On being offended

I often comment that religious people don’t have the right to never be offended when someone questions their beliefs. Their ideas – theistic, supernatural, cultural, or otherwise – are still ideas. This is because I strongly support the concept of a marketplace of ideas – that “the truth or the best policy arises out of the competition of widely various ideas in free, transparent public discourse.” A religious idea must defend it’s worth just as a political idea would, and offense is sometimes an unavoidable side effect of this discussion.
After the many, many feminism or diversity related internet kerfuffles, I usually get at least a couple comments along the lines of “Why is it okay to offend religious people but not women/blacks/homosexuals?! Hypocrite!”

Let me try my best to explain.

Like I said, religion is an idea. Gender, race, and sexual orientation are not. They are (for the most part) immutable biological traits that a person has very little choice in. There are certainly bad ideas out there, whether they’re wrong for factual, logical or ethical reasons. I have no obligation to completely avoid offending you when all I’m saying is “I disagree.” But there is no inherent “wrongness” or inferiority in being a woman, or a racial minority, or gay. To suggest such a thing while lacking any logic or rationale is exactly what causes sexism, racism, and homophobia.

It’s one thing to demand intellectual honesty of intangible ideas. Blasphemy is a victimless crime, after all. Offense aimed at intrinsic human properties is hardly victimless.

Temporarily ignoring concepts of privilege or -isms, a lot of these kerfuffles boil down to people lacking common human decency. While I don’t think religious people have the right to avoid all offense, I do think we should try to minimize the amount of offense we cause. Now, that’s not the same as saying “Don’t be a dick” ala Phil Plait. I think dickishness definitely has it’s place and can be an effective way of getting a message across in certain situations. But we have to ask ourselves “Can I accomplish the same goal while being a little less of an asshole?”

If accomplishing your goal requires offense, unapologetically go right ahead. Otherwise unpopular ideas would be silenced into oblivion. Because really, you’re always going to offend someone. Atheists can’t even say we exist or that we’re good people without pissing people off!

But when you’re needlessly enraging people with no goal in mind, that’s not equivalent to being edgy or snarky or a firebrand. That’s being a fucking asshole. Or if you’re doing it because it gets your rocks off – a troll. And if someone points out you hurt them, it’s a little troglodytish to insist that you didn’t or that you don’t care. I think a lot of this can be explained by the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, but it’s still disappointing.

I could go on about this all day – but I’ve given a whole talk on the topic, so watch it if you want more details and examples about minimizing offense.

Practically speaking as someone within the atheist community, it’s even more important that we try to tone down offense when it comes to minority groups. Diversity matters. It’s not just unrealistic to tell minority groups to suck it up and be stronger – it lacks compassion. We’re not saying they’re inferior or need coddling, but that if you put up with this shit constantly, why would you voluntarily join a group that adds to your frustrations? It’s precisely the reason why one of my rules of comment moderation is that I’ll ban people who use hateful speech. I could tell other commentors to suck it up, or I could make a safe environment where people feel comfortable contributing.

Even if I think you should do it out of the goodness of your heart, Greta Christina often suggests a purely Machiavellian reason for such a tactic. That making more people feel welcome in this movement will only help us grow even larger and more powerful. So if we want to succeed in our goals of promoting rationalism and humanism, we first need to make sure we can get as many allies as possible.

We simply can’t afford to make the same mistakes of every other progressive movement before us.

Exposed scientific dishonesty illustrates why science is so great

That title may sound counter intuitive, but give me a chance to explain.

You may have heard about the bit of academic scandal that’s been happening at Harvard recently. Marc Hauser is a Professor in the Departments of Psychology, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology. He was the leading researcher on the evolution of morality and moral behavior in primates and humans and an author of a number of books, including Moral Minds and (in progress) Evilicious: Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad.

In a somewhat amusingly ironic twist, he was found guilty of scientific misconduct, including fabrication of data that will result in several papers being retracted.

This is a very serious situation, especially since Marc Hauser was such a big name in his field. His career is effectively over, and now reseachers in the field have to rethink everything they’ve learned from him (and cited from him). It’s even more serious for his students, whose futures are uncertain when their graduate advisor has such a black mark on his record. It’s upsetting to the field of science as a whole, which does rely on a certain level of trust for practical reasons. We peer review to the best of our abilities, but you still have to hope everyone else is being honest like you since it can take time to expose problems.

It’s also a little jarring to me personally. Not only will I have to reexamine what I read in one of his books that I greatly enjoyed, but I almost went to graduate school in one of the departments he teaches in. Academic scandals aren’t the best way to start your graduate career.

But we have to remember this is what makes science so great. Science is not dogmatic. It’s based on peer review and constant criticism. Scientists are still human and make errors, sometimes purposefully and sometimes not, so it’s important to have these checks in place. Hauser was a giant in his field, but even he was not immune to scrutiny. It was his own graduate students who brought these problems to our attention at great personal risk.

