Surface    |    Backfill    |    About    |    Contact


Freedom from the afterlife

It's common to think of the transition from Christianity and similar religions to atheism as one of loss of comforting illusions. Notable among these is the idea of an afterlife. It's taken for granted that belief in an afterlife makes people happy, and creates a strong wishful thinking rationale for theism. As commenter Brad puts it in response to a query from Chris Hallquist, the religion he's leaving promised him "ultimate relief from my earthly pain and trials," "the promise of eternal reward," "the satisfaction of knowing that all injustices will someday be righted," and "someday reuniting with my friends and family, both those who have 'gone ahead', and those still here."

It's a bit hard for me to relate to the sense of loss that Brad's budding atheism brings him on this point, because my own history is quite different -- to the point that I run the risk of having "wishful thinking" reasons for being an atheist. As a Christian, I experienced the idea of the afterlife as oppressive. I never had confidence that I was headed for heaven. I was terrified that I had committed some sin, failed to work hard enough and be perfect enough. I was terrified that however much I thought I had faith, there was some unconscious doubt that God would point out when it was too late for me to fix it. I was terrified that I had somehow, without meaning to, given Satan some unbreakable claim on me. And for all that, I would suffer for all eternity. The possibility of heaven only made it worse, because I could be blamed (by myself, by others, by God) for not doing what would have been necessary to change my own eternal fate.

My first step away from orthodox Christianity was to focus on several passages in the New Testament (I don't have time at the moment to try to find them) in which Jesus seemed to be essentially saying: "Don't worry about the afterlife. You can't know what's going to happen. I'll take care of it for you." This was not a traditional Christian "good news" of having confidence Jesus would make sure you go to heaven. This was a liberation of sorts from having to think about the afterlife at all. I could go about being a good person, expressing kindness and love in the here-and-now, and whatever happened after I died was not my concern.

But the more metaphysical my conception of God became, the less it really fit the name "God," until I finally had to admit to being an atheist. And now the thought of death is not a burden on me. In fact, if someone could credibly offer me eternal life, I'm not even sure I would take it.

The afterlife -- at least in Christianity, which is the only tradition I know in detail -- makes one's past a constant burden. What you've done, for good or ill, constantly accumulates as baggage directing your future. This feels oppressive to me, no matter how sure I am that I've accumulated good baggage.

I don't want to die anytime soon. Were I to be hit by a bus on my way home tonight, it would be a tragedy from my point of view. I'm attracted to the idea of living a full life, then bringing it to a conclusion and choosing to depart once you've had a good run. That conception strikes me as more beautiful than any promise of eternal life. I'll take my stab at life, then sign off before I wear out my welcome. The world can choose to preserve, build on, or forget my legacy as they see fit, but I won't have to be burdened by it forever. Let life be carried on by new people, who come in with a clean slate. The best thing I can do is to make sure that those who come after me have the best opportunities for what to do with their life, rather than accumulating credit for my own accomplishments.


What is real milk?

There has been a movement in recent years toward validating "real" food. It has been spearheaded by a contingent of "foodies" critical of modern industrial food production, notably Michael Pollan, but has also reached the wider culture, for example with the popularity of the pink tube of chicken nugget filling picture.

The discourse of "real" food has now become the focus of the latest campaign by the California Milk Processor Board (the people who brought us "Got Milk?"). This campaign is particularly interesting because it frames cow milk as "real" not in contrast to foods like McDonald's that everyone already thinks of as industrialized, but in contrast to plant-based milks like almond milk and soy milk. These plant milks have an aura of being healthy, natural, and associated with the very cultural left that produced the "real" food discourse. But the cow milk industry is very intent on reframing plant milks as fake.

In the "real" food discourse, there are at least three things that can make food "real" -- real food is natural (not highly processed), traditional (not a newfangled invention), and genuine (not an imitation of something else).

A natural food would be, essentially, one that resembles something found in nature, or which can be produced from natural ingredients in a small number of low-tech steps. The new milk ad involves guessing which bottle of white liquid is real (cow) milk, and which are fake (plant) milks. When the user selects one of the plant milks, the bottle turns around (with a sound I've been told is grating) to reveal a long list of ingredients. Several of the more exotic-sounding ingredients, such as carageenan and guar gum, are highlighted in red to emphasize that this product is highly unnatural. But of course these extra ingredients are only added to make a shelf-stable product that can be mass-marketed. The ingredients of homemade almond milk, for example, are water and almonds. And the process of making it involves the low-tech steps of soaking, grinding, and straining.

