Old People Believe, Therefore It Must Be True: Religion and a Particularly Bad Argument from Popularity

Of all the bad apologetics and mind-bogglingly terrible pieces of so-called “evidence” for God’s existence that I’ve seen, this one is the latest.*

Praying hands
“People who have been Christians their entire lives tend to remain Christians and not change their mind in their old age. Therefore, God exists.”

No, really. I’m serious. From Friendly Atheist comes the story of Pastor David Hoffman of the Foothills Christian Church, who has made this challenge to atheists: Find anyone who was a Christian for a significant amount of time and only in their old age decided to lose their faith. In correspondence, Pastor Hoffman has since clarified the details of this challenge:

Find someone who has lived for Jesus Christ for a significant amount of time (40-50 yrs) and is older (70+).

That person would say that as they look back on their life they regretted their decision to trust Jesus.

That person would tell young people to not trust Jesus because he doesn’t come through.

Pastor Hoffman adds:

…this is going to be a challenge because Jesus is faithful to those who put their trust in him.

Sheesh. Where do I start?

Dan barker
Well, first, we start with the many comments on Friendly Atheist, from atheists who do, in fact, fit the parameters of this challenge, or who know other atheists that do. Yes, Virginia, there are people who let go of their Christian faith and become outspoken atheists in their old age. If “nobody loses their belief in Christ when they’re old” is your foundation for religious faith… it’s time to start shopping around for a good foundation repair place.

But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that it’s true.

How on earth would that be an argument for the existence of God?

For one thing, if you know anything about psychology, you know that the more deeply committed people are to a belief, the more likely we are to hang on to it — even in the face of powerful evidence against it. We rationalize our beliefs to enable us to make decisions and move forward without being crippled by guilt or doubt… and the process is self-perpetuating. The deeper we get into a rationalization, the more likely we are to hang on to it. People’s degree of attachment to a belief is a truly crummy indicator of how likely that belief is to be true.

And I’m hard pressed to think of an example of “deeply entrenched belief” than someone who’s held the same religious faith for their entire life. Especially since that belief is constantly being reinforced by others in their religious community. Frankly, the fact that anyone at all is willing to question and abandon their religious faith at age 70 or above is freaking phenomenal.

What’s more, old people who have been in a religious community for their entire lives are a lot less likely to publicly declare that they don’t believe — even if they don’t. There are extremely powerful social pressures to hang on to your religious belief… and to shut up about it if you’ve let it go. Publicly declaring yourself to be a non-believer can mean alienating your friends, your family, your entire social support network. And that’s going to be even more difficult and painful for someone in their 70s than for someone in their 20s or 40s. Again, I am stunned that anyone at all is willing to not only let go of their faith at age 70 or older… but is willing to say so in public.

But finally, and maybe most importantly:

Pastor Hoffman is arguing that people who have been Christian for a long time tend to remain Christian… and that this therefore proves that Christ is really Lord, and is faithful to those who put their trust in him.

So what does he say about old people who, throughout their long and challenging lives, have consistently kept their faith in Allah?

In Buddha?

In Vishnu?

In the Torah?

In the Goddess?

How is it that the faith of old Christians is such a wonderful piece of evidence for the reality of Christ and his love for the faithful… but the faith of old Muslims and Hindus and whatnot somehow doesn’t count as evidence for the reality of Allah or Vishnu or whoever?

Does Pastor Hoffman really not know about old Muslims, old Buddhists, old Hindus, old Jews, old Wiccans, old Jainists and Satanists and Santerians and Zoroastrians and every other religious belief you can think of under the sun?

Religious symbols
If not, if he really doesn’t know about these other religions or hasn’t thought about them, then that is a shameful degree of ignorance in a religious leader. And if he does know about these other religions — and he knows that their adherents are every bit as faithful to their beliefs as Christians are, well into their old age and until the day they die — then I have absolutely no idea how he reconciles that knowledge with his “old people believe in Christ, therefore Christ is real” argument.

