What Does it Mean to Believe in Something?

What does it mean to believe in something?

One of the most common canards thrown at atheists… I’m sorry, but I’m being overcome with giggles right now, since the word “canard” comes from the French for “duck,” and I’m now picturing a brace of ducks being hurled at the attendees of an atheist convention by angry but confused fundamentalists. I’m a little punchy tonight. I’ll start again.

One of the most common accusations thrown at atheists is that we “don’t believe in anything.” It’s often said as part of the “without religion there’s no reason for morality” refrain, and it’s definitely at the heart of the nitwit “people who believe in nothing will believe in anything” syllogism. Now, the standard atheist response to this is to say, “We do so believe in stuff!” and to then list stuff the atheist in question believes in: music, love, kindness, truth, the abolition of the designated hitter rule, whatever. And I’m happy to go there as well. But today, I want to do something different.

Today, I want to take a closer look at this whole “atheists don’t believe in anything” notion. I want to figure out what it means, where it’s coming from. (Other than the obvious, “we’re just going to keep saying how immoral and pointless atheist lives are and hope something sticks,” of course.) Today, I want to ask, “What does it mean to believe in something?”

A while back (I was still calling myself an agnostic, which gives you an idea of how long ago it was), I wrote a piece pointing out that the question, “Why are we here?” has two very different meanings. It can mean, “What caused us to be here?”, or it can mean, “What is our purpose?” And I pointed out that religious belief tends to conflate these two meanings — the answer to both questions is, “God” — but that, for non-believers, those two questions have completely different answers. What caused us to be here is the process of evolution and the physical laws of cause and effect; our purpose is whatever we decide our purpose is.

I want to make a similar argument about what it means to believe in something.

There are two very different meanings to the phrase, “believing in something.” There’s “believing that the thing exists.” If you believe in fairies, that means you think fairies exist; if you believe in the shock doctrine, that means you believe that corporations and governments deliberately take advantage of the chaos following disasters to impose unpopular policies that would otherwise encounter resistance.

And then there’s “believing that the thing is good and will result in good things.” If you believe in democracy, that means you believe democracy is generally the best form of government and will yield good results; if you believe in President Obama, that means you believe that he’ll be a good President, who will fulfill his campaign promises and make the country better.

Now, for religious believers, these two meanings are often conflated when it comes to God. Believing in God means believing that God exists — and it means believing that God is good, smart and benevolent and successfully carrying out a plan that will be best for everyone.

But if you don’t believe in God, the things you believe exist and the things you believe are good are often going to be completely different.

Examples. Things I “believe in” in the sense of thinking they exist and are real: I believe in germs. Evolution. An expanding universe. The size of the human pelvic girdle as a limiting factor on the size of the human brain. The ultimately physical nature of everything in the universe. The capacity of the human mind to believe what it expects or wants to believe, and to twist the evidence to fit those expectations or beliefs. I don’t necessarily think these things are good — in some cases, they seriously suck — but I believe they exist and are true.

And things I “believe in” in the sense of thinking they’re good: Love. Sex. Democracy. Reason. Compassion. Social responsibility. The pursuit of knowledge. The ability of human beings to solve problems when they put their minds to it. I don’t necessarily think these things are always in existence — all too often, they’re conspicuously absent — but I believe that they are good, and will more often than not result in good things.

Now, I think that for many theists, this concept is very alien. For many theists, the most important thing that they believe in — the thing without which nothing else makes sense to them — is God. And for these theists, believing that God exists and believing that God is good are equally important. In fact, they’re deeply intertwined. The idea that God exists and created everything else that exists is intimately bound up with the idea that God is good and that whatever he says and does must, pretty much by definition, be the best thing. God is not only good — God is goodness. And to deny the existence of God must seem to them like denying the existence of goodness.

But for atheists, the things we believe are true and the things we believe are good don’t have to be the same things. We don’t see God as the one source of all that exists and of all that is good. We don’t see God, period.

So we’re free to believe that big important things exist, but still suck. And we’re free to believe in ideals and goals that are not always present or even ultimately attainable, but are still worth reaching for. We’re free to recognize harsh reality as part of, well, reality, and we don’t have to twist our understanding of that reality to fit the idea of a perfect God and a perfect Creation. And we’re free, within that often harsh reality, to decide for ourselves what we think is good, what we think minimizes suffering and maximizes joy… and we’re free to do so based on the experience we have of that reality, and the evidence we have about that reality, without twisting that experience and evidence to fit a preconceived notion about God’s opinion of it all. We’re free to see goodness as a human construct, an expression of our evolutionary wiring as social animals… and to still see it as real and important and something worth striving for.

In other words: We’re free to see the things we believe are real, and the things we believe are good, as totally different things. And we are therefore free to explore both reality and goodness, to figure out what they are and what they mean to us and to act on that, as thoroughly and honestly and unflinchingly as we possibly can.

Which, IMO, is a pretty good working definition of believing in something.

What Does it Mean to Believe in Something?

Greta's Podcast Interview with Secular Nation

Secular nation april-june 2009
Want to hear me gas on converse eloquently in dulcet tones about atheism? Not sure what exactly “dulcet” means, but want to hear me talk about atheism anyway? Then check out this podcast interview I did with Secular Nation. Secular Nation, the magazine published by Atheist Alliance International, recently reprinted my Being an Atheist in the Queer Community piece… and they did a podcast to go along with it.

