Five Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

If you have a scrap of progressive politics in your bones, it’s no surprise to you that sexism hurts women. Like, duh. That’s kind of the definition of the word.

But we don’t talk as much about how sexism hurts men. Understandably. When you look at the grotesque ways women are damaged by sexism — from economic inequality to political disenfranchisement to literal, physical abuse — it makes perfect sense that we’d care more about how sexism and patriarchy and rigid gender roles affect women, than we do about how they affect men.

Lately, though, I’ve been paying more attention to how men get screwed up by this stuff, too. Not screwed up as badly as women, to be sure… but not trivially, either. I care about it. And I think other feminists — and other women and men who may not see themselves as feminists — ought to care about it, too.

I care about this stuff for a lot of reasons. I care because I have men and boys in my life, men and boys who matter to me: I see how they get twisted into knots by gender roles that are not only insanely rigid but impossibly contradictory, and it makes me sick and sad and seriously pissed off. I care because I care about justice: fair is fair, and I don’t want to solve the problem of gender inequality by making things suck worse for men.

And I care for entirely pragmatic, even Machiavellian reasons. I care because I care about feminism… and I think one of the best things we can do to advance feminism is to get more men on board. If we can convince more men that sexism screws up their lives, too — and that life shared with free and equal women is a whole lot more fun — we’re going to get a lot more men on our side. (Like the bumper sticker a friend once had on her truck: “Feminists Fuck Better.”)

So I’ve been looking more carefully at the specific ways sexism hurts men. In particular, I’ve been looking at our society’s expectations of men, our very definitions of maleness. I’ve been looking at how rigid and narrow many of these expectations are, creating a razor-thin window of acceptable manly behavior that you’d have to be a professional tightrope walker to navigate. (Which would be a problem, since “professional tightrope walker” is definitely outside the parameters of acceptable manliness.) I’ve been looking at how so many of these expectations are not only rigid, but totally contradictory, creating a vision of idealized manhood that’s not just ridiculous but literally unattainable. And I’ve been asking the men in my life — friends, colleagues, family members, community members, guys I know on the Internet — what kinds of expectations they get about Being A Man… and how those expectations affect them.

And I came up with this very short, very provisional, not even close to exhaustive list.

Ultimate fighting
Fight, fight, fight! When I did my informal, not- at- all- scientific poll of the men in my life and asked what was expected of them as men, this one came up a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Like, an amount that took me seriously by surprise. My slice of society — and the slice shared by most men I know — is comfortably middle-class: educated, chatty, civilized to a fault, and mostly very peaceful. We resolve our conflicts with words, with glares, with strategies, with the law as a last resort. Even raised voices and insulting language are considered somewhat outre. Not counting sporting events, I could count on one hand the number of physical fights I’ve witnessed in the last decade. Or even threats of physical fights.

And yet, man after man that I talked to brought this one up. The willingness to, as my friend Michael put it, “actually, physically, with fists or other weapons, fight” — to defend one’s honor (or the honor of one’s lady, or country, or sports team, or whatever) — is more central to how men are taught to see manhood than I had any notion of. Even if conflicts never get that far — even if you never actually have to pound anyone with your fists — being both willing and able to do so is a weirdly high priority in the Penis Club. As Adam said, “You would rather get a concussion than be called less than a man.” And Damion told me this story: “I’m in the passenger seat when my (relatively butch) sister-in-law flips off some guy in Baltimore traffic. He jumps out of the car, enraged, and my first thought is ‘Great, now I’ve got to beat the shit out of this guy.'”

Which puts men in a nasty conundrum. The laws and expectations of our civilized society are designed to keep physical violence to a minimum. And for good reason: physical violence is, you know, destructive. So men are expected — indeed required — to avoid and deflect confrontation, and to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence.

And when they do, they get called pussies.


Dan connor
Be a good husband/ partner/ lover — but don’t care too much what women think. This one falls squarely into the category of “not just insanely rigid but logically contradictory”: a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum that ensures a lifetime of self-conscious anxiety if you let yourself take it seriously. Being a good husband and father — a good provider who cares for his family and treats women with respect — is central to the male mythos. And being good in bed has become a crucial part of this mythos as well. It’s no longer enough for a Real Man to nail a lot of women: he has to get every single one of them off. Performance anxiety — it’s not just for hard-ons anymore! Not that I have any problem with the idea that women’s sexual pleasure ought to matter to men who have sex with them. The problem lies with the notion that women’s sexual pleasure is entirely men’s responsibility; that pleasing women ought to be completely instinctive; that women’s satisfaction is a victory to be achieved instead of an experience to be shared; and that this satisfaction has to be accomplished entirely with the man’s hard dick, and not with his hands or tongue or toys or mind. (But that’s a rant for another time.)

