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Humanist Symposium #25, at at Freethought Fort Wayne.
And the Feminist Carnival of Sexual Autonomy and Freedom #8, at Susie Bright’s Blog.
The blog has been a little heavy the last couple of days — fascinating, and I’m loving it, but heavy — and I have a couple of heavy-ish posts planned for the coming couple/ few days. So I’m taking a moment to indulge in my new “Things I Like” series. In the interest of fending off incipient crankhood, I am making a conscious effort to occasionally write something positive about things I like. Here’s one of them.
It’s not just that it’s well- written and well- acted. It’s not just that it’s a fascinating character study. It’s not just that it manages to be both seriously grisly and seriously funny (a combination that I’m almost always fond of).
Here’s what I like about “Dexter.”
(The Showtime series where the protagonist is a sociopathic serial killer who works as a blood spatter analyst for the cops and only kills murderers. For those who aren’t familiar.)
When I tried to get Ingrid interested in the show, she watched one episode and argued through it the whole way. Ingrid is something of an aficionado of true crime, and something of an amateur expert (if that makes sense) about sociopathic serial killers. Which is what made me think she’d like the show. But throughout it she just kept arguing, “No sociopathic serial killer would be like that. No sociopathic serial killer would care about whether the people he killed were good or bad. No sociopathic serial killer would care about some code his policeman father taught him. That’s what makes them sociopaths. They don’t care about right or wrong, and they don’t care what other people think. They think of themselves as above all that.”
A fair critique, and one I can certainly understand. After all, if I were watching a TV drama series on a topic I knew and cared a lot about — sex toys, say, or atheism — I’d probably give up on it myself if it got the basic facts about its subject so very wrong.
But her critique made me think about what it is I like so much about the show, and why I like it despite its lack of realism.
I don’t watch “Dexter” as an exploration of human nature.
I watch it as a truly astonishing narrative exercise.
The exercise: Can you make an audience care about a serial killer? Can you make them root for him? Can you make them sympathize with him, identify with him, want him to do well? Can you even make them sympathize enough with him that they want him to get what he wants… which is to kill people, and keep on killing people?
And the answer, astonishingly, is Yes.
I like Dexter. The character, I mean, as well as the show. Watching the show, I find myself on the edge of my seat, hoping that he’ll be able to go through with this next murder, that he’ll be able to hide the evidence, that he’ll be able to successfully frame someone else for it, that he’ll be able to get away with it.
Which is an intensely compelling, if somewhat unsettling, experience. And it’s an amazing achievement in narrative.
There’s a book called Freaks Talk Back, about sexual non-conformity and tabloid talk shows. (No, this isn’t a tangent — stay with me.) I haven’t read it, but Ingrid has, and she’s told me many of the interesting bits from it. And one of them is this bit of fascinating information: The best predictive factor in determining whether a talk show audience will be with you or against you, cheering and hollering “You go, girl!” or booing and cussing you out? It’s nothing at all to do with your story. It’s whether you get to tell your story first. Whoever gets to tell their story first gets the audience on their side.
The character of Dexter gets to tell his story first. The show is almost all from his point of view, with his internal monologue narrating the proceedings. And so he gets you on his side.
Then, of course, you have the whole “he only kills bad people” thing. He kills people you have no sympathy for. He kills people you’re actively repulsed by. He kills people you yourself might want to kill, or at least feel a desire to kill, even though of course you wouldn’t. And that turns down the volume on the moral revulsion as well.
And then you throw in Dexter’s horrible childhood trauma. I won’t describe it, in case you haven’t seen the show yet, but suffice to say: Horrible. Makes you feel sorry for him. Makes you feel like maybe he can’t help being who he is, and doing what he does.
All this — plus the pure likability of lead actor Michael C. Hall (of “Six Feet Under” fame) — and you get a likable, sympathetic protagonist who kills people for pleasure, in a truly gruesome way, and then cuts up their bodies and dumps them in the harbor.
I may be making it sound as if watching it were a cool exercise in aesthetic appreciation. But it’s more powerful than that. It’s not like I’m sitting back going, “Hm, this is interesting, I’m sympathizing with this character even while I’m finding him reprehensible and repugnant.” It’s more like I’m feeling both of these emotions at the same time: the compassion and the repulsion, the fervent hope for him to succeed and the fervent hope for him to drop off the face of the earth.
It’s unsettling as hell. But it’s also weirdly enlivening. It makes me question, and pay attention to, what I’m feeling. It takes the standards of the sympathetic- hero narrative and uses them to twist your emotions. Thus making you question, not just your emotions, but the narrative standards as well.
And that’s just neat.
It’s not a perfect series. It has a tendency — all too common on TV drama serieses — to throw too many curveballs at once, substituting lots of big dramatic moments for actual drama. And some of the inaccuracies bug me as well… like the ones about recovered memory. But ultimately, I don’t care. It’s clever, and it’s well-made, and it’s vastly entertaining, and it totally screws with the assumptions we make about what stories are supposed to be like and how they’re supposed to go. And it is, above all else, unique.
And that’s good enough for me.
(Dexter Seasons 1 and 2 are available on DVD, for purchase or rental; Season 3 starts on Sept. 28.)
In yesterday’s post, I offered the first half of a list of The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God. Here is the second half.
6: The physical causes of everything we think of as the soul.
The science of neuropsychology is still very much in its infancy. But there are a few things that we know about it. And one of the things we know is that everything we think of as the soul — consciousness, identity, character, free will — all of that is powerfully affected by physical changes to the brain and body. Drugs and medicines, injury, illness, sleep deprivation, etc…. all of these can make changes to the “soul.” In some cases, they can make changes so drastic, they render a person’s personality and character completely unrecognizable.
And death, of course, is a physical change that renders a person’s personality and character, not only unrecognizable, but non-existent.
So given that this is true, doesn’t it seem far more likely that consciousness and identity, character and free will, are some sort of product of the physical brain and body?
