Oh, The Believer and the Skeptic Should be Friends…

OklahomaQuick question: Am I a total geek here? Will any other than me get the “Oklahoma” reference?

Ever since I wrote the “Transcendental Skeptic” piece on this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about the skeptic/spiritual believer question. Questions, I should say. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the question of how agnostics/atheists/skeptics and religious/spiritual believers can get along — and why, sometimes, we really can’t.

I have friends — extremely dear and close friends — who have religious or spiritual beliefs, in some cases strongly held ones. And this is not a problem, either for me or (as far as I know) for them. I don’t feel superior to these folks, and I don’t pity them. I don’t happen to agree with them — but so what? I don’t agree with a lot of people about a lot of things. I don’t even agree with myself all the time. Not agreeing with someone doesn’t mean I can’t connect with them.

In a few cases I even think they’re flat-out mistaken — but again, so what? I’m sure people in my life think I’m flat-out mistaken, about this topic or any number of others. And I’m sure that, in some cases, they’re right. I would be shocked beyond measure to find that I wasn’t mistaken about anything. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter that much. It doesn’t feel like an insurmountable barrier, or even like much of a barrier at all.

Berlin_wallBut why is that? I mean, at least on the surface, the skeptical and the spiritual outlook would seem to represent seriously different values, fundamentally different ways of looking at the universe and our place in it — a difference that would seem to be irrevocable.

And yet, I don’t think it is. Not to me, anyway. Not always.


And why is it that sometimes the difference really is insurmountable?

MlkPart of it, for me, is that I care more about what people do than what they think. A good example is a friend of mine, whose Christianity is a big part of what drives her to do progressive grass-roots political work. A whole hell of a lot more work than I do, I feel compelled to point out. And of course, you have all the obvious examples from history: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, the Quakers in the underground railroad, etc. If people’s faith inspires them to do good in the world — and if their idea of “good” resonates with mine — then I don’t care very much why they do it, as long as they’re not doing it as part of a sinister plan for indoctrination or world domination or something.

There’s something else, though. Something both less utilitarian and more fundamental, something that does have to do with values and motivations.

Here’s what it is. I think there’s a profound difference between having a religious or spiritual faith that you hold despite there not being substantial evidence supporting it — and having a religious or spiritual faith that you hold despite the existence of substantial evidence that actually contradicts it.

And the former is something I can strongly identify with — while the latter is something that I just can’t.

MicroscopeSee, science is different from life. In science, you don’t advocate theories that you don’t have any evidence for — or at least, you try like hell not to. In science, substantial evidence that’s carefully gathered, rigorously and double-blind tested, peer-reviewed, independently replicated, all that good stuff… that’s the name of the game. That’s what makes science special and cool: the fact that it takes the time — immense amounts of time, usually — to test its hunches thoroughly and see if they’re right. It often starts with hunches, with imagination and irrational inspirations, but it doesn’t rely on them.

But in life, you do that all the time. You have to. In life, you have to make decisions based on insufficient evidence, or even no evidence at all except your gut feeling. Big decisions, even. Especially if you’re going to have any kind of interesting and fulfilling life. You have to take risks and chances; you have to make leaps of faith.

WeddingI do, anyway. And while those leaps and chances have sometimes been disastrously wrong — the first several years of my romantic life leap to mind — much more often than not they’ve been right, and they’ve gotten more right as I’ve gotten older. The impulse to pick my college major based on two weeks of classes with an inspiring teacher; the impulse to quit a job I loathed despite having no other job prospects lined up; the impulse to call Ingrid ten days after we started going out to tell her that I loved her… I could go on for pages about life-changing decisions I’ve made, and important conclusions I’ve come to, based on little or no evidence other than a moment of calm, powerful clarity in which some inner voice spoke with confidence and certainty.

