Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Monday, 19 January 2015

The Unthinking Atheist

There's a peculiar phenomena I see frequently on the interweb - people who think that because they are atheists, they must be better people than those of a religious leaning. These people believe that any sort of faith is the source of all evil, and that if only everyone would just stop believing things the world would be a better, happier place.

Such people range from the very, very stupid sort who can't spell, to the extremely erudite and learned (i.e. Richard Dawkins). All of them share the conviction not only that there are no supernatural deities, but that no-one else should believe in them either. While most atheists simply go about their lives not believing in magical deities, this most peculiar variety spend an awful lot of time trying to unconvert people from their faith and frequently hurling vicious abuse at anyone who dares question them.

There are two quite unrelated triggers for this rant/essay. One is that I've just finished reading The Science of Discworld IV. For readers unfamiliar with the series, they're not books about the astronavigation skills of world turtles - rather, they use Discworld as a sort of lens through which to examine real-world science. And in this instance there's also a strong philosophical leaning (which is considerably more interesting than in the previous two books) that directly relates to much of what I want to blather on about here.

Obligatory world-turtle shot.
I thought about writing a full review of the book, but it's only one-half of the trigger. The other is the horrific killings at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (I'll only be tangentially referring to that though, and, lest there be any doubt let me state JE SUIS CHARLIE). So I'll be referring to SODIV frequently, but I've got my own ideas to explore as well.

What I want to raise attention to is partially the abusive, hate-filled attitude of certain atheists (a provisional label that I'll return to later) , and partially the closely-related issue that many atheists feel they no longer need to question whether religion is a good thing. For them, it is an absolute certainty : any religious ideas, even those which are very moderate, are inherently bad and must be stamped out. That they are so disgusted with religion that they feel free to openly hurl hatred at its participants is, err, testament (see what I did there ?) to their fundamentalist non-faith. Yet their unquestioning insistence that religion in any form is wholly bad, whilst they simultaneously claim the blind faith they suppose is required by religion is a major part of its many, many flaws, looks very strange indeed.

Obviously - but it doesn't hurt to emphasis this - I'm not talking about the vast majority of atheists here. Certainly my (ostensibly) atheist friends outnumber my religious or even agnostic associates considerably. Yet, bewilderingly, the sheer number of people who hold religion as a scapegoat for all the world's ills is simply too large to attribute them to being the occasional internet troll. No, unthinking atheism is a thing, and it needs to be dealt with. In principle, this could also apply to agnosticism as well, but I've yet to see a single example of this in practise. Anyway "The Unthinking Atheist" is a sexier title.

In this first half I'll examine some mistaken ideas people have about atheism being somehow a more logical, natural position. I'll also be putting in a stalwart defence of agnosticism, because it's my blog and I can if I want to. However, if sophistry and petty linguistic disputes aren't your thing, feel free to scroll down to the second section, wherein I tell Johnny Antitheist to take his bigotry somewhere else. You'll miss the bit about the invisible goat though, which would be a shame.


Atheism and anti-theism

SODIV makes a very eloquent case that science is not a belief system, "it's a disbelief system". Which is true. I've already expounded my views on science and wacky ideas at length here, so I won't repeat them, but the opening chapter of SODIV pretty much repeats a lot of what I said. What they develop much further is a passionate case for atheism being fundamentally different to a religious viewpoint, and they argue persuasively that science and atheism are not alternative religions :

"A UFO believer, for example, may argue that not believing in UFOs is merely another kind of belief. Namely, a belief that UFOs don't exist. However, when virtually all of the alleged "evidence" for UFOs turns out to be mistaken, or false, the contrary position isn't a matter of belief at all. Zero belief in UFOs is not the same as 100% belief in the non-existence of UFOs. Zero belief is an absence of belief, not an opposed form of belief."

Now, as far as science goes, you won't get any argument from me. But can we apply this to atheism ? I'm not convinced, as we shall see in a moment. The authors make another very important point, but, curiously, fail to examine its implications in any detail. They note that some scientists are absolutely convinced about things they really have no business being convinced about :

"There are some who like certainty; they like to know just where they are. They tend to get their knowledge, their beliefs, from authoritative sources : the Bible, the Q'ran, textbooks [my emphasis], or the practises of their profession. They know that those who disagree with them are wrong, and sometimes evil.
Over the years we have found, somewhat to our surprise, that many scientists are also like this... There are biologists who know that the most important feature of any organism is its DNA... There are physicists who know that the Universe is made up of these particles, with these constants and mechanisms."