With any other phenomenon, if we can show that physical forces and actions produce observable effects, we think of that as a physical phenomenon. Why should the soul be any different? Whatever consciousness and selfhood and the rest of it turn out to be, doesn’t it seem overwhelmingly likely that they are, in some way, a biological process, governed by laws of physical cause and effect?
Why I Don’t Believe in the Soul
“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant on What Consciousness and Selfhood Might Be
A Ghost in the Machine, again by Ebon Muse on the Ebon Musings website. I know, I keep citing the Ebon Musings website. What can I say? Dude can write. Dude can think. Dude has a really well-organized site map that makes it easy to look stuff up.
7: The complete failure of any sort of supernatural phenomenon to stand up to rigorous testing.
Whether it’s the power of prayer, or faith healing, or astrology, or life after death: the same pattern is consistently seen. Whenever religious and supernatural beliefs have made testable claims, and those claims have been tested — not half-assedly tested, but really tested, using careful, rigorous, double-blind, placebo- controlled, replicated, etc. etc. etc. testing methods — the claims have consistently fallen apart.
I’m not going to cite every one of these tests, or even most of them. This piece is already ridiculously long as it is. Instead, I’ll encourage you to spend a little time on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer websites. You’ll see a pattern so consistent it boggles the mind: Claimants insist that Supernatural Claim X is real. Supernatural Claim X is subjected to careful testing, applying the standard scientific methods commonly used to screen out both bias and fraud. Supernatural Claim X is found to hold about as much water as a sieve.
(And claimants, having agreed beforehand that the testing method is valid, afterwards insist that it wasn’t fair.)
And don’t say, “Oh, the testers were biased.” That’s the great thing about the scientific method. It is designed to screen out bias, as much as is humanly possible. When done right, it will give you the right answer, regardless of the bias of the people doing the testing.
Plus, here’s a point that defenders of the supernatural never effectively address when they accuse scientists of anti-religion bias: In the early days of science and the scientific method, most scientists did believe in God, and the soul, and the metaphysical. In fact, many early science experiments were attempts to prove the existence of these things, and discover their true natures, and resolve the squabbles about them once and for all. (Not God so much, but the soul and the supernatural.) It was only after decades upon decades of these experiments failing to turn up anything at all that the scientific community began — gradually, and painfully — to give up on the idea.
Supernatural claims only hold up under careless, casual examination. They are supported by confirmation bias (i.e., our tendency to overemphasize evidence that supports what we believe and discard evidence that contradicts it), and wishful thinking, and our poor understanding and instincts when it comes to probability, and our tendency to see pattern and intention even when none exists, and a dozen other forms of weird human brain wiring. When studied carefully under conditions specifically designed to screen these things out, they vanish like the insubstantial imaginings that they are.
8: The slipperiness of religious and spiritual beliefs.
That is a sure sign of a bad, bad argument.
Here’s the thing. It is a well-established principle in the philosophy of science that, if a theory can be supported no matter what possible evidence comes down the pike, it is a completely useless theory. It has no power to explain what’s already happened, or predict what will happen in the future. The theory of gravity, for instance, could be disproven by things suddenly falling up; the theory of evolution could be disproven by finding rabbits in the pre-Cambrian fossil layer. These theories predict that these things will not happen; if they do, then the theories go poof. But if your theory of God’s existence holds up no matter what happens — whether your friend with cancer gets better or dies, whether natural disasters strike big sinful cities or small God-fearing towns — then it is an utterly useless theory, with no power to either predict or explain anything.
What’s more, when atheists challenge theists on their beliefs, the theists’ arguments shift and slip around in an unbelievably annoying “moving the goalposts” way. Hard-line fundamentalists, for instance, will insist on the unchangeable perfect truth of the Bible; but when challenged on its specific historical/ scientific errors and moral atrocities, they insist that you’re not interpreting those passages correctly. (If the book needs interpreting, then how perfect can it be?)
Once again, that’s a sure sign of a bad, bad argument. If you can’t just make your case and then stick by it, or genuinely modify it, or let it go… then you don’t have a very good case. (And if you’re making any version of the “Shut up, that’s why” argument — arguing that it’s rude and intolerant to question religious beliefs, or that letting go of doubts and questions about faith makes you a better person, or that doubting faith will get you tortured in Hell forever, or any of the other classic arguments intended to silence the debate rather than address it — then that’s a sure sign that your argument is totally in the toilet.)
A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside
Why Religion Is Like Fanfic
What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? The Difference Between Secular and Religious Faith
The Problem of Unfishiness: Religion, Science, and Unanswered Questions
9: The failure of religion to improve or clarify over time.
Over the years and decades and centuries, our understanding of the physical world has grown and clarified by a ridiculous amount. We understand things about the world and the universe that we couldn’t even have imagined a thousand years ago, or a hundred, or even ten. Things that make your mouth gape open with astonishment and wonder just to think about.
And the reason for this is that we came up with a really good method for sorting out the
good ideas from the bad ones, the more accurate theories from the less accurate ones. We came up with the scientific method: a self-correcting method for understanding the physical world, which — over time, and with the many fits and starts and setbacks that accompany any human endeavor — has done, and continues to do, an astonishingly good job of helping us perceive and understand the world, predict it and shape it, in ways we could not have possibly imagined a thousand, or a hundred, or even ten years ago.
(And the scientific method itself is self-correcting. Not only has our understanding of the world improved by ridiculous leaps and bounds; our method for understanding it is improving as well.)
But our understanding of the metaphysical world?
Not so much.
Our understanding of the metaphysical world is exactly in the place it’s always been: hundreds and indeed thousands of sects, squabbling over which sacred text and which set of spiritual intuitions is the right one. We haven’t come to any sort of consensus about which sect has a more accurate conception of the metaphysical world. We haven’t even come up with a method of deciding which sect has a more accurate conception of the metaphysical world. All anyone can do is point to their own sacred text and their own spiritual intuition. And around in the squabbling circle we go.
