Well, There’s Your Problem: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion, Part 2

When we last left our heroine, she was agonizing over the question of religion’s affect on people’s behavior. She had discussed the inconsistency of many atheists who believe that people’s good behavior isn’t influenced by religious faith but that their bad behavior is — and the parallel inconsistency of many religious defenders, who believe that people’s bad behavior isn’t influenced by religious faith but that their good behavior is.

But she had realized that she hadn’t actually tried to answer the core issue herself. When we left her, she was wrestling with the question: Which way do I think it is? Do I think people, on the whole, would act differently if there were no such thing as religion?

Honestly, I have no idea. I have opinions about it, of course — I have opinions about almost everything that crosses my consciousness — but I don’t really know. I don’t think anyone knows. Religion is so widespread, and so integrated into most people’s lives — something like 90% of people in the world have some sort of religious belief — that trying to imagine a world without it is a pure thought-experiment, with very little data to support any hypothesis.

We have some data, of course. We have the data of the largely secular society in much of Europe, for instance, which seems to be far more peaceful than the largely and passionately religious Middle East. But even in Europe, where religion isn’t much a part of public life, personal and private religious belief is still very common — and even public life hasn’t been secular for that long. Therefore, the data doesn’t really answer the question. And while I think the question is interesting to ponder and worth debating, I don’t think we have enough data to do much more than ponder and debate.

But I do think this: There is a feature of religion that I find very troubling, and I think it does contribute to serious problems in the world. It may not be inherent to religion, but it is awfully damn common in it. It’s a tenet of most major religions, and from the studies I’ve read, most religious believers hold it to at least some extent.

It’s the idea that faith itself — believing things about the world for which you have no evidence, and in many cases things that the evidence flat-out contradicts — is not just acceptable, but a positive virtue. It’s the idea that refusing to question your beliefs, and placing your beliefs above reality, is an admirable quality. A trait to be cherished and protected. Something that in and of itself makes you a good person, regardless of the actual beliefs you have faith in.

And that, folks, I do think is destructive.

It teaches people to deny, not just scientific realities like evolution, but human realities — like sexuality, and the humanity of women, and the fact that those evil heathens who scorn your God are really just folks like you trying to get along in the world.

It teaches people that how their actions adhere to religious dogma is ethically more important than how their actions actually affect other people.

It teaches people that reality — the reality that their God supposedly created — is less interesting, and even less true, than their opinions and hunches about reality.

And when it’s taught to children, it teaches them to devalue their intellect, their ability to reason, even the evidence of their own senses and experience. It teaches them that to believe what they’re taught, simply because it is what they’re taught, makes them good people — and that curiosity and independent thought makes them bad people.

So back to the question: Do I think people would act differently if there were no such thing as religion? Better? Worse? Equal amounts of both?

And the real question behind it: Is religion, on the whole, a force for good or ill in the world?

I think the actual beliefs themselves can go either way. They can inspire people to fight social injustice or to blow up buildings; to feed the poor or to beat up queers. And I think people can certainly be inspired by things other than religion to do both great good and great evil.

And I really and truly don’t have a problem with personal religious faith. We all have our hunches, about ourselves and the world, and the fact that many people base their lives on hunches they can’t prove really isn’t a problem for me. I’ve based my own life on hunches, more than once, in important and central ways.

The problem comes when people treat their faith as if it were fact. When people try to pass laws and public policy on their faith as if it were fact; when people try to force their faith on other people as if it were fact; when people teach their faith to their children as if it were fact… that, I think, is a serious and powerful force for ill in the world. (To paraphrase Bernard Mannes Baruch, “Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but no-one has a right to their own facts.”)

Religion itself isn’t a problem. Dogmatic religion — religion that teaches that its hunches and opinions are unquestionable truth, and that the refusal to question is an admirable virtue — that is a serious problem indeed.

And unfortunately, that seems to be most of the religion in the world.

Well, There’s Your Problem: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion, Part 2

Having It Both Ways: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion

There’s this problem I’ve been running into in atheist writing, an example of bad thinking that crops up again and again even from some very intelligent writers. Richard Dawkins does it; Sam Harris does it a lot; cool atheist bloggers I read sometimes do it.

