Atheism does have comfort to offer in the face of death. Among other things, most atheists think that when we’re dead, it will be just like it was before we were born — not painful or bad, and nothing to be frightened of. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
“Lots of people believe it” is not a good reason for thinking something is true. Including religion. If you ask a lot of people who have never seen the Emperor, “How tall is the Emperor?”, would you decide that the Emperor was probably six feet tall, simply because that’s what lots of people said? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
Please note: This piece includes some passing references to my personal sexuality. Family members and others who don’t want to read that stuff may not want to read this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
It took me way too many years to learn that this is not always a nice thing to say. That, in fact, it’s usually not a nice thing to say. It took me way too many years to learn that, although “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” may seem like a good way to be polite and accommodating and easy-going, much of the time it’s actually a gigantic buzz-kill. It’s a great way to wind up not doing anything fun at all. Especially if everyone involved is playing the same game, in endless rounds of, “After you, my dear Alphonse.”
And that’s just as true with sex as it is with general social intercourse.
I was inspired to write this, as I often am, by a recent Savage Love sex advice column. In this column (second letter from the top), the querant was asking what she and her boyfriend could do about a sex life that she described as “meh.” And she said:
We often ask each other, “What else can I do for you?” I’ve shared a couple ideas, which we’ve explored to my minimal comfort, but he always says “Nothing” when asked if there’s anything he wants to do or try. We have discovered that neither of us particularly cares if we, ourselves, reach orgasm, but we both care very deeply that the other is satisfied. In this light: While I don’t care much if the sex is mediocre for me, I do want it to be better for him.
(That’s an emoticon a friend of mine invented for “facepalm.” Spread the word.)
So I have sympathy. But at the same time, this letter makes me want to smash my forehead repeatedly into the nearest flat surface. And then smack the querant on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. (Along with her boyfriend.)
Because this dynamic is a perfect recipe for mediocre sex.
Part of the problem, of course, is the “After you, my dear Alphonse”/ “You first, my dear Gaston” dynamic. If nobody’s willing to say what turns them on, if everybody’s going to be all nice and polite and insist that the other person’s pleasure is more important than their own, then nobody’s ever going to get what they want.
When it comes to sex, of course it’s important to be good, giving, and game. But if we want to be giving, one of the most important things we can give is our sexual pleasure. Being part of someone else’s sexual pleasure is one of the most intensely pleasurable erotic experiences we can have. Being present with someone who’s lost in sexual sensation; someone whose entire face and body is transformed by erotic joy; someone who’s so excited that they’re incoherent? And not only being present with it, but being part of making it happen? That’s one of the most richly satisfying sexual experiences we can have.
And if you’re not willing to tell your partner what exactly it is that does that for you, you’re denying them this experience.
Here’s the thing. When people say, “I don’t know what I want — what do you want?”, I almost never believe them. Sex is one of the most powerful driving forces we have. We are, as I’ve written before, the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution by sexual reproduction, descended from countless generations of animals who really, really like to boff. Sex is a deeply and profoundly hard-wired urge, one that demands our attention on a regular basis. It is a rare person indeed who has genuinely never thought very much about what kinds of sex they do and don’t like.
Which I get. I really do. Our culture teaches us that sex is wicked and trivial, and that whatever we want sexually is ridiculous at best and disgusting at worst, and that the mere fact of wanting it makes us self-centered and greedy. (Women especially get this message hammered into us from a very early age.) And even if we didn’t live in a culture like that, sex can still be very personal, and revealing our sexual desires can make us very vulnerable. It’s hard sometimes to ask for what we want. It’s even harder to do it in a way that expects those desires to be taken seriously.
If you’re concerned that expressing your desires will make you seem inconsiderate and selfish, there are ways around that. Offering multiple options is one way to go; making it clear that you’re open-minded is another. “I like getting spanked, and giving head, and getting my nipples pinched, but I’m flexible and I like to try different things — what do you like?” is a very different animal than, “Oh, I don’t know — what do you like?” And when our partners ask for what they want (assuming they get over their own fear/ embarrassment/ shyness enough to do that), we can treat their desires with respect. We’re not obligated to say “Yes,” but we can listen, and consider, and be game to try stuff even if it’s not what floats our personal boat, and not treat people like they’re disgusting or ridiculous simply for wanting what they want. It is entirely possible to ask for what we want, and still be sensitive to what our partners want.
