Monthly Archives: September 2011

Theists thinking like materialists

Ophelia Benson has highlighted a wonderful comment on The Internet. The commenter, Sastra, has an insightful idea that ties in nicely with some of the discussions that have been going on here recently.

We’ve been talking on this blog about abstract things like beauty and morality – whether they are objective or not, and what it would mean to say that they are. What would it mean to say that moral rules exist?

I have written, in brief, that such things are not objective. Beauty differs according to who you ask, as does morality. People naively intuit that there are such things as “moral rules,” but these rules are not binding, and therefore amount to no more than strong preferences (and I intend on writing more about this soon).

Yet theists, especially, seem to be unable or unwilling to grasp this. Sastra spoke about this as it relates to the concept of love:

Supernaturalists seem to have a lot of trouble trying to make sense of abstractions and levels of experience: they want to take everything literally, as irreducible substances. Love is only real to them if it’s a thing, a sort of spiritual-substance which is made of neither matter nor energy because it is the immaterial essence of love. Ironically, that makes them super-materialists — spinning material into finer and finer substances until like only comes from like. Love is derived from love. Otherwise, it can only have the same properties that were there in its origin.

Despite their claims to be so comfortable with “higher levels” of reality, supernaturalists are concrete thinkers. They can only make sense of immaterial abstractions by turning them into spirit-things in a spirit-world.

This hits the nail right on the head. For all their alleged theological sophistication, supernaturalists (or theists) show an inability to think in abstract terms. Love is not a concrete thing, it is an interaction between two concrete things – my brain and yours. There is no “essence of love” floating about in some spiritual realm. Even if there were, this wouldn’t explain anything about love.  How does the essence of love make its way into my brain, and how does it make me want to spend time with my girlfriend? Couldn’t the photons of light that bounce off of her visage and into my retina, and the atoms of her hand touching mine, do the same? To say that I am touching Love Itself is to create a double-dipping explanation.

The same goes for concepts like beauty and life, even fire and wetness. These words describe a process or an interaction between substances – they are not substances themselves. To say otherwise is to be mired in essentialist thinking.

And thus we return to objectivity. Beauty, being the name I give to a pattern of colors and lines that I find pleasing, cannot be an objective property of a thing because it is dependent on my brain. While it is objectively true that my brain has this reaction to this stimulus, that does not guarantee that your brain will do the same. Nor should I feel the need to force such a reaction on you.

Moral rules stem very much from the desire to force such a reaction on others. I feel that you must not have sex before marriage, therefore you must not! But unlike gravity, there is nothing binding about these laws. So in what sense can they be said to exist? In what sense are they a “thing?”

If you argue with the theist long enough, you will find out that they are not a thing. “Morally wrong” simply means “God told us not to do it, and he will punish us if we do.” This is a concern, to be sure, but it’s also far less than what we were promised. Moral rules are not out there in the universe. They don’t exist, like gravity or paintings exist. They’re just some wants, as expressed by a deity. And “wants,” or things that are “dependent on the mind,” are the definition of subjective.

So I see the phenomenon described by Sastra – that supernaturalists ironically think in very concrete terms – as stemming from two things. Either they are unable to think in the more complicated terms of processes and interactions (rather than concrete “things”), or they resist doing so because it would force them to hold a more accurate view of the universe, in which God isn’t necessary, and the idea of him cannot be used to control others.


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Clarifications on casual sex

In my previous post, I made the argument that there is nothing inherently harmful about casual sex, and I linked to a scientific study that supported my claim. The other day, a friend responded to my post, and levelled two criticisms against what I’d written. The criticisms were, I think, based on misunderstanding. But – knowing that others may have similar criticisms – I’d like to share with you the response I wrote my friend. This will clarify a few details, and hopefully address some objections.

The study I cited in my last post found no differences in psychological well-being between young adults who engaged in casual sex and those who had sex with a committed partner. In alleged contradiction of that study (though not really, as I will explain), my friend cited another study, which found that women were more likely than men to have negative feelings following a one-night stand. For example, many women (though still a minority) reporting feeling “used” after a one-night stand, or felt that they had let themselves down.

Based on this, my friend argued it was false to claim that “casual sex isn’t harmful.” Rather, it is more accurate to say that casual sex can be harmful. Secondarily, my friend criticized me for having a “my way is the only way because it works for me” attitude toward this topic. Here is how I responded:

To understand what I’m saying about casual sex, you have to think a bit more carefully about causality.

