Derby Girls and Godless Universes


A couple of things I’ve been writing elsewhere this week:

The Fresh Meat Frontier

I don’t know about you, but I was intrigued. As if it were tailor-made to tempt a beanbag-bound nerdlady like myself to pop Captain Picard on pause, put down the caramel coated rice cakes and leave the house to try out this unfamiliar thing called ‘physical exercise’.

A bunch of emails and several months of skating around the park and the roller disco later, me and my sparkly-laced quads ventured into the first session of what’s slightly-terrifyingly called Fresh Meat training with the Dublin Roller Girls. To say I was intimidated walking in the door is an understatement.

And for something completely different:

Atheism and Me: Living in a Godless Universe

We all live in the same universe.

That’s it. We all live in the same world. And this is not a world where when we die, the atheists poof out of existence and the theists hang out in their respective afterlives/reincarnations/whathaveyou. If that were the case then I assure you I’d be founding the Order Of The Excellent Afterlife myself. This isn’t a world where believing hard enough makes gods exist for you but not for me. Conversely, if there is a god or gods out there, then no amount of my disbelief will make them not exist.

Hope you enjoy! And while you’re there, do go check out some of the things my fellow Gaelickers and Spirituality Irelanders are talking about. Over at Gaelick this week there’s tons of conversations going on about equal marriage, as well as an interesting perspective on the right to offend. At Spirituality Ireland, there has, of course, been a bit of a palaver over the Pope‘s resignation. Danny also talks touchingly about what being a New Age Godparent means to him, and Rania updates us on the new Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.

And before I go, have a super-cute video from way back when Sh*t XYZ Say was a thing. NSFW for n0rty words:

Happy reading!

Friday Links


First, a wee bit of shameless self-promotion. My second post at Spirituality Ireland, Atheism and Me: A Brief History, is up today. Enjoy! Now for what everyone else has been up to: starting with Alan Flanagan’s take on the very same thing. Moving on quickly, though, to…

Abortion

If you’re a giant nerd (hello!) and are curious as to the conversation about how we can legislate for abortion in Ireland, head on over to Human Rights in Ireland’s Summary of the Joint Committee on Health and Children Hearings on Abortion. Atheist Ireland’s Michael Nugent was one of the witnesses- check out his contribution. Speaking of the political side of things, Jen at Red Wine and Brie wonders how abortion made Ireland forget that we’re a democracy.

Over at ramp.ie, Lisa McInerney has a few questions for the overseas backers of Ireland’s major antichoice groups. Y’know, questions like why people who claim to care about people’s lives manage to completely ignore the welfare of the postborn in favour of giant billboards and free iPads.

Sharrow discusses nuts ‘n’ bolts practicalities in Abortion Training for Irish Doctors, and shares the story of women forced to illegally obtain medical abortions. Having abortions without medical supervision is risky, but Irish people who can’t travel outside the country are left with no choice.

The Cedar Lounge Revolution talk about how we’ve finally started to talk about abortion. About time, too! Although at the Joint Committee Hearings earlier this month, Maman Poulet points out that the 12 women a day forced to travel overseas for abortion are still being referred to as ‘These Women‘.

I’m trying to keep discussions of abortion as Irish-based as possible but damnit, I can’t stop myself sharing Libby Anne asking a question that we should ask far more than we do. Is Abortion A Tragedy? And I’m slightly cheating with this, but here’s Sharrow’s reblogging of Ms Magazine’s mythbusting on medical abortions.

Finally, a change of topic

Enough about abortion (for now)! Let’s talk about queer things. Dae from Queereka has a two-part series on Myths and Misconceptions of Bisexuality (or, what not to say to your bisexual acquaintances). Here’s part one, and here’s two. If that did nothing but whet your appetite for more bisexuality-related reading, fear not! The (frackin’ amazing) Shiri over at Bi Radical’s gotten a list together of ten recommended articles on bisexuality for your perusal. I know I’ll be sitting down with a bookmachine, a cuppa, and that lot over the next few days. And if you haven’t had your mind blown by Julia Serano lately- or even if you have- give Bisexuality and Binaries Revisited a click.

It’s been a few days since we’ve talked about Lobstergate. So here’s CN Lester on Burchill, anger, and where we go from here. And Queereka’s Yessenia takes down rad fem transphobia with It’s My Oppression And You Can’t Have Any.

Over at my very own Feminist Ire, Wendy Lyon takes down the idea that violence decreases under the Nordic model of sex work.