It’s bugging me, and I want to point it out.

Here’s how the thinking goes. When they’re dealing with the issue of great people doing good things who seem to have been inspired by religious faith — Martin Luther King, Gandhi, yada yada yada — many atheist writers argue that these people would have done those same good things even without religion. Compassion, empathy, a vision of how much better the world could be — that’s what inspired these people, the argument goes. They didn’t need religion to fight the good fight.

But when they’re talking about bad people doing terrible things who seem to be inspired to their evil deeds by religion — Osama Bin Laden, the Crusaders, etc. — these same writers are all over it. “See?” they write. “Look at the terrible things religion inspires people to do! See what a bad influence religion is in the world?”

And I don’t think you get to have it both ways.

Either religion inspires people to act, or it doesn’t. It makes no sense to argue that religious faith inspires people to do evil, but not to do good.


And this is a big but.

Many defenders of religion do the exact same thing — only in reverse. They point to people like King and Gandhi to show what a positive force religion is in the world… but then argue that the Bin Ladens and Torquemadas of the world would have acted exactly the same without religion. Politics, hunger for power, xenophobia, flat-out psychosis — that’s what drove these evil people, they say. Not religious faith.

Which is just as messed up. Defenders of religion don’t get to have it both ways, either. If you want to point at all the wonderful people in the world who are inspired by religion, you need to be willing to look at all the massively fucked-up shit that religion inspires as well.

So which way do I think it is? Do I think people, on the whole, would act differently if there were no such thing as religion?

I think that’s a separate post. I’ll rant about that tomorrow.

Having It Both Ways: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion

Ballerinas and Rabbits: The Poetry of Spam

For no very good reason, I’ve been collecting the more surreal, more poetic subject lines of spams I’ve been getting. Some of them really are quite beautiful, in a random sort of way, and it seems a shame to just let them go to waste. So I’m starting to put them together into “found” poems. Silly, but entertaining. Here’s the first one. Enjoy!

Spam Poem #1

The singers think it isn’t dangerous to eat
incinerated carpet tack
so ballerina kissing
the hairiest rabbits ever seen

quaint cheers
twirl downstairs
signing rhythm

You are blocked
No Marianne no exultation
arts trepidation
shortwave litigation
No deliverance or twenty

just fuck and don’t think about anything else
your cock will be your master

Ballerinas and Rabbits: The Poetry of Spam

Define Your Terms, Dammit! Teens and the Emotional Consequences of Oral Sex

How do you do a study on the emotional consequences of oral sex, and not distinguish between blowjobs and muffdiving?

There’s this study by UCSF on teens and sex, focusing not on pregnancy and STDs and stuff, but on teenagers’ emotional reactions to sex. Specifically, it focuses on how teenagers react differently to intercourse and oral sex.

A lot of things about this study are interesting — including the fact (overlooked or minimized by several news sources) that overall, teens report positive consequences from sex of all kinds. But more relevantly to my rant, the study found that teens’ reactions to sex, both positive and negative, varied depending on whether they were having intercourse or oral sex. And most relevantly to my rant of all, girls who had oral sex were twice as likely as boys to feel bad about themselves, and three times as likely to feel used.

Why is this important?

Because in none of the stories I read about it (by Reuters, SF Gate, and WebMD) did they mention whether the oral sex was fellatio, cunnilingus, or both.

Which is a pretty big issue, don’t you think?

I don’t know if this is bad reporting by the media, or bad science by UCSF. But whichever it is, it’s bad.

See, I’d bet dollars to donuts that the “oral sex” we’re talking about is fellatio. A lot of blowjobs for the boys, not much muffdiving for the girls. And if I’m right — if girls are giving oral sex to boys and not getting it in return — then it’s no fucking wonder that girls feel more used than boys. They are being used.

A lot of how the news media is running with this story is “all teen sex is bad” (not what the study shows at all, really), and “parents need to warn their kids that oral sex can be as bad as intercourse” (also not what the study shows). But I’d bet you many dollars to many donuts indeed that, if you did another study comparing teenagers who had fellatio only, cunnilingus only, or both, the girls would be a lot less likely to feel used and/or bad about themselves if their oral sex lives were reciprocal.

