Atheism and Sensuality — Link Finally Working!

The link to the Atheism and Sensuality piece is working again! Sorry for the earlier snafu. Here’s the teaser once more:


Let’s talk about a pleasant topic for once. The most pleasant topic of all, in fact. Let’s talk about pleasure.

The atheist view of sensuality, of pure physical pleasure and joy in our bodies, is about eleven billion times better than any traditional religious view. Our view—or rather, our views—of physical pleasure are more coherent, more ethical, way the hell more appealing, and fun. We don’t believe in a supernatural soul that’s finer than our bodies, more important than our bodies, or superior to our bodies in every way. We don’t think that we have a soul separate from our bodies, period. We sure as heck don’t believe in an immaterial god who thinks that our bodies are icky—even though he, you know, created them—and who makes up endless, arbitrary, unfathomably nitpicky rules about what we may and may not do with them. We understand that the physical world is all there is. We understand that our bodies, and the lives we live in them, are all we have. And as a result, we are entirely free—within the constraints of basic ethics, obviously—to enjoy these bodies and these mortal, physical lives. As atheists, we’re free to celebrate our bodies and the pleasures they can bring us as thoroughly and exuberantly as we can.

So why don’t we?

Why isn’t atheist culture more physical? Why isn’t it more focused on sensuality and sensual joy? Why is it so cerebral so much of the time? As atheists, we’ve flatly rejected the idea that there’s a higher, finer world than the physical one. Why does it so often seem that we’ve bought into it instead?


Thus begins my latest piece for Free Inquiry, Atheism and Sensuality. To find out more about why I think atheist culture is commonly so cerebral — and what I think we should do about it — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Atheism and Sensuality — Link Finally Working!

10 thoughts on “Atheism and Sensuality — Link Finally Working!

  1. 1

    Much of the time, I think religious people see time spent being hedonistic as time spent not helping others. That is, if you’re all about hedonism, why would you spend any time contributing the world instead of pursuing your own personal pleasure?

    It’s so silly, because really, I help other people BECAUSE I’m hedonistic. I help other people in large part because I feel better about myself and the world when I contribute to it in meaningful ways. Helping others, leading a meaningful life, contributing to society, etc, etc, most of the time these are all very hedonistic things to do. Hedonism is about feeling good, and you feel good when you do good. Hedonism and being a good person aren’t mutually exclusive pursuits—in practice they’re often exactly the same thing.

  2. 2

    If I read this right, you’re basically contending that we, as atheists, perhaps accept the hidden premise in the charge of “you just say you don’t believe in God so you can SIN!” – to wit, that the “sinful” things they are talking are in some way bad. This seems eminently plausible to me, though I think there’s more to it than that.

    Even if we reject the idea that the hedonistic pleasures you mention are bad, I think we are for the most part aware on some level that a desire to indulge in them does not in itself constitute rational grounds for disbelief. Oh, it might constitute pragmatic grounds, to be sure, but not rational grounds, and demonstrating that atheism is rational – more rational, even, than belief – is a key concern of many atheists. This is understandable given the cultural presumption that belief “just makes sense” and the nearly overwhelming social-proof effect of having all these believers around us – it can make one think that the unbeliever has an obligation to demonstrate the rationality of his or her unbelief.

    In such a context, surely it’s not surprising that – consciously or not – many unbelievers reflexively distance themselves from hedonism, at least when discussing their lack of belief. It would, in theory, serve to deflect charges that the atheist has merely adopted unbelief as a position of convenience. This is subtly different from accepting the premise that hedonism is bad, of internalizing the believer’s Puritanical norms. Even the dedicated hedonist can fall prey to this impulse, the desire not to APPEAR to be a hedonist in the context of discussions about faith or the lack thereof.

  3. 3

    “I think we are for the most part aware on some level that a desire to indulge in them does not in itself constitute rational grounds for disbelief.”

    definitions of god vary, as do levels of “non-hedonism”, but I do think there are some cases where the level of non-hedonism is in fact incompatible with “teh love god”.

  4. 4

    No, I’m not an atheist because I’m a hedonist. But a lot of the arguments against hedonism fall down if you take religion out of the equation.

    A hedonist atheist is likely to decide she should take care of her body, as well as enjoying it, because this world is what we get. (Hedonist theists may figure they can “live fast, die young,” and then enjoy the afterlife, either because they don’t see their kind of pleasure as sinful, or because they believe in repentance. But that only works if you think there’s an afterlife.)

  5. 5

    Hi Greta,

    I have to highlight one slightly mistaken assumption in your post:

    We don’t believe in a supernatural soul that’s finer than our bodies, more important than our bodies, or superior to our bodies…

    I know several atheists who do believe in the concept of a soul. Not in a way that might necessarily be considered religious, and I find that their notions of a soul are ususally poorly defined (if definable at all) but it is something many hold on to.