All of which clearly points to religion, not as a perception of a real being or substance, but as an idea we made up and are clinging to. If religion were a perception of a real being or substance, our understanding of it would be sharpening, clarifying, being refined. We would have improved prayer techniques, more accurate prophecies, something. Anything but people squabbling with greater or lesser degrees of rancor, and nothing to actually back up their belief.
10: The complete and utter lack of solid evidence for God’s existence.
There’s just no evidence for it.
No good evidence, anyway. No evidence that doesn’t just amount to opinion and tradition and confirmation bias and all the other stuff I’ve been talking about for the last two days.
And in a perfect world, that should have been the only argument I needed. In a perfect world, I shouldn’t have had to spend the last month and a half collating and summarizing the reasons I don’t believe in God, any more than I would have for Zeus or Quetzalcoatl or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
As thousands of atheists before me have pointed out: It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does.
In a comment on this blog, arensb made a point on this topic that was so ridiculously insightful, I’m still smacking myself on the head for not having thought of it myself. I was writing about how theists get upset at atheists for rejecting religion after hearing 876,362 arguments for it, saying, “But you haven’t considered Argument #876,363! How can you be so close-minded?” And here’s what arensb said:
“If, in fact, it turns out that argument #876,364 is the one that will convince you, WTF didn’t the apologists put it in the top 10?”
If there’s an argument for religion that’s convincing — actually convincing, convincing by means of something other than authority/ tradition, personal intuition, confirmation bias, fear and intimidation, wishful thinking, or some combination of the above — wouldn’t we all know about it?
Wouldn’t it have spread like wildfire? Wouldn’t it be the Meme of All Memes? I mean, we all saw that video of the cat trying to wake its owner up within about two weeks of it hitting the Internet. Don’t you think that the Truly Excellent Argument/ Evidence for God’s Existence would have spread even faster, and wider, than some silly cartoon video?
If the arguments for religion are so wonderful, why are they so unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t already believe?
And why does God need arguments, anyway? Why does God need people to make his arguments for him? Why can’t he just reveal his true self, clearly and unequivocally, and settle the question once and for all? If God existed, why wouldn’t it just be obvious? (See #2 above, in yesterday’s post.)
It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does. And in the absence of any genuinely good, solid evidence or arguments in favor of God’s existence — and in the presence of a whole lot of very solid arguments against it — I am going to continue to hold the null hypothesis of atheism: that God almost certainly does not exist, and that it is completely reasonable to act as if he does not exist.
So. What do you all think? Atheists — are there arguments against God’s existence that you think are more convincing than these? And theists — do you have any thoughts on these arguments? I don’t promise to debate every one of you ad infinitum, or indeed any one of you; but I’m curious to hear what you have to say.
In many of my writings about religion, I take my atheism as a given. When I critique religion, or gas on about atheist philosophy, I generally start with the assumption that religion is a mistaken idea about the world and that atheism is a correct one, and go from there.
Which is generally fine with me. If I always had to start with first principles — on any topic — I’d get nothing written. (Nothing interesting, anyway.)
But it occurred to me recently that a newcomer to my blog might think that I hadn’t carefully considered the question of God’s existence. My arguments against God and religion are scattered all over my blog, and I don’t expect even my most devoted readers to read every single piece of my Atheism archives just to dig them all up.
So here — largely for my own convenience, and hopefully for the convenience of readers both atheist and not — is a summary of the Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God. Or the soul, or metaphysical energy, or any sort of supernatural being(s) or substance(s). Something I can point to, and that maybe other atheists can point to, when theists ask, “But have you considered…?” (And since I’ve probably missed some good ones, I’ll be asking for your own favorite arguments at the end of the piece.)
A couple of quick disclaimers first. This is really just a summary: a summary of ideas that I, and other atheist writers, have gone into in greater detail elsewhere. People have written entire books on this topic, and this post isn’t an entire book… nor is it meant to be. If you’re going to critique me for oversimplifying, please bear that in mind: It’s a summary. It’s meant to be somewhat simple. (I’m giving links to my own writing and to other people’s that go into the ideas in more detail.)
And no, I don’t think any of these arguments provide a 100% conclusive airtight case against God. Not even all of them together do that. And I don’t think they have to. I’m not trying to show that belief in God’s existence is absolutely impossible. I’m trying to show that it’s implausible. I’m trying to show that it is — by far — the least likely hypothesis for how the world works and why it is the way it is.
Oh — and for the sake of brevity, I’m generally going to say “God” when I mean “God, or the soul, or metaphysical energy, or any sort of supernatural being(s) or substance(s).” I don’t feel like getting into “Well, I don’t believe in an old man in the clouds with a white beard, but I believe…” discussions. It’s not just the man in the white beard that I don’t believe in. I don’t believe in any sort of religion, any sort of soul or spirit or metaphysical guiding force, anything that isn’t the physical world and its vast and astonishing manifestations.
And here’s why. (Divided into two parts, to keep it from being insanely long.)
1: The consistent replacement of supernatural explanations of the world with natural ones.
When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a very noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller.
Why the sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on.
All of these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the religious explanations were replaced by physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural or religious explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands.
Now. The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural or religious one? The number of times humankind has said, “We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it’s actually caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul”?
Sure, people come up with new supernatural explanations for stuff all the time. But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources?
Again — exactly zero.
Given that this is true, what are the chances that any given phenomenon for which we currently don’t have a thorough explanation — human consciousness, for instance, or the origin of the universe — will be best explained by the supernatural?
Given this pattern, it seems clear that the chances of this are essentially zero. So close to zero that they might as well be zero. And the hypothesis of the supernatural is therefore a hypothesis we can comfortably discard. It is a hypothesis we came up with when we didn’t understand the world as well as we do now… but that, on more careful examination, has never — not once — been shown to be correct.