Some people are using this as a chance to pooh-pooh the whole field of evolutionary psychology. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time for creationists like Ken Ham to squeal with glee and twist the facts for their own “Never trust science!!!” agenda. But I really don’t think this is quite so tragic. Isn’t it good to know that we still expose bad science, even when we may have political reasons to not? Would we rather have evolutionary psychology trucking on without criticism, or get the fraudulent data out in the open? I’d be more concerned with the field if it was just being swept under the table. While it’s sad such dishonesty occured, I’m happy to know that we can still sniff it out, correct it, and punish those who perpetuate it.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic (I know, unusual for me). But I think it’s good to use this as an example of why science is the best way of exploring the world around us: Because when our findings are wrong, we’ll admit it.

Vatican dress code swiftly owned by wise old woman

The Vatican has been cracking down on violators of their dress code. Members of the Swiss Guard have been drawing aside men in shorts and women without sleeves across the entire Vatican City State, not just St. Peter’s Basilica like usual. This would be boring news if it weren’t for the awesome quote at the end:

“Given all the scandals the Church has been involved in, what possible right can it have to be preaching about the morality of sleeveless dresses?” said one woman in her seventies.

Oooooohhhhhhhhh snap!

Just for shits and giggles, here’s a photo of my mom and me in St. Peter’s Square when we visited Italy 10 years ago. I would have been 12 in this photo:
Wait…NO SLEEVES?! I didn’t realize my mother was such an infidel! How did we enter the basilica without bursting into flames?!

This is post 43 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

On "fixing the gays" and science used for evil

This is old news by now – it broke while I was out of town at a conference – but enough people have emailed me asking for my opinion that I still wanted to comment. tld;dr: A researcher is giving pregnant women experimental hormones to prevent lesbianism and “abnormal” female behaviors such as aggressiveness, a disinterest in girls toys or becoming mothers, or wanting masculine jobs. Here’s the full story for those of you who haven’t heard of this yet; the rest of you can feel free to scroll past this quote to read my comments:

The majority of researchers and clinicians interested in the use of prenatal “dex” focus on preventing development of ambiguous genitalia in girls with CAH. CAH results in an excess of androgens prenatally, and this can lead to a “masculinizing” of a female fetus’s genitals. One group of researchers, however, seems to be suggesting that prenatal dex also might prevent affected girls from turning out to be homosexual or bisexual.

Pediatric endocrinologist Maria New, of Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Florida International University, and her long-time collaborator, psychologist Heino F. L. Meyer-Bahlburg, of Columbia University, have been tracing evidence for the influence of prenatal androgens in sexual orientation…. They specifically point to reasons to believe that it is prenatal androgens that have an impact on the development of sexual orientation. The authors write, “Most women were heterosexual, but the rates of bisexual and homosexual orientation were increased above controls . . . and correlated with the degree of prenatal androgenization.” They go on to suggest that the work might offer some insight into the influence of prenatal hormones on the development of sexual orientation in general. “That this may apply also to sexual orientation in at least a subgroup of women is suggested by the fact that earlier research has repeatedly shown that about one-third of homosexual women have (modestly) increased levels of androgens.” They “conclude that the findings support a sexual-differentiation perspective involving prenatal androgens on the development of sexual orientation.”

And it isn’t just that many women with CAH have a lower interest, compared to other women, in having sex with men. In another paper entitled “What Causes Low Rates of Child-Bearing in Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia?” Meyer-Bahlburg writes that “CAH women as a group have a lower interest than controls in getting married and performing the traditional child-care/housewife role. As children, they show an unusually low interest in engaging in maternal play with baby dolls, and their interest in caring for infants, the frequency of daydreams or fantasies of pregnancy and motherhood, or the expressed wish of experiencing pregnancy and having children of their own appear to be relatively low in all age groups.

In the same article, Meyer-Bahlburg suggests that treatments with prenatal dexamethasone might cause these girls’ behavior to be closer to the expectation of heterosexual norms: “Long term follow-up studies of the behavioral outcome will show whether dexamethasone treatment also prevents the effects of prenatal androgens on brain and behavior.

