I’m going to go out on a limb here. If we want to create and maintain a secular society that values pleasure? If we want to create and maintain a society that recognizes that this life is the only one we have, so we should experience it and enjoy it as richly as we can? If we want to create and maintain a society that understands that our bodies are all we have, and that values those bodies? If we want to create and maintain a society that that recognizes pleasure, not as the only part of life worth working towards, but as one part of that life, and an important one?
We need to fight for social justice.
Hear me out. At the Godless Perverts Social Club last night, we were talking about the mysterious appeal of religious asceticism, and why anyone would think the deliberate denial of pleasure was an awesome way to live. And several people pointed out that asceticism often rises as a reaction, not necessarily to a hedonistic and pleasure-based society, but to a society in which sensual pleasure is primarily available to a few rich and powerful people at the top.
One person pointed out that in a society with both (a) liberated sexual values AND (b) a great deal of social stratification, with a few wealthy and powerful people at the top and a whole passel of poor and powerless people at the bottom, it creates a recipe for sexual exploitation — which, obviously, isn’t going to make people very happy with those supposedly liberated sexual values. Someone else pointed out that if a society’s rich and powerful leaders are openly hedonistic, it creates a situation where more ascetic leaders will become very appealing: the hedonistic leaders will be seen as entirely in it for themselves and their own pleasures, while the ascetic leaders will be seen as more authentic, high-minded and self-sacrificing, seeking leadership purely for the greater good. (This perception will often be dead wrong, of course — there are plenty of selfish but non-hedonistic goodies to be gained from power and authority, and of course many supposedly ascetic leaders have gotten plenty of hedonistic goodies on the sly — but it’s still a very seductive image, and people will be fooled by it again and again and again.)
And of course, in a culture where most people are sick, miserable, exhausted with over-work, with no time or energy to pursue pleasure, with no resources to pursue pleasure, just generally ground down by life, and with little or no hope for anything better, a religion that promises bliss in the next life as a reward for sacrifice in this one will have tremendous appeal.
So it occurred to me: If we want to create and maintain a secular society that values pleasure, we need to fight for social justice. We need to fight for a world in which sensual pleasure is not just a privilege available to the 1% at the top who can afford the pleasures and aren’t working themselves to exhaustion merely to survive. We need to fight for a world in which sensual pleasure — good food, comfortable homes, sex education, reproductive control, art and entertainment, pleasant and beautiful public spaces, time to enjoy our bodies, physical health care so our bodies can be enjoyed, mental health care so enjoyment is possible — is available to everyone.
We should do this anyway, just because it’s right — because bodies are something we all have, and basic enjoyment of those bodies should not be a special privilege accorded to the lucky few. But we should also do it because it will be a whole lot more sustainable. A culture that values pleasure — not as the only value of course, but as an important one and one worth pursuing — and that makes pleasure available to pretty much everyone… that’s a culture with a good chance of lasting. (I’m thinking, as I so often do, of Phil Zuckerman’s research in Society without God, showing that societies with high rates of atheism tend be ones with high rates of stability, egalitarianism, access to basic social services, and general happiness.)
A culture that values pleasure, but only lets a few people have it, is not going to stick around.
Atheism and Sensuality