Tapestry Theory, Sam Harris, and Defining the Self

Who am I? Well, as far as I know, my name is Nick Alimonos. I am a father, a husband, and a writer. Admittedly, on occasion, I also sell pizza. But do these qualities define me? If you take them away, do I become someone else? Or do I have a soul, a deeper part of me, some immaterial and eternal essence living behind my eyes, somewhere in my body? In other words, what defines the “self” and does it even exist? This fundamental question has puzzled mankind since time immemorial. It has been the subject of debate within religious, philosophical, and scientific circles.

Philosophy has been hijacked, or perhaps “won-over” is a more accurate term, by the materialists. Thanks to advances in science, and new technologies that enable us to peer into the world at the subatomic level, it is commonly accepted that physical matter is all there is. But the problem remains of how to make sense of this new information. As always, there is a danger of “leaps of logic,” even when based on evidence. I recently came across an interesting YouTube video, part of a series called the Asimov Debates, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, where he and other astrophysicists were discussing the birth of the universe “from nothing.” Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing, was on the panel, and he was arguing in favor of truly empty space, or absolute “nothing,” from which came the Big Bang. The other physicists, however, were not so convinced. “What about subatomic particles in a vacuum?” “What about gravity waves?” “What about the fabric of time-space itself?” Nope, said Krauss, those do not count. As a student of philosophy, I found this exchange utterly baffling. It’s not as if these scientists didn’t all have access to the same data. But the debate had nothing to do with well defined concepts, like the size and shape of the Earth, and everything to do with vague ideas like “nothingness.” Without realizing it, these astrophysicists had stumbled into the realm of philosophy, where evidence has less currency, and people like Krauss are left making silly statements hearkening to the days of Descartes, Kant and Heidegger. I personally think (in my very unprofessional opinion) that it would be more accurate to say, “absolute nothing does not exist.” But the nature of the universe isn’t what this post is about. Instead, I wish to address a different kind of nothing.

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In his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris posits “there is no such thing as the self.” What you call “I” or “me” is simply an illusion. Now, it is no surprise that Harris has spent a great many years abroad studying and meditating with mystics and yogis, and was once a practicing Buddhist. Most of his ideas regarding the self originate from the Far East. He even admits, offhandedly, that his wife teaches meditation to children. So, right from the start, there is evidence of bias. Though he often cites scientific research, it is usually taken out of context, things done by other scientists in other fields, and is typically anecdotal. As far as I can tell, Harris is never hindered by the rigors of experimentation. There is no double-blind testing, no chance for contrasting evidence to emerge. He continuously states how, through meditation, his beliefs become self-evident (like finding the blind spot of your eye), but how does this experience differ from Christian scientist and head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, who claims to have found God in a frozen waterfall? Waking Up feels a lot like a Buddhist-apologetic. From the very beginning, I had problems with his methodology. Science does not formulate a theory, then go in search of evidence to support it. This is how Intelligent Design got started. But while I’d never put Harris in a camp with Creationists (he’s much too smart for that), it’s tempting to do so, when one considers that the premise of his book was first imagined five centuries before Christ. 

Sam Harris offers numerous fact based statements to support his argument, but every time he does so, I am reminded of Krauss and the semantic problem of “nothing.” Harris writes, and I paraphrase: there is nothing in the brain where anything like a soul could be located; the brain can be split in half, and each half will then become its own identity; there are people who, due to some damage of the brain, are convinced one of their limbs does not belong to them; everything we do or do not do is based on a chemical reaction (again, in the brain) and these chemical reactions happen before we are consciously aware of them. All of these examples, you’ll notice, involve the brain, which is no surprise, considering that Harris is a neuroscientist. But again, I feel this makes for a biased viewpoint, and a narrow one at that. None of this convinces me that “I” is an illusion. Are you convinced? Even a little? Well, Harris argues this is difficult to realize, at first, that you may need years of meditation, and careful instruction by a learned teacher. Does this sound familiar? Scientology makes a very similar claim. If you “study” anything long enough, you can be made to “realize” it. This is what is called confirmation bias, and Harris has written whole books on the subject, so I am stupefied by his inability to “know thyself.”

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Imagine your best friend comes to your house and says to you, “Hey, I do not believe you own a car. In fact, your belief in your car is simply an illusion.” To that, you might say, “You must be crazy! Look! Just look in my driveway. My Volkswagen Beetle is sitting right there.” But then, your friend retorts, “Ah, but you’ve never looked closely, have you?” at which point he proceeds to take your car apart, piece by piece, removing the engine, the tires, the doors, everything. After working all night, every single component is laid out in front of you. It no longer resembles a car in any way. Now, looking smugly, your friend remarks, “Where is your car? You see, there is no car. There was never any car.” At this point, you’d probably want to punch him. But this is what happens in science. Interestingly, philosophers have been tackling this same problem of identity for thousands of years. In the first century, Plutarch conceived of a thought experiment, The Ship of Theseus, where each plank of a ship is removed and replaced, one by one. The same is done for the sails, the oars, the tiller, and every other part, until nothing of the original ship remains. At what point, Plutarch asks, does the ship become new?

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The Large Hadron Collider, Switzerland

It is, perhaps, the nature of scientific inquiry to dissect things, and sometimes to destroy things, to better understand how they work. The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, arguably the largest scientific experiment in history, works by smashing atoms together at nearly the speed of light, breaking them into their constituent parts. This has given us great new insights into how the world works, like the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, which is responsible for giving things mass. Problems arise, however, when scientists cannot see the forest from the trees, or the forest from the leaves. There is always a risk of misinterpreting the world at the macro-scale, and failing to assign proper meaning to the data. Case in point: particle physicists claim, “almost all matter is empty space.” This is in reference to the distances (at the quantum level) between individual atoms, and the gap within the atom between the nucleus and its electron, which is (comparatively) great. But calling an iron skillet “mostly empty space” is meaningless, because everyday experience tells us skillets are heavy, and that we cannot pass our hands through them. Now, if we could shrink like Ant-Man, and look between the atoms, things might appear differently. Essentially, what is “empty” at the quantum level is “not so empty” at the macro-level. When I consider my brain, I do not think of it at the level of the neuron. I know there is no single location where I am defined, or where my soul resides. There isn’t a lobe marked, “Nick Alimonos.” But this isn’t to say that I do not have a self. To get a true understanding of what something is, you have to look at the whole picture. This is what I call Tapestry Theory.

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Consider this: you are visiting a museum and come across Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night. Right away, you recognize a picture of the night sky. However, looking much more closely, what at first seemed like a starry night becomes swirls of blues and violets and yellows. In fact, the closer you look, the less you are able to identify what you are seeing. If you are someone like Sam Harris, you might wonder where the painting went, or ask whether there was any painting to begin with. There is no marker in the pigment, or in the texture of the canvas, that defines the painting, or what it might look like at the macro-level. If we were to break it apart into its constituent atoms, scientists could study each atom under a microscope, using the most advanced computers, and never, ever complete the entire picture. Starry, Starry Night can only exist when looked at as a whole. Harris might call this an illusion, and in a way, it is. But it’s an illusion that is real.

Taking this macro-level approach, how do I define myself? Am I the entirety of my brain? No. I have always hated sports, because I have never been athletic. Put me in the body of Michael Jordan, however, and I might find basketball a little more enjoyable, even if I lacked his lifetime of experience. Does identity, then, equal brain + body? Again, no. Using my sports analogy, I might have found basketball more enjoyable had my teammates not been able to run circles around me. Even still, we need to move further out if we are to get a real sense of who we are as individuals. We have to consider not only the parts that make up our bodies, not only the people we interact with, but the environment we live in and the time and space we move through. All of these things together define us.

As a neuroscientist, it is only fitting that Sam Harris look to the brain to understand identity. I, on the other hand, write fiction. When I think upon matters of identity, I think about characters. What defines a character? For me, it has everything to do with their place in a story. In my novel, Ages of Aenya, Xandr is born in the mountains of Ilmarinen, is mentored by QuasiI, and at fourteen is forced from his home to wander the swamps, before being called to Hedonia, where he meets the woman he loves, Thelana. These events make up Xandr’s life, and consequently, his character. In the same way, who we are depends on where we have lived, what we have done, and the people who play supporting roles in our story. Without these outside factors, identity could not exist.

