Quantcast

«

»

Mar 29 2013

Atheism and Sensuality

This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry.

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

jump for joyThe atheist view of sensuality, of pure physical pleasure and joy in our bodies, is about eleventy 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, superior to our bodies in every way. We don’t think 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 as if we’ve bought into it?

Dr. Anthony Pinn posed this question, at the Atheist Alliance of America conference in Denver last September. I don’t remember how exactly he worded it: I was too busy sitting there with my jaw hanging open thinking, “He’s right. He’s absolutely right. Why didn’t I see it that way before?” to take precise notes. But ever since he said it, the ideas have been roiling and tumbling in my head, and bursting to come out.

I know for a fact that many atheists, maybe even most of us, don’t live this cerebral way in our private lives. I know that I’m not the only atheist who revels in good food and better hooch; who fucks all afternoon and dances all night; who walks in the sun for miles and pumps iron for the sheer endorphiny pleasure of it; who literally stops and smells roses. But our public life typically doesn’t reflect this. There are notable exceptions, of course: Skeptics in the Pub and similar events leap to mind. But in large part, our public life as atheists — our events, our writings, our culture — is geared towards political activism, social change, the pursuit of science, and the life of the mind.

the thinker sculptureDon’t get me wrong. I am a passionate devotee of political activism, social change, the pursuit of science, and the life of the mind. But that’s not all atheist culture has to offer. Not by a long shot. This wacky notion that our selves are not separate from our bodies and therefore this life is all we have… this is one of our greatest strengths. And yet, when it comes to one of the most obvious logical conclusions of this notion — the idea that ethically pursued pleasure not only isn’t sinful, but is an actual positive good — we flinch from it in public. When believers accuse us of being sybaritic hedonists, we hotly deny it… rather than saying, “Hell yes, we’re hedonists — why shouldn’t we be? The religious arguments against pleasure are laughable and vile: why should we accept them?” When believers insist that we’ve rejected God’s rules just so we can wallow in sensual pleasure, we get all high-minded and offended and cite every other reason we can think of for rejecting religion… rather than saying, “Yup, that’s a big part of it. Your made-up god’s rules about pleasure are hurtful and inconsistent and flatly stupid, and for a lot of atheists, they’re an important part of why we started questioning religion.” When believers accuse us of the dreaded crime of enjoying our bodies, we vehemently defend ourselves against the accusation… rather than questioning the very premise behind it.

What’s that about?

puritan theology book coverSome of it may just be PR. In the United States at least, the Puritanical equation of pleasure with sin and self-absorption is deeply ingrained in the culture. Some atheists may think — consciously or un- — that in order to gain acceptance in mainstream culture, we have to accept that culture’s values, or at least not make a virtue of flouting them in public. It’s the old “accomodationism vs. radicalism” debate again: are we working simply for wider cultural acceptance of our basic existence, or are we working for deeper and broader changes in the culture? And it’s a debate that’s raged in every social change movement I know of. As just one example: Think about the “accomodationism/ radicalism” debates in the LGBT movement. One side wants to present the community as “just like everyone else,” with kids and polo shirts and white picket fences and monogamy and a fervent belief in God. The other side wants acceptance for exactly who we are, in all our varieties of sexual practices and relationship choices and gender presentations and social identities… and it passionately wants to see society change some of its most fundamental views on family and love and gender and sex. The first side says, “It’s a myth that gay people are promiscuous! We just want to get monogamously married, just like you!” The second side says, “Actually, some of us are promiscuous, some of us do have hundreds of sex partners — what on Earth is wrong with that?” The first side thinks we’ll never gain acceptance if we don’t make society see us as just like them. The second side thinks we’ll never change how society sees us if we don’t change society… and won’t accept a victory for more mainstream LGBT folks that throws more marginal queers under the bus.

Sound familiar?

So that’s a big chunk of it. But I don’t think this atheist tendency to downplay physical pleasure is simply about how we present our image in public. I think many of us — and I don’t exempt myself from this — have bought into it. If not consciously, then un-.