If I see any solid evidence to support a religious or supernatural explanation of a phenomenon, I’ll reconsider my disbelief. Until then, I’ll assume that the mind-bogglingly consistent pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones is almost certain to continue.
The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely
2: The inconsistency of world religions.
When different people look at, say, a tree, we more or less agree about what we’re looking at: what size it is, what shape, whether it currently has leaves or not and what color those leaves are, etc. We may have disagreements regarding the tree — what other plants it’s most closely related to, where it stands in the evolutionary tree, should it be cut down to make way for a new sports stadium, etc. But unless one of us is hallucinating or deranged or literally unable to see, we can all agree on the tree’s basic existence, and the basic facts about it.
This is blatantly not the case for God. Even among people who do believe in God, there is no agreement whatsoever as to what God is, what God does, what God wants from us, how he acts or does not act upon the world, whether he’s a he, whether there’s one or more of him, whether he’s a personal being or a diffuse metaphysical substance. And this is among smart, thoughtful, sane people. What’s more, many smart, thoughtful, sane people don’t even think that God exists… and the number of those people is going up all the time.
And if God existed, he’d be a whole lot bigger, a whole lot more powerful, with a whole lot more effect in the world, than a tree. Why is it that we can all see a tree in more or less the same way, but we don’t see God in even remotely the same way whatsoever?
The explanation, of course, is that God does not really exist. We disagree so radically over what he is because we aren’t actually perceiving anything that’s real. We’re “perceiving” something we made up; something we were taught to believe; something that the part of our brains that’s wired to see pattern and intention (even when none exists) is wired to see and believe.
3: The weakness of religious arguments, explanations, and apologetics.
The argument from authority. (Example: “God exists because the Bible says God exists.”)
The argument from personal experience. (Example: “God exists because I feel in my heart that God exists.”)
The argument that religion shouldn’t have to logically defend its claims. (Example: “God is an entity that cannot be proven by reason or evidence.”)
Or the redefining of God into an abstract principle — so abstract that it can’t be argued against, but also so abstract that it scarcely deserves the name God. (Example: “God is love.”)
And all these arguments are incredibly weak.
Sacred books and authorities can be mistaken. I have yet to see a sacred book that doesn’t have any mistakes. (The Bible, for just one example, is shot full of them.) And the feelings in people’s hearts can definitely be mistaken. They are mistaken, demonstrably so, much of the time. Instinct and intuition play an important part of human understanding and experience… but they should never be treated as the final word on a subject.
I mean, if I told you, “The tree in front of my house is 500 feet tall with hot pink leaves,” and offered as a defense, “I know this is true because my mother/ preacher/ sacred book tells me so”… or “I know this is true because I feel it in my heart”… would you take me seriously?
Some people do still try to point to evidence in the world that God exists. But that evidence is inevitably terrible. Pointing to the perfection of the Bible as a historical and prophetic document, for instance, when it so blatantly is nothing of the kind. Or pointing to the complexity of life and the world and insisting that it must have been designed… when the sciences of biology and geology and such have provided far, far better explanations for what looks, at first glance, like design.
As to the “We don’t got to show you no stinking reason or evidence” argument… that’s just conceding the game before you’ve even begun. It’s basically saying, “I know I can’t make my case, therefore I’m going to concentrate my arguments on why I don’t have to make my case in the first place.” It’s like a defense lawyer who knows their client is guilty, and thus tries to get the case thrown out on a technicality.
Ditto with the “redefining God out of existence” argument. If what you believe in isn’t a supernatural being(s) or substance(s) that currently has, or at one time had, some sort of effect on the world… well, your philosophy might be a dandy and clever one, but it is not, by any useful definition of the word, religion.
Again: If I tried to argue, “The tree in front of my house is 500 feet tall with hot pink leaves — and the height and color of trees is a question that is best answered with personal faith and feeling, not with reason or evidence”… or, “I know this is true because I am defining ‘500 feet tall and hot pink’ as the essential nature of tree-ness, regardless of its outward appearance”… would you take me seriously?
Oh, all over the place. But probably most succinctly:
A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside
The Argument From Design, Part One and Part Two
“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations
4: The increasing diminishment of God.
When you look at the history of religion, you see that the perceived power of God himself, among believers themselves, has been diminishing. As our understanding of the natural, physical world has increased — and our ability to test theories and claims has improved — the domain of God’s miracles (or other purported supernatural/ metaphysical phenomena) has consistently shifted, away from the phenomena that are now understood as physical cause and effect, and onto the increasingly shrinking area of phenomena that we still don’t understand.
Examples: We stopped needing God to explain floods, but we still needed him to explain sickness and health. Then we didn’t need him to explain sickness and health any more… but we still needed him to explain consciousness. Now we’re beginning to get a grip on consciousness, so we’ll soon need God to explain… what, exactly?
Or, as Ebon Muse so eloquently put it, “”Where the Bible tells us God once shaped worlds out of the void and parted great seas with the power of his word, today his most impressive acts seem to be shaping sticky buns into the likenesses of saints and conferring vaguely-defined warm feelings on his believers’ hearts when they attend church.”
This is what atheists call the “God of the gaps.” Whatever gap there is in our understanding of the world, that’s what God is responsible for. Wherever the empty spaces are in our coloring book, that’s what gets filled in with the blue crayon called God.
But the blue crayon is worn down to a nub. And it’s never proven to be the right color. And over and over again, throughout history, we have had to go to great trouble to scrape the blue crayon out of people’s minds and replace it with the right color. Given this pattern, doesn’t it seem that we should stop reaching for the blue crayon every time we see an empty space in the coloring book?
5: The fact that religion runs in families.
Very, very few people carefully examine all the religious beliefs currently being followed — or even some of those beliefs — and select the one they think most accurately describes the world. Overwhelmingly, people believe whatever religion they were taught as children.