    The concept of a soul which some atheists have (in my experience) may be quite different from the supernatural idea of an elemental spirit that exists in a human from before birth and after death, but nonetheless it can exist as a belief in some important “me-ness”. When I have discussed this with them, they say they do not believe that the soul is something that lives on after death, and definitely is not something that goes to “god” or to heaven or hell or anything like that when they die, but there is often a belief in “the soul of a person” being something other than physical – perhaps vaguely spiritual in the non-religious sense of the word, or some neurological phenomenon. I’ve had several frustrating arguments about it – these folks don’t believe there is any evidence for a god and reject supernatural explanations for everything, but they hang on to this little bit of woo.

    I think its a remnant of a religious upbringing and maybe one of those hangovers from religious indoctrination, or perhaps its based on some wider cultural influence; either way, sometimes its there. Some of these folks are the most sexually liberated and unrepressed people I know – one of them even told me that they feel sexual exploration “isn’t just a way of rejecting the guilt trips and false moral constraints of religion, its also really good for the soul”. Go figure.

  6. 6

    I don’t want to put words in the mouths of others who can probably articulate it better, but in reference to this point from the linked article:

    In fact, let’s stop seeing our bodies as something totally apart from our minds.

    I wonder if you’ve considered trans* people here. As I understand it, they typically perceive a definite disconnect between their minds and bodies – their minds’ body maps don’t typically match their bodies. This would imply that there is indeed some merit to the idea of separating our minds and bodies.

    That’s mostly a side-point, though. I agree with the main thrust of your article. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing pleasure for its own sake (excepting of course when it causes others harm or diminishes their pleasure), and it’s surprising how many people still think there is. We only live once, so we should do our best to enjoy it – we won’t get another shot.

  7. 7

    I wonder if you’ve considered trans* people here. As I understand it, they typically perceive a definite disconnect between their minds and bodies – their minds’ body maps don’t typically match their bodies. This would imply that there is indeed some merit to the idea of separating our minds and bodies.

    …no, this implies a disconnect between the part of their bodies that is wrinkly and inside their skulls and other parts of their bodies, especially between their legs.

  8. 8

    I largely agree with Vicky. If you disentangle religion and its tenets from your life, the arguments against hedonism fail down.

    I like finding other hedonists since they have usually jettisoned a lot of other cultural baggage that I dislike as well. Conversely, folks with a big buy in on the status quo are some of the worst anti-pleasure people. I suspect (and it’s been born out by conversing with them, small sample size so ymmv) that they fall onto the authoritarian side of the spectrum. It’s like they over-internalized rules (don’t eat the extra cookie or you’ll be grounded for a week) and can’t stop mentally adhering to those “must not” thought patterns (my wife has this problem even though she’s not an authoritarian).

  9. im

    Oddly, I am both authoritarian and hedonistic! But not for the status quo.

    One possible reason is that many of the biggest atheists in the New Atheism movement were male nerds who are, as a cultural thing, not really all that sensual, or socialized to be so.

  10. 10

    @mudpuddles: The “soul” concept your atheist acquaintances have seems just as vague and not-clearly-defined as the “sophisticated theology” that pretty much everyone on this network ridicules and derides (quite rightly so).

    The most unphysical you could get is that our minds, our “selves” are software running on our brain, which is the hardware. Software might seem to have an existence apart from hardware since it can be copied and manipulated in ways that matter cannot, but it still must be bound to a substrate somewhere in order to be real. Every program in the world, no matter what buzzwords are associated with it (cloud, web 2.0, social networking, virtualization, w/e) no matter how far it might seem abstracted from the hardware as modern operating systems are, still depends on real bits being twiddled in a very real CPU (plus numerous associated peripheral chipsets).

    So yes, there is some aspect of us that might be considered “other than physical”, in the same way that the wedding photos on your hard drive may be considered “other” from the platter of spinning magnetic disks that create the substrate that they are stored on. However, even if the data is not bound to any specific physical thing, it must be bound to SOME physical thing in order to exist. It might be on a magnetic hard drive, flash memory in a USB stick, a server out in the internet, but it must be somewhere. If all the copies of the substrate the the data was stored on were destroyed, no amount of “other than physical” reasoning would allow you to recover them; they would be lost forever.

    “Soul” and “spirit” might be decent words to use for this concept, but I refuse to use them precisely because so many people associate those things with something that survives after death, which we know does not happen. A better word is needed.

    @Infophile: Trans people do not present any complication to Greta’s idea. Their brains are not separate from their bodies in a physical sense, they are just mismatched. There is a difference between those two ideas.

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