Blessed If You Do, Blessed If You Don’t

Blake godWhy is it that when good or lucky things happen, they get used as proof that God exists… but when bad or unlucky things happen, they get pawned off as “mysterious ways”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about a certain kind of argument for the existence of God. It’s not the “Something has to have made all this, and that something has to be God” argument. It’s not the “Something has to have come first, and that something has to be God” argument. It’s not even the wide assortment of “I don’t want for there not to be a God, therefore there has to be a God” arguments.

It’s the “Look at the wonderful things that happen — therefore there has to be a God” argument. When someone recovers from a serious illness, when someone gets the perfect job right in the nick of time, when someone finds the earring they lost… it’s given as proof of God at work.

BlessedThe argument always has a certain “blessed if you do, blessed if you don’t” quality to it. When good things happen, it’s a sign of God’s love. But when bad things happen… well, God works in mysterious ways. He must have some lesson to teach us, some larger plan that we’re not aware of, and this bad thing must be part of that lesson/ plan. And who are we to question him? He knows what’s right better than we do.

So here’s what I find interesting about this argument. (Apart from the obvious circular reasoning and massive logical holes, of course.)

It assumes that the speaker knows the ultimate divine definition of good and evil. Despite the “mysterious ways/ we don’t know what’s right and wrong as well as God does” cop-out, it assumes that the speaker knows God’s intentions, and knows what God thinks is good and bad.

God hates fagsLook at it this way. What qualifies as a good or a bad event varies, at least somewhat, depending on the believer. Take gay people dying of AIDS. If you’re a progressive, gay- positive Christian, gay people dying of AIDS is a terrible tragedy: and if you believe in an all-powerful loving God, it’s a tragedy that has to be chalked up to mysterious ways and a larger divine plan that we can’t understand. But if you’re a homophobic right-wing fundie, gay people dying of AIDS is an obvious example of God’s justice, a righteous punishment for sin. (Why lesbians don’t get punished in the same way as gay men, or why some “sinful” sex acts spread the virus more readily than others… well, that’s just mysterious ways.)

So when someone says, “X is a clear sign of a benevolent and just God’s active presence in the world, but Y means that God works in mysterious ways and we can’t question his plan” — doesn’t that assume that they know what qualifies as obvious benevolence and justice, and what qualifies as a troubling but presumably necessary part of God’s plan? Doesn’t that assume that they know God’s plan… at least well enough to identify which parts of it are clearly and self-evidently part of that plan, and which parts are a gray, question- mark area that’ll have to be filled in later?

Popper- Logic of Scientific DiscoveryMy main problem with this argument, of course, is the obvious logical one: namely, that no matter what happens — good, bad or indifferent — it gets used as evidence of God’s existence. Thus rendering the God hypothesis unfalsifiable… and therefore utterly useless. (If any outcome whatsoever can fit into your hypothesis, it has no power to explain the past or predict the future.)

But this pride thing has been bugging me a lot lately. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of theists accusing atheists of being arrogant, when we’re the one who (on the whole) are saying, “Hey, show me evidence that I’m wrong, and I’ll change my mind,” and they’re the ones who (on the whole) are saying, “No argument or evidence could ever convince me that my faith is mistaken.” But the more closely I look at religion, the more I see the supposed deadly sin of pride all over it like a cheap suit.

And the “blessed if you do, blessed if you don’t” view of God’s plan is just another example.

A Skeptic’s View of Sexual Transcendence

Please note: This piece includes a few passing references to my personal sex life. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff may want to skip this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

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

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

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

What I want to do here is offer an alternative.

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

*

BrainThe materialist view says that there is no supernatural world. At all. There is only the physical world. All those things that seem non- physical — thoughts, feelings, choices, selfhood, transcendent sexual ecstasy, consciousness in general — are actually products of the brain, and of the brain’s interactions with the rest of the body and the rest of the world. We don’t yet know exactly how this works — the science of neuropsychology is still in its infancy — but the overwhelming evidence we have so far is that this seems to be so.