In which case, the lesson we need to be teaching teenage girls isn’t “Sex is bad,” but “Your sexual pleasure matters as much as your partners’.”

Define Your Terms, Dammit! Teens and the Emotional Consequences of Oral Sex

Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage: A Review

A Dadaist masterpiece.

This brilliant, unsettling work of contemporary installation art sets itself firmly within the Dadaist and neo-Dadaist tradition. With its blind alleys, impossible turns, and trajectories that lead nowhere, it echoes the functionless functionality of Meret Oppenheim’s “Fur-Lined Teacup,” Marcel Duchamp’s “Impossible Bed,” and, more recently, Jacques Carelman’s “Coffeepot for Masochists.” The influence of M.C. Escher on the piece is undeniable as well. Traffic patterns mysteriously blend from opposite directions; narrow passages twist in on themselves; and the piece as a whole seems to contain and entrap itself in a way that appears to be physically impossible.

Yet while “Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage” makes no attempt to conceal these classic influences, it nevertheless escapes being derivative. Both the gargantuan scale of the installation and its interactive nature give it a forcefully penetrative quality that differs significantly from smaller works of Dadaist and neo-Dadaist sculpture (which one can, after all, turn one’s back on). Once engaged with this unique work, it becomes virtually impossible to distance one’s self from it emotionally, or even physically. This quality is experienced in the details of the piece as well as in its massive scale. We particularly see it in the confusing and labyrinthine “exits” — indistinguishable from the “entrances” and even co-existent with them — compelling the participant’s awareness, not merely of the impossibility of escape, but of the absurdity of even contemplating it.

More significantly, the fact that the piece functions — although barely — as an actual parking garage merely serves to highlight the more disturbing aspects of the work. Poised on the liminal region between function and non-function, it forges a connection between creator and audience that is interactive and yet singularly hostile. Unlike typical artwork which attempts to create a bond of understanding and insight between artist and viewer, “Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage” seeks to entice and enfold the audience members, only to frustrate and alienate them. It is a self-contained paradox, a connection which seeks only to sever itself.

The location of the installation in a literal urban shopping center brilliantly underscores this contradiction. The dreamlike — or rather, nightmarish — qualities of the work are thrown into sharp relief when one contemplates this juxtaposition. One wishes to accomplish simple tasks of survival or comfort: buying towels, or a coffee maker, or even merely bread and milk. And yet the “parking garage,” a construct ostensibly designed to facilitate these tasks, instead thwarts the participant at every turn, and tasks which should connect one with the warp and weft of one’s life instead become distancing and enervating. The audience participates in the work, even becomes one with it, and yet is entirely at its mercy. It is a vivid, haunting metaphor for modern civilization and its self-negating contradictions.

“Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage” is located off of Ninth Street between Bryant and Brannan, adjacent to Trader Joe’s and Bed Bath and Beyond, in San Francisco. The installation is scheduled for an indefinite run.

Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage: A Review

Brain, Brain, What Is Brain? or, Is Gender Hard-Wired?

I read over on the ScienceToLife blog (a cool blog about science news affecting people’s lives) a piece on a BBC science program regarding differences between male and female brains. And on the BBC website, you can take the tests that they used in the series, and see whether you have a male or a female brain. (Fun test, although it does take some time.)

Not too surprisingly, I scored more male than female on their test. On a spectrum from 100% typically female, to evenly balanced between the two, to 100% typically male, I scored significantly more male than female — 25% on the male side of neutral. (For point of comparison, the men they tested averaged 50% on the male side of the spectrum.) Among other things, I’m better at spatial relationships than I’d expected, worse at identifying facial expressions, and I apparently tend to make decisions more rationally than intuitively.

Obviously, I’m not going to change my philosophies about life and gender based on pop-culture TV psychology (although this piece of it seems more based in real science than, say, your average Cosmo personality quiz). But it reminded me of a rant I’ve been wanting to make on a rather large question:

Is gender born, or learned, or some combination of the two? And if it’s a combination, what combination?

Now, I’m hardly going to be able to answer this question once and for all. Smarter people than me who actually do research in this area have been trying to answer this question for decades But I do have some thoughts on the subject that I’ve been mulling over for many years, and this seems like a good excuse to blather on about them.


