Threads of 2011

One of the traditions of my old site was, at the end of each year, to choose a selection of my favorite posts from throughout the year and highlight them as the classics that give the best sense of what Daylight Atheism is all about. On the new site, I'm going to do something a little different: I'm going to pick posts which address themes that kept recurring throughout the year. In my mind, these were the most significant threads of 2011:

The Arab Spring

The biggest worldwide story of the year was the unprecedented revolutions in the Arab world, as people in one country after another rose up against dictatorship. In January, I wrote despairingly of darkness gathering over Pakistan with the assassination of Salman Taseer, one of that benighted country's few brave defenders of secularism, and wondered what could possibly turn the tide in the Islamic world. Almost as if in answer, just a few days later, I found myself writing about democratic protests erupting in Tunisia and Egypt, in both of which I noticed that women were playing a prominent role.

As dictators toppled in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and new democracies slowly took shape, one of the most pressing questions was what rights women would have. I pondered whether the Arab Spring was hurting Arab women and addressed the depth of support for Islamic law on the Arab street. In 2012, I expect to continue observing and writing about this still-unfolding turn in history.

Sexism in the Atheist Community

Among atheists, one of the most contentious topics of 2011 is what we can do to create a secular community that welcomes all kinds of people and broaden our appeal beyond the white men who have traditionally been the most prominent representatives of atheism. In January, I wrote about encouraging diversity in atheism, drawing parallels among the guardians of tone who react angrily to any historically oppressed group staking a claim to equal rights, whether it's atheists, women, or non-white people. I discussed the phenomenon of female atheists lamenting how their appearance and sexuality, not their thoughts, always become the topic of discussion. And I polled my own readership to gather statistics on age and gender, sparking a discussion on the large gender disparity seen in the responses.

In the second half of the year, the atheist blogosphere exploded over a now-infamous incident referred to as "Elevatorgate", where a well-known female atheist was insensitively propositioned at a conference and drew an absurdly vicious backlash for speaking up about it. I wrote about the importance of not being "that guy", illustrating it with a story from my own experience as well as another similar account from a male celebrity, and discussed the sense of entitlement that motivates sexism across cultures.

The Religious Right Hates Women

Of course, to put our struggles with gender equity in perspective, it's worth noticing how many among the religious right openly wish death and suffering on women. Early in the year, I reported on Catholic hospitals denying women abortions, even in life-and-death emergencies, and Republican congressmen who want to make it legal for any hospital to do the same, even as they push to exclude abortion care from health insurance. Later on in the year, I wrote about the misogyny common to all major religions, with special reference to fundamentalist Islam and ultra-Orthodox Judaism (a topic I expect to revisit often in 2012).

Religious Apologists Defending Genocide

Another common thread through the year was the disturbing phenomenon of Christian believers who stand up for genocide, on the grounds that the Bible says God has commanded it in the past. In April, I wrote "Another World Creeps In", and followed up by pointing out this monstrous doctrine in the words of ordinary believers, as well as in the writings of professional Christian apologists. I wrote about how al-Qaeda uses the same reasoning to justify killing the innocent.

Marriage Equality Advances

In June, the historic passage of a marriage-equality bill in New York State was the occasion for much celebration. I pointed out how proselytizing bigots like Albert Mohler complain that it makes their job harder when minorities aren't oppressed, and mentioned the welcome news of homophobes resigning from state government rather than having to treat all comers equally.

Unitarian Universalism and Atheism

In November, I wrote about anti-atheist bigotry in A Chosen Faith, one of the classic texts of Unitarian Universalism, a nontheistic religion which theoretically welcomes everyone, even atheists. I exchanged words with John Buehrens, one of the book's authors, but got no satisfaction. Like some of the others, this is a story that isn't over yet.

Personal Developments

Over the summer, I joined a fund-raising contest pitting a team of atheist bloggers against the Dark Overlord - a contest which we won, resulting in my proving my manliness by growing facial hair. I also attended Skepticon IV in Springfield, Missouri, where I had an absolute blast rubbing elbows with some awesome people whom I'd formerly only known as pixels on a screen.

On the professional front, I began writing columns for AlterNet, as well as launching my SSA speaking career with engagements at Columbia and Syracuse. (I've already got more gigs than that lined up for next year. More on that soon.)

But of course, the single biggest change this year was Daylight Atheism officially joining Big Think. I won't deny that there have been a lot of bumps along the way, nor that the change has demanded a lot of adjustment both from me and from my readers. But I feel as if I'm getting settled now, and the initially fractious commenting community is finding a new balance.

And the move has brought benefits of its own, mostly in the form of bringing wider notice and exposure to this blog. I've challenged Penn Jillette on the conflict between atheism and libertarianism, responded to Peter Lawler on the godlessness of the Constitution, and most recently, tangled with Peter Hitchens, Christian brother of the departed New Atheist firebrand, on whether there's such a thing as non-human moral authority.

There was a lot more that happened this year, but in the name of brevity, I'm bringing this post to a close. So, what were the most memorable parts of your 2011? And what are you looking forward to in the coming year?

Image credit: See-ming Lee, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.