A traditional food is one that people have been eating for a long time -- something "your great-grandmother would recognize as food," to use one of Pollan's food rules. Cow milk is certainly highly traditional for European, south Asian, and African populations. But some plant milks are also quite traditional. People have consumed coconut milk for thousands upon thousands of years, we have evidence of soy milk as early as 82 CE, and milk made of rice or almonds has a long history in both Europe and the Americas. The only reason my great-grandmothers wouldn't recognize plant milks is because they happen to come from areas (Sweden and Britain) that didn't happen to have any plant milks of their own.

A genuine food is one that is not imitating or pretending to be a different food -- reflected in Pollan's dictum "Never eat something that is pretending to be something else." The milk board hits this theme, declaring for example that it's "spooky" how similar coconut milk looks to cow milk. The problem with this imitation criterion is that whether something is an imitation is a matter of framing, not a question of the nature of the product itself. The names of the plant milks seem to suggest that they are imitations, since "milk" without a modifier is generally taken to mean cow milk. But what if we called them "horchata" -- the same product, but now not framed as an imitation of cow milk. From personal experience, I can report that my enjoyment of plant milks increased when I started thinking of them as food items in their own right rather than as fake versions of cow milk.

The difficulties of applying any criterion of food "realness" suggest to me that it's of little use trying to judge foods by their realness. We should judge them by the things that are really worth caring about -- taste, health effects, and the labor and environmental effects of their production.

Did "we" kill the Neanderthals?

Human origins research is interesting not just for what the science tells us about how our species got the way it is, but also for what the social reception of origins research tells us about the concerns, biases, and anxieties of people today.

A case in point is a recent study about how modern humans replaced Neanderthals. The researchers found that Neanderthals in western Europe (particularly a sample from northern Spain) experienced a genetic bottleneck prior to the arrival of modern humans, suggesting that climate had already nearly wiped them out before any Homo sapiens sapiens showed up.

I found out about this study through this article, which puts a Eurocentric spin on the research. It opens by describing the time when "our ancestors reached Europe." But of course non-European people's ancestors never came to Europe at all. And depending on the extent to which the Indo-European expansion involved a spread of people and not just a spread of culture, only a very few people today (such as the Basques) might be directly descended from the people who encountered Neanderthals in western Europe.

More significantly, the article goes on to suggest that the research does away with the hypotheses of interbreeding, genocide, and out-competition. The author says it "raises the question of just how humans would have really fared against a Neanderthal population at full strength." But the research in question actually clearly states that humans did encounter full-strength Neanderthals -- just not in western Europe. The researchers clearly contrast the genetic bottleneck in Spain with more genetically diverse (and hence presumably larger) populations in eastern Europe and Asia.

Another interesting aspect to the reception of this study is the way that it's drawn into discourses about historical guilt. There's a persistent misunderstanding of leftist views of history that says the left wants people to feel guilty about the sins of their ancestors. Usually this concern focuses on comparatively recent events like the trans-Atlantic slave trade or Native American and Aboriginal Australian genocide. The actual leftist view of history is that it is important to recognize past injustices 1) so that we can understand why inequalities exist in the present (instead of attributing it to either personal failures or genetic inferiority on the part of present-day marginalized people), 2) so that it's reasonable to expect present-day descendants of the "winners" to invest some of the benefits they've gained from their ancestors' misdeeds in rectifying the legacy of the past injustice, and 3) so that we can be attentive to the possibility of similar misdeeds being repeated in the present. Many people insist on misinterpreting this leftist view of history as some sort of demand that the descendants of the "winners" feel guilty about their ancestors' sins. Guilt is actually one of the least productive responses to ancestral sin one could have -- it leads to wasting time in self-flagellation and centering the conversation on the guilty party and how horrible they feel.

The Neanderthal research then becomes a lever in this debate. Misinterpreters of the leftist view of history can assimilate Neanderthal extinction to more recent genocides, and then claim vindication (from a guilt nobody actually attributed to them) when research shows that climate did in (some of) the Neanderthal population. But even if research had shown that the extinction of the Neanderthals was a deliberate genocide by modern humans, there would be no grounds for guilt about it.


Romney's trees

Mitt Romney has repeatedly declared that Michigan's trees are just the right height. I'm inclined to cut him some slack on this comment, given that Romney has never really had a way with words. There definitely is something hard to define about the trees in a place one has lived for a while that just feels right when you come back after a long time away.