One: No matter what, nurture is definitely part of the picture. A big part. If nothing else, the fact that gender roles have been changing and are different in different cultures and historical periods is proof enough of that. What’s more, I’ve seen research showing that people treat infants they think are male and infants they think are female significantly differently — in ways they’re not even aware of, and will even deny. (Specifically, people encourage physicality and assertiveness in infants they think are boys, sweetness and sociability in infants they think are female.)

So when people say, “Of course gender is hard-wired, look how different my five-year-old boy and my six-year-old girl act,” my reaction is, “Well, yes — they’ve been getting intensive gender-role training for five/six years. That proves exactly nothing.”

Two: If research does show that male and female brains tend on average to be different, that doesn’t prove nature over nurture. My understanding is that the brain is shaped — literally, physically — by experience as well as by genetics. The differences could easily be learned.

And both Thought One and Thought Two point up the difficulty of coming to any final conclusion on this subject. Given what a huge part nurture clearly plays — and from the day we’re born, no less — it may prove damn near impossible to tease out the learned behaviors from the hard-wired ones (if there are any).

All that being said 

Three: We tend to forget that people are animals. We are not separate from nature: we are a species of life, in the animal kingdom, in the mammalian class. And most animal species have some sort of gender-differentiated behavior that, as far as we can tell, is genetically based. This obviously doesn’t prove that human gender differences are hard-wired — we could certainly be one of the exceptions — but it wouldn’t completely surprise me to learn that they were.

Four: I think it’s a very bad idea to critique a scientific theory on the basis of its political implications. A theory is either true or it isn’t. It either describes reality or it doesn’t. A theory or a study may be flawed because of political prejudices and biases, and that’s certainly worth looking at. But the fact that we may not want a theory to be true doesn’t make it not true. That’s the kind of bullshit the creationists pull — I really don’t think feminists should be pulling it.

I remember reading/hearing about/participating in the “constructionism/essentialism” debates back in my early queer-theory days, and while in my heady youth I was very taken with strict constructionism, I became more frustrated with it as time went on. The theory didn’t really seem to based on anything — not research, not neurology, not logic, nothing except the fact that people who held it wanted it to be true (or, more accurately, didn’t want essentialism to be true). And that is really not okay.

Now, all THAT being said 

Five: Even if there is a genetic component to gender differences, it’s clear that it’s true only as a generalization, and a pretty gross generalization at that. There are tons of exceptions, and huge areas of overlap on the scales. Just look at my “25% more male” score on the silly BBC brain-sex test. (And if you take the test yourself, do post your scores in the comments here!)

Plus, there are dozens of different types of behavior that are commonly believed to be gender-based, and individual men and women are all going to rank differently on all of them. (I scored male in my spatial relation ability, female in my verbal ability, neutral on some other scales that I can’t remember now.)

Six: Humans seem to have a unique ability to transcend our genetic programming and choose our own behavior. Our ability to do so is almost certainly limited, but it doesn’t seem to be nonexistent. (Example: Given my genealogy of alcoholism all over both sides of my family tree, it’s a fucking miracle that I’m not an alcoholic. And I’m not an alcoholic, at least in part, because I know that it could be a problem and choose to be very careful about my alcohol use.)

My point? Even if there is some basis for believing that some gender differences are hard-wired, that’s no excuse for sexist behavior or policy. Even if it’s true that men are, on the whole, better at spatial relations, and women are, on the whole, better at verbal skills, we still have to treat people as individuals, and assess them as individuals.

In a perfectly non-sexist society, it’s possible that we might still have more male engineers than female, more female teachers than male. I don’t know. I don’t think any of us knows. But we sure as hell would have more female engineers and male teachers than we do now. Good ones. Ones who now aren’t living up to their potential.

Brain, Brain, What Is Brain? or, Is Gender Hard-Wired?

Broccoli or Tofu? Sexual Differences in Relationships

Dan Savage has written yet another in his brilliant series of columns about couples with different kinks trying to negotiate a sex life that makes them both happy. In this case, the woman is fairly vanilla, and the man is into transvestite adult baby/diaper play. She’s been good about playing along with his kink, but he’s become uninterested in having vanilla sex, the kind of sex she wants — ever.