Imagine this (albeit horrible) scenario: a scientist culls stem cells from a zygote to produce an infant brain. But this brain is entirely isolated, left in a jar with only fluids to keep it functioning. Utterly divorced from stimuli, the brain does not process sound, sight, smell, or sensory input of any kind. While both human and alive, such an organ could not become aware of itself, and would thus have no concept of self. Sam Harris gives a similar but contrasting example, of someone with “soap opera amnesia”—who remembers nothing of who he is. Despite his absence of memory, the amnesiac still has a sense of self. He still says, “I do not remember anything.” But Harris stops there, telling only half the story. If you were to say to this man, “Well, if you don’t remember who you are, it doesn’t matter; self is an illusion anyway,” the amnesiac would likely get very annoyed. He would have a strong desire to learn who he used to be, knowing that more than likely, he had a life (a story), perhaps a wife and kids who are missing him. In other words, he would be seeking his sense of self. If self were an illusion, why would he bother?

While it is true that our sense of self can be transitory (we are rarely the same people we were a decade, a year, or even a day ago) this fact does not invalidate our identities. For one thing, our past selves continue to exist in space-time. Whoever you become later in life does not change the fact of your childhood, and your childhood continues to affect your identity, whether you can remember it or not. Even someone who has suffered from a stroke, who loses all memory of their past (I knew someone like this) is still defined by their past, because of the interactions they’ve had with other people and with their environment. My aunt, Tessia, is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and no longer remembers who she is. But this does not mean she ceases to be Tessia. The life she lived still happened, and her family (like my Mom) continues to recognize her.

For Sam Harris, rejecting the self also means rejecting any possibility of a soul. In his mind, there is no eternal, immutable inner-substance that makes us what we are, or which persists beyond death. So far, we are in agreement. Nothing in the universe is permanent. But it is a leap in logic to suggest that impermanence and mutability necessitate illusion. If this were the case, everything would be illusion. The self, like matter, can even be transformed from one form into another, but that still doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Consider the Twilight Zone scenario. Imagine that one day, you wake up on a rice farm in China. A strange woman calls you by a name you do not recognize, and two kids you’ve never seen start jumping excitedly onto your bed. As the days go by, you slowly come to realize that the woman is your wife, and that her kids believe you are their father. For weeks, you might try to convince them otherwise, but everywhere you go, people take you for a Chinese rice farmer. Even when you look into the mirror, you see a face you do not recognize. Given no option to return to your previous life, you would eventually accept your new identity. You might even be convinced that you were crazy to have believed differently. A student of Sam Harris might read this story and say aha! this proves identity is an illusion, but it doesn’t. It only demonstrates how social and environmental interactions define who we are. Changing these aspects of our lives, however, does not make identity any less substantial than changing your clothes makes your laundry insubstantial. Perhaps what Harris means by identity and illusion, and what I take it to mean, greatly differ. Typically speaking, an illusion is a trick, something false, not to be trusted. And to say that the self is false is to greatly diminish it.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson once wrote, “Science is true whether you believe in it or not.” This is one of my favorite quotes, as it beautifully illustrates the core quality of science. Barring new evidence, accepted scientific theories are irrefutable. In religion, people murder each other, sometimes for millennia, over interpretation of scripture. But no genuine scientist can deny the Heliocentric model of the Solar System, or the basics of evolution. Sam Harris’ theories in Waking Up, by comparison, more closely resemble pseudoscience, metaphysics, philosophy and religion (take your pick). While data can be cited to support his claims, particularly regarding meditation and its effect on the brain, the data is selective, and does not take into account other religious practices, like prayer, which has also been shown to have a positive influence. At any rate, there may never be a way to prove, definitively, whether the self is an illusion or something more, as these terms themselves are indefinite.

Comparing meditation to religious ritual is not necessarily a bad thing, however, and if we had to choose from religions, Buddhism is the one I’d go with. Like the Buddha, Sam Harris wants to save mankind from suffering, by helping us to realize the illusory aspect of the self. Without self, we can overcome the selfishness that stands in the way of compassion. Now, I am a strong advocate of compassion. I find that this is what we are most lacking in the world, but I do not believe we need to surrender our sense of self to do it, and even if we could, I do not imagine Western culture could ever be made to accept it. Europeans and Americans have long celebrated individuality. As someone of Greek descent, I have taken to heart the philosophy of Socrates, who said, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” so that, rather than abolish thought, I try to be more thoughtful and sincere about my life. The solution to suffering, I believe, is not an outright rejection of the self, but an understanding that what we define as “self” is inseparable from the world and the people in it.

 

Thelana: Feminist Icon?

Thelana: The Nude Heroine

I can already hear the detractors, the angry feminists calling me out as a sexist. Their argument, I imagine, will go something like this,

Thelana is the lead heroine in Nick Alimonos’ fantasy epic, “Ages of Aenya,” and she has everything we love to see in a female character: strength, intelligence, and she can dish out punishment good as her male companion. She even passes the Bechdel test! So why am I up in arms about Thelana? Well, when it comes to hyper-sexualizing women, this author’s hit rock bottom. We’re not talking chainmail bikinis or skintight tights here either, because with this super hero, there is no costume. You read that right. She is utterly, unapologetically, naked. If “Aenya” was some kind of erotica, I might give it a pass. But no, this is serious fantasy, straight out of Westeros and Middle Earth. So, as a woman reader, I am left scratching my head, wanting to scream, ‘Put some clothes on for god’s sake!’ The author even has the audacity to call himself a feminist. He defends himself by pointing out, “Hey, look, the guy is naked too!” But this critic isn’t fooled. Thelana exists to tickle the author’s fancy and titillate male (immature) readers.

—Angryfeminist.com

While I have yet to find an angry mob outside my office door, I suspect, as Thelana grows in popularity, that it’s only a matter of time. The thing is, feminists have a lot to be angry about. We still live in a largely male dominated society. We have yet to see a female president (go Hillary!), and if we’re lucky, we might finally have a woman featured on paper currency, the $10 bill. But women have made huge strides toward equality in this country. Most Americans agree that a woman deserves to vote, to decide what they can do with their bodies, and to get paid the same rate for the same amount of work. Modern sexism is much more subtle, and in raising two daughters, I see it all the time. The hero in any video game/book/TV show/movie is almost always male. When the woman does take center stage, they are more often treated as eye candy. The message this sends is clear: 1) Women are of lesser importance  and  2) A woman’s most important attribute is beauty.

To contrast this message, I tell my kids what I would if I had boys, “#1 thing in life is knowledge and compassion.” Being a father to two awesome girls, fairness and equality matter a lot to me. I want them to grow up feeling invincible, like they could go to Mars if they wanted. I direct them to strong heroines like Lisa Simpson and Hermione Granger. When it comes to my own writing, I am always conscious of inequality, as I would hate to contribute to the problem. Unfortunately, Thelana draws out the sexists like roadkill attracting flies. Most guys never bother to look beyond her bare skin, to read the accompanying story that defines her character. On DeviantArt, illustrations of Thelana are lost amid countless soft core images, most of which are devoid of any life or personality. All this can be remedied by simply giving her something to wear, leather armor perhaps, or the bare minimum loin cloth, but here I part ways with many feminists, because we should never define a woman by the clothes she is wearing or not wearing; and more to the point, we should not make women responsible for the way men treat them.

A girl in a mini-skirt is not “asking for it,” and she certainly isn’t looking to be raped. This centuries’ old taboo, regarding females and clothing, goes hand in hand with sexism, and absolves men of any wrong-doing. False modesty and shame is imposed upon women by the world’s worst sex offenders, from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan. Nudity, in and of itself, is neither pro nor anti women. A nude portrait can be liberating and empowering, or it can be humiliating and degrading. Like sexual consent, choice is everything. A woman stripped of her clothes is a victim. A stripper who loves what she does is not. Either way, it is the men typically calling the shots, the men who produce porn, watch porn, and, paradoxically, create the society in which women who engage in it are ostracized. If you’re a woman, it’s a no-win situation. Women learn from an early age to kowtow to men’s desires, but that it is taboo to express their own.

