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Jul 23 2006

Transcendental Skepticism: My Letter to Mark Morford

MarkmorfordSo Mark Morford (the SF Gate/SF Chronicle columnist) wrote this column last week about how pathetic it is when people can’t relate to the mystical energy of inanimate objects, and it really honked me off. I normally like Morford a fair amount — he’s smart and he’s funny, and he convinced me and Ingrid to stop shopping at Safeway, for which I will be eternally grateful. But this piece had my blood boiling, in that special way that won’t let me sleep until I’ve written a calm-but-passionate, closely reasoned, blisteringly eloquent reply, pointing out in careful detail exactly why someone is wrong.

Here is that letter. Enjoy!

*****

Dear Mark,

DecayIn your column of 7/21 (“Please Kiss Your Old Toaster”), you wrote at some length about people who don’t believe in the mystical divine energy of physical objects. You had many harsh things to say on this topic, most notably that this lack of belief “reeks of a sort of deep sadness, a sort of spiritual decay, a savage limitation of perception.”

I’m generally a fan of your column. But with all due respect, I must strongly and passionately beg to differ. (I was originally going to write, “With all due respect, bite me,” but decided that it wouldn’t set the proper tone.)

It is entirely possible to be a skeptic, an agnostic, and/or an atheist — regarding all metaphysical beliefs, not just deities or organized religions — and still lead a rich, satisfying life, full of creativity and connection and love. More to the point, it is possible to be a skeptic, an agnostic, and/or an atheist, and still experience awestruck wonder at the mysterious majesty of the universe, and a feeling of transcendent oneness with it.

MilkcrateLet’s take your case of inanimate objects. I get very attached to the things in my life. (Probably more than I should, in fact — I have a hard time getting rid of anything I’m sentimental about, so I’m a bit of a pack rat.) I have an ongoing argument with my wife about my milk crates, which she wants out of the damn house, but which I fondly associate with my wild Bohemian youth (as opposed to my stodgy middle-aged life as a sex writer). I have intense emotional attachments to books I love, gifts my friends have given me, clothes I’ve worn to memorable parties, boots I’ve had wild kinky sex in, my mother’s recipe book, my vibrator, my wedding ring. And yes, my computer. They aren’t empty to me. They have meaning.

But as an agnostic/skeptic, I don’t believe that these objects have meaning because they carry some sort of metaphysical energy. (More accurately, I believe that there’s no evidence that they carry metaphysical energy.) They have meaning because they trigger memories and emotions and connections. They have meaning because I’ve invested them with meaning.

LightningI think part of the problem here is with the use of the word “energy” — and two extremely different meanings of it that get conflated. There’s the colloquial use of the word “energy” to mean someone’s persona, the way they come across to other people. Their “vibe,” in ’60s/’70s parlance. As in, “She seemed nice enough, but I got a really weird energy from her.” And then there’s the literal, physical meaning of the word “energy,” kinetic and thermal and whatnot, the energy that equals mass times the speed of light squared. These are both useful and expressive meanings, and I use them both myself — but they don’t mean the same thing, or even a similar thing. And this confusion is, I think, responsible for a pseudo-scientific mysticism that makes actual scientists — people who devote years of their lives to difficult, tedious work in labs and swamps and astronomy towers making sure the things they believe are actually, you know, true — want to tear their hair out and scream.

Why does this matter?

SkepticalinquirerWell, I could go on at length about the problems of basing your life on beliefs for which you have no real evidence. I could talk about the ease with which the mind deceives itself, and the value of careful, rigorous testing of beliefs to minimize that self-deception. I could talk about the hazards of “arguing from ignorance” — the error of thinking that, because you don’t currently have an answer to a question, the answer must therefore be X… X often being something supernatural. (Read a few issues of the Skeptical Inquirer if you want documentation of the real-world harm that untested beliefs in the supernatural can cause — from the refusal of proven medical treatment to rip-offs by fraudulent psychics.) I could even point out that disdain for the scientific approach has led to serious social disasters, from crappy sex education to global warming.