Here we have examples of scientists accepting non-religious ideas on faith. Yet, what the authors only barely hint at is the fact that neither science nor, more particularly, atheism, are shields against blind faith. Somehow, they have failed to realise that while a genuine total lack of belief is possible, it is also absolutely possible to hold (in a sense) the opposite stance.

If there is good evidence either way, then a belief that UFOs don't exist is subtly, but importantly, different from a lack of belief that UFOs exist. Proponents of the first stance will seek to refute any evidence of UFOs - photographs of flying saucers, they immediately say, must be fakes - whereas those holding the second viewpoint will be persuaded either way - they will (or at least could) consider carefully if a photograph stands up to expert analysis and only then form an opinion.


Agnosticism is very explicitly this lack of belief - it is skeptical (that is, inquiring) of claims both for and against. Atheism is much more of a grey area. Often it too is, more or lesssimply a lack of belief - many atheists just aren't interested in the subject. And that's fine. For some, it's the marginally stronger statement that God probably does not exist, and that's as far as they go. But for many others, it's not skeptical at all : it's a form of denial, an anti-theism, a resolute conviction that any religious ideology is not only wrong, but a Bad Thing.


Is atheism a religion ?

Antitheists (a term that is badly needed in common usage) deny this. They claim that they're merely atheists, that they don't have a belief system and that they're different to those of a religious ilk. Actually, there's a whole spectrum of possibilities. Certainly, the authors of SODIV do not fall into the hate-mongering variety I'll return to later, nor are they unthinking - they have considered the evidence carefully (one of them trained as a Rabbi) and found it wanting. Their conclusion is that God doesn't exist, but not necessarily that all religious beliefs are bad. However, they're utterly convinced that their conclusion must be the right one, which is rather stronger than their professed claim merely not to believe in God. They're also none too satisfied with agnosticism :

"Many religious people try to reject atheism as another form of belief, with the natural position being what they call agnosticism. They then interpret that stance as the view that the chances of God existing are about 50-50. So by being neutral, you are already halfway towards agreeing with them."

Worryingly, that's the only mention of agnosticism in the whole book. Yet I doubt most agnostics would agree the chances of God existing are 50-50. The whole point of being agnostic is that you don't know. That doesn't necessarily mean you think the chances are even (though some do), it can instead mean you think you can't even assess the probability. They continue :

"The default is to disbelieve. An atheist is not someone who believes God doesn't exist. It is someone who doesn't believe that God does exist."

Sir Terry, were it up to me, I'd take all of that hack Rowling's ill-gotten gains and deliver her fortune to you in cash in a great big truck. But you're dead wrong about this one. Firstly, a lack of belief (by itself) is widely accepted to be agnosticism, while someone who lacks belief in God and also believes God doesn't exist is called an atheist. I'm sorry, but that's just what the words mean. Redefining them in this particular way is a big mistake, which I'll return to in a moment.

Secondly, the ignorance of the existence of antitheists is a major problem : failing to acknowledge them undermines a lot of the rhetoric about atheism being the more rational position. It might be if atheism were really a true lack of belief - but it isn't, that's agnosticism ! And I agree, that should indeed be the default. Once evidence is presented (whatever kind of evidence that may be), we may form an opinion and, if we are so inclined, switch from agnosticism to theism/antitheism.

Suppose I were to tell you that there is an invisible hairy goat who lives on my head and farms mushrooms. You'd think I'd gone stark raving mad, obviously. But, until I told you about said goat, you were agnostic about its existence - you totally lacked any belief in a mushroom-farming invisible goat. The instance I told you about it, however, you became an atheist with respect to the head-dwelling goat : you believe it doesn't exist, maintaining agnosticism would be crazy. And in this case, your belief would be entirely, 100% correct. That's the point. Belief isn't inherently wrong or irrational. There's nothing inherently wrong with atheism, but there's no point pretending it isn't a belief.

Sometimes believing in things is right, sometimes it's wrong. Sheer belief neither makes a thing true nor untrue.