This isn’t anything more than a specialized version of the argument from popularity. “Other people believe it, therefore it must be true.” And it doesn’t hold water… any more than the argument from popularity ever does.

*Thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from which I shamelessly pilfered and adapted this line.

Old People Believe, Therefore It Must Be True: Religion and a Particularly Bad Argument from Popularity

Atheist Meme of the Day: Secular Faith /= Religious Faith

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

The secular meaning of “faith” is very different from the religious meaning. Secular faith means trust, hope, confidence: a possibly wrong but still reasonable conclusion, and a willingness to move forward based on that conclusion. Religious faith means maintaining belief no matter what, regardless of the evidence. These are not the same. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Secular Faith /= Religious Faith

Atheist Meme of the Day: "No Atheists in Foxholes" is Bigotry

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

To say “You atheists will give up your atheism in a hurry when you’re facing death and disaster” is insulting as well as untrue. If you wouldn’t tell someone of a different religion, “You’ll change your tune about your silly religion when you’re in a crisis,” you shouldn’t say it to atheists. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: "No Atheists in Foxholes" is Bigotry

101 Positions That Won't Spice Up Your Sex Life

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

365 sex positions
If you’ve been around the sex world much, you’ve probably seen this sort of sex advice book a lot. “101 Sex Positions for Intrepid Couples.” “50 Peppery Positions for a Spicy Sex Life.” “(X) Number of Incendiary Positions to Heat Up the Bedroom.” They’re generally illustrated with erotic- but- tasteful, just- short- of- explicit photographs of well-groomed couples displaying the positions in question. The books are pretty much interchangeable, and the gist of all of them seems to be the same: If you’re a couple whose sex life is becoming monotonous and routine, the way to bring back the spark is variety. And the way to bring variety into a sex life is to have sex in a wide assortment of different positions.

Now. I have a whole passel of problems with these books. For starters, I hate how obsessed they are with penile-vaginal intercourse. The authors of these books seem to think that introducing variety into a sex life means finding 101 different ways to position male and female bodies together to make their genitals interlock. You’ll get a couple/few oral positions thrown in there; maybe a little anal if it’s one of the freakier books. But there’s little recognition of the wide world of sexual possibility that lives outside Man-Part Goes Inside Woman-Part. And there’s virtually no recognition of the fact that, for most women, intercourse by itself isn’t enough to get them off.

Which brings me to my next critique: I hate the way these books equate “sexual variety” with “physical variety.” Of course I agree that variety is an essential key to keeping a sex life happy and satisfying over the long haul. Almost every sex writer on the face of the planet agrees with that. I have yet to read a sex writer who says, “In order to keep the spark alive in your sex life, be sure to have sex in exactly the same way — the same place, the same position, the same time of day, the same day of the week — for the rest of your lives.”

But sexual variety can mean so much more than rotating your bodies in different configurations before inserting Prong A into Slot B. And these books seem blind to these possibilities. They hardly ever talk about erogenous zones outside the obvious ones. They hardly ever talk about dirty talk, dirty outfits, foreplay (or, as we dykes like to call it, “sex”), sex toys, slowing things down, speeding things up, role-playing… all that good stuff.

Speech balloons
And they almost entirely ignore the crux of any good relationship, sexual or otherwise: communication. Talking about desires, talking about fantasies, talking about the outfits and the toys and the dirty talk and the slowing things down, not to mention actual communication skills — how to ask, how to listen, how to negotiate, how to set limits, how to move forward together with experiments — little or none of this gets included in the discussion of how to bring variety into your sex life.

Even when they do talk about this stuff, it’s no more than a cursory, “get it out of the way” mention before getting on to the important business of describing and demonstrating the Double Reverse Astronaut Position. These books might as well be titled, “101 Ways to Have the Exact Same Sex You’ve Been Having, But With Your Bodies Arranged Somewhat Differently.”

And that — especially the part about communication — leads me to my final and most important critique of these “101 Ways to Have Penile-Vaginal Intercourse” books:

If you don’t already have a happy sex life, new sex positions by themselves are unlikely to make things better.

