Apr 15 2014

Some Thoughts on Beauty and Ownership

“At last, something beautiful you can truly own.”

jaguar xke in mad menThis is the fictional tagline that Sterling Cooper Draper Price comes up with for the Jaguar ad campaign in “Mad Men.” (It’s in the episode The Other Woman — warning, synopsis has spoilers. Yes, I’m re-watching old episodes, it’s getting me caught up on where we are in the new season.)

And it’s gotten me thinking: What does beauty mean?

So the idea behind this tagline, and the ad campaign, and indeed this entire episode, is that the Jaguar XKE is like a mistress: beautiful, sexy, desirable, impractical, temperamental, unpredictable. And the tagline is, “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” The implication being that you can’t really own beautiful women, and that many men feel this is a sad sad thing (one of the major themes of this episode) — but you can own a Jaguar XKE. You can get that sense of deep satisfaction from it — and you can keep it, and own it, and have that experience of beauty whenever you like.

But the thing is, as Michael Ginsberg himself says (the copywriter who comes up with the campaign and the tagline): It isn’t just people who you can’t own and keep. It isn’t just people who are elusive and changeable. Possessions are like that, too. Or at least, the experiences of pleasure we get from possession are like that. As Michael says when he’s pitching this idea to Don: Even very rich men, who already own many beautiful things, are still dissatisfied. The beautiful things they have aren’t enough. The Jaguar ad promises that this thing — finally, at long last, unlike all the other things — will satisfy their longing for the unattainable.

It’s a false promise, of course. And I started thinking about why that is.

Beauty is, literally, in the eye of the beholder. And by that, I don’t mean that it’s a matter of taste or opinion (although of course, that’s also true). I don’t mean that different people experience different things as more or less beautiful, or that duck-billed platypuses see each other as beautiful and see us as fugly. Well, what I mean is close to that.

I mean that the experience of beauty is literally in the eye, or the brain, of the beholder.

I mean that beauty is an experience.

And that means that it can’t be owned, or kept, or held onto.

Some objects or people are “more beautiful,” in that they’re more likely than others to evoke that experience in more people. But the beauty doesn’t really reside in the objects or the people. It resides in the mind and the heart and the body of the beholder. And trying to hold and own and keep this experience of beauty is actually what makes it slip through our fingers. Letting transitory experiences be what they are is what lets them sink in deeply and resonate throughout our lives. Struggling to keep them, to make them permanent, is what makes them slip away — and makes us miss the point.

megan-don-draper-mad-menIt’s one of the themes of this episode (and indeed of the entire freaking series). When we try to hold and own and keep the people in our lives who give us pleasure and satisfaction and a sense of beauty, we actually drive them away. And when we take them for granted, when we act as if they’re ours forever and we never have to do anything else to keep them around, we drive them away. It’s only by letting people be who they are, by not taking them for granted and respecting their right to make their own damn decisions, that we deepen our connections with them — and increase the chances that they’ll stick around. If you love something, set it free, and all that. Except that if it comes back, it still isn’t yours. It never was. We don’t own each other. We can’t.

blue suede shoesEven with objects, ownership often doesn’t work. Often, the experience of beauty is one of surprise. We tend to get inured to the beautiful things that are all around us. (I think this is one of the reasons I like buying new clothes and putting together new outfits: I like seeing myself in a new way, so I can more easily see myself as beautiful.) Part of the experience of beauty is the experience of the extraordinary — and when something is in our life every day, it becomes ordinary. We can find the extraordinary in the everyday, but it takes more work.

And you know how, if you’ve had an amazing vacation someplace, you often have this desire to try to re-create it, to go back to the same hotel and eat at the same restaurants and visit the same museums — but if you do, it isn’t the same? And if the place is amazing again, it’s because you did something different, or saw something you weren’t expecting? That.

We can certainly load the dice. We can own beautiful objects. We can make connections with beautiful people (beautiful in all senses of the word, not just physical). We can create beautiful experiences for ourselves — or experiences that are likely to be beautiful. We can work to make a life that is more likely to create the experience of beauty.

We can own beautiful things. But we can’t own beauty.

Apr 15 2014

“Witty, wise, helpful, and humane”: Phil Zuckerman’s Blurb for “Coming Out Atheist”

Coming Out Atheist cover 150“Witty, wise, helpful, and humane, this clear and engaging book is most timely. Coming Out Atheist is a great resource for the many Americans out there who have rejected religious faith and are moving towards embracing, acknowledging, and proclaiming their atheism.”
-Phil Zuckerman, Ph.D., author of Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion and Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment

Another nice blurb for Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. Thanks, Phil!

The book is being published on April 16, in all formats — print, ebook, and audiobook. Here’s ordering information for all three formats. Enjoy!