The podcast features the A. in the Q. C. piece being read aloud by David Driscoll, who then interviews me about same-sex marriage, the San Francisco gay scene, being brought up without religion, atheism in the context of social change movements, lesbian cherrypicking, and more… plus, of course, being an atheist in the queer community. It’s a hootenanny, if by “hootenanny” you mean “thoughtful, occasionally funny conversation.” Check it out!

Greta's Podcast Interview with Secular Nation

Come See Greta Read! Bi-licious Performance and Panel, Sat. 6/6

If you’re going to be in San Francisco on Saturday June 6, come hear me read! I’m going to be part of “Bi-licious,” an evening of spoken word, music, and dance showcasing bisexual artists, performers and activists through a playful mix of serious issues and entertainment. I’ll be reading from my erotic novella, “Bending” (part of the three- novella collection “Three Kinds of Asking For It).

Part of the National Queer Arts Festival, “Bi-licious” will be at the LGBT Center in San Francisco, at 1800 Market St. (at Octavia), on Saturday June 6 at 7 pm. Tickets are $12.00 – $20.00. Other performers include slam poet Liz Green, musician Khalil Sullivan, The Three Sisters belly dance troupe, and singer/ songwriter Elisa M Welch. There’ll be a panel discussion afterwards, in case you want to chat. Hope to see you there!

Come See Greta Read! Bi-licious Performance and Panel, Sat. 6/6

The Prodigal Son's Brother: More Thoughts on Queers and the Atheist Community

Gay atheist
I thought I’d reached something resembling peace about being an atheist in the LGBT community. I’m not happy with the high level of vociferous religiosity in the queer community, or with how non-believers in that community get dissed. But I also realize that the atheist movement has only been getting serious visibility and organization in the last few years, and it’s just not realistic to expect the entire world — queer or otherwise — to jump overnight from ignorance and bigotry to understanding and acceptance.

But then I got this email from Dick Hewetson, who read my Being an Atheist in the Queer Community piece, and made this point:

As you have, I have discovered that freethinkers are consistently my friends. Yet the [LGBT] movement people seem reluctant to acknowledge all the support they receive from atheist and humanists groups. But they will gush all over an individual congregation or clergy person who stands up for us. I just find it tiresome.

And I got mad all over again.

I got mad, because until I got his email, the “gushing” issue hadn’t occurred to me. And now I can’t get it out of my mind.

Why is it that, when religious leaders and groups finally come around and say or do something marginally nice about queers, the LGBT community falls all over itself in gratitude… but the godless community, one of the staunchest and most vocal supporters of queer rights outside the queer community itself, gets almost no recognition for their support?

Why is it that leaders and organizations in the LGBT community are bending over backwards to do outreach to religious groups — including religious groups who are lukewarm on our issues at best and downright hostile at worst — but virtually no mention is ever made of reaching out to the godless community, who already runs like crazy with our issues and would almost certainly love to run with them some more?

I want to give you a little taste of what this support looks like before I move on. I want to give you a sense of just how supportive the atheist community has been of the queer movement… so you can get an idea of why it ticks me off so much when that community get ignored or dissed.

From Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism, Hate-Crime Laws and Loving the Sinner:

The question is, given the demonstrable falsehood of their stated premises, what’s the real reason why religious right groups are so adamantly opposed to hate crime laws? If it’s true, as they say, that they “hate the sin and love the sinner”, one would think that they would support laws that give LGBT people more legal protection against crimes of bias.

The obvious answer is that they truly do hate homosexuals and want to preserve their right to discriminate against them.

From Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist, You Say We’re Redefining Marriage? You’re Redefining Love:

I say this to the religious people who oppose marriage equality:

You think we’re redefining marriage?

How can you accuse us of that when you’ve done something far worse?

You redefined love.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin”? Please 

For you, “love” means making sure gay people cannot adopt a child who needs a home.

For you, “love” means stripping away the marital status of gay couples who were legally married in California before Proposition 8 took effect.

For you, “love” means accepting someone only if they never act on their sexuality.

From PZ Myers at Pharyngula, Priorities:

We really do have a screwed up culture. Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA, could publicly argue for continued denial of civil rights to gays on air, in a beauty pageant, and pageant officials were unperturbed. Now that semi-nude modeling photos of Prejean are emerging, they are considering revoking her title. So flaunting her bigotry is no big deal, but posing in lingerie makes them clutch their pearls and squeak in horror?

From Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Orson Scott Card Goes Off the Deep End on Gay Marriage:

Until a few years ago, I’d never even heard of Orson Scott Card. I’m not a science fiction reader, so I’d never read his many books, some of which my friends tell me are quite good if you like that genre. But after watching him make a complete fool of himself over the last few years with his ignorant ravings on evolution and homosexuality, I find him to be one of the most contemptible writers I’ve ever come across.

You really must see the absolutely unhinged claims he makes about gay marriage in an article in the Mormon Times, wherein he calls for outright revolution if the government allows gays to get married.