In a paper published just this year in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, New and her colleague, pediatric endocrinologist Saroj Nimkarn of Weill Cornell Medical College, go further, constructing low interest in babies and men—and even interest in what they consider to be men’s occupations and games—as “abnormal,” and potentially preventable with prenatal dex:

Gender-related behaviors, namely childhood play, peer association, career and leisure time preferences in adolescence and adulthood, maternalism, aggression, and sexual orientation become masculinized in 46,XX girls and women with 21OHD deficiency [CAH]. These abnormalities have been attributed to the effects of excessive prenatal androgen levels on the sexual differentiation of the brain and later on behavior.” Nimkarn and New continue: “We anticipate that prenatal dexamethasone therapy will reduce the well-documented behavioral masculinization…”

It seems more than a little ironic to have New, one of the first women pediatric endocrinologists and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, constructing women who go into “men’s” fields as “abnormal.” And yet it appears that New is suggesting that the “prevention” of “behavioral masculinization” is a benefit of treatment to parents with whom she speaks about prenatal dex. In a 2001 presentation to the CARES Foundation (a videotape of which we have), New seemed to suggest to parents that one of the goals of treatment of girls with CAH is to turn them into wives and mothers. Showing a slide of the ambiguous genitals of a girl with CAH, New told the assembled parents:

“The challenge here is… to see what could be done to restore this baby to the normal female appearance which would be compatible with her parents presenting her as a girl, with her eventually becoming somebody’s wife, and having normal sexual development, and becoming a mother. And she has all the machinery for motherhood, and therefore nothing should stop that, if we can repair her surgically and help her psychologically to continue to grow and develop as a girl.”

In the Q&A period, during a discussion of prenatal dex treatments, an audience member asked New, “Isn’t there a benefit to the female babies in terms of reducing the androgen effects on the brain?” New answered, “You know, when the babies who have been treated with dex prenatally get to an age in which they are sexually active, I’ll be able to answer that question.” At that point, she’ll know if they are interested in taking men and making babies.

In a previous Bioethics Forum post, Alice Dreger noted an instance of a prospective father using knowledge of the fraternal birth order effect to try to avoid having a gay son by a surrogate pregnancy. There may be other individualized instances of parents trying to ensure heterosexual children before birth. But the use of prenatal dexamethasone treatments for CAH represents, to our knowledge, the first systematic medical effort attached to a “paradigm” of attempting in utero to reduce rates of homosexuality, bisexuality, and “low maternal interest.”

Women like me are doomed if this process A) works and B) becomes widespread. It’s hard not to take it personally when I have every attribute they say is “abnormal” for a female:

  • Masculine career choice: Check. Science has been and is a male dominated field. I guess these drugs are to keep it that way.
  • Aggressiveness: Check. You don’t need to know me that well to figure that out.
  • Bisexuality: Sort of check. Let’s just say while I’m significantly more attracted to men, I’m still probably not straight enough for the people doing this research.
  • Abnormal peer association: Check. As a kid I had almost exclusively male friends. I did not relate to girls at all, and of the female friends I have now, most have the attributes of this list.
  • Low interest in playing with dolls: Check. I hated girly toys as a kid. Screw Barbie, give me some Legoes!
  • Low interest in caring for infants: Check. As cute as my nephews are, when they wer
    e babies I feared breakin
    g them and had no interest in feeding them or changing their poopy diapers.
  • Less frequent daydreams about pregnancy & marriage: Check. I’m supposed to daydream about these things? If anything I have nightmares about getting pregnant.
  • Less interest in having children: Check. I want a kid, but not desperately or any time soon. Maybe in my thirties, or maybe not.
  • Less interest in traditional housewife role: Check. Uh, fuck no.

It’s one thing to have society pressuring you into heteronormative roles…but now people want to alter our biology to ensure it? What is this, Brave New World? If anything we need more aggressive women who are willing to speak up instead of feeling condemned to a life as a baby making machine. If you want to have children or be a housewife, that’s fine – but it should be your choice, not forced upon you by society or hormones you did not consent to.

Knowing the views of my typical blog reader, I’m going to assume we can all agree that wanting a masculine job or not wanting kids aren’t life threatening traits that need to be corrected. I’m also going to hope that we can agree that bisexuality and lesbianism don’t need to be fixed either, as they are not a disease or harmful to anyone.

But why are we trying to fix CAH? When PZ covered this topic, he mentioned that CAH is “a real and serious disease.” The only major symptoms other than behavioral and physical masculinization are vomiting and hypertension, both which are regularly treated with supplements. Researchers and doctors are going out of their way to fix behaviors through hormones and restructure genitalia through surgery simply to make them fit into society’s stereotypical gender roles.

If anything, conditions like CAH show that nature does not always create perfectly binary males and females. Why are we altering and mutilating baby girls without their consent to make them conform to our ideal of the female figure? It’s not limited to this study – not long ago we also heard about people at Cornell who were surgically decreasing the size of young girls’ clitorises to make them more “natural.” Nothing is biologically or functionally wrong with their genitals – we decided to label them as “wrong” because of our own cultural biases.

Now, I don’t blame science for this. As a scientist, I do find it interesting that an excess of prenatal androgens can apparently alter life long behaviors. But I do have a problem when people abuse scientific findings to fit their own political or ideological agenda. Just because science finds out we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. But humans are humans, and it seems like these abuses are somewhat inevitable.

