PZ Myers: Humanist of the Year

PZ Myers: Humanist of the Year

PZ Myers: Humanist of the Year

Paul Zachary Myers, professor of biology at the University of Minnesota at Morris, has been named Humanist of the Year by the publishers of the The Humanist magazine, a publication of the American Humanist Association. It is a pleasure to see an “Old Atheist” organization honoring a “New Atheist”.

PZ, as he is often called, acknowledged this honor in Cover Boy, linking to the text of his acceptance speech.

PZ has long worked in evolutionary developmental biology, “evo-devo” for short, and he currently works on zebrafish development, though he has a fascination with cephalopods. He has named his blog Pharyngula after the “pharyngula” stage that vertebrate embryos go through. He describes his blog as “Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal”; he blogs about biology, politics, religion, and whatever else might interest him. He makes no secret of his atheism and opposition to religious follies; he has satirized fancy theology as The Courtier’s Reply.

So congratulations to him!

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The Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the Christmas Creation

Last night I went with Greg to see his little niece in a Christmas play – secretly, I expect, he is hoping to show me how the wonder of the Christmas message, performed by the pretty children he would like us to one day have ourselves. The niece’s overdone joy at seeing me and the look that passed between Greg and his sister indicated a family plot.

I enjoyed the play, as much as one can when one can’t claim ownership of one of the performers, but the sister was not best pleased. The niece was playing Mary, and admittedly, she did look very lovely – at least until the fight between her and the child playing Joseph over who got to hold the baby when the Wise Men came to look at it. There was shrieking, over-excitement, and a beheading as the doll was smashed repeatedly into the ground until its head came off, to general wailing.

I loved every minute of it.

But apart from the humorous side of things, what struck me was that part of the reason I loved it was the change of story. Without meaning to, I’m sure, and to the dismay of the parent-teacher association, those children recreated the Christmas story their own way. It was still a story, just not the expected story.

What is it about Christmas that inspires creation? Not just in disastrous plays, but in decorations, music, art… Whether you believe in the religion behind it (I don’t) the mythology behind the birth of Christ has transformed into a yearly festival of story. Some call it the greatest story ever told (I don’t). And that story is essentially an act of creation, isn’t it?

451px-annunciationBut where is the human element in this creation? Did Mary contribute DNA, or was she merely an incubator? If the last, is there really any human part to the basis of this creation story at all? Where in the story do we fit?

If humanity has no part in this creation, the same cannot be said for the aftermath. Even if we believe that the story was divinely rather than humanly created we can still respond to it – elaborate upon it, mimic it, update it. To make it more our own? Is that why there is a tendency to alter it, to massage the imagined scene into something we can more easily relate to – something closer to us in the time-space of our imaginations?

There is no specific day in the Christian calendar for celebrating the act of Creation, where God supposedly thought to himself “Right, today is the day. Let’s start on the creation of light. Now what did I do with those photons?” In that sense, the celebration of that belief seems to have found an underlying place in the birth of Christ. The whole of nature responds to it – or so we imagine. Even the stars in the sky are not immune.

And neither am I. It’s a pretty story, and I respond to some aspects of it – most especially the old Christmas carols. But it’s the substitution of celebration that interests me most. The Auto-Pygmalion is interested in the question of creation; how can she not be? Not so much the question of outer world creation, as that is explainable by modern science, but the question of the creation of the inner world.

As a species we create, and as broad groups of cultures there are focal points for our creation. One of these focal points is mythology. We respond to traditional, scripted stories that speak to us in a mythological way, but we respond especially well when we can take part in them, recreate the original story. In a culture descended from the Christian mythic interpretation of world events, we instinctively recognise the story of creation. Perhaps that is why singing Christmas carols is so popular – even if we do not believe, it allows us to take part in the story, recognising it as a story. You do not have to believe in Christ to appreciate Come All Ye Faithful, just as you do not have to believe in flying, fire-breathing reptiles to sing along to Puff the Magic Dragon. But by doing so, non-believers can take part in a story that is not our own, and by taking part make it our own.