I was inspired to write this piece (or reminded that I wanted to write it) by a piece in Dr. Marty Klein’s excellent blog, Sexual Intelligence. In this piece, Dr. Klein was talking about a couple who had been seeing him for sex therapy. They had an unhappy life together — mistrustful, resentful, insecure, unforgiving, uncommunicative, hostile — and their sex life was a predictable misery as a result. But they didn’t want to talk about their basic relationship problems. To quote Dr. Klein’s description of the sessions, “I didn’t seem that interested in talking about sex — I seemed overly focused on feelings, power dynamics, letting go of the past, and communication.” And they didn’t want to deal with any of that. They just wanted their sex life fixed. That’s what you go to a sex therapist for — right?

Okay. That’s a pretty obvious problem. As Dr. Klein said, “I have no idea what kind of sex they imagine they would have if they somehow desired each other — while disliking, mistrusting, and resenting each other. Whatever kind of sex that is, I don’t want to help people have it.” But what does it have to do with the “101 Positions To Spice Up Your Boring Sex Life” books?

Just this, yet again:

If you don’t already have a happy sex life, new sex positions by themselves are unlikely to make things better.

If you already have a good sex life — if you’re already mixing it up, if you’re already talking about what you like and what you might like to try next — there’s probably no harm in these books. You might even get a couple of good ideas from them. Then again, if you already have variety and experimentation and good communication in your sexual relationship, these books probably won’t be that much use. If you have all that, you can probably figure out most of these positions on your own.

But if what you have on your hands is an okay/ mediocre sex life that’s getting into a rut, I think these books can be actually harmful. They give a completely misleading idea of what it takes to introduce variety into a long-term sex life. They make it seem as if the heart of sexual variety lies, not in imagination and experimentation and honest loving communication, but in arranging your bodies at different intersecting angles. If couples try this, and it doesn’t make their sex lives feel invigorated — as it very likely wouldn’t — it seems to me that it’d be more discouraging than anything else.

And if what you have is a sexual relationship like that of Dr. Klein’s couple — a toxic waste dump loaded with mistrust, insecurity, and resentment, inside the bedroom and out — then trying the Sideways Triple Bypass isn’t going to help.

No matter how tastefully erotic the photos in the book are.

101 Positions That Won't Spice Up Your Sex Life

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheism is Not "Just Another Religion"

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheism is not “just another religion” or “a belief system like any other.” Atheism is a conclusion based on the available evidence; if atheists see better evidence for God, we’ll change our minds. Religious faith is a belief in spite of any solid evidence, and often in direct contradiction of the evidence. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheism is Not "Just Another Religion"

What Can the Atheist Movement Learn from the Gay Movement?

This is the text of the talk I gave on Saturday at the Secular Student Alliance Northern California Regional Leadership Summit.

Stonewall riots
I want to talk today about what the atheist movement can learn from the gay/ lesbian/ bi/ trans movement. The atheist movement is already modeling ourselves in many ways on the LGBT movement. And we should. The parallels between the two movements are sometimes eerie. And since the LGBT movement is roughly 35 years ahead of the atheist movement — I think the atheist movement right now is about where the LGBT movement was in the early ’70s right after the Stonewall riots — we have a unique chance to learn from that movement… both from its successes and its failures.

Probably the single most important thing atheists can learn from the LGBT movement is to encourage visibility and coming out — and to work harder on making the atheist movement a safer place to come out into.

Good without god billboard
Very early in the LGBT movement, it became clear that coming out is the most powerful political act gay people can take. Consistently, polls show that the single factor most likely to make people support gay rights is whether they know a gay person personally. (Or, to be more accurate — whether they know that they know a gay person.) And this is a lesson the atheist movement has been taking to heart: with the Out campaign, the atheist bus ads and billboards, and so on. We’re doing an excellent job with visibility — we’ve gone from being on pretty much nobody’s radar to being a major topic at water-coolers and op-ed columns, in a remarkably short time. And more atheists are coming out every day.