BUT I WANT TO EXIIIIIISSSST !!!!!
Many atheists choose to dismiss the possibility of God existing as you can't prove a negative - a sensible, rational philosophy, if you don't think there's any evidence. But there are also antitheists who are better described as being people who BELIEVE, with the same righteous fire normally associated with religious fanatics, that God does not exist. These people are convinced that everyone else must share their view and are on a mission to unconvert people. They have no problem in attacking anyone and everyone who disagrees with them. Just as a Creationist will dismiss any evidence of evolution, so antitheists will dismiss any suggestion that religion has ever contributed anything to society.

So the question, "Is atheism a religion ?" actually has a simple answer. Many (most) atheists aren't religious at all, nor is it necessarily a religious viewpoint. But for some of the more extreme antitheists, it absolutely is. It is this small but significant subset which concerns me here. Atheism itself is not a religion, but some people are giving a damn good try at making antitheism into one. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck.... And I don't mean the sort of mainstream liberal-socialist duck- err, religion common in modern Europe (but for some reason much rarer in the US) - rather, the non-faith of antitheism is usually much closer to the extremist fundamentalism they profess to oppose most vehemently of all.


Terminology

As is no doubt already apparent, definitions matter. It should also be obvious that, as usual, things are better defined as a continuous spectrum rather than discrete categories, but we do need categories to simplify things. SODIV have, by their extreme conviction that there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of deities, thrown a spanner in the works. Their definition of "atheist", which is far closer to the conventional "agnostic", is not what's usually understood by the term, which is more like "antitheist".

Now, as an agnostic, I admit to some bias against using "atheist" to mean "lack of belief". I greatly prefer the standard, widely-accepted definitions :
  • Fanatical theist : Someone who believes in the existence of a deity or deities and insists that their existence is a certainty.
  • Theist : Someone who believes in the existence of a deity or deities.
  • Agnostic : Someone who lacks belief in both the existence and non-existence of deities.
  • Atheist : Someone who believes deities do not exist.
  • Antitheist : Someone who believes deities do not, and cannot, exist.
SODIV''s definition of atheism is a hair's breath from agnostic. It's true that as an atheist, you lack belief in deities. But if you don't qualify that with the additional statement "and I believe they don't exist", then you're for all intents and purposes an agnostic. Atheists, in my experience, do hold this second statement to be true - removing it would make them agnostics, which neither they nor agnostics want. And the reason we have separate terms goes far beyond pedantic hair-splitting.

The thing is, redefining atheist to only mean a lack of belief is highly disingenuous : it implies that it's only possible to believe in things, not against them. This means you've effectively declared the non-existence of deities to be such an absolute certainty that you can't even acknowledge other points of view. Which makes you an antitheist rather than an atheist in the usual sense. And yet few atheists would say they are absolutely certain no deities exist (see below), so I think the standard definitions are better. They certainly involve less semantics and, as a bonus, define a nice clear spectrum of positions. I'll be using them throughout the rest of the post.

Even SODIV acknowledge that, unlike the case of an invisible goat, they can't disprove religious beliefs :

"Science can't disprove religious beliefs. Nothing can. That's the problem... But the inability of science to disprove religious beliefs does not make it a belief system... When presented with extraordinary hypotheses, disbelief is not the opposite of belief. It is the default, neutral stance : "I'm not interested in playing this game, it makes no sense."

There's that ambiguous word "disbelief" again. If they mean "lack belief", then I agree - but that's agnosticism ! If they mean, "believe they do not exist", then that's atheism, but I don't think that should be the default stance, because it certainly isn't neutral. For some reason I cannot fathom, they seem hell-bent on ignoring agnosticism whilst desperately trying to promote its virtues. Which is a shame, because if they'd understood what agnosticism means they I could have made this post a lot shorter.



Antitheism vs Atheism vs Agnosticism

Relatively few people are convinced by agnosticism as an alternative to atheism. One argument often made against it is that by analogy, it makes no sense to be agnostic about whether Santa Claus exists. And that's true, just as with the goat... but in that case there's a far more sensible, falsifiable alternative argument : it was your parents putting the presents under the tree the whole time. So of course it makes no sense to be agnostic about Santa, unless you're six and only just beginning to understand how the world works.

I mentioned earlier that agnosticism is a sensible position if there's no evidence, or equal evidence both ways, with regard to an issue. Now, I don't propose to tell you if that's the case for the existence of God* or not. Make your own decision with regards to the evidence. If you think it supports God's existence, go ahead and believe. If you think the evidence is against God, be an atheist. If you're not sure, here's why I favour agnosticism.