Ironically, is this not what Mary did? She gave birth to Christ, brought the story of Christ into the world. But according to the mythology, she did not create him – Jesus was planted in her womb by God. Mary did not create the story, she was merely the page it was written on. But no doubt she felt he was partly her own, and her interpretations of his actions and words and story would have been influenced by the lens of motherhood.

nativity_smallSo when I think of Christmas, it is primarily Mary that I think of. You don’t always have a choice with stories – sometimes you get caught up in them all unwilling. One can’t honestly say that Mary chose to become pregnant by a supernatural power – the poor girl had little choice in the matter. The story steam-rolled over her in an act of creation in which she had no part.

As an artist it is this aspect of Christmas, and of Mary, that does not sit well with me. Who would want to be at the mercy of a story like that? I’ve said it before, and will say it again: the only stories you can trust are your own, the stories you create by will rather than reaction.

But when push comes to shove, if will is better than reaction, reaction is better than nothing. Better to have some control, some presence, some creativity within the story than none at all. Perhaps that is the reason that celebrating Christmas has caught on so over the millennia, whether the people who celebrate the story believe in its veracity or not.

And perhaps that is why Greg’s niece, not half an hour after her play ended in the most wonderful shambles, was able to say, in pleased satisfaction: “We did do well, didn’t we?”

Yes. Yes you did.

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.

The Invisible Atheist – by Garnet

Mourning My Mother

The end of October has become a melancholy time for me. A time when I’m prone to fits of sadness and episodes of morose contemplations of my life. A time when people closest to me are likely to experience the sharper edge of my tongue and my temper. A time in which I realize fully that my mourning for my mother is not yet finished, not quite yet. She died two years ago on October 26.

Hers is the first death of a loved one that I’ve faced as a strong atheist, without any remnant of the comforting notion of a happy afterlife where there will be no more tears and no more pain. This is the first time I’ve had to forcefully face the fact that there will not be any after-death reunion, that there is no walk through a dark passage towards the light of another, better kind of existence. She is gone and the only remnants of her are memories and some few possessions. In the realization of the finality of her loss are the ghosts of other dead loved ones circling around in my mind and whispering, “We’re gone too.” My father, my nephew, my fiancé, my friend, my uncle and on and on. All those I loved and have died are forever gone.

This is the time when I look back wistfully at the beliefs I held in my youth. Those warm, fuzzy, magical ideas that there was some sort of God up there, somewhere who loved me and would take care of me in the end. Those beliefs are long gone now; as dead as the loved ones I mourn. Those beliefs were doomed first by my short-lived conversion to Christianity in which I was taught that my notions about God were all wrong and, in fact, bordered on blasphemous. Those beliefs were finally and irrevocably eradicated during my search for convincing evidence, first, of the Christian God and then later, of anything divine.

So at times like these, when memories of my mother are welling up inside me, when I miss her very, very much, where do I turn? What do I do? How do I deal with the grief of her death?

By remembering that I am the daughter of a strong, compassionate, sometimes foolish, often wise, woman. While I miss the sound of her voice, the touch of her hand, the way she looked when something struck her as funny, her love, her acceptance and the way she cared about everything I did and how I felt, I must also remember this. If she was with me right now, she’d tell me to wipe my eyes, blow my nose and put this grief away. She’d tell me to live my life and enjoy myself in ways that she couldn’t. She’d touch me on the arm and tell me how proud she was of me. Then she’d arch her brow and tell me that it’s time to let go and get going.

Those who are gone still dwell in my memories. The lessons they taught me and the love they gave help me every day and buoy me up when I feel like I’m drowning. The realities of those relationships, both good and bad, are a part of who I am today. While I will always miss my loved ones, I know that the raw harshness of my grief will ameliorate over time. Living hurts sometimes. But when all is said and done, I find that I’m in a better place for living in reality than in the fanciful realms of magical thinking. I find that facing the facts of the deaths of my loved ones, while painful, is better than trying to believe in primitive or fuzzy notions of the afterlife. I find that I’m more able to appreciate my life here and now. In the end, it is better to live understanding the finality of death than in the throes of wishful thinking and cognitive dissonance.