This double standard extends to how male and female heroes are regarded by some feminists (Cracked.com/Upworthy). Superman and Batman, in their skin-tight outfits and with their perfectly chiseled features, represent the male ideal, but Wonder Woman in her bikini bottom is “objectified.” Even Namor and Conan, who wear even less, are never regarded as examples of equal treatment. Why? Because male superheroes are a projection of a male reader’s identity, everything men wish they could look like, or so the argument goes. But there are a number of problems with this theory. Firstly, it supposes that a majority of Superman fans are envying his appearance, but as a reader of the comic since childhood, such a thing never once crossed my mind. Sure, he’s nice to look at, but what appeals to me most, and what I think appeals to just about every boy, are his powers. And really, who doesn’t wish they could fly? Secondly, this argument assumes that women do not have similar projection fantasies, that female readers never picture themselves with the goddess-like physique of Wonder Woman or Power Girl. Of course, given how my daughters love to dress up, and adding to that the plethora of supermodels splashed all over magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue, I think it is more common for a girl to look at other girls for this very reason. Lastly, this theory implies that women do not enjoy sex, or looking at male bodies, or that they have no interest in expressing their own sexuality. Not surprisingly, it is typically the male feminist making these assertions.

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Wolverine: Objectified or just manly man?

In 1972, writer Samual Delany changed Wonder Woman into a more “modest” outfit, which he believed to be the feminist thing to do. That was, until women’s rights pioneer Gloria Steinem got involved, stating how much she hated that the traditional costume was taken away. Wonder Woman has long stood for female empowerment. We should not suggest that she cannot, or should not, expose her thighs, or that by doing so she is somehow diminished. We would never call Tarzan a whore for wearing only a loincloth, or say that James Bond is objectifying himself for exuding male sexuality. Male heroes are curiously exempt from any such moral judgments. While it is true that men enjoy looking at women, it is also true that, sometimes, women enjoy it when men are looking at them. Why else do women purchase sexy outfits? Mini-skirts? Thong bikinis? (OK, sometimes, it just feels good to be loose). But if women never wanted to draw attention to themselves, they would voluntarily don burqas, and yet it is always the men forcing them to do so. Female sexuality has long intimidated the male gender. Throughout history, and in many parts of the world today, patriarchal societies have worked to repress it. In Egypt and across Subsaharan Africa, vaginal mutilation is commonly practiced, to diminish desire and enjoyment of sex. But to deny a woman’s sexuality, whether physically or socially, is to deny her personhood.

More clothes = more empowering?

What matters in feminism is choice and who is doing the choosing. I am not suggesting that women should be nude, or sexy, only that the women who make that choice, and believe me there are those that do (they’re called nudists!), need not be objectified or labeled. Thelana may be naked, but it is only because she chooses to be so, refusing to be repressed, or defined by others. When, in Ages of Aenya, some jailers mistake her lack of apparel for vulnerability, it does not end well for them. By breaking with traditions of false modesty, in choosing to forgo the trappings that clothing represents, Thelana empowers herself, and it is a power that can never be stripped away, humiliated, or degraded.

 

The Devil’s Advocate: Why Nudism is Wrong

After a lifetime of promoting nudism, have I finally thrown in the towel? Or in this case, thrown on the towel? Sorry, textiles, today is not the day. But as a lover of philosophy, I feel it necessary to follow the example of Socrates, and examine what I feel most passionate about in as objective a way as possible. Too often, nudist bloggers will profess their beliefs without fully thinking about them. But for me, critical thinking is crucial, the only way to determine whether the nudist way of life is truly the best way to live. 

My wife is a champion of pragmatism. On more than one occasion, after my droning in defense of some philosophy, she has shot me down with just a few words. She is, in other words, utterly immune to bullshit. In just such a way, my wife has forced me to reevaluate my most cherished notions. As a true pragmatist, she isn’t quite opposed to the idea of nudism, but neither is she enthusiastic about it. But the objection she most often brings up is this: all of the pro-nudist arguments people make, and many I have made myself, can be dismissed by a single fact. 

The genitals do not have to be exposed for that to work.




On Women and Beauty Standards

Felicity Jones, founder of Young Naturists America, bases her free body philosophy on feminist principles. In her view, public nudity helps women feel good about their bodies, by exposing the “flaws” that 99% of “real” women have. Before frequenting nude beaches and resorts, my only exposure to the female body was Playboy, where less than 1% of women are represented, most of whom have had plastic surgery, breast augmentation (paid for by the magazine) or whose photos were airbrushed. After visiting clothing optional resorts, I learned how unnatural the Playboy ideal was, and how much more I appreciated the real thing. No doubt, if more women (and men) were exposed to the nudist perspective, society’s concept of beauty would change. One nudist slogan goes so far as to state, “all bodies are beautiful.” But here we have a problem. Couldn’t the same thing be achieved without exposing the genitals? Most women who hate their bodies focus on their overall weight, and only rarely on the condition of their vaginas. While there is a new trend in plastic surgery that does, in fact, reconstruct the labia and repair the hymen, this is an aberration, and not much of a concern for textiles, who never expose themselves but to their partners. It’s enough for women to simply visit a beach (or any water park) to discover different body types. Perhaps, instead of encouraging women to go naked, we should be encouraging them to hit the beach, and conversely, discourage magazines from altering photos.

Nudism’s feel good philosophy is wishful thinking, as we will never reach a point where all bodies are considered beautiful. To be certain, beauty is a difficult thing to define, and has been debated by philosophers since the Ancient Greeks. And yet, one thing is agreed upon, that by its very definition, beauty is selective. If we are all beautiful, nobody is beautiful. It must exist as an exception, stand out from a crowd, if it is to mean anything. But beauty is also a social construct, something that exists “in the eye of the beholder.” My wife tells me that I only see her as beautiful because I love her, which I admit to being true, in part. In cultures throughout history, what constitutes beauty widely differs. During the Renaissance Age, people preferred women who were, for a lack of a better word, “plus size.” These were known as “Rubenesques.” 

Beauty circa 1600s


In modern times, supermodels starve themselves to achieve the ideal bony physique. Nudists love to point out these changes, to show the transitory and illusory quality of beauty, but they rarely question it further, as to why these changes in perception occur in the first place. From an evolutionary standpoint, beauty is a measure of health, a way for an animal to determine the viability of a mate. Species avoid intercourse with those that are too young or old to produce offspring. For a rhino, a long horn is beautiful, and sexy, as it is a sign of good health and strong chromosomes. Peacocks find colorful plumage beautiful, whereas other bird species find a male’s singing voice arousing. During medieval times, when food was scarce and disease rampant, being too thin was an indication of poor health. Today, with our overabundance of calories, heart disease is the #1 threat to our survival, and so “thin is in.” The media, however, exacerbates this quality to the extreme, and so we have teenage girls also dying from bulimia and anorexia. While nudism helps broaden our perceptions as to what constitutes beauty, it can never be defined in such a way as to divorce it from its evolutionary function, which is why we will never see boys sexually aroused by grandmothers (beyond the occasional fetish). In short, beauty can be measured objectively, not with a tape measure, but within the parameters of health and procreation.  

Nudists also contend that public nudity acts as an equalizing factor, that in sharing our flaws, we somehow cancel them out. But I think the opposite is true. Clearly, a woman with a double mastectomy would prefer, given the choice, to have breasts. I have seen women who have undergone the procedure at nudist resorts, and have always admired their courage, which is its own beauty, I admit. But who could blame a woman for wanting to conceal such a surgery? Clothing may have been invented, in part, to make the body more appealing, by hiding what in that culture was deemed unattractive. While I personally believe we are far more beautiful the way we are born, when we are naked, our differences are more pronounced. A prehistoric person, born into a world without textiles, would not have the option to accentuate their better features, or draw attention away from others.     

Twiggy started the “super thin” trend.