Apr 15 2014

Please Help Ed Brayton Fight a Lawsuit

It looks like Ed Brayton, of the Dispatches from the Culture Wars blog and co-founder of the Freethought Blogs network (and all-around great guy), is going to be sued by a white supremacist who doesn’t like it that Ed’s called him a white supremacist. Please help with his defense fund if you can. Even small amounts help — with these fundraisers, they really do add up. Thanks.

Apr 14 2014

“Doubt is Part of Faith” — No, It’s Not

“A sincere faith is often full of legitimate doubts.”

So said someone on my Facebook page the other day. I’ve heard this idea many times before, and you probably have too. If you Google the phrase “doubt is part of faith” you get 15,400 results — 93,600,000 if you don’t use the quotation marks. William Lane Craig has written that “You should expect that by growing into a mature faith, even though you are a Christian, doubt will come into play at some point.” Rabbi Mark Greenspan, in a piece titled “No Faith Without Doubt,” has written, “We sometimes forget that doubt is as much a part of religion as faith. In fact the two are brothers.” Lesley Hazleton, author of a biography of Mohammed, has said that “doubt is essential to faith” and has argued for “a new appreciation of doubt and questioning as the foundation of faith.” Etc., etc., etc.

And you know what?

It’s crap.

It’s not “doubt” if you already know what answer you’re going to get. It’s not “doubt” if you’re unwilling to come to any conclusion other than the one you started with. You are not “doubting” your faith if you’re looking for ways to hang onto it despite your questions and concerns — rather than sincerely questioning whether your faith has any basis in reality.

“Doubt” means uncertainty about the answer. If you’re loading your mental dice to come up with the same answer you started with, that’s not doubt.

I am quite sure that many believers have dark nights of the soul (or the soul-less, since I don’t think souls exist). I am quite sure that many believers have bad, bad feelings about their religions. And they should. But I really wish they wouldn’t call this “doubt.” It’s a misuse of the word: watered-down at best, total self-deluded bullshit at worst.

Doubt is important. Being willing to doubt our settled opinions is how we open our minds and move forward with our ideas. This religious pseudo-doubt defangs the entire idea, and sullies its good name.

Apr 14 2014

“Some of the most potent testimony:” Hector Avalos’s Blurb for “Coming Out Atheist”

Coming Out Atheist cover 150“Greta Christina knows that the philosophy of atheism is incomplete without practical and sensible advice about how to live in a world full of believers. Her fascinating life experience and astute observations of atheists, in or out of the closet, offers readers some of the most potent testimony for why coming out as an atheist will make a godless life better.”
-Hector Avalos, professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, author of The End of Biblical Studies and Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship

Another nice blurb for Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. Thanks, Hector!

The book is being published on April 16, in all formats — print, ebook, and audiobook. Here’s ordering information for all three formats. Enjoy!

Apr 13 2014

“A must read for every new atheist”: David Fitzgerald’s Blurb for “Coming Out Atheist”

Coming Out Atheist cover 150“Make the world a better place. Start living your life. Greta Christina shows you why and how (and how not) to escape the atheist closet. A must read for every new atheist and anyone who is considering becoming one.”
-David Fitzgerald, author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All and The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion Book One: The Mormons

Another nice blurb for Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. Thanks, David!

The book is being published on April 16, in all formats — print, ebook, and audiobook. Here’s ordering information for all three formats. Enjoy!

Apr 12 2014

“A guide for atheists and allies alike”: Lyz Liddell’s Blurb for “Coming Out Atheist”

Coming Out Atheist cover 150“Coming out is one of the most important decisions a person can make. Greta walks readers through that decision in a straightforward step by step process: if, when, how, to whom, and — perhaps most importantly — why. A guide for atheists and allies alike.”
-Lyz Liddell, Director of Campus Organizing, Secular Student Alliance

Another nice blurb for Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. Thanks, Lyz!

The book is being published on April 16, in all formats — print, ebook, and audiobook. Here’s ordering information for all three formats. Enjoy!

Apr 11 2014

So Why Did You Ask? Some Thoughts on Religion and Willful Ignorance

hands over earsWhy do religious believers ask questions, when they’re not interested in the answers?

A funny thing happened at my talk last Wednesday at Iowa State University. During the Q&A after the talk, an ardent religious believer asked me (paraphrasing here), “Why do you care so much about religion? If you’re an atheist, why do you spend so much of your life talking about something you don’t believe in? In fact, why do you do anything at all, ever, since you think that when you die you’ll just be nothing?” (There was more, but I didn’t hear all of it: he was rambling and repeating himself and getting ranty, and I soon shifted my focus from what he was asking to how I was going to get him to stop talking and let me answer the question. I finally just interrupted and said, “I’ll answer your question if you put the microphone down.”)