* Remembering that there are many definitions of "God". The kind of people who take every word of the Bible literally are simply nuts - a classic antitheist mistake is to assume that this is what all religious people do. Certainly there are better, falsifiable alternatives to a God who constantly intervenes to cause mass flooding and hurricanes and what have you. But deities in general, such as a prime mover ? That is a much stronger, less convincing statement.

Santa Claus is a poor analogy. A better one would be something much more controversial, like climate change - at least, climate change science as it was 30 years ago, or as it is perceived by the public today. Scientists 30 years ago were very uncertain as to whether humans were causing global warming. There are several positions anyone could have chosen at the time :
1) Agnostic : Wait and see. More evidence is needed. Believe nothing.
2) Atheist / theist : Choose to believe that humans are not the cause of global warming.
3) Antitheist / zealous theist : Choose to believe that humans are not and cannot be the cause of global warming.
4) Al Gore : OMFG I'VE GOT TO SAVE THE POLAR BEARS !!!!

Do I need a reason for this ? No, I don't think so.
Obviously, I've given the theistic perspectives the wrong opinions (and given them the same as the atheist/antithesit) for dramatic effect. Of course, it's conceivable they would choose to believe the exact opposite - but at the time, this would be a completely arbitrary decision and for the wrong reasons. Admittedly, I'm not sure what the equivalent theistic position is with regard to Al Gore.

The important thing is that antitheism and extreme theism both reach "certain" conclusions, in their own minds. Their system of thought is essentially the same - it's based on what they want to believe, not the actual evidence. When evidence is lacking, the agnostic position is the most rational. Of course, both the more moderate theist and atheist will be willing to change their minds if sufficient evidence is presented - those are perfectly sensible viewpoints too. But zealous theists and antitheists will not, and those people are the dangerous ones.

Ultimately, even agnosticism is another opinion - an opinion that the evidence is equal, or cannot be judged. However, it's very rare (verging on "never actually happens") for an agnostic to say, "I'm uncertain and I think everyone else should be too." Far more often it is confined to being a personal point of view : "I can't make up my mind about this, so I don't see why I should try and change anyone else's." In contrast, someone who is convinced by evidence to hold a firm opinion one way or another is far more likely to want to persuade others to share that opinion.

People naturally assess evidence in different ways, hence they reach different conclusions. For some people, being a theist is the only view that makes sense (if they've had a religious experience, for example). For others, the concept of a supernatural deity running the show just doesn't cut it, and so these people can't be anything other than atheists. Agnostics, meanwhile, are content to remain uncertain given insufficient evidence. To me, this is better than atheism because it completely avoids making what I see as an irrational judgement. Of course, anyone who really does think the evidence is actually against the existence of deities should be an atheist.

But evidence, of course, is not proof. When something is proven beyond all doubt, it makes no sense to believe otherwise. If God decided to raise the dead tomorrow, no sane atheist would cling to their beliefs - but antitheists would. It's harder to disprove the religious beliefs, but if, say, science could find a simple alternative explanation to God (i.e. to explain why there is something rather than nothing), a lot of theists would abandon their faith - except for the most zealous. The moderates on both sides are people worth engaging with - the most extreme are beyond all hope. The problem isn't with people having opinions, it's people who've mistaken their opinions for facts.

Or as Stephen Hawking put it : "Ignorance allows you to learn. Knowledge does not."*. If you've decided to believe that deities doesn't exist, then you've closed your mind to the possibility that they do. If you're agnostic, you are no more committed to believing in them than atheists, but you're also not denying the alternative. In that sense, agnosticism is the most skeptical and inquiring of the possible viewpoints.

* That is why doubt (unless it becomes all-consuming), particularly self-doubt, is not a weakness, nor necessarily a state of fear of uncertainty, but a tremendous strength and even a source of comfort.

Agnosticism doesn't say that people should or shouldn't believe. All it says is that given the current evidence (or lack therefore), anyone who claims they are certain of the existence (or lack thereof) of God may be mistaken. It doesn't say their beliefs are definitely wrong, only that they're wrong to be certain of their beliefs. To me, this is quite different - and far more accommodating - than actually pronouncing judgement on the beliefs themselves. Saying, "you're certainly wrong" is very different from, "you're wrong to be certain".

Well, after that extremely lengthy preamble, I think we're finally ready to get to the heart of the matter.