That honestly worries me. For example, I’ve always been interested if there’s some genetic component to homosexuality, since we have overwhelming evidence that it’s biological in some way. Are there certain genes? Certain epigenetic differences? Copy number variation? Or is it all hormonal, like this study may suggest? I’m interested out of pure scientific curiosity. It’s an interesting human behavior to me, and I want to learn more about it.

But what if I did find something? As a huge gay rights activist, it would absolutely kill me to see my research findings abused in any way. I don’t want to see companies producing genetic tests for certain “gay gene”s so people can selectively abort gays. I don’t want it used to out people. I don’t want little kids screened so they can have their behaviors forcibly altered early on. There are so many horrible things that could come out of it. I personally don’t think the cause(s) of homosexuality change how we should treat it (with acceptance), but not everyone thinks like I do.

So do we avoid this research altogether? I’d argue no. We can figure out the genes that contribute to skin color without it automatically leading to more racism. We can engineer bacteria to synthesize useful materials without it automatically leading to biological weapons. What we do need to do is make sure ethics and laws keep up with the advancement of science so findings can’t be abused. But even ethics boards are made up of humans, and humans have their biases. Too many people would find nothing wrong with the studies in this post, including some people on review boards. We need to hold these people to higher standards.

It’s bad enough that these studies are harming children with no real idea of what effects it’ll have on them when they’re adults. But it’s also a shame that these studies give science a bad name – the image of a manipulative, powerful overlord found too often in SciFi novels. We must remember that science itself is neither good nor evil; the blame lies with people who abuse it.

Is pedophilia a sexuality?

“Do you think pedophilia is a sexuality that you dont have a choice about? (similar to not having a choice about homosexuality)”

I’m going to give a very tentative and qualified “maybe” because I don’t know enough about pedophilia (and since I’m pre-writing this while packing for my Florida vacation, I don’t have time to look up more information). I really have no idea if pedophilia is something you have a choice about.

If I’m just totally speculating here (can I add anymore qualifiers?), I can see it being somewhat biological. For one thing, I don’t think anyone would “choose” to have what’s widely considered one of the most, if not the most deviant behavior. And because it’s so frowned upon (understatement of the century), I don’t know how easy it could be to learn the behavior. Maybe it is learned, but you can’t help it once you’ve learned it. Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance. Who knows – I certainly don’t.

Certain types may even be instinctual. Young, healthy females are still physically attractive to men. Some girls can biologically mature at 12, 11, or 10 years of age. From an evolutionary perspective, they are “adults” and potential mates. In past cultures (and unfortunately some current ones), this was recognized by females getting married at these young ages.

However, biology does not dictate morality. Even if you could come up with a scientific explanation for why someone would like a 10 year old, or hell, why someone would like a toddler or infant, that does not make it ethically acceptable. It doesn’t matter if it evolved or if there’s a gene or if there’s some sort of chemical imbalance. Pedophilia is still morally wrong because the younger party is not emotionally developed enough to consent.

That’s why I’m always so annoyed when someone equates homosexuality with pedophilia (not saying the question-asker was, just saying). Homosexuality is between two consenting partners, while pedophilia is not. Even if they had similar biological causes, that doesn’t mean they should be treated the same ethically.

I freely admit I know little about the previous research done on pedophilia. If someone would like to enlighten us in the comments, feel free to do so.

Making a biological child for gay couples

“Is there a way to have two people of the same sex have a kid who is biologically related to both? (Either gay or lesbian couples)”

Short answer: Yes! But it’s complicated.

Long-ish answer: Creating a child from same-sex parents isn’t as easy as just combining the DNA from two eggs or two sperm. The main problem is genetic imprinting, where gene expression is modified epigenetically. That just means the actual sequence isn’t changed, but something else is edited, like adding methyl groups or modifying histones (the proteins that help wind up DNA).

And depending on if you’re a mother or a father, you genetically imprint your gametes differently. And since you generally need one functioning copy of these select genes, it doesn’t help to have two female or two male versions where they’re both turned on or off (too much or too little can both be harmful).

While that seems impossible to overcome, science is pretty impressive. Researchers have already overcome this in mice, where two egg cells were used to produce fatherless mice. So yes, it has been done in another animal!

However, who knows when or if we’ll ever see it in humans. There are always ethical concerns when you’re dealing with human subjects, and it’s hard to predict if offspring would be completely healthy using this method. I think you’d have a hard time getting this past a review board since it’s not a necessary medical procedure – same-sex couples don’t need biologically related children, even if it would be nice. But, you never know.