But I think we’re doing a less consistent job of making the atheist movement a safe place to land once people do come out. In the post-Stonewall days of the LGBT movement, there was a massive blossoming of LGBT community centers, bookstores, coffeehouses, political groups, bars, bowling leagues, etc. Coming out as queer often meant leaving behind your friends and family — so queers formed our own social support networks, to take the place of the ones that rejected us.

The atheist movement hasn’t been as strong about this. Online we have — we’ve done an excellent job of providing online communities for atheists. But we haven’t done as good a job at providing in- the- flesh support networks to replace the churches/ synagogues/ mosques/ covens/ etc., and the sense of belonging and common purpose they provide. And I’ll include myself in that: I’m much better at participating in the online atheist movement than I am at actually showing up to local meetings. I think one of the things we can learn from the LGBT movement is to remember how difficult coming out is. We need to remember that when we encourage people to re-think religion and consider atheism, we’re asking a lot. We’re not just asking people to reshape the entire philosophical foundation of their lives and to let go of a major source of comfort they’ve relied on for years. We’re asking them, in many cases, to alienate their friends, family, community. I’d like to see us do a better job of providing something to replace it with.

Secular student alliance
I will say, since this is a conference for the Secular Student Alliance, that the college and university groups have, to a great extent, been an exception to this rule. The student groups have been providing a lot of in- the- flesh support and community for fledgling atheists. So I’d like to encourage the leaders of those groups to continue that kind of community work — even after you leave school. I’d like to encourage you to carry that work into the non- college- and- university world. And from what I’ve been hearing, even student groups often have continuity problems: they tend to fold if the driving force behind them has been a strong leader who then has the temerity to graduate. I’d like to encourage student groups to be aware of that phenomenon: to make plans for smooth transitions, and to create strong structures that will last even when the individuals in them move on.

So. Speaking of moving on: There’s another lesson that I think atheists can learn from the LGBT movement; one that the LGBT movement took a little while to learn. And that’s to let firebrands be firebrands, and to let diplomats be diplomats. We need to recognize that not all activists pursue activism in the same say; we need to recognize that using both more confrontational and more diplomatic approaches makes us a stronger movement, and that both these approaches used together, synergistically, are more powerful than either approach alone.

To some extent the LGBT movement is still learning this lesson, but we’ve become much better about it, and our movement has become stronger as a result. Here’s an example: In the queer activist movement of the ’80s and ’90s, loud, angry street activist groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation often accused more mild-mannered lobbying groups of assimilationism, excessive compromise, generally selling out. And the mild-mannered groups often accused the street activists of being overly idealistic, alienating potential allies, and making their own job harder.

But when we look at those years in retrospect, it becomes clear that both methods together were far more effective than either method would have been alone. And the LGBT movement has learned — to some extent — to recognize this fact, and to deliberately strategize around it. Part of this is simply that different methods of activism speak to different people. Some folks are better able to hear a quiet, sympathetic voice. Others are better able to hear a passionate cry for justice. And the “good cop/ bad cop” dynamic can be very effective. Again, in the queer movement of the ’80s and ’90s, the street activists got attention, got on the news, raised general visibility and awareness. The polite negotiators could then raise a more polite, nuanced form of hell, knowing that the people they were working with had at least a baseline awareness of our issues. And when the street activists presented more hard-line demands, that made the polite negotiators seem more reasonable in comparison. The line between an extremist position and a moderate one kept getting moved in our direction. We see this working today: the same-sex marriage debate has made supporting civil unions seem like the moderate position, even the conservative one — which wasn’t true ten years ago.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t debate our tactical differences. On any given issue, it’s sometimes worth debating whether diplomacy or confrontation (or a combination) will be a more effective tactic in that particular case. But I’d like to us stop treating these debates as if they were larger questions of morality or character that have to be resolved in one direction or the other once and for all. We do what we’re inspired to do, and what we’re good at. Some of us are good at passionate, confrontational idealism; some of us are good at sympathy with our opponents. (And some of us are good at a mix of these approaches.) The diplomatic atheists need to stop trying to shut up the firebrands, stop accusing them of alienating people. And the firebrand atheists need to stop accusing the diplomats of being wusses. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Oh, and speaking of wasting everyone’s time and energy: There’s a third, very important lesson that the godless movement can learn from the LGBT movement. And that’s to not waste our time squabbling about language. We need to let godless people use whatever language they want to define themselves.