Amusingly, though, Romney's tree height comment has been getting attention just as a major global study of tree height has been published. The first point to note is that there is actually a range of tree heights in Michigan. In southern Michigan, near Romney's birthplace of Detroit, the average canopy height appears to be about 15 meters, but as you travel north it increases to about 30 meters. Trees of those heights are found throughout the eastern US. Nevertheless, I would note that in Massachusetts, where Romney was governor, and in New Hampshire, where he has a mansion, the trees are generally in the 30 meter range, giving some credibility to his claim of a distinctive (southern) Michigan tree height experience.


The anti-family party

Based on their answers to a line of questioning about contraception in their most recent debate, all of the remaining GOP presidential candidates want us to think they care about families. One would think that caring about families meant wanting to create policies that would strengthen actual families. But from their answers, it's clear that the real interest of these candidates is to be able to look down on families that are the wrong kind.

Rick Santorum was the most explicit, declaring his intention to "talk about the things" destroying families today, but then condemning liberals for assuming that "Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it." In other words, Santorum wants to be the Judgment-Passer-in-Chief, lecturing us on how our families are doing it wrong. Mitt Romney agreed that it's important to have a president who's "willing to say" that heterosexual nuclear families are the best. Romney did mention one actual policy measure he would support, which is teaching abstinence-based sex ed. But since abstinence-based programs have been shown not to work, what he's really supporting is a policy in which in addition to the president using his bully pulpit to lecture us on the evils of family arrangements other than the heterosexual nuclear family, we'll also have other people paid to deliver said lecturing directly to children. And even Ron Paul, allegedly so different in his libertarianism from the conservative mainstream, was quick to condemn use of the birth control pill as "immoral."

We have, then, a set of aspiring leaders who profess to be extremely concerned about the damage to our society from changing family structures, and yet their plan is simply to publicly look down on people who are not forming the right kind of families.

What would an actual pro-family agenda look like? The basic principles would be to 1) enable people to choose the family structures they want, and 2) make it easier for these families to succeed. Some changes need to happen on the cultural level, such as eliminating the social pressure on women to have children then subsume their identity into their children. But there are a number of things that the government can do to help:
* Give legal recognition to family arrangements other than heterosexual monogamy -- beginning at minimum with treating same-sex couples equally with respect to marriage and adoption, but ideally working toward a broader recognition of all of the types of caring support people may enter into.
* Enable people to choose when and how new family members will be added. The most obvious measure here is ensuring access to contraception and abortion. But it also means supporting access to health care that will enable people who do want children to have healthy children.
* Enable people to dissolve families that aren't working. I would like to have seen the debate moderator ask the candidates why their party voted against the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
* Provide a secure economic base so that people can provide for their families. Money problems tear families apart. Even if you think the GOP candidates' economic plans are good ones (I don't, but that's outside the scope of this post), they see the economy-family link backwards -- instead of looking at economic success as a route to strong families, they look at economic problems as a sign that people made bad family structure choices.

The field is wide open for a candidate with a platform of actually supporting families.


Men Teaching Women's Studies

Susan O'Doherty raises the well-worn question of whether men should be teaching woman-oriented courses. Doherty raises some concerns about the practice, and describes important benefits to having women teaching about women's issues, but stops short of saying that men shouldn't teach women's studies.

The typical response from defenders of men as women's studies teachers is along the lines of Lynn Gazis Sax's reply. If something is a serious subject worthy of intellectual inquiry, then men should be able to carry out that inquiry and teach about it. Defenders of male women's studies teachers also argue (and I think this was Hugo Schwyzer's angle, though I can't find his posts on it at the moment) that reserving women's studies for female professors sends the message that women's studies is not something that men should care to learn about either.

I have a vested interest in this question, as I'm a man who is currently developing a course ("Gender and the Environment") for my school's Women's Studies program. (The argument that men can teach women's studies seems to carry the day here at Slippery Rock, as I have gotten enthusiastic support from the director of the program and other women on the committee.)

But I think there's an angle missing in much talk about this question, which is this: even though my Gender and the Environment course is not on the books yet, I'm already teaching women's studies. I currently have three sections of World Regional Geography, one of our big introductory courses. This semester I've taught my students about the breakdown of the hegemony of the heterosexual nuclear family in North America. I taught them last week about the role of feminism in the demographic transition in Europe. Later in the semester we will talk about restrictive laws on women in Southwest Asia, and how traditional Southeast Asian cultures did not have a rigid gender binary. All of these are women's studies topics, and don't cease to become so just because they're in the same syllabus as the formation of coral atolls in Oceania and Amazon deforestation.

