So I’m still no closer to joining the nascent Atheism+ movement, although every day I’m hating the greater atheist community a little bit more. Seriously, if you’re already identifying as a secular humanist or skeptic or even agnostic I really wouldn’t try to sell you on atheism right now, because holy fuck they can be annoying.
Richard Dawkins is involving himself only passive-aggressively in this fight, through selective retweets and non-specific comments, which doesn’t do much for my opinion of the man. As someone said somewhere “I prefer the actually aggressive Dawkins to the passive-aggressive one”.
Here’s something Dawkins (along with 160 others) felt was worth retweeting recently:
I’m a woman & an atheist blogger, & never experienced sexist abuse from fellow atheists. Maybe because I don’t assume they’re misogynists?
— Lucy Wainwright (@Whoozley) August 27, 2012
Call me a radical man-hating feminist, but that seems a bit rough to me, rather like saying that sexist abuse is caused by the flawed perceptions of the victims of such abuse. Obviously I wasn’t the only one to notice this.
@crutchley Not-so-subtly compare me to a rape victim blamer. Instantly don’t like you. See how this works?
— Lucy Wainwright (@Whoozley) August 27, 2012
So first she strongly implied that the very real sexist abuse being complained about by certain prominent women in the movement is actually caused by them, then when someone suggested this was victim blaming, she got defensive and reacted as though they had suggested she was a rape-apologist. She then reported this back to Dawkins casting herself as the victim of hate messages:
@richarddawkins Precisely. For example, I won’t be blaming the fact that I’ve just been serially compared to rape victim blamers on atheism.
— Lucy Wainwright (@Whoozley) August 27, 2012
And Lucy is one of the nicer examples of the many people currently heaping endless contempt on the idea of a bunch of progressive atheists trying to build something new on one simple premise (no gods) and a bunch of shared social values. The fact that Dawkins would retweet her shitty comment doesn’t reflect well on him or the movement that reveres him. He still thinks that he’s the one that got the roughest deal after elevatorgate.
- What people are saying to Richard Dawkins right now
- What people are saying to Rebecca Watson right now
At time of writing Dawkins has to put up with people telling him how awesome he is, and thanking him for his tireless awesomeness especially for standing against the terrible Atheism+ bullies. Whereas Rebecca has trolls hounding her, calling her a liar, and still picking fights over her outrageous suggestion of more than a year ago that guys abstain from hitting on women in elevators. Also they proudly bitch about being blocked by her, because they seriously believe she has an obligation to listen to their spite until the end of time.
So yeah, I’m starting to think maybe “secular humanist” isn’t such a bad label after all.
Of the people I know IRL, the majority don’t believe in God, and yet most seem to cringe at the idea of openly describing themselves as atheists. I used to assume that this was because they were being too polite, ie not wanting to offend believers.* Now I’m finally understanding that it’s probably because they don’t want to be seen as arrogant pseudo-intellectual pricks.
Natalie Reed’s recent All In post resonated strongly with me because it seemed to articulate what people I respect have tried to tell me for years.
The Atheist Movement doesn’t have a monopoly on atheism. Anyone can simply come to the conclusion that religion is kind of silly and dangerous. The Movement doesn’t have a monopoly on secularism. Anyone can pitch in and help fight to keep religion from influencing legislation. The Movement doesn’t have a monopoly on skepticism. It barely practices it. Anyone can learn to value critical thought, doubt, hesitation, humility, honesty and questioning their perceptions and biases. And none of us need their permission. We don’t need DJ Grothe or Richard Dawkins or Justin Fucking Vacula’s seals of approval to do any of this.
Let them have The Movement. Let it be a club for entitled little white cis straight dudes to get together and tell each other how fucking smart they all are to know that John Edwards is lying, and there’s no bearded sky daddy doling out favour on the basis of how rarely you eat shellfish or have hot queer sex. Let them go right on thinking of themselves as the few insightful rebels who could see through The Matrix and now fight against the evil machinations of Andrew Schlafy and Jennifer McCreight. Let them live in their mythologies. Let them sink, bit by bit, into self-congratulatory, insulated irrelevance, while the rest of us get on with actually trying to help make the world a bit less of a mess.
