list so we would wouldn’t get alcohol poisoning. But I found myself following my own rule of “drink whenever someone says something that blatantly defies logic or is a total non sequitur.” Which meant I was pretty much constantly drinking for an hour and a half. Especially when you’re jumping from pyramids, dragon drawings, Tesla coils, and the Bible all being proof of aliens (just to name a few).

For those of you who’ve never seen the show…I’m not quite sure how to summarize it. The footage looks professionally done since it’s on the History Channel, and some of the shots of the ancient artifacts are cool to see. But if I had to summarize the major theme, it would either be “Brown people never could have done <insert amazing feat here> because they were too lazy and/or stupid, therefore aliens had to help them.” I think my favorite mindblowing moment was when Giorgio explained that:

  • People worship “Gods”
  • But people only believe in things they have evidence for
  • They had written/drawn evidence for these “Gods”
  • Written/drawn evidence is always realistic and never abstract, imaginative, or metaphorical
  • But “Gods” don’t actually exist
  • Therefore they were actually aliens

Oh, Giorgio. How I wish point #2 was true.

Something about the show hooked me in its terribleness. My emotional reaction was actually very similar to the time when I visited the Creation Museum. Yes, I was mad at how they were twisting science, using terrible logic, and spreading blatant lies. But the absurdity of it all was oddly amusing. By the end you find yourself playing along, like you’re watching a fantasy novel… and not something people actually believe.

Also, being heavily inebriated helps.

So Sean and I plowed forward to episode two, since the first two seasons are conveniently available on Netflix. Our “game” was to guess what sort of bizzaro conspiracy theory the show would provide to explain a phenomena they were hyping before the show made the reveal. Sean was a little too excited when he correctly guessed the “Humans and aliens had sex and interbred” plotline. To which I replied, “But they’re an alien. Humans can’t even breed with chimps. Humans would have to actually be aliens seeded here or something for interbreeding to be possible.”

And then that’s exactly what the show said, and I nearly peed my pants laughing.

But the real kicker came when the show brought up the human genome. Sean and I both study genomics and evolution, so we exchanged a wary look. I’ll let you see it for yourself. The clip begins at 7:34 in the first video, and continues until 3:03 in the next.

http://youtu.be/aK687ZHtijY

http://youtu.be/_ncym6es7x0

In case you can’t watch the video or had trouble following that pristine argument, let me summarize:

  • Geneticists discovered the gene HAR1, which is unique to humans and plays a critical role in the development of the human brain.
  • Did it develop through evolution? Francis Crick says human genes couldn’t have evolved because there’s not enough time for DNA to evolve by accident. He said it would be as improbable as a hurricane going through a junkyard making a Boeing 747.
  • Since it couldn’t have evolved, the aliens performed a targeted mutation in HAR1 to make us “human.”
  • We only understand 5% of the genome. If you wanted to record an eternal message that could be decoded by a creature that eventually evolved enough intelligence to decode it, you shouldn’t put it in a monument or text that can be destroyed…put it in the DNA! OMFG THAT’S WHAT JUNK DNA IS! SECRET MESSAGES!

And now, for a quick debunking:

  • HAR1 is present in all mammals and birds, not just humans. But in all non-human species, the sequence is effectively the same, or conserved. The human copy in particular has a number of differences compared to other species, so we consider the human copy of HAR1 divergent. This is not at all the only human gene to be divergent. And all species have uniquely divergent genes – that’s precisely what makes things different species. But no one is arguing that marmosets or fig trees or syphilis are actually aliens with special alien genes inserted into them. Well, maybe people are arguing that. There’s four seasons of this crap, and I’m only on episode 3 of season one. Maybe the syphilis aliens are right after the episode titled Aliens and the Third Reich (I shit you not).
  • Francis Crick has always been a strong supporter of evolution and has spoken passionately about how evolution shaped his scientific investigation. He was one of the Noble laureates who advised US courts bogged down by creationists that “Creation-science’ simply has no place in the public-school science classroom.” He also was an advocate for making Darwin Day a British national holiday. While he was initially doubtful of the origin of the genetic code and wondered if panspermia could be the answer, he later published a retrospective article where he and his colleague “noted that they had been overly pessimistic about the chances of abiogenesis on Earth when they had assumed that some kind of self-replicating protein system was the molecular origin of life.” So, um, no.
  • Francis Crick did not come up with that 747 argument – Fred Hoyle did. That’s why it’s called Hoyle’s fallacy. It’s already debunked a bajillion times by biologists – Dawkins wrote two books about it – so I won’t waste time trouncing it here.
  • Whatever alien thought junk DNA would be a great place for an eternal message is a dumbass. Because junk DNA doesn’t code for a protein or have some sort of regulatory role, it’s what geneticists refer to as “neutrally evolving.” It means it’s at liberty to gather mutations because they don’t have any major effect that would weed them out via natural selection. This is especially true when the show’s premise is that the message was placed there eons ago, and had tons of time to accumulate changes. It also doesn’t explain why chimps share a lot of junk DNA with us, or why a huge proportion of junk DNA are remnants of ancient viruses. I’m sure Giorgio would say that those aliens were trying to throw us off the scent by making it seem like our genomes had evolved through natural processes.
  • They never address the fact that the hypotheses they present throughout the show aren’t even internally consistent. At one point they say all life on earth was put there by aliens, and it evolved naturally. Then they say we ARE the aliens. So what, were the aliens unicellular organisms? How can we interbreed – like they say we do – if we’re that distantly related?! But then they say the proof that we’re aliens is that we look like the aliens…so how about those billions of years of evolution?

In poking around the internet about this show, I discovered that Giorgio had a twitter account, which included this gem:

Lizard people? Total nonsense. Aliens? Of course, duhhhhh.

Oh, History Channel. How the mighty have fallen. I remember when I was little and I’d watch you with my history-buff dad, and learn all sorts of cool things about Egypt and Rome and WWII. But now I watch you to point and laugh.

Feminist Fantasy

I’ve just finished reading Game of Thrones, the first book of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series. I really enjoyed the HBO series, but I didn’t feel like waiting years to learn the rest of the plot. The same thing happened with Lord of the Rings – I saw the first movie, then quickly gobbled up the trilogy, the Hobbit, and even the Silmarillion. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have to point out that I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. I enjoy fantasy novels.

But it’s always a little weird reading fantasy as a feminist. I know other feminists lament the lack of strong female characters in traditional fantasy novels. I mean, does Arwen serve any purpose other than marrying Aragorn? Eowyn is badass as she slays the Lord of the Nazgul, but then she loses all her fighting spirit to marry Faramir and have babies.

Harry Potter left me similarly disappointed in the end. Hermione was such a strong female character throughout the series, but ultimately the end is all about getting married and having babies.  Rowling discusses her accomplishments in the Ministry in interviews, but in the book her future is represented only as a mother. And really, when you think about the series, it’s all about dudes. Harry, Voldemort, Dumbledore, Snape. I love Hermione, but sometimes I can’t help but see her as a useful plot device, the clever one who will serendipitously figure out all the puzzles and advances the plot.

So far, I’m enjoying Game of Thrones. There are many strong female characters. But more importantly to me, they’re not The Strong Female Character. I hate when a book or movie is so obviously trying to introduce a strong woman to the plot, that she ends up a flat caricature without flaws or weaknesses. It makes the viewer feel like there really are no such thing as strong women in the real world – otherwise why would they be so hard to write?

And that’s why I like this series (so far, at least). The strong women still aren’t perfect. Daenerys takes a terrible situation (which is an understatement) and uses it to grow into a powerful, confident woman. I think she’s one of the most compassionate characters in the series, yet that compassion is also her undoing. Cersei Lannister is powerful and recognizes how unfair it is that her power is curtailed by her bad luck of being born female – but she’s also tremendously evil. Catelyn Stark takes matters into her own hands when her family is threatened, but the same emotions that drive her also cause her to make mistakes. And do I even have to say anything about Arya? She’s stubborn and hot headed, but she’s as much as a feminist as I’ve ever seen.

But I also like the series because there are some terrible women. Lysa Arryn is… a little off her rocker. Sansa fills me with a rage that’s only surpassed by how much I hate Joffrey (or as I like to call him, Malfoy 2.0). If there are supremely flawed male characters, I want supremely flawed female ones. Women aren’t perfect.

