“We don’t know anything for sure, therefore it’s reasonable to believe in religion” is a terrible argument. Even though we can almost never have certain knowledge, we can still evaluate evidence and make reasonable conclusions about what’s probably true. And there’s no good evidence suggesting that any religion is probable, or even plausible. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
I’ve recently gotten sucked into “Caprica,” the prequel series to “Battlestar Galactica” airing on the SyFy Channel. (Yes, this is about sex — hear me out.) I hadn’t planned to put yet another hour-long drama on my TV schedule, and Loki knows I don’t have time for it; but I watched fifteen minutes of the pilot when I was channel surfing, and I got hooked. I’m such a slut. Give me a complex, thoughtful, nuanced exploration of consciousness and selfhood, and I’m anybody’s.
And the show has had some surprising plot developments in the sexual arena — developments that were all the more surprising for how unceremoniously they were introduced.
A quick precis, for those who aren’t familiar: The weekly science fiction TV series, “Caprica,” takes place in a world that’s eerily parallel to Earth. But the world has some interesting differences from ours, and at the time this story takes place, they’re a few years/ decades ahead of us. Technologically, and socially.
And “socially” is where the sex comes in. (Caution: Spoiler alert. Multiple spoilers. Suck it up.) There’s a major gay character in “Caprica,” and there’s a major polyamorous character. And the way these characters and their sexualities get woven into the story shows a huge leap forward in the way our culture has started to view alternative sexualities… and an enormous leap forward in how we view our sexual future.
Thus begins my new piece on the Blowfish Blog, Gay Mafiosi and Group Marriage Monotheists: Sex, “Caprica,” and a Changing World. To read more about the gay and polyamorous characters in “Caprica,” and what I think they reveal about our own non-Cylon-infested world, read the rest of the piece. (And if you’re inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!
If religious believers are perceiving a real entity, why are religious beliefs around the world so different, even totally contradictory? We more or less agree about our perceptions of physical reality — and when we don’t, we can compare notes and come to a consensus. If God is real, why don’t people perceive him in remotely the same way? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
It was wet in that alley. There’d been so much rain that everything was damp, all the time. Most of what had got soaked during the previous night’s downpour stayed soggy enough, even without the drizzle. Even without me there, leaking my — well — I’m getting ahead of myself.
Daddy likes me dirty. That is, she likes getting me dirty. That night we were headed to a party: Daddy was in her dress leathers, hair buzzed so close to her scalp it was practically just a stain, jawline severe and set. I assumed she was packing, but didn’t go examining: I always got in trouble if Daddy caught me searching out the bulge of her cock; she said it wasn’t ladylike.
I was clothed as requested: white slip, sheer white stockings, body barely covered. No earrings, no makeup, face scrubbed. No bra, even, so my period-heavy tits swung almost painfully beneath the sheer material of the slip. She told me to wear nothing that would present “any obstacle” to her — so, no panties. In deference to it being the beginning (and thus the heaviest part) of my period, I wore a tampon, string clipped a bit so as not to be so obvious. I planned to remove it surreptitiously once we got to wherever we were going.
It starts with a lush, instrumental intro. A surprisingly long instrumental intro. As if the singer were reluctant to begin singing. As if he knows that what he’s going to sing will be difficult — difficult for him to sing, difficult for his audience to hear — and is putting it off, or maybe just trying to cushion the blow. As if he knows that once he begins singing, he won’t be able to take it back.
The intro is disjointed at first, with a loose, jagged rhythm, and a melody that wanders in and out of harmony and dissonance. Then it gradually picks up cohesion, and motion. Like a mind making itself up, and gathering up the courage to speak. It takes a series of deep musical breaths, lingering for a moment… and another moment… and then just one moment longer.
And then the voice begins.
You’ve heard the story
You know how it goes
Once upon a garden
We were lovers with no clothes
Fresh from the soil
We were beautiful and true
In control of our emotions
‘Til we ate the poison fruit
And now it’s hard to be, hard to be, hard to be
A decent human being.
Wait just a minute…
And you know that this isn’t just another pop record.
David Bazan is the former leader of the rock group Pedro the Lion, known for being just about the only Christian rock group that rock critics liked and took seriously. Bazan’s Christianity was deep, serious, and lifelong: he was raised Pentecostal, attended Bible college, and made his faith the centerpiece of his musical career. But in 2004, Bazan had a crisis of faith, and eventually left both his religion and the band. He also, not coincidentally, began to have a serious drinking problem at this time, which severely disturbed both his life and career for several years. He’s now in recovery… from both the alcoholism and the religion. (He calls himself an agnostic, not an atheist — or he did as of this interview — but he seems to be a pretty strong agnostic, one with whom a lot of atheists will identify.)
And he’s made an album about all of it.