Now, we don’t do this with, for instance, science. We don’t hold on to the Steady State theory of the universe, or geocentrism, or the four bodily humours theory of illness, simply because it’s what we were taught as children. We believe whatever scientific understanding is best supported by the best available evidence at the time. And if the evidence changes, the understanding changes. (Unless, of course, it’s a scientific understanding that our religion teaches is wrong…)
Even political opinions don’t run in families as stubbornly as religion. Witness the opinion polls that consistently show support of same-sex marriage increasing with each younger generation. Even political beliefs learned from youth can and do break down in the face of the reality that people see and live with every day. And scientific theories absolutely do this, all the time, on a regular basis.
Once again, this leads me to the conclusion that religion is not a perception of a real entity. If it were, people wouldn’t just believe whatever religious belief they were taught as children, simply because it was what they were taught as children. The fact that religion runs so firmly in families strongly suggests that it is not a perception of anything real. It is a dogma, supported and perpetuated by tradition and social pressure — and in many cases, by fear and intimidation. Not by reality.
I haven’t written about the “religion running in families” argument at length before, and while I’m sure it must have been addressed in the atheosphere, offhand I don’t know where. But Richard Dawkins addresses it in The God Delusion. You can look it up there if you like.
I have, however, discussed religion as an idea perpetuated largely by fear, intimidation, tradition, and social pressure… and the ways religion armors itself, not only against criticism, but against the very idea that religion is a legitimate target for criticism. That discussion: Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions.
End of Part One. I’m breaking this up into two parts, since it’s already ridiculously long; Part Two will appear tomorrow. I realize this will probably be a fruitless plea, but if you can stand it, please hold your comments until Part Two is posted: I may have already addressed your ideas there, and anyway, that way all comment threads can be in the same place. Thanks.
It’s called Caution: Contains Nudity And Sex, and here’s the teaser:
Some years ago, I read a letter to Dear Abby from a concerned mother. She had recently discovered that her children — her full-grown, adult, married children — were having hot tub parties with other adults… parties at which these adults sat together in hot tubs without their clothing.
She was appalled. She was deeply concerned about where this was heading. And Dear Abby fanned the flames of this concern into near-panic. She essentially said (I’ll have to paraphrase here, since I can’t find the original column), “Your children are headed for trouble. This can lead to no good.”
Ms. Abby obviously believed, either that these naked hot tub parties would inevitably lead to swinging and infidelity and other disasters, or that they already had done so. It wasn’t quite clear which. But the equation in her mind was very clear indeed: Being naked around other naked people either implies an already existing sexual relationship, or will inevitably lead to one.
An equation that not only pissed me off, but completely baffled me.
So. Now I have a confession to make.
I regularly attend parties and gatherings at which there is naked hot tubbing… with people I have never in my life had sex with, and probably never will.
And it’s really no big deal.
To read more about the distinction between nudity and sex, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!
In the interest of fending off incipient crankhood and occasionally writing something positive and not critical, I am hereby inaugurating the “Things I Like” series. Ingrid and I were in Santa Fe recently for a family gathering: I was very struck by the city, which I’d never seen before, so I’m going to start there.
Santa Fe completely surprised me. In the course of about three days, it went from a city that I had almost no feelings or opinions about whatsoever, to one of my very favorite cities and a place I’m dying to go back to. Mostly because (a) it’s extremely beautiful, and (b) it’s extremely beautiful in a way that I’m not at all familiar with.
Most beautiful cities I know are beautiful in a pretty similar way: sparkly lights, magnificent towering architecture, gingerbready Edwardian/ Victorian/ Georgian houses with lots of fiddly little details. Santa Fe is beautiful in a completely different way from that. The architecture is simple, yet striking and distinctive: all smooth surfaces and rounded corners, with a style that seems both space-agey and incredibly ancient.
Plus it’s lousy with museums, and the food kicks ass.
A few high points:
The Museum of International Folk Art. The main gallery of this place is simply astonishing. It’s an immense, insane, exuberant jumble of brilliantly colorful folk art from every part of the world. The displays are set up less like standard museum displays and more like dioramas, giving them a look that’s alive and welcoming. Many of the displays aren’t even organized by country, but by theme — toy trains from around the world, or fake food, or angels and devils — again, giving it a feel that’s less like a museum and more like a visual version of a mix tape.
And just when you think you’re done, you look up, and you see more art hanging over your head.
It’s a subsuming, overwhelming experience, one that completely envelops you in astonishing, hilarious, wildly inventive, brilliant beauty. It made me want to laugh out loud the second I walked in, and made me want to applaud when I left.
Kakawa Chocolate House. This is the chocolate shop that makes me want to spit on all other chocolate. It’s almost more like a living museum of chocolate history, recreating hot chocolate drinks from both European and Aztec history. You have to be adventurous — the flavors are spicy and strong and often quite unusual, with flavorings like chili, agave, pepper, rose, orange blossom, and cardamom. Ditto the truffles. Let me put it this way: our favorite truffle was the rosemary.
It may sound weird. But it completely works. The chocolate — both in hot chocolate and truffle form — is intense and vivid, yet delicately balanced. It’s chocolate that makes you sit up and pay attention, chocolate that makes you savor it, chocolate that reminds you that you’re alive. It was chocolate with the power to astonish and delight. It was a completely unique experience.
Four stars. Greta-Bob says check it out.
“Atheists have no hope.”
Of all the slanders and misrepresentations told about atheists and atheism, this is… well, this is the one I’m thinking about right now.
I’m thinking about it because of something I just read. It was in Doris Zine #26 by Cindy Ovenrack, and… well, here’s what it said.
“I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, she is a restaurant manager and we’d never really talked about politics at all, but something came up and she said, ‘Atheism and anarchist theory were the first things that gave me any hope in this world. They were the things that said we had the power within us to make things better. Everything else said we were either evil or helpless to fate.'” (Emphasis mine.)
