Monthly Archives: December 2008

feminine atheism

I recently came across an article called “Pink Atheist” by Nica Lalli, in which she says that atheism is dominated by the voices of men.  (She calls them “Navy Blue Atheists”.)  I will extend this to say that atheism seems to be dominated by the often strident voices of men and feminists (not mutually exclusive).  There is a distinct lack of femininity.  Most of the atheist blogs, books, and discussions I’ve seen are dominated by masculine voices– emphasizing reason, arguments, and proof.  Most commenters on my blogs are men.  On many atheist discussion boards, feminine traits or discussions are eschewed in favor of concrete, hard-edged arguments.  I no longer visit the Richard Dawkins Foundation website because I just found its constant biting tone too wearing.

I am a feminist.  I realize that feminism and femininity are usually considered at odds, but I am both, and I think they can be compatible.  Atheism is usually accompanied by feminism, and therefore lacking in femininity, a lack that hurts us.

Masculine atheism is not a bad thing.  In a way, I think it’s natural for the public face of atheism to be masculine, and feminist.  I need and like that side of atheism.  I’m a scientist, and I love talking about probability and the hard edges of God’s nonexistence.  I think Leaving Eden, my first blog, is rather masculine in tone.  And yes, I think it’s really funny to joke about eating young children.

But I need a feminine atheism too.  I like talking about things like love and souls and feelings without having to pin them down and frame their perimeter with facts.  When I go to the bathroom to have a cry because I’m really stressed out, what I need to say is “ow”.  (Thank you, Helen.)  And like Nica Lalli,

I have no interest in telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t believe in. What interests me is how people come to believe what they believe, how they got to where they are—whether they dwell in a place of religious belief or not.

Christianity, more than atheism, has a place for both masculinity and femininity.  Atheism, being reason-based, doesn’t have as much of a feminine side, or a friendliness towards femininity, perhaps seeing it as antithetical to rationalism.

What I need is to hear and share personal stories.  What I need is to explore all the things that I think, feel, and experience as a woman, within the context of atheism, and find a way to express and appreciate them naturally, not supernaturally.  I can think of many different interpretations of what that might mean, and I really hope that other feminine atheists will speak out and say that the masculine voices that dominate the atheist scene don’t always speak for us.  We have our own voices too, and if we can make a place for feminine atheism as well as masculine atheism, I think it can be really exciting.

Nica Lalli calls this “Pink Atheism”.  I would call myself a Pink Atheist, except that I hate the color pink.


Thou shalt have no other syllables before me

I’m really stressed out.  I go into the bathroom to have a little cry, as is a lady’s prerogative.  I need a monosyllabic word to expel in my mind.  Fill in the blank: “oh, ___.”

There are lots of monosyllabic words that might be expelled from my mouth if I were angry, frustrated, annoyed, or furious.  But there is only one one-size-fits-all monosyllable that fits into the mouth of my consciousness when, as today, I am bone-tired and overextended and exhausted.  When I am so tired that the tiredness itself squeezes out tears, there is only one syllable that is so ubiquitous that even a near-comatose mind would produce it.  I don’t know if that will ever change.  I don’t know if any other syllable can match that cultural staying power.

I don’t like atheist euphemisms generally.  But I do need a monosyllabic word that will allow me to get through a little self-pitying cry without stopping to think about my philosophical beliefs as I question my choice of imagined syllable.  Ideally, it would have three letters, and begin with a consonant in the back of the mouth and end with a consonant at the front of the mouth for maximum exclamatory efficiency.

___. I am shaking my head at myself right now.

unity and exclusivity

I try to be sensitive to certain times when my Christian friends might not want to be around an atheist.  When I was at Wheaton, I stayed out of the way when my roommates came home from church or worship services, in case they didn’t want me to impinge on their spiritual time.  After I graduated, I purposely never called my Christian friends on Sundays or on significant days like Easter or Good Friday.  When I was a Christian I tended to be finicky about these things– even if I knew there wouldn’t be any conversation about religious matters, sometimes I just wanted to be around other believers who I knew were of like mind.  So as an atheist, I keep that in mind and make myself scarce at religiously sensitive times.