Something about this one really jumped out at me. There’s a pattern in a lot of these letters that’s really prominent in this one: it’s something I’ve thought about a lot, so I’m making it the subject of today’s sermon. (BTW, I think Dan’s advice — essentially “If you think you’re going to find another girlfriend who’s as willing to go along with your rather out-there kink, you’re high” — was dead-on. I just want to expand on it.)


When it comes to sex, I think a lot of people have a hard time distinguishing between things that really upset them or gross them out, and things that just aren’t their favorite. And I think this difficulty is what causes so much of the stress and frustration in these sexual negotiations.

Let me make a quick analogy. I really, really despise broccoli. The presence of it in any food, even in small amounts, makes a dish completely inedible to me. I can barely stand to be in the room while it’s being cooked.

Tofu, on the other hand, isn’t my personal favorite thing to eat. I certainly won’t go out of my way to buy it and cook it. But if it’s cooked right, in a dish with a good sauce and tasty tidbits, I can eat it with no problem, and even enjoy it.

I think when a couple is trying to negotiate sexual likes and dislikes, they need to figure out which of their dislikes are broccoli, and which ones are tofu. And if there’s a sex act that’s tofu to you — and it’s a Scharffenberger chocolate souffle to your partner — then by gum, you should bloody well be giving them their chocolate souffle. At least some of the time.

The adult baby guy is a perfect example. I find it hard to believe that he’s actually revolted by vanilla sex. I think he just doesn’t like it all that much. It’s not broccoli — it’s tofu.

But he still won’t eat it.

Of course this is selfish. That’s obvious. I think there’s a more serious problem than him being selfish. I think he has a seriously troubling sexual/romantic disconnection.

Here’s what I mean. When I have sex, I don’t just get off on my own kinks and my own pleasure. I also get off on my partner’s pleasure. The sight, the sound, the feel, of someone in my bed who’s getting excited and getting off… that’s hot. It’s not particularly selfless or noble of me — it’s just hot. (I wrote about this a little in A Dyke’s Defense of Blowjobs.) The more I care about someone, the more true that is. And I think that’s true for most people.

And if you can’t get off on the sight and sound and feel of your partner’s pleasure — even if what you’re doing isn’t your particular favorite thing — then what the hell are you doing in a sexual/romantic relationship?

Broccoli or Tofu? Sexual Differences in Relationships

Well, It Beats A Nice Hot Bath: Ted Haggard and the Straight Man’s Cure for Stress

So of course I’m all over the “Ted Haggard now says he’s straight” story. But what I’m really interested in is how many people are getting it wrong.

If I read the pertinent quote correctly, then despite what you may have read or heard, Haggard isn’t saying that his homosexuality has been cured, and that after three weeks (!) of intensive therapy, he has now become heterosexual.

No. What he said (or what his church overseer the Rev. Tim Ralph said on his behalf) is, if possible, even more preposterous.

What he said was that he’s always been straight. He didn’t become heterosexual in therapy — he “discovered” his heterosexuality.

“He is completely heterosexual,” Ralph said. “That is something he discovered. It was the acting-out situations where things took place.”

Right. Because straight men “act out” by sucking cock all the time.

No, really. It’s a natural stress response. Long hours, money problems, illness in the family, trouble at home? Every straight guy I know would be running to the nearest male prostitute to suck his cock. It’s a perfectly normal reaction. Very common.

My question: Just exactly how stupid do these people think we are?

BTW: My favorite writing so far about the Ted Haggard kerfuffle has been by sex columnist Dan Savage, who pointed out that the Haggard story competely gives the lie to ex-gay movement. The pertinent passage:

“Describing a lifelong battle against temptations that were contrary to his teachings,” says the Denver Post, “[Haggard] had sought assistance ‘in a variety of ways,’ and while he had stretches of ‘freedom,’ nothing proved effective. ‘There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life,’ Haggard wrote.”

If you believe that Jesus Christ can change the sexual orientation of a believer, why on earth did he refuse to cure Haggard? He founded a church that has 14,000 members! Thousands were brought to Christ by Haggard’s preaching. Mixed in with Ted’s meth-fueled gay sex romps and hypocritical gay bashings were, without a doubt, thousands of good works.