There’s clearly something wrong with The Movement if so many people who are technically members want no part of it. But others are not so keen to walk away, especially if they live in places otherwise dominated by religion. They want solidarity and unity, but it’s hard to see progressives and libertarians kissing and making up any time soon.
Jen McCreight has been similarly troubled, but feels there may be hope in defining a sub-movement. If the greater Atheist Movement can’t be changed, why not create something new? Rather than ceding the ‘Atheism’ label altogether she wants people to embrace Atheism+
It illustrates that we’re more than just “dictionary” atheists who happen to not believe in gods and that we want to be a positive force in the world. Commenter dcortesi suggested how this gets atheists out of the “negativity trap” that we so often find ourselves in, when people ask stuff like “What do you atheists do, besides sitting around not-praying, eh?”
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.
In practise it’s really just secular humanism, but the problem with secular humanism as a descriptor is that even though it rejects the existence of deities, most people probably don’t even know that this is the case. It’s important that nice, normal people who don’t believe in gods be comfortable identifying as atheists (at least to each other!), so the stigma might fade in the wider community.
I don’t know that the idea will really take hold, but I applaud the intent, and I see it as part of a conversation that was somewhat overdue. The name is potentially cringeworthy, A+ implies cleverness and we don’t really need more of that right now. Remember the Brights? Ouch. The logo presented (best so far) is a bit meh, mixing the Out! campaign scarlet letter A with a blue cross; to the uninitiated it might simply evoke adultery and healthcare. But then anything is better than the Happy Human humanist logo.
Whatever happens, I do think some change is probably necessary and that this is a step in the right direction, because right now most people still think atheists are mean-spirited dicks.
* It’s not because they’re scared, because Australia is a lot more tolerant of the unbeliever (even our Prime Minister is agnostic/atheist)
UPDATE: Well, what do you know, at some point some comments in that thread have been disappeared (including one of mine). How lucky then that I grabbed a snapshot of the page before this happened, and so the exchange is preserved for posterity below…
This is a slight edit of a response to Damion’s post about the #FTBullies saga, which references “audience privilege”, pointing out that someone who has a large audience or following is in a position of great advantage over relatively obscure dissenters, and implying that for them to criticise those dissenters aggressively (“punching down”) is an abuse of power and an example of unchecked privilege.
PZ Myers is the bully in this scenario, because he treats those he disagrees with with unnecessary harshness. Never mind that the people complaining about this have been much less vocal when it comes to his similarly harsh treatment of creationist nut-jobs, my concern is more is whether any such advantage can be cast as privilege. Is the advantage held by PZ (audience size) in the same class as ‘male privilege’? Personally I don’t think so, at least not in the social-justice sense.
In most societies by default a man is assumed to be smarter, more confident, better at comedy etc, than a woman (all else being equal). This assumption is a privilege we grant him just for being a man; he doesn’t need to work or fight for it. Respected, rational people like Hitchens have presented rationales for why this makes sense from an evolutionary psychology perspective (eg he asserted women simply aren’t funny because they don’t need to be to impress a man).
But while PZ was born with a penis (we can assume), he wasn’t born with an audience. For this he has worked hard, being the most prolific blogger I can think of, as well as doing interviews, conferences etc. Being a white male probably made it easier for him to gather his audience, and I’m sure he would readily admit this, but my point is that ‘privilege’ as discussed in social-justice circles is more about what you take for granted, specifically because it is granted, ie you never had to work for it.