And finally, from Zee Harrison at Black Woman Thinks, Homophobic Jamaican Prime Minister:

Here is an example of the damage caused by ignorance, religion and politicians who profit from maintaining the status quo. Dangerous. I know these views are prevalent in many societies not just Jamaica, but for the Prime Minister to promote homophobia and then clumsily try to squirm his way around it with a pile of words that could be described as nothing other than bullshit is revealing.

Straight against h8
All of these bloggers are — to the best of my knowledge — straight. And these excerpts are just a drop in the bucket. All of these bloggers write frequently and at length on queer issues… as do many, many other non- queer atheists. I didn’t have to dig for these links and quotes: every one of them was posted just in the last month. (BTW: If you have other examples you’d like to link to — from your own atheist blog or from others — please feel free to quote them/ link to them in the comments.)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Of all the communities and worlds I’ve been a part of, the atheist movement is by far the one where I’ve felt most strongly that straight people had my back. It’s the one where I’ve felt most strongly that straight people were not only supporting and accepting of my queerness, but passionately and pro-actively concerned about queer rights.

And it ticks me off that they’re not getting recognition for it.

I want to illustrate this point with a story. And, in an irony that I’m sure you’ll all find vastly entertaining, the story I want to illustrate it with comes from the Bible.

Prodigal son
You all know the story of the Prodigal Son. Son demands his share of his dad’s inheritance; squanders it all on weed and strippers and video games; gets stuck working as a fry cook in a McDonald’s. Son slinks back home to Dad, says he knows he fucked up, says he doesn’t expect his old room back but asks if he can sleep in the garage. Dad embraces him, throws a big barbecue to celebrate his return. Dad’s other son, the non- prodigal one, gets pissy and resentful, pointing out that he’s been a good son and has worked hard for years in Dad’s chicken processing plant, and yet Dad never threw any barbecues for him. Dad says, “Chill out, dude. Your brother’s back. Be happy. Here, have a burger.”

Now, I’ve always thought that the older brother had a point. Yes, he’s being a little pissy; yes, he should celebrate and be happy that his brother came home. But he has a point. If he’s telling the truth — if his father never did throw him any sort of party or give him any recognition of his hard work and devotion — then that’s messed up.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course the prodigal son should get a party. The messed-up part isn’t that the prodigal son is getting a party. The messed-up part is that the non-prodigal son never did. The messed-up part is that the son who consistently does the right thing without being asked gets less appreciation than the son who acts like a big dumb jerk but then comes around.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Hand outreach
I’m not saying that the LGBT community shouldn’t be reaching out to religious groups, shouldn’t be expressing appreciation when said groups help us out or come around to a more queer- positive outlook. I’m saying that the LGBT community should also be reaching out to the godless community… and should be acknowledging the extensive support that the godless community has already given and continues to give.

And I’m kind of baffled about why they don’t.

Scarlet letter
The generous part of me thinks that many leaders and organizers in the LGBT community just don’t know about the atheist community. They know about atheists, of course — in recent years, we’ve been increasingly hard to avoid — but they may not know that we’re a community and a movement, one that’s increasing in both size and organization practically every day. And they definitely may not know how passionately and actively queer- positive that community is.

But when I’m in a less generous mood, I feel like they just don’t give a damn. Atheists already support them. Why should they bother to reach out to us, or even acknowledge us? And atheists aren’t — yet — a massively powerful and well- organized political force. Why should they go to any lengths to make alliances with us? What good can we do them?

I know, I know. I sound churlish and petty. That’s the problem with being the prodigal son’s brother. If you don’t say anything, you’re a doormat; if you do say something, you come off sounding churlish and petty.

So in the interest of not just griping churlishly and pettily, I’d like to make some specific, positive suggestions of what kind of atheist recognition and outreach I’d like to see from the queer community.

I’d like for non- atheist queers to not assume that all queers have religious beliefs. In public or semi- public forums (speeches, conferences, panel discussions, email forums, etc.), where the community as a whole is being addressed, I’d like to not hear general exhortations to pray, or references to “our Creator” or “our spirituality,” or whatnot. I don’t pray, and I have neither a creator nor a spirituality. (If you want to talk about your own religious beliefs, of course I’m totally fine with that — just please don’t express them in a way that assumes that I share them.)

I’d like for non- atheist queers to learn about the most common bigoted myths and stereotypes about atheists. I’d like for them to not perpetuate those myths. And when they hear other people perpetuating those myths, I’d like for them to call them on it.

When LGBT organizations do outreach to religious organizations, I’d like them to at least consider doing outreach to atheist and secularist organizations as well.

When LGBT organizations are putting together panels and conferences and whatnot and are working to get diversity, I’d like for atheists to be part of that diversity mix. Especially if they’re trying to get diversity of religious faiths… or if religion is going to be a central issue of the panel/ conference/ whatever.

When LGBT leaders speak publicly about the diversity of spiritual belief in our community, I’d like them to include queers with no spiritual beliefs as part of the picture.

I’d like for LGBT organizations and bloggers to have at least a couple of major atheist blogs on their radar. Pharyngula at a bare minimum — or, if Pharyngula is too snarky for them, Friendly Atheist. I’d like them to read the blogs, send good stories their way, put them on their blogrolls, give them some link love.