Typically, when atheists respond to the accusation that we have no hope, our response is something along the lines of, “We do so!” Which is a perfectly fair response, one I myself have made before and will make again. We point out that there are many things to hope for other than immortality (which we believe to be a false hope). And we list all the things we have hope for. We hope that our book will get published, that our children will go to college, that global warming will get handled before it’s too late. We hope that our friend’s cancer is treatable. We hope that a reasonably sane and intelligent person will be elected President in 2008. We hope to be remembered after we die.
And I’ve always felt a rumble of both irritation and pity when I hear this no-hope accusation, a rumble that sounds something like this: “Do you really have no hope for anything other than eternal life? Is your life really so pathetic that you have no hope for anything other than Heaven? Does your life — the actual life that you’re living right now — have so little joy and meaning that you can’t imagine any hope without the promise that, when it’s finally all over, you’ll get to have another, better, permanent life at the end of it?”
But then I remember:
Maybe the answer is Yes. That’s true. They really do have no hope for this life.
I remember, among other things, that rates of atheism are much higher in countries with higher levels of prosperity and social health… and that rates of religious belief are much higher in countries that are riddled with poverty, oppression, and despair.
Now, if the person making the accusation is some yahoo on the Internet, then I feel perfectly free to indulge in my irritation and snark. If you have the time and leisure to be reading atheist blogs, then you have the time and leisure to make something of your life. This life, I mean. The one you actually have.
But for many people, it’s not so easy.
Which is why I was so struck by Cindy Ovenrack’s comment above.
And I am reminded:
For many people, religion does not offer hope.
For many people, religion offers helplessness, and self-hatred, and despair.
And for many of those people, atheism offers a way out of it.
Atheism doesn’t just offer the regular sort of everyday hope, the hope for achievement and health and happiness and a better world. Atheism offers, as Cindy’s friend put it, the hope that we have the power within us to make things better. Not the hope that we might be able to convince some moody, capricious, punitive, easily- ticked- off God to make things better for us if we walk on the eggshells just right. It offers the hope that no such God exists… and therefore we don’t have to worry about what he thinks or what he’s going to do. And that we therefore don’t have to listen to religious leaders and teachers who tell us at every step that we’re bad people, that we’re powerless to make ourselves better, that all the power we think we have actually belongs to someone else.
Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have. And it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move.
And that’s a pretty big hope.
Today, I want to point something out I would have thought was obvious:
This is a blog.
And every single blog post in it is… well, a single blog post.
Here’s what I’m talking about. Among many theistic commenters, there seems to be an odd expectation that every single post I write about religion should address every single aspect of religion that exists, or has ever existed. When I write about X, it’s pointed out that I didn’t write about Y; when I write about Y, I’m scolded for not writing about Z. (Or about X, for that matter.)
It’s not just me, either. Almost every atheist blogger I’ve known has been called to task for this shockingly lax behavior.
In the past, I’ve pointed out a contradiction in this sort of thinking — namely, the fact that religious believers do not hold themselves to the same standards of rigorous study they hold atheists to. They don’t read every word of Aleister Crowley and Robert Anton Wilson before rejecting occultism; they don’t read every word of Scientological thought before deciding that L. Ron Hubbard was either a charlatan or a wackadoodle. And they certainly don’t read every word of Richard Dawkins and Julia Sweeney, Bertrand Russell and David Hume, Ebonmuse and Hemant Mehta and PZ Myers and my own bad self, before deciding to reject atheism.
So having said that, today I am going to point out what I thought should have been obvious:
This is a blog.
And among other things, a blog is a literary form in which brevity is key.
I already write far longer pieces than the blogosphere standard. Too long, in some people’s opinion. If, in every single blog post, I were to try to rhetorically dismantle the entire institution of religion and every single one of its variations, I’d never get anything written or posted. And even if I did, none of it would ever get read.
In fact, if every single post were even to include spelled-out disclaimers — like, “This critique only applies to this one particular form or aspect of religion,” and, “I haven’t studied every variety of religious thought that exists, so I can’t be positive that there isn’t one out there that I’d be convinced by” — again I’d never get anything written, and none of it would get read. I do usually include a shorthand version of this — I say things like, “I think religion often acts as a form of ethical misdirection,” “There’s a common trope among many progressive Christians,” “the way so many religious believers…” But I will have to beg forgiveness for the sin of not always letting my argument get bogged down in disclaimers.
And I must beg forgiveness for this as well: This blog is not an encyclopedic compendium of atheist thought. It is not the Single Work Of Writing That Discredits Religion Once And For All. And it’s not intended to be. I am one person, criticizing religion as I see it in the real world around me. I am trying to critique religion as a whole… but I’m doing it in small pieces, critiquing one form or aspect of religion today, another form or aspect of it tomorrow. I am not trying to set thousands of tons of explosives under the foundation of religion. I am trying to chip away at it with an icepick.
And I’m doing it in tandem with hundreds of other atheist bloggers.
And we are to address every single one of those religious thoughts in every single piece of atheist writing that we do.
Just to be 100% sure that we didn’t miss anything.
Okay. To be fair, nobody to my knowledge has actually said that. Nobody has accused me, or any other atheist writer, of being bad people and bad atheist writers simply for having a life. But I’m really and truly not sure what it is these critics expect of us. Do they think it’s okay for us to reject other religious ideas and experiences… as long as we give long, careful consideration to their own? Or is it simply, as OMGF recently wrote, that we are not to stop considering religious ideas until we have accepted them? That once we’ve accepted them, then that’s the point at which it’s okay to stop considering?
In his Daylight Atheism blog, Ebonmuse recently wrote that, “when I first hear a religious apologetic or miracle claim that’s new to me, often my initial response is to feel a little tremor, as I wonder, ‘Could that really be true?'” I totally have that experience as well. When I see a believer in my blog start to make an argument, I almost always have a moment of wondering, “Will this be the one? Will this be the argument that convinces me?” (And like Ebon, I’m glad for this — it’s a sign that I still have an open mind.)