As a guy, I get to post largely what I like, where I like and experience remarkably little blowback. And then very occasionally I might say something in a certain forum that offends someone because it’s a bit politically incorrect, and I get some grief over it (eg recently on Twitter I’ve been crtiticized for using ‘bitching’ and defending ‘hysterical’). I find it incredibly irksome when this happens, because I feel like I’m being judged unfairly; like assumptions are being made about me just because I’m male. And maybe they are.
And then I realize that that’s probably what it’s like for a woman, except they have to put up with that shit every day. The only time I have to even think about my gender is in a discussion about gender. Women have to deal with it all the time. Even when people like you it sucks to be a woman with an opinion, because there are so many men who think their sexual attention is a compliment in itself. As an exasperated Kate Beaton pointed out a while back:
dear internet, you are well meaning, but I’d like to make a point.
when you tell a female creator you like her work so much you want to marry her and have her babies, you’re not doing anyone any favors
first of all, as cute as it sounds in your head, it’s a shitty, disrespectful ‘compliment.’ No one makes comics looking for sexual attention
secondly, by doing so you invite others to critique that person’s works based on their looks, which is uncomfortable, sexist and unfair.
Checking your privilege (and sometimes having it checked for you if you are so thick as to pretend there is no such thing) is not about giving up the advantages you’ve been granted, but reminding yourself that you lucked out and maybe should work a little bit harder to find some empathy for those that didn’t. In the skeptic community, that means recognising that it’s harder for women to get taken seriously than it is for men. It means recognising that it’s more threatening to talk about ‘cunt kicking’ than it is to talk about ‘cock punching’. It means not demanding documentary proof that significant numbers of women have experienced sexual harassment before instituting a policy that would itself help provide such documentation. It means calling out the dipshits who demand that Rebecca Watson be kicked off the SGU because she’s not a proper ‘qualified’ skeptic while conveniently ignoring those other ‘unqualified’ people on the show who happen to have penises.
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh – One of the best articles I’ve read about privilege (in this case racial, but the mechanism is much the same). It’s a great thing to cut-n-paste to that crazy racist uncle you probably have forwarding you emails about Obama’s free ride to the top.
- How to Make a Rape Joke by Lindy West – Should be compulsory reading for all those idiots who think women need to just lighten up already and learn how to take a joke.
I’ve been far too distracted by the #FTBullies argy bargy on Twitter lately because, you know, someone on the internet is wrong! Apologies to anyone who is sick of my twitter stream being dominated by this. If you want to know what it’s about, a pretty good but not quite up-to-date timeline can be found starting here.
— intepid (@intepid) July 27, 2012
Some skeptics are a bit stressed about this new rift (which is really just a re-opening of the old rift caused by elevatorgate) but seriously it’s as pointless to expect unity from skeptics as it is to expect unity from feminists or Christians or any other group. Just because you have some ideology in common doesn’t mean you’re going to agree on everything, and there will often be vehement disagreements about priorities, goals etc. That said, I think there might be a particular problem with skepticism in that it tends to intersect heavily with two other outspoken groups: libertarians and assholes.
I should point out that the flavor of Libertarian I am referring to is the kind who thinks Ayn Rand got it right. The very American Libertarian, who thinks tax is theft, selfishness a virtue and regulation of any sort evil. I could have been one of these; As a kid I was bright and capable, I read The Fountainhead and I related to Howard Roark like countless other teenage boys probably have. And then I grew out of it and became a human being.
I include Assholes here not as a cheap shot at the assholes going on about FreeThoughtBlogs being an evil cabal of feminazis, but in honest recognition that when your worldview routinely conflicts with so many deep-seated and privileged beliefs, it’s easy to forget that whilst your message will often offend, that’s not actually the goal. When I write an entire post about what an entitled asshole Thunderf00t is, I know I’m letting my own inner asshole off the leash a bit, and I don’t really expect to change the mind of his fans. We skeptics are used to making our points more aggressively because so often we are arguing them in the face of unimaginable (and proud) ignorance, sometimes against people who seem to question the usefulness of logic itself!