There is, again, an eerie parallel between the non-theist movement and the LGBT movement. It’s a similarity between two relationships: the relationship between homosexuals and bisexuals on the one hand, and the relationship between atheists and agnostics on the other.

Bisexual element
I identify as bisexual, and in the past, I’ve had to put up with a fair amount of crap from gays and lesbians telling me that I’m, quote, “really” lesbian and just won’t admit it. It’s not helpful, to say the least. The question of how to name your sexual identity is extremely personal, and different factors have different weight for different people. I’m about a Kinsey 5 — that’s on the Kinsey sexual orientation scale of 0 to 6, 0 being entirely heterosexual, 6 being entirely homosexual. I’m about a Kinsey 5 — mainly oriented towards women, but with some interest in men. I call myself bisexual — because to me, that interest in men isn’t trivial. It’s included important relationships, it’s an important part of how I view the world, etc. But for some other Kinsey 5, that “some interest” in the opposite sex might not be that important, so they might call themselves gay or lesbian. Which is totally their right — just like it’s my right to call myself bisexual. These terms don’t have clear definitions everyone agrees on — it’s not like there’s a perfect bisexual in a vacuum in the Smithsonian for us to all measure ourselves against.– and, within reason, we have the right to use them in a way that makes sense for us.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Dawkins scale 6
Let’s look at the Richard Dawkins Belief Scale, which goes from 1 to 7: 1 being absolute certainty that there is a God, 7 being absolute certainty that there isn’t. (Brief tangent: I desperately wish he’d made his scale from 0 to 6, to line up with the Kinsey scale, since I make these analogies all the time.) I’m about a 6 on the Dawkins scale, maybe 6 and a half, and I call myself an atheist — because that glimmer of uncertainty isn’t very important to me. It’s hypothetically possible that I’m wrong — just like it’s hypothetically possible that I’m wrong about unicorns not existing — but it’s not keeping me up at night.

But for someone else who’s a 6 on the Dawkins scale, that glimmer of uncertainty might be important. Even if they have exactly the same amount of doubt that I do, the fact of that doubt might really matter to them. So even though we’re in the same place on the Dawkins Scale, it’s totally reasonable for them to call themselves agnostic while I call myself atheist. Again — there’s no perfect atheist in a vacuum in the Smithsonian. This language is imprecise. And the power to name ourselves is too important for us to try to take it away from each other.

So in the same way that gays and lesbians have (for the most part) learned to quit telling bisexuals that they’re “really” gay or lesbian and are just afraid to admit it, I think atheists need to quit telling agnostics that they’re “really” atheist and are just afraid to admit it. (By the same token, just like bisexuals have to quit saying “Everyone’s basically bisexual,” agnostics have to shut up about how most atheists are really agnostic, how, quote, “true” atheism is a belief system as much as religion, and how agnosticism is more consistent and honorable.) Atheists and agnostics are natural allies — along with humanists, skeptics, materialists, naturalists, freethinkers, brights, etc. Much like gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgendered people are all natural allies. We shouldn’t waste our time and energy squabbling because you say tomayto and I say tomahto.

And I want to close with one more lesson that the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement. (There are more — I could discuss this all day — but I only have 20 minutes.) This is a lesson that atheists can learn, not from the successes of the LGBT movement, but from one of our biggest failures — a failure that has come back to bite us in the ass time and again.

Atheists need to work — now — on making our movement more diverse, and making it more welcoming and inclusive of women and people of color.

And by now, I mean now. We need to start on this now, so we don’t get set into patterns and vicious circles and self-fulfilling prophecies that in ten or twenty years will be damn near impossible to fix.

What can we learn here from the LGBT movement? The early LGBT movement screwed this up. Badly.