On Christmas Day I was busy not calling or emailing any Christian friends, and it occurred to me to wonder whether there is an atheist analog.  Are there any parts of an atheist’s life that Christians can’t take part in?  Are there any occasions when an atheist might only want to be around other non-believers?  Not for me.  I can’t think of any times when I would rather not be around Christians, although there are times when I would just rather not talk about religion or atheism.  But even my most spiritual moments, which involve things like science or nature or art or music, can be shared with and appreciated by many Christians.

Atheism lacks a unifying element, and that is a good thing.  But sometimes I miss the central element of exclusivity in my life.  No life is lacking in exclusivity, to be sure– there are times when I have little tolerance of anyone who doesn’t accept and appreciate modern science as I do, or who is disparaging of baroque opera.  I wouldn’t want to be accompanied by those people while going to an opera or a scientific meeting.  (Although, would a scientific meeting really be complete without the wacko conspiracy theorist who makes everyone cringe?  I’d honestly be a little disappointed if none of them showed up to hog the microphone at the AAAS meeting.)  Just as an atheist’s life lacks the cohesiveness of religion that permeates every cell of our lives, we also lack that common understanding that would allow us to share in wordless fellowship in each others’ presence.  When I was a Christian and surrounded by other Christians, I felt a certain warm fuzziness in knowing that we all shared a devotion to Jesus Christ, no matter what other differences we had.  But merely being in the presence of other atheists makes little emotional impact on me, because I know that we all have different reasons for being atheists and different interpretations of atheism.

I find atheism neither exclusive nor unified.  The fellowship of atheists requires more nuance and explanation, and there is no guaranteed agreement or common ground.  In a beautiful way, that exemplifies the labyrinth of reality.  Still, I sometimes miss the feeling of belonging to a secret society, where a wink and a shrug could get you in to a circle of like minds.  Where sometimes, you could look at the people around you and know that the thing that is bursting in your heart is also bursting in theirs.

click on this

I won’t be writing anything significant between now and the New Year, since I’m busy with holiday and family duties on top of working full-time.  No vacation time for me; I have to prepare all my lesson plans for next semester.  But I want to direct you to these excellent posts on the parable of the prodigal son and the conversion experience at Irritable Reaching, a blog which I’ve just begun following and have added to my blogroll:

Prodigal Son, part 1

Prodigal Son, part2

See you next year, and until then: Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas, Happy Monkey!

Nothing to be Frightened of

I’m currently reading Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes, a memoir about death.  It’s a really good book.  I’m only halfway through so far– it’s a slow read, due to the need to look up words such as “uxorious” and the fact that there are no chapter divisions.  The title was somewhat misleading, because the author doesn’t think that death is nothing to be frightened of; he’s very frightened of the nothingness of death.  He’s an agnostic, by the way– religion is a whole other dimension of the book which I’ll discuss in a later post.

Apart from the author’s personal musings and family history of dealing with death, the book contains a fair amount of historical anecdotes from the lives and deaths of past artists, writers, and philosophers.  He also talks about the mechanics of dying, the different ways there are to die (mauled by a crocodile vs. terminal illness and many other would-you-rathers), his wishes for his own inevitable demise.  But all that is just window dressing for the real meat of the topic, the staring into complete extinction, the consideration of what it will be like to not exist.

Barnes is a writer with inclinations towards art and philosophy and a skepticism of science, which makes his musings on death and religion emotional, sentimental and completely unscientific.  That’s probably why I like the book so much, because my science-mindedness tends to make me a little too reductionist.  When I think about death, I’m so obsessed with carbon cycling that I usually fail to move on to more personal philosophizing.  Carbon cycling has the ability to derail me from any train of thought it enters.