Speaking of sex (and don’t we all?), check out Red Wine & Brie on the ridiculous ways we view people with disabilities and sexuality. And then pop over to the Pervocracy (which you’re doing anyway, right?) for Cliff’s take on researching sexuality and circumstantial evidence. And as you’re over at Red Wine & Brie, Jen has something to say on gender and the hijacking of legitimate discussions.

It is the weekend, right?

Fiiiiiiiine. It’s the weekend, you’ve had a long week, your eyes are googly and brain is mush from the thinking. Have a story: Introvert Fairy Tales have a lovely take on the Princess And The Pea.

In case you get away from the keyboard and we actually have a clear night or three, Scibernia’ve put together a list of astronomical events to look forward to in 2013. Planets! Stars! Meteors! Great big comets! I am very excited!

And Doc Brown shares a sentiment I’ve daydreamed about the odd time myself:

 

 

Atheism and religion: it’s all in the axioms


I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in any gods or supernatural beings or occurrences. As far as I can tell, we live in a wholly natural world. But while my atheism is important and informs many of my perspectives, I don’t see it as an essential part of my basic worldview. It’s merely a conclusion drawn from something far, far more meaningful: scepticism and inquiry. I say this because I’m going to talk about an idea I have about the difference between axioms and conclusions and how this can be applied to religiousness and atheism. Bear with me on this one- it’s not as complicated as it seems.

Here’s a handy definition of ‘axiom’ that I googled. While obviously any particular definition will be incomplete, these will serve us perfectly well and fit in with how I want to use the word today. An axiom is:

A self-evident or universally recognized truth

and here’s another one:

A proposition that is not susceptible of proof or disproof; its truth is assumed to be self-evident.

Each of us, whether we are aware of it or not, does operate with certain axioms. There are things which we take for granted and whose truth appears self-evident. There are other things which we do not take for granted, and whose truth or falsehood we deduce in other ways- from things like logic or evidence. The axioms that I use in my day-to-day life, however, are not necessarily the same as those which you use. Or, to put it differently, there are things which I take for granted that you do not. And, by the way, vice-versa.

Something I hear far too often in atheist circles is the idea that as atheists we are somehow more rational, logical and intelligent than our religious counterparts. I don’t believe this to be the case. And here’s why:

The God Thing: Axiom or question?

I wasn’t always an atheist, but I am now. Have been for several years and expect to continue this way. In between my religious childhood and atheist adulthood were several years of questioning. This isn’t unusual. Something I remember from my early years, however, is how the existence of God wasn’t something I came by rationally. It was something that I took for granted. God existed just as much as my family and everything else in the world around me. Whether God existed or not wasn’t a question– of course S/He did. One of the things that changed for me as I grew into adulthood was that several things happened which made me start questioning my religious background. It happened slowly, over several years. First I questioned Catholicism, then christianity, and finally the existence of any god at all. It wasn’t a simple process, and I think that one of the things that made it so complicated was how it involved more than new answers to questions. Things which had previously been axiomatic to me became topics I questioned and subjected to logical inquiry and the search for evidence. It wasn’t new answers to questions at all. It was a whole different way of thinking about the entire damn topic.

I’m lucky to have a fairly diverse bunch of friends and acquaintances, although I will admit that they lean towards the secular. However, they also include a good few people who follow various religious traditions and share beliefs in god. I am no more intelligent and no more rational than my friends who believe in gods. They’re generally the same kind of pro-science somewhat geeky social activist types as the rest of the people I tend to hang out with. The only difference, it seems to me, is in whether we frame the existence of god as an axiom or a question. Everything else flows from there.

Contradicting reality

When I look at the religious people around me, I don’t see people who deny reality. This is, of course, not representative of everyone with a religious belief. There are people whose beliefs blatantly contradict observable facts and evidence, and that is a problem because that kind of thing can be seriously harmful to us all. I have a massive problem with people who would choose the words of their sacred text over the evidence of their eyes.

The biggest difference that I see isn’t between believers and nonbelievers. It’s between people who choose their scripture over observable reality (“the planet’s climate couldn’t be changing because the bible says that God will never again do that kind of thing” or “I’m going to deny my child life-saving medical treatment and pray for them instead while they suffer and die”) and those who believe one alongside the other. Honestly, I’m more interested in whether you acknowledge that the universe is billions of years old than whether you think that there is a deity planning the whole thing on a level that humans can’t fathom. The latter is something that doesn’t affect me in the slightest- it’s an addendum you have to the things we know about the universe. We live in pretty much the same place, give or take an axiom or two, and we try to not have too much cognitive dissonance with them. The former is terrifying, because it shows a blatant disregard for reality, and someone who is willing to do that in one sphere is likely to be willing to do so in another. We have far, far too much evidence from history as well as the present of people whose prioritising of their scriptures over the world and people around them led them to do terrible things.