Did Jesus help Haggard out? No. Haggard tried to battle off his “dark” desires, but nothing proved effective. There was no cure for Haggard, no miracle. No matter how long he struggled, no matter how much faith he had, Haggard’s sexual orientation remained unchanged. Nothing helped.

If giving his heart to Jesus couldn’t cure Haggard, what hope is there for the likes of me? If Jesus can’t be bothered to work a miracle for the most powerful evangelical minister in the country, what “hope” is there for the average dyke?

Oh, and in case you haven’t seen it yet: Here’s a video clip of Richard Dawkins interviewing Ted Haggard (pre-kerfuffle, of course), in which Haggard admonishes Dawkins “don’t be arrogant.” (The clip is all good, but if you don’t have time to watch the whole six minutes, the really good stuff comes about three minutes in. Video below the fold.)

Continue reading “Well, It Beats A Nice Hot Bath: Ted Haggard and the Straight Man’s Cure for Stress”

Well, It Beats A Nice Hot Bath: Ted Haggard and the Straight Man’s Cure for Stress

Children Become Adults — Stop the Presses!

As you may have heard, Daniel Radcliffe, the 17-year-old actor who’s been playing Harry Potter in the movies, is about to do a London stage production of Equus (the psychodrama about a young man who has a sexual obsession with horses), and he’ll have some nude scenes and sexual scenes in the play.

I’m not going to talk about the actual news, which I find only mildly interesting in a “What a smart career move” way. What I find more interesting is the reaction to this news in the media and the public.

So far, much of the reaction I’ve seen has fallen into two camps. One is the juvenile snickering and nitwit penis joke category. (Even Keith Olberman, who I usually like a lot, was falling into this, with stupid jokes about magic wands and broomsticks.)

The other is the shock/horror/dismay category: “But… but… he’s Harry Potter! He can’t be naked! Won’t someone please think of the children?”

And I think both these reactions come from the same place — a discomfort with the fact that children become adults, with adult sexuality.

We know Radcliffe primarily — and quite famously — as a child and a young adolescent. He is now becoming an adult (if I’m not mistaken, 17 is the age of adulthood and consent in England). And this rather obvious fact of life makes many people extremely uncomfortable.

There’s a strong taboo in our society against thinking of children as sexual — a taboo that in many ways is very understandable. But it’s a taboo that we go seriously overboard with. It’s a taboo that twists our experience and blots out our reality. It makes us refuse to acknowledge that children have any kind of sexuality of their own. And it makes us have conniptions over the transition between childhood and adulthood… and the ripening of sexuality that this transition involves.

And I think that’s what the snickering and horror over a naked Daniel Radcliffe is about — the transition, and people’s discomfort with it. When a young person, one who we’re most familiar with as a child and who’s still fairly close to childhood, begins to claim their adult sexuality, I think it makes people feel like pedophiles. This person is still in our minds as a child, but now they’re also in our minds as a sexual adult — and that’s a category error that can cause some serious short-circuiting.

I think this discomfort is aggravated by the fact that, while our society sees childhood as a time of complete asexual purity, it also sees young adulthood as the pinnacle of sexuality and sexual desirability. Children are supposed to somehow magically transform from innocent sexless sugar-babies into ripe, dishy sex bombs — and they’re supposed to do it overnight, with no awkward transitional stage in between to make us feel like creeps.

In a way, I get it. I’ve had crushes on teenage actors before they were legal (Christina Ricci comes to mind), and it made me pretty damned uncomfortable. It gives me the willies to have the hots for people who I think it would be unethical for me to actually have sex with. And it gave me the willies to be having impure thoughts about this dishy teenage goth chick who I first got to know as Wednesday Addams.

But I also think we need to chill the fuck out about it. Children become adults. Childhood sexuality becomes adult sexuality. It’s not news. As Ingrid said when we were talking about this, “What did they THINK was going to happen?”

(P.S. To be completely fair, the reaction to this news hasn’t been entirely snickering and conniptions. A fair number of people are responding much the way I am, with a combination of “Hm, interesting career move” and “Will you all please relax and let this kid grow up?”)

Children Become Adults — Stop the Presses!