I have become completely obsessed with “Curse Your Branches.” My wife and co-workers would be deeply grateful for the invention of headphones if they knew how often I was playing it. The story is mesmerizing; the ideas are fascinating; the music is bone-chillingly gorgeous, making me want to both sing and cry. (And I love the fact that Bazan enunciates so clearly; I hate when singers make you guess at what the hell they’re singing.) You do have to like this sort of thing: lush, haunting melodies and harmonies; intensely personal, intensely confessional lyrics; all in a firm but gentle rock vibe just a notch harder than slow-core. I realize it may not be to everyone’s taste. But if this is remotely in your musical ballpark, I passionately encourage you all to give it a listen.
“Curse Your Branches” brings a refreshing and insightful new angle to many of the classic questions of belief and non-belief. I love Bazan’s take on God’s final reply to Job:
When Job asked you the question
You responded, “Who are you
To challenge your creator?”
Well if that one part is true
It makes you sound defensive
Like you had not thought it through
Enough to have an answer
Like you might have bit off more than you could chew.
I’d never thought of it that way — but Bazan is right. When I first read Job, I was furious at what a half-assed answer God gave at the end of it. I’d heard my whole life that Job was the Bible’s answer to the question of why there’s suffering, I was really curious to see what it had to say… and this was the best God could come up with? “I am the great and powerful Oz! Who the hell are you, puny human? You will respect my authoritah!” Bazan’s take on this is brilliantly perceptive. He’s absolutely right: the answer to Job does sound like God was just pulling the answer out of his ass. Like he’d never seriously thought about the question. Like he’d been torturing Job for no good reason, just to win a bet with Lucifer, and had never really thought about why he was doing it… or whether it was the right thing to do. Or whether anything he did was the right thing to do.
And I love the fact that Bazan looks at the classic problem of evil, not as the question of why there’s evil out there in the world, but as the question of “why it’s hard to be a decent human being.” It’s so easy for humans to position evil as something outside ourselves, something that has nothing to do with us. But Bazan has hit the nail on the head. We all have the potential to do evil, and we all act on that potential more than we should. The question of evil isn’t, “Why is there all that bad evil out there, evil that we have to suffer from through no fault of our own?” The question is, “Why is it hard for us to be decent human beings?”
Interestingly — for godless listeners as well as for believers — Bazan makes it clear that his questioning and eventual relinquishing of his faith are deeply rooted in the values he learned as a Christian. He touches on this in “When We Fell,” when he sings: “If my mother cries when I tell her what I have discovered/ Then I hope she remembers she taught me to follow my heart.” And it comes out vividly in the heartbreakingly brave “Bearing Witness,” in which he frames his disavowal of his faith as part of his religious tradition:
Though it may alienate your family
And blur the lines of your identity
Let go of what you know and honor what exists
Son, that’s what bearing witness is
Daughter, that’s what bearing witness is.
Yes. When I talk about how deeply I treasure reality, and how much more important it is than my own petty wishful thinking about the world… that’s what I’m getting at.
But what I like best about “Curse Your Branches,” and what I think makes it such an important listen for atheists and other non-believers, is how vividly it expresses the pain that Bazan went through with his deconversion. The album is wrenchingly honest about the sadness and loss, the disorientation and bewilderment, the alcoholism, the struggle to re-define himself and his place in the world, that Bazan went through when he left his religion. It reminds me a little bit of Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God” performance piece: it’s not a series of godless arguments or ideas, but an intimate, intensely emotional story about one person’s experience with losing their religion.
A little while back, The Chaplain wrote an incisive and hilarious piece on what she called the Boyfriend Jesus: Christian songs that sing about Jesus as if he were an object of romantic and even erotic love. “Curse Your Branches” is a little like that. But instead of being love songs to God, it’s a breakup album. It took me a couple of listens to realize that, whenever it seems like Bazan is singing to a wife or a lover, he’s almost always actually singing to God. When he sings about drinking “to hopefully forget about you”; when he sings that “When I called you from Atlanta/ You refused to speak”… he’s singing about God: the God he’s questioning, the God he’s giving up, the God he finally let go of.
Which makes you realize what a strange and difficult breakup deconversion is. Bazan — and millions of other former believers — had a deeply personal relationship with God. A relationship that ended, not when he realized that things weren’t working out, but when he realized that the other person didn’t exist. Wasn’t there. Was entirely made up in his head.
There’s no other breakup like this. It can cut the ground of your reality out from under you, in every which way imaginable. It doesn’t just force you to rethink your entire future without this person. It forces you to redefine your entire past with them. Try to imagine what divorce would be like if it meant realizing that your spouse of many years was a figment of your imagination — that your entire history with them was an illusion — and you’ll get a sense of what this might feel like.