We want our opponents to admit “I was wrong”, but because NO ONE EVER FUCKING ADMITS THIS we resort to plan B, using our sharpest barbs to undermine them. It sounds horrible doesn’t it, but it’s either that or Plan C, walk away, and we really hate plan C because it looks too much like conceding. One person I have nearly lost my Plan B shit over in the past is Ray Comfort, creationist nut-job who loves the God that would see the unconverted burn in hell (because we all deserve it you see, and sparing the believers is merely an act of supreme generosity on His part).
So my point is… expect this crap to keep happening, and if down the track there is some major fragmentation of the community along feminist/progressive lines then it’s probably not the end of the world. The fact that the movement is large enough to have factions bashing each other up over social justice issues is a good thing, and ultimately we might realize we’re past the point where there’s any sense crying about how we’re not all crying about the same things.
* This is a follow-up to a previous post
I wonder if “butthurt” is an appropriate term to use, not because it doesn’t apply here (it does), but because it feels like it could be considered offensive. It seems kind of apropos in a way given that Thunderf00t has been railing against the hypersensitivity of people to any kind of offensive behaviour. He has a new video up, explaining to his fans how unfairly he has been treated, after being nothing but unassailably scientific and reasonable about how everyone at FTB should shut up about sexism already:
In case you can’t handle more than 5 seconds of that without cringing, the highlights:
- As a popular atheist, TF is invited to FreeThoughtBlogs and told he can talk about anything by PZ Myers (by far the most prominent and prolific member of FTB).
- Immediately after his introductory post, TF sets about bitching about FTB wasting time on the issue of sexism and harrassment at conferences.
- TF and PZ get into a pissing contest for a bit.
- TF is dis-invited from FTB.
- TF points out what an Orwellian ironical irony it is to be kicked from a place called “FreeThoughtBlogs” for daring to dissent from their radical feminist agenda.
- TF uses picture of lynch mob with flaming torches to illustrate what a terrible slippery slope FTB is headed down.
- TF compares himself being kicked out of a small blogging group for criticising them with someone being kicked out of an institution for complaining about sexism, in a time-honored “how would you like it huh????” false-equivalency
- TF compares PZ and FTB to the other scary people who have tried to silence him on Youtube, like Scientologists, Islamists etc. Neglects to point out that no one at FTB is trying to silence him, they just don’t want to be associated with him anymore. TF is free to blog elsewhere and nobody at FTB is remotely interested in trying to stop him. At some point Voltaire is invoked.
- TF reminds us there is nothing personal in his freak out about a tenured professor denying him the opportunity to continue pissing on the carpet.
- TF goes on a riff about the point of tenure being to allow people to speak their minds without fear of being kicked out, neglects to acknowledge that tenure is rarely granted to someone within a week of joining.
- Similarly rational Youtube commentors largely agree with TF. Boo for the radical feminist agenda, groupthink etc.
- TF wins. QED!
UPDATE: Paul Chartley posts a video response to TF in the style of TF’s own hideous videos.
…about something, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was.
Although I like to believe I’m capable of admitting to my own mistakes, in truth I have the same built-in defences that everyone else has, and my mind would rather avoid those moments of embarrassment and shame that come with realizing that you’re in the wrong. So instead I may conveniently forget my mistake, or if that’s impossible I might then insist I have been misunderstood and therefore only appeared to be utterly wrong.
This is a problem with the rational/skeptical movement in general I think, specifically because “we” pride ourselves on being as objective and fact-based as possible, so it’s extra humiliating to realize that we’ve been arguing a subjective or even bigoted point of view. Too often we would rather explain our errors away, or even more pathetically double-down and declare that we’re being bullied by detractors. In the process we might even start to yell about strawmen, true Scotsmen and arguments from authority, and sooner or later we might even trip over Godwin’s law.