So the fact that some people have decided that Yes there is a God of some sort, or Yes there is an immortal soul of some sort, or Yes there is some sort of metaphysical energy permeating the physical world, despite not having solid evidence to support that hunch… that’s something I can identify with. I don’t agree with them about that particular hunch, but the fact that they’re making major life decisions based on a hunch isn’t alien to me.

But hanging on to a religious or spiritual belief despite actual compelling evidence that contradicts it — that’s profoundly different.

Jerry_falwellTo hold on to a belief — religious or otherwise — that flies in the face of reality speaks of a special sort of arrogance. It says that you think the inside of your head is more interesting, more important, even more real, than the vast, mysterious, unimaginably complex immensity of reality itself. It’s an approach to life that puts your own opinions and beliefs on one side of a scale, and the universe on the other side — and sees your own opinions and beliefs as carrying the greater weight. (Creationism is the classic example, of course, although there are examples from the groovy alternative-spirituality end of the faith spectrum as well.)

And this is just baffling to me. I mean, even if you do believe in a God who created the universe, wouldn’t that make you respect and revere that universe more, and want to understand exactly what it is and how it works, as clearly as you could? Wouldn’t you think that God knew what He/She was doing — and when faced with hard evidence of how His/Her creation works, wouldn’t your religious humility and awe force you to revise your view of the world to better reflect His/Hers?

Faith that’s unsupported one way or the other by reality is one thing. Faith that flat-out denies reality is something else entirely. And it’s that kind of faith that reflects an approach to life that I find fundamentally and insurmountably different from mine.

It’s not that I can’t identify with it at all. The tendency to ignore reality when it contradicts your beliefs is probably a universal human trait, and it’s certainly something I’ve done more than once in my life, and will almost certainly do again.

But it’s not the foundation of my belief system. And I don’t think I’m right to do it. In fact, when I am doing it, I almost always feel a squirming in my belly, and an awkward foot-shuffling in my head, that tell me I’m being a jerk. And most of the time, after a certain amount of wrestling between my conscience and my opinionated stubbornness, I eventually let go of my old belief, and either revise it or abandon it to let the new evidence in.

Quakers_support_gay_marriageAnd this willingness to revise your beliefs is key. The spiritual people I feel connected with — the ones whose beliefs don’t actually contradict real-world evidence, even though they’re not supported by it — are flexible about those beliefs, and willing to modify them as their experience grows. They’re willing to acknowledge that their faith is just that — faith, not objective truth — and they’re willing to admit that they might be mistaken. “To turn and to turn, it will be our delight/Till by turning, turning, we come ’round right,” and all that. And as a result, they’re accepting and supportive of people with different spiritual beliefs — and of people with no spiritual beliefs at all.

Which brings me back around to my first point — namely, the fact that I care more about how people act than how they think. See, the reality-deniers don’t just think like close-minded assholes. They act like close-minded assholes. The kind of faith — religious or otherwise — that denies reality is what makes the Catholic Church deal with its child-molesting clergy crisis by drumming out gay priests… when the evidence shows that most child molesters are straight, and that gay people overwhelmingly do not molest children. It’s the kind of faith that makes people oppose sex education in schools because they believe it’ll make kids have sex earlier… when the evidence shows the exact opposite. (You knew I’d get sex in here somehow, didn’t you?) It’s the kind of faith that makes the Bush administration pursue a military/foreign policy that runs counter to the evidence and counsel provided by their own military and intelligence advisors, and continue to pursue it in the face of overwhelming evidence that it’s not working… because that evidence contradicts their own unshakable belief in their own righteousness.

BubbleIt’s the faith of life in the bubble.

And that is the insurmountable obstacle, the fundamental difference in values. To some extent, we all live in bubbles, the solipsistic bubbles of our own consciousness and experience. We all frame our observations and experiences with our beliefs and values. We all give more weight to facts that support our opinions, and less weight to facts that contradict it. But when someone consistently responds to solid real-world evidence that contradicts their beliefs by denying the evidence and clinging harder to their belief — and when they firmly believe that this is the right and moral thing to do — that represents a way of looking at the universe and your place in it that I simply can’t be tolerant of. And I don’t think I should be.