The early LGBT movement was very much dominated by gay white men. The public representatives of the movement were mostly gay white men; most organizations were led by gay white men. And the gay white male leaders had some seriously bad race and gender stuff: treating gay men of color as fetishistic Others, objects of sexual desire rather than members of the community… and treating lesbians as alien Others, inscrutable and trivial.

And we’re paying for it today. Relations between lesbians and gay men, between white queers and queers of color, are often strained at best. Conversations in our movement about race and gender take place in a decades-old minefield of rancor and bitterness, where nothing anybody says is right. And we still, after decades, have a strong tendency to put gay white men front and center as the most visible, iconic representatives of our community.

That makes it hard on everyone in the LGBT movement — women and men, of all races. It creates rifts that make our community weaker. And it has a seriously bad impact on our ability to make effective social change. For instance, the LGBT movement has a profoundly impaired ability to shift homophobic attitudes in the black communities… since those communities can claim, entirely fairly, that the gay community doesn’t care about black people, and hasn’t made an effort to deal with our racism.

We screwed this up. We still screw this up. We are paying for our screwups.

Atheists have a chance to not do that.

The atheist movement is currently largely dominated by white men… especially in positions of visibility and leadership. And many atheists resist seeing this as a problem that we need to take action on. They’re not overtly racist or sexist, they’re not saying, “We don’t want women or people of color in our movement”… but they don’t see this as their responsibility, and they don’t see it as particularly important.

I could give an entire talk on why this is important. I could give an entire talk on how racism and sexism aren’t always conscious, how we perpetuate them without even thinking about them, and why we therefore need to pay conscious attention to countering them. I could give an entire talk on how people tend to focus on issues that personally affect them… so an atheist movement dominated by white men will focus on issues that largely affect white men — at the expense of issues that largely concern women and people of color. I could talk about self-fulfilling prophecies: how even if the predominant whiteness and maleness of the atheist movement were purely accidental, this pattern would still get perpetuated and ingrained… because women and people of color feel less welcome in a movement that’s largely white and male — and the less welcome they/ we feel, the longer the movement goes on being largely white and male.

But I’m running out of time, so I mainly want to say this: Look at every other movement for social change in recent history. Every single one that I know about has been bitten on the ass by this issue. Every one now wishes they’d taken action on it in the early days, before bad habits and self-fulfilling prophecies got set in a deep groove that’s hard to break out of. And that includes the LGBT movement.

There are lots of good reasons for atheists to work on this. There are idealistic reasons: because religion hurts women and people of color as much as it hurts white men; because female atheists, and atheists of color, matter just as much as white male atheists, etc. And there are practical reasons — it’ll make our movement stronger, larger, better at reaching more people.

Rainbow racism
But if you’re still wondering why this is important, talk to anyone who’s seriously involved in LGBT politics. Ask them, “If you could go back to 1970 and get the early leaders of the post-Stonewall movement to deal with race and sex — would you do it?” I can guarantee you that just about every one would fervently respond, “Yes, for the sweet love of Loki — if we could go back in time and not screw that up, we would.”

We have a chance in the atheist movement to not screw this up. We have a chance to start dealing with this now, so it’s less of a problem in ten or twenty years, and we’re not wasting our time and energy trying to fix what we could be fixing now.

Let’s learn from the mistakes of the LGBT movement, as well as its successes — and let’s take advantage of that chance.

What Can the Atheist Movement Learn from the Gay Movement?

Atheist Meme of the Day: The Burden of Proof

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

It is not up to atheists to prove that God doesn’t exist. It is up to believers to prove that God does exist — or at least, to provide some reasonable evidence that he does. Many atheists do have good arguments against God… but believers are the ones making the positive claim, and the burden of proof is on them. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: The Burden of Proof

A Skeptic's View of Love

Lightbrush love
I’m reposting this piece from last year. Happy Valentine’s Day!

What does it mean to have a skeptical view of love?

I don’t mean having a cynical attitude about love. (Funny how the words “skepticism” and “cynicism” get conflated.) I mean taking a skeptical, materialist, entirely non-woo view of life — and applying it to how we think about love.