Whipped poster
Yet at the same time, men aren’t supposed to care too much what women think. Years ago, when I was married to a man, we were trying to make some difficult decisions together about how to arrange our careers and lives (would he work full-time and maybe even overtime to help put me through grad school?) When he asked the guys he worked with for feedback and advice, he mostly got a load of derision for involving me too much in his decisions about his job. “Pussywhipped,” I believe, was the charming terminology being used. Yes, he was supposed to be a good provider and build the financial foundation for our life… but he was somehow supposed to accomplish this without asking me what kind of life I wanted, and without any willingness to compromise about what kind of life he wanted. For himself, or for the two of us. I guess he was supposed to be The Decider.

Of course, while it was horribly unmanly for him to be guided by his wife, it was perfectly fine for him to be guided by the guys he worked with at the auto shop. As Scott said, “King of Queens is a good example, I think because though he tries to be a good husband and companion, he often finds himself in conflict with what his friends want or with his own sense of what should be considered masculine.” Men’s definitions of manhood are supposed to come from other men — not from women. They’re just not supposed to care all that much what women think of them.

You see this a lot in fashion advice for men. Men aren’t supposed to look like dorks or slobs, of course… but they can’t look like they care about their looks, either. Men — straight men, anyway — have to achieve that perfect, razor’s edge balance between good grooming and carelessness. You’re supposed to look good — but those good looks have to seem effortless. Looking like you care how you look makes you look like a woman. Or a gay man. (More on that in a tic.) Women are supposed to be the ones prettying themselves up into objects of desire. Men are not supposed to be the objects of desire. They’re supposed to be the subjects. And subjects aren’t supposed to care what their objects think of them.

Except when they’re trying to get those objects to come.


Be hot to trot. Always. With anybody This is another expectation that came up with striking (although hardly surprising) frequency. Men are supposed to want sex — and be ready for sex — all the time. With pretty much anyone of the right gender who makes themselves available for it. In his evaluation of male gender roles, Michael T. says, “To be a man you must use sexual conquest as a gauge for manhood.” Jraoul quoted a song, Lou Christie’s “Lightning Strikes,” with lyrics that go, ” When I see her lips begging to be kissed, I can’t stop, I can’t stop myself… When I see a sign that she wants to make time, I can’t stop, I can’t stop myself…” And in his litany of male gender expectations, my friend Michael listed, “Have sex with any woman who says ‘yes,’ or who offers herself. If not, I must be gay, right?”

Playboy 1967
It’s weird. An intense, even predatory sexual desire is a big part of the Manly Man picture. And yet that picture doesn’t allow for men to have preferences. Or rather: They’re allowed and even expected to have preferences — as long as those preferences conform with social norms. I vividly remember an article from a late ’60s Playboy, analyzing men’s personalities based on what kind of female bodies they liked: liking big breasts made you cool, while liking big butts or legs meant you were immature. And that’s hardly a relic of the ’60s: even today, lots of men feel pressured to date women who meet the current standards of female attractiveness. Lots of men, for instance, feel pressured to date fashionably thin women: even if they personally prefer women with more meat on their bones, they feel embarrassed introducing them to their buddies. Like dating a fat chick is a slam on their ego. Like it means they’re not high enough on the primate status ladder to acquire a high-status mate.

So yes, men are allowed to be hotter for some girls than others. But they’re still supposed to get it on with anything that moves and spreads its legs. Anything female and not grotesque, anyway. Men are expected to have sexual desire… but that desire can’t be their own. It can’t be idiosyncratic. Or even all that personal. It can’t belong to them.

And for the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, it can’t be based on emotion.

Stiff upper lip jeeves
Stiff upper lip. Because for men, nothing at all can be based on emotion. Generic sexual desire, and the desire to punch someone’s lights out, are pretty much the only emotions men are supposed to experience. And if they have the gall (or the lack of self-control) to experience their emotions, they bloody well better not let on about it.