But it’s also the case that, while I do still get a brief moment of doubt in the face of religious arguments, this experience has diminished considerably over the months and years that I’ve been writing about this stuff. Because the arguments are never, ever any good. They’re always the same — it’s always some version of the argument from authority or the argument from personal experience — and they’re never even remotely convincing. So having considered approximately 876,362 religious arguments in my life, I find myself both aggravated and amused when a believer says, “But you haven’t considered Argument #876,363! How can you be so close-minded?” And I always want to ask these people, “At what point is it okay for me to stop? At what point is it okay for me to say, ‘I have considered the possibility of religion at great length, and I have rejected it, and until I see some seriously excellent arguments or evidence in its favor I am going to continue to reject it and to argue against it”?
Now, I have, in fact, read a fair amount of religious apologetics and religious thought. I was a religion major in college, and while that was 25 years ago, a fair amount of it stuck. And since becoming an atheist writer, I’ve read even more, and will continue to do so. But apparently, if I don’t know every single piece of religious apologetics, I am a failure as an atheist writer. (A standard that, once again, religious believers themselves do not adhere to.)
I find this especially aggravating — and at the same time, especially amusing — since when commenters say things like, “There are lots of good modern arguments in favor of God!”, they almost never say what those arguments are.
You know, if you have a religious belief that you think is not only true but rational and defensible, then by all means, tell me what it is. But don’t say, “You didn’t address my particular form of religious belief… therefore your critique of religion is invalid,” unless you’re prepared to say what that particular form is, and offer some arguments and evidence in support of it.
And for the sweet love of Loki, don’t say, “You didn’t address (X) form of religious belief… therefore your critique of (Y) is invalid.” That’s not only an aggravating argument — it’s a silly one.
Truth to tell, though? I honestly don’t care all that much about advanced modern theology. If you have an argument to make, I’ll certainly read it. But for the most part, I’m just not all that interested in religion as it’s believed and practiced by a handful of theological scholars. I am primarily interested in religion as it overwhelmingly plays out in the real world.
And when theists insist that modern religious thought and practice no longer includes magical thinking and a belief in a supernatural being whose interventions can be affected by human behavior, all I can do is suggest that they visit Lourdes. Or attend a prayer meeting being organized by the parents of a terminally sick child. Or visit a website where prayer accessories are being sold by the thousands. Or talk to the believers who are praying for gas prices to go down. Or else just read the “hilarious if it weren’t so appalling” story of the Pope’s Cologne.
Finally, I want to point out some — well, “hypocrisies” is probably not the right word, let’s say “serious contradictions” — in this sort of argument.
When atheist bloggers write about extreme, hard-core, fundamentalist- type religions, we get scolded for picking easy targets, and we almost inevitably have it pointed out to us (as if we didn’t know) that “not all religion is like that.”
But when we criticize progressive religions, we get scolded for being mean and divisive and going after people who should be our allies.
What’s more: When we criticize the overall concept of religion in general, we’re accused of over- generalizing, of not understanding the rich variety of religious belief and thought.
But when we criticize one particular form or aspect of religion, we somehow, once again, get accused of over- generalizing — of not seeing that the one form or aspect we’re talking about today doesn’t apply to every form or aspect of religion that exists or has ever existed.
So what on Earth are we supposed to do?
Well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do:
I’m not going to give a damn.
I’m going to continue to critique both religion in general and specific religious beliefs and practices, as they cross my path and grab my attention.
I’m going to continue to try to be fair when I do so. I’m going to continue my practice of (usually) critiquing beliefs and practices rather than insulting people. But I am not going to stop critiquing any given aspect of religion whatsoever simply because I am not able to single-handedly dismantle the entire body of religious thought in a single thousand-word blog post.
And the next time someone responds to my critique of the Fundamentalist Wackadoodle of the Week by saying, “But what about the subtle shadings of modern progressive theological thought?” I am going to point them to this piece.
This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. This review was originally written a couple of months ago, when the programs in question were just starting; the first seasons of both are now over, and an update appears at the end of the piece.
Funny thing. When I wrote my recent Blowfish review of the “Sex and the City” movie, my friends all had just one question:
(I guess they figured out what I thought of “Sex and the City” without need of any more questions…)
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but until I started getting these questions, I hadn’t even heard of “Swingtown.” I’m not sure how a prime- time major- network TV show about swinging escaped my notice. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to let my lack of pop- culture coolness slide for the moment, and just talk about “Swingtown.”
And a new face of sex on television.
To some extent, I’m reserving judgment on both shows. I’ve only seen a couple episodes of each, and it’s way too early to get into the serious socio- politico- sexual analysis of either one. But it’s not too early to say this: I’m watching. I’m curious. I care about the stories and the characters, and I want to see what happens next.
And that’s because the characters are — dare I say it? — human beings.
Which is an exciting new development in the relationship between alternative sex and television.
Let’s take “Swingtown” first. A new prime- time drama on CBS, “Swingtown” is about Susan and Bruce Miller, a couple who move to a nice Chicago suburb in 1976 and are introduced by their neighbors to the world of swinging. They’re clearly intrigued by these new possibilities; at the same time, they’re clearly freaked out, and not at all sure where they want to go with it or even if they want to go with it at all. Adding to their confusion are their old best friends, Janet and Roger, a more conservative couple who disapprove heartily: of all these new ’70s shenanigans in general, and of their friends’ new friends in particular. Susan and Bruce — especially Susan, who’s clearly the central character — feel increasingly torn between the old friends and the new… a conflict that symbolizes, and gets tangled up in, their conflicted feelings about the new sexual world that the decade is offering.