Nudity and Objectification

Another position embraced by nudists regards equality of the sexes, characterized by the Free the Nipple campaign, which postulates that men and women’s nipples are no different, so that criminalizing one and not the other is tantamount to sexism. Forcing a woman to cover her nipples, however, cannot be compared to paying her less money, or taking away her birth control. The latter speaks of a woman’s value, and deeply entrenched prejudices that view women as worth less than men. The former has everything to do with sexual stimulation. Men’s nipples have never aroused women, which is why they are deemed permissible. Free the Nipple, therefore, has less to do with equality, and more to do with objectification, and sexuality. There is, of course, some overlap, as objectifying women can also be viewed as a form of inequality. But the issue I am making is this: for the vast majority, a man’s nipple differs significantly from a woman’s, if only in perception.

In other cultures, however, the female nipple is a common sight, as it is more associated with feeding infants. In Morocco, for instance, public breast feeding is legal, because the role of mother in Muslim countries is given greater respect. But in Puritan America, the nipple has long been divorced from its biological roots, becoming a commodity, for titillation and male gratification. But if tomorrow, every woman on the street was to go topless, all this would change. So far, I am in agreement with Free the Nipple. But here’s the problem: if Free the Nipple hinges on the fact that the nipple is not inherently (by its nature) sexual, what of the genitals? Are they not, by definition, sex organs? If so, how can nudists make both arguments? Or does Free the Nipple not represent the nudist view? Display of sex organs in public is either acceptable or not acceptable. 

Accepting that the function of the nipple is irrelevant, we must consider how a woman’s body is used to objectify her. Conservatives have long maintained that to remain dignified, women must dress modestly, but nudists see this as damaging, as any single image, taken at an inopportune moment, can be used to ruin someone’s reputation. It also places unfair constraints upon women, to dress the way society dictates, and to be defined by the clothing they wear. Public nudity, nudists argue, frees women from objectification, by eliminating the shame associated with the body, and the sexual implications that go with it. A woman was once thought a “slut” for wearing a mini-skirt or short shorts. In some Muslim countries, women endure the same type of shaming for not covering their faces. But with nudity becoming more commonplace, nudists contend, the body loses its power to arouse, and therefore, its capacity to objectify. While I agree with this, in part, in that women should not be judged for what they wear, I do not accept the notion that arousal is synonymous with objectification. It is in our natures to be sexually stimulated. We could never, in a thousand years, make the female body so common a sight as to eliminate desire altogether. I have been a nudist for most my life, but I would be lying if I were to say that I see no difference between a naked girl and a clothed one. Admittedly, I prefer girls who go au natural, because no outfit can compare in beauty to the naked body, and because it sometimes arouses me, and any heterosexual man with healthy testosterone levels who says otherwise is being disingenuous. But this does not mean that scantily clad women are any less deserving of respect. Only when we regard people as things, and little else, can we claim objectification. This is why I take issue with Cracked.com and Upworthy, and sites that cry sexism whenever a female heroine is depicted in a skimpy outfit. I do not consider a female character, like Thelana (who never wears clothes) to be an affront to women, as long as that character is portrayed with emotion, intelligence, and soul. Sexuality is a big part of who we are, and by reflecting this aspect of ourselves, we add to our humanity, rather than detract from it. Conversely, it is possible to objectify a person in non-sexual ways. Consider the racist caricatures of Germans and Japanese used during World War II. Given no inherent connection between sexuality and objectification, then, the argument that nudism can somehow eliminate this trend is dubious. If every man and woman were to strip down to their bare skin, we would still find ways to objectify our neighbors. The best that nudism can achieve, is to make it so that women are judged by their actions, and not their appearance.



Health and Social Benefits

Other pro-nudist arguments involve the health benefits of sunshine and air to bare skin, which again, fails the genital test. Must we expose our genitals to produce enough Vitamin D? No. Bathing suits allow enough of our skin to breathe. Another argument involves social interaction. In nothing but our bodies, we cannot judge social class, and so the boundaries that separate people dissolve. But again, could this not be achieved by everyone meeting in their underwear? How different is a rich man’s underwear from a poor person’s? Besides, it doesn’t take much to learn whether someone at a resort is a doctor or a lawyer. Nudists will often wear their Rolexes or engagement rings in the pool, or can be seen walking out to their Mercedes’ in the parking lot. Conversely, it’s rare, in this day and age, to determine someone’s social standing simply by looking at them. The wealthy of the world no longer dress like aristocrats. Bill Gates, sitting at a Starbucks, doesn’t come across as a billionaire. Only the people wanting to make their social standing known do so, and that can happen at any venue.



Nudity and Children

Finally, nudists need to address the elephant in the room: children. At one point in time, sodomy and oral sex were illegal (and in some states still are) but the right to privacy made such laws irrelevant. The problem with reversing the naked taboo, both in perception and with regard to the law, is that public nudity is just that, public, and cannot be defended by privacy rights. People morally opposed to nudity would be forced to accept it, and the opposition’s ‘ace in the hole’ has always been, and remains, the protection of children. If the primary function of our genitals is intercourse, detractors argue, exposing genitals to children is one step closer to pedophilia. Of course, a curious thing about our species, that goes largely overlooked, is a quirk in our evolution which gives our genitals multiple purposes, sex being the lesser function. For children, genitals are for waste removal, nothing more. Still, I worry about kids at nudist venues, because resorts are not colonies. Nudism exists as a sub-culture within a much larger culture, one that almost universally equates nudity with sex. While the vast majority of human beings, nudist or textile, would never think to take advantage of a child, we cannot account for everybody; we can never know the reasons a person chooses to be naked around naked children.

Being an author, as opposed to a philosopher, I do not have to commit to the ideas I explore in my work. I cannot say with any certainty that the world would be a better place if we were all to go naked. There exist Amazon tribes that have never seen clothes, who’ve never felt the need to hide any part of themselves, but this is the exception. Other tribes, that have never been influenced by Christianity, or the taboos of western society, have come to the same conclusion, that hiding the penis and vagina is necessary. From China to India to Ancient Greece, public nudity was and remains taboo. Perhaps, it is human instinct to think of sex in sight of genitalia. A society like the Ilmar, who live naked 24/7 without thinking of sex, is a fantasy. The Ilmar are no more realistic, in this regard, than elves or dwarves or any other imaginary race.

Or are they?

Total nudity is rare even in the Amazon

I do not have all the answers, but I feel it is important for nudists, like myself, to examine each of these issues carefully, and address them honestly. First and foremost, we need to admit the reason we choose to be nudists, and it can be summed up in three simple words:

It feels good.  

Being naked feels good, really good. I am naked right now even as I write this. Why not just walk around in my underwear? Why does my penis have to be exposed to the air? Because underwear, for me, is like wearing a wool sweater on a hot summer day, like swimming in jeans, like going to bed in roller skates. If I could live in a world without having to look at another pair of underwear, I’d jump at the chance. Not everyone feels this way, of course. My wife has tried nudism at home and admits to feeling nothing special. But whatever nudists write in defense of nudism is a rationalization for how they feel. This is not, however, to dismiss the benefits of the lifestyle. Women who feel good freeing their private public parts, are also helping to minimize the objectification of their sex, while creating healthier concepts of beauty. Whether this can be better achieved through other means is a moot point. Though we may never divorce nudity from sex, lust in and of itself is not a bad thing. Rather, we should celebrate human sexuality, and regard as taboo only our inability to control our behavior. A man who rapes a drunk girl at a party, or a pedophile who exploits a child, or a drunk guy who kills someone in a bar fight, is driven not by reason, or any sense of rightness, but by their animal urges.

Ultimately, people do not make decisions based on what is rational. If that were so, nobody would ever drink alcohol or smoke tobacco. If news broke out that a ring of pedophiles had been caught at a nudist resort, textiles would blame the lifestyle, but Catholics have yet to abandon the Church even after the many sex scandals involving child molesting clergy. No matter the risks, we are comforted by what is familiar, and so most people are made uncomfortable by nudity not because of its implications, but by its strangeness. But why is nudity strange? If anything, we should be overly familiar, and comfortable, with our bodies.

Looking back through the ages, perhaps it is not that we have been too civilized to accept nudity, but not civilized enough. As a member of the human species, I would like to believe we’re better than that. I would like to believe that someday there will be no nudists, because men and women will realize we don’t need to hide to treat one another with respect and compassion. Perhaps, as in the Garden of Eden, true nakedness is a state of purity we have yet to live up to.