It’s very common for marginalized people to buy into the worldviews that marginalize them. Internalized sexism, internalized racism, internalized homophobia, etc…. all of these are well-documented in sociological research. And it’s entirely unsurprising. Sexism and racism and so on are deeply entrenched in our culture’s attitudes. We’re soaking in it. We’ve all been brought up with these attitudes, and we’ve all absorbed them… even the people who are targeted by them. Sometimes internalized self-phobia can be very overt… as we see with women who think that women are only suited to be wives and mothers. And sometimes it can be more subtle, an unconscious absorption of less obvious ideas and reflexes… as we see with women who don’t ask for raises or promotions as often as their male colleagues. (Which is to say, a lot of women. Including me.)

And the same is true for atheism and atheists. Sometimes internalized atheophobia can be very overt… as we see with atheists who insist that religious faith is a wonderful thing that’s necessary for society and they totally wish they had it themselves. And sometimes it can be more subtle, an unconscious absorption of less obvious ideas and reflexes. As we see with the acceptance of the preposterous notion that physical experience is less valuable and meaningful than intellectual experience, and that physical pleasure is something to be ashamed of.

Greta and Ingrid at Dyke MarchSo let’s knock it off. Let’s celebrate our bodies as much as we do our minds. In fact, let’s stop seeing our bodies as something totally apart from our minds. Let’s not simply reject Cartesian dualism and the absurd notion that the soul is the real self and the body is just a skanky shell. Let’s reject its mutant offspring, the absurd notion that the intellect is the real self and the senses are just a meaningless indulgence. The atheist view of physical pleasure is more coherent, more ethical, and way the hell more appealing and fun. Let’s put that view front and center. It’s good PR: we may scare off a few fuddy-duddies, but we sure as hell will bring in the young folks. And it also has the advantage of being the truth.

37 comments

2 pings

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Great American Satan

    Let’s reject its mutant offspring, the absurd notion that the intellect is the real self and the senses are just a meaningless indulgence.

    What if your senses give you no pleasure, and undue pain? At that point, the idea that the intellect is the real self is pretty essential to feeling OK about life.

    Leftover Xtian prudishness is far from the only thing effing up people’s sex lives, too. Probably the biggest buzzkill in Western Civilization’s beds at present is internalized fatphobia and self-objectification (I blame the patriarchy of course), or maybe also the ineptitude of privileged dudes thinking female pleasure is a myth & that’s cool with them. At least, from what I can see, which is an admittedly small sample size.

  2. 2
    Ethan Farber

    Saying that your philosophical views are better than others is bigotry. Simple as that.

    Hedonism is not an identity, hedonism is the absence of an identity. A dog or insect can feel pleasure. What separates man from animals is the ability to reason.

    You talk about “atheophobia” but you seem to have a pretty strong “phobia” of religious people. Your entire argument is nothing more than bigoted, ignorant hypocrisy.

  3. 3
    doublereed

    I think it’s pretty much the disagreement with hedonism (or the need to pretend to disagree with hedonism). Hedonism is more associated with dangerous drug use and orgies and such, but more notably, not furthering progress and science. Hedonism is lazy. Hedonism is more about personal pleasure, rather than the relentless pursuit of bettering humanity.

    I’ve sometimes heard of the term “eudaimonia” to refer to the optimization of happiness (or the optimization of Fun!). And that seems more in line with the ideas of Humanism. It’s not just about ideas of personal pleasure, but actively trying to find things that excite and invigorate us. Pleasure isn’t nearly as valuable or interesting as fun.

    Remember, the opposite of happiness is not sadness. It’s boredom.

  4. 4
    Kevin

    Interesting. I was prepared to argue that “there’s no such thing as atheist sensuality”, but I see that you’re right.

    We’re certainly enculturated in the US to the notion that “sex is BAD BAD BAD”. And, of course, don’t have more than one glass of wine with dinner because that’s BAD BAD BAD. And there’s a joke somewhere about Baptists not wanting to appear like they’re dancing, because that’s BAD BAD BAD. And singing? Let’s not get started about singing!