In fact, it’s not only possible. It’s necessary. As Savage said in his reply to this letter, “selfless sex partners make lousy lays.” If we really want to be good, giving, and game in bed, one of the things we have to be willing to give is our own sexual pleasure. We have to be willing to give up our fear, our shyness, our embarrassment, about the things we want. We have to be willing to be vulnerable, to risk rejection, so we can give a glimpse into who we are sexually. We have to be willing to give a little bit of ourselves.
In other words: If we really want to be giving in bed, one of the biggest things we have to be willing to give is an honest answer to the question, “What do you want to do?
Yes, it’s important to have an open mind. Is your mind open to the possibility that there is no supernatural, and the physical world is all there is? Being open-minded means being open, not just to what is true, but to what is not true. It means being willing to reject hypotheses if they have no good evidence. Including God or the supernatural.Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
I don’t mean people who unconsciously don’t care about reality. I don’t mean people who unconsciously resist or rationalize evidence when it contradicts the things they believe. I get that. That’s universally human. Everybody does that. Atheists, believers — everybody. Me, and you, and everyone we know.
I’m talking about people who consciously, intellectually state that they’re less interested in what’s really true about the universe than they are about their personal interpretation of it. People who consciously, intellectually state that reality can’t be completely understood, and therefore all interpretations of it are equally valid. People who consciously, intellectually state that it’s less important to understand reality than it is to not offend people by pointing out that their beliefs are inconsistent with the evidence. People who consciously, intellectually state that, even though there’s powerful evidence against the belief that (say) consciousness is animated by an immaterial soul that survives death, or that life was shaped into being by a loving God, or what have you… it’s still reasonable for them to hold those beliefs. People who consciously, intellectually state that, when it comes right down to it, they don’t care whether the things they believe are true.
And who firmly defend that position.
What do you say to them?
As an atheist writer, I’ve been having this weird series of conversations about religion with believers who take this position. Some of them take it in a very hard-line relativist way: they insist that there’s no reality other than the one we create in our minds. Or they insist that, even though there probably is an external reality, there’s no way to truly understand it… so it’s completely reasonable to live in the world as we create it in our heads, and to interpret reality in whatever way gives us comfort and pleasure. Regardless of whether that interpretation jibes with, you know, evidence about how reality works.
I’ll be honest: I find it very hard to argue against this position. Mostly because I find it so utterly baffling. The idea that reality matters? The idea that we ought to care whether the things we believe are true? To me, this is close to a fundamental axiom. And when people say they don’t care about that, it leaves my jaw hanging in dumbfounded silence.
But that makes it a topic worth getting into. I like questioning my fundamental axioms. I think they’re worth examining. So I’m going to examine this one.
Why should we care whether the things we believe are true?
Why should we treat the external, objective reality of the universe as more important than the internal, subjective reality of our personal experience?
Why is the universe more important than me?
Perspective as a Moral Obligation
I’m not saying the insides of people’s heads aren’t important or interesting. Of course they are. They’re what make art interesting, and literature, and so on. And they’re what make psychology and neuropsychology interesting as well. The insides of people’s heads are fascinating. And they matter.
But the world inside a person’s head is just one tiny fragment of the vast, ancient, wildly freaky complexity of existence. Why would I give that tiny fragment greater priority than the vast, freaky complexity? Even if the head that this tiny fragment is inside happens to be my own? To me, that seems like the absolute height of arrogance.
In fact, I’d argue that it’s more than just arrogant. I’d argue that it borders on unethical. Understanding that our own experience is not the only one? That other people matter to themselves as much as we do to ourselves? That none of us has a pipeline to truth? Understanding that we are not the most important being in the universe; having the ability to view life from an outside perspective, and acknowledge that we don’t, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else? That is the core of human ethics.
Perspective is more than an intellectual discipline. It’s a moral obligation. The willingness to step back from our experience, to examine our beliefs about the world and let go of them when the evidence contradicts them, is a huge part of how we gain the humility we need to see our true place in the world. Caring whether the things we believe are true is a crucial part of caring, period.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
This isn’t just about philosophy, though. It isn’t even just about the vital branch of philosophy known as ethics. There are purely pragmatic reasons for caring whether the things we believe matter.
We need to understand reality, so we know how to behave in it.
And this applies to religious and spiritual beliefs as well. If we believe that we failed our English test because Mercury was in retrograde, or that our stomach-aches are God’s punishment for thinking impure thoughts about Lady Gaga… we’re still not going to study or knock off the Doritos.
Understanding reality is how we know how to behave in it. Understanding cause and effect, which causes lead to what effects, is how we make better decisions — decisions that are more likely to lead to outcomes we’re hoping for.