I’ve heard some argue that the series isn’t feminist because the women, in their culture, are basically seen as second class citizens. But when you have a series that’s basically medieval Europe placed on an imaginary map, I’m not sure what you expect. It’s inspired by history, where woman were treated that poorly. I find it refreshing that the plot doesn’t accept that (like in Lord of the Rings), but rather multiple woman try to overcome it.

But I see the point. How many more fantasy novels do we need that perfectly mirror medieval Europe, with women having the roles of wives and nothing more? If it’s fiction, why not make them equal? Or why not make them the ones in charge? It would be refreshing to see that occasionally.

I’m sure it’s out there, but I’m not as prolific of a reader. What fantasy novels do you think have feminist ideals? Who are your favorite strong female characters? What do you think about the women of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones? Does one do a better job than the others? Am I totally full of it with my opinions of these characters?

The Outbreak

The following is closely based on a very vivid dream I had last night. It was interesting enough that I wanted to type it up as a fun creative writing exercise – enjoy.

—-

A plane skidded to a stop on the runway. I hoped it was hers – I didn’t want to spend another moment in this parking lot.

Though I suppose I felt safe in the car. Relatively safe, at least. The outbreak had recently spread to Seattle, though the viral levels in the air were still low enough that you could risk going outside. Not that you’d want to go outside, with the constant drizzle and gloom and all. But sitting in the car felt like there was some sort of vacuum seal keeping me safe. I tried not to think about all of the cracks in my old Camry that were plenty big enough for viruses to squeeze through.

“Stop looking so bloody cross,” said my friend Matt, who was hunched over in the passenger seat fiddling with his phone. “Weren’t you excited to see her just a week ago?”

I glared at him. “Yes, you know, before an unknown epidemic started sweeping across the nation. No biggy.”

“Jen, it’s probably just a new strain of the flu. Like…I dunno, what animal have we not had a flu hybrid from yet? Lizard flu? Do lizards get the flu?”

“It’s not just the flu. Why is the media saying to stay inside?”

“Don’t they say that in Seattle in October anyway?”

I was about to reply to his smartassery, but my train of thought was derailed by another car pulling into the spot next to ours. Terrible grunge music blasted so loudly that the frame of my car was shaking. It was a stereotype on wheels. Three teen boys slumped in their seats, with the type of clothes that looked like they had specifically been selected to make them look homeless. The driver had long, bright red hair that had never seen a hair brush before. For some reason this offended me more than the outdated grunge music they were subjecting me to.

“See, you’re on edge,” quipped Matt. “Ignore them, they’re just punks.”

“Why have my friends in Eastern Washington stopped answering my Facebook messages?”

“Because they’re too busy sleeping off the flu?” I glared at Matt again. “Look, that’s all it does. It makes you sleepy. Consider it a blessing if you get it – you’ll have an excuse to not go to the lab.”

“I don’t understand how I’m apparently the only one concerned about an unidentifiable virus rapidly spreading through the population with unknown long-term symptoms.”

“Jen.”

Whose ground zero is only a couple of miles away from me.”

“Jen!”

“I’m not overreacting!”

“It’s not that – isn’t that her?”

I turned my attention back to the car of hooligans. And sure enough, there was Greta Christina. I heard a muffled “You must be from the Secular Student Union!” before she got into their car. And not mine.

I jumped out of my car, vacuum seal be damned. “Greta!” What the hell was she doing?

The red-head turned to me with a devilish grin before throwing the car in reverse and peeling backward across the parking lot. I saw a look of confusion and dart across Greta’s face, but then the car zipped off.

Matt hopped out of my car. “What the hell is going on?”

“Get the fuck back in the car!” I screamed, throwing myself back into the driver’s seat. Matt’s legs were still dangling out as I threw it into reverse, before peeling off in pursuit of the unexpected kidnappers.

“You’re driving like a madwoman!” he cried, desperately trying to buckle himself in. I ignored him as I weaved through the cars on I-5, even more upset than usual with their sluggishly slow driving. The car with Greta was far ahead – I was losing sight of it with every twist of the windy interstate. Faster, I needed to go faster.