Why I would be executed in Iran

If I lived in Iran, I would be executed pretty quickly. Some of the things I’ve done that are death-worthy (especially the first one):

  • Enmity against God, corruption on earth, apostasy, heresy and blasphemy
  • A third conviction of drinking alcohol
  • Homosexuality
  • Distribution of obscene/pornographic audio-visual materials

You can also be executed for:

  • Adultery
  • Public order crimes (stop those protests!)
  • Drug possession

Why do I bring this up? Iran Solidarity, headed by the wonderful atheist activist Maryam Namazie, is protesting the execution of political prisoners in Iran.

We have all been in love, spoken our minds, joined protests, political groups and campaigns, poked fun at that which is taboo and taken a stand for what we believe in.

The only difference is – depending on where we were born – some of us don’t live to talk about it.

As you may have already heard, on 9 May 2010 four young men and one woman were executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran after being falsely accused, tortured, and charged with ‘enmity against God’ in sham trials. The executions were carried out in secret and without the knowledge of their families or lawyers. Farzad Kamangar (35 year old teacher and trade unionist), Ali Heydarian, Farhad Vakili, Shirin AlamHouli (28 years old) and Mehdi Eslamian never even got to call their families to say goodbye.

Tragically, these executions are not new. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the execution capitals of the world and is the only state that continues to execute minors.

From 13 May onwards join me in protest against the 9 May execution of the five political prisoners in any way you can. Protests have already been taking place in Iran and at Iranian embassies in various cities worldwide, including a successful general strike in Iranian Kurdistan on 13 May. You can join rallies taking place in your city; pass this information on; ask your friends to support the action; write letters of protest; write to the media; raise the issue at events you organise or attend and at your places of work, school and in your neighbourhoods; do acts of solidarity anywhere you can; volunteer; lend your expertise to make publicity materials, translate, fundraise… Demand the expulsion of the regime from its seat in the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, from the International Labour Organisation and other bodies. Demand that its embassies and consulates be shut down. And call for an end to the death penalty in Iran and everywhere.

Boobquake was a lighthearted event, but there is serious turmoil going on in Iran. You can support the cause and find more information by joining the Facebook page here.

Raised without sexual guilt?

Hey everyone. I’m joining the bandwagon, as it’s a good source for blog fodder. Basically you can go here to ask me anonymous (or not anonymous) questions on anything you’d like. I won’t promise to answer everything, but I’ll try. Ones that I really like will become an official blog post, like the one below.

I grew up fundamentalist. I’m also naturally pervy. I lived with a lot of guilt and shame, especially regarding masturbation. What’s it like not to have to live with that? Did you have any guilt at all about your normal sexual leanings?

While I grew up in a fairly secular environment, I wouldn’t say my upbringing was completely guilt-free. My parents actually never had “The Talk” with me, and sexuality was just a very awkward subject. Most “sexual morals” that I learned from them came in the form of rants about other people. My dad was a special education teacher at a city school, and stories about students who ruined their life by getting pregnant were all too common. I remember sitting at the dinner table while he told us how one of his freshman girls was pregnant with her second child, and how she could never come to school because she was so busy taking care of the first. It was never explicitly said, but the message was “Don’t fuck up your life by getting pregnant.”

And to be honest, that’s still a mantra I hold today. I never really felt guilty about sexual things I did, even when I was fooling around back in high school. I never went all the way – but not because I wanted to wait until marriage, or so that I could claim to be a “technical virgin” – I just logically knew I wasn’t ready to deal with the consequences. So I just stuck to watching the videos on websites like and masturbating. This was a good way for me to acclimatise to my body and find out what exactly I liked and didn’t like. So many people lose their virginity when they don’t know this about themselves yet. And of course, nothing was stopping me from buying myself some dildos to do the job. The way I saw it, once I was 18 and away at college, I’d be able to buy birth control. And if that failed, I’d be able to get an abortion without requiring parental permission or something. Really, I just put off sex until I knew it could be my little secret.

I used to think you should only have sex with people you really love, but now I realized that’s just what society was telling me I should think. I’m personally not into random hookups with strangers, but I have no problem with casual sex or friends with benefits. As long as everyone involved is on the same page and no one gets hurt, I see no problem with it.

I kind of feel bad for people who were raised in anti-sex environments. Trained guilt is insanely hard to get rid of. I really can’t fathom how people feel guilty about masturbation, or sex before marriage, or multiple partners, or same sex fantasies, even when they can rationally tell themselves it’s okay. Being sexual is a part of being human, and there’s nothing wrong with it, at all. People should be able to have the sexual experiences they desire without having to feel guilty about it. Now, I’ve even seen a lot of shame around going to strip clubs or searching for ‘strippers near me‘, but just know that it’s not bad to indulge in such things occasionally. You can just let go of your inhibitions and have fun for a night, you know. Everyone has urges, and as long as boundaries aren’t crossed, exploring your sexuality and desires should be okay and not something to feel guilty about! It really just sort of sucks. Of course, when things like this get out of hand, such as when you need to learn how to stop masturbation addiction, it is a different matter, but if you are not overdoing it, why constantly feel guilty about something you enjoy? Sometimes I’ll feel a momentary twinge of guilt knowing the majority of society thinks I’m some naughty slut – but you know what? I enjoy getting some, and they can all fuck off.

