Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Wank Delusion

Sexist image alert.

Dom Kelly brought this to my attention, with his pithier comment: "*vomits*"

Okay, let's examine this in what some might say was far too much detail.

Reason is sexy because one conventionally 'attractive' woman reads books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, et al, and throws away a Bible.  In the nude.


1.  It is assumed that this picture - i.e. the person in it - represents 'sexiness'.  But the whole concept of what is sexy is subjective - far more so than is admitted by consumerist media culture, to which this image owes its entire idea of sexiness.  The image is catering for only one idea of what is sexually alluring: the idea of the straight, cis-het male.  He's probably assumed to be white as well.  The image, including the person in it, is arranged for the gaze of this intensely privileged group.  This is 'reason'?

2.  Because one sexy person is an atheist, that doesn't make Atheism itself sexy.  Systems of thought, ideological doctrines, persuasions of belief, scientific theories and hypotheses... in short: ideas... are not open to judgement based on the perceived sexiness of the people that hold and/or espouse them.  Ideas are to be judged on their quality, consistency, persuasiveness, empirical backing etc.  Otherwise, there's not much point separating them from purely aesthetic categories.

3.  Beliefs can be held by people of widely divergent levels of attractiveness.  China Mieville is a Marxist.  So was Diego Rivera.  Do a Google Image search if you don't know what that means.*

4.  People's level of attractiveness changes.  Engels was pretty dashing when he was a young man.  He became a crusty, wrinkly old fart with a straggly beard.  Was Marxism sexy when he was young and hot, but stop being sexy when he got a paunch and a big beard (assuming that you don't think paunches and big beards are sexy - which would mean you're not Ke$ha).

5.  What does it mean to call an idea 'sexy' anyway?  Even the idea 'let's have sex now! is only sexy when proposed at the appropriate time and place, by someone you'd like to have sex with. 

6.  It's difficult to see how Atheism could be said to be sexy.  It might possibly be propounded and espoused by sexy people, but that still doesn't make the ideas themselves sexy. I personally find Helen Mirren in Excalibur so sexy it almost hurts to look at the screen, but if she suddenly started reading the works of Robert Ingersoll, that wouldn't make the works of Robert Ingersoll sexy.  At best, if the process were repeated often enough, I might develop a Pavlovian fetish for the works of Robert Ingersoll... but we have now long passed the breaking point of this analogy.

7.  God is Not Great and the other books of the 'New Atheists' were not, generally, written by conventionally sexy people.  Hitchens was a bloated, nicotine-stained, red-faced, bug-eyed blowhard with questionable personal hygiene.  Dawkins resembles a vicar from an Agatha Christie book, crossed with ageing bird of prey and a Gerald Scarfe caricature of Bernard Ingham.  Sam Harris looks like Ben Stiller, to the point where you wonder if they've ever been seen in the same room at the same time. Okay, these things might float your boat... and, if so, fair enough... but they don't belong in the same category of conventional glamour as the young woman in the photo.  (This point is mainly spite.)

8.  The young woman in the photo is a young woman, not an old bloke.  Of course, there are lots of young women in Atheism and the Sceptic's movement... but the model is reading the best-sellers of the 'New Atheism', representing a strand of modern Atheism that is aggressively dominated by crusty blokes.  Dawkins and Hitchens are both famous for sneering at women and feminism out of the other side of their mouths.

9.  This image is certainly extremely sexist.  It objectifies women.  By 'sexy', this image means 'sexist'.  Reason is sexist?  In other words, sexism is reasonable?

10.  Some will argue that she's reading clever books and making an intellectual choice, claiming that this gives her agency... forgetting that she's pointlessly naked.  (See 1, above.)  This is the same kind of 'agency' that female characters in Steven Moffat scripts are permitted.

11.  Atheism automatically involves disdainfully handling the Bible (and, presumably, other books that have immense spiritual significance for many people... as well as being of immense scholarly, historical and literary interest) as though its a snotty hanky, and throwing it away? Umm, nope.

12.  Reason = Atheism?  Specifically the narrow, ahistorical, politically retrograde, male-dominated, theologically-illiterate, Islamophobic, determinist, reductionist, vulgar-Atheism of those books?  That's how we define 'reason'?  Christopher Hitchens - who supported the invasion of Iraq - gets to define 'reason'?  Funnily enough, if that's what 'reason' is here assumed to mean, then the sexist nature of the image is perfectly apt!

13.  Nothing that this image says, either in its top meaning or in any of the various assumptions underlying it, sounds very much like 'reason' or 'scepticism' to me.  It's exactly the kind of thing that makes women in the modern Atheist movement feel undervalued and under-heard.  Given that so much of the bluster of the 'New Atheism' was tied up with appropriating things like feminism and women's rights - as sticks with which to mindlessly bash religion in general, and Islam in particular - the irony itself also shows up the deeply ironic hypocrisy of Hitchens oft-repeated lament about fundamentalists lacking irony.

*Always bearing that aforementioned subjectivity in mind.  Diego Rivera did okay.