“Why would she even come?” I cursed, cutting off another car.

Matt clutched the dash as he gave me a bewildered look. “That’s what you’re on about? Not “Why did my friend just randomly get kidnapped?””

“They have to be related.” The bus lane was mine for now. Screw the consequences.

“What does kidnapping have to do with the flu?”

“Shit, they’re going onto the 520?” I hardly glanced at my mirrors as I swerved into the exit  lane. Matt let out a squeal.

They were far ahead, too far ahead. I hit a clump of traffic – fucking Seattle drivers – but I couldn’t even drive along the shoulder. The 520 bridge over Lake Washington was too goddamn narrow. I tailgated the car in front of me, honking, hoping they’d get a clue. There was empty road ahead, but of course these drivers felt the need to drive side by side. Finally they took the exit once we were on dry land. I gunned it on the winding road, trying to peer ahead through the thick evergreen trees on the hilly landscape. Suddenly, the street was filled with blinking lights.

“Jesus fuck!”

I slammed on the brakes. There was a barricade of police cars – at least, there used to be a barricade.  The kidnappers’ car had slammed into the nearest police car – the kids were apparently driving more recklessly than I was. I drove up slowly, and to my relief, Greta got out of the car unscathed.

I parked the car and hopped out. “Greta! Greta, over here!”

“Jen!” She waved excitedly, apparently unperturbed by the situation. “You got me good! For a second I thought that was a real kidnapping! What a thrill!”

I looked at her like she had declared her intention to become a nun. “…Just get in the car, we should go back to campus where it’s safe!”

“Oh, but how about your friends?”

My “friends” had also gotten out of the car. The stared at Greta coldly, almost hungrily. That’s when I looked past them. We weren’t alone. There were dozens of people slowly walking toward us, climbing over the police cars. The police cars which were devoid of police officers. I fixated on the mob. They were unkempt, scabby…some looked like they had been shot, though were unphased by their wounds. I focused in on a woman whose face was sloughing off.

Even for Eastern Washington, this was not normal.

Fuck.

I ran forward and grabbed Greta’s hand. “Get in the car, NOW.”

“Oh, it’s already 6pm? I guess we shouldn’t be late for my talk.”

I didn’t have time to give her an incredulous look. I spotted a shotgun and extra rounds out of the corner of my eye, haphazardly left by an unfortunate police officer. Leave it to Seattle police to leave their guns lying around. But if this was what I thought it was…I might be needing this.

I darted back to the car, speeding off before the shambling horde could close in. Matt and Greta exchanged pleasantries as I nearly vomited from the stress. I knew we needed to get to the university. We could lock ourselves in the lecture hall, call for help, maybe wait it out. Maybe someone there would know what’s going on. Maybe someone there would care.

We arrived on campus in record time, and I shuffled Greta and Matt into the large lecture hall. People were already sitting at desks, anxiously awaiting her talk. Someone had brought piles of candy in honor of Halloween, and people were giggling as they gobbled up the sugar. I still couldn’t believe it. Why in the world did people care about a talk about atheism when – dare I say it – a fucking zombie virus was on the loose? Were they all on drugs?

Was I on drugs?

Like some sort of scientific blessing, my department head walked in and headed for a seat.Thank god – thank whatever that he was coming to this talk. He was intelligent and level-headed – I knew I could talk to him.

“Bob!” I panted. I didn’t even realize I was panting until then. I was a nervous wreck, sweat dripping from my face. “Do you know what’s going on with this virus?”

He smiled at me. “It’s good that you’re concerned, but don’t worry about it.”

I blinked. “But…we’re scientists. Aren’t we the people who are supposed to drop everything so we can go slave away in the lab, looking for a cure? I know this isn’t a movie, but-”

He laughed and put his hand on my shoulder. “Already ahead of you. Why look for a cure when you can prevent the disease to begin with?”

I narrowed my eyes. “We…we have a vaccine?”

He put a finger up to his lips. “I’m really not supposed to tell you, but yes. Most of UW has been working on it since the initial outbreak. It was an excellent way to test our new mechanism for delivery, too. Pumped it into the whole West Coast’s water supply, and now everyone should be fine.”

“You…what? That’s…that’s unethical!”