    Puritans came here because the countries in Europe that harbored them were tired of their obsessive priggishness.

    It’s the religious propensity to tell other people what to do. Having fun — bad. Atheists having fun and not feeling the least bit guilty about it? As bad as it gets.

  5. 5
    doublereed

    I should probably clarify what I meant.

    I’m basically saying that Atheists want to appear the scientific, tech-oriented intellectuals of the day in comparison to the dumb, tribal arguments laid out by conservatives and the religious. Conflating Hedonism with Atheism goes directly against this, because the image of Hedonists as pot-smoking hippies or whatever. Atheists do not want to appear lazy.

    It seems much more effective to use a term like Eudaimonia or Fun Optimization or something which does not have the negative connotations of Hedonism and laziness. We want to show that Atheism is exciting and fun, but only in a smart, intellectual way.

  6. 6
    Kevin

    It’s interesting that the objections are about the use of the word hedonism.

    Doublereed: So, all pleasure has to have a purpose? We can’t enjoy ourselves without bettering society? Um….no. I think the phrase “get off your high horse” is apropos here. That’s as Puritanical as you can get.

    Ethan: Who said that intellectual pursuits (ie, use of reason) can’t be pleasurable? But we’re not Vulcans, you know. I’ll bet you whack off on average the same number of times a week as men of your age and physical condition. Physical pleasure is important for a well-balanced life. Yes, even whacking off. But all those other pleasures too. Greta mentioned “good food and better hooch; who fucks all afternoon and dances all night; who walks in the sun for miles and pumps iron for the sheer endorphiny pleasure of it; who literally stops and smells roses.” Which of those pursuits is “bigoted” against reason? I’d sure like to know, because I’m pretty intellectual myself, and DAMN, there’s not one of those things that I’d eschew because it was against reason.

    And, of course, the accusation will come that I’m just interested in mindless sex, booze, drugs, and staying up too late and maybe eating chocolate chip cookies. To which I reply in advance, “you don’t know me at all, so please don’t invent my life.”

  7. 7
    Jackie, all dressed in black

    Pleasure and happiness are revolutionary.

    Think about those things have been reserved for and how those in power seem desperate to control who gets to experience those things and how they get to experience them.

    Ethan, not it isn’t. Some ideas are stupid. For instance, the ones you just shared are both incorrect and creepily hostile. If hedonism is so awful, then why do Christians take comfort in their belief in heaven? Why do they even argue that something has value because it gives them comfort? The truth is, pleasure is promised in the next world as a way of convincing theists to forgo it in this one.

  8. 8
    Hiram Crespo

    This is evidence of why the new atheism needs to advance a PHILOSOPHICAL discourse and make philosophy again part of mainstream culture like in antiquity. Epicurus teaches how to properly deal with hedonic questions and ethical questions about desires and how / when they may generate suffering.

    Pleasure is a good and happiness is a good, they have value in and of themselves, but they must be tempered with prudence, with understanding of the effects of desire and pleasure — not because of fear of vindictive gods (the first of the four remedies in Epicureanism is ‘do not fear the gods’) but because of common sense and prudence.

    Without philosophy it’s impossible to develop an intelligent, empirical methodology for the pursuit of happiness.
    societyofepicurus.com

  9. 9
    doublereed

    @Kevin

    How did you get that “all pleasure has to have a purpose” out of what I said? I was trying to say that physical pleasure is just part of what we really want, which is happiness and fun. Eudaimonia. I think the focus should be a lot more on Fun, rather than Pleasure.

    “And, of course, the accusation will come that I’m just interested in mindless sex, booze, drugs, and staying up too late and maybe eating chocolate chip cookies. To which I reply in advance, “you don’t know me at all, so please don’t invent my life.””

    I just think that this is exactly what the colloquial definition of a hedonist is. They’re going to accuse you of that because they think you mean that. So you’re going to have arguments about definitions and those are always terrible.