But that’s not a difference of spiritual versus skeptical. There are true-believer reality-deniers in the secular world, and flexible, open-minded people in the spiritual one. So when I find myself getting enraged at radical religious extremists — around the world and of every stripe, Christian and Muslim and Jewish and New Age and everything — who are trying to hammer a huge, messy world into a tiny square hole, I remind myself that this isn’t religious intolerance. It’s not the religion I’m intolerant of. It’s the rejection of reality — scientific, political, or simply human.

White House Caught Unaware By Sun Rising In the East


(AP) — The White House and Congress, caught unaware by Fidel Castro’s illness, prepared Wednesday for a possible showdown in Cuba as lawmakers drafted legislation that would pay millions of dollars to dissidents who fight for democratic change.


The handover was a surprise to the White House and Congress, one senator said.


“The president’s comment was that everybody was caught by surprise, and we’ll have to wait and see” what U.S. action is necessary, said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who discussed the developments with President Bush on Tuesday.


I don’t even want to talk about this legislation. I just want to say this: The Bush administration didn’t know that Fidel Castro was 79 years old, and therefore likely to get seriously ill? They weren’t prepared for this possibility, and were caught by surprise when it happened? They didn’t have a plan — even a cockamamie one — for what to do in the event that Castro got sick or died?

We are so completely fucked. I don’t even want to think about it.


Athlete_icon_femaleI don’t normally use this blog to update the world on my progress at the gym, as it’s hard for me to imagine anything more boring to anyone other than my immediate circle of friends. But yesterday for the first time I bench-pressed 60 pounds, and I just had to brag about it.

Woo-hoo! I can bench-press 60 pounds! Hooray for me!

It may not seem like that much — God knows there are plenty of people at the gym doing twice that and more. But considering that I started at 30 — and that was a challenge — I’m feeling pretty gosh-darned proud of myself.

Thanks to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for helping to get me over the hump. Best bench-pressing music ever. And thanks to Ingrid for convincing me to start going to the gym in the first place. Who knew that lifting weights would actually be fun?

Mutant Sci-fi Dahlias: The 2006 Christian Dior Paris Runway Show




Dior2You know, I get that high fashion — Paris runway-show high fashion in particular — is not about making clothes that people will wear. It’s an art form that works in textiles and is displayed on human models… but other than that, it bears no real relation to what people might wear so they’ll look good and won’t be naked. And it’s not supposed to. It’s an art form. I get that. That’s fine.

But good Lord and butter.

Dior3There’s a slideshow of the Christian Dior 2006 Paris runway show that is rendering me nearly speechless in both wonder and hilarity. The outfits look like ideas that the costume designer for Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace considered and then rejected as being too over-the-top. They look like what the original Star Trek series was going for with their costume design and only failed to achieve because of their low budget. I have a friend who’s planning to attend the WorldCon sci-fic convention Masquerade in a homemade knockoff of these designs… which I think pretty much says it all.

Dior4I’m particularly struck by how unhappy the models look. Of course, runway models always look unhappy. But in the photos of this show’s most extreme excesses, they don’t just look bored and impassive and hungry like they always do. They look miserable. They look actively embarrassed to be there. They look like they wish they were anywhere else in the world. Which, considering that they’re on the runway of the Paris show exhibiting the Christian Dior collection and are therefore pretty much at the pinnacle of their career, is a little odd when you think about it.

Dior5_1What I really like about the slideshow is the ebb and flow of it. The wild flights of absurdity periodically settle down into stretches of something resembling beauty and grace, with clothes that I can actually almost imagine wearing to a fancy party, or to something other than the Saint Stupid’s Day parade, anyway. If I were six feet tall and a hundred pounds, that is.