“Well, it’s good that it has the side effect of…well, it’s like being a little stoned, I suppose. You’re relaxed and don’t really care about what’s going on around you. As you can see,” he said, gesturing to the crowd of people who were more interested in an atheist blogger than a zombie attack, “everyone is very content.”

Everyone was on drugs, apparently.

“Well I most certainly am not content. We…we have real life zombies. Zombies, Bob.” I grabbed his shoulders. “ZOMBIES. Zombies are coming and nobody cares!”

“Ah, well you must have a rare genetic variant that makes you immune to the psychoactive effects. Very interesting, you should get Debbie to sequence your genome-”

“Bob, do we even know if this vaccine will work?”

He paused. It was like concern was desperately trying to work its way across his face, but the drugs were too strong. Rational Bob was buried in there, but far, far down. “Jennifer, we slapped together an experimental vaccine for a newly discovered virus in a matter of weeks. As great as our institution is, there’s a large probability of failure.” A look of horror swept over my face. “At least if we do fail, we’ll be happy in the end. …Well, most of us.”

“Braaaaaiiinnnnnsss.” The groan came from the far door, which swung open to reveal my other professor…in a more decaying state. At least, apparently decaying. It was tough to tell if it was movie makeup or genuine zombification. Halloween was just around the corner, after all.

I cradled the shotgun defensively. “Mike, now is NOT the time to fuck with me.” Bob was oblivious to the situation, and went off to find a seat for the upcoming lecture.

“Urrrrghhhh” he groaned, shambling down the steps of the auditorium toward me.

“Mike, I’m serious.” The last thing I wanted to do was shoot a professor who was playing a dumb prank thanks to being high on who knows what.

“Uunnffffff.” Closer still.

Scratch that. The last thing I wanted to do was to be wrong, and to be turned into a zombie. I needed to show him that I was serious. I aimed the shotgun forward.

“This is your last chance.”

Another step forward.

BANG.

The door frame now had a singed hole.

“Christ,” cried a startled Mike. “That gun is real? …You were going to shoot me?”

“I was showing you that I would shoot you. A zombie wouldn’t have cared.”

A groan and a thud came from the back door. I glared at Mike. “Really, you had your grad students dress up too?”

He shrugged. “Nah, they thought it was dumb.”

My breath caught in my throat. Still gripping the shotgun tightly, I quickly made my way to the back door. I peered through the freshly made shotgun hole.

I was pretty sure undergrads don’t typically look that decayed.

With a gulp, I flipped the lock and dragged a desk in front of the door. I cursed myself for putting a not-insignificant hole in our last defense against the undead.

“What, are we not letting any more people in?” Greta asked.

I stared at her blankly. They all had no idea what was going on. No one did. I was the only person here with any grasp of reality, and I had no clue how to reload a shotgun. “At capacity. Why don’t you start the talk and keep everyone entertained?”

“Sure thing!” she said excitedly, and made her way to the lectern.

“Sorry if I don’t pay close attention.” I perched on a desk and pointed my shotgun at the hole. A rotting finger slithered through from the outside. “I’ve heard this talk before.”

The sacrificial atheist?

Spoiler warning: This post contains discussion about the season finale of True Blood and the movie The Ledge.
Atheists are popping up more and more in the television and movies. And like any minority group engaging in a civil rights movement – which, admit it or not, is what we’re doing – portrayals of atheists are becoming less and less stereotypical. We’re no longer nothing more than communist villains.

There are certainly stereotypical tropes about us being overly rational, cynical, heartless, selfish hedonists. Dexter, anyone? As much as I love House, he’s not exactly the poster child of atheism. But even within that show, you see another atheist (Cameron) who is un-House-like in every way. And the number of human-like atheist characters is rising – Ellie in Contact, Kurt in Glee, Malcolm in Firefly, Bones.

But I’ve been noticing something recently. I hesitate to call it a trend, since I only have two data points so far. But this came up during a panel discussion I was on at the Midwest Humanist and Freethought Conference after we had watched The Ledge. The Ledge is a thriller revolving around the romance between an atheist, Gavin, and a woman, Shana, who is married to an emotional abusive religious zealot, Joe.