This one is so common, it’s almost ubiquitous. At least half the men I talked to made a point about it… and a bunch of the ones who didn’t mention it explicitly alluded to it in other ways. David B. says he learned that men are supposed to be “reserved emotionally. Apparently men are only supposed to be passionate about sex, cars, sports and beer. And even then, passionate is not the ‘appropriate’ way for a man to describe his feeling about something.” David M. got the same memo: “No whining, no complaining, and no crying.” Michael T., got it, too: “To be a man you must be non emotional and disconnected.” And the other Michael: “Have no emotional intelligence / don’t show too many emotions.” Andrew says he learned that a man “is supposed to be hard as nails and is to show no emotion.” Jason learned that being a man means “not showing emotion, being ‘tough’ so to speak — and that one is from peers, family and all of the above.” Dean points out “the usual messages about big boys don’t cry (yes, we do) and how a real man doesn’t complain (yes, they do).” Scott also points to “the ‘boys don’t cry’ mantra.” Ben T. says, “I hate the fact that men can’t be scared of anything.” James says he learned to appear emotionless so effectively that “I did not shed a single tear when my Dad died during heart surgery.” And Georges points out, “It always amazed me how brave I had to be to allow my feelings to show.”

This one, I would argue, is more crippling than all the rest combined. I, personally, might be able to manage a life where I always had to be willing to fight or fuck; where I had to walk an impossible tightrope between caring what my partner thought without caring too much; where I had to twist myself into knots to avoid any hint that I might be attracted to people of the same sex. (See below.) But a life where I had to deny my most basic animal emotions — love and fear, passion and grief — just to not get treated as a gender freak? That would send me screaming ’round the bend. (More than I already am, I mean.)

For the sweet love of Jesus, don’t be even a little bit gay.

Unless you are. In which case, it’s more or less okay.

This is kind of a funny one. Acceptance of actual homosexuality has increased by a staggering amount in the last few decades. In less than 40 years, the LGBT rights movement has gone from fighting for our right to not be put in mental institutions and lobotomized, to fighting for our right to get legally married. (And, okay, the right to not be fired from our jobs or kicked out of the U.S. military… but still.) And social acceptance of queers has paralleled our political acceptance. If you actually are a gay man, the “Don’t be even a little bit gay” message is being replaced, more and more every day, with the message, “Well… okay.”

Chandler joey baby
But if you’re a straight man? It’s a very different story. In TV shows and movies, homosexual panic is still a reliable source of comic hijinks. Wacky situations in which straight men are mistaken for gay — Chandler and Joey on “Friends” being out together with a baby, the “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” gag on “Seinfeld” — these are a staple of modern comedy. And that staple is usually stapled to the assumption that, for straight men, being mistaken for gay is a humiliating blow to their masculinity. You see it in fashion/ dating/ etiquette advice for men, too, which often focuses to an almost hysterical degree on walking that razor- thin line between looking like an urbane, sophisticated man of the world… while still, for the sweet love of Jesus, not being mistaken for gay.

Ultimate guide to anal sex for men
And you definitely see it in some very common male sexual fears. I’ve read way too many letters to way too many sex advice columns from way too many straight men saying they like — how shall I put this delicately? — being on the receiving end of anal pleasure… but don’t want to explore this eminently delightful activity, because they’re afraid it means they’re gay. Or because their female partners are afraid it means they’re gay. (Somewhat testy note to straight men and their female partners: No, it doesn’t. Wanting a woman to fuck you in the ass does not make you gay. Any more than wanting a woman to suck your cock does. Please.)

Now, I will say that these attitudes are beginning to change. The advances of the LGBT movement have freed things up for straights as well as queers, and the younger generation is a lot more fluid and casual about sexual orientation than mine ever was. As my friend Ben pointed out, “The loosening of roles that accompanied feminism and the gay rights movement probably benefited straight men at least as much as it did women and gay men… Witness metrosexuality: now that being mistaken for gay isn’t a disaster, men have more fashion leeway.” And Adam, who describes himself as “effeminate, though heterosexual,” says that being assumed to be gay “gave me a pass on some of the more restrictive rules of masculinity. After all, nobody really bothered to tell me to ‘man up’ when I sounded ‘fruity’ anyway.”

But at the same time, as gay visibility has increased, the likelihood of being mistaken for gay has gone way, way up. And as a result, the number of opportunities for anxious, gay-panic freakouts has gone up as well. Being mistaken for gay isn’t as disastrous as it once was — it’s more of a laugh line and less of a petrifying threat — but it also happens a lot more often. And the anxiety it still creates for a lot of straight men is a lot more constant… even if it isn’t as severe.