I’ve considered going to atheist/skeptic conferences a few times, but never really felt like it. Apparently a lot of women aren’t feeling like it either lately, as attendance is dropping, and there’s a minor shit-storm brewing on the interwebs about whose fault this is. There have been a few incidents of harrassment in recent years, and because of poor handling and bad messaging from organizers some women have written about their frustration that there aren’t better policies in place to report and deal with such incidents.
- Read DJ Grothe, president of JREF (pretty much the largest skeptical org), who says that attendance is down because women are spreading misinformation about the safety of the conferences (by blogging their own personal experiences and yes, even the occasional anecdote).
- Read Rebecca Watson, prominent Skepchick, calling out DJ for his victim-blaming and sidestepping of responsibilities.
- Read PZ Myers who sides with Rebecca and expresses disappointment in the mishandling of the issue by so many in the skeptical community.
- Read Thunderf00t, a creationist-mocking youtube hero who dedicates his new blog to whining about how everyone keeps talking about sexism when they should be mocking creationists. He also mocks the anti-harassment policies by wilfully misreading them; stupidly conflating “harassment” with “offense”.
- Read Rebecca again, calling out Thunderf00t and friends for their hysterical overreaction (which ironically is in response to what they perceive to be a hysterical overreaction)
In case it’s not clear I’m totally with Rebecca on this one, and am pleased to see that Thunderf00t is getting booted from his new home so quickly. He will no doubt see this as censorship and cry hypocrisy… Fuck him– his attitude repulses me and I’m not about to try and frame that as anything but my own personal response to the droning self-important twat.
Which brings me to why I don’t think I’ll ever attend any of these conferences– it’s not because I’m afraid of being harassed; it’s because I’m afraid that a sizeable percentage of the attendees are the kind of indignant wannabe intellectuals who will scream about being bullied by the PC police when their ham-fisted advances are rebuffed, or when their sexist jokes aren’t appreciated, and I really don’t want to be associated with those kinds of people.
PS In case you’re unaware of last year’s “Elevatorgate” fiasco, my previous post about it helps explain why I’m such a fan of Rebecca Watson.
At least not any living ones. They tend to let you down by revealing their faults and shortcomings.
A few weeks back Rebecca Watson had some perfectly sensible advice for men about hitting on women…
And this of course was heard by over-sensitive male egos as an hysterical scream of RAAAAAAPE at the idea of a man talking to a woman in any circumstance. This would all be pretty typical of internet reactions and youtube commenters in particular, if it weren’t for the fact that Richard Dawkins himself then weighed in with some terrible sarcasm, utterly failing to accept the obvious point that it is really uncool to hit on a woman you’ve never even spoken to while standing alone in an elevator with her.
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so …
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
In follow-up comments he went on to compare Rebecca’s experience (alone and being hit on by a stranger at 4AM) to him having to tolerate someone chewing gum (full comments here).
Rather than relating the full shit-storm that this grew into here, I recommend reading about the follow-ups and fallout here on Rebecca’s blog, with a bigger focus on the gender politics here by Greta Christina.
Dawkins is human, and therefore fallible, and so at some point he is bound to say something stupid from time to time. Problem is he continued to feign ignorance of his mistake, even when it was explained to him fifty gazillion times by fifty gazillion people. If you read the science blogs you will no doubt be all too familiar with the whole debacle, since pretty much every science blogger I follow came out and explained just how dumb this otherwise incredibly smart guy was being. While many pleaded that he not be judged too harshly over this single incident, since he is generally an awfully decent guy who strives against religious oppression, no one actually agreed with his position. They could all see that in this particular instance he was being a dick.
I never want to be this guy. The guy who is so used to being right that he can’t take a step back and recognize when he’s being a dick. It could be argued that this whole incident got blown waaaay out of proportion, but then sometimes it’s people’s reactions to trivial things that give the most insight into their character. That’s when their guard is down, when they aren’t concerned with filtering themselves because hey, it’s no big deal, right?