  10. 10
    cactuswren

    I’m reminded here of what Barbara Ehrenreich said in Bright-Sided, that advocates of the “positive psychology” movement want to establish a strong correlation between happiness and improved physical health and even greater longevity. Happiness, we’re told, isn’t in itself a sufficient reward: happiness is a duty we owe. You must be happy for the same reason you must finish your vegetables and go to bed early: because it’s good for you.

  11. 11
    Sachi Mohanty

    In India, women have it “hammered” into them that sex is “dirty”.

    So they only have sex within the confines of marriage.

    The men are absurdly traditinalist where they too think a woman who has sex with anyone other than a husband is someone with a bad character.

    The “husband” in a marriage would be even more aghast the idea of “his” *wife* having sex with someone other than him.

    The women … well, I won’t presume to be an expert about them but they probably learn to live within the “rules” that society has laid down.

    Apart from these mindsets and rules and societal norms, there is of course the stuff that evolution has to say about how males just want to impregnate as many women as possible and women just search for a “reliable” partner to have babies with.

    Well, I sure wish we would grow beyond whatever our evolutionary drives may be. And recognize man-made social customs for what they are.

    I am happy to connect with any women out there. It seems there really are not many out there. They all seem to be busy or satisfied or something …

    @sachi_bbsr

  12. 12
    Kevin

    doublereed: I’m hard pressed to think of an activity that is “fun” but not “pleasurable”, so you’ll have to forgive me my ignorance.

    Studying for a test? Not fun nor pleasurable.

    Working hard at my job? Something I occasionally take pride in as far as accomplishments go, but not really “fun”. But actually, I quite enjoy what I do, so it is “pleasurable”. But fun? No. Not fun. Sometimes I “have fun” while working, but the work itself is not “fun”.

    Yeah, sorry. I don’t get it. What in your world is pleasurable but not fun?

    I think you’re conflating the concept of “pleasure” with “sexual”, or “mind-altering” — which is exactly what I warned against. Not to go all “definition” crazy, but according to Wikipedia, a hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain). That’s as good a definition as any. What in the world is wrong with that?

    Frankly, the thing that gives me the greatest pleasure/most fun is taking wildflower photographs. That doesn’t advance the cause of secularism, isn’t an intellectual pursuit (in fact, one of the reasons I like it is because it’s meditative in nature), and doesn’t even affect anyone else in the universe, because I most often hike/photoshoot alone. It’s pleasurable and fun. Positively hedonistic.

    I think the issue is that you’re defining “hedonism” as “those activities that Christians would rather you not do at all.” Sex, drugs, etc. That’s their problem — not mine.

  13. 13
    doublereed

    Kevin: Sorry, by pleasure I just meant physical pleasure. As opposed to all the cerebral stuff.

    Yes, I am absolutely defining hedonism in the “Christian prude” way. Because that’s what people think of when people say “hedonism.” And yes it is “your problem” because it’s going to result in lots of miscommunication. If you tell someone that you are hedonistic, then they will completely not understand what you mean. And they will judge you poorly until you clarify.

    Think of this as an argument between connotation and denotation. Even if you just make up a word, like Happyism, it at least results in less confusion because you’re not battling against a different connotation.

    “Hedonism” has baggage.

  14. 14
    Ethan Farber

    Your entire argument hinges on strawman and bigotry.

    I am not a Christian. Many if not most people who disagree with you are not Christian. You are trying to make your argument by way of bigotry, leveraging the language of hate against an unpopular group in society. Replace the word “Christian” with “Jew” or “Muslim” and the context remains the same, except that you would instantly be called out for your hate-based argument.

    What is wrong with maximizing pleasure? By definition, if you are maximizing pleasure, then you are not maximizing other things. Hedonism is evil because pleasure is not the most important thing in one’s life. To so believe is inherently contrary to other moral qualities – compassion, self-betterment, knowledge of oneself and the world at large, finding peace within and without.

    No one really likes studying for tests or doing hard work. But if you do not feel satisfied at the end of the process – the life you lead – that’s a problem with your life. Resorting to hedonism is a tacit admission that you can’t make your life satisfying on its own merits.