Real men don't eat quiche
So What Now?

And I’ve just barely started. I don’t have nearly enough space here to write the full-length novel I could write on this subject. I’ve skipped some of the biggest and most important gender expectations of men: the expectations of competiveness, of status consciousness, of financial success, strength and athleticism, leadership skills, mechanical skills, easy erectile functionality, a dehumanizing attitude towards women, giving a crap about sports. Heck, men get a clear social message that, in order to be manly, they have to be tall. What the heck are you supposed to do about that?

What the heck are any of us supposed to do about any of this?

Well, having unloaded all this depressing crap, I think it’s important to deliver some good news: There are ways out of this, and around it, and through it. A lot of men I talked about this said that yes, they were certainly aware of the rigid expectations held of them as men… but they didn’t personally feel hugely constrained by them. Sure, they were aware of these expectations. But they also felt comfortable rejecting them. Or embracing the parts they liked, and rejecting the parts they didn’t. Or subverting them, in creative and fun and sexy ways.

Kurt cobain dress magazine
And many men pointed out that, while they’re certainly getting a super-sized serving of narrow, stupid cultural messages about How To Be A Man, they’re also getting a decent helping of smarter, broader messages about Not Listening To That Stupid Shit. Plenty of men have gotten spiffy, role-modely lessons and examples about being non-violent, respectful of women, emotionally honest, sexually honest, and just generally their own best selves… from sources ranging from pop culture icons to their own fathers and mothers. As jraoul pointed out, “Do I think men are given rigid and/or narrow expectations about maleness? Well, sure! And we are also given fluid and/or wide ones. Depends on who’s doing the giving.”

Admittedly, because of my own personality and proclivities, the men in my life tend to be — how shall we put this? — outside the mainstream of conventional American society. (“Big nerdy pinko freaks” would be another way to put it.) And a lot of them are gay or bi, which skews the sampling even more. But just like lots of feminist women are able to laugh off the sitcoms and billboards and women’s magazines and live however the frack we want, lots of feminist men are able to unload the John Wayne/ Cary Grant/ “What kind of man reads Playboy” crap they got loaded with — or, depending on their generation, the Rambo/ Tom Cruise/ Maxim Magazine crap — and just get on with their lives.

Different people feel more affected by gender expectations than others. Some of us — women and men alike — still hear these voices in the back of our heads, still feel them shaping our reflexes, still see a need to consciously drag these messages into the light so we know how to recognize them and have an easier time tossing them overboard. And some folks — again, both women and men — feel like this is really not that big a deal. Yes, they say, society wants men to be one way and women to be another. Who cares what society wants? For some people, it takes years of introspection and therapy and processing to unload this junk. Some people never unlearn it, in fact; some people let their whole lives be run by it. And other people seem to unload it just by deciding to do it.

So I don’t know what to tell you about how to do that.

All I can tell you is that it’s totally worth it.

Thanks to Adam, Alan, Andrew, Ben, Other Ben, Chad, Christopher, Craig, Crypt, Damion, Darren, David, Other David, Still Other David, Yet Still Another David, And Yet One More David, Dean, Georges, Glendon, Jacob, James, Other James, Jason, Jeff, Joel, jraoul, Kyle, Lauro, Lenny, Leo, Mark, Michael, Other Michael, Still Other Michael, Scott, Other Scott, Still Other Scott, Sean, Anonymous, and everyone else I talked with, for their invaluable help with this piece.

Five Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Experience Discrimination

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheists experience real discrimination, in the U.S. and around the world. Atheists have been denied custody of their kids, vandalized by neighbors, harassed and threatened in the military, kicked out of school, cut off by their families, discriminated against at work, targeted with death threats, and more… because of their atheism. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Experience Discrimination

Why We Must Always Be Skeptical

Cogito ergo dubito
Why does skepticism matter?

Not just in science, or history, or other academic pursuits where rigorous devotion to the truth is crucial. Why does skepticism matter in everyday life?

When I write about atheism — especially when I write about how the religion hypothesis has no good evidence supporting it and is almost certainly not true — there’s a response I get surprisingly often: “What difference does it make whether it’s true? Religion makes people happy. It gives people comfort in troubling times. It offers a sense of purpose and meaning. It lets people tolerate the idea of death without being paralyzed with terror. Why try to take that away from people? If it’s useful, who cares whether it’s true?”