I stopped in at the Warehouse this evening (a popular chain store here in New Zealand) to buy a sink plunger, something which for some reason was not stocked by my local supermarket. As I roamed the hardware aisles searching in vain, a moderately attractive woman and [presumably] her young daughter stopped me to ask a question.
“Excuse me, but do you have any paint under your arm?” she asked, smiling broadly. For a moment I just stared at her, since it was such an odd question. Then I glanced down to see what shirt I was wearing, for it struck me that she may have assumed I worked there and was needing some paint-related advice – once before I had worn a red shirt while shopping and a woman had confused me for staff. But no, I was wearing a dark blue t-shirt.
“I’m sorry, what?” I replied.
“Do you have a pain, down your left arm?” she asked again, more clearly this time. This didn’t really seem much less odd than what I had thought she asked the first time.
“Um no, not at all, why?”
“Because when I walked into the store I felt a sort of pain down my arm…” she began, and the hairs on the back of my neck pricked up. I suddenly feared that this strange woman was about to suffer a heart attack in front of me, and vaguely wondered why she expected it to be a shared experience. Still smiling warmly, she continued.
“Sometimes God speaks to me through feelings like this, and I saw you and just wondered if He was telling me to speak to you.”
I held her gaze for a moment, then looked down at her daughter, who was looking up at me with the sweetest and most innocent expression I can imagine.
“Oh ok, well sorry no it’s not me” I said to the woman, and took my leave as she continued to beam at me.
The whole exchange left me with a feeling of intense sadness; mostly because of the look on the child’s face. It was entirely, utterly trusting, and filled with a sort of gormless wonder. What is that poor girl in for?
After putting some distance between us I stopped in the stationary aisle to ponder the experience, whereupon I glanced down to see at my feet a solitary sink plunger, standing upright on the floor.
God sure knows how to help those who need it.
Recent posts got me thinking about genetic inheritance, and how people are often rather interested in tracing their lineage, especially if it leads back to some significant historical figure. I thought it might be fun to do some math, to try to work out how much of a person’s genome might be traceable to a particular person.
Common descent predicts that if we go back far enough, all humans will share some common ancestor. Interestingly this does not mean that this common ancestor was the “first” human, nor does it mean that all other humans living at the time had their lines extinguished.
In the case of male lineage we have the rather interesting situation that the Y-chromosome is carried only by men, and so is always passed directly from father to son, and we also have a history of female lineage in that mitochondrial DNA is passed directly from mother to child. So every male has the same Y-chromosome as his father (ignoring mutations) and every person has the same mitochondrial DNA as their mother (ignoring mutations).
What this means is that we can create two trees of descent for all humanity, one for the Y-chromosome and one for mitochondrial DNA, where the branching of these trees can be determined by the patterns of mutation in the respective genes. At the top of these trees, we find Y-chromosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve. What’s really interesting is that these two actual people (who really did exist) lived tens of thousands of years and thousands of miles apart.
In Dan Brown’s moviebook The DaVinci Code, the big secret that was being protected was [SPOILER ALERT] that Sophie, grand-daughter of renowned curator Jacques Saunière, was a direct descendent of Our Lord Jesus Himself, ie she carried the Holy Blood. I wondered recently, assuming that Jesus was a real person and that He fathered children, what are the odds that any of His chromosomes might have made it into Sophie’s DNA?
A naive approach to this question involves looking at the likelihood that any one chromosome might be passed on to the next generation, and then multiplying that by the number of generations that have passed since. A safe bet for the number of generations seems like 100, with an average generational gap of 20 years (probably it would be shorter on average which is why I consider this a safe bet).