    Is any normal person happy just working and studying? No, of course everyone likes to have “fun”. The difference between a well-balanced life and a pathetic hedonistic existence istreating that “fun” as the point of life, and not as part of the whole enchilada.

    Actually, the enchilada itself is a good example. If you like to sit there and eat scoops of sour cream, because you think it’s the best part of the enchilada, that means you’re someone with a problem. Your craving for cheap fat is preventing you from enjoying the pleasure and good health that comes with a well-balanced diet.

    You want to call that a Christian argument. It’s not. The “life of moderation” was advocated by Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle (who were pro-gay) and Roman philosophers such as Cicero and Seneca (who were virulently opposed to Judeo-Christian values). Your argument is bigoted, and like all bigoted arguments, it is inherently ignorant.

    So yes it is your problem. It’s your problem, because you are speaking bigotry borne of your own ignorance, and it’s your problem, because by your own account your hedonistic values are growing out of your own lack of fulfillment in your life.

  15. 15
    Ethan Farber

    Saying that anti-hedonistic arguments are a Christian problem is like arguing that carjacking is a Black problem.

    You are simplifying complex issues and making fallacy seem plausible by way of generalizations and appeals to bigotry.

  16. 16
    Gretchen

    Ethan, please stop posting about bigotry until you look up the word and learn what it means. Simply repeating it over and over does not make it applicable.

  17. 17
    Greta Christina

    Ethan Farber has been put into comment moderation. His commenting here is bordering on theeadjacking and comment hogging, and he’s starting the same argument in multiple threads — all of which are prohibited by my comment policy,. And I’m at a conference and don’t have time or energy to monitor conversations as closely as I normally do. So any further comments from Ethan Farber will have to be approved by me before they’re posted. Thanks for your understanding.

  18. 18
    Eli Steenput

    I think there is no such thing as “physical, non-cerebral pleasure” – all pleasure is in the (physical) brain. I agree we really should drop distinctions that rely on superstitious belief in spooks.

  19. 19
    Kevin

    doublereed: OK. I get it — you’re saying “hedonism” a word that can’t be used to express exactly what it means because other people have loaded it with connotation and so it’s effectively poisoned its current definitional usage.

    Though I think in a forum like this one, I still don’t know why you object to it. In the context of Greta’s post, it’s perfectly apparent that she chose the exact correct word.

    In general, though, I guess I don’t have a problem with saying “hedonism is maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain…you know…being human.” Assuming of course we’re having a discussion of what hedonism is. Which I don’t think until today I’ve actually ever had.

  20. 20
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Doublereed, you are taking as given the “physical/bodily pleasures are inherently bad, or at least trivial” framing that the post you are ostensibly responding to explicitly argues against. Why?

  21. 21
    Stephen Redman

    Long time reader, first time commentator.

    I agree with Hiram. I’m kind of a neo-Epicurean. And a hedonist.

    And I’d like it if Atheist Activism was more pro-pleasure… Because that’s part of what makes atheist-activism matter. I want people to not have guilt and fear because they think there’s some spook watching them when they’re alone in their rooms. Anyways, love the blog.

  22. 22
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    I want people to not have guilt and fear because they think there’s some spook watching them when they’re alone in their rooms.

    Or not alone in their rooms.

  23. 23
    Stephen Redman

    <>

    Can’t say I agree….

    <>

    According to your own stated views, you’re a bigot. Congrats. It was a pleasure.

  24. 24
    doublereed

    @20

    Come to think of it, I have no idea. I suppose that’s the point of Greta’s post. Perhaps it’s just a perspective I need to consider more.

  25. 25
    im

    I think that a fair part of it might be that the community has often been internet based. I’ll also second the ‘many nerds not into hedonism’ bit, or possibly add that they are not very good at it.

  26. 26
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Doublereed, I’m asking why YOU are positing this premise.

  27. 27
    Great American Satan

    I’d like to make sure I don’t come off as being even remotely like that dickhole Farber. My quibbles at #1 were not really meant as disagreement, just pointing out aspects of the human experience that fall outside the scope of the article, or are supplemental to it. Or something like that.