My typical response to this… well, my first response is always dumbstruck head-scratching. To me, the idea that the truth matters is self-evident, and it seems bizarre to have to defend it in debate. And I am truly baffled by what people even mean when they say they believe something without necessarily thinking it’s true. (“You keep using that word ‘believe.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.”) But when my head-scratching is over, my typical response has been to write high-minded defenses of the philosophical and indeed ethical necessity of prioritizing the truth over our imaginings about it. Coupled with passionate love letters to the universe that would make Carl Sagan blush.

Today, I’m going in a different direction. Today, I want to talk about the uses of skepticism in everyday life. I want to talk about how skepticism — prioritizing good evidence and critical thinking over ideology and preconception, which includes declining to accept propositions without good evidence, and letting go of conclusions when the evidence doesn’t support them — can make our lives happier, healthier, and more richly satisfying. I want to talk about the real challenges that a skeptical approach to everyday life can present… and why the rewards make those challenges so worthwhile.

I want to talk about skepticism as a discipline.


Thus begins my new piece on AlterNet, Why We Must Always Be Skeptical. To find out how skepticism is more than an approach to scholarly pursuits such as science — how skepticism is a philosophy and a discipline that can and should be applied in everyday life — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Why We Must Always Be Skeptical

Atheist Meme of the Day: Hypothetically Possible /= Plausible

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

An idea can be hypothetically possible and still be wildly implausible. Including religious ideas. “You can’t disprove it with 100% certainty” is a terrible argument for God: without good evidence to support it, the God hypothesis is no more plausible than the hypothesis of unicorns, fairies, or Zeus. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Hypothetically Possible /= Plausible

Friday Cat Blogging: Lydia Licking Violet

And now, a cute picture of our cats.

Lydia licking violet

Lydia and Violet normally aren’t that friendly with each other. It’s one of the disappointments of our life: one of the whole points of having two cats is supposed to be that they snuggle and play and act nauseatingly cute together, and instead ours tend to hang out in opposite corners of the room, or indeed opposite corners of the apartment, mostly interacting to bristle and occasionally swipe at each other. Jerks.

But now and then, they get friendly and even snuggle a little. I caught Lydia giving Violet a bath, and got this photo. Say it all together now: Awwwwwww.

Friday Cat Blogging: Lydia Licking Violet

Atheist Meme of the Day: No Good Evidence for the Soul

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

There is not one scrap of good, solid, carefully-gathered evidence suggesting that consciousness is animated by an immaterial soul. And there is an overwhelming body of good, solid, carefully-gathered evidence pointing to the conclusion that, whatever consciousness is, it is a biological product of the brain. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: No Good Evidence for the Soul

Greta's Speaking Tour, Pacific Northwest, Sept. 9-13

UPDATE: The location for the Reed College talk has been changed. See below.

If you’re in the Pacific Northwest — specifically in the Portland or Vancouver, BC areas — come hear me speak! I’m going to be doing a speaking tour, September 9-13, at various college and university campuses in the Pacific Northwest, including Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia… and my alma mater, Reed College! I’ll be speaking on a number of different topics, including “Diversity in the Atheist Movement,” “Atheism and Sexuality,” and “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” I’ll be doing Q&A at every talk, so come prepared to grill me… or just come by and say howdy. The tour is being sponsored by the amazing Secular Student Alliance. Here are the details:

LOCATION: Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC, Canada
AQ 3005 (Academic Quadrangle)
TIME: 2:30 – 4:30 pm
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality

LOCATION: University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
WOOD 3 (lecture hall 3 in the Woodward building; here’s a map)
TIME: 7:00 – 9:00 pm
SPONSORS: UBC Freethinkers Club
TOPIC: Diversity in the Atheist Movement

LOCATION: Reed College, Portland, OR
Psych 105 Bio 19 lecture hall
TIME: 7:00 – 8:00 (possibly ending later if Q&A is going well)
SPONSORS: Reed Secular Alliance
TOPIC: Why Are You Atheists So Angry?

Hope to see you there!

Greta's Speaking Tour, Pacific Northwest, Sept. 9-13

Atheist Meme of the Day: Dodging Criticism = Bad Argument

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

If your best argument against atheism is a meta-argument about why atheists are mean and bad for making our case in the first place, you might consider whether the case for religion is any good. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Dodging Criticism = Bad Argument

Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul

This piece was originally published on Alternet.