Nakedness: A Human Ideal?

Social change begins with artistic expression. The sexual revolution could not have happened without the music of the 60’s and 70’s, or the writings of Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, who popularized premarital intercourse. The gay rights movement could not have gained traction in the public consciousness without gay film festivals, Ellen, or Brokeback Mountain. The beauty of speculative fiction is that it gives us a glimpse into a world different from our own, one in which the taboos that govern our culture might differ. Through storytelling, we can explore other ways to live without committing to it, whether it is right or morally reprehensible. 

In Ages of Aenya, I envision a people without shame, for whom the nakedness taboo never existed. For the Ilmar, shamelessness is congruent with a natural utopia. The heroes of this society, Xandr and Thelana, hearken to the Classic nudes of antiquity, to Heracles and Perseus and Theseus, and to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and John Carter. You can learn more about them below:

AoAFrontCover

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A False Dichotomy: The Religion/Atheism Debate

Meteora: Cliff hanging monasteries of Greece.

In many ways, YouTube is our modern debate forum, the equivalent of the Athenian Academy, or The Royal Society. Dig beneath the cat videos and you will find a treasure trove of thought, from noted philosophers, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet, to stars of science, Bill Nye, Michio Kaku and Neil deGrasse Tyson. But, unlike any other time in our history, anyone with access to a smart phone has a soap box upon which to espouse their views. This revolutionary form of expression is a double edged sword, however, often giving voice to the most inane and uninformed, and this plays a major role in the increasing polarization of our society. Never have we in this country seen such unwavering ideological standoffs, and bitter vitriol, between liberals and conservatives, scientists and skeptics, or atheists and Evangelicals. But I often find this to be a false dichotomy. In solely watching YouTube and reading online forums, one might come to the conclusion that there are no other options, no intellectual middle ground. The danger is for otherwise educated people, insulated in this “echo” chamber of thought, to become increasingly radicalized. Studies have shown that Republicans who only watch Fox News, or only converse with Republican friends, form stronger and more unwavering opinions. The same can be said of liberals. It’s a sad fact that brilliant books by brilliant minds, like Bill Nye’s Undeniable, are almost exclusively supported by the choir. Nye wrote his book as a followup to his debate with Ken Ham, the staunch fundamentalist responsible for Kentucky’s “Creationist Museum.” In his book, Nye makes an “undeniable” case for evolution, but it is unlikely many (or any) creationists bothered to read it. Fundamentalists who do not wish to change their beliefs cannot be swayed by facts or reasoning. Rather, both the religious and non-religious seek media that reinforces their already strongly held views. It’s no wonder that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are people who insist vaccines are not safe, and who refuse to vaccinate their children. Never has there been a platform for those with zero medical training to espouse scientific nonsense resulting in a nationwide following

Recently, I discovered YouTube commentator Steve Shives. Shives is a young freelance philosopher and avowed atheist. He is affable, well spoken, and tends to be more polite, a welcome departure from the smug attitude so commonly adopted by atheist activists. But what truly sets him apart is his “An Atheist Reads” series, in which he examines Christian apologetics, books arguing for a literal interpretation of Christianity. These books include The Purpose Driven Life, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, God’s Not Dead, and C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. If there was ever a chance for a Christian to convince an atheist to convert, here would be that chance, but to my knowledge, Shives has yet to change his beliefs. Perhaps this is quite telling, as I have yet to find “A Christian Reads” series picking apart Dawkins or Hitchens or Harris. But while I applaud Shives’ effort to shed light on the opposing side, I am forced to wonder what he wishes to accomplish. In joining the YouTube atheism/religion debate, is he acting as a lightning rod for non-believers, merely to boost his page rankings? I doubt it, as he seems quite sincere in his analyses, never stooping so low as to mischaracterize the books or the arguments they are making. On more than one occasion, he concedes when Lewis’ makes a valid point. So, could there be something else, some deeper purpose to all of these hours spent studying what, for most atheists, is simple nonsense? Don’t get me wrong, I do not favor a literal interpretation of the Bible, nor do I think Shives is seeking to convince himself otherwise. I agree that most religious beliefs are, as he loves to put it, “horse shit.” 

However, even the Hitchenses of the world cannot deny that we have looked to faith for meaning since the dawn of our species. This must account for something more than nonsense and superstition. It points to a deep seated yearning for something transcendent, something beyond the everyday reality of our senses. It’s the primary virtue of all religions, whether it be Zen Buddhism or Mormonism, and it’s what separates faith from science. Unfortunately, as much as the Dawkinses and Harrises of the world will beg to differ, meaning is not inherent in atheism. It may be subjective and internal, a thing we create for ourselves, but it is not reduced by these qualities. Scientists may reach some spiritual understanding by looking at the cosmos or in the study of quantum mechanics, but for the vast majority, science is as lacking in meaning as religion lacks in reason and evidence. If it were otherwise, atheists would have their work cut out for them, and people would have given up on the Church in the 1800s after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. 

Existence can be a terribly daunting thing. In a universe of untold billions of stars, and near infinite space, we are utterly alone, an insignificant speck of floating dust. At any moment, our species can be wiped out by a gamma ray burst, or a local super nova, or a meteorite. God forbid, should a rogue neutron star come near us, there would be no trace of humanity having existed at all. This is what science teaches us. Even if we live to never see such a calamity, which is more than likely, death awaits us all, and should we take heart in that our children will succeed us, extinction is inevitable. And should we somehow escape even that, the universe itself will someday collapse, or expand to a point where gravity can no longer form stars, and everything will grow cold and dark forever in what scientists refer to as “the big freeze.” Considering this, is it any wonder people turn to a belief in an eternal paradise, and an all loving God, as professed by Christians? 

Hassan II Mosque: Faith inspires both Muslims and Christians

I have great respect for many people of faith, especially those from antiquity, in my having found serenity in Greek Orthodox monasteries, built at the precipice of mountains, and in being awestruck by the exquisite architecture of Catholic cathedrals in Italy and France. I remember the joy of singing, “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and “This is the Day that the Lord Has Made” in my elementary school, Lakeside Christian, which I attended for eight years, and I can recall with reverence the time I visited the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the city where I was married. I cannot deny the hand of God that moved the brush and chisel of Michelangelo, or that of countless other artisans, even if such a god was all in their heads. The god “delusion”—delusion though it may be—offers great comfort and meaning to mankind. It is a light that shines in the dim void of an indifferent universe. I applaud atheists who mock Christians, when the target consists of the hate and bigotry represented by the Westboro Church, but I am equally disheartened when such vituperativeness is directed at people like my seventy year old mother, who finds comfort in faith. Back in my younger, idealistic days, I spent weeks debating an elderly Jehova’s Witness. I had set out to crush her beliefs, to prove that what she took to heart was nothing but a sham, and when I began to feel that I was winning the argument, I recoiled, deeply disgusted with myself. What good, really, had I done this woman?

The Pieta: Inspired by God

The problem with the atheism/religion dichotomy is that both sides are unwilling to understand one another, and consistently talk past each other. Christians accuse atheists of belonging to “just another religion,” arguing that science is equally dependent on faith. I do not agree, simply because faith, as defined, does not require evidence; however, both science and religion are systems of belief. This is not to say that these systems are equally valid, but rather, that each is based on fundamentally different values. In the domain of science, the only currency is evidence and reason. Lacking such currency, claims regarding the existence of God can never be substantiated. This is in stark contrast to religion, where emotion is of greater importance. People who believe in God do so because they want to believe in God, because it is something that feels right, and no amount of reasoning can persuade them otherwise. Likewise, atheists will never “see the light,” should they even experience some instance of spiritual transcendence. It’s no wonder atheists look frustrated debating religious people. They seem to be saying, “Look! Look at the evidence! How can you not see it?” But to a person who cares little for evidence, they might as well be arguing in Chinese. I remember standing at the crossroads between the need for God and the imperative of reason. I had just started college, and after eight years of religious school, I was compelled to abandon my faith. Why? Because I valued reason over emotion, because I could not turn off that tiny voice in my head that kept saying, “What about the Chinese? They were born without knowing Jesus; why do they deserve Hell?” But it could have gone another way. I do not doubt that other people, taking greater stock in their feelings, might have stuck to their religion.