    I’m all up ons some non-supernatural sensuality. Word. :-)

  28. 28
    Jackie, all dressed in black

    That was meant to say “Think about who those things have been reserved for.” Oopsy.

  29. 29
    Per Holmgren

    I think it is somewhat amusing that it seems like the idea to just take a look at societies that are atheistic has not occurred to Greta Christina.

    If I take the example of Sweden, where I live and where at a minimum of 70% of the population is atheist, I can say that the view on sexuality feels quite a bit more healthy than what seems to be the case in religious countries.
    What stigma and shame is associated with having many partners comes from the problem that you may be regarded as untrustworthy when it comes to relations. That is, the problem is that excessive promiscuity tends to cause quite a bit of emotional suffering in the long run.
    A lot of the people I know, both women and men, have had between 10-20 partners (I’m 30 years old myself), and there really is no stigma attached to that. The problem is if you have lots of partners at the same time without everyone being in on it, as that is just being a douche.

    And being hedonistic is not all that appealing to everyone, regardless of them accepting the preposterous or not. I myself spent two years studying philosophy, and now I’m staring on my P.hD in physics. I definitely enjoy sex, drugs and alcohol, but there are other things in life that give more pleasure, deeply intellectual things, and you can’t have it all sadly.
    If I change sexual partner all the time I will not feel the joy that a deeper sense of love can bring, and the satisfaction my intellectual studies bring would be severely hindered by weed and excessive amounts of alcohol.

    I definitely agree that being atheistic should lead to people experiencing more pleasure in their lives than they otherwise would, as they should be freed from irrational oppressive dogma, but as many a philosopher has pointed out (John Stuart Mill in particular) there is more to pleasure than sex, drugs and food.
    Most people feel more pleasure from say experiencing kindness, love or understanding something complex than they feel from eating a really good bacon sandwich, and any hedonistic approach to life needs to take that into account.

  30. 30
    Bill Dauphin, avec fromage

    Greta: Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve long thought our culture’s Puritan demonization of pleasure (and the corresponding valorization of toil and suffering) lies at the root of a great many social ills. That’s true for the whole culture, of course, but as you point out, atheists ought to be better positioned than most to escape that worldview. It’s telling that even we can’t easily throw off the pleasure-shaming.

    Azkyroth (@26): I read doublereed (@24) as meaning to say that, on reflection, xe didn’t know why xe was buying into the anti-pleasure framing, and that xe grokked the point of Greta’s post was that we all need to think harder about this shit (forgive me, doublereed, if I’ve misinterpreted you).

    Per Holmgren (@29): I think Greta was commenting on atheist culture as she experiences it… which is to say, mostly in the U.S. To be fair, I think this might really be a peculiarly American problem, since our culture has its most fundamental roots in a strain of Puritanism that Europe had already rejected before we were even a nation.

  31. 31
    Per Holmgren

    Bill (@30): You are probably right on the first point, as it of course would be quite hard to write from a perspective she has not experienced. But the the second, the problem of an excessively repressive view on sexuality is definitely not just an American problem. It is a problem that ties almost all highly religious countries together. You in the US have it good, just look at people in the Muslim world and large parts of Christian Africa. The suffering religion causes is quite mind-boggling, so it could definitely be worse.

    But to continue the example of Sweden (as I have a life of first-hand experience): It’s not a weird fluke that it is one of the most (the most in some polls) atheistic country, and also ranked number one in the world when it comes to gender equality, and also ranked around the same when it comes to gay-friendliness.

    I think Greta has a valid point. Adopting an atheistic view on life has real consequences on society, as can be shown by those countries which have such a culture. Women stop being regarded as the properties of men, notions of morality become tied to things such as suffering and happiness, not authority (meaning homosexuality cannot be considered a topic of morality at all), and all in all, everyone is better off.
    But that is not to say people will revert to wild beast and become fully hedonistic if they shed the shackles of religion.