Every parent passes 23 of their 46 chromosomes to each offspring, so a given chromosome has a 1/2 chance of being passed on within any particular generation, which means it has a 1/4 chance of being passed down 2 generations, a 1/8 chance of being passed down 3, etc etc. In general:
probability that chromosome is passed to an x-generation descendant = 1/2x
so the likelihood that Sophie would inherit any particular chromosome from Jesus through any particular direct line of descent would be 1/2100, or less than 1 in a million-trillion-trillion. From this we can calculate that the chances that she inherits any of His DNA in this manner are 1-(1-1/2100)23, or less than 1 in ten-thousand-trillion-trillion… slightly better odds, but still not great.
As I mentioned above, this is a naive approach, and only valid as an answer if at least one of the following is true:
- Each of her ascendants was the only child to reproduce. This would be true if for instance each generation had only a single child (which may perhaps be feasible if they were being kept secret and protected as the vessel for the Holy Blood down through the ages, but still it seems unlikely– given mortality rates the line would almost certainly have perished)
- No direct decendent of Jesus ever reproduced with any other direct descendent of Jesus, so no kissing cousins, be they first, second or ninetieth. This also is exceedingly unlikely, because assuming natural birth rates the genes would have rapidly diffused to the point where in any given region everyone is at least a ninth or tenth cousin– at some point the descendants of Jesus would run out of people to breed with if they were so picky.
So assuming that Jesus and his descendants reproduced at the same rates as other people, his DNA would have spread far and wide (just like everyone else’s) and a significant portion of the current population would have inherited some part of his genome by direct descent. At this point, apart from the vanishingly small likelihood mentioned above Sophie would have the same likelihood of inheriting Jesus’ genes as anyone else who can trace some ancestry back to the region about two thousand years ago, which would include almost anyone of African, European or Middle Eastern descent. In short, I would have about the same chance of inheriting DNA from Jesus as Sophie would.
To calculate this likelihood (that I might have inherited some DNA from a particular person living in Jerusalem about 2000 years ago) is really really complex, but I can at least get the upper bound by estimating a minimum population size which could have contained all of my ancestry from 2000 years ago. Let’s assume that all my ancestry was at this time encompassed within the Roman Empire, and the Empire had a population of 4 million. Let’s now assume that only 2 million of those people went on to reproduce. Let’s further assume that only 1 million of those had enough fertile children and grandchildren to ensure likely survival of their lineage.
Now I can roughly estimate the odds that any given chromosome in my body might be passed down directly from any particular fertile individual living at that time. Since each of my chromosomes has to trace back to someone within that nominal population of a million, the chances for any given chromosome are roughly 1 in a million. Since I have 46 chromosomes in total, the chances that any of my chromosomes come via direct descent from any particular person are 1-(1-1/1,000,000)46, or less than 1 in twenty thousand.
So, even if you could trace your line back to Jesus Himself, the chances that any of His genetic material would survive in you today is rather remote. We have an upper bound, assuming Jesus and His descendants were prolific and enjoyed mixing it up with distant relatives on occasion, of about 1 in twenty thousand, and a lower bound of virtually zero if the Holy Blood was passed down from one offspring to another in a single non-branching line of descent.
The only case that would guarantee His genes being passed all the way down the tree is in the case of an unbroken patrilineal line (via the Y-chromosome) through father to son all the way down– and it would truly be interesting if some such descendant could be found, because that Y-chromosome would have to have come originally from the father of Jesus, and I’m sure a lot of people would be rather keen to get a look at it.
It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I find astrology to be very silly and annoying, so much so that back at the beginning of 2003 when I discovered that the BBC was hosting an online community for astrology enthusiasts within the context of a broader feel-good site called 360, I felt obliged to wade on in and question their validity. What really galled me about it was that is was that 360 was a spin off from another community project known as h2g2, a site inspired (and cofounded) by the late Douglas Adams. For those who don’t know, Adams was an atheist and huge fan (and friend) of Richard Dawkins– In fact I believe that it was Adams who introduced Dawkins to his now wife Lalla Ward (AKA sexy Romana #2 from Doctor Who). What I’m basically getting at is that he didn’t suffer fools gladly and held little regard for the supernatural.