And to me, this is not a downer. This is magnificent.

To me, the idea that, out of nothing but earth and water and sunlight, these wildly complex living beings have developed, not only with the capacity for consciousness but with the capacity to create the experience of ecstasy for ourselves and one another… that is just jaw-droppingly astonishing. We can create the experience of joy, of deep, expansive pleasure that takes us out of ourselves and into one another… and we do it through a complex re-arrangement of the energy of the sun, and the atoms and molecules of the planet.

That is magnificent. That, more than any spiritual belief I ever had, makes me feel both humble and proud. That makes me feel intimately connected with the rest of the Universe… in a way that no spiritual practice ever did. What’s that old hippie song about how we’re stardust, made of billion- year- old carbon? You don’t have to believe in metaphysical energy to think that that is wicked cool.

Descent of manThere’s something else, too. When you look at human beings from a materialist and evolutionary standpoint, not as special spiritual entities or children of the Goddess but simply as another twig on the evolutionary tree… that view puts sex squarely front and center in the human experience. Sex has an immensely important place in the evolutionary scheme. Darwin wrote an entire book about it.

Why does sex feel so good? Sex feels so good because it evolved to feel good. Sex feels profoundly, transcendently amazing because evolutionary forces strongly favor animals who really, really like to boff. That’s an oversimplification — for one thing, evolution can also favor animals who are picky about their sex partners — but it is a huge part of the picture.

Of course, birth control and other non- reproductive sexual practices have been shifting this picture somewhat for humans, putting reproduction into our conscious control and increasingly setting it apart from sexual pleasure. And as a queer spanking fetishist who neither has nor wants kids, I’m very much in favor of that. My DNA is apparently under the impression that it’s going to replicate by spanking other women, and I’m happy to let it dream on. But it is undeniable that these evolutionary forces are where the roots of sexual pleasure lie… roots that go back hundreds of millions of years.

Brain 4In other words: According to a materialist viewpoint, the capacity for transcendent sexual joy is hard- wired into our brains… and it’s deeply and powerfully hard- wired, as a crucial and central feature of our lives, by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. And this doesn’t just mean that suppressing or trivializing sex is stupid and futile, dangerous and harmful, a cruel and pointless crusade against the deeply- laid grain of our nature. (Although it certainly does mean that.)

It means that the act of sex, and the experience of sexual pleasure, connects us to every other living thing on earth. We are the cousins of everything that lives on this planet, with a common ancestor of primordial soup going back billions of years… and we are all related, not entirely but substantially, because of sex.

That is awesome. That makes me want to go fuck right now, just so I can feel connected with my fish and tetrapod and primate ancestors. That is entirely made of win.

And finally:

Love_in_a_cliffWhen you don’t believe in God or the soul or any sort of afterlife — when you believe that this short life is all that we have — then making the most of that short life, and taking advantage of the joyful experiences it has to offer, suddenly becomes a whole lot more important. It’s almost a moral obligation. The odds against you, personally, having been born into this life, are beyond astronomical. Are you going to waste that life by not giving yourself, and other people, as much joy as you possibly can?

Now, this doesn’t mean, as many anti- atheists claim, that without a belief in God or an afterlife, we can and would behave entirely selfishly and with no moral compass. It doesn’t mean that even a little bit. But it does mean than we can base our morality — including our sexual morality — on how our behavior demonstrably affects people in this life, and not on how it supposedly affects invisible beings in an unproven hypothetical life after this one. And it means that — as long as we don’t cause harm to people in this life — it is not only acceptable, but a positive and meaningful good, to engage in any activities that bring joy and epiphany and meaning to ourselves and the people around us. Including, and maybe even especially, sex.

In other words:

I don’t think we need to see sex as spiritual in order to see it as transcendent.

