The Handmaid’s Tale

On the flight to Seattle last weekend (to attend PAX), I read The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood). Various thoughts ensue:

My first overall response is that it’s a bit of a recut of Orwell’s 1984. It’s a dystopian novel about a society (in Atwood’s case, an American society) taken over by a totalitarian government that removes all freedoms from typical people. The main new feature explored in Handmaid is that the oppressive regime is a Christian theocracy, and the focus is on the resulting place of women in that society.

Without delving too deeply into synopsis, women are stratified into fixed social classes, and the main character, a Handmaid, lives primarily to bear children (there’s some in-world justification about environmental harm severely reducing the rate of healthy births). Outside of a stylized monthly ritual where the head of the household she lives with tries to impregnate her, her life is 1984-esque–enforced routines for everything, never away from surveillance, can’t safely express any non-conformist thoughts to other people, etc. What I mostly want to talk about today is Atwood’s direct illustration of the place of women in a society governed by naked Christian ideology.

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Two Levels of Harm

This will probably be a regular theme here and too big for one post, so for now I just want to lay out the basics. Each of these issues will easily warrant whole posts on their own in the future.

The word “religion” is a broad brush and I don’t blame people for being put off by seeming generalizations. A pattern you’ll see with me is that I don’t like getting sidetracked by labels. So much of the point here is to delineate the different substantive points that actually matter when I discuss religion and its effects.

The easiest part to dispense with is the part that’s pure speculation with no real-world effect. For deists, that’s the only part there is–there “something greater” than the natural world, but he/she/it doesn’t intervene or really do anything that matters to us in any way. Rarely am I going to have too much of a problem with these people (or with that portion of anyone’s beliefs that fall into this category). Since it’s just a difference of belief about something with no actual consequence, the worst they’re usually guilty of is wasting time. Well, and of spreading poor understanding of rational thinking, by (usually) claiming that the wonder of the universe is evidence of some supernatural entity. As we’ll see below, that is an issue that has to be taken seriously.

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A Bit of Personal Background

This was initially a post where I gave some basic info on Sikhism since it’s in the news and most readers don’t know anything about it, following up on my brief comments on twitter. Then I realized I wasn’t going to say anything that wasn’t covered in the wikipedia article which you looked at already if you care in the first place. So now it’s a bit on my history with religion, since that’s useful background for the sorts of things I talk about all the time. Also, as I try to get into blogging a bit more regularly, it helps to make a habit of being prompted by current events and running with it, rather than expecting myself to engage in bouts of unprompted cogitation on some kind of schedule.

It’s an exaggeration to say I was “raised Sikh.” My parents weren’t religious enough to disrupt my intellectual development in any way, so it would be a slander to imply they imposed any religion. But it was the religious milieu I was steeped in growing up—going to the gurdwara, listening to weekly servies in Punjabi (which admittedly might have a higher chance of having an effect on me if I’d ever learned Punjabi), having langar (wikipedia quiz), hearing the bedtime stories, etc.

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A few comments on Oatmeal

This new entry in the popular webcomic The Oatmeal doesn’t say too much new about religion, probably nothing you haven’t heard before. But it was great to read for a few reasons.

First, obviously, it’s funny. Oatmeal is a funny guy, and seeing these ideas we actually care about expressed by him is a fun time. This highlights a real point though—oftentimes the audience for material like this is not religious folk, but atheists. I’d say that’s true of most of the famous atheist speakers. It’s also true of me. And it’s pretty clearly true for Oatmeal—one can imagine if he were seriously trying to convince religious people about their behavior, it would look very different from his cartoon about religious behavior. He’s a good enough comedian to know which group of people would find this funny.

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Burdens of Proof and Lack of Evidence

One of the common arguments against the notion of gods is that those who proclaim their existence have the “burden of proof” of showing why that belief is sensible. It’s typically presented as a sort of self-evident axiom, which then inevitably becomes a sticking point of discussion. The problem is that while this idea has its heart in the right place, it’s a lazy argument with no force. We should get in the habit of saying what we actually mean.

“Burden of proof” is a term borrowed from a law, where it has a specific technical meaning. It makes logical sense, because within a closed system of rules, you can lay down default outcomes for what happens if a burden isn’t met. If the prosection doesn’t meet its burden, judgment is for the defendant. It’s just a way of saying that the default outcome is in favor of the defandant. We can do that, because we can set up the system however we want. When you’re talking about metaphysics though, it doesn’t work so well. You can’t just declare that you win because it’s the default—there’s no judge sitting above you who cares what you think about that. You have to put more work into it.

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If you’re seeing this first post you’re probably coming from my twitter, and you have some idea of some of the topics I like to talk about. You may have seen me occasionally write down thoughts in longer form on tumblr, but I think a more fully-featured blogging platform will make it more natural (using tumblr never caught on for me–I never used the social features, I was never inspired to write there since I felt few people saw it, didn’t allow comments, etc.).

So I’m going be collecting my non-game writing here–I don’t have an exact summary of topics, but generally in the sphere of science, religion, rationality, and social issues related to all of those. I’m aiming to be broad; the goal is mostly to form the habit of writing down what I’m thinking about, but I want to be cohesive enough that it’s able to pick up regular readers who are generally interested in those sorts of topics.

The only thing I write about a lot which is distinct enough that I’ll keep it somewhere else is games. At the moment I post about those here: It’s Dangerous To Go Alone .

I’ll start by moving over the few recent posts I wrote on the tumblr since I decided to try to start writing more often, so they’re all collected here. After that, will see what happens. Enjoy!