And this may be what makes this album most valuable to atheists. It’s a moving reminder of just exactly how difficult giving up religion can be, what an emotional wrench it often is: not just because it means giving up family and friends and social support, but because it means giving up a relationship with the single most important being of your entire life. I never had this sort of belief; even when I was a believer, I never believed in a personal God with whom I had a relationship. Hearing what this relationship was like for Bazan — and what it was like to let it go — helps me have more compassion for believers who are desperately trying to hang on to their beliefs. And it helps me have more patience when I’m engaging with them.
It’s important, I think, for the godless to remember this: when we ask people to question their religion, we’re actually asking a lot. Atheism can be full of meaning and happiness, great comfort and great joy, and most atheists I know are thrilled to have taken that step and to be on the other side. But the process of coming out into atheism can be painful and difficult, and it’s more so for some people than for others. When we ask people to question their faith, we need to remember this. We need to be patient with believers who are questioning their beliefs. And we need to work harder on making godlessness a safe place to land when believers finally do let go.
“Curse Your Branches” is a thoughtful, touching, inspiring reminder of all of this. And it’s a freaking gorgeous rock album to boot. I’m thrilled to have discovered it. I’m intensely grateful to everyone in this blog and on Facebook who told me about it. And I’m recommending it passionately to everyone.
“Lots of people believe in God, therefore God must be real” is a terrible argument for religion. People can be mistaken — and large groups of people can be very good at reinforcing one another’s mistaken beliefs. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
Please note: This piece discusses my personal sex life and sexual fantasies, in a whole lot of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff — you really don’t read this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
There’s a truism among many people who think and write about sex. It goes roughly like this: Sexual desires, including sexual fetishes, are developed early in life. And they don’t really change much. They can’t be changed by social pressure or changing conditions or the personal wish to get rid of them, and they aren’t subject to the whims of fashion. Not even fashions in porn. Porn caters to existing fetishes and desires — not the other way around.
I’ve been thinking about this truism. And I’m coming to the conclusion that it isn’t necessarily true.
Here’s my problem with this truism:
I have, in recent months and years, acquired some fetishes that I never had before.
Now, these aren’t full-blown fetishes in the standard sense. They aren’t a necessary component of my sexual arousal and satisfaction. I’m perfectly capable of enjoying sex without engaging in them or thinking about them; I’m perfectly capable of enjoying masturbation without fantasizing about them. (I do think that core sexual desires, such as being gay or more deeply rooted fetishes, aren’t very malleable; and unless it’s a fetish that non-consensually hurts other people, I don’t see any reason to try.)
But my new interests are fetishes in the less-standard sense. They occupy a significant portion of my erotic imagination. (Translated: I think about them a lot when I whack off.) I deliberately search for them in my porn, and fixate on them when I’m — ahem — enjoying my porn. And the sight or thought of them often sexually excites me, even if they’re not coming up in a sexual context.
Specifically — I know my readers, you don’t want to hear about this in the abstract, you want the dirty lascivious details, and I’m happy to oblige — I’ve acquired fetishes for many of the classic tropes of modern spanking porn. Hairbrushes. Belts. Schoolgirl uniforms. Helpless victims being spanked by cruel authority figures. Tears; i.e.. people, especially women, being spanked until they cry. (That’s a rich and strange topic, btw: one that deserves its own post and will get one soon.)
I’ve always enjoyed these objects and outfits and tropes. But in the past, they were only a few among many that I eroticized. They weren’t even at the top of the list. Some were high on that list… but they weren’t at the top. They are now.
Now, the fetish for spanking itself… that’s a lot closer to a classic fetish for me. It’s not an absolutely necessary component of my sexual arousal and pleasure. But while it’s not absolutely necessary, it’s pretty darned central. I think about spanking a lot. If I go for too long without it, I get cranky. A majority of my masturbation fantasies involve spanking to at least some extent. (I switch around a lot in my mind — from bottom to top, from girls to boys, from participant to voyeur, from cruel force to cheerful consent — but it’s a good bet that if I’m having a sex fantasy, somebody somewhere is getting spanked.) When I look for porn — porn purely to get myself off, not porn to expand my erotic horizons or satisfy my yen for literate sex writing — I generally look for spanking porn. And most of this has been true for most of my life.
But these specific spanking tropes? Not so much. They’re definitely an acquired taste. A learned fetish.
There’s little doubt in my mind where these fetishes were acquired. I watch a fair amount of standard modern spanking porn. (Mostly on SpankingTube — it’s free, and I’m broke.) These images are well-worn standards of standard modern spanking porn, cliches even, and I see them a lot. So my lizard hindbrain connects them with sex and orgasm generally; and my more complex and twisted human libido associates them with the erotic imagery it’s already aroused by. Duh.