Does this mean that religious people are crazy? Are they driven to madness, fearing death, and an unforgiving reality? After all, a life without reason certainly sounds crazy, right? No. Neither science, nor religion, has a total monopoly on truth. There is great beauty and meaning to be found in both, and until these two sides recognize the value that exists in the other, we will remain polarized, and may, in time, lose some crucial element that defines our humanity. 

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An Open Letter to Google: Naturism is Not Pornography

Dear Google,

As you are more than likely aware, the Internet is the greatest advancement in human communication since the printing press. What sets this new technology apart is its capacity to disseminate information throughout every corner of the globe, instantly and without censure. This advancement has resulted in the sharing of ideas between people of disparate beliefs and philosophies, and has provided people who were once without a voice, like Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, a platform upon which to stand against the injustices in their culture. 

Only by adhering to principles of free expression can we hope to achieve social progress and equality. As chief purveyors of this newest and most influential communication technology, Google is uniquely obligated to champion free speech, and likewise, has a moral responsibility to remain neutral in matters of religion, creed and ideology. Google must never stifle creative thought or weigh in on matters of morality. 

I express this view as a concerned naturist/nudist. For decades, nudists/naturists have been stigmatized, marginalized and mischaracterized by the media. Depictions of the naturist lifestyle, which include innocent portrayals of the human body, are erroneously equated to pornography. The same mentality once compared the LGBT community with rapists and pedophiles. Naturism is not pornography, but a movement consistent with feminism and the promotion of a healthy body image. As you probably know, we live in a culture where both women and men are continually objectified in magazines, TV, and in other media. This continued objectification, coupled with unrealistic standards of beauty representing less than 1% of the population, and which now includes Photoshopped models, has a considerable role to play in how young people see themselves, and is a contributing factor to low self esteem, depression and suicide. The Internet, for the most part, offers little by way of contrast, and more often exacerbates the problem by providing curious teens access to countless depictions of unrealistic, unhealthy, and abusive sexual practices. 

Through Blogger, my constituents and I have fought to provide an alternative to pornography, expressed through literature, art, and innocent depictions of the human body. Naturist sites offer young and old alike a chance to see themselves as we all truly are, in our most natural state, with all of our variations and flaws. More importantly, naturist photography, which celebrates this free-body philosophy and lifestyle, depicts women as genuine human beings, not as sexually charged body parts or pin-up dolls that only satisfy male fantasies. This is what naturism is all about, and what it has represented, for nearly a century. Since its inception, Blogger existed as a safe haven for naturists to express this healthier alternative, and in so doing, has allowed for social progress in areas of feminism and body image. However, your new anti-nudity policy, which begins March 23rd, 2015, takes a great leap backward. While pornography will continue to thrive in your search engines, greatly aided by Google’s “incognito” feature, naturist bloggers fighting objectification and hyper-sexualization will forever be silenced. 

Egyptian born Aliaa Magda Elmahdy used nudity to make a powerful statement against the sexism inherent in her country, and the harsh dress code imposed upon women, by posting a nude image of herself on her blog. She received many death threats as a result, and was eventually forced to move to Europe, but the awareness she raised and the importance of her cause, I believe, was well worth the risks. Under Google’s new policy, Aliaa’s blog would have been made private, and therefore, silenced.

While your position regarding artistic and educational nudity is to be commended, I urge you to amend your policy to include images of innocent, natural nudity, since, as your policy itself states, naturism is unarguably a “substantial benefit to the public.”

Sincerely,
Nick Alimonos
Naturist Author


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—–



UPDATE: It looks as though, thanks to the efforts of like minded bloggers everywhere, Google actually reversed their decision to change their nudity policy, and will NOT be forcing blogs with nudity to shut down! “We’ve had a ton of feedback, in particular about the introduction of a retroactive change (some people have had accounts for 10+ years), but also about the negative impact on individuals who post sexually explicit content to express their identities”, Jessica Pelegio, a social product support manager at Google, wrote. I’d like to think that, of the 500+ readers who clicked on this letter, one of these may have had some influence with Google. Even if this post was just one of the million straws to break the camel’s back, I am thrilled. Hurrah for Free Speech! 

—–

Dear Blogger User,

We’re writing to tell you about an upcoming change to the Blogger Content
Policy that may affect your account.
In the coming weeks, we’ll no longer allow blogs that contain sexually
explicit or graphic nude images or video. We’ll still allow nudity
presented in artistic, educational, documentary, or scientific contexts, or
where there are other substantial benefits to the public from not taking
action on the content.
The new policy will go into effect on the 23rd of March 2015. After this
policy goes into effect, Google will restrict access to any blog identified
as being in violation of our revised policy. No content will be deleted,
but only blog authors and those with whom they have expressly shared the
blog will be able to see the content we’ve made private.
Our records indicate that your account may be affected by this policy
change. Please refrain from creating new content that would violate this
policy. Also, we ask that you make any necessary changes to your existing
blog to comply as soon as possible, so that you won’t experience any
interruptions in service. You may also choose to create an archive of your
content via Google Takeout
(https://www.google.com/settings/takeout/custom/blogger).
For more information, please read here
(https://support.google.com/blogger?p=policy_update).
Sincerely,
The Blogger Team

JE SUIS CHARLIE and the Threat of Absolutism

The Prophet Mohammed?

“I am Charlie,” people are saying around the world, since the massacre of the twelve staffers who worked at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical Parisian periodical.

I am not terribly political by any means, aside from my ritual viewing of The Daily Show and the late great The Colbert Report, but I have had first hand experience in matters of fundamentalism and censorship. As an author who promotes an unorthodox and, for some, offensive lifestyle, I am mindful of those who would silence me. I fret over censors at Facebook and Google, over people who cannot differentiate between tasteful, artistic nudity and pornography. And, having been raised in a stringent Baptist school and having married into a Moroccan household, I am all too familiar with radical religious viewpoints. But what happened last week in Paris is symptomatic of a much larger problem. Philosopher Sam Harris and biologist Richard Dawkins, among others, will no doubt blame religion. Those apologetic toward people of faith, like CNN correspondent Fareed Zakaria, will lay the blame solely on fundamentalists and a false interpretation of Koranic verse. A third group will only see the suffering and violence and say: this is evil, pure and simple. None of these people are wrong. And yet, the issue runs far deeper, for the massacre at Charlie Hebdo reflects a fundamental difference in culture, between East and West, and it dates back thousands of years.

Western civilization is largely informed by Greek thought. It was in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, when, some 2500 years ago, humanity recognized the need to honor and respect dissenting opinion. It can be seen in the way the Greeks practiced their religion, in the veneration of different gods, most of whom did not agree and often warred with one another. Thanks, in part, to Socrates, who was condemned to death for “atheism” and for “disrupting the youth,” but who is today one of the world’s greatest historical figures, we learned the value of doubt and questioning beliefs. From these ancient foundations, European and American society was built, and later, the scientific method, a key part of which is skepticism.

Coming out of the East, at around the same time, we have a burgeoning adherence to the absolute. The Hebrews worshiped ONE God, who was all powerful, all knowing, and infallible. God makes no mistakes in the Torah. There was no Middle Eastern Socrates, to suggest that the gods may be unjust, or if there was, his/her influence vanished long ago. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, there is a central historical figure, Abraham, from whom we can understand all of “western” religion and Eastern thought. Abraham argued to save his nephew, Lot, from God’s wrath at Sodom, but God is never at fault. When Abraham is commanded to kill his son, Isaac, he illustrates obedience to God. The moral? God is absolute and is never to be doubted. Absolutist thinking continues to permeate Islam, and to some extent, radical “Westboro Church” Christianity. Even among the Egyptians and Persians, the notion of the absolute can be found in how the pharaohs and kings were portrayed, not as men, but as gods themselves. When King Xerxes invaded Greece, Eastern ideology clashed with that of Western philosophy. To be fair, the Persians were never as violent or barbaric as the film 300 portrays, but the idea of a god king was abhorrent to the Greeks. It wasn’t so much democracy the Spartans were defending, who were themselves an oligarchy ruling through terror and intimidation, but the freedom to hold a dissenting voice, even if that voice was found to be obscene or offensive. This is what the staffers at Charlie Hebdo represented, and in defense of this very Western idea, they lost their lives, because the radicals storming into their offices did not value dissent, or doubt, or understand the necessity of offense. Like most people born into a culture of absolutism (and this includes countries outside geographic East, including, sadly, the U.S.), their way of thinking did not allow for it. We struggle to rationalize the violence, to find common ground, but fundamentalists do not rationalize when it comes to matters of faith. Like Abraham, you obey God and do not question, even if it means murdering innocents.    