So if there's no way for men to teach women's studies, then I have two options. I could drop the gender-focused areas of my other courses, making them all ignorant of gender -- thereby contributing to the very problem women's studies was created to address. Or I could simply cease teaching social sciences at all. (And once you start applying the no-men-in-women's-studies logic to other axes of inequality -- race, disability, etc -- option 1 collapses into option 2 for me!)

O'Doherty describes her one woman-taught women's studies-ish course as a breath of fresh air, in content and classroom dynamics, as compared to her other courses. We can teach men to replicate that experience as best they can in all of their courses, by for example taking female students' contributions seriously and encouraging male students to step back and listen (O'Doherty's one concrete example). And we can hire more women as faculty across the curriculum, in physics as much as in English literature. I'm happy that Slippery Rock is moving toward offering a major in women's studies, but students shouldn't have to enroll in that major to be able to benefit from both woman-led and non-woman-led-but-woman-respecting teaching.


Religion is not special

The decision by many Catholic and Republican leaders to reject President Obama's proposed compromise on contraceptive coverage, and to push for greater freedom to deny coverage, really clarifies the issue we're dealing with. It simultaneously wins them points for honesty while demonstrating precisely why they ought to be required to offer coverage. Anyone who claims that religious freedom requires allowing institutions to decline to offer contraceptive coverage is failing to appreciate the distinction between spiritual practices and religious laws.

A spiritual practice is something that an individual or community voluntarily engages in in order to bring themselves closer to (a) God (or The Universe, or Nature, or The Ultimate Sources of Existence, or whatever your spirituality is directed toward). A religious law is an attempt to compel society to get closer to God (etc. -- I'll just say God from here on out since the controversy at hand involves a monotheistic religion). As a general rule, I think we ought to have a presumption for limiting burdens placed upon sincere spiritual practices, but ought to grant no special consideration or exemptions to religious laws.

There are two key distinguishing features of a spiritual practice -- its core function is focused on the practicing individual, and it does not directly affect others. There is certainly some fuzziness to this as with all categories. After all, your spiritual practice may affect me simply by being really weird and thus making me creeped out that you're doing it. Shamanistic urine-drinking, for example, would make most people in the US (including myself) a bit grossed out. But the value to practitioners of shamanism is so much greater (since it's an important practice in their spirituality) that those of us grossed out by it have no leg to stand on to oppose it as public policy -- and indeed, there would be grounds for a shamanic exception to some general public health law that might forbid urine drinking. Note that this is essentially the same logic that we would follow in the case of people who practice urine play in a consensual kink/BDSM context -- it's gross to think about for most people, but that's clearly outweighed by the satisfaction derived from it by people with a golden shower fetish. The fact that a practice has a spiritual dimension doesn't intrinsically make it special, it just serves as a marker that said practice is very important to the practitioner.

Addressing the contraception issue in terms of conscience clauses framed it as if it was a spiritual practice. Catholic institutions (or rather, their members) wanted to get closer to God by practicing not-offering-birth-control. But this alleged spiritual practice fails on both counts. First, it's not focused on the spiritual practitioner. The spiritual value of not-offering-birth-control is entirely derivative of the value of not-using-birth-control -- it's bad to hand it out only because that would facilitate it being used. And second, of course, it harms someone else in a pretty significant way, depriving owners of uteruses of an important medical treatment that they would otherwise be entitled to.

The compromise offered by Obama sought to deal with the issue as a matter of a spiritual practice, offering a way that the public policy goal (contraceptive access) could be achieved without burdening Catholic institutions' spiritual practice of not-offering-it. The rejection of this compromise by Republicans shows that this was never about a spiritual practice in the first place. It's not enough that certain people can avoid direct involvement in contraceptive provision -- the policy needs to stop contraceptives from being provided. This is why I give Republicans and conservative Catholics a bit of credit for honesty here. Their real concern was to implement their anti-contraception agenda, and so they refused to go along with the charade of a policy that would allow them to keep their personal hands clean while the effects of the policy got implemented anyway.

We can thus see that we're dealing with a religious law, one which says contraception is bad and should be restricted. The arguments against contraception are religious law type arguments -- that it is bad for society to allow people to alter the God-given design of sex, for example. The problem then is that religious law cannot be the grounds for policy exemptions. Religious law is an argument about what the overall policy should be. And as such, religious law has to go up against all of the other (secular or religious) arguments for or against the policy in question. Based on those arguments, society then makes a collective choice as to what the policy will be for everyone. The losers of a policy debate don't get to be exempt from it.