And that’s really how I deal with any guilt. If I’m not hurting myself or anyone else, then my sexual acts and fantasies are none of your goddamned business. Well, I’ll talk about it if you’re actually pro-sex – but if your goal is to judge me and make me feel bad about myself, then you’re wasting your time.

Abortion & the value of human life

Abortion has been on my mind a lot recently. Not for personal reasons. We’ve been discussing it in my biomedical ethics class, though I’ve unfortunately missed a lot of the discussion because of my grad school visits. On top of that, Angie the Anti-Theist, a blogger I follow, has been generating a media storm because of her decision to live-tweet her abortion. I fully support what she is doing – it’s sad that talking about a legal medical procedure results in shock, hate mail, and death threats.

It probably does not surprise most of you that I am extremely pro-choice. The odd thing, though, is I don’t talk about it a lot. I’m always wary of getting into abortion debates, because I feel like it’s one of those topics that’s a lose-lose situation. No one is going to change their minds, and I’ll just get cranky at the particularly stupid comments. But I also know how important it is to speak up about how I feel:

Even if you could convince me that biological human life begins at conception, I would still be pro-choice.

Emotional arguments about beating hearts and fingers and brainwaves don’t affect me at all. Abortion is unfortunate, but when it is the lesser of two evils, it should be an option. The whole “when does life begin” debate is totally irrelevant to me. And why do I say that?

Because I don’t think we can honestly say all human life is of equal value.

I’d love to be a perfect liberal and say that all human life has infinite value and can never be compared or weighed, but I’d be lying to myself. I’d wager that none of us treat all human beings as having equal value when it really comes down to it. For example, think of this thought experiment:

You have the choice of killing one person or killing five people. They are equivalent in every way (job, age, personality, number of family of friends, etc). Do you kill one person or five? Most of us would say to kill the one. While killing anyone is unfortunate, in this case it is best to minimize the amount of total harm done.

But let’s change it up a bit. What if the one person was a loved one – one of your parents, one of your siblings, your spouse, or your best friend. Would you still kill that one person to save the other five? Most people would not. This illustrates that there is something more to our decision making process than all humans having equal value.

Maybe that’s a bit subjective because of our biology – through evolution we’ve slowly adapted to favor kin over non-kin. And since I don’t believe we should simply be the product of our biology, let’s use a more telling thought experiment: how we treat age. If there was a burning building and you could only save one person, do you save the 25 year old or the 80 year old? Most people say they would save the 25 year old, with their reasoning being that the 80 year old has had time to live a long, fulfilling life.

Replace that with an fetus and a 25 year old.

If we’re using a simple metric of “total years lived,” you could argue the fetus would win – the 25 year old already has lived 25 years, after all. But is number of years lived the only thing we use to assign value to human life? Again, I’d argue no. If there was a burning building and you have to save one of two people of equal age, who would you save: An elementary school teacher or a brain-dead person? A charity worker or a sex offender? A cancer researcher or a grocery bagger? The President or a unemployed alcoholic?

We feel bad about making judgement calls about people’s worth, but it’s something we do. That grocery bagger could be a great human being – but all things being equal, we see the cancer researcher as contributing more to society. Likewise, there are other negative traits we see as detracting. These traits all have fairly subjective value – what’s worse, a sex-offender or an unemployed alcoholic? – but most of us still make these judgements. I’m not at all advocating eugenics or the widespread purging of unemployed alcoholics – I’m just trying to make a point that unless your answer to those questions is “I’d flip a coin,” then you don’t view all human life as having equal value.

So back to abortion.

To me, a fetus is on the bottom of the totem pole. A fetus does not feel emotional pain, does not have conscious thoughts, and does not have dreams to be a big shot football player some day. It does not have friends or families that it has made intimate connections with. It does not have career or life goals. It does not fear death because it does not have the mental capacity to understand what death is. It does not have a fated trajectory in life (you can’t argue that this was the person who would go on to cure cancer). And in the case of a woman seeking abortion, it will not be missed by loved ones because it is not even wanted to begin with.

And to me, these are the things that make us human and give us worth. Not heartbeats or brainwaves or unique genetic composition. If a woman decides that continuing a pregnancy will severely detrimentally affect her life, she has every right to have an abortion. She has all of these attributes, and her quality of life far outweighs the existence of insentient cells.

