Oddly, this is something about religion that I’m not furious about.
It’s the “How can you experience any meaning to your life without God?” trope. And yes, okay, it bugs me. It bugs me a lot. It’s a patronizing, clueless, irritating thing to say.
But I don’t think it’s limited to religion. It’s an extremely irritating blind spot — but I also think it’s an extremely human one.
I hear it from parents. Hobbyists. Political activists. Artists. Fans. “How can you experience any meaning to your life without kids? Without art? Without political involvement? Without folk dancing? Without Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”
I hear it from parents a lot. Hoo, boy, do I hear it from parents. Parents can be relentless on the subject of how all of life’s essence is distilled into their adorable little poop machines. “I didn’t fully comprehend my profound connection with humanity and the true meaning of life until I replicated my DNA.” (For the record, I like kids — I just don’t plan to have any myself, and I don’t think I need to in order to have a happy, meaningful life.)
And I suffer from it myself. I am, for instance, utterly baffled by people who can try English country or contra dancing without being overwhelmed by its glory and wanting to do it every week. I am baffled by people who can watch longsword dancing and not be blinded by its radiant beauty; not feel instantly compelled to run up to the sword team, fall on their knees, and beg to be permitted to join.
More seriously: I am completely mystified by people with no creative outlet in their lives. Not so much by people who aren’t Professional Artists — not everyone can or should be a Professional Artist, somebody has to mind the store. But people who don’t do any sort of art, even as a hobby? No dancing, no blogging, no macrame, no customizing of hot rods, no barbershop quartet — nothing? I absolutely do not get it. Writing is the Number One way that I feel connected to humanity as a whole, the Number One way that I feel myself to be part of a link in a human chain extending back into history and forward into the future. How can anyone not want that in their life?
And I am utterly bewildered by people who say they don’t want or need sex in their life. Not only am I bewildered by them — I don’t believe them. My reflex is to think that they’re fooling themselves; they’re afraid of sex, they’re afraid of the intensity or intimacy or whatever, and so they convince themselves that they don’t really need it or want it. I mean — it’s sex! It’s the best idea evolution came up with, ever! Make the animals want to replicate their DNA by building a mechanism for ecstasy and joy that gets triggered when they do it! How could you possibly not want it?
Now, none of this is very nice of me. And in my heart of hearts, I don’t really believe it. Or maybe I should say in my brain of brains. In my heart of hearts, I really am pretty mystified by people who don’t care about the things I care about. But my brain knows better. In my brain of brains, I know that people can live rich, full lives without sex, without artistic expression, without contra dancing even.
So I’m just saying: Perspective is hard. It’s hard to understand that people love broccoli when you find it so repulsive; it’s hard to understand that people hate broccoli when you find it so delicious. And when it comes to the things that are central in our lives, the things that define us and give us meaning and purpose, it’s especially hard to understand how anyone could look at them, shrug, and go, “Ehn.”
Where I think religion falls down, I think, is when it treats its bafflement as a moral imperative. It’s one thing to say, “Boy, I really do not get people who don’t like contra dancing.” It’s another to say, “People who don’t like contra dancing are wicked and sinful and will be tortured and burned forever unless they change their evil, non-contra-dancing ways.” There certainly are religious believers who think atheists are cool, who get that you don’t need religion to live a good, happy, meaningful life… but it sure seems like they’re in the minority. And I think there’s something about the “not based on any evidence whatsoever” nature of religion that makes believers unusually insistent that everyone around them share their beliefs.
But again, religion isn’t alone in this. Parents can be very guilty of this attitude. Have you ever watched a talk show featuring people who are childless by choice? It’s brutal. The level of venom, of almost violent condemnation, that parents can level at people who don’t want kids is frightening. Clearly, the tendency to lash out with righteous moral indignation at people who don’t find meaning in the things you do is not limited to religious believers.
Now, it does seriously tick me off when believers who actively troll in atheist blogs still say shit like this. I mean, you can’t spend fifteen minutes in the atheosphere without seeing people talk — passionately and at great length — about the meaning and value in their lives. Visiting atheist blogs and still asking how atheists can find meaning without God… that’s not just cluelessness or lack of perspective. That’s putting your hands over your ears and going, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, la la la la la.” That’s willful ignorance. And willful ignorance has no excuse.
But in general, when religious believers say things like, “How can you have meaning in your life without God?”, I have to acknowledge that it’s not just religious stupidity. It’s human stupidity. And while it’s a form of human stupidity that definitely ticks me off, I have to acknowledge that it’s also one I share.