So, when next October rolls around, I’ll likely experience feelings of sadness and perhaps I’ll be a little more difficult than usual to be around. But it will be a bit easier for me, as this year was easier than last. My melancholy moods will be shorter and as the years pass, those moods will eventually dwindle away. As long as I am able, I will hold dear the memories and lessons of those who are gone. Those are treasures. Real treasures that are far more valuable than any notion of heaven.

The Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the hollow landscape

A comment was left on my blog since my last post, about the perceived hollowness – the dead, spiritless existence – of life as an atheist. A lot of religious people seem to feel that – but it’s not that way to me.

When I think of atheism, my atheism, what I see is a vast plain spreading before me. Somewhere cold, somewhere polar. Somewhere with space, and mountains ringed round with snow on them. I think of myself standing on the tundra, and while it is the most beautiful thing in the world there is bleakness to it. It’s stark, and the deeply quiet. Frightening, too, if you cannot see the small intimations of life: the lichen, the birds that scatter over the bowl of the sky. But hollow?

It’s not hollow, not ever. It’s intoxicating, with air is so crisp it burns in my lungs, and overhead the sky is wheeling and there’s no-one there but me, a tiny intelligence against the vastness of the cosmos.

That’s what I carry around in my head, the home that I go to, the fount of my creation. It permeates everything I am, everything I do. I wonder if that is what Greg feels when he lies next to me at night: a great cool landscape in his arms, the bare, barren plain of my belly, the hard snowy ridge of hipbone. It’s not what I feel when I lie next to him – a spongy flesh, like blancmange, that spurts blood like molten iron when its integrity is threatened. My blood may be the same substance and colour as his, but there is ice water in it. The price of knowing where you come from…

It’s that mental landscape I want to pass on – in my art, though I am only learning, if in nothing else. Greg has a hard time understanding this – we are artists, after all. Creation is our thing. And wouldn’t this be the ultimate? But creating what? I love Greg’s art and his hands and to have a child with those things would be wonderful. But a child with Greg’s mental landscape? I don’t think I want to reproduce that – a very pretty garden, but there is a persistent, subtle reek of sulphur and a fountain of tranquilisers where the apple tree used to be.

This perception annoys him. We’ve been having some fights lately. He’s not fundamentally religious, but he doesn’t think that baptism or Sunday school or prayers before bedtime are a big issue. I do – they’re what reproduced his landscape, irrespective of his will. This is how he was taught as a child, and the foundations are there today – he didn’t choose them, but he’ll never be rid of them. And he wants to pass them on.

If I support the idea of the Auto-Pygmalion when I’m in the studio, how can I not do it in the womb? I’m not art school trained like Greg is, but I’ve worked hard to be able to develop my own skills, the skills that he taught me. I’m not religious like Greg is, and I’ve worked to understand how life without religion feels, and to find meaning in it. So for a child, to substitute that care of creation, to willingly produce a mental landscape that is stifling rather than liberating… how can I do that, let his sleepy water into my beautiful, wondrous world?

Greg doesn’t understand. He thinks I’ll come round soon, and if I’m to create a child, it has to be soon. It’s true that my biological clock has begun to tick, overwhelming the part of my brain that knows quite well that I don’t even like children. I certainly don’t want to raise them, have them interrupting my work. And yet, I begin to feel an obligation to carry on the genes. It just seems so marvellous that each of my ancestors, for billions of years, has managed to survive and reproduce. If only one had failed, I wouldn’t be here. Isn’t it a little arrogant to stop that chain?

What is arrogant is the other reason: people who drink the sleepy water have lots of children already. Greg wants five. Five. In a world of conspicuously declining resources. How can this be responsible, ethical? How can it not be stupid? It sounds horrible, I know, but we really only admire each other for what we can create – his brain puts me off, and he’s not that fond of my body. It’s too cool for him, I think, he can feel that beneath the outer covering of my skin there is marble that never really went away, because my creation is so much my own that even another artist cannot change more than a little.

He tries to chip at it, but there’s no hammer and chisel he can use that can touch me, simply because we both know, deep down, I don’t believe he has the skill to use it. If either of us lost our hands this relationship would be over before the blood was even mopped up.