I’m sure there’s more. (If you can think of more, please speak up in the comments.) But that’ll do for now.

Because you know what?

We’ve been good sons.

We’ve been helpful and supportive. We can be even more helpful and supportive if the LGBT community works more directly with us.

And we deserve our barbecue.

Other stories in this series:
Being an Atheist in the Queer Community
How to be an Ally with Atheists

The Prodigal Son's Brother: More Thoughts on Queers and the Atheist Community

My Partner Cheated On Me With Their Right Hand

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about a particular form of jealousy, one that I find baffling and am trying to figure out: namely, the jealousy some people feel about their partner masturbating. It’s titled My Partner Cheated On Me With Their Right Hand, and here’s the teaser:

Let’s take a closer look at jealousy for a moment. We tend to think of jealousy as a single emotion. But I don’t think that’s so. I think it’s more accurate to think of jealousy as a stew of different emotions. It’s part fear — fear that your partner will leave you for someone else. It’s part insecurity — insecurity about your own value and desirability in comparison to someone else. It’s part hurt feelings — hurt feelings of being unwanted, rejected, left out. And it’s part just flat-out controlling possessiveness — the feeling that your partner’s sexuality belongs to you now, and that they shouldn’t have any sexual feelings or experiences that don’t involve you.


Which of these feelings have anything at all to do with a partner masturbating?

To find out which of these feelings I think is the key to masturbation jealousy — and why I’m still so baffled by it — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy! And if you’re inspired to comment on this piece on this blog, please consider cross- posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog as well. They like comments there, too.

Oh, and BTW: Sorry I haven’t been blogging for a couple of days. I’ve been laid up with a stomach bug (no, it’s not the swine flu), so I’ve been horizontal on the sofa pretty much since Wednesday night. Am feeling much better now, though, and should have a proper new post up in a couple/ few days.

My Partner Cheated On Me With Their Right Hand

Simple Pleasures: A Review of "First Time"

I have a piece up on Carnal Nation, the new website for news, reviews, advice, and commentary about sex. My piece is a review of the new adult comic collection, “First Time,” written by French female author Sibylline and drawn by an assortment of artists. It’s titled Simple Pleasures: A Review of “First Time”, and here’s the teaser:

Interesting scenarios about sex, simply and skillfully executed, with an eye for both the excitingly hot side of sex and the human side.

Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

Of course, that’s harder to accomplish than it might seem…

First Time, a collection of erotic comics all drawn by different artists and written by the same author, fell into my lap a couple of weeks ago. (Conflict of interest alert: I work for a company, Last Gasp, that sells the book, which is how it fell into my lap.) When you’ve worked around porn for a long time, sometimes you can just smell when something is special. Within fifteen seconds of opening First Time, I knew I was going to love it; within three minutes of flipping through it, I knew I was going to be raving about it.

And yet, it’s hard to put my finger on what exactly makes the book so special.

To find out what what exactly makes this book so special, read the rest of the review. (BTW, Carnal Nation pays by the hit, so if you click on the review, you’d be doing me a kindness.) Enjoy!

Simple Pleasures: A Review of "First Time"

Blog Carnivals!

Blog carnivals!

Humanist Symposium #36, at Bloc Raisonneur.

Carnival of the Godless #116, at Relatively Science.

(And because I somehow missed it when it came around: Carnival of the Godless #115, at Anonymously Blogging My Heart Out.)

Carnival of the Liberals #89, at Johnny Pez.

Philosopher’s Carnival #88, at Go Grue!

And Skeptical Parent Crossing #7, at Clashing Culture.

Happy reading!

Blog Carnivals!

Land of the Lotus Eaters, Part 2

This is the second half of this piece. It won’t make much sense unless you read Part One.

Land of the Lotus Eaters, Part 2

Defenestration 6th and Howard
In general, I suppose San Franciscans are bored with boring things fairly easily. We’re certainly willing to go to great and ridiculous lengths to avoid the experience. I often think of San Francisco as the city where people do pointless things for no reason; where, indeed, the pointlessness of an activity is often a strong point in its favor. “Well, that was random,” we say appreciatively, when we see the street fair with the motorized sofas, or the abandoned building with the furniture carefully suspended out of the windows, or the crazy man on the street with the sign that reads “Impeach Coolidge.” I remember the day that I spent with a group of friends building Rome in a day (an afternoon, really), mostly out of cereal boxes and toilet paper rolls, and then taking it all down to the beach, setting fire to it, and fiddling while it burned. I remember bringing my friend Chip to the annual St. Stupid’s Day Parade on April 1st, where he offered to exchange his garish thrift-store tie with every carefully-suited Financial District guy he encountered — many of whom seriously considered the offer, and the tie, before regretfully rejecting it. It’s a Stone Soup culture, a city full of people who know there won’t be any party if they don’t bring their share of it. And it’s a city full of people making beautiful ephemeral things for no reason. Not for our careers, not for our places in history, but simply to add to the sum of beauty in the world, or maybe just to show off. There’s a living-in-the-moment quality to life here that is both profound and frivolous, like a 20’s flapper who’s discovered Zen. We are a city that cherishes its grasshoppers and looks somewhat suspiciously at its ants, griping under our breath about how their diligent work habits are driving up the housing market. We are a city of people who would love nothing more than to sing all summer and dance all winter.