What follows below the fold is the full transcript of my ensuing discussion with at least one bona fide astrologer. I saved a copy of this conversation for posterity, since it represents a collection of the most thoughtful arguments I have taken the time to make against what I and many others would describe as classic psuedo-science. Since it was so long ago (and the original site no longer exists) I don’t feel too bad about republishing it here.
My initial comment is given as a response to the topic introduction: Astrology – Try it for Yourself. Unfortunately I no longer have the content of this intro, but it was basically a blurb about how positive and useful astrology can be in our lives. Some choice quotes appear below. On only a few occasions does the conversation become petty, and by and large I feel that I conducted myself in a reasonable fashion– ok, I do get quite snarky towards the end, but I can’t help it because it’s insane that people can take something like astrology seriously… oh just read on and it will be pretty clear what I think…
Well well well… if the spooky incident involving the sausage wasn’t bad enough, now my apparel seems to be moving about the place of its own accord!
Oh damn, there I go again, giving away the punchline instead of breathlessly building up to it in a drearily predictable way. Obviously I’m just not cut out for telling these spoooky tales of the paranormal.
Were I any good at it, I would be busily pointing out that this day was perfectly normal AND just like any other, and that absolutely nothing had happened thus far that should indicate that my clothing was planning to adjust itself without my interference. I would also make it clear that although there was no reason for me to be particularly observant at the time, I still remember with photographic clarity just how perfectly ordinary conditions were beforehand, and how completely devoid of unusual or irregular influences the scene was. So maybe I should start again:
There was nothing noteworthy or out-of-the-ordinary about conditions in my room the night before this miraculous event happened.
Already, your tiny neck hairs are prickling, yes? For what builds apprehension better than an assurance of utmost normality? Bwooo-ha-ha-hahaha! … *cough* … *cough* …
So, enough waffle, on with the actual story…
The thing is, I have this really ugly blue shirt on my clothes rack which I never wear, and really it just serves as a kind of bookend for my other shirts, which I wear slightly more often. I always shove it to the left, with this jacket-like garment on the right, which I wear all the time.
Blue Shirt on the left, Jacket Thing on the right, OK?
So anyway, one night I’ve noticed that Jacket Thing is not quite dry after washing it [strange that], so I make a special point of separating it from my other clothes to let it air more, pushing it to the right and Blue Shirt all the way to the left. And then I go to sleep, alone in my bedroom.
Next morning, I wake up, roll over, and can’t help noticing that Blue Shirt is now pressed right up against Jacket Thing, exactly as I wanted it not to be the night before. How very odd, I thinks to myself, it is plain as day that this shirt has moved during the night, but how is that possible?
Now here’s where my story could get extra creepy, when I reveal that the reason the shirt is even hanging on my rack in the first place is because my late fiancée bought it for me just a week before she died, and I had not the heart to throw it away. Lucky for me I have endured no such tragedy; it’s just a cheap shirt that I bought and never wear.
But without a deceased lover to blame, what could the explanation be? The cause certainly wasn’t immediately clear. Here’s my preliminary list of possible explanations:
Ghostly intervention [someone else's deceased lover in the wrong house?]
Divine intervention [an incredibly obtuse warning about the dangers of not believing in God?]
Me actually having moved the shirt the night before, and simply forgotten about it.
Were someone else telling me this story – assuming I hadn’t already tuned out – I would probably bet on explanations 5, 4 and 3, in that order. But as it turns out, none of them are true! Just like an annoying mystery writer, I have withheld just enough information to stop you guessing before I am ready to reveal the rather anticlimactic truth, which is:
I often sleep with an electric fan going (for the soothing white noise), and the slight breeze generated by it caused a tiny rocking motion in the Blue Shirt which allowed it to slowly edge its way along the clothes rack, so slowly that it took an entire night to do so.
Another mystery avoided!