And if we’re going to understand reality, we have to care whether the things we believe are true. We can tell ourselves that we create our own reality until we’re blue in the face… but if we don’t create our personal reality based on the best possible understanding of the larger reality around us, if we don’t create our personal reality by eating a healthy diet and doing our English homework and so on, reality is going to bite us in the ass.
Of course there are some very pragmatic, nuts- and- bolts ways that our beliefs about reality affect reality. Being optimistic can help us see more opportunities; being good to people draws other good people to us; etc. But there’s nothing magical about that. It’s just human psychology. Based, I’d like to point out, on observable cause and effect. Exactly the kind of reality I think people should care about.
Now, when pressed with these kinds of questions, many of these “We create our own reality and don’t have to care if our beliefs are true” believers will agree. They’ll say that, when it comes to petty, mundane, physical matters, of course they understand cause and effect, and want to understand it better so they can create good consequences and avoid bad ones. When they’re on the twentieth floor of a building, they don’t exit that building by jumping out the window. They don’t act on the principle that they can create their own reality and gently float down from the window to the sidewalk. They believe in reality, in physical cause and effect… enough to take the elevator. When it comes to practical matters, of course they care whether the things they believe are true. It’s just the grand metaphysical issues, the issues where cause and effect isn’t blindingly obvious, the issues of God and the soul and eternal consciousness and whatnot… that’s where they feel they can make up any interpretation of reality that makes them happy.
Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that.
It’s not so easy to believe whatever you find comforting in some cases… and then question, or challenge, or let go of your beliefs in others.
Skepticism is a discipline. It does not come naturally to the human mind. The human mind is wired to believe what it already believes, and what it wants to believe. The habit of questioning whether the things we believe are true — and letting go of beliefs we’re attached to when the evidence contradicts them — takes practice.
What’s more, my spiritual beliefs were very slippery. (A phenomenon I’ve noticed in many other believers.) When confronted with strong evidence that contradicted my beliefs, I’d pull out the “this may not be literally true but it works for me” line. But when I was alone, or with others who shared my beliefs? I bloody well believed those things. Entirely and literally. And again, that slipperiness — that willingness to slide back and forth between wishful thinking and critical thought, depending on convenience and who was watching and how attached I was to the ideas — slopped into the practical areas of my life. Often with truly lousy consequences.
Which leads back to the question of ethics. When pressed to the wall in these debates, believers will often wind up saying things like, “Why do you care what I believe? Living in my self-created reality where God loves me and I’m never going to die… it makes me happy. What difference does it make to anyone else?” But rejecting evidence about reality doesn’t just affect ourselves. It means rejecting the reality of how our actions affect other people. It means rejecting the realities of money, of sex, of showing up to work on time, of foreign policy, of global warming… in favor of stories we find familiar and comforting.
And I see that play out with religious believers, every day of my life.
Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire
But beyond all that — beyond my philosophical objections, my ethical objections, even my pragmatic objections — I have another, stronger, far more serious objection to people who say they don’t care if the things they believe are true.
If you really don’t care whether the things you believe are true… then why are you defending those beliefs in an atheist’s blog?
Why are you arguing so passionately, and at such great length, that your solipsistic cultural relativism is a valid viewpoint? Why don’t you just shrug off my arguments for atheism and materialism, and go about your merry way in your self-created reality? Why do you care what I think?
Here’s the thing. I think religious believers do care whether the things they believe are true. The ones who comment about their beliefs in atheists’ blogs sure as heck do. I think they comment in atheists’ blogs because they want validation for their beliefs. They want atheists to say, “No, your beliefs aren’t like all those others, those other beliefs are crazy, but yours make sense.” Or they want atheists to say, “Wow, I haven’t heard that one before — how fascinating and well thought out!”
It’s only when that response isn’t forthcoming that the cultural relativism gets dragged out. It’s only when atheists say, “Actually, your belief isn’t any more consistent with evidence or reason than anyone else’s,” when we say, “Yes, I’ve heard that one before, about a hundred times, it still doesn’t hold up”… it’s only then that believers start insisting that they don’t care about stupid old reality anyway. I think believers do care whether the things they believe are true — right up until the moment when they’re faced with evidence strongly suggesting that they’re very much mistaken.
And that curiosity is one of the best things about us. That curiosity has led us to a greater understanding of the vast, ancient, wildly freaky complexity of existence than we ever thought possible. That curiosity is why we understand about galaxies, and continental drift, and matter being mostly empty space, and everything that’s alive being related, and any number of compellingly fascinating, completely counter-intuitive realities. What’s more, that curiosity has led to innumerable advances in the quality of human life. That curiosity is why we understand that diseases are caused by germs and viruses and genetics and so on, instead of evil spirits or imbalances in the bodily humours. That curiosity is why we understand that we ought not to let raw sewage run in the streets or in our drinking water. That curiosity is why we can talk to each other on the Internet.