Tim minchin
The other day, Ingrid showed me this video by Tim Minchin, famed atheist and skeptical singer/ songwriter/ poet/ performance artist/ comedian. (For boring technical reasons, I’ll embed it at the end of the post instead of here.) The gist of the song, sung for and about his wife (spoiler alert!): “If I didn’t have you, I probably would have somebody else.”

At first, Ingrid was worried that I’d be hurt by her showing me the video. But like her, I found it hilarious — and in a freaky way, I found it one of the most romantic and loving things I’ve seen in a while. (“You fall within a bell curve” has now become one of our endearments.)

And it’s gotten me thinking about the whole idea of soul-mates, and romantic destiny, and there being one perfect love for you in the whole world. All of which I think is a load of dingo’s kidneys.

And I don’t think I’m being unromantic.

Wings of destiny
First, obviously, I think the whole “soul-mate/ romantic destiny” thing is just wrong. Mistaken. Not true. I don’t think we have souls, much less mates for them; I don’t think there’s an invisible hand pushing people together (and if there were, it’d have a seriously sadistic sense of humor, what with putting people’s true destined loves on opposite sides of the country and whatnot).

But maybe more to the point:

The “soul-mate/ romantic destiny” vision of love puts the focus on love as something you feel — rather than something you do.

It puts the focus on love as something that happens to you — rather than something that you choose.

And I find it much more romantic, and much more loving, to see love as something we do, and something we choose.

When we see love solely as something that we feel… then what happens when those feelings change? As they inevitably do.

And when we see love solely as something that happens to us… then what happens when the going gets tough, and we have to make hard choices about the relationship? For that matter, what happens when something else happens to us — something that conflicts with the love? What happens when we get job offers in other cities… or when other romantic prospects appear on the horizon?

Of course a huge part of love is the way we feel about our beloved. The feelings of tenderness and passion that well up in me when I look at Ingrid, the feelings of anxious excitement that I had when we were first starting out…that’s an enormous part of what we have between us. And of course a huge part of love is the feeling that something has hit you out of the clear blue sky. When Ingrid and I were first going out, I used to say that I felt like I’d been conked on the head with a giant vaudeville rubber mallet. If love didn’t have the power to knock us out of our tracks and into a whole new life, it wouldn’t be what it is.

But I don’t think that’s enough. It’s enough to get love started — but it’s not enough to sustain it.

Dishes in sink
I think what sustains love is doing the dishes when you promised to. Remembering the book they said they wanted, and getting it for their birthday. Skipping the movie you wanted to see, to go with them to a party of their friends who you don’t know very well. Remembering which kind of seltzer water they like when you go shopping; remembering how they like their burgers cooked when you’re making dinner. Sitting with them when they’re grieving… and restraining your impulse to always try to fix things and give advice and make things better, and instead being willing to just sit still and be with them in their pain. Asking if there’s anything they need from the kitchen while you’re up. Wearing the stupid sticky breathing strip on your nose at night so your snoring doesn’t keep them awake. Bringing them endless cups of tea when they’re sick. Keeping your temper in an argument, and remembering that as angry as you might be right now, you love this person and don’t want to hurt them. Saying, “I love you.” Saying, “You’re beautiful” — not just when they’re dolled up for a night on the town, but when they come home from work and you notice that they look particularly fetching. Noticing when they come home from work looking particularly fetching. Going to their readings, their dance performances, their office parties. Going to their family gatherings, and treating their family as your family, too. Going to the vet together. Trying out music they like, books they like, recipes they like, hobbies they like, kinds of sex they like, even if you don’t think it’s your thing: not just because you want to make them happy, but because it’s part of who they are, and you want to find out more about them, and share the things that matter to them.