Imagine two people who decide to have casual sex because they want to and they believe sex is generally a good thing, and they both are able to go about it in a mature, responsible, and safe way. Let’s say these two enjoy themselves and suffer no ill consequences.

Now imagine two people who decide to have sex because they want to and they believe sex is generally a good thing, but they aren’t open about what this sex means to each of them. Let’s say that to the man the sex is completely casual, and he wants it just because it’s pleasurable, meanwhile the woman wants that too but she’s under the impression that sex is leading toward a more sustained interest in the other person. To her it’s a little less than casual.

So imagine that the two have sex, and the sex itself is good enough, but afterwards the woman feels disappointed when she finds out that the man was just looking for a casual experience. She maybe feels a little used, even though that wasn’t the man’s intention. And let’s say the man is generally happy with the experience, but a little upset that the woman isn’t happy about it, as well as a little frustrated that she was expecting more when that wasn’t something they agreed to.

Now if one couple had casual sex that matched their expectations and was happy about it, and another couple had casual sex that didn’t match their expectations and wasn’t happy about it, exactly what caused the problem – the sex, or the lack of communication beforehand?

You can see that it was the latter.

Of course, these are hypothetical scenarios that I made up, but they jibe with reality. When something negative results from sex there is always a reason, a specific mechanism by which the negative thing happened. It may be a miscommunication, or a lack of trust, or religion-induced guilt, or a disease that was contracted, but you’ll never hear of people who have safe and responsible sex because they want to and who were communicative with each other about their expectations, and yet still didn’t enjoy it because the very act of genital contact is harmful.

That’s what it means to say that casual sex is harmful. It means that genital contact itself is harmful, regardless of your feelings about it. And that’s not true.

So I’m not telling anyone to “do things my way.” I’m telling everyone that the claim made by some that sex without a contract is inherently harmful is a lie. If I were to counsel the unhappy woman from the scenario above, I wouldn’t tell her to “have sex and enjoy it.” For pete’s sake! I would explore with her the possibility that her expectations about casual sex aren’t really realistic, and that if she’s looking for sex that exists on the road to a more serious relationship, then she needs to be more careful in choosing when and with whom she has it. (And none of this has anything to do with what I want; the point is that there are things she can do to get what she wants.)

On the other hand, the response of many clergy to this woman would be to say that what she did was wrong, period, and that she needs to stop doing it if she wants to earn the respect of others, or be a good person, or go to heaven, or protect herself from emotional harm.

How’s that for guidance?

Religious authorities will avoid looking this deeply into the specific causes of harm, because they are bound by their dogma to denounce premarital sex. No matter what the evidence shows, they cannot admit that it’s possible to enjoy “sex without a contract” in a completely healthy and fulfilling way, because to do so would mean that their religious teachings were wrong. And so they have focused their energies and admonitions on the act of sex itself – genital contact and orgasms – instead of on anything that actually matters, like respect for the person you have sex with, honesty about expectations, safety, and shared pleasure. To focus on anything other than this isn’t guidance, it’s ignorance – and we shouldn’t stand for it. Casual sex isn’t harmful. But there are safer and more fulfilling ways of going about it than others.

Let’s talk about that.

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Filed under Psychology, Relationships, Religion, Science, Sex

Study shows casual sex isn’t psychologically harmful, despite contrary claims by the religious

Remember when I got into a bit of a debate with UMC minister Gregory Neal? He was making the argument that there is something harmful about premarital sex (in order to justify his disapproval of it). He had nothing but anecdotal evidence to support his claims.

I feel like I should have harped on this more at the time, but anecdotal evidence is bad. Really bad. Everybody has anecdotal evidence to support their personal biases. Anti-gay pastors will share with you anecdotal evidence for why gay people are immoral or harmful to themselves and society. Misogynistic preachers will share with you experience that has taught them not to listen to women. Take one man, who believes in a God who cares who you have sex with, who believes in a long tradition of condemning those who have sex outside of marriage, and who has been taught that marital sex is better than non… and what are the chances that he isn’t going to “see” support for his preconceptions in his experience?

The chances are bad. That’s why our personal experiences may be convincing to us, but they shouldn’t therefore be convincing to everyone else. And that’s also why it’s incredibly irresponsible, and unethical, to make people feel guilty and bad about what they consensually do for pleasure when all you have to support your claim is your own biases and preconceptions.