I’m an atheist. Far more importantly than that, I am a sceptic and a humanist. It would be lovely to be able to put atheists in one category (“intelligent, rational, exceptionally good looking and charming”) and everyone else in another that was far less flattering. But in my own experience- and yes, I am speaking from anecdote in this entire post- focusing on whether the existence of god is one of a person’s axioms is a red herring. Things aren’t that simple. And I, for one, am not about to let a desire for simplicity overlook reality- a reality where a person’s respect for observable reality is far, far more important than whether they see something beyond that.

How about yourselves? This is something that I’m very much in the process of working out my own views on, and as always I’d love to find out what you think. I know that my readers have many different ir/religious perspectives. If you’re religious, do you think I’m right about my idea that belief in god(s) is more of an axiom than something logically deduced? I’m also really interested in the ways that people reconcile where reality seems to contradict the scripture(s) that you follow- I’d love if anyone would like to talk about their experiences with that?

Oh, and this is only tangentially related, but I found it kinda amusing.

Death, atheism and middle of the night belief: being kind to ourselves.


I’m an atheist. I try to be a skeptic- I’m hesitant to identify as A Skeptic, because I think that skepticism is something that we do, not something we are. I believe in things that we have evidence for, like apples and kittens and spaceships and love. While accepting that I live in and am a brain optimised for staying alive and making more brains over logic, I try to not believe things without evidence. I don’t believe in gods or homeopathy or decent books by Stephanie Meyer. Because my beliefs are based on evidence, they are always conditional and subject to change. Which is why I now accept that Lovely Housemate can, in fact, cook pasta without burning it, and I am coming around to the conclusion that there are advantages to not sleeping in until lunchtime every day, and that there is such a thing as too much chilli.

My skepticism is one informed by the real world. My skepticism is based on valuing truth and empathy together. It is based on an empathy informed by truth, an honesty about the world, and a belief that we are at our most honest when we are also compassionate. And an understanding that honesty requires that we accept who and what we are. Sometimes, that means that we accept being brains that do things that aren’t logical. We are brains that are optimised to see agency in the world around us. We can personify and empathise with just about anything. It’s part of how we empathise with and love others. We create images of those we love in our minds. Those we love, in a way, live within us.

I read this yesterday.

Libby’s impending mortality has reminded me that even that belief is one in which I can—and probably have—become just a little too certain. Sometimes, I think—I hope?—there is a value to a belief, even an irrational one, whose main purpose is to comfort. Sometimes even a rigorist may admit a moment of cognitive dissonance if doing so salves a wound that makes life, at that moment, too painful.

If at this moment I allow myself to believe, more or less unquestioned, that Libby has something in her that’s immortal, it doesn’t mean that I will stop accepting as valid the conclusions of modern science…

My critical discipline is good. I will not disparage it. But I will also try to learn that I can distinguish between the consequences of particular irrational claims, and to affirm that there are some that I am morally allowed to hold.

Go read the rest. It’s blisteringly honest and sweet and compassionate, acknowledging the irrationality of believing that those we love go on and yet accepting that sometimes it’s what we can’t help but do.

I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe that we have this one, short, wonderful life and that there isn’t really any way to tell what happens after. Except that our brains stop working. And that it looks like our brains are where our consciousness and our selves live.

There are times, though, when I wake up in the middle of the night and I can’t believe that those I love who have died are truly gone. I hear their voices in my mind, remember what it was like to talk to them, hug them and hold them close. I can feel their closeness, love and compassion deep within me, as if they were next to me. In those moments, the belief and understanding that they no longer exist just isn’t there. It’s not that I don’t want to believe it. It’s that the parts of my mind that came into being through my relationships with them are still there. Those mirror neurons haven’t stopped firing. My mind wants, with everything it has, to feel that they’re still there. Somehow. Somewhere.

I don’t believe my mind. But sometimes I do let it be. While accepting logically that there is no known way by which anyone can survive beyond their death, I let my mind feel that the people I love still exist. Not because I think it’s true. But because this thing that I know not to be true is comforting. Because of this. Emphasis mine:

When I call the vet in to euthanize Libby, I will do so because I want to spare her a degree of pain that will make her life more of a torture than a joy. Perhaps her tacit lesson in that moment is that it is also acceptable for us humans, psychologically and spiritually, to extend a small amount of that same mercy to ourselves.

