This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry.
Let’s talk about a pleasant topic for once. The most pleasant topic of all, in fact. Let’s talk about pleasure.
The atheist view of sensuality, of pure physical pleasure and joy in our bodies, is about eleventy billion times better than any traditional religious view. Our view — or rather, our views — of physical pleasure are more coherent, more ethical, way the hell more appealing and fun. We don’t believe in a supernatural soul that’s finer than our bodies, more important than our bodies, superior to our bodies in every way. We don’t think we have a soul separate from our bodies, period. We sure as heck don’t believe in an immaterial god who thinks that our bodies are icky — even though he, you know, created them — and who makes up endless, arbitrary, unfathomably nitpicky rules about what we may and may not do with them. We understand that the physical world is all there is. We understand that our bodies, and the lives we live in them, are all we have. And as a result, we are entirely free — within the constraints of basic ethics, obviously — to enjoy these bodies, and these mortal, physical lives. As atheists, we’re free to celebrate our bodies, and the pleasures they can bring us, as thoroughly and exuberantly as we can.
So why don’t we?
Why isn’t atheist culture more physical? Why isn’t it more focused on sensuality and sensual joy? Why is it so cerebral so much of the time? As atheists, we’ve flatly rejected the idea that there’s a higher, finer world than the physical one. Why does it so often seem as if we’ve bought into it?
Dr. Anthony Pinn posed this question, at the Atheist Alliance of America conference in Denver last September. I don’t remember how exactly he worded it: I was too busy sitting there with my jaw hanging open thinking, “He’s right. He’s absolutely right. Why didn’t I see it that way before?” to take precise notes. But ever since he said it, the ideas have been roiling and tumbling in my head, and bursting to come out.
I know for a fact that many atheists, maybe even most of us, don’t live this cerebral way in our private lives. I know that I’m not the only atheist who revels in good food and better hooch; who fucks all afternoon and dances all night; who walks in the sun for miles and pumps iron for the sheer endorphiny pleasure of it; who literally stops and smells roses. But our public life typically doesn’t reflect this. There are notable exceptions, of course: Skeptics in the Pub and similar events leap to mind. But in large part, our public life as atheists — our events, our writings, our culture — is geared towards political activism, social change, the pursuit of science, and the life of the mind.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a passionate devotee of political activism, social change, the pursuit of science, and the life of the mind. But that’s not all atheist culture has to offer. Not by a long shot. This wacky notion that our selves are not separate from our bodies and therefore this life is all we have… this is one of our greatest strengths. And yet, when it comes to one of the most obvious logical conclusions of this notion — the idea that ethically pursued pleasure not only isn’t sinful, but is an actual positive good — we flinch from it in public. When believers accuse us of being sybaritic hedonists, we hotly deny it… rather than saying, “Hell yes, we’re hedonists — why shouldn’t we be? The religious arguments against pleasure are laughable and vile: why should we accept them?” When believers insist that we’ve rejected God’s rules just so we can wallow in sensual pleasure, we get all high-minded and offended and cite every other reason we can think of for rejecting religion… rather than saying, “Yup, that’s a big part of it. Your made-up god’s rules about pleasure are hurtful and inconsistent and flatly stupid, and for a lot of atheists, they’re an important part of why we started questioning religion.” When believers accuse us of the dreaded crime of enjoying our bodies, we vehemently defend ourselves against the accusation… rather than questioning the very premise behind it.
What’s that about?
Some of it may just be PR. In the United States at least, the Puritanical equation of pleasure with sin and self-absorption is deeply ingrained in the culture. Some atheists may think — consciously or un- — that in order to gain acceptance in mainstream culture, we have to accept that culture’s values, or at least not make a virtue of flouting them in public. It’s the old “accomodationism vs. radicalism” debate again: are we working simply for wider cultural acceptance of our basic existence, or are we working for deeper and broader changes in the culture? And it’s a debate that’s raged in every social change movement I know of. As just one example: Think about the “accomodationism/ radicalism” debates in the LGBT movement. One side wants to present the community as “just like everyone else,” with kids and polo shirts and white picket fences and monogamy and a fervent belief in God. The other side wants acceptance for exactly who we are, in all our varieties of sexual practices and relationship choices and gender presentations and social identities… and it passionately wants to see society change some of its most fundamental views on family and love and gender and sex. The first side says, “It’s a myth that gay people are promiscuous! We just want to get monogamously married, just like you!” The second side says, “Actually, some of us are promiscuous, some of us do have hundreds of sex partners — what on Earth is wrong with that?” The first side thinks we’ll never gain acceptance if we don’t make society see us as just like them. The second side thinks we’ll never change how society sees us if we don’t change society… and won’t accept a victory for more mainstream LGBT folks that throws more marginal queers under the bus.
So that’s a big chunk of it. But I don’t think this atheist tendency to downplay physical pleasure is simply about how we present our image in public. I think many of us — and I don’t exempt myself from this — have bought into it. If not consciously, then un-.
It’s very common for marginalized people to buy into the worldviews that marginalize them. Internalized sexism, internalized racism, internalized homophobia, etc…. all of these are well-documented in sociological research. And it’s entirely unsurprising. Sexism and racism and so on are deeply entrenched in our culture’s attitudes. We’re soaking in it. We’ve all been brought up with these attitudes, and we’ve all absorbed them… even the people who are targeted by them. Sometimes internalized self-phobia can be very overt… as we see with women who think that women are only suited to be wives and mothers. And sometimes it can be more subtle, an unconscious absorption of less obvious ideas and reflexes… as we see with women who don’t ask for raises or promotions as often as their male colleagues. (Which is to say, a lot of women. Including me.)
And the same is true for atheism and atheists. Sometimes internalized atheophobia can be very overt… as we see with atheists who insist that religious faith is a wonderful thing that’s necessary for society and they totally wish they had it themselves. And sometimes it can be more subtle, an unconscious absorption of less obvious ideas and reflexes. As we see with the acceptance of the preposterous notion that physical experience is less valuable and meaningful than intellectual experience, and that physical pleasure is something to be ashamed of.
So let’s knock it off. Let’s celebrate our bodies as much as we do our minds. In fact, let’s stop seeing our bodies as something totally apart from our minds. Let’s not simply reject Cartesian dualism and the absurd notion that the soul is the real self and the body is just a skanky shell. Let’s reject its mutant offspring, the absurd notion that the intellect is the real self and the senses are just a meaningless indulgence. The atheist view of physical pleasure is more coherent, more ethical, and way the hell more appealing and fun. Let’s put that view front and center. It’s good PR: we may scare off a few fuddy-duddies, but we sure as hell will bring in the young folks. And it also has the advantage of being the truth.