At the time I was debating Reverend Neal, I made an attempt to find scientific studies that bore on the issue of premarital sex and risk. I found some correlational studies, but nothing from which causation could be inferred. In short, there was no evidence that Neal was right, and that premarital sex was in any way harmful to a person or a relationship.

Well, now I can do one better. Thanks to a citation in a recent blog post by Greta Christina, I can share with you a study that shows that casual sex is not psychologically harmful.

Of course, everyone except certain religious people already knew this. When was the last time you heard an atheist find fault with someone for having sex without a contract? The fact is – and we have scientific evidence to back this up – there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Sex is good, and pleasurable, and people enjoy having it. What you should do is be safe about it, be responsible, and be honest with your partner(s). What you shouldn’t do is listen to people who get their information from a 2,000 year old book.

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Filed under Marriage, Morality, Psychology, Relationships, Religion, Science, Sex

Oppressing women, the Christian way

A couple of weeks ago I posted on the ludicrous bit of misogyny that is Kirk Cameron’s “marriage-strengthening event.” I said that it was important to recognize that the Christian teaching that women were meant to be helpers and servants to men is sadly not uncommon. I provided a link to a news article that quoted Michele Bachmann, a current candidate for President of the United States, saying that wives should submit to their husbands.

GirlWell, there’s more where that came from. Lots more. Ophelia Benson has been posting quite a bit lately on the Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy movements. These movements are made up of families in which daughters are raised to cheerfully embrace their God-given roles as servants to their future husbands. They are trained to handle massive amounts of domestic work, to eschew “worldly” things like aspirations or higher education, and to be whatever the men in their lives want them to be.

Libby Anne is a former daughter of Christian patriarchy who has emerged as a prolific writer and critic of the movement. From the summary of her upbringing:

Daughters of Christian Patriarchy are essentially servants in their own homes, but this does not mean they are necessarily miserable and unhappy. While some daughters of Christian Patriarchy rebel and inwardly resent how they are being raised, most don’t. Most accept what their parents teach them as true, and look forward to their wedding day as the beginning of their lives. This was me. I was perfectly happy to help with my younger siblings and cook for a dozen and do load after load of laundry. At age ten, twelve, or fourteen, I was being trained to be a “helpmeet” to my future husband, preparing for my life’s role by working alongside my mother and serving as junior “helpmeet” to my father. I dreamed of my wedding constantly, and thought of what a wonderful wife, mother, and homemaker I would be. A wife and mother was all I wanted to be, because any dream of anything else was nipped in the bud before it ever took root. I truly believed that this was what God wanted of me, and that serving my family and raising my siblings was serving God. And I gloried in it.

Of course the girls are not just forced into their roles, but indoctrinated into it. They are taught to want the subservient roles that men (and their God!) have prepared for them. Another escapee of the movement writes:

It sounded so romantic when I was ages 10-13. I was going to be amazing someday! My husband was going to be pleased that I was so good at caring for children and keeping house. I was practicing submission to my father, taking it very seriously whenever he pointed out some behaviour of mine that “would infuriate my husband someday.” He knew what God wanted, and what men wanted. If I wanted to be successful and happy someday, I had to start by pleasing my Daddy.

Frightening, yes – but the heartbreaking part is what happened as she got older.

I put my whole self into my role as a stay-at-home daughter. I loved studying, but I couldn’t keep up with my self-taught high school materials and get all of my work done, so I gradually fell further and further behind. But school wasn’t as important as pleasing God. Sometimes I wished that I had the chance to study more than just cooking, cleaning and sewing, and I did ask my parents if I could take some classes while living at home, but I was reminded that it would only be a waste of time and money to go to college when none of that education would apply in the home. A college atmosphere could take my focus off the Lord, and fill my head with thoughts of career and rebellion. After some begging on my part, Dad said he would permit me to take a few online courses from a very conservative school if I insisted, but it was clear that this was not what he felt was wise. He also said that I had to finish all my high school material first, and that my school work could in no way interfere with my household duties. I was so overwhelmed at the thought of trying to keep both my father and a school happy, that I gave up on the idea of further education.


Keep in mind that Christian patriarchy is just a few steps removed from the complementarianism espoused by most evangelical Christians and Catholics, who teach that men and women have separate God-given roles. As Libby Anne explains in her piece above, Christian patriarchy simply takes these beliefs to their natural conclusion.