I’m not sure where the show’s going with this. And I’m not sure what its attitude toward swingers and swinging will ultimately be. On the one hand, the swinging neighbors, Trina and Tom, are a little too evangelical about swinging: a little too convinced that it’s the solution to all life’s problems, and a little too cool-kid superior about people who don’t want to play. On the other hand… well, that is a reality. I’ve met people like that. I’ve been people like that, in my younger days. And while Trina and Tom definitely have a high- school cool- kids vibe, they also come across as very genuine, complicated and three-dimensional, with honest affection for Susan and Bruce, and a strong marriage that works for them.
And while the show may be a little pissily judgmental about Trina and Tom, and may even be gearing up to play them as sophisticated seducers who blindly fuck up a happy marriage, it isn’t playing Susan and Bruce that way at all. It may be setting them up for a fall, but it isn’t being judgmental of them for being curious and open- minded and willing to try new things — and new people — in bed. They are the moral center on which all these social changes are pivoting… and they’re making friends with committed swingers, and taking baby steps into trying out that world for themselves.
“Secret Diary of a Call Girl” (Showtime) is nowhere near as complex or subtly shaded as “Swingtown.” Itâs definitely a bit in that lurid, gratuitous, “how can we put sex on our network today?” vein that Showtime is so good at. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…) But it also shows its characters — prostitutes and customers alike — as very real and human indeed: funny and poignant, anxious and clueless, selfish and touching.
The show is based on the blog of a real (or supposedly real) high class London call girl, Belle de Jour. And reality is a major player in the story. While it definitely shows the sexy, entertaining, soft- core- pornographic side of Belle’s work, it also shows her as a thoughtful, quirky character, someone who basically likes her job but has issues with how it affects her non-working life. And in these early stages of the show, itâs not yet clear how that conflict is going to play out.
In fact, in the first five minutes of the first episode, Belle puts it this way, in what may amount to the show’s mission statement: “There are as many different kinds of working girl as there are kinds of people, so you can’t generalize. But I can tell you about me.”
And that, folks, is what I’ve been waiting to see in mass- media depictions of non- mainstream sex. Not role models; not shiny happy people with perfect lives. Just people: people who want freedom and who want security, people who love sex and who are cautious about its power, people who think carefully about their sex lives and who make hasty, impulsive decisions about it. People who aren’t based on stereotypes or formulas, and whose actions can’t always be predicted.
Like I said, I’m still reserving judgment on both programs. I’m waiting to see whether “Swingtown” goes for the easy and predictable arc of seduction and ruination — which it might be doing — or whether it goes for a more complex, ups and downs, plusses and minuses vibe — which it might also be doing. I’m waiting to see if “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” comes up with any real analysis of sex work, or just winds up showing pretty pictures of sexy people.
But the point is that I’m waiting. So far, both shows have been about human beings, every bit as unpredictable as non- fictional human beings are. And I’m just going to have to watch, and wait, to find out what happens next.
Which is one of the biggest compliments I can pay to any show on TV.
Update: I originally wrote this review a couple of months ago, when both shows were pretty new and I was all giddy with excitement about them. Now that the first seasons of both shows are over, here’s my sober, better- informed opinion.
“Swingtown”: I’m enjoying this show a fair amount. Not as much as I’d like to be, mind you… but a fair amount. The plotting tends strongly towards the soapy, and much of the time the dialogue is, shall we say, rather less than sparkling. But the characters are interesting and complicated and human. And it’s easily the smartest and most sympathetic treatment of non-monogamy on prime- time network that I’ve ever seen. It’s actually one of the smartest and most sympathetic treatments of non-monogamy that I’ve seen in any pop-culture venue. It’s not all sunshine and roses — it wouldn’t be much of a drama if it were — but the sexual mistakes and conflicts are human, and understandable, and presented with a surprising lack of purse-lipped judgment.
And I love, love, love the fact that, of all the three main couples in the story, the happiest, most loving, most connected, most shit- together- having — by a long shot — is the swinger couple. When the show first began, I thought its moral center was Susan and Bruce, the newcomers dipping their toes into the world of swinging and unconventional sex. But it isn’t. If the show has a moral center, it’s Tom and Trina… the hard-core swinging veterans and evangelists.
And that, I wasn’t expecting.
Which is kind of what it comes down to for me with this show. The dialog is often on the flat and cheesy side; the plotting often leans toward both the soap opera and the after- school special. But ultimately, it’s unpredictable. It keeps surprising me: not with its stupid curve- ball plot complications (which are legion, alas), but with characters who keep turning out to be more complicated and multi-layered than you’d expected. I wish I liked it better than I do; I wish I could rave about it unreservedly and tell you all to rush out and watch every episode. But like I said in my original review, the characters are human; and I’ve come to care about them; and I want to see what they’re going to do next.
In summary: Execution, 6.5. Content, 8.5.
“Secret Diary of a Call Girl”: This definitely isn’t as deep or serious as “Swingtown.” It’s lighter, it’s shinier, it’s fluffier, it’s way more about the soft-core sex. (For a show about swinging, there’s surprisingly little sex in “Swingtown.” “Swingtown” may be more serious than “Secret Diary…” but “Secret Diary” is rather more fun to watch.)
But again, I’m sucked in. The characters — especially the main character, Belle — are complicated and human, and they stayed complicated and human throughout the course of the season. And the show does an excellent job of presenting sex work as a positive career choice that a smart person with choices might reasonably make… without sugar- coating the real problems that the choice can create.
And it’s really, really pretty.
Like with “Swingtown,” I’m a tad disappointed. It’s not quite all that it should be or could be. But again, I’m sucked in. And happily so. I’m not completely blown away — the show isn’t “Buffy” or “Six Feet Under,” neither one of these shows is — but it has a lot of surprises up its sleeve, and I’m definitely watching to see what happens next.
And for a show about sex work — for a show about any kind of unconventional sexuality — that is pretty darned high praise.
Execution, 8. Content, 6.5.