Kiss rodinI don’t think we need to see sex as blessed by the Goddess, or a telepathic connection between souls, or a channeling of the chi energy, or as any form of worship or spiritual practice, in order to see it as valuable. I think we can see sex as a physical act between animals… and still see it as richly, deeply valuable and meaningful. I think we can see sex as a physical act , and still see it as an act that connects us intimately, not only with ourselves and with one another, but with all of life, and with the expanse of history, and with the vastness of the universe.

Letting Go of God: Atheist Film Festival, Part 2

Part 2 of a two-part review of the Atheist Film Festival. In Part 1, I reviewed the movie Deliver Us From Evil. I am so thrilled to have been at the first ever Atheist Film Festival, I can’t even tell you. I can’t wait for next year’s.

Letting go of god dvdIf I had to choose one book about atheism that I wanted believers to read — one book to explain to believers what atheism is and perhaps persuade them to reconsider their beliefs — I don’t think it would be a book.

I think it would be this movie, “Letting Go of God.”

“Letting Go of God” captures Julia Sweeney’s one-woman performance piece about her deconversion from long-standing Catholic faith to atheism. And Sweeney has a very rare, very special knack. She has the ability to express complex and emotionally difficult ideas in an accessible, entertaining, intimately personal way. Rather than simply making an argument for why atheism is more plausible than religious belief, she tells the story of how, in the process of learning more about her faith, she eventually had to let go of it. And she tells this story with poignancy, with kindness, with dramatic tension, and with a powerful dose of hilarious humor.

Sweeney letting go of god 2But Sweeney is more than just a good, funny storyteller. She has an intellectual courage that is enviable: a willingness to rigorously investigate her ideas and beliefs… and to change them or let them go if they don’t stand up. When she wanted to explore her Catholic faith in more depth, she didn’t just pray a lot or go to church more — she went to Bible study classes, to actually learn about the religion she’d held since childhood. (The first nail in the coffin of her faith, as it turned out.) When she was considering Buddhism, she didn’t just listen to the watered- down Los Angeles version of it — she went to Tibet. When she was thinking, “God is nature,” she didn’t just look at pretty trees — she read Darwin. And when she was getting into New Age quantum woo, she didn’t just take Deepak Chopra’s word for it — she took a class in quantum physics. (Leading her to the conclusion, “Deepak Chopra is full of shit!”) She is unwilling to accept slippery, vague, or glib answers to the serious questions of life… and she is unwilling to maintain an implausible or untenable belief simply because doing so would be easy or pleasant.

Juliasweeney08junYet at the same time, Sweeney has a kindness about her, a sympathetic quality that wants more than anything to understand people and connect with them. She doesn’t dismiss how powerful religion is in people’s lives, and she doesn’t trivialize the loss she felt when she finally had to let go of it. She does poke gentle fun at religion’s absurdities and inconsistencies (and sometimes not- so- gentle fun — Exhibit A being the Deepak Chopra section). But it’s clearly done from the point of view of an insider, one who has held sincere religious belief and understands what it feels like. (Anyone who thinks people become atheists because religion is too burdensome needs to see this movie, pronto… so they can see how hard Sweeney tried to hold on to her faith, and the crisis and loss she went through when it was slipping away.) She isn’t trying to persuade anyone to come around to her atheist point of view (although I suspect that may happen anyway, at least sometimes). She’s just trying to tell you what happened with her belief in God, and why she let go of it. And the bulk of her humor turns not on others, but on herself.

Julia sweeneyAnd this, I think, is what makes her performance so compelling. More than being a good storyteller, more even than having a rigorous intellectual courage, what makes “Letting Go of God” so powerful is Sweeney’s ability to take you inside her mind and her heart. Her deconversion story is exactly that: a story, not a polemic. With intelligence and sympathy, with drama and humor, with unblinking honesty and affectionate kindness, she takes the audience through her experience of letting go of God: not explaining or arguing for her position, but revealing, step by step, the extremely personal process by which she arrived at it.