I really enjoyed the movie and highly recommend it. So if you haven’t seen it, read forward at your own risk – because I’m about to give away the ending.

Joe eventually discovers the affair and puts Gavin in a situation were either he can die, or Shana dies. And surprisingly, the film doesn’t have a predictable happy ending. The police don’t find Shana at just the right time. Gavin doesn’t have some quirky trick that makes it looks like he jumped from a 30 story building. Nope, he sacrifices himself for this woman.

And during this Sunday’s season finale of True Blood, we see the same sacrificial atheist. Tara, who apparently everyone hates except me, is asked by her best friend Sookie if she thinks Gran is in heaven. Tara replies that she’s always considered herself an atheist, but if there is a heaven, Gran would be president of it. Sookie then says that she wants to grow old together with her best friend, which let me know that Tara was almost certainly dying by the end of the episode.

And would you know it, in the last minute of the show, Tara jumps in front of Sookie to save her from a point blank range shotgun blast from a crazed werewolf lady. (You know, I never realized how dumb this show sounds until I have to type out what happened). People are discussing how she’s probably going to be saved in the first 30 seconds of the new season, or turned into a vampire, or be a ghost for Lafayette to channel, or whatever…but you can’t deny she sacrificed herself for her friend when half of her head was blown clean off.

When we were discussing the Ledge, we couldn’t agree if portrayals like this were heroic or tragic. Is this showing atheists in a good light – that even though we don’t believe in heavenly rewards or the afterlife, we’re willing to give up the thing most dear to us for people we love? Or is it showing atheists as these tragic individuals who never have a happy ending?

I lean toward the former. As much as I don’t want all of my atheist characters meeting untimely fates, I think it means something to give up your life when you’re certain no afterlife is soon to follow. It shows that we do care about other people and have greater value and purpose in our lives, even if it’s not handed down from a supernatural being. And I think it’s the first step to portraying atheists as real people – and soon enough we won’t have to keep dying to prove that point.

But again, not everyone agreed. What do you think? Do you know of any other atheist characters that fit or fight this trend?

Skepticism in supernatural universes

Spoiler Alert: This post talks about last night’s episode of True Blood. Read at your own risk if you haven’t watched it yet.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m a bit of a True Blood fanatic. It’s a guilty pleasure. I love the campiness, the puns, the one liners, the cliff hangers, and all of gratuitous sex and beautiful people (Mmmm Eric, Alcide, and Jessica). All of this entertainment is enough to outweigh the sometimes frustratingly bad plot, Sookie’s dues ex machina lightning fingers, and, well, Sookie herself.

But sometimes I overanalyze things, because that’s what I do. Like when, in the last season, the hospital claimed Sookie didn’t have a blood type. …You can’t not have a blood type! Blood type is determined by antigens on the surface of red blood cells. If you lacked all antigens, you’d just be type O and negative for every other type, like Rh factor. Extremely rare, but not “no blood type.” Hell, even if Sookie didn’t have any red blood cells, she’d still come up negative on all of the tests.

The thing that stuck out for me during last night’s episode was something that I think of more and more when I watch the show. Andy Bellefleur, the town’s sheriff, was walking through the woods alone at night. He had been dumped there by his cousin and told to walk home alone because he was sobering up from V – vampire blood – which is a powerful drug in the series. In a poof of light, a beautiful fairy pops in front of him and seduces him in return for him pledging to protect her. And they do it right there in the woods. …Which thankfully we don’t see, because it’s Andy.

Me: Come on, would you have sex with some random hot person who just popped up in front of you in the woods?!
Male Friend #1:
Male Friend #2: …Probably
Me: This is so goddamn stereotypical.

That wasn’t really my issue, though. When Andy finally gets home, his cousin’s wife Arlene asks what took him so long. He recounts the story of how a beautiful woman appeared out of a ball of light and they had sex. Arlene thinks he must be hallucinating because he’s coming down from V.

This is the same Arlene who just saw a spirit exorcised from her possessed friend who stole her baby. The same Arlene who was possessed by a maenad into having crazy orgies. The same Arlene who went to a witch to abort her potentially evil baby. The same Arlene who knowingly serves vampires synthetic blood in the bar she works at. The same Arlene who knows her coworker Sookie can read minds.