We get a glimpse into Eastern culture with the Arabian Nights, a book of fiction compiled between 700-1200, during the Golden Age of Islam. In one story, a groom does not properly wash his hands after eating garlic. The bride, who is from a much wealthier and more powerful family, is so incensed, she orders that her husband have his hands cut off. Only after her servants plead for mercy is the punishment lessened to removing the thumbs. This is not to suggest that Arab people are unusually cruel. Equally horrific tales can be found throughout medieval Europe, like in the writings of the Grimm’s brothers, where Cinderella’s step-sisters cut off their own toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper. But Arab culture stands apart in the way in which its people are expected to behave. In such a culture, proper speech and polite action is crucial to civil society. Normally, my mouth is at liberty to spout whatever pops into my head, but in Morocco I learned to censor myself. In 2013, during the holy month of Ramadan, I thought it’d be funny to make up a song about Mohammed’s camel, set to the tune of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. As you can probably imagine, nobody was amused, my wife especially. If something so innocent could cause offense, I cannot imagine making perverted jokes at the expense of the Prophet, as the people at Charlie Hebdo often did.  

The difference between Western and Eastern attitudes are deeply entrenched, dating back centuries, and it is unlikely to change any time soon. But while I do not wish to value one view over another, the matter ultimately comes down to ethics. Does freedom of expression lead to a better and more just society, or does respect and tradition? Mind you, this is not a question of offense. Everyone has the right to feel offended, especially Muslims when their Prophet is slandered. Though I champion free speech, I am often offended by the wanton cruelty I see on TV. But the only ethical response to words is words. The only way to defend against incendiary cartoons is to make incendiary cartoons of your own. This is how Free Speech functions. The right to question, to dissent, to doubt, and sometimes to offend, means much more than allowing people to do and say what they want. Free speech works, because only in a society where free speech is protected can truth come to light. If your society, your government, your religion, is cruel or unjust, without freedom of dissent, it can only remain that way forever. And if your philosophy, your politics, your faith, is right and just and true, then there is no need for guns and violence. If your ideology cannot endure by the strength of its own ideas, it is not worth defending.

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Is Nudism on the Decline?

In a word, NO.

WNBR London

There is a popular misconception that nudism is going the way of disco. These are the same people who imagine the 60’s were one big Woodstock/orgy fest. I was perusing a book about that infamous decade, the name of which eludes me, where a historian was trying to prove, with charts and all, that people were a lot more conservative in that time than we imagine. Duh! What is the point in having a counter culture when what you’re doing is generally accepted? What followed after the sixties, however, was the much more permissible seventies, where premarital sex dropped off the list of taboos and drugs came into frequent use (today, marijuana is fast becoming legal throughout the country). Nudism has been around since the 1900s, with resorts like Lake Como having been founded in the forties, but public awareness grew dramatically during the sixties. But just like everything else attributed to the decade, there was a lot less casual nudity going on than people think. The difference between now and then? Nudism is no longer news. It has fallen so far under the radar, in fact, that when Caliente, the largest clothing-optional resort in the country opened in Tampa, nobody noticed. In the sixties, there would have been police raids and religious neighbors protesting. And this is precisely what nudists have long fought for, acceptance, with little fanfare. Nobody wants to be counter-culture forever, unless you’re a teenager seeking attention. Nowadays, you can visit any number of travel sites for a “clothing optional” vacation or “nakation.” According to Forbes magazine,

The nude travel business, while skimpy on clothes, is covering itself with profits. The Kissimmee, Fla.-based American Association for Nude Recreation estimates that nude travel is a $400 million global industry–up from $300 million in 2001. Carolyn Hawkins, a spokesperson for the AANR, says the organization has 50,000 members and about 260 affiliated nudist resorts. Most of the resorts are clothing-optional, which means that guests can choose their level of nudity.

I was first introduced to nudism on the Greek islands in the nineties. Back then, the only option for going nude were beaches. Today, there are three new resorts, like Vritomartis Naturist Resort on Crete. Clothing optional venues have been popping up all over Mexico and the Caribbean, each larger and more luxurious than the last. Castaway Travel even offers nude cruises, something that would not have seemed possible two decades ago.

Despite all this data, it is important to note that nudism does not and should not = resorts. This would be like measuring acceptance of homosexuality by how many gay bars open up. First and foremost, nudism is a social movement, not a marketing venture. Some people feel that resorts are antithetical to the movement (I know I do), that we should not have to hide behind concrete walls, far from others, to live the way we believe. The purpose of nudism is to change attitudes toward the human body, to rid the world of harmful, sexist, outdated taboos. In such a world, “clothing-optional” is redundant. This is one reason why, in recent years, younger people have been moving away from organized nudism.

Another misconception is that nudists are mostly aging hippies, people who pine for the good old swinging sixties. Once these hippies die off, nudism should die right along with them. In reality, nudists come from all walks of life. At the clothing-optional venues I attended, I met doctors, lawyers, and all kinds of businessmen. It only makes sense, considering the exorbitant membership costs. Many resorts are located in remote places, far from those who might enjoy them, so driving distance is also a factor. Lake Como, Paradise Lakes and Caliente also serve as retirement communities, so naturally, they will attract older clientele. Beside costs and travel time, younger nudists have to worry about how friends and family will react to their lifestyle, and a good number risk unemployment. Parents with young children choose not to involve their kids in what might get them teased at school, and as any mom or dad will tell you, it can be tough going on vacation without the kids tagging along. Taking all this into consideration, it’s no wonder younger nudists (myself included) prefer staying at home, enjoying the backyard or pool, or hiking through secluded woods (free of charge!).

But to more accurately gauge the growth of nudism, it’s better to look at popular media. On Facebook, young people too shy or too frightened of being ostracized are free to express their beliefs anonymously. Lately, the number of nudist/naturist groups, Twitter feeds, and blogs popping up are more than I can count. One group I belong to, Young Naturists & Nudists America, boasts over 7000 members. Its founder, Felicity Jones, has been featured in numerous publications, as listed below:


Jones takes part in social activism. With the aim of promoting body acceptance, she has participated in public art projects by artists such as Zefrey Throwell and body painter Andy Golub. While the art projects themselves are varied, they have all had a single common connecting factor, which is the incorporation of public nudity.

On August 3, 2013, Jones was interviewed by journalist Bill Briggs for a featured article on NBC News about the lack of young nudists in America.[2] Jones was then quoted in a Digital Journal follow-up news article.[3]

On August 4, as featured in the local news site The Citizen / AuburnPub.com,[4] Jones attended the annual Northeast Naturist Festival in upstate New York. This festival is where naturists congregate and talk about issues facing the movement.

On January 18, 2013, Jones was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal about an off Broadway naked comedy show that she co-produced.[5] In Early 2013, the Fire Island National Seashore authorities decided to close Fire Island’s nude beach. Jones was interviewed with regards to this issue by both the New York Times[6] as well as News Day.[7] She was also cited in the Huffington Post[8] and the Long Island News website.[9]

On January 22, 2013, Jones was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune[10] about the impending San Francisco anti nudity legislation as well as her thoughts about the current lack of younger people who are involved with naturism.

On May 2, 2013 Jones was interviewed by Nancy Redd for Huffington Post Live. The segment was called “Let’s Get Naked”.[11] She was also interviewed on October 19, 2012 by Hollywood Today for a piece about censorship titled “Censorship and Social Networks – violence is in. Nipples are out!”[12]

In August 2011 Jones participated in an nude art project called Ocularpation: Wall Street[13][14] by Zefrey Throwell.[15] During this art performance she was arrested by the NYPD for disrupting the peace and for blocking traffic; the charges were dropped a few months later.