Which is exactly why I would pick this movie, above any book or article or even blog post, as the piece of atheist thought I would most like believers to see. I have nothing against harsh critiques or mockery of religion: I’ve criticized and mocked religion at length, and will continue to do so, and will defend it with all my heart. But I also think that Sweeney’s gentle, personal, self- deprecating fearlessness about her own loss of faith is likely to get under people’s skin, in a way that the sharpest argument in the world might not. And it definitely has the power to get believers to see atheists, not as cowardly libertines, but as good, thoughtful, loving people who take life’s big questions seriously.

Now, whenever I give a rave review, I always feel obligated to balance it with some piece of criticism. So here it is:

In some places, the film quality isn’t great. There are spots where it’s a little grainy. (Unless that was a projection problem. In which case, never mind.)

That’s pretty much the downside.

Letting go of god dvdIn other words: This movie completely hits it out of the park. I don’t know why it’s had such a hard time finding distribution: it deserves a wide audience, and it has a broad appeal to both believers and non-. I recommend it to atheists, for all the obvious reasons, and as a great place to get pointers on how to talk with believers about religion. And I passionately recommend it to any and all religious believers who want to understand more about this atheism business: how it happens, and why it happens, and why it means so much to people.

“Letting Go of God” is available on DVD.

Strange Religious Signs in the Midwest

When I went on this trip, I’d been planning to do a Midwestern follow-up to my Strange Religious Imagery in my Neighborhood piece. But alas, Midwesterners don’t go much for floridly weird religious imagery. (At least, not in the part of the Midwest where we were.)

They do, however, go for some interesting religious language. So I thought I’d share with you my twisted version of vacation snaps: Strange Religious Signs in the Midwest. (We actually had a genuinely good time on our trip: my family is cool and fun as well as godless, and there’s much about the Midwest that is deeply peaceful and beautiful. I do in fact love it, and get mad when people dismiss it as “flyover country.” But this is what I was doing with my camera instead of shooting pretty trees and houses. There’s something deeply wrong with me, I know.)

God has blessed america

“God Has Blessed America Let America Bless God!” (Galva Assembly of God, Galva, IL)

One in a long series of “America is God’s special country” theocracy signs. We were traveling on the Fourth of July weekend, so this theme was all over the church signs like a cheap suit. I didn’t even bother to photograph most of them.

May the fourth be with you

“May the Fourth Be With You” (St. John Roman Catholic Church; not sure what town, somewhere near Galesburg if not in it)

Yet another in the “patriotic Christianity” series. With an “out of date pop- culture pun to inject some humor and please the kids” thrown in for good measure.

Have i got your attention

“Have I Got Your Attention? — Good! Now Give Me Your Heart -God” (First Church of the Open Bible, Galesburg, IL)

Not a particularly unusual sentiment, I know. What struck all of us about this one was the arrogance of presuming to speak for God. What exactly does a pastor think when he puts up a sign like this… and signs it, “God”?

A family altar

“A Family Altar Can Alter A Family” (Colonial Baptist Church, Galesburg, IL)

What is is with church signs and bad puns?

Presence of christ puts pain in perspective

“The Presence of Christ Puts Pain In Perspective” (Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church, Galesburg, IL)

I’m not quite sure what the point here is. It could be, “Your divine buddy Christ is here with you and will get you into Heaven forever, therefore your pain is no big deal.” But it could also be, “Christ’s suffering on the cross was more horrific and ghastly than you could imagine, so quit whining about your own petty pain, and have some gratitude for his sacrifice. If it’s the former, then my reaction is pretty much, “Screw you for trivializing my pain.” If it’s the latter… then ditto. With an added helping of, “If I hit myself on the hand with a hammer enough times, does that give me moral authority over you? I didn’t ask Christ to hang himself on a cross for three days, so screw him for using it to try to guilt trip me into obedience.” And with just a dash of, “Ew.”