I feel that it is essential that we are as compassionate as we are honest. That compassion, if it is to be truly genuine, needs to be extended to our selves as well as to others. When I let a part of my brain feel (not believe) that my departed loved ones still somehow exist, I’m not denying reality. I still know that they are not. I know that my memories of their voices and presences are just that- precious memories that I hope I will carry with me all my life. But allowing a little conscious cognitive dissonance into my mind is a comfort. It’s a way to let my mind bring those memories to life. A way to let the relationships continue past the lives of one of their members. A way to let the people I love continue to influence my life beyond theirs. A way to get back to sleep in the middle of the night.

Going to your (Catholic) funeral


I went to a funeral today.

I feel like I write a lot about going to funerals. I wish I didn’t have the opportunity. But I do, and they make me think. This was the first funeral I’ve been to in the years since I left the catholic church where I wasn’t one of the primary mourners. My granduncle died. Though I loved him dearly, I am neither his daughter nor his granddaughter. I had the space to think a little about what was happening, about what I found beautiful and comforting and what I did not.

Being at a mass is difficult. I have such profoundly negative feelings towards the catholic church, but I respect the fact that this is a church to which my uncle was incredibly devoted. There’s a very fine line between attending, showing respect and expressing grief for the person I love, and not being dishonest about my own position. So I do what a lot of people do: I attend, I sit quietly on a pew, I listen to the words being said and try to focus on the reminiscences and individual meanings. I do not kneel when asked, though, and I do not say any prayers. I’m the only person I can see who can kneel who isn’t. That feels strange, and I feel so self-conscious. I think my integrity needs me to not kneel, though. I don’t go for Communion. I do shake hands when this is offered- but I always meet someone’s eyes with a question before shaking hands with them, and am happy to smile instead. Because I do want to share solidarity and compassion, and because I don’t want to foist unwanted contact on anyone. I feel like my integrity demands that I do this, too. I feel profoundly aware that I am not a Catholic.

I listen to the singing. It’s beautiful. I will never deny the aching, tragic beauty and hope of the requiem. The choir are people my uncle sang with for decades. Their voices are strong and clear, just like his was. Listening, I think about how so much of religion is based on this moment- when we acknowledge that everything and everyone must end, when we grieve and ache and we long to create and communicate what they meant and who they were. How much of it is simply the impossibility of reconciling this.

Then they talk about his life, about all the things that he did- about his love of sport and his time as President of Richmond Rugby Club, about his devotion to his family. His love of music, his skill as a carpenter, the love he shared with his wife. And then they say that with a life so well lived, he will surely be rewarded generously after his death. And I think that they’ve missed the point. The huge, beautiful point that a life so well lived rewards itself so many times over, that the things and people to which he was devoted must have been such a rich and beautiful reward for him. The hundreds of people who came to his funeral, the deep love in their grief, the stories they all had- isn’t this the reward? Can’t we just celebrate and grieve a life?

But I don’t say any of this, because I know his faith was as important to him as all of the rest of it. And I know that he probably spent his last moments looking forward to reuniting with the people who he loved who have already gone. And in my own way I do respect that. More than that, I do understand it. There were moments at that mass, when the priest described what those reunions much be like, that I let myself imagine them. In those moments, I longed for it to be true. I don’t believe, but I do understand.

And then we are at the grave. It is bitterly cold, the noise of the wind through the trees almost drowning out our voices. Until one person starts to sing, and another, and another. And in the cold and the rain, huddled together against the biting wind, we raise our voices in sadness, in joy, and in love.

In that moment I realise that this is what we do. We comfort each other and we love each other. When we are dying and in pain, we take away the pain and we sit with and hold and comfort each other. When we are scared, we stand with each other and we hold each other. When we grieve, we stand together, we make endless cups of tea, and we love each other. In that moment, I know that that’s enough.

Atheism and me: You’re going to hell!


I admit it- this one doesn’t happen very often. Like I’ve said before, I do live in a place where people are (mostly) polite about religion or the lack of it, at least in our everyday lives. But there have been times when I have been informed that because of my lack of belief in deities, I’m on a one-way trip to somewhere particularly flamey and infinite. And the only way to avoid the infinity of flameyness is to accept whichever particular brand of belief the person in question is brandishing professing, and start getting with the worship.