Galaxy_3And I could go on, at even greater length and in appalling purple prose, about the mind-boggling beauty and mystery of the physical universe, and how every new answer we get about it leads to ten new questions. I could talk about the giddy delight I feel when I learn about pygmy dinosaurs, or dolphins using nouns, or spider species that turn out to be social. I could talk about the awestruck humility I feel in the face of everything we don’t know about the world, and at the almost certain fact that in 100 years, things we’re dead certain about now will turn out to not be true. I could talk about the admiration and respect I have for scientists, and the patience and rigor and years-long attention span that they’re willing to devote to their work — especially in a society that increasingly holds science and reason in contempt. I could even talk about those rare, raw moments of existential presence and epiphany, and how my lack of belief in a metaphysical soul makes me feel more connected to the stars and plants and planets, more of an integral part of the universe — not less.

But that’s not really the point.

Vishnu1Here’s the point. I try very hard to be tolerant and understanding of people with religious and metaphysical beliefs (as long as they come by them honestly and don’t try to shove them down everyone else’s throat). I am, in fact, an agnostic and a skeptic, not an atheist. I know that questions about God and the soul and such are questions that nobody really knows the answers to, and I try to remain humble in the face of — how did I put it? — the mysterious majesty of the universe, and the vastness of my ignorance about it.

NedflandersBut it’s very difficult to do that when religious people are scornful, or hostile, or pitying of my skepticism. And I don’t just mean narrow-minded sex-hating fundamentalists, either. I mean Goddess-worshipping believers in sacred vibrations and mystical energy fields, too. My life is not sad or empty, decayed or cynical, flat or leaden, detached or cold or dead (all words from your column, by the way) merely because I decline to base my life on a belief in mystical energy. I don’t want or need your pity, any more than I want or need the pity of sanctimonious parents because I’ll never experience the wonders of parenthood, or the pity of sanctimonious straight people because I’ll never experience the joys of heterosexuality. It’s insulting and patronizing, and I respectfully request that you knock it off.

Sincerely,
Greta Christina

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Bill Brent

    He makes one good point.
    I thank my tools all the time.
    Doing this is usually the closest I can get to the face that created them. Somehow, doing that makes me feel good. Not like I’m a better person — just better inside for the moment. More in-glowing, if you will.
    I think it’s because when I pause to savor what’s right in front of me, helping me to do my job, I’m improving the quality of my life. Instead of racing relentlessly through my hours, and NOT pausing to acknowledge the wonder of the intelligence that created my tools, I’m engaging with my environment and no longer merely observing it, or using it to get somewhere else.
    I don’t believe that these tools have psyches, however. Toasters can’t be vulnerable; they can only malfunction.
    Funny, but I’ve known a lot of people like that, too. Always trying to become more and more like toasters, but only burning themselves in the process. How funny, and how sad. You’d think they’d learn.
    –Bill

  2. 2
    Sexposfemme

    I know what you mean from an agnostic standpoint. You can be agnostic and Buddhist, or even atheist and Buddhist. Being agnostic doesn’t mean you have no spirituality. But there are some hard-core atheist science types that take the transcendent feeling out of everything, like by explaining why people create and like music. Music is supposed to be sublime and unexplainable.
    sexposfemme.blogspot.com

  3. 3
    Beth Terry

    Greta, I wish I were as articulate as you on this subject. I found myself nodding my head furiously as I read your letter.
    I must respond now to Sexposfemme. Saying that “music is supposed to be sublime and unexplainable” sounds a bit religious to me. Saying that something is “supposed to be” a certain way implies an overall plan or creator, which is fine if that’s what you believe. But please don’t impose that belief on others who may really enjoy taking things apart and examining how they work and why humans have the emotional reactions that we have to them.
    If understanding your own likes and dislikes takes something away from the enjoyment of them, then you could steer clear of that kind of information. For me, I like to know the mechanism behind my preferences, cravings, desires, etc. Rather than lessening my enjoyment by “taking the mystery out,” this knowledge just adds another layer of creamy goodness. Some of us just get off on learning how the world works.

  4. 4
    capnjane

    You go, girl! Can’t wait for people to stop telling people who to fuck and what to believe. Thanks, Greta.

  5. 5
    The Minstrel Boy

    came over to visit from susie bright’s place. outstanding work. measured, reasoned well, beautifully written. i’ll be back for sure. thank you.

  6. 6
    Gale

    This blog entry offers absolute, undeniable proof that an agnostic can be spiritual and scientific at the same time: very evocatively written, well-reasoned and expertly argued. Saw the posting on Susie Bright’s blog and plan to share the link around myself.