But I don’t mean to say that the San Francisco ethic is purely hedonistic. I can see how someone might think that; it’s easy to confuse hedonism with trying to create a world you’d like to live in, and there certainly is a hefty dose of pure pleasure-seeking here. But there’s a political passion here as well, an almost painfully sincere idealism, a willingness and even eagerness to work long hours for no pay for some almost-certainly out-of-reach political goal. And while that may seem bizarrely out of synch with the make-a-circus play-acting I’ve been describing, I think it’s actually very much in keeping with it. The passion to create a world you’d want to live in isn’t limited to creating a world in which you personally are having a good time. It can also mean a world in which the police are not brutal, virgin forests aren’t being logged, innocent people aren’t being bombed, the U.S. is out of Iraq, and people with AIDS are not dying in the streets.

Therapy san francisco
And in much the same way that twitching lunacy often lies beneath the surface of American normality, there’s a core of sanity resting calmly and firmly beneath much of this city’s out-of-control silliness, supporting it and nurturing it and making it possible, like a grant from the Therapy Foundation. The Northern California leanings toward self-esteem boostering, endless therapy, and seemingly-endless processing are wildly mocked the world over, and with good reason; said leanings are often silly and excessive, and silly excessive things should be mocked, and the most processed and therapized San Franciscans are often the most enthusiastic mockers. Myself among them. And yet I became sane here, became sane against any reasonable expectation I might have had for doing so. I often have a hearty giggle at the city’s fondness for amateur analysis; and I also have hours-long talks with friends, awkward, intimate, absurdly personal, impossibly useful talks that, at least sometimes, have an actual effect on how we think and act. I happily poke fun at the local addiction to The Processing That Wouldn’t Die; and I’m also strongly influenced by the prevailing local ethos that tells me to, for fuck’s sake, actually tell people when I’m upset with them, instead of stewing about it silently and with rather bad grace. I cheerfully mock the San Francisco indulgence in protracted therapy, even aiming a few breezy gibes at my own off-and-on years in it. And yet I see my life cleanly divided by a wide stripe between pre-therapy and post-therapy, and I look at the furious, guilt-saturated, nearly paralyzed girl on the other side, and I stare at her with pity and bewilderment — and a barely-articulate gratitude to the man whose job it was to help me set fire to her so I could crawl out of her ashes.

It’s hard to explain what exactly all that has to do with San Francisco. I know there are honest, kind people outside San Francisco. I even know that there are therapists outside San Francisco. There are probably even queer-positive, kink-positive, non-monogamy-positive therapists outside San Francisco (although this city does seem to spout a perpetual fountain of them, like an endless procession of MFCC-trained Athenas springing from Zeus’s head). But there’s something different here, something about the stargazing and the storytelling and the amateur theatricals, that can give your mental health some room to breathe and grow. The local ethos of making up your party as you go along isn’t just about turning yourself into a sex goddess or a Regency dandy or Lydia the tattooed lady. It’s about turning yourself into a person who isn’t crippled by their traumatic past. It’s about recognizing when you’re about to do the same stupid, self-defeating thing you’ve done a hundred times before, and deciding that this time, you’d like to try doing something else for a change. This is a city that actively encourages people to try doing something else for a change. This is a city that thinks people should, in fact, learn to love and esteem themselves, and that doesn’t see what’s so all-fired ridiculous about that idea. And this is the city where I learned to stop loving fucked-up drug addicts and made myself capable of loving someone who, in addition to the more usual virtues of being thoughtful and decent, honest and brave, smart and funny and so fucking sexy I could plotz, is also, far above all else, wonder of wonders and miracle of miracles, more or less mentally healthy herself. I might well have met Ingrid someplace other than San Francisco (well, apart from the obvious fact that she lives here), but I don’t think I could have gotten myself in shape to love her in any place other than here.

Rave anthems
God knows there’s an annoying side to all this as well. The city’s processing and its playfulness, the dreaminess and the earnestness, the living in the moment and the acceptance of other points of view, all of it does sometimes fuse into a vague, spacey, irresponsible, indecisive, childish, self-absorbed mush. And if you have an ounce of rationality or even just common sense, it’s like having your soul scraped on a cheese grater. I remember a particularly cheese-grating event, the time that the longsword dance team I’m with was asked to perform at a pagan rave (we were supposed to represent the element of air — don’t ask). I remember showing up at a warehouse space in the heart of the third-string dot-com district to find that the rave organizers (a) hadn’t organized any actual plans for us to dance, and (b) were so committed to the consensus process that none of them could make any actual plans for us to dance without consulting the rest of their group — thus leaving the sword team with no-one who could tell us when we were supposed to perform, or where, or what the plan was for clearing the stoned-out-of-their-minds-on-Ecstasy crowd so we could get to the place we were supposed to perform, wherever that turned out to be. I remember my friend and fellow dancer Marian steeling herself to make a few decisions with the organizers and reporting back to the team, simultaneously enraged and in stitches, with the information that one of them had actually told another, “I’m not saying that I agree with what you said, I’m just validating that you said it.” And I remember being in the crowd of ravers shortly before the sword team was about to dance, while a very sincere guy in a white dashiki instructed us all to visualize a powerful cone of healing white light rising up to the ceiling and spilling out over the city — failing to inform us which direction the cone was supposed to be pointing. (Pointy-side up or pointy-side down? It turned out later that the team had all been puzzled by this question, and that in fact half of us had visualized it pointing one way and half of us the other, thus raising to the ceiling a somewhat-less-powerful cylinder of healing white light.)