Soul leaving body
“But when people are near death, they have out- of- body experiences. Some of them, anyway. Doesn’t this prove that there’s an immaterial soul, separate from the body, that leaves the body and survives when we die?”

As I’ve written before: Most arguments for spiritual belief that I encounter are so bad, they don’t even count as arguments. But some believers in religion or spirituality do try to make real arguments for their beliefs, and try to defend them with evidence and logic. This evidence and logic are never very good… but they are sincere attempts to engage with reality instead of ignoring it. So I want to do these argumemts the honor of taking them seriously… and pointing out how they’re completely mistaken.

Today, I’m taking on, not an argument for God, but for some sort of soul, separate from the brain and the body, that sparks consciousness, animates life, and survives death. More specifically, I’m taking on the argument that near- death experiences are evidence of this immortal soul.


Out of body
Here’s the argument being made. Sometimes, when people are near death, they have weird experiences: experiences that seem like their consciousness is leaving their body. These experiences are rare — even those who believe in the soul acknowledge that NDE’s only happen to a small proportion of people near death — but they happen. And there are some reports that people having these experiences see things they couldn’t have known were there. These experiences can only be explained — so the argument goes — by a soul, separate from the brain, that departs from the brain when it’s near death, and returns to it when death is staved off.

That’s the argument.

So here’s the problem.

There’s this phenomenon — consciousness.

There are essentially two ways to explain it. Either it’s a physical, biological product of the brain — or it has a component other than brain function: a soul that is separate from the brain, and that survives when the brain dies.

And there are two sets of evidence supporting these two explanations.

The evidence supporting the “biological product of the brain” explanation comes from rigorously- gathered, carefully- tested, thoroughly cross-checked, double-blinded, placebo- controlled, replicated, peer-reviewed research. An enormous mountain of research. A mountain of research that is growing more mountainous every day.

I cannot emphasize this enough. Read any current book on neurology or neuropsychology… or at least, any current book on neurology or neuropsychology that isn’t written by a woo believer with an axe to grind who’s cherry-picking the data. Read Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandran, Steven Pinker. We are getting closer to understanding consciousness every day. The sciences of neurology and neuropsychology are, it is true, very much in their infancy… but they are advancing by astonishing leaps and bounds, even as we speak. And what they are finding, consistently, thoroughly, across the board, is that, whatever consciousness is, it is intimately and inextricably linked to the brain. Changes in the brain result in changes in consciousness — changes sometimes so drastic that they render a person’s personality entirely unrecognizable. Changes in consciousness can be seen, using magnetic resonance imagery, as changes in the brain. This is the increasingly clear conclusion of the science: consciousness is a product of the brain. Period.

And this evidence has been gathered, and continues to be gathered, using the gold standard of evidence, methods specifically designed to filter out biases and known cognitive errors as much as is humanly possible: rigorously- gathered, carefully- tested, thoroughly cross-checked, double-blinded, placebo- controlled, replicated, peer-reviewed research.

Now. Compare, please, to the evidence supporting the “independent soul” explanation of consciousness.

Including near-death experiences, and the supposedly inexplicable things that happen to some people during them.

The evidence supporting the “independent soul” explanation is flimsy at best. It is unsubstantiated. It comes largely from personal anecdotes. It is internally inconsistent. It is shot through with discrepancies. It is loaded with biases and cognitive errors — especially confirmation bias, the tendency to exaggerate evidence that confirms what we already believe, and to ignore evidence that contradicts it. It has methodological errors that a sixth-grade science project winner could spot in ten seconds.

And that includes the evidence of near-death experiences.

Bogus beer
There is not a single account of an immaterial soul leaving the body in a near-death experience that meets the gold standard of scientific evidence. Not even close. Supposedly accurate perceptions of things they couldn’t have seen by people near death? Bogus. Supposedly accurate predictions of things they couldn’t have known by people near death? Bogus. The “shoe on the window ledge that the dying person supposedly couldn’t possibly have known about?” Bogus. The supposed eerie similarity of near-death experiences? Bogus. (The similarities that these experiences do have are entirely consistent with them all being created by human brains… and the differences between them are not only vast, but exactly what you would expect if these experiences were generated by people’s brains, based on their own beliefs about death. Christians near death see Jesus, Hindus near death see Hindu gods, etc.)