Yes, quality of life, not just her life itself. To me, the value of an unwanted fetus is low enough to not outweigh quality decisions. An unwanted pregnancy going to make you have to drop out of school? Quit your job? Be depressed and stressed? Feel free to choose an abortion.

Obviously not everyone is going to agree with me. There are women out there who can see four cell zygotes as God-sent little babies. And to those women I say: Great! That’s why I’m pro-choice. If you don’t see unwanted fetuses as parasitic clumps of cells, then don’t get an abortion. But this is one of the few areas that I will concede that philosophy does trump biology – that DNA and physiology alone cannot answer this ethical issue.

Note: There are many points about abortion that I have not addressed in this post, and they will likely come up in the comments. I will probably cover them in the future.

Morality: Philosophy vs Biology

This semester I’m taking an introductory course through the Philosophy department called Biomedical ethics. After four classes, I’m convinced I’m insane for taking this class “for fun.” So far we’ve just been learning about ethics in general, and my brain is already melting. Somehow my mind manages to agree and disagree with about every topic we’re presented, no matter how contradictory they are. I admit I’m totally unfamiliar with philosophy, but right now it just seems like a whole lot of bullshit that grad students pull out of their ass while at the pub.

I’m fine on understanding sound and valid arguments – those are based on logic, which I understand – but my mind explodes when we start talking about various moral theories. I think my problem is that I view things as a scientist and a biologist, and I have a really hard time getting into the mindset of a philosopher.

For example, our professor has spent the last two classes talking about how moral subjectivism (moral statements are true and false, but their truth is determined by the attitudes and beliefs of society and culture) and emotivism (moral statements are neither true nor false) are piles of crap. I don’t know if this is the common opinion of the philosophical community, but it doesn’t sit well with me.

As an atheist, I don’t think moral codes were carved into stone or written in a book. Rather, evolutionary biology and instincts explain most of our moral behavior (I recommend Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds). We automatically and rapidly come up with moral decisions based on instincts and emotions, and then after the fact we come up with reasoning to support our opinion. So are we really all just emotivists, but trick ourselves into thinking we’re being rational?

I also don’t understand how you can prove something to be morally right or wrong without invoking evolved behavior/emotion/instinct. Let’s say my professor is right and moral subjectivism and emotivism are totally and utterly wrong, and we’re just little logical machines. Whether you subscribe to consequentialist or deontological moral theories (or other ones, I have no idea what I’m talking about), it still doesn’t seem right to me. Let me play the annoying child for a bit:

Philosopher: Stabbing a child in the face is morally wrong.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: Because it lowers the happiness of others/causes harm to others, and that is morally wrong.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: Because that’s the moral theory we’re using.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: *fails Jen*

Alright, yes, I think stabbing a child in the face is morally wrong. And if you asked me to outline the certain moral “rules” I follow, they would generally be to reduce harm to others. But why should that be my rule? Why do we label reducing harm as good? The way this class is teaching it, it seems like right and wrong are some sort of voodoo mysterious universal constants that simply are.

But the way I see it, morality evolved. We want to reduce harm to others because we evolved in a group situation, and the only way we could survive is if we stopped killing our family and tribe members long enough for us to all cooperate. If we evolved in a more independent environment, we may have a totally different moral system. Maybe the moral rule that would have evolved would have been caring only about your own children, and killing other children would be seen as a moral act.

Of course, maybe I’m totally wrong. I’m not familiar with philosophy, and it’s quite possible that I’m over thinking it by wondering where morals even came from to begin with. But that seems like a really important point to me. If instinct decides what’s morally right and wrong, what value do all of these various theories have? They’re not merely trying to predict what humans do do, because we don’t always act morally – they’re trying to say what we should do. I have a hard time accepting that my professor 100% rejects emotivism when everything seems to start there, and then get tweaked by a cognitive theory.

Aannddd I’ve gotten to the point where I think I’m self contradictory and my brain has oozed onto the floor. I really don’t know what I’m talking about and none of this stuff makes sense to me. As this is an atheist blog, I have a good feeling that I have a fair number of philosophers (amateur or otherwise) in my readership. Maybe you all can help explain this to me, because I’m not even making sense to myself.

Word evolution and the problem with “atheist”

The meaning of some words change over time. It’s a common trait of the English language, but can have some potentially negative effects when the words are associated with controversial topics. Most people nowadays consider “idiot” to mean “stupid” or “foolish” and have completely forgotten it once referred to people with actual mental disabilities. The real trouble is when you’re stuck in the middle of a word’s evolution, and you see generational differences. Hearing “that’s so gay” makes me cringe, but many young people don’t bat an eye because they sincerely don’t intend it to be derogatory – it’s just the meaning of the word to them and has nothing to do with ill will towards homosexuals.

I’m sure people write whole dissertations on this topic, but I’m going to focus on one word with particular interest to me and my readers: atheist.