Do you truly know god

“Do You Truly Know God?” (Galva Assembly of God again; return trip)

At last — a church sign with a clear question that I can answer. My reply to that would be have a big, fat, unequivocal, “No.” Glad we could get that one settled. (I am curious about this one. Is the point that we don’t truly know God but the church does… or that none of us truly knows God and it’s arrogant to think that we do? I like to think that it’s the latter. Although given the blind certainty of the church’s previous “God Has Blessed America Let America Bless God!” message, I’m not so sure.)

We see god every day open arms

“We See God Every Day. Do You Recognize Him?” (Open Arms Community Church, Kewanee, IL)

Providing a charmingly arrogant contrast to the delicate philosophical questing of “Do You Truly Know God?” I mean, isn’t pride one of the seven deadly sins? I’ve never understood why thinking that you know better than others what God thinks and wants and looks like doesn’t qualify.

Brief tangent: This one is even funnier in the context of the church’s “1960s drive-in” architecture. While I didn’t take pictures of many churches themselves, I had to make an exception for this one.

Open arms church

We see God every day. And he looks like a
roller- skating carhop from “American Graffiti.”

Welcome we don't bite much

“Welcome Worship 9:00 AM Stop In We Dont Bite Much” (St. John Lutheran, Princeton, IL)

We don’t bite much. Wow. Do I ever feel welcome here. Especially with the barbed wire. And double especially with the other side of the same sign:

Hell is hotter

“Hell Is Hotter Probably Windier Too.” (ditto)

I think they were probably trying to be funny. With both sides of the sign. But something about this one told us, “Get the picture fast, and then get the frack out of there.” I am kind of entertained, though, by a church sign that warns you against the torments of hell by essentially saying, “The weather is even worse than it is in the Midwest!”

And finally:

God is perfect

“God Is Perfect Only Man Makes Misteaks” (First Congregational Church, Peru, IL)

Another in the “labored comedy” series. Rather more comical than most. Of course this one immediately makes me want to ask, “If God is perfect, then why did he make his most magnificent creation such bad spellers?”

A specially blessed country; bad puns; out- of- date pop culture references; the trivialization of human suffering; the presumption that believers recognize God and speak for him; jokey threats; labored humor; and weird logic. Let’s hear it for Christianity in America!

I’m Back!

I’m back from my vacation. I decided, for some freakish reason, to make this an actual vacation and not a semi- vacation; so I mostly stayed away from computers and electronic media, and instead took long walks and watched fireflies. Hence the no blogging. Had a good time, but am very glad to be back. I’ll be blogging again in a day or two. See y’all soon!

Blog Break

We’re going out of town for a week and a half to visit my family, and I may or may not have regular computer access. (My laptop crashed yesterday, and I don’t know if I can get it fixed before we leave.) I’ll be checking in periodically with whatever computer I can get my hands on, to delete spam and put out fires and such; but I may not be able to do much actual blogging while we’re gone. (Even if I do have my computer, the blogging will probably be intermittent.) We’ll have friends staying at our place when we’re gone, keeping an eye on the cats and chasing burglars away; but the blog may have to gather a little dust in the interim. See you when we get back!

Deliver Us From Evil: Atheist Film Festival, Part 1

Part 1 of a two-part review of the Atheist Film Festival. Which was a thumping success as far as I could tell. I’m sorry we were only able to see two movies; I hope they can keep doing it.

Deliver us from evilIt’s not like I didn’t know this stuff. I knew it.

But somehow, this movie made it real, and bore the full reality of it in on me, in a way that it hadn’t been before.

“Deliver Us From Evil” is a documentary about the extensive child- molestation scandal in the Catholic Church. And it transforms the horror of what happened into a full-scale moral outrage. Not just the obvious outrage over child molestation and the lives it ruins. Not just the outrage at the priest at the center of this particular scandal, Oliver O’Grady, and his repulsive and baffling lack of moral compass (it’s like he knows what morality is supposed to look and sound like, but doesn’t understand what it feels like or what it means). Not even just the outrage over how the Catholic Church consistently and at the highest levels acted to protect itself and its priests rather than to protect the children who were being put in harm’s way: moving molesting priests around the country, lying to law enforcement, concealing evidence, even paying off witnesses. (And, of course, trying to blame it all on the gays.)