But it was a good gig for all that. The lights were all down except for the ones trained on the disco ball, and we danced in the dark with just a few sprinkles of disco-ball light flashing on the upraised swords, and our entourage told us later that the swords looked like they were moving and weaving on their own, held up and wielded by shadows. And the audience was adoringly enthusiastic (although they were, I feel compelled to remind you, stoned out of their minds on Ecstasy, some of them too stoned to understand that if a sword was suddenly thrust in their direction they should probably get out of the way, and they might well have been adoringly enthusiastic if we’d bashed our heads with our swords while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance). And the crowd made an amazing noise when we raised the cone/cylinder of light, starting with a low humming that gradually rose in pitch to a high cry, cacophonous and beautiful, sounding for all the world like the black monolith in “2001.” And even at the time, even during the worst of the waffling and the dithering and the piss-poor consensus process, I remember thinking, “This is ridiculous. This is so San Francisco. This is going to make a great story.”

I look at everything I’ve written here, and I see that it’s all a generalization. I know that it’s my perception, my experience, based on my life and the lives of my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances and colleagues and fuckbuddies. I do understand that the entire city is not made up of queers, perverts, sex workers, folk dancers, artists, activists, pagans, food fanatics, body modifiers, and historical re-creation societies. I’m sure there are people living here for whom little or none of what I’ve written is true; gay Republicans, dot-com has-beens, upscale workaholic strivers, teenage runaway junkies, the appallingly immense homeless population.

And yet the very words “I know this is just my experience” are, in my mind, San Francisco words. It was here I learned that my experience was not the same thing as the objective truth. It was here I learned that other people could have wildly differing preferences and opinions from me, and that this difference didn’t necessarily negate or discredit either of our experiences. It was here I learned that aesthetic taste was not a moral or character issue. It was here I learned, not that I should never make moral judgements about other people, but that I should be very careful, very selective, about the moral judgements I do make. It was here that I saw the graffito on the bus shelter, a rant about how AIDS drugs were a poisonous corporate/ government conspiracy to murder the gay community… followed by the words, “I think.” I almost busted a gut laughing when I saw that. Only in San Francisco, I thought, would even the most deranged political extremists phrase their rants in “I” statements.

Strippers unionize
The phrase “Only in San Francisco” gets used here a lot. It’s used both sheepishly and boastfully, with rolled eyes and indulgent smiles and smug self-satisfaction, often all at once. Only in San Francisco, we say, would the second-largest annual public event be the S/M street fair (the first being the gay pride parade, duh). Only in San Francisco would the mayor invite the news media to watch him take a shower with two disc jockeys. Only in San Francisco would the peep show dancers organize a labor union (successfully, too, with a contract and everything), and then buy the place out and turn it into a worker-owned co-operative. Only in San Francisco would the holiday event calendar include, not just a Sing-Along Messiah, but a Dance-Along Nutcracker. Only in San Francisco would candidates for sheriff and district attorney campaign in leather bars. It all adds to the self-made mythic quality, this vast and absurd and no doubt wildly inaccurate list of things we do that we’d like to think no-one else does. The only phrase that gets used more is “It’s not like it used to be.” Only in San Francisco, we say; and yet San Francisco isn’t what it was, in the ’50s in beatnik North Beach, or the ’60s in the Haight-Ashbury, or the ’80s at the peak of the queer street-activist movement, or in any decade at all before the dot-com boom drove housing prices through the roof. And yet people come here, and people stay, and ten or twenty years from now people will be griping about how the city isn’t what it used to be, isn’t what it was in its heyday, right around the turn of the millennium. And it all adds to the mythology somehow, tingeing it with self-indulgent longing, making the place feel even more like Camelot.

Calvin Trillin, a very silly writer whom I greatly admire and respect, once wrote that anyone who doesn’t think the best hamburger in the world is made in his hometown is a sissy. I happen to know for a fact that the best hamburger in the world is made in San Francisco. The Burger Joint in the Mission, if you want to know. Serving organic hamburgers made from happy free-range Niman Ranch cows. And I think that this says, not that I am a sissy, but that my hometown is not the place where I grew up.

Land of the Lotus Eaters, Part 2

Land of the Lotus Eaters

I wrote this piece a few years ago, and consider it one of the best things I’ve written. I’ve never been able to get it published, though, and I’ve finally decided that, fuck it, blogging counts as publishing. So I’m publishing it here. Enjoy!