  7. 7
    Sexposfemme

    I’m agnostic too. I meant should be instead of supposed to be. Greta do you find that you like pulling things like music apart?

  8. 8
    jane black

    Amen, Greta. I’m an atheist/libertarian/scientist who finds great beauty in the world. And in my kids. And in well-designed sex toys. Science and wonder are not mutually exclusive.
    I found you via Susie Bright’s blog — will come back often.

  9. 9
    C.S. Lewiston

    Years ago, I took a vinyl record out of the public library. It was Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s “Why I Am An Atheist” from 1963 or so. In it, she details her own beliefs and how she arrived at them (she sat down and read the Bible cover-to-cover) and gives a play-by-play about the lawsuit which led to the Supreme Court’s outlawing of prayer in public schools, including the harassment she and her family suffered at the hands of true believers in the process. (See also: http://www.positiveatheism.org/tochhair.htm)
    I think that your arguments are every bit as on-target as Ms. O’Hair’s in your rejection of blind conformity to popularly-accepted but unprovable beliefs. I myself can no longer get behind any set of beliefs, religious or not, which degrades the quality of life for no good reason, or which gives one class of people power over another. I think your blog entry ought to be in the op-ed section of a major-market newspaper, and if any of those hack, sponsor-kissing editors had any guts, it probably would be.

  10. 10
    Greta Christina

    Gosh. Thanks, everybody. I’m touched. FYI, if you like this piece, you might enjoy an essay I wrote for the Skeptical Inquirer, “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God.” It’s on my website at
    http://www.gretachristina.com/comfort.html
    And in answer to your question, Sexposfemme (warning, we’re going seriously off-topic here): yes, I do like analyzing things like music and art. Not all the time — there are many times when I want to let art and other experiences just wash over me, when I want to respond to them in a purely emotional and visceral way. And God knows (we really need an atheist/agnostic version of that phrase, btw) it’s possible to overthink art and analyze it to death.
    But in general, I find that analyzing and studying art often helps me understand and appreciate it more. I enjoy it and respond to it more deeply and in more detail — even on a purely emotional and visceral level — when I know something about its history and structure and context, and have spent some time thinking about why it works and doesn’t work. (The Harry Potter versus Lord of the Rings debate in this blog is a good example — I feel like I appreciate both works more thoroughly, and understand my own reactions to them better, since that discussion.) I’m not as intense about it as a lot of people — I’m not someone who reads liner notes in detail, or even at all — but that’s not out of principle, it’s just because I’m lazy. And when I do take the time to study or analyze music, I usually find it rewarding. If for no other reason, analysis of art helps me understand my own responses to it. (It’s not that different from how analyzing and studying sex has vastly improved my experience of it.)
    I do get that not everyone is like that — a lot of people prefer their connection with music to be unmediated, purely visceral and emotional, and that’s valid. But for me, analyzing music isn’t about pulling it to pieces and detaching myself from it — it’s about putting it together in a meaningful way, and connecting with it more completely.

  11. 11
    grace, T

    “They have meaning because I’ve invested them with meaning.”
    some Wiccans and Pagans would call that “charging” something, often as part of ritual.
    There are scientist who study quantum physics and relate to the concept spiritually, it doesn’t make them necessarily less scientific or more religious.
    Very often the beliefs of 3 or 4 popular Religious groups are taken for granted as the way all spiritual people believe and practice. That sort of judgement comes from limited research and bias more than from logic.
    Not all who believe in spirit were fearful or coerced.
    it’s a matter of interpretation. To some “…feel more connected to the stars and plants and planets, more of an integral part of the universe” relates a spiritual connection.
    for some believing in god means feeling that we all have a connecting energy. some add compassion/non-dual acceptance to it.etc. To many god is not male or female but an omnipresence we are all unique emanations of. Thos ewho beleive that way do not pray for saving, they pray/meditate about (not for) as a celebration.
    “…scornful, or hostile, or pitying…” Judgement is not pleasant period. Not even when it’s coming from an agnostic, athiest or one who believes she/he is more scientific than the other. IMHO that sense of superiority is usually false.