In the inimitable words of Tim Minchin, “Love is nothing to do with destined perfection/ The connection is strengthened; the affection simply grows over time… And love is made more powerful by the ongoing drama of shared experience and synergy/ And symbiotic empathy or something like that… ” Sure, the feelings I have for Ingrid have a lot to do with the giant vaudeville rubber mallet I got conked on the head with when we fell in love. But they have more to do with the eleven plus years we’ve spent together: the meals we’ve eaten, the parties we’ve thrown, the vacations we’ve taken, the arguments we’ve had, the sex we’ve had, the griefs we’ve borne, the thousands of nights we’ve spent sleeping in the same bed, the long conversations we’ve had about politics, about religion, about books, about our friends, about our cats, about bad reality television.

And none of that has anything to do with fate.

Like Tim Minchin, I’m intensely aware of the massive role that pure chance plays in our lives. Not fate, not destiny, but pure dumb random roll- of- the- dice luck. As passionately as I love San Francisco, I realize that I could have landed in a dozen other cities — New York, Portland, London, Seattle, Minneapolis — and settled happily there instead. I often think about the people in those cities who would have been my friends if I lived there instead of San Francisco; I sometimes even feel a loss, a yearning, for the people I’ve never met who could have been my best friends.

And I realize that if I’d wound up in one of those cities instead of San Francisco, I would never have met Ingrid, and we both would likely have met and fallen in love with other people instead. While there’s a pragmatic sense in which I suppose Ingrid and I were destined to meet — we both lived in San Francisco, we were interested in many of the same things, we knew many of the same people, it’s not actually that big of a city — any one of a thousand small choices and pieces of random chance could have resulted in our paths not crossing. Or not crossing at the right time.

What makes Ingrid uniquely special to me isn’t that she’s my soul-mate, my destiny, the one person in billions I could have loved and been happy with. What makes Ingrid uniquely special to me is the years we have behind us: the meals and parties and sex and conversations and trips to the vet and everything else. It’s the things we do, and have done, and will do for many years to come; it’s the choices we make, and have made, and will make in the years we have left.

Wedding portrait
Of the people in the world I might have been happy with? She falls within a bell curve. Of the people in the world I now want to be with? She is entirely and 100% unique. Not because a divine hand made us uniquely suited to be together… but because we have chosen to make each other unique.

Oh, yeah. The Tim Minchin video is below the jump, since when I put videos above the jump it screws up my archives.

Continue reading “A Skeptic's View of Love”

A Skeptic's View of Love

Why We Don't Need Religion to Give Life Mystery

Sweet mystery of life
“What does Dr. Bloody Bronowski know about it?”

“He knows everything!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t like that. It’d take all the mystery out of life.”

It takes all the mystery out of life. This is an argument that sometimes gets made against the atheist/ materialist/ naturalist view of life. Naturalism is too reductionist, the argument goes. By seeking to explain the universe in terms of physical cause and effect, and in seeking to understand that physical cause and effect in increasingly greater breadth and detail, naturalism ultimately seeks to explain and understand everything. And that would be bad. We need some mystery. Mystery — unanswered and unanswerable questions — are a central part of what makes us human. Without it, our life would be bleak and empty, with a yearning that can never be satisfied… because there’s nothing left out there to satisfy it.

And religion, supposedly, offers that mystery. The belief in that which cannot be perceived by the senses; the belief in immaterial entities or forces that somehow affect the world but that nobody perceives in the same way; the belief in a life after this one that that nobody’s ever returned from and nobody really knows anything about… all of this fills the human need for mystery, the need for questions we don’t know the answer to.

Okay. Deep breath.


Thus begins my new piece on AlterNet, Why We Don’t Need Religion to Give Life Mystery. To find out how we can still experience a sense of mystery with an entirely materialist viewpoint — and how, in fact, religion merely punts the question of the mystery of life rather than addressing it — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Why We Don't Need Religion to Give Life Mystery

Atheist Meme of the Day: Religion As It's Commonly Practiced

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

“Your critique of religion doesn’t address modern theology, therefore it isn’t valid” is a terrible argument against atheism. Most atheists care about religion as it’s commonly practiced by most believers, not the religion of a few theologians. Besides, many of us have read modern theology — and we’re not impressed. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Religion As It's Commonly Practiced