No, what this movie filled me with anew was an outrage over the very foundation of the Catholic Church: the essential nature of its theology and its organization.

O-gradydeliverusfromevilThe movie makes it clear that the child molestation scandal in the Catholic Church is not simply a few bad apples. It’s not even just a case of a few bad apples and an organization’s misguided attempts to circle the wagons. It is the predictable result of a religious organization that vests all of its spiritual connection with God, and all of the possibility for salvation and eternal life, in the hands of a relatively few authority figures. It is the predictable result of a religious organization that makes the organization itself, and its authority figures, a necessary conduit between people and God.

CommunionSee, the point of this film wasn’t “child molestation is bad.” It wasn’t even, “protecting child molesters and concealing their crimes so they can molest again is bad.” You don’t need a documentary to tell you that. No, the point of this film — or one of the points, a point hammered on again and again by people both inside and outside the church familiar with this scandal — is that the basic hierarchy and theology of the Catholic Church is a recipe for the abuse of power. When you teach people — especially children — that the only way to God and Heaven is through the rites of the Church, administered by Church authorities? When you teach people — especially children — that Church authorities have a special connection to God and goodness that ordinary people don’t have? When you teach people — especially children — that defying the Church and its earthly representatives will condemn you to permanent, infinite burning and torture? When you do all that, widespread abuse of power is almost inevitable. (Add to this that when you teach warped messages about the wickedness of sex to seminary students in their teens, and demand that they refrain from it in order to pursue their special connection with God, it’s almost inevitable that this abuse of power will often be sexual.)

2006_deliver_us_from_evil_010And when you have a church hierarchy and theology founded on these ideas — church authorities being special conduits to God, the necessity of going through these authorities and the rituals they perform to gain salvation — then it’s almost inevitable that they would circle the wagons when they become aware of that abuse… and relentlessly stonewall investigations when that abuse begins to come to light.

I mean, the whole institution is founded on the idea that priests are special, holy men of God with an exceptional spiritual power, and that the authority they wield comes not from human beings but from a divine command. Of course they’re going to protect those priests at the expense of protecting children. To do otherwise wouldn’t just make their organization look bad. It would undermine the very foundation that their church is built on. It would force them to rethink everything they believe, everything they’ve centered their lives on.

And people aren’t very good at doing that.

Deliver us from eivl MahonySo instead, they circled the wagons. And in doing so, they made themselves more monstrous than the child molesters they were protecting. O’Grady’s actions, abhorrent as they were, were almost understandable in the context of mental illness. The actions of the Church officials who protected him and countless other priests like him, not out of uncontrollable impulse, but consciously, thoughtfully, with a cool evaluation of the pros and cons, are beyond moral comprehension.

This is a hard movie to watch. And I certainly understand the impulse to not go to movies that are hard to watch. (I’ve never been sorry that I went to see a movie that was brilliant but hard to watch… but I always have to remind myself of that, and the impulse to just see something smart and funny at the end of a long week is a strong one.) But I’m completely glad I saw “Deliver Us From Evil,” and I recommend it highly. It made both the full magnitude and the full emotional depth of this scandal clear to me, and personal to me, in a way that it hadn’t been before. And it made clear in an entirely new way just how deeply religion can twist the moral compass, creating an institution that loudly and publicly cries its outrage over the desecration of a cracker… but that whispers and stonewalls, turns a blind eye and covers it up, when thousands upon thousands of children are being molested by its most trusted representatives.

If you can’t see it in a theater or at an atheist film festival, “Deliver Us From Evil” is also available on DVD.