But it’s still a little puzzling. After all, there are other standard tropes of modern spanking porn that haven’t grabbed my libido at all. I’m obsessed with hairbrushes and belts… but I’m pretty “Meh” about leather paddles and floggers that you’d get at a sex shop. (I like them fine in person, mind you; I just don’t fetishize them in my fantasies or my porn.) Schoolgirl uniforms and maidservant costumes send my libido up a tree… but trashy tramp-slut outfits just seem obvious and clumsy to me. I’m fascinated by helpless victims getting spanked against their will by cruel authority figures… but I’m a lot less interested in smart-mouthed brats getting righteously punished for their own good. I love white panties and black lace panties and boy-cut panties that curve up over the bottom of the butt… but I find thongs boring to the point of actual turn-off.
And I am almost entirely uninterested in standard female-dom/ male-submissive spanking porn. (Although part of that may be that femdom porn mostly caters to a male audience, and little attention is paid to seeing that the male submissive is reasonably attractive. If I’m going to fantasize about dominating a guy, and if I’m going to watch porn to spark those fantasies, I want the guy to be easy on the eyes. Or at least, not actually off-putting. But I digress.)
I guess to some extent, even my acquired fetishes still feed into the old ones. My newfound obsession with hairbrushes and belts feeds straight into my long-standing fetish for reality: for porn and fantasies that seem like they could easily be happening in an everyday sex life. My newfound obsession with white panties feeds straight into my long-standing fetish for the moment of the reveal, the moment — drawn out as long as possible — when a clothed erogenous zone is unclothed and put on display. My newfound obsession with shy, frightened schoolgirls caned by a sadistic schoolmaster/ mistress feeds straight into my long-standing fetish for the abuse of power. (Which may explain why the righteous punishment of brats doesn’t do it for me. For a punishment fantasy to work for me, there always has to be a fucked-up element of “I’m using my power over you to satisfy my perverse whims” underlying the pretense of “I’m disciplining you for your own good.”)
I am a bit conflicted about this. (Naturally. I swear, I’m not this conflicted and overthinking about my sex life all the time. I just don’t usually bother to write think pieces about aspects of my sexuality that I’m completely comfortable with. It lacks dramatic tension.) On the one hand, I’m not crazy about my personal libido being shaped to this degree by commercial video porn. Commercial video porn is all too often a quagmire of conventionality, misinformation, body fascism, and cliche piled on cliche piled on cliche. Even in low-budget, micro-marketed niche porn like spanking porn. Sometimes especially so. For the same reasons that I don’t want my tastes in food shaped by the mainstream food industry, I don’t want my tastes in sex shaped by the mainstream porn industry. Like I wrote in my recent piece on the ubiquity of pubic hair shaving, it bugs me no end that commercial porn has become a primary trendsetting influence on sexual culture. It’s just not a very good one.
But I do enjoy the degree to which my libido is malleable. It makes me feel open to new experiences. For the same reasons that I like learning about new music instead of just listening to the stuff I liked in my twenties, I like learning about new sexual fetishes instead of just enjoying the ones I liked in my twenties. And if I decide that I don’t like how my libido is being shaped by conventional spanking porn, I can always turn it off. (The porn, I mean — not my libido.)
Anyway. It doesn’t ultimately matter; I’m fine with this however it turns out. But as always, I’m curious, and I’m nosy. So I’m wondering: Does anyone else have this experience? Has anyone else acquired new sexual fetishes later in life? And if so, have your newly-acquired fetishes mostly fed into existing ones… or have they opened up entirely different erotic avenues? Nosy minds want to know.
You don’t have to believe in God to live a good, meaningful, joyful life. And you don’t have to believe that life will continue forever after you die to find value in the life we’re living now. Most atheists are happy, good people, and we don’t treasure life any less simply because we think it’s going to end. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
And now, some cute pictures of our cat.
As I mentioned in a previous cat post, Violet has recently become obsessed with my physical therapy routine — especially the parts where I’m stretching on the floor on the yoga mat. She’s fascinated by it, and almost always comes over the investigate… although I’m not sure if it’s me or the yoga mat that interests her more. And sometimes when I try to move the mat, she hunkers down in a “civil disobedience/ passive resistance” mode, and occasionally gets locked in a life-or-death battle with the mat. Like Tigger with the tablecloth in “Winnie the Pooh.” I was lucky enough to have the camera nearby the last time she did this. No video, alas… but I think this series of still photos captures the essence nicely.
Yes, she’s insane. What’s your point? I think my favorite is the last one… where she’s casually licking her paw like nothing happened.
Personal spiritual experiences, no matter how intense or real they seem, are a terrible argument for religion. The human brain can produce vivid experiences that aren’t real, and our minds are fallible, subject to many cognitive errors — including the strong tendency to believe what we already believe or what we dearly want to believe. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.