He doesn’t like my mind either, you see. He just says he does, because when we use our minds we fight, and artists are meant to be temperamental. He says that he likes that I think differently to him, but I know that he doesn’t, not really. There are times I see him watching me, and just before he smiles, or reaches out, there is the tiniest moment in his eyes, and he is Pygmalion with a statue he never meant, never wanted. When he sees me sculpt, he knows that he taught me how, uncovered the talent in me layer by layer. He feels it should bind him to me, and it discomforts him to feel bound to something that is, by his own beliefs, flawed. Galatea was never flawed, never had a stain that could not be washed away. Never saw a stain where Pygmalion did not, even when it was in front of her face. Poor girl. But he can’t admit the flaw – his better angels prevent him, ha! – so that discomfort is channelled from my mind to my body.

He doesn’t admit this either, but when he sleeps and I touch him he moves away. He thinks my mind too hard, my view of life too hollow. I think his is too soft, too stupid.

The sleepy-water people reproduce enough already. Why facilitate more, if I truly feel it’s so pernicious? Leaving aside the fact whether or not it is right or wrong for me to believe Greg is sleepy, the fact is that I do. He knows and resents it, as I know and resent his true opinion of me, the one he doesn’t even admit to each other: that he thinks my life is hollow without his faith. Hollow! Hollow without any faith to funnel and support the creation within me.

Hollow, all my shining sky and endless wonder, when I know the landscape of his own mind. How can he bear it?

How can he? And how can I possibly justify a creation that inflicted that landscape, even a shadow of it, on somebody else?

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.

The Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the limits of story

The problem with stories is that the more you ingest them, the more bloated you get. And finally, when those stories have twisted your gut into an enormous, clingy rat tails nest of youngest sons, magic mirrors and riddle contests you realise that this scaly Gordian knot, this bleeding, wrenching source that’s hidden in your belly like a heart in a duck’s egg in a chest at the bottom of the ocean is just too boringly familiar. You know every twitching, greasy strand of it.

And that’s when stories themselves go past boring and into irritating.

Read enough, hear enough, watch enough, and you begin to know the ending before the story-tellers do. It’s why so many people put their faith in stories – especially old stories, that are known and loved and easy to repeat. But when you know the ending, the only thing left to focus on is the journey – the scattered, badly plotted, poorly characterised mess that typifies most of what is on offer these days… But after a while, even that journey loses interest. How many times can one eat the poisoned apple, cut off a heel, walk on water? How can it continue to be the story that defines you, if you can’t enter the story, can’t believe in it yourself? How can you trust it if you know that it’s wrong?

For the Auto-Pygmalion, the answer comes not from the mirror, but from the knowledge that they are looking into the wrong one. The magic glass that tells us what we want to hear – and what we don’t – doesn’t lie in the bedchamber of Snow White’s stepmother, and we all know that she had the real power in that story. At least ours doesn’t. It worked for the stepmother, if not her husband. Her mirror was enough to entrance Snow White’s dad, that’s for sure, to get him lost in a maze of what he was supposed to see, caught in another’s image, another’s story.

And that’s the real problem with stories. The ones out there, the ones you take in – they’re not really yours. They’re made by people like you; which is why it’s so easy to recognise what’s going to happen… the similarity of culture and history and psychology is enough to make sure that none but the very best story-teller is able to unshackle themselves from what is expected of them, what they expect from themselves. It’s also why there’s a disconnect, why that author thinks it’s a really good idea to make that character do something you know they would never do; why that director doesn’t seem to see that there’s no suspense in how the bad guy gets his due, because anyone watching who really knows stories knows how it’s going to happen within ten minutes of seeing him… And it’s why sometimes there are moments that are perfect.

These perfect moments make us want to believe in stories – they help us to make sense of the world around us, by explaining events within a believable structure. The best stories spread like viruses; they burrow so deep into the collective consciousness of a society that they become archetypal stories themselves, capable of influencing the stories that come after them. Sometimes these stories are so powerful that they become established truth, where one mirror is supposed to be enough for all. And for some, it works, because the face they see in the mirror is enough like theirs for them to squint and believe they see themselves, and the story that face tells is the one they really want to believe.