  32. 32
    Bill Dauphin, avec fromage

    Per (@31):

    the problem of an excessively repressive view on sexuality is definitely not just an American problem.

    Forgive me; I didn’t mean to be making quite that sweeping a claim. I’m well aware that many cultures around the world are sexually repressive, and no small number are far more so than the U.S., and more so than Protestant/Puritan cultures generally.

    Instead, I was referring a particular strain of Puritan theology that lies at the very foundation of U.S. culture and was mostly rejected in Europe (indeed, you could argue that it came to be the foundation of our culture because it had been rejected by Europe), and that demonizes all pleasure (not just sex) and also valorizes toil, hardship, and suffering for its own sake. As one of my colleagues puts it, musing on her Puritan New England forebears, the rule is “first toil, then the grave.” This attitude affects not only our approach to sexuality, nor to physical pleasure more generally; it infects our whole culture and politics. For just one example, I think this is part of the reason American conservatives are so quick to criticize people on food stamps for buying any food that even hints of luxury: Helping you survive is one thing, but helping you have any kind of pleasure is definitely not on the table.

    Shorter me: I’m not claiming the U.S.’s relationship with pleasure is necessarily more fucked up than anyone else’s; just that it’s fucked up in its own peculiar way.

  33. 33
    hillaryrettig

    bell hooks:

    “The absence of a sustained focus on love in progressive circles arises from a collective failure to acknowledge the needs of the spirit and an overdetermined emphasis on material concerns. Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed. The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move toward freedom, to act in ways to liberate ourselves and others. That action is the testimony of love as the practice of freedom.”

  34. 34
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    hillaryrettig: What.

  35. 35
    Nude Allover

    I think the problem is we have been culturally repressed and denied our normal sexuality for so long and with such drastic penalties from ostracism to death, that we are conditioned to remain within the strictures of the old, false rules. Since most of our neighbors are still NOT free, we find letting go to still be a challenge.

  36. 36
    smhll

    Is it possible that some experience of the dismal-ness of anhedonia would tend to enhance the value one has for hedonism?

  37. 37
    Jake Hamby

    I’ll add my recommendation of Epicurean philosophy to Hiram and Stephen’s. There’s a really fascinating book by Stephen Greenblatt called The Swerve: How the World Became Modern which tells the story of how a rare copy of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura was discovered in a monastery in the middle ages by an Italian scholar named Poggio Bracciolini, who reintroduced it to European intellectuals, and perhaps helped to kick off the Renaissance by doing so.

    The book is a fascinating story about the life and times of Poggio and how he ended up traveling across Europe looking for old manuscripts that had been lost to scholars of his day, and why those manuscripts were mouldering in monasteries in the first place. Poggio was known for his excellent handwriting and worked his way up the Vatican hierarchy to become apostolic secretary to a controversial pope (Baldassarre Cossa, whom the Catholic Church regards as an antipope), and who was tried and imprisoned in a papal power struggle. That left Poggio without anything to do, so he went looking for manuscripts to copy.

    The reason the monasteries were full of manuscripts was to give the monks raw material to copy. The sick part is that the monks weren’t copying scrolls out of any sort of humanitarian or intellectual reasons, neither for themselves nor for the Church, but merely as a penance to pass the time in mindless and tedious labor as some sort of tribute to God. Monks were punished for speaking, for thinking out of turn, for deviating in any way from the rules and the work that was prescribed for them so as to stifle any pleasure or independent thought. So, basically, the opposite of Epicureanism. The book is a fascinating read and a great story about the beginnings of the Renaissance and how thoroughly the Christian church had worked to suppress anything from Greek or Roman thought that conflicted with their anti-pleasure beliefs.

  1. 38
    Why I’m An Assimilationist – Ozy Frantz's Blog

    [...] a common thread that runs through a lot of social justice movements– race, disability, even atheism– but I’m going to specifically be talking about it in a queer context, because [...]

  2. 39
    On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice » Greta Christina's Blog

    [...] Related post: Atheism and Sensuality [...]

Leave a Reply