Land of the Lotus Eaters

It’s January, and I am on the beach near the old Doggie Diner with a crowd of about four hundred, watching a twenty-foot-wide pile of Christmas trees go up in flames. The Cacophony Society is here, and a bunch of Burning Man people, and the usual gang of easily-entertained freelance thrill-seekers. There are old hippies and young hipsters and a multitude of late-thirties Generation W’s like me. There are people dressed in practical warm clothing, and people dressed in red leather bell bottoms, and people dressed in strings of Christmas lights. People have brought boom boxes and musical instruments, and flame-throwers and fireworks, and weird gadgety toys they made themselves. Some of the Christmas trees have been treated with fire-retardent chemicals, and these let off huge, billowing clouds of beautiful toxic smoke when they burn. Some of the trees still have plastic stands attached to their trunks, and we admire the cool melting-plastic formations, oohing and aahing like ten-year-olds, or perhaps more like Beavis and Butt-Head. Whenever the fire starts to die down and we think it’s all about to be over soon, another group drives up with another Christmas tree, or two, or six, and tosses it/them onto the bonfire, to wild cheering and uninvited commentary on their tree-tossing technique.

My friend Nicola and I begin to feel bad that we didn’t bring anything, not even a tree to burn, so we start thinking of songs to sing that have something to do with fire; but we’re giddy from the heat and the wind and the brandy her friends Julian and Anna have brought, and all we can think of is “London’s Burning,” which for some reason just seems silly. I wonder aloud what would happen if you tossed glass into the fire, and Anna immediately begins to scheme for next year, making elaborate plans to lay down a pattern of colored glass bottles under the trees before they get set on fire. We run into my friend Marian, who has brought a flask of vodka-and-olive-juice martinis to share, and she and I reminisce about the first Christmas Tree Burn we went to, when the tide came in and swept a chunk of still-burning Christmas tree out to sea.

A rangy woman with a waist-length braid begins firedancing in the receding tide, swinging lighted torches on long chains in complicated loops and ellipses around her body; we gape at her in silent, open-mouthed admiration, speaking only to warn her when a wave is coming, and to whisper to each other that if you watch the torches and then shut your eyes real quick, you can see trails. I glance down the beach and see a line of four or five more firedancers, stretched out along the coastline like a string of Japanese lanterns. My skin is glowing from the bonfire and tingling from the January chill, and it now begins to glow and tingle with the rare and familiar feeling of epiphany. I am physically bursting with the joy of being exactly where I am, overflowing with the sense that this is why I am here, here in this particular place as well as just here, alive, in general. I say to Marian, “You know, San Franciscans waste time better than anyone else in the world.”

Invisible cities
It feels like the inside of a pearl, this city. There is a vagueness to it, an unreal quality, or perhaps just an unlikely one. It feels like one of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities, somehow all the more fantastical for being real. I would say that it feels like a city made of dreams, except that would be a trite and awful thing to say; and besides, it isn’t only my own dreams I’m living in. It’s a group dream, a dream of the collective unconscious, as if all the urban-utopian imaginings of all the people who live here were laid on top of one another like transparencies, and the resulting image were somehow made flesh. It is a city of transplants, made up by people who came for something — Paradise, the Golden Land, Queer Mecca — and, not finding it, decided to invent it, or work towards it, or perhaps just act as if it were already here. It is a city of people who genuinely think that they want to be, can be, and indeed should be, what they wanted to be when they grew up.

An artist friend who lives in New York City wants very much to move to San Francisco, but fears it would hurt his career. I asked him once if this was because there were more galleries in New York, more dealers, more of an art scene in general, and he brushed my question off; yes, yes, he said, of course that’s true, but it’s not what he meant at all. What he meant was that life in San Francisco was too pleasant. He feared he would be drawn into it, the life of doing what you like and what you think might be fun and what seems important to you at the moment, and he feared that his art would suffer as a result. I knew immediately what he meant. It’s true, I told him; it’s so easy in San Francisco to forget about goals and ambitions and just eat the lotus. Only now I think about that conversation, and I have a hard time remembering exactly why a lifetime spent eating the lotus is supposed to be a bad thing.

I’ve heard a joke about this: that New York is where people go if they have talent and ambition, Los Angeles is where they go if they just have ambition, and San Francisco is where they go if they just have talent. I laughed like a harpy when I first heard the joke, and I still remember it, even though I don’t think it’s strictly true. I think San Franciscans do have ambition. I think San Franciscans’ ambition is to be happy. And I think we’re willing to devote a great deal of hard work and sacrifice to realize this ambition. San Francisco may be one of the last places left where people still believe in the perfectibility of the human soul.

I am deeply and passionately in love with this city, in love with it in a way that, until a few years ago, I had never quite been in love with another human being. I feel about it very much the way people feel about their beloveds; magnifying its virtues, excusing its faults, imagining our future together, defending it from critics even when they’re right, feeling hurt and bewildered all out of proportion over its betrayals, and missing it like a major organ when I’m away for too long. My partner once suggested that someday, in the unspecified distant future many decades from now, she might possibly want to live someplace other than San Francisco, and I immediately felt a deep cold lurch in the pit of my stomach at the thought of having to choose between my two lovers. When people I know talk about leaving the city for someplace greener and quieter, they usually mean Vermont or Oregon, Montana or Minnesota. When I imagine leaving the city for someplace greener and quieter, I’m usually thinking of Berkeley.