When the Auto-Pygmalion decides not to squint, they don’t stop feeling the perfect moments – but they start to realise that those moments don’t last – simply because they are not our own creations. We create in our own image, and like the king in the fairy story, we’re ineffectual in stories that aren’t our own, images that aren’t ours. When the king looks in his wife’s mirror, he doesn’t see himself, he sees her in his image. It’s a little fuzzy around the outlines, like there’s a flaw in the glass, but it’s nonetheless an image of the other. As much as the king believes that he controls the image in the mirror, he doesn’t – and when that image is of someone or something else, a reflection not of our own making, the story comes from another, belongs to another. In the king’s story, he’s probably a better father – but it doesn’t work out that way, because no matter how much he pours his beliefs into that mirror, they still slide right off. And no matter how much you try to be the person who owns the mirror, you can’t disentangle yourself from their reflection – as long as you keep using the mirror, they’re sneaking in there with you, nibbling at the edges of your story like rats, forcing it into the shape of their own mind… If you can’t distinguish yourself from the image, you’re stuck in someone else’s story, and that’s when you stop watching the rats and start being one of them, too lost in another’s story to ever disentangle yourself from the truth of their experiences.

Stories are a trap. Whether their purpose is to soothe or inflame, to explain the heavens or to assure you of your place there, or to offer you the poisoned apple, they’re the interpretations of another. Internalise that interpretation, and the face you see in the mirror will no longer be your own, and you will become the reflection and not the source, the created rather than the creator.

In the end, the only stories you can trust are your own.

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.

The Invisible Atheist – by Garnet

This month Nexus would like to welcome a new columnist. Garnet’s focus will be how she finds life as an atheist – an invisible member of society. Welcome, Garnet!

Some time ago, on a forum that shall not be named, I had a short-lived blog titled “The Invisible Atheist.” A friend asked me why I selected that title. Well, part of it comes from my experience in being actively shunned once in my life. When I left the last church I regularly attended, everyone, even people I had thought were my friends, shunned me. This is highly irregular behavior for a Southern Baptist church, by the way. What I didn’t know is that the church I attended wasn’t part of the Southern Baptist convention. I didn’t know this until a few years later. But, I digress. While I had not yet become an atheist, it certainly reinforced feelings I had experienced for most of my life of being on the outside looking in and of being an outcast.

All my life, from time to time, I’ve felt as if I was invisible. There are times when I can slip through rooms full of people and never rate a look, let alone have someone attempt to engage me in conversation. There are times when I can be in a store waiting for service and none of the staff will “see” me and they will go to help everyone else instead. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve heard the phrase, “Oh, I didn’t see you there.” I think that I am a bit of a chameleon and that when I’m in certain moods, I just blend into the background.

It’s an oddity about me. Most times, I’m a highly visible outgoing person. I’m a business analyst, so I spend a lot of time conducting presentations and meetings and work sessions. I have no problems speaking to groups of people both small and large. Some of the work I’ve done in the past has required that I not only deal with groups of people, but also with fairly intense one-on-one conversations.

But then, the mood strikes and I begin to feel like the outsider, the leper, the one who is outcast and unclean. It’s as if I slip into a cloak that hides me and I move through places and right by people without being noticed at all. I often feel this way when I’m around my family these days. It’s as if we don’t have anything in common anymore and it’s my fault because I moved away, I’ve stayed away and I’m different.

It’s also a feeling I experience the most as a direct result of my atheism. It’s often manifested when I’ve interacted with certain believers and no matter what I say or how I say it, they keep returning to the falsehoods they’ve been taught about atheists. They joust with straw men instead of engaging in conversation with me. It’s as if my answers to questions are invisible and meaningless. There’s a feeling I get from some Christians that atheists should just shut up and slink away. We are bothersome, evil and the good folk would just rather not deal with us at all, thank you very much.

I think the main reason that I titled the blog the Invisible Atheist is that outside of bulletin boards I rarely discuss my beliefs. I tend to disengage from workplace and social conversations about religious beliefs. In real life, I only discuss beliefs with people whom I know and trust. That means that in essence, I’m an invisible atheist in a veritable sea of believers.

The Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the inner predator

We were predators before we were shepherds. Despite what a liberal interpretation of myths such as Genesis might tell us – that we are caretakers of the Earth and all that inhabit it – our reality is that care-taking is primarily a sop to conscience, and that we have a preferred method of dealing with the world outside ourselves. Although “preferred” may seem like the wrong word, it is not. Humanity evolved as predators, and that is how we continue today. Even those of us who eat no meat cannot be said to abstain from that predation, as the evolutionary defences of plants make it clear that they too share in the hunting relationship. Some of them, such as pitcher plants and Venus fly-traps, even predate back.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Thus, in the sense of our own evolutionary history, the choice is made for us. We are predators, not caretakers; bloody-mouthed shepherds, not sheep. Yet along with our jaws and our running pelvis and our throwing arm, our minds also evolved, and it is that which gives us the choice of whether to retain our view of ourselves as predators, or to subsume that old knowledge into a new identity.

Yet as we look at the world today, it is not hard to see that this new identity has not been taken up by many of our fellow predators. For predation continues – on the weak and the helpless, those that cannot fight back, who are the lesser predators themselves. And deep within us – or, at least, deep within me – there is a small voice that says: “Do they not deserve it?”

It’s easier to remember your evolutionary heritage when you are physically strong. Then, any interaction with others is coloured by weakness – specifically, their weakness or lack thereof. It’s something that’s felt not only in real life communities, but in virtual ones as well, when each individual met is automatically put in one of two categories: they are weaker than me, or I am weaker than them.

It’s bragging to say it, but in most cases people I meet fall into the first category: men and women, physically and intellectually. And that is where my problem comes in. I can’t get away from the fact that I size people up like a predator – people or posts give out particular vibes, like an animal limping at the edge of a pack, like blood in the water.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred Lord Tennyson

It is the strong that survive, and the strong that should survive. Give me not that milquetoast “and the meek shall enter…” please. Why should they? I ask myself. And then that question gets damped down quite quickly, for the stronger part of me, the part that is not wholly predator, realises that a world run according to the will of the strong is more likely than most to end in bloodshed and destruction – and even in the service of a wider ideal, the improvement of the species, that is not a tactic that can be justified. Yet what is it that surmounts those millions of years of physical evolution? Is there a social evolution that moves alongside of it, a development of altruism that benefits the species, if not the individual? Some would argue that this knowledge comes from God, that atheists cannot explain the knowledge of good and evil in any other way – and yet, like the religious, atheists have that knowledge every moment of every day of their lives, for it exists within the body, “red in tooth and claw”.

If such as thing as God did exist, he would be the ultimate predator. You only need to read the Old Testament – among other religious texts – to realise that anyone who can and will slaughter entire cities of themselves can keep lesser predators in line when needed. But without that top predator, what keeps the rest of us from giving in to our own ability to predate?

There is the social contract, of course. If you don’t predate me then I won’t predate you. But if one were given the chance to predate, in an environment where that predation is free from risk or almost so, does that social contract hold? It doesn’t and neither does the religion – the fear that God will punish can and is often subsumed in the assumption that God will forgive, or that God will excuse or support a predation done for his sake.

Yet that God should doesn’t necessarily mean that we should – and are we not the predators with whom we should have the most concern? It’s inescapable that, whether you believe in the death penalty or not, the world is just better off without certain individuals in it. Few would shed a tear if instigators of genocide were to be brought down by their own packs, and their blood spilled in place of others’. There is a certain temptation in power that the ability to successfully predate feeds upon, and that temptation is ongoing. If we cannot match the ultimate predator with his ultimate forgiveness, our own mortal lives still revolve around our ability to predate and our ability to judge the predation of others, and of ourselves. A certain amount of predation is necessary to live, after all. Perhaps that is the duty of the evolving Autopygmalion: to live with the temptation of our own nature without wallowing in it or hiding from it. To know the truth of our bodies and ourselves.

I don’t know the final result of this conflict between our two natures – the natures of our past. Where will they take us in the future? Can there ever be a resolution, while we look at our hands and see the remnants of claws, while we can see the canines in each other’s smiles, and the soft pulse in the softer throats around us? Perhaps that is where we find the real knowledge of good and evil – in our ability to predate, and our reason to employ or withstand it.

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.