The closest I’ve come to nonexistence is being under general anesthesia.  I went under to have my wisdom teeth taken out, a couple of years ago.  I fell asleep on a table in the surgical room and woke up a split second later in the recovery room.  Of course it wasn’t really a split second later, but those two hours of my life were blissfully wiped out.  So when I try to imagine nonexistence, I think about what it would have been like if I’d never woken up from surgery.  This analogy doesn’t really work, because anesthesia only wipes out memory, not experience.  I actually walked from the operating room to the recovery room, but I don’t remember it; I know because I saw another patient with a swaddled jaw walk by, mumbling and drooling.  Thinking about nonexistence is a moot point, because when you don’t exist, you won’t know that you don’t exist.

When I was fifteen I took a general writing class at the local university, and we spent a week talking and writing about death.  Since I was the youngest person in the class, everyone was curious about whether I ever thought about death.  “I think about death all the time,” I said.  “How can you not?”  Indeed, I thought a lot more about death as a teenager than I do now.  In class, we talked about our preferred modes of dying.  One student, a woman in her late twenties, was so afraid of death that she tried to avoid even thinking about it.  “When the time comes,” she said, “I want someone to just walk up behind me with a gun and shoot me in the back of the head, so I won’t have to know what’s happening.”  That is not at all how I would want to die, but I have to admit she had a point– the anticipation of dying is probably worse than death itself.

How often do you think about death?  Does it frighten you?  For those of you who don’t believe in any existence after death, how do you deal with it?  And if you could choose, how would you want to die?

savoring the night

Winter is hitting hard this week.  The weather is heinous and I haven’t had a glimpse of the sun in days.  It feels like the middle of the night now when I wake up and go to work in the 9am pitch dark, groggy and discombobulated.  The sun rises in the late morning and sets at the end of my lunch hour.  Last week I enjoyed watching the lunch-hour sunsets, but this week it’s just annoying.  Last week I was celebrating winter and feeling on top of the world.  This week everyone around me is grumpy, and I’m so tired my eyes can’t even stay focused for ten minutes at a time.  My fine motor skills take half the day to kick in, and I’ve been so clumsy, it’s only because of grammar- and spell-check that I can crank out a decent sentence at all.

Thank axial tilt, the solstice is coming.

In a way, though, I’m savoring this side of winter.  Even the tiredness, the feeling of being a bear who’s been woken too early from hibernation– there is something to savor there.  At the least, because these tired, cold, dark days are part of life.  At the most, I’m taking in the night in all its fullness because I know I will long for its refuge during next summer’s endless days.

I taught third-graders about the difference between cold-blooded and warm-blooded animals today.  I was thinking that I feel very warm-blooded this week.  All my warmth and light has to come from within.  There are a few sparks in the midst of the cold, dark days.

how to live

The fading of a good memory is a sad occasion.  Good memories are very important to me.  For most of my life, good memories were something that I didn’t have very many of, and I coveted them.  When I did have good experiences, I wanted so badly to make sure that I remembered them, that I was more preoccupied with the act of making a memory than with the act of experiencing.  I worked hard at making good memories and keeping them vivid enough to pull out and wrap around myself when I needed them.

I wove experiences into memories and memories into security blankets, and the security blankets served their purpose.  They comforted me during times when there was nothing good to hold onto in the present.  But that is not the purpose of experience.  I was expecting something of life that I shouldn’t have, in trying to extend the domain of the present into the future.  Life is for living, not hoarding.

This past summer I made a vow to put experience above memory.  My goal now is simply to experience life.  In good times, to be fully present in such a way that even if I retained no memory of it, the fullness of the experience itself would be enough.  This is how I feel life should be lived.

This year I have experienced some truly amazing things that have left me with very sweet memories.  Now, the first of those memories are starting to fade in my recollection.  The details are beginning to slip away.  The fabric of those experiences is decaying very quickly.  Soon I’ll no longer remember them vividly enough to relive them in my mind.  Maybe I won’t remember them at all.  But I am content to say with all of my being that I was there once, I experienced them once.  I experienced them as much as they could be experienced.

This is also basically how I deal with mortality.  To live in such a way that living once is enough.  That when I am gone and there are no more memories of me or my life, I will have existed so strongly, lived so fully that it does not matter.