  12. 12
    Greta Christina

    Um… Grace, I really don’t think it’s judgemental to say that Mark Morford’s column was scornful, hostile, and pitying. Or if it is judgemental, it’s a pretty darned accurate judgement. He said that lack of belief in the mystical energy of inanimate objects “reeks of a sort of deep sadness, a sort of spiritual decay, a savage limitation of perception,” and went on to call the lives of those non-believers sad, empty, decayed, cynical, flat, leaden, detached, cold, and dead… among other things. How is that *not* scornful, hostile, and pitying?
    Anyway, if being non-judgemental means never criticizing or questioning anything anyone ever says… well, I don’t think that is what it means. I think there’s a difference between criticizing an idea and judging a person. I mean, you’re criticizing and questioning what I wrote (as indeed you should, if you reasonably disagree with it). How is it that my critique of Morford’s piece is judgemental, but your critique of mine isn’t?
    As to the rest of what you wrote… you may be surprised to find that I agree with much of it. I do diverge from spiritual believers when they take their beliefs literally instead of philosophically or metaphorically (example: I don’t think charging an object with meaning affects the object — I think it only affects me). And I do think the differences between a spiritualist approach to life and a skeptical or agnostic one are more than just a matter of interpretation — I think the differences often have real-world effects. But I don’t think those differences are necessarily irrevocable or impossible to bridge — I have dear friends with spiritual beliefs whom I respect and love — and I do think there’s at least some philosophical crossover and connection.
    For instance: You and I clearly both have a sense of connection and oneness with the universe. If you want to call that “spirituality,” that’s fine with me. I don’t usually call it that: since for me, this experience doesn’t imply a belief in a literal metaphysical spirit that’s separate from the physical world but somehow has an effect on it. But I think our experiences of that connection may not be all that different.
    BTW, I’m well aware of the fact that there are more than 3 or 4 varieties of religious and spiritual beliefs in the world. I mean, I live in Northern California. How could I not be aware of it? :-)

  13. 13
    grace, T

    for me, there is a subtle difference between judgement and discernment. I didn’t read his journal, i didn’t appreciate what he wrote (that you quoted). He doesn’t seem to speak for me. I’m grateful he spewed as it inspired this article and many thoughts shared here.
    You, on the other hand, do sound like me. So,
    Forgive me for being a skeptic of your skepticism, but, it sounds like my spiritual practice…
    Like you, I believe the charging is for my focus as a candle is to subconsciouslly re-mind me I am worthy or the issue is worthy of pause and reflection. Ofcourse if i touched an object i leave my residue…
    My definition of spiritual is not outside of self, in or out of, it is closer than the breath and everywhere. Everything has energy and is connected.
    My definition of Spirituality, includes the questioning & deciphering
    I love theories and the mystical shmistical fun of cards (i think they connect you to you subconscious) and other such spiritual toys, tools, techniques and practices (like Yoga and dance) I feel they are for assisting in transcending, they arent the actual transcendence. One doesn’t need any of that stuff to feel the connection.
    have you read any
    Ernest Holmes? I’m curious to hear your opinion of his work.

  14. 14
    lazlo

    just make it rhyme and give it a good beat…next!

  15. 15
    DBHoward

    Greta,
    Sorry I didn’t catch this one right away.
    Another wonderful response. Thanks for writing.
    You make an excellent point in response to his dividing the world into two types of people: those who feel the world is full of “mystical energy” and those who think it’s full of “cold dead junk.” (Those words alone…!) You speak for many of us materialist/atheist/agnostics out here.
    It’s odd, but people who think like that (“objects have souls”) never really look at the real wonder of it. I often stop to think about, not the objects that I use, and the “mystical energy” in them (I happen to think that mystical energy is a load of hoo-hah), but about the amount of *human* energy– ideas, labor, economy, and so forth– that each of the things I consume represents.
    When the column you were responding to mentioned thinking about phones being conduits for all of the conversations we have had, or books being conduits for authors’ ideas, I think, yeah, but what about the plastic in that phone? The semiconductors? Did it come from Finland or Japan, or where? Not to mention the ideas and work going back to Alexander Graham Bell and the inventors of polymers and even glass.
    What about the paper in that paperback? Where did the ink come from? Who drove the truck that got it to the store whence we purchased it? And what about writing, after all?… Follow the trail backward and you’re pounding clay with Hammurabi, baby.
    We live in a web of causality and chance denser and richer than any dream of a Deity who watches every sparrow’s fall. Human intentionality is only a fraction, a tiny fraction, of what goes on in the universe. Even in the things we think we make and do.
    Again, thanks a million. You keep up going, girl.

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