Thursday, 27 November 2014

Bones and Balloons

If the last post was about scientists behaving inappropriately, then this one is surely the exact opposite. Here's what scientists are supposed to look like. Why every scientist isn't given a lab coat on graduating is something I'll never understand.

Every part of the scientific garb is deeply symbolic. White coats represent scientific purity, while torches remind us that the search for truth can often take us into dark places. Hard hats protect us from the slings and arrows of our less worthy colleagues.
The list of unexpected things I've done in the name of science is getting fairly long at this stage. There was that terrible, terrible dance video, the awful epic poetry, the rather nice epic doodles, the time an imaginary monkey helped me to measure hydrogen, my appearance in the Scottish Sun (while still in Puerto Rico) because my student discovered a galaxy that looks like the Loch Ness Monster, and of course writing The Story of Princess Olivia and the Magical Moose Whose Name No-one Could Quite Remember. Even so, I still think I'm struggling to outdo photographing a potato for NASA... though if things pan out, that one will soon get some satisfying closure. I can say no more.

The Czechs, it must be said, are a very reserved bunch. I doubt anyone would dispute that - when giving talks, it's tough to imagine a greater contrast than between Czech and Anglo-American audiences. But it would be a terrible, terrible mistake to confuse a certain natural caution and generally measured approach with a lack of enthusiasm, sense of humour and fun. Oh no. Far from it.

Our head of department turned 65 recently. A lunchtime discussion briefly considered the notion of a present, before someone suggested we put on some kind of performance.
"What, you mean like, 'Star formation through the medium of interpretative dance ?' ", said I.
"Yes." was the immediate and quite deadpan response.

And that's exactly what we did.

In a few hours we had the basic routine worked out. We'd act out the theory of the formation of a globular cluster. There'd be dry ice (for the interstellar medium), hairdryers and confetti (for the stellar winds), ribbons (because stars form in filaments), flashlights (because, you know, stars shine), costumes (different coloured mantles for different spectral types, hats with equations for black holes and Bonner-Ebert spheres), balloons filled with foil (because stars produce metals) that we'd burst to generate supernovae... in short, it would be a no-singing, all-dancing affair. I was immediately appointed narrator due to my suave and sophisticated British accent, a.k.a. being the token native English speaker.

Despite the truly frightening end result, the Arecibo Anthem genuinely did involve a lot of practise. It had zero props, it's just that none of us were any good at singing or dancing. In contrast, Star Formation Wars had dozens of props, only two practise sessions, and the dry ice turned up not six hours before (like it was supposed to), but 30 minutes. And yet it basically works.


OK, sometimes people missed their cues. My narration has a charismatic delivery that only Ed Milliband could envy. The music track decided to stop working FOR NO REASON !!! about 2 minutes in, and half the time I was too busy watching the participants to bother changing slides (I was also using a camera flash when the supernovae went off - there was a surprising amount of multi-tasking here). Did any of that matter ? Nope.

You probably can't see just how much material was injected into the interstellar medium by the stars and supernovae, but it was a lot. Bits of foil are still appearing randomly all over the institute. Like the drawing of "Dr Rhysy Baby" that's still in my old Cardiff office, I suspect bits of foil will still be turning up long after I've left. I hope so.


Anyway, to return to the picture at the start, the reason we're all dressed like that is because we're all going down a silver mine. The admission fee for Star Formation Wars didn't generate the massive revenue we were hoping for, so the search for funding has become desperate - so desperate that the postdocs have given up applying for grants and are now sent deep into the bowels of the Earth to hack small pieces of silver out of the dirt. Well... not quite. In fact, that's hardly true at all. Actually it's a lie.

Apparently, medieval miners used to wear white cloth because it was cheap. There are medieval depictions of them dressed up like that, although methinks the artist to have been a trifle naive if they really thought those clothes stayed white enough to pass the prestigious Daz Doorstep Challenge for very long. Still, the miners weren't likely to have drawn naked ladies all over their jackets. Presumably.

The pretty town of Kutna Hora is about an hour and a half away from Prague by bus. Back in medieval days it grew fat off the proceeds of its famed silver mines - literally, it was history's first obesity crisis. OK, that's another lie, but it did get stinkin' rich from the silver mines - the deepest of which was called the Donkey Mine and was over 600 metres deep. Amazingly that's not a lie, apparently it was called "Donkey" because that was the owner's name, for some reason. I blame a rather sordid personal history and some very lonely nights.