These claims — and the claims that these experiences could not possibly be explained by anything other than a supernatural soul — are anecdotal at best. Second- and third- hand hearsay. Gossip, essentially. And like most gossip, it leaves out the parts of the story that are less juicy, less consistent with what we already think about the world or what we want to think about it… and exaggerates the parts of the story that tell us what we already believe or want to believe. Believers in the soul love to tell the bogus story about the shoe on the window ledge. They’re less likely to tell the stories about the people near death who saw things that weren’t there, or who made predictions that didn’t happen, or who saw people alongside them in their supposed out- of- body experience who weren’t actually near death themselves.

Skeptical inquirer
And every time a claim about a soul leaving the body when near death has been tested, using good, rigorous methods, it’s utterly fallen apart. Every single rigorously-done study examining claims about near death experiences has completely failed to show any perceptions or predictions that couldn’t have been entirely natural. Again. And again. And again, and again, and again. And again. And… oh, you get the idea.

And I have yet to see a good explanation for a believer in near-death experiences of why they don’t happen to everyone: why they only happen to a small percentage of people who are near death. Are they saying that only about 10% of people have souls? Really? Is that an argument you want to make?

What’s more, believers in the immortal soul, and in near-death experiences as evidence of this soul, consistently fall back on bad arguments and poor logic to defend it. “You can’t prove with 100% certainty that it isn’t true; therefore, it could hypothetically be true; therefore, it’s reasonable to think it’s true.” “Neither side can prove their case with absolute certainty; therefore, both sides are equally likely; therefore, it’s reasonable for me to believe whatever I want to.” “Science has been wrong before; therefore, it could be wrong this time; therefore, I don’t have to provide any good evidence for why it’s wrong this time.” “Scientists are human, subject to as much human bias as anyone else; therefore, I don’t have to show exactly how their bias is affecting their conclusions in order to reject them.” “Lots of smart people believe it; even some scientists believe it; therefore, it’s reasonable to think it’s true.”

See no evil
It seems clear that, for most believers in an immortal soul, this belief is unfalsifiable. It shouldn’t be; in theory, this is an evidence-based conclusion that should be open to changing upon seeing better evidence. But in practice, it clearly is. In practice, for most believers, there is no possible evidence that could convince them that they’re wrong. They will reject the best available evidence, and clutch at the worst, since the latter confirms their belief and the former contradicts it. (Which is understandable — death sucks, and we’d all like to live forever and see our dead loved ones again — but it doesn’t make their arguments very convincing.)

Now, many believers in the soul will argue that yes, they are biased in favor of their belief — but so are the scientists who’ve concluded that consciousness is a physical process and the soul doesn’t exist. But this makes no sense whatsoever. Scientists are human, too: they don’t want to die, and they’d be just as happy as anyone to learn that they were going to live forever. In fact, for centuries, most scientists did believe in the soul, and much early science was dedicated to proving the soul’s existence and exploring its nature. It took decades upon decades of fruitless research in this field before scientists finally gave it up as a bad job. The conclusion that the soul does not exist was not about proving a pre-existing agenda: quite the opposite. It was about the evidence leading inexorably to a conclusion that was both surprising and upsetting. What’s more, if any scientist today could conclusively prove the existence of the soul, they’d instantly become the most famous and respected scientist in the history of the world. What possible motivation could they have for being biased against the soul hypothesis?

This is patently not true for the claim about the immortal soul, and the claim that near-death experiences are good evidence for it. This claim is not only unsupported by any solid evidence, and flatly contradicted by plenty of solid evidence. It is also, very clearly, based on the most wishful of all wishful thinking — the deep, intense, completely understandable desire to not die.


Given that all this is true.

Given that the evidence supporting the “biological process of the brain” explanation is rigorously gathered, carefully tested, thoroughly cross-checked, internally consistent, consistent with everything we know about how the brain and the mind work, able to produce mind-bogglingly accurate predictions, not slanted towards wishful thinking, and is expanding our understanding of the mind every day.

Wishful thinking
Given that the evidence supporting the “immortal soul separate from the brain” explanation is flimsy, anecdotal, internally inconsistent, blasted into non-existence upon careful examination, totally at odds with everything we know about how the brain and the mind work, and strongly biased towards what people most desperately want to believe.

Which of these explanations of consciousness seems more likely?

And which explanation of near-death experiences seems more likely?

Forget about the “you can’t disprove it with 100% certainty” fallacy. We’re not talking about 100% certainty. We don’t apply the “100% certainty” test to anything else in our lives, so let’s not apply it here. Which explanation is more plausible? Which has more credibility? If we were talking about any other question — if we were talking about global climate change, or evolution, or whether the earth orbits the sun — which set of evidence would you give greater weight to?