Charming.

Let’s assume for argument’s sake that there is a god. Or gods. Let’s also assume that this particular all-powerful being is the kind of entity who is willing to torture uncounted numbers of people forever because they came to a genuine, good-faith conclusion about the nature of the world around them.

These people are trying to convince me (and you!) to worship this guy. Not obey him out of sheer terror, by the way. Actual worship. Adoration.

Can you imagine respecting anyone this vindictive, self-obsessed and power-hungry? Going further than that, can you imagine worshipping them?

Any god worth their salt- any god worthy of respect- would by definition be an individual capable of proportionate responses to events. A god worth worshipping wouldn’t punish good people eternally for reasonable conclusions based on solid evidence.

So no, I don’t worry about burning in hell. If there is a god, and that god is the kind of individual who’d send me to hell for nonbelief, I wouldn’t stay out of the place long anyway- can’t imagine managing to keep that guy placated for all eternity.

(Not that there’s a shred of evidence for his existence anyway.)

Atheism and me: Talking about religion


Note: This is a post about a thing that I’m still thinking about, and that’s definitely not a fully formed, concrete point of view. It’s a work in progress. And it’s very much based on my pwn experiences and inclinations – I don’t expect others to be the same on this one!

As an atheist, talking about religion can feel like a minefield. Talking about atheism, too. Finding an approach that is both respectful of the people with whom I interact, without compromising my own position, can be difficult. And with good reason. There’s a lot going on. First, though, a little background on my own perspective. Because perspectives are important here. I’m writing from Dublin in Ireland- which makes a big difference, in the mostly-American internet. Religion(s) and atheism have a bit of a different relationship here than they do elsewhere. On a personal level, being an atheist- especially as an adult without any kids- is simply not a big deal. It’s not a thing that people talk about. When it is talked about, I’ve found a lot of understanding for a person’s choice to steer clear of the church. See, the thing about Ireland is that we are very, very aware of the damage that giving religious institutions too much power can do to a society. And the damage that identifying really, really strongly with religious groups can do to a society. I’m not sure if it’s a conscious thing, but talking a lot about god or about our own beliefs is definitely something that would be considered.. odd. People don’t do it, at least in the circles I live in. I’ve heard that this isn’t always the case, particularly in more rural areas, but I can’t speak from experience.

At the same time, the Catholic Church still has a ton of institutional power here, with control over the majority of our schools and hospitals. So we have this strange sitution where religion doesn’t come into every day life, isn’t really discussed, but does have an awful lot of institutional power. Well, one religion does, at least. Because of these factors, it’s not at all uncommon for people to criticise the instutions of the RCC. People are less likely to talk about actual beliefs, though.

So for me, talking about why I believe what I do (or, well, don’t!) needs to get past a level of discomfort with the topic itself, before even starting to tackle any other issues. Tis an odd one.

Background aside, let’s talk about talking about religion. For me, there’s a few issues at stake. The first thing is, of course, being honest about my worldview. As an atheist, I do genuinely believe that there is no real evidence for the existence of gods. And I’m as sure as I am about anything that I’m correct about that. I’m not going to deny that.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t religious viewpoints that I have respect for, though. And it doesn’t mean that I can get into conversations with religious people and ignore the massively important meanings other than the existence of gods that religion can have. Religion is about the supernatural, but it’s also about a hell of a lot more. It’s about where you come from. It’s about family, identity, class, and a host of other factors. I’ve spoken to enough secular Jews and cafeteria Catholics to know that, although a lot of sceptics would like to pretend otherwise.

When I talk about my views with religious people, I’m not trying to convert anyone. It annoys the hell out of me when anyone tries to convert me to their beliefs. I have no interest in being annoying. What I do try to do is to simply explain my own perspective- why I have come to the conclusions that I have, what those conclusions are, and how that informs my perspective. And I listen. As Jadey said in a comment to a previous post in this series, I prefer to practice “genuinely setting aside my own expectations and trying on something new”. I want to understand where people are coming from- us humans have a really terrible tendency to lump in all the members of other groups together and rely on stereotyped views.

Some people really like debating. I’m not one of them. While I love watching a good debate, I have about as much interest in participating as any sofa-bound sports spectator. Seriously. Not my thing. When I talk about religion and atheism with people, my interest is in increased understanding of our perspectives. That’s all.

Unless someone’s using their religion as an excuse to ignore reality or behave horribly to other people of course. Then the gloves are off. But that’s a different conversation, for another post.