Dior6But then it blossoms again, like a dahlia contaminated by nuclear waste that’s been dormant through the winter, and is now blooming dementedly and attempting to pollinate with peacocks and landscaping equipment. And you remember: Oh, yeah. This guy is insane.

I actually sort of love it.

BTW, thanks to Ruth for pointing this… thing out to me. Good luck with the costume at the Con, and be sure to take pictures!

The Erotic Illuminati!

Bay_guardianYippee! According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian Best of the Bay 2006 issue, I am part of San Francisco’s “erotic illuminati.” It’s a little mention in the Best Parliament of Perverts award they gave to Femina Potens Gallery for their “Sizzle Erotic Open Mic” (which they totally deserve, btw). And I quote:

“In the past 18 months, Sizzle has already featured many of the city’s erotic illuminati, from Carol Queen to Greta Christina… Come prepared for skin-tingling sexuality, but also for breathtaking insights.”

I now feel strangely compelled to write occultist conspiracy-theory porn about the number 23. Anyway, it’s a nice little plug, so thanks to the Guardian for thinking of me. I’ll do my best to live up to the honor, and continue to erotically illuminate.

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.

Greta Christina

Dream diary, 7/22/06: Art boots

BootsI dreamed that SF MOMA (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) had a shoe store next to the museum. Ingrid and I had just been to the museum exhibit with the enormous interactive gyroscopic space-chair by Matthew Barney, and we stopped to look at the MOMA shoe store’s window display. There was an exhibit/sale on psychedelic boots, with two gorgeous pairs on a special display stand in the center of the store. I figured they’d be much too expensive — probably hundreds of dollars or even thousands — but I went in anyway just to check, and it turned out they were on super-discounted sale for less than a hundred bucks each, so I tried them on. The pair I liked best — the low-heeled purple and blue sequined ankle boots — didn’t fit, but the knee-high boots with the orange swirls and the blocky ’70s-style high heels fit perfectly, and looked amazing. I was very excited, since most tall boots don’t fit over my calves, but I never ever wear high heels, and I was debating whether I should buy them when the dream ended. I woke up thinking, “Of course you should buy the damn boots!”

P.S. The boots in the picture don’t actually look that much like the boots in the dream. They were the best I could find in a Google image search under “psychedelic” + “boots.”

P.P.S. The Matthew Barney exhibit at SF MOMA didn’t actually have an enormous interactive gyroscopic space-chair. Too bad. It would have been a lot more interesting if it did.

Why I Like the Loud Family

Interbabe_concernThere’s this Loud Family song that’s been stuck in my head off and on for weeks now. It’s called “Not Expecting Both Contempo and Classique,” and it starts thus:

Admiring paper on my wall
How many really take the time?
There may not seem that much creative latitude
But that’s the challenge of design

The curves intuitively know
Which aspects of nouveau to save
Without succumbing to the full devouring will
Of Aubrey Beardsley in his grave

I’m not expecting that I’ll end up with you just because I need to…

Now. Compare this to the song “Flowers On the Wall” by the Statler Brothers (which I assume the Loud Family song is referencing):

Counting flowers on the wall
That don’t bother me at all…

You may notice the main difference between the two songs. The Statler Brothers dispatch with the “staring at the wall” experience in two lines — while the Loud Family spends an entire two verses exploring it. It’s not ’til the chorus that they even touch on the lonely-sad-love-song stuff.

Why do I like this?

SalomeI like this for a couple of reasons. And it’s not just the fact that they worked Aubrey Beardsley into a pop song. I like it because it actually conveys the experience it’s referring to, instead of just referring to it. I mean, whenever I’m staring at the wallpaper in a blue funk, I’m not just staring blankly — I have long, elaborate thought processes about the wallpaper pattern. Mine tend not to be reflections on design and design history — they tend instead to focus on the details of the geometric patterns, with obsessive-compulsive-ish ruminations about how well the panels of paper do or don’t join up. But I do get completely lost in morbidly detailed thoughts about the actual wallpaper itself. And by spending two entire verses closely examining the experience of staring at wallpaper — by “really taking the time” — that’s what these verses get across.