How can you live in a universe where it’s common knowledge that vampires, werewolves, werepanthers, shape shifters, ghosts, telepaths, and witches exist, but a beautiful woman appearing out of a ball of light is obviously a hallucination? If someone recounted that story to me in that universe, my reaction would be “Holy shit! You obviously just banged some new supernatural being we personally don’t have any knowledge about, since we keep discovering new supernatural beings all the time! Let’s do some investigation on what it could possibly be!”

Because really, skepticism is based on the scientific method, rationality, and logic. If we lived in a universe where we know magic is real and that numerous types of supernatural beings roam the world…well, it wouldn’t be “super”natural anymore. It would be natural, and we’d need to figure out where we went wrong with the laws of physics. I’d love to research the biology behind vampires never dying by feeding on other’s blood!

But if we lived in such a universe, where would we draw the line? Was Arlene right to still be skeptical about the fairy, even though we, the viewers, know what it is? If we lived in a universe where physics and biology didn’t work as we expected, how would we establish between “real” supernatural things and “fake” ones? For example, many characters on the show are very skeptical about religion or God – but what makes angels and deities unbelievable when you have vampires and shifters running around?

…I guess you have physical evidence of the vampires and shifters.

Anyway, what do you think? Is Arlene being a good skeptic, or is she being a little dimwitted? If you lived in a supernatural universe, how would you react to a situation that described a new supernatural creature or event that you personally aren’t familiar with?

Jen reads her hate mail – Three Ninjas Remix

This is my new favorite song.
&amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;a href=”http://threeninjas.net/track/airbrush-your-balls-featuring-jen-mccreight”&amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;Airbrush Your Balls (featuring Jen McCreight) by Three Ninjas&amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/a&amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;

Thanks Jason. I mean, Three Ninjas.

This is post 39 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Skepticism & fiction

A reader asks,

How can you be ok with all the shiny-afterlife-awaits-you and stuff in Harry Potter?

…Because it’s fiction? Seriously, it’s a fantasy novel that’s full of magic, dragons, unicorns, giants, goblins, ghosts, elves, pixies, potions, charms, hexes, teleportation, and soul splitting… and you’re worried about the concept of the afterlife? You could suspend disbelief for all of that, but not one vaguely religious concept?

Dude. Come on.

Sorry, but it’s a pet peeve of mine when skeptics are so skeptical that they can’t even enjoy fiction. Okay, maybe you just don’t like fiction. But how do you not understand that lots and lots of people do enjoy fiction without eliminating their skepticism? We can watch a movie while still knowing it’s just actors and special effects. Humans love telling and hearing stories – that doesn’t mean we have to literally believe everything within them.

And I wouldn’t talk about this if it was a one off question. I hear this view quite frequently. Heck, at TAM8 Richard Dawkins spent a good portion of his interview talking about how he didn’t like fiction because he thought reading fantasy novels as a child contributed to irrational thinking.

Bah humbug. In my case, it was the complete opposite. I knew that The Witches, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or Harry Potter, or Greek mythology were all just stories. That’s exactly why when I heard about the Bible, I immediately recognized it as just another story. Fiction doesn’t erode at skepticism – it can enforce it!

So, boo hiss. Let me enjoy Harry Potter in peace without overanalyzing the religious aspects. I don’t give a damn if they celebrate Christmas when people are able to magically turn into cats.

This is post 25 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Amy Winehouse found dead in London home

Breaking news from the Washington Post:

Winehouse shot to fame with the album “Back to Black,” whose blend of jazz, soul, rock and classic pop was a global hit. It won five Grammys and made Winehouse — with her black beehive hairdo and old-fashioned sailor tattoos — one of music’s most recognizable stars.
Police confirmed that a 27-year-old female was pronounced dead at the home in Camden Square northern London; the cause of death was not immediately known. London Ambulance Services said Winehouse had died before the two ambulance crews it sent arrived at the scene.

Only 27, sheesh. The saddest part is my reaction was “Wait, I thought she had already ODed? She was alive?”

…Don’t do drugs*, folks >_>

*At least not the ones that are highly addictive and will mess you up. Moderation is a good thing.


This is post 8 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.