Curiosity about how reality works is one of the finest things about humanity. We ought not to abandon it whenever it makes us uncomfortable or forces us to let go of beliefs we’re attached to. We ought to care more about reality than we do about the stories we tell ourselves about it. We ought to care, more than just about anything else, whether the things we believe are true.
We are only beginning to understand consciousness. But an overwhelming body of evidence strongly suggests that, whatever it is, it’s a biological product of the brain, with no supernatural component, and no way of surviving death. We therefore should make the most of life while we’re alive. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
— a book consistently advising women to adhere to a rigid, narrow window of traditional gender roles if they hope to find and keep a man — what would be your reaction?
Would your feminist sensibilities be horrified? Would you be writing angry letters to the publisher, or posting angry rants about it on the Internet? Would you mock it as a hilariously campy example of ’50s and ’60s social propaganda… and be shocked to realize it had actually been published this year?
So what would you think of a book written by women, giving straight men advice on how to turn themselves into acceptable romantic partners… which consistently advises men to adhere to a rigid, narrow window of traditional gender roles if they hope to find and keep a woman?
If you’re a feminist — and I’m going to assume that if you’re a regular reader of the Blowfish Blog, you’re probably a feminist — you’re familiar with how social programming guilt-trips and fear-mongers women into rigid and sexist gender roles. It’s not like it’s hard to find examples of it. It’s freaking everywhere. But I think we’re less familiar with how social programming guilt-trips and fear-mongers men into rigid and sexist gender roles. Our feminist sensibilities aren’t on as much of a hair trigger for male gender-role propaganda. And when this propaganda is subtle, I think we often overlook it.
But we have a magnificently un-subtle version of it in a new book: Undateable: 311 Things Guys Do That Guarantee They Won’t Be Dating or Having Sex.
Thus begins my latest piece on the Blowfish Blog, How Sexism Hurts Men: “Undateable.” To find out how exactly this light, silly bit of pop-culture fluff works to perpetuate narrow and rigid gender roles for men — and how it supposedly applauds men’s confidence in their masculinity while spending 184 pages undermining it — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!
Atheists do see life as having meaning. We simply see that meaning as something we create for ourselves — not something handed to us by an invisible god who supposedly created us. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
Atheists often point out that religious faith is closed off to evidence that contradicts it. What evidence would persuade atheists that their atheism was mistaken?
Atheists often ask religious believers, “What evidence would convince you that you were mistaken?” We like to point out that religious beliefs are usually unfalsifiable — there’s no possible evidence that could prove them wrong, thus rendering them utterly useless. And even if they’re falsifiable in theory (as any belief in a 6,000 year old Earth ought to be), they wind up being unfalsifiable in practice, with an endless series of denialism and goalpost-moving and “God works in mysterious ways” waffling. We often point out that the very definition of religious faith is believing without evidence, even believing in spite of evidence that flatly contradicts the faith. We point out that, when asked “What would convince you that your belief was mistaken?”, the answer from believers is typically, “Nothing. Nothing would convince me that my God is not real. That’s what it means to have faith.” (Which makes accusing atheists of arrogance more than a little absurd… but that’s not important right now.)
And atheists like to point out that this isn’t true for us. We like to point out that atheists are open to the possibility that we might be wrong. We like to point out that the reason we don’t believe in God is that we haven’t seen good evidence for him… and that if we see better evidence, we’ll change our minds.
But I’ll admit that I’ve been lazy about spelling out what that evidence actually is. When the subject comes up, I’ve tended to point to the legendary (in atheist circles, anyway) essay on this subject, The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists, by Daylight Atheism blogger Ebonmuse. I’ve tended to just point to that piece, and say, “What he said. That’s more or less what I think.”
But that seems like cheating. If I’m going to insist that my atheism is falsifiable, I bloody well ought to be willing to think carefully about what, exactly, would falsify it. Not for some other really smart atheist — for me. And I ought to be willing to spell that out in public.
So it’s time to go out on a limb. It’s time to put up or shut up.
Thus begins my latest piece on AlterNet, 6 (Unlikely) Developments That Could Convince This Atheist To Believe in God. To find out what pieces of evidence would convince me that God was real — and what evidence, in contrast, would most emphatically NOT convince me — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!
Yes, some atheists are sometimes jerks. Some people in every group are sometimes jerks. That doesn’t make atheism an inherently jerky worldview. And it doesn’t make atheism wrong. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.