I was reminded of these similarities just yesterday, when I learned that a popular American evangelist and author was instructing Christians not to listen to another popular evangelist and author because she’s a woman. Quote,

But I don’t want to get into a relationship of listening or attending a church where a woman is becoming my pastor, my shepherd or my authority. I think that would be an unhealthy thing for a man to do.

Yes, it’s fine to learn the occasional thing or two from a woman, but don’t learn too much! Then you might have to admit that a woman had something to teach you, that she’s something more than a follower and a servant.

And we can’t have that.

Image source: seriousbri


Filed under Human Rights, Relationships, Religion

The good things in life aren’t from God

I have often heard Christians describe certain things in this world that are pleasing to humans as “gifts from God.” Some examples include music, the beauty of nature, and the comfort and companionship of animals. These things, they say, are good for us and make us happy, and therefore we should be grateful to God for them. In fact, the existence of these things is evidence for God, for what are pets and flowers and symphonies if not indicators that God loves us and wants us to be happy?

Well, to answer that question, let’s take at look at exactly how these phenomena are beneficial to humans.

Modern research has shown that (pleasant) music is intrinsically rewarding –  like food or sex, it stimulates dopamine release in reward centers of the brain. Pets, as you’ve probably heard, are good for our psychological wellbeing and cardiovascular health. One study followed adults who had been victims of heart attacks, and found that after one year the adults who owned dogs had significantly lower mortality rates than those who didn’t. And nature, research has shown, has a positive effect on our ability to concentrate and deal with stress. One study even found that having a view of nature helped hospital patients recover more quickly after surgery!


Scenery that has a positive effect on wellbeing.


Scenery that doesn't.

So all of these things do indeed increase wellbeing. But the other side of the coin is that without them we are less healthy and less happy. Consider the hospital patients who didn’t have exposure to nature after their operations – those patients had longer recovery times and required stronger pain medication. Consider the adults who didn’t own dogs in the heart attack study – after one year these people were more likely to be dead than their dog-owning cohorts. None of these are favorable outcomes. Clearly, the factors that contribute to human wellbeing aren’t “optional extras” in our lives – they’re absolute necessities if we want to remain as happy and healthy as possible.

And here’s the thing- God made us this way. God made us so that we couldn’t be calm and focused and healthful while surrounded by concrete walls and desolate landscapes. He made us so that we would be at a greater risk of death simply for not having a dog in our lives. He made us so that certain patterns of sound are pleasant, whereas others make us miserable or set our nerves on edge. To call these things a gift is to imply that God gave them to us with the message, “Here, I want you to be happy.” But at the same time God made us dependent on these things for our happiness. Why should my wellbeing be dependent on something as changeable as the particular patterns of light that fall on my retina?

Just think of what life could have been! God had the ultimate say in how he created the universe. He could have made every flash of light a sunset, every sound an Ode to Joy, every touch a caress… How wonderful that would have been! Imagine if the monotonous, dreary walls of an office were as pleasant and invigorating to us as our favorite natural setting. That would have been a gift!

Yet this gift is something humans were decidedly not given.

I imagine at this point some theists will rebut that life cannot be one long uninterrupted joy. That we need both joy and sadness in order for either to have any meaning. If that’s the case, I hope these people do not also believe in heaven – because they’ve just refuted it.

Ultimately, the explanation for why we have innate preferences and aversions is because evolution made us this way. Preferences are a way of motivating us to seek out things that are beneficial to our survival (such as a savannah-like natural environment). Life isn’t one long stream of uninterrupted joy, because evolution had no need to make us that way. And God, if you think he exists, saw no need to give us anything better. That’s not to say that we must be despondent about our lot in life – on the contrary, there’s plenty to be happy about. But if our lives are wonderful it’s because we work hard to make them so. God doesn’t get the credit for that.

First image credit: ahp_ibanez
Second image credit: Michael Lokner

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Filed under Atheism, Evolution, Psychology, Religion, Science

Swing Out New Hampshire

Just a notice that I’ll be at swing dance camp in New Hampshire until Monday. There’s nothing like being surrounded by nature and good companions. I probably won’t post any updates before I get back, though I may throw up a few interesting links on Google+.


A view of the lake at Camp Wicosuta

Here’s my class’s performance from camp last year. I’m in the front row, all the way on the left.


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