This is definitely a sexual passion as well as a romantic one. Living in San Francisco is like having an adventurous, curious, wildly kinky, constantly horny lover, with an unlimited imagination, a passion for the extreme, and a near-complete willingness to try anything at least once. There’s a flirtatious quality to the life here, an erotic energy diffused throughout the city like pepper in soup. It’s not just the sex parties and the strip clubs and the clean, well-lighted places for sex toys (although God knows those don’t hurt). It’s the cheerful nonchalance, the playfulness, the casually prurient interest in other people’s sex lives… casual prurience being about the only kind of interest in other people’s sex lives we accept here, apart from academic research and plain old nosy curiosity.

It’s just different here, is all. The assumptions about sex, the standards, the very definitions of the words; it’s all shifted, off to one side, away from what in most places is seen as the center. San Francisco is the city where you have to explain exactly what you mean if you say you’re monogamous, since that means such different things to different people. San Francisco is the city where a friend once explained that she and her boyfriend weren’t kinky, they were just into nipple clamps and cross-dressing. San Francisco is the city where I begin sentences by saying, “I ran into so-and-so at a sex party last weekend,” and the person I’m talking to nods politely and waits for me to get to the point of the story. San Francisco is the city where a high-profile local political consultant was given a 50th birthday bash featuring performance artists buggering each other with liquor bottles and cutting pentagrams into each other and pissing on the open wounds — and the local news coverage over the next few days focused largely, not on whether this had been shocking or immoral, but on whether it had been politically prudent. “Was this entirely wise?” pondered the columnists. “Could this hurt his political career?” The most commonly-voiced piece of actual criticism dismissed the event as tacky and in poor taste; and the most strongly-worded criticism I heard derided it for being hopelessly out of date. “Oh, please,” I heard. “Pentagrams? That is so heavy-metal. That is so Church of Satan wanna-be. That is so five minutes ago.” There was a startling shortage of moralizing; it was clear that everyone at the party had been a consenting adult, and this is a city that gets the concept of consenting adults, down to the nuclei of the cells of the marrow of its bones.

Which is one of the main reasons I moved here, and probably the single most important reason I stay. Sexual tolerance can be dangerously habit-forming; I’ve grown accustomed to being able to tell almost anyone I meet that I’m bisexual, or non-monogamous, or a former stripper, or a sadomasochist, and reasonably expecting a fair degree of acceptance. And I don’t know if I could ever again live in a place where I didn’t have that expectation. I’m familiar with the assumption that this tolerance, this “no big deal” attitude towards other people’s sex lives, means that San Franciscans are jaded, blasé, that we’ve lost the capacity to be excited and surprised and moved by sex. But being relaxed doesn’t mean being blasé, and acceptance is not the same as a jaded palate, and it is entirely possible to remain un-shocked by sex and still get pretty darned excited by it. I worked for many years as the toy and video buyer for a small mail-order sex products catalog, and sometimes I was asked if being exposed to smut and sex toys all day ever made me bored or numb. The best answer I could give is that no, watching as much porn as I have hasn’t made me bored with smut. It’s made me bored with bad smut. Good smut still has the power to move me to tears. And I see that attitude a lot in this city. San Franciscans aren’t bored with sex; if anything, San Franciscans are obsessed with sex. We’re just bored with…well, with boring sex.

(End of Part 1. The second half will appear tomorrow.)

Doggie Diner photo by Atlant.

Land of the Lotus Eaters

A Skeptic's View of Sexual Transcendence

Please note: This piece mostly isn’t about details of my personal sex life, but it does include a passing reference to my personal sexual practices. Family members and others who don’t want to read that stuff, use your own judgment about this one.

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog… and this one, both the atheists and the sex fiends will definitely want to read. (And the atheist sex fiends will absolutely want to read it.) It’s titled A Skeptic’s View of Sexual Transcendence, and here’s the teaser:

For some reason, the sex- positive community is also, very often, a spiritual community. (At least in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live.) It’s not often a conventionally religious community; but many varieties of Wicca, Goddess worship, shamanism, Tantra, astrology, chi, chakras, belief in a collective metaphysical consciousness, and other forms of New Age belief and magical thinking permeate it, both privately and publicly.

This troubles me. I am a hard- core atheist/ materialist/ naturalist/ humanist/ skeptic/ whatever you want to call someone who doesn’t believe in any supernatural entities or substances. And I’m just as unconvinced — and almost as troubled — by the ideas of the Goddess and chi energy and immortal consciousness and so on, as I am by the ideas of God and angels and Hell.

Now, I’m not writing this piece to argue against religion. I may yet write a piece criticizing spiritual beliefs and practices in the sex- positive community… but it’s not what I’m doing here. (If you want to see my reasons and arguments for my lack of spiritual belief, you can do so here, and here, and here and here and here.)

What I want to do here is offer an alternative.

I want to offer a positive way of looking at sexuality and sexual transcendence that doesn’t involve any sort of belief in the supernatural. I want to offer a sex- positive philosophy that is entirely materialist. The materialist view of life in general and sex in particular is often viewed as cold, bleak, narrow, mechanical, reductionist, and generally a downer. I don’t think it is. And I want to talk about why.

To find out what my positive, non- downer atheist/ materialist/ naturalist/ humanist/ skeptical alternative is to sexual spirituality, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

P.S. If you’re inspired to comment on this piece on this blog, please consider cross- posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog as well. They like comments there, too.

A Skeptic's View of Sexual Transcendence