The tour of the mines is very good, even though you can now only go down to 35 metres. The lower levels are flooded and anyway the rocks contain arsenic (as our guide explained with the black humour typical of the Czechs : "It was good to be a miner's wife. You'd get rich and probably have at least three different husbands"). The mines are narrow, so fun to explore but don't photograph well. All this silver helped pay for two fine cathedrals, and they're more photogenic.



St Barbara's, above, is very much a typical cathedral. I always like visiting them, but they're all basically the same. The other one, with the more grandiose name of the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist (described as a fine example of "architechtonic heritage" in a translated sign), is in some ways more interesting. The interior having been gutted at some point in its long history, it's been restored... after a fashion. It sort of looks like the mid-stage of a "pimp my church" reality show; a cathedral without any of the trimmings - which is about 90% of what a cathedral needs in order to be... well, a cathedral.



The most interesting bit was going up in the rafters, because they hardly ever let you do that. Suddenly the whole interior made a lot more sense. I have no idea what I was expecting, but somehow it wasn't that.

Anyway, neither the silver mines nor the cathedrals nor the excellent food from the Pavince Dacicky ('c' is pronounced 'ts' in Czech, they tell me) restaurant is why anyone visits Kutna Hora these days. No, it's something altogether stranger - the Sedlec Ossuary, more commonly known as the Bone Church. From the outside it's an unremarkable place.


The interior is another matter entirely. It's just one medium-sized room, but what a room. The great Uzbekistani conqueror Tamerlane, once known as the Scourge of God and the Fear and Terror of the World (now quite forgotten by Western society), was, in his day, famous for not merely razing cities but for so utterly annihilating them that he planted fields of barely in the ruins. His more macabre signature was to also leave behind great towers built of the skulls of the city's former inhabitants. Well, Tamerlane never made it this far, but the ossuary is one place where you can get a very good idea of what said towers may have looked like.


Remember that scene in Return of the King where rivers of skulls burst out of the mountain ? I instantly started to take that a lot more seriously. Most of these bones are apparently from the remains of over 40,000 people buried here who died from plague and wars. Given the number of leg and arm bones on display, a figure of thousands is not implausible.


The room contains four such "pyramids", each about three or four metres high.
Yet the whole place doesn't feel like a house of horrors. It doesn't feel reverential like a tomb, either, it just feels surreal. There's the bone coat of arms, complete with skeletal raven pecking at a skull...


... and, though one hesitates to speculate as to why, little statues of naked children playing trumpets. Best to leave that one well alone.


In any other crypt, hanging strings of skulls from the ceiling like tinsel would be talking point enough, but here they barely register. The designer of this place would probably have laughed in Tamerlane's face, or at least chuckled quietly to himself when safely out of earshot.


If memory serves, legend says that the pyramids were constructed by some half-blind medieval monk, while the more complicated "decorations" were added in the 19th century by a sculptor. Somehow it didn't seem to matter. The whole thing was so arrestingly strange that reading the history of the place would have been like - to borrow a previous observation - using the free wi-fi in a gentlemen's establishment.

Oh, and one more thing. The times, they are a changing, and even places like Sedlec have to stay relevant to our modern, capitalist, consumerist world. Most importantly, they've got to stay interesting to the young people. It isn't enough to have a chandelier made of bones any more, you've got to have something people can really engage with. At least, that's my explanation as to why there's also an alternate version of the ossuary available in Lego form.


Conclusion ? Beneath the cool Czech exterior beats the heart of an artist. An artist with a knife. And a big box of Lego.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Don't Fear the Feminists

I've always thought of feminism as a rather simple thing : the idea that men and women be treated equally. Yet in recent weeks there seems to have been a growing influx of anti-feminist rhetoric flitting about my Google+ stream, and it's time to do something about that. Much like those of the evangelical atheist ilk that treat all religions as morally equivalent to the mass human sacrifices of Aztec Mexico, so certain people seem to think that feminism is an idea that's really quite different to what it actually is.

This is a large, three-part article. It has to be, because this is a complex subject. In this first section I'll look at feminism and why it is - perhaps surprisingly - not actually incompatible with objectifying women; in the second part I'll examine what this means in practise; and in the third part will be a case study of the trigger for this article : shirtstorm.


1) What the heck is this "feminism", anyway ?