His question was a little off-topic, since that particular talk wasn’t a rant against religion. It was my talk on what the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement, and it was a whole lot of insider baseball: activism history, movement strategy, that sort of thing. (I’m actually surprised that this guy stayed for the entire talk: I think it’s a good talk, in fact it’s one of my favorites, but if you’re not involved in the atheist movement, I’d think it might be kind of boring.)

Anyway. I answered this guy’s question as best I could: explaining that I care about religion because I think it’s not only a mistaken idea, but one that does significantly more harm than good. I also mentioned that I had a book, Why Are You Atheists So Angry?, for sale at this very event, which explained in more detail why many atheists care about religion and work to oppose it. I then moved on to take a question from someone else — who stood up, spoke to my antagonist, and said, “I will buy you a copy of her book, if you agree to read it.”

And my antagonist said No. Even if given a free copy of my book, he would not read it.

And I said, “If you’re not interested in the answer to your question — why did you ask? Please don’t ask questions if you’re not willing to listen to the answers.”

Now, I’ll clarify here. I don’t think that every religious believer has an obligation to read my books about atheism. I don’t think they have an obligation to read any books about atheism. I hate it when believers insist that I have to read such-and-such religious text, or such-and-such book of sophisticated theology, before I can reject religion. As I’ve written before: At what point am I allowed to stop? I have read a considerable amount of religious theology and texts and arguments for religion, and it’s been a very, very, VERY long time since I’ve read an argument that I hadn’t heard before. At what point am I allowed to say that the likelihood of seeing a new argument is so vanishingly small that I can reasonably dismiss it? When do the goalposts stop moving? And besides, if the 356,287th argument for the existence of God is the real kicker, the one that will really convince me — then why didn’t believers make it their first one? (Thanks to arensb for that one.)

But this principle applies to believers, too. If they’ve already talked with some atheists, and read some writing about atheism, then I don’t think they’re obligated to read my books, or any other particular book, before they decide that they still believe. I think they have some other intellectual obligations — such as the obligation to state how their belief is falsifiable and what kind of evidence would convince them that they were mistaken. But given how annoyed I get when believers say, “Okay, you’ve read Aquinas… but have you read C.S. Lewis, or Alvin Plantinga, or Teilhard de Chardin?”, I’m not going to turn around and say, “Okay, you’ve read Dawkins… but have you read Hector Avalos, or Susan Jacoby, or me?”


If I were asking a specific question about religious belief, and someone told me, “That question is answered in such-and-such a book (or article, or blog post, or YouTube video, or juggling act), it explains it really well”? Then yes, I would bloody well read it. I certainly wouldn’t reject the very idea of reading it out hand. And I most certainly wouldn’t openly state, in a roomful of people, that I was not willing to read a book that answered the question I just asked.

I don’t feel an obligation to read every piece of sophisticated theology in the library before I reject religion. The question of “Are there any gods” has been answered to my satisfaction, and unless a seriously new argument or piece of evidence comes my way, I’m not feeling a compelling need to keep asking it. (And to answer the question of how I would know about a seriously new argument or piece of evidence for the supernatural if I’ve given up on reading them: I think that if a truly compelling argument or piece of evidence for God’s existence showed up, it would spread like wildfire. It would be impossible to ignore.) But if I had a specific question — like “How do Christians reconcile themselves to the Biblical acceptance of slavery?” or “What is the origin of the idea of karma?” — and someone said, “Here’s a place where you can find a good answer to that question,” I would bloody well not stick my fingers in my ears and run away screaming, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you!”

What’s that about?

Apr 11 2014

“Thoughtful and entertaining”: David Niose’s Blurb for “Coming Out Atheist”

Coming Out Atheist cover 150“Millions of Americans are discovering that life without religion and superstition can be rewarding, fulfilling, and joyful. Greta Christina has done that growing demographic a great service, with this thoughtful and entertaining book that will inform and inspire those who embrace personal secularity.”
-David Niose, author of Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans

Another nice blurb for Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. Thanks, David!

The book is being published on April 16, in all formats — print, ebook, and audiobook. Here’s ordering information for all three formats. Enjoy!

Apr 10 2014

“The ultimate handbook for coming out”: Darrel Ray’s Blurb for “Coming Out Atheist”

Coming Out Atheist cover 150“Greta Christina has written the ultimate handbook for coming out. I read this book with an eye for detail, since there are so many nuances in the process of coming out. Greta addresses each one of them with thoughtfulness and compassion. I actually think this book has something for every atheist, not just those coming out. Her insight, understanding, and knowledge mark a new path I have not seen in this kind of book before. As the Chairman of the Board of Recovering from Religion, this book is now on our list of ‘highly recommended’ for all our members and facilitators.”
-Darrel Ray, author of The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture and Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality

Another nice blurb for Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. Thanks, Darrel!

The book is being published on April 16, in all formats — print, ebook, and audiobook. Here’s ordering information for all three formats. Enjoy!

Older posts «

» Newer posts