I think we’re seeing the meaning of “atheist” slowly change because of the new vocal atheist movement. Some of you may be thinking, “How can the meaning of “atheist” change? It’s simple!” Hang in there for a minute and let me try to explain, first looking at the typical dictionary definition you’ll get for “atheist.”

From Merriam Webster’s Dictionary:

atheist (n): one who believes that there is no deity

Look okay? It seems to get the key point correct – no deity – but the wording is different than what the majority of modern atheists would use. Here’s how I would define atheist:

atheist (n): one who lacks a belief in a deity or deities

I think there are two key differences between the definition atheists give for themselves, and the definition others give for us:

  1. Some of you may think this is just semantics, but I think there really is a difference between “active belief that something does not exist” and “an absence of belief in the existence of something.” The former requires some sort of proof to validate it, and it is practically impossible to prove a negative. The latter, however, is a completely reasonable view and in line with scientific thinking – it is the null hypothesis, that we will assume the simplest thing (nothing existing) until given evidence that falsifies that. (Nearly) everyone uses this sort of thinking when it comes to unicorns, fairies, and the boogieman under the bed.
  2. The original definition only includes “deity,” which is very monotheism-centric. Atheists do not believe in any deities, not just the one (probably the Judeo-Christian God) that the dictionary assumes we’re talking about (I mean, obviously all those other silly ones don’t exist, right?)

Maybe these things aren’t really a change in meaning, but rather an illustration of the past biases of dictionary creators (and the populous they’re drawing their definitions from). The majority of American-English speakers are theists, so it makes sense that we’d see these artifacts in official definitions.

Being able to define ourselves is great, but the problem comes when we keep changing how we use the word atheist. Often times I see it expanded to be:

atheist (n): one who lacks a belief in a deity or deities and the supernatural

This is different from the original meaning, but most atheists don’t have too big of a problem with it because they also don’t believe in the supernatural. However, there are atheists out there who believe in ghosts, astrology, Qi, and other woo-filled superstitions that aren’t supreme beings. Does that mean they’re not atheists? No. It just means the the majority of atheists, or at least the vocal ones leading the “New Atheist” movement, tightly associate skepticism and atheism.

If we stopped right there at “not believing in any supernatural BS,” we’d probably be okay. But atheists have recently developed a very bad habit – they use “atheist” interchangeably with “secular humanist.” These are the tenets of secular humanism, stolen from Wikipedia:

  • Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
  • Reason, evidence, scientific method – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
  • Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
  • Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
  • This life – A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
  • Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
  • Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.

Atheists are constantly promoting these tenets under the guise of atheism rather than secular humanism – probably because most atheists are also secular humanists, and the term “secular humanist” would likely generate even more confusion than “atheist” to a layperson. When have you heard an atheist activist simply say “I don’t believe in God” and then leave it at that? They wouldn’t be an activist then. We talk about how religious and supernatural thinking effects politics, we promote science, we debate ethics, and we contemplate the existence of God in a search for truth. Dawkins does it, Hitchens does it, Myers does it, piddly random bloggers like me do it…it’s more common than not.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is our answer to the “Atheism is a religion!” trope. No, I do not think atheism (or secular humanism for that matter) is a religion. There is no dogma, no churches, no rituals, no scripture, no official leaders. Even though we have books and public figures, we often disagree and still think for ourselves. We’re a diverse group, and our most common answer to the “Atheism is a religion!” assertion is usually something like “Atheism is merely the lack of belief in god(s). That is the only commonality we have.”

But is it? I think the meaning of atheism is starting to change to encompass the tenets of secular humanism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this other than the fact that we’re going to confuse the hell out of many theists and maybe come off as disingenuous. They can easily shoot back with “Nothing in common? But you just went on about how atheists have these certain ethics!”

I think the best thing we can do is be careful in our wording. When you’re talking about a trait other than a lack of belief, qualify it by saying that “most” or “many” atheists feel that way, but that there is no dogma about it. Mention that “many” atheists are also secular humanists before diving into the tenets. Or at the very least, admit that the word “atheist” is slowly changing into something more complex and human – that we’re finally defining ourselves by our positive qualities rather than what we don’t believe in.

Maybe this really isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But I know I’m excited that the atheist movement is something more than a lack of belief, and I’d really like to be able to properly define it to an outsider.

Need a new year’s resolution? Support Foundation Beyond Belief

I know I don’t have to explain why volunteering and charity are important and worthwhile. But if you need a little extra motivation to help others, consider Foundation Beyond Belief, a “a non-profit charitable and educational foundation created (1) to focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists, and (2) to provide a comprehensive education and support program for nontheistic parents.” If you’re sick and tired of hearing people claim that atheists don’t volunteer or care about others, here’s your chance to show them wrong.