There are definitely mixed messages coming from the feminists. That's because feminism is an ideology, not a religion or political movement. Still, sometimes I can sympathise with Principle Skinner :


Don't worry, Seymour, there's an easy way out of this quagmire. In my view, "treated equally" really means with "equal respect". People are individuals and generally want to be treated differently from one another (perhaps less a case of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", and more a case of "do unto others as they would have you do unto them"*), but no-one wants to be treated like dirt. Everyone want to be valued equally, like-for-like. Treat people as individuals and don't generalise based on their gender - it's that simple.

* Well within reason. Just because someone wants a bribe doesn't entitle them to one.

"Equal respect" directly implies a meritocracy where everyone is allowed to compete equally based solely on ability. All other things being equal, everyone's opinion is equally important. But that's really all it says. It doesn't directly say anything about cheerleading, fashion modelling, the pornography industry, or heck, even the virtues of prostitution as a career choice. Rather what it says is quite simply that if these things are deemed acceptable for one gender, they must also be acceptable for the other. It does not actually say whether or not they are acceptable for any gender in the first place - that's society's choice. Feminism, as some wise individual wrote, is about elevating women, not taking men down.

Incidentally, this doesn't imply that we must demand equal numbers of men and women in the same jobs (though it most certainly does dictate equal pay for the same work). I strongly suspect that when we eventually do establish a society of truly equal respect, this is what will happen, even in careers where men and women are each currently tiny minorities - but I don't actually care about whether we have a precise 50-50 balance in all vocations. It's the opportunity that matters to me, not the end result.

Now, I sincerely hope that anyone reading this will have agreed that equal opportunities and equal pay for men and women are fundamentally Good Things (if we can't agree on that, I don't think we can be friends). It doesn't matter whether you look like Brad Pitt, Scarlett Johansson, or the back end of a bus - or whether you're a raging heterosexual, as gay as Dale Winton or as liberal as Captain Jack Harkness : your success in life should be determined by ability. Nothing else matters, except of course whether or not you treat others with the same amount of respect that they treat you.

Does this mean everyone should be treated in exactly the same way in all situations by everyone else ? Of course not, any more than you would go around assuming that everyone is an expert in neuroscience or has the same passionate hatred of elephants. And that leads us on to the area where so many people, both men and women, seem frightfully confused about feminism : sexuality.

Few people, if any at all, would complain about the following set of images :




Yet people most assuredly do complain about images like these :




Why is that ? Is there anything intrinsically different about the two sets of images beyond the genders displayed ? I would argue "no". I never heard anyone complain that the first images are in any way demeaning or that they treat men like objects for female gratification. Nor does it in any way disturb me that such images exist and that women enjoy them (indeed, certain female friends of mine have described, with consummate tact, the man in the first image as inducing a "lady boner"). Why should it ? Men and women find members of the opposite sex attractive, and as a short, scrawny yet slightly flabby nerd I don't feel in any way diminished by the use of uber-muscular young men as sex objects for women. More on that in part two.

Yet these are precisely the sort of complaints that are made about the second set of images. But it's not the images themselves that makes these complaints valid (for that, we must take a wider view). Image for image, it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to say whether one is treating one gender more respectfully than the other. Remember, if we're assuming "equality" to mean "equal respect", the actual way in which we treat the genders is not important : the only thing that matters is that if we objectify one gender, we also allow objectification of the other*.

* I suppose in principle "equal respect" could mean "zero respect for both genders", but this trivial to dismiss. No-one wants to live in a world where the only thing that matters is how attractive everyone is... well probably not, anyway.

Now I have to make a very important point before we proceed any further. I am going to use the term "objectify" to mean, "to ignore all other qualities besides physical attractiveness". This is not the same as the way some people use the term, which is more like "to assume that a person has no other qualities besides physical attractiveness". Unfortunately the difference between the two is considered so subtle there isn't even a good alternative English word, but in fact it isn't subtle at all - it's critical. That should become more obvious as we go on, if it isn't already. But please, dear reader, do keep this in mind - otherwise you may think I'm saying something completely different to what I actually mean.

Right, so, do those above images objectify genders ? You betcha. Is this a problem in and of itself ? Arguably, no. Is this a problem in society more generally ? Hell yes - and it's only a problem for women. I'll return to this more in part two, but first I want to say a little bit more about objectification.