Perhaps more importantly, I like how non-generic it is. So many pop songs — especially pop songs about love — try to connect with the audience by making their lyrics as general and lowest-common-denominator as possible. “I’m in love and I’m happy,” “He/she doesn’t love me and I’m sad.” Everyone knows how that feels, right?

FeelingsBut I don’t think that works. One of the great paradoxes of art is that you often make a better connection with your audience by making your detail more specific rather than less. Detail is one of the best ways to make an experience seem more vivid, more real. Even if the audience can’t identify with those specific details, the details make it easier to feel what the artist is feeling — and to find the similar feeling in yourself. When lyrics are generic, of course you can identify with them — but the connection is shallow, and you forget about it five minutes later. (Obviously you can go too far in the other direction with self-absorbed navel-gazing… but even that’s usually more interesting than “My boyfriend left me and I’m sad.”)

Plants_and_birdsAlso, the Loud Family just rocks. They’re one of those rare pop bands that can walk the slender balance beam between smart art and fun accessibility: between music you can listen to closely with serious attention and deep satisfaction, and music you can happily bench-press to when it comes up on your shuffle at the gym. If you haven’t already, check them out.

North Korea, and Reason 8,624 that the War on Iraq was a Bad Idea

Kimjongil_1I’m not a 100% hardcore pacifist. I’m pretty close to it, but I’m not one. I do think there are times — not bloody many, but some — when military action is a necessary evil.

And I think that now, or soon, might just possibly be one of those times. A mentally ill, megalomaniacal dictator has been firing nuclear missiles into the Sea of Japan, with the likely intent of testing whether they can hit California. I think military action should, at the very least, be an option. It should be something we can consider. It should be a card on the table.

But it’s not.

BurningflagThanks to the war on Iraq — which we had no good reason for getting into and which has no end in sight — we have (a) no military resources, and (b) no international credibility. Our military is stretched so thin it’s accepting white supremacists to fill out its ranks. And in the field of international diplomacy and conflict, we have all the credibility and moral high ground of Tony Soprano. If a situation arises in which we do, God forbid, need the army — we are hosed. We are fucked with a chainsaw.

WiggumI’m not saying the U.S. should unilaterally attack or invade North Korea. The U.S. should not be the world’s policeman. This was always one of my main arguments against the war on Iraq in the first place. The U.S. should not be the world’s policeman — for the simple reason that we suck at it. As the world’s policeman, we are both corrupt and staggeringly incompetent. Our record as the world’s policeman is comparable to that of Chief Wiggum.

But if there’s an international consensus that military action is necessary — in North Korea or anywhere else on this increasingly volatile planet — we should be able to participate.

And we can’t. We expended our resources — and our respectability — to unseat a dictator who had weapons of mass destruction a decade ago, and now we have nothing left to unseat a dictator who not only has nukes, but is actually threatening to use them.

And North Korea knows it. Every megalomaniacal nutcase dictator on the planet knows it.

So this is why you don’t start pointless, unnecessary wars. It’s not just for all the obvious reasons, the misery and suffering and death and evil and children with their limbs blown off. It’s because you then don’t have the option of waging war when it isn’t pointless, when it might just possibly be necessary.

Oh, but I forgot. The war on Iraq isn’t pointless.

Oil_wellIraq has oil. And North Korea doesn’t.

Lucky for North Korea.

Dream diary, 7/8/06: Sick dolphin

Dolphin_1I dreamed that my friend and upstairs neighbor Laura had two pet dolphins in a swimming pool in our backyard, one of which was very sick. We could tell it was sick because it was filling up with gas and gradually blowing up like a large balloon. We (me, Laura, Ingrid, and the other people who live in the building) spent the rest of the dream trying to find either a vet or a marine biologist who was open on a weekend.