Yes, weird things sometimes happen to some people’s minds when they’re near death. Weird things often happen to people’s minds during altered states of consciousness. Exhaustion, stress, distraction, trance-like repetition, optical illusion, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload… any of these physical changes to the brain, and more, can create vivid “perceptions” that are entirely disconnected from reality. It’s been extensively demonstrated. And being near death is an altered state of consciousness, a physical change to the brain. (What’s more, as my wife Ingrid keeps pointing out: Near death experiences are not death. What happens to consciousness when the brain is briefly deprived of oxygen tells us nothing about what happens to consciousness when the brain is decayed in the grave into dust and nothingness.)

So which explanation of this weirdness is more plausible? The physical one — the one that says, “Yeah, the brain does weird things sometimes when deprived of oxygen or otherwise altered, and these experiences are completely consistent with what we know about the brain”? The one that’s backed up by a mountain of rigorous, replicated research?

Or the supernatural one — the one that’s backed up by anecdotes, cognitive biases, bad logic, and wishful thinking?

Look. I don’t want to die, either. Just about nobody wants to die. That includes scientists, and it includes researchers into neurology and neuropsychology and consciousness. When I was letting go of my spiritual beliefs, this was by far the hardest part: letting go of my belief that my soul was immortal, and accepting that death is permanent. It’s true that, when I think about it carefully, it’s impossible for me to imagine an eternal afterlife that wouldn’t be intolerable… but that doesn’t change my intense emotional attachment to life, and to the people I love. We evolved from millions of generations of ancestors who really, really wanted to survive: it makes sense that we would fear death, and want to stay alive. We evolved from thousands of generations of ancestors in social species; it makes sense that we would love other people and grieve for them when they die. And it makes sense that we’d want to believe that death isn’t final.

But if we care whether the things we believe are true, we can’t just believe that we’ll live forever, simply because we want to.

Reality wins. Reality is more important than anything we could make up about it. (And it’s a whole lot more interesting.) If we want to be intimately connected with the universe, we need to accept what the universe is telling us, through evidence, is true about itself. We need to not treat the world we make up in our heads as more important than the world outside our heads. If we want to be intimately connected with the universe, we need to accept the reality about it.

Even when that reality contradicts our most cherished beliefs.

Even when that reality is frightening, or painful, or sad.

And that includes the reality of death.

If we find the idea of death upsetting, we need to not cover our eyes and ears in the face of death, and pretend that it isn’t real. We need, instead, to find and create secular philosophies of death that provide comfort and meaning. We need to find value in the transient as much as in the permanent. We need to see change and loss and death as inherent and necessary to life, without which the things we value in life would not be possible. We need to see death as providing inspiration and motivation to experience life as fully as we can, and to get things done while we still have time. We need to view death as a natural process, something that connects us with the great chain of cause and effect in the universe. We need to take comfort in the idea that, even though we will die and our death will be forever, the memories people have of us will live on, and the world will be different because we were here. We need to take comfort in making this life as meaningful and valuable as we possibly can: for ourselves, and for everyone else around us. We need to recognize how astronomically lucky we were to have been born into this life at all, and not see it as a tragedy because that life won’t last forever.

Hand outstretched
When we let go of religious or spiritual beliefs, it can be painful to accept the reality and permanence of death. But we can take comfort in the knowledge that, whatever secular philosophies of death we have, they aren’t based on sloppy evidence and wishful thinking and an intense effort to avoid cognitive dissonance. We can take comfort in the knowledge that our philosophies of death are built on a solid foundation of good evidence, reason, plausibility, and the acceptance of reality.

And that’s more comforting than any spiritual belief I’ve ever held.

Also in this series:
Why “Everything Has a Cause” is a Terrible Argument for God
Why “Life Has To Have Been Designed” Is a Terrible Argument for God’s Existence
Why “The Universe Is Perfectly Fine-Tuned For Life” Is a Terrible Argument for God
Why “I Feel It In My Heart” Is a Terrible Argument for God

Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul

Atheist Meme of the Day: Society Does Not Need Religion

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

It is simply not true that society needs religion. Countries with high rates of atheism tend to have high rates of happiness and social functioning. This doesn’t prove that atheism makes a society work better — it’s probably the other way around — but it does show that we don’t need religion to be happy or good. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Society Does Not Need Religion