People are sexy, deal with it

I don't have a problem with objectification per se. A woman who chooses to objectify herself for male gratification is no more immoral than a man who does the same for women, and nor are men who enjoy objectifying images of women any more immoral than women enjoying those of men. The problems are twofold, and related : 1) the much, much greater extent to which society objectifies women than men; 2) the fact that many men seem to extrapolate wildly from the women in these images that all women exist solely for their own enjoyment. This extrapolation is absurd as saying that because Chris Hadfield can play the guitar, he cannot also be an astronaut. It's as mad as a bag of clams, but that's the world we live in.


Put simply, the objectification of women (partly due to the sheer amount of it) has led many men not to conclude merely that women are attractive (which is all an image of an attractive woman intrinsically says), but to conclude that women are attractive and that's all they are. In fact, reducing one individual to their physical characteristics for the enjoyment of the opposite gender does not, in and of itself, imply that all members of that gender have no other value. It does not mean that the particular person on display has no other value either, only that they have chosen, temporarily, to ignore their other qualities - not eliminate then. They're not toys, for crying out loud.

Speaking of which, a pretty close analogy would be the similarly-decried video games. The notion that video games are a direct cause of violent behaviour is patently absurd. I play (or used to, a lot) Total War games, in which battle casualties can often run into the thousands. I don't know the total number of casualties I've inflicted, but it's certainly in the tens of thousands, probably in the hundreds of thousands, and very possibly in excess of a million. As for more up-close-and-personal games, I haven't the foggiest idea how many people I've immolated, punched, beheaded, riddled with bullets (and in one case with high-velocity gnomes), hacked with a sword, and brutally beaten to death with assorted blunt instruments. These things are fun to do in games because they're not real. They no more induce me to go on an orgy of death and destruction than they make me want to start the world's first floating circus and start wearing a tutu : there is precisely zero correlation here. Zero. Nada. Zilcho.

Similarly, objectification in principle does not lead to sexism (it doesn't when women objectify men, after all). If you can differentiate between the fantasy world of gameplay and reality, you damn well ought to be able to tell the difference between a woman posing for a photograph and the idea that women are somehow subordinate to men. There ought to exist the same vast chasm between enjoying killing thousands in a video game and wanting to massacre people in reality, as between enjoying a photograph of the opposite gender (or indeed any form of adult entertainment) and assuming they're all somehow inferior to you. You ought to possess the modicum of intellect needed to realise that people aren't toys because they chose to dress (or undress) in a certain way - yes, even (especially) when they're deliberately doing it so that you can enjoy them.

You can't tell me that watching elephants trample people to death in a video game isn't fun. You also can't tell me that it is fun in reality. Granted, the analogy isn't perfect - attractive people are, so I'm told, also a lot of fun in reality. But in reality, killing thousands of people isn't fun because people aren't toys - exactly the same goes for disrespecting women.
Now one could argue that we shouldn't objectify people at all. A debatable point, certainly, but I don't see this working. If people find the opposite gender attractive, there will always be people willing to exploit that and happy to be exploited by it. For the sake of the extremely important reason of the survival of the species, people generally want the opposite gender to find them attractive. It is simply too small a step, too slippery a slope, from this basic truth to people making money from this.

Moreover - if (note the maximum possible emphasis here) people treat "sexploitation" images in the same way they treat video games (i.e. they don't let them influence their real-world actions), then I fail to see anything immoral here. Far better - and frankly more fun for everyone - to simply demand equal levels of sexploitation of men and women. That could either mean much less objectification of women than at present, or much more of men, or something in between.

In short, objectification (by the definition I'm using) is scarcely intrinsically worse than simply finding someone attractive. Few people could honestly say they'd don't assess someone's physical attractiveness at all if presented with no more than a photograph. No-one thinks, "I must make a detailed inquiry into the personal habits and moral values of this person before judging their attractiveness." No-one. That is nonetheless a form of objectification - a part of human nature, which, like aggression, is only dangerous if not properly controlled.


So that's the theory covered. In summary, people can be hot. Judging them on this, and even ignoring their other qualities, is not damaging in and of itself - women happily do this to men with little harm done. But assuming that they don't actually have any other qualities, to treat them like a toy... this is immensely harmful. This level of objectification is far worse, but as we'll see in the next section, in practise even just ignoring their other values can be seriously degrading if it's allowed to run rampant. We'll also examine the ways in which things are much worse for women, and why when women objectify men this isn't damaging for men.


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