There's a common liberal (Rawls-inspired) claim that religious laws are invalid arguments to be put forward in the public sphere to argue for or against policies. I think this partakes of the same religious exceptionalism as the claim that religious laws should get policy exemptions. If you put something forward as a law, then you are making the claim that it can be backed up by reasons and evidence and be persuasive to others. Most religious people do in fact believe that about their claims. In this sense religious laws are no different than secular justifications for policy (which contain their own unsupported factual and value claims). Wanting to be closer to (a certain version of) God is not a prima facie more admissible goal than wanting to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number. But we must then proceed to analyze the pro and con arguments, and in doing so it should be apparent (though I don't have room in this post to go into it) why access to contraceptives should be mandated.

So the choice is this: either you have a spiritual practice that you can do as an individual or consenting community but cannot burden others with, or you have a religious law that could be adopted or rejected as policy for everyone. You don't get to claim exemptions and special circumstances in which to implement your religious law when you can't make it the policy for everyone.


Three ways to ask whether Game of Thrones is racist

Is A Game of Thrones -- either the book by George R.R. Martin or the series on HBO -- racist? Some people certainly think so. Others disagree. I've never read the book or seen an episode of the show, so I can't give an answer of my own. But that actually makes this an excellent example to use to illustrate some thoughts on interpreting literature*, because I can focus on clarifying what questions literature interpretation can ask without getting distracted by the answers.

So what are we really interested in if we ask whether A Game of Thrones is racist? I propose that there are at least three approaches we could take, which I'll label practical, interpretive, and causal.

The practical approach is interested in literature as the communication of information. Most of the things we read, we approach in a practical sense -- the author had some information, and I want to get it from them. When my friend sends me an email to tell me where we're meeting for coffee, the correct interpretation of her email is the one that leads me to know what coffee shop she intends to be at. Thus the practical approach can put a high premium on authorial intent, since usually the information we're looking for is the same as the information that the author wanted us to take away. But literature can communicate information that the author didn't intend to communicate -- revealing the author's secrets unbeknownst to them. In the context of A Game of Thrones, then, a practical approach would be asking questions like "what messages about race do George R.R. Martin and the producers of the HBO show want us to learn?" and "what do these works tell us about the subconscious attitudes of their creators?"

The interpretive approach is interested in what different sorts of interpretations we might give to a piece of literature. Here there is no such thing as a correct or incorrect interpretation, only interpretations that are more or less plausible, enlightening, or entertaining. For example, I recently attended a concert by the band Hellblinki, who had a debate on stage about whether a certain song was about giving birth (as intended by the songwriter), or about Daleks. To push the Dalek interpretation is not to say that the songwriter really meant to write about Daleks, or that he thinks babies secretly are Daleks. Rather, it creates amusement on the part of listeners as they flip back and forth between the "baby" and "Dalek" interpretive schemes, seeing how the same words take on a different meaning in each scheme. The interpretive approach is often used to rehabilitate works, finding the "feminist" reading of a seemingly sexist text, for example. But it is equally valid to propose a negative reading of a seemingly positive text, because thinking about how a beloved text could be read as racist, or warmongering, etc can also be entertaining or enlightening. For A Game of Thrones, the interpretive question would then be "can we construct a plausible racist interpretation, and how does that lead us to view the story?" and "can we construct a plausible non-racist interpretation, and how does that lead us to view the story?"

Finally, we could take a causal approach, which asks how readers will in fact interpret the text. It's all well and good to propose a plausible non-racist reading of a text, for example, but if readers come away from it having their racial prejudices confirmed, then that is a problem. The only way to answer causal questions with certainty is to do some sort of social or psychological experiments. So we could ask, does A Game of Thrones leads its readers/viewers to alter or entrench their views about race? And we could test this by, for example, giving people an implicit attitudes test before and after exposure to the book/show.

All three of these questions are worth asking, but they may come up with different answers, and have different practical implications. Practical questions tell us something about the creators, interpretive questions guide our enjoyment (or not) of a work, and causal questions direct us to the work's effects on the public.

* I occasionally complain about other disciplines trying to swoop in and do social science -- people from the humanities who pontificate about social topics without bothering with data, and people from the natural sciences who think that simple models based on stereotypes will solve our problems because they involve a lot of math. Feel free to bookmark this post for use in accusing me of hypocrisy next time I bring up such complaints.