Later in 2011, Jones also participated in an additional performance, this time a week long game of strip poker in the window of an art gallery titled “I’ll Raise You One”[16] by the same artist which was covered by the NY Post and The Village Voice.[17]


Perhaps the greatest measure of nudism’s growing acceptance is the way in which it is perceived by the public. In 1992, “top free” activists in New York made it legal for women to go topless anywhere in the city. Unaware of the law, a few police officers continue to harass women for “indecency.” Felicity Jones, who was arrested, later sued the state and won. Last year in San Francisco, a law permitting people to go fully naked in public failed by only ONE vote. Consider, also, the rise of non-sexual nudity on television. In Discovery Channel’s Naked & Afraid, the “survivors” butts are in full view, with only the genitals and the women’s nipples being pixelated. Showing favorable ratings, Dating Naked premiered on VH1 followed by Buying Naked on TLC. Compare this to I Dream of Jeannie, a show that ran from 1965 to 1970 (the nudist decade according to some), the main character of Jeannie was not even allowed to show her bellybutton!

Belly buttons are obscene!

OK, you may be thinking, tolerance is one thing, but acceptance is a whole other ballgame. The vast majority of people obviously offended by nudity simply change channels, or avoid social media groups with nudity, right? Show a naked person to the general, unsuspecting public, and out come the pitchforks, right? Wrong. I give you The World Naked Bike Ride


The World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) is an international clothing-optional bike ride in which participants plan, meet and ride together en masse on human-powered transport (the vast majority on bicycles, but some on skateboards and inline skates), to “deliver a vision of a cleaner, safer, body-positive world.”[1]
The dress code motto is “bare as you dare”.[2] Full or partial nudity is encouraged, but not mandatory. There is no mandate to cover intimate parts; this is a distinguishing feature of the WNBR against other cycling events.

This global event takes place in 20 countries and in over 50 different cities, with very little outrage, and the number of participants has been growing. Lady God1va, who I am friends with on Twitter, organizes one of the more successful rides in London, with well over a thousand riders!

Is nudism on the decline? On the contrary, it is growing. We see it in the number of resorts being built, and we see it on TV, where more skin is on display, and it is growing through social media, which allows people to exchange ideas and to organize like never before. The nudism of the sixties was newsworthy, hence misconceptions about that decade, but thanks to changing attitudes and shifting mores, public nudity no longer elicits moral outrage, and therefore, is no longer news. In a few decades time, we may not need designated beaches or resorts. The children of today are born into a world of greater equality, greater freedom, and greater acceptance. If there is any truth to the notion that nudism is dying, it may be that the term itself is becoming unnecessary, a quaint throwback from a more conservative, racist, sexist age.


UPDATE: Before writing this post, I received comments suggesting that Felicity Jones, founder of Young Naturists America, did not exist. It seems incredible, but some people just can’t imagine a young female naturist being a real thing, as if I was talking about some mythic creature, a mermaid or a fairy. However, females who enjoy going “au natural” do, in fact, grace this planet. I’ve met them! It’s no myth! So now I feel compelled to share this awesome new YouTube video by Young Naturists America:

YOUNG NATURISTS AMERICA

Sex, Marriage, and Morality

What is marriage? How has it changed between cultures, time periods and individuals? And what, if anything, does it have to do with love? However we choose to define it, morality is the glue that holds marriage together. 

For decades, I have passionately argued that nudism does not = sex, and clubs like AANR (the American Association for Nude Recreation) have supported this philosophy, giving their stamp of approval only to those resorts that cater to a family atmosphere. Unfortunately, the promise of sex is a much better marketing tool, so places I once loved, like Caliente and Paradise Lakes, now openly promote a free sexual lifestyle. Other resorts, like Hedonism in Jamaica, were built specifically with sex in mind. This is a real sign of the times, when sex has become less of a taboo than simple nudity, and groups like AANR, comprising mostly of people with one foot in the grave, remain set in their antiquated anti-sex, pro-nudity ways. But changes in resort policy has had a harmful effect on traditional nudism. Parents with children feel less inclined to vacation at such places. While there may be just as much sex at Disney World, you don’t see Mickey Mouse in skimpy lingerie advertising itself as a retreat for daring couples. But a growing and vocal number of young nudists are embracing the change, believing that part of nudist philosophy is accepting all behavior between consenting adults. My attitude is this: for nudism to remain innocent, something for families and children to enjoy, there can be no stance on sexual mores one way or the other. Surprisingly, nudists come from all walks of life. There are Christian nudists, atheist nudists, and everything in-between. Some resorts feature chapels and Sunday sermons. If we are to remain inclusive, our position on sexual mores needs to be mum. While swingers may feel free to “swing” in the privacy of their hotel rooms, they should feel no greater inclination to do so at a nudist resort. If swingers can be permitted into the movies, they should be permitted into Paradise Lakes. It only becomes a problem when the movie theater starts to advertise pornography and parents go elsewhere to watch Frozen.

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A typical add for Caliente “naturist” destination.

But this begs the question: Why should parents care what goes on at a nudist resort? If the proverbial movie theater is playing Debbie Does Dallas down the hall, why should it matter, if the kids don’t see it? It’s not as if swingers invite the kids into the act. This is where I bring up a controversial, and for some, offensive word: morality. Lately, when people bring up morals, what follows is a litany of hate directed at homosexuals. Historically, people have acted atrociously in the name of morality, castrating and murdering gays and lesbians, and stoning adulterers. But as a concept, morality is not to blame, no more than science can be blamed for killing people with bombs. Some people think that all we need is ethics, which can be argued from an objective position, but whether you grew up in a religious household or not, we all abide by the morals set by our society. Even the most sexually “progressive” person has boundaries. Most swingers do not advocate prostitution, or if they do, draw the line at public orgies, or if they are accepting of that, draw the line at children having sex. Incidentally, there are a number of psychologists who find that children can engage in consensual sexual activity (with each other) without harm. In the dystopian novel A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley predicts a future where sex between children is common. Shocking? Perhaps. Immoral? Maybe. Point is, the way we feel about children and sex is no different than the way people once felt, and still feel, about masturbation and homosexuality.

Is this love?

Now this is not to make a slippery slope argument, but to show that morality is always in flux, as it is determined by outside sources. For instance, the Prophet Mohammed said that it was better for a man to take four wives than for a woman to enter into prostitution (a common practice for unwed women at the time). In small African villages, where males greatly outnumber females, polyandry, or one woman marrying multiple husbands, is the norm. What is interesting about marriage is that, contrary to popular belief, it is the most successful social construct in history. There is no place on Earth where some form of marriage does not exist. While Free Love societies have been tried numerous times, often in the sixties, they never last, because human beings are inherently jealous and territorial. There are always rules as to who gets to fuck whom.

But marriage is not a part of our DNA. There is no commitment gene. In fact, humans are naturally promiscuous. We have evolved to seek multiple partners to better spread our seed, which was beneficial thousands of years ago, when infant mortality was high and the average lifespan hovered around thirty. King Solomon’s thousand wives can be largely attributed to this fact. Like morality, marriage is always being redefined, based on the needs of the society. Most recently, U.S. courts broadened the definition to include interracial couples and same sex couples, because denying rights to people was deemed unethical.

Before continuing, allow me to clarify a few things which has some people confused. I do not intend to equate the word immoral with unethical. While often used synonymously, they can have different meanings. According to Wikipedia:

  • In its descriptive sense, “morality” refers to personal or cultural valuescodes of conduct or social mores. It does not connote objective claims of right or wrong, but only refers to that which is considered right or wrong. Descriptive ethics is the branch of philosophy which studies morality in this sense.
  • In its normative sense, “morality” refers to whatever (if anything) is actually right or wrong, which may be independent of the values or mores held by any particular peoples or cultures. Normative ethics is the branch of philosophy which studies morality in this sense.

When I refer to morality in this article, it is not in the latter, objective sense. I do not equate swinging, for instance, with murder or rape. Rather, I am referring to the term in the relative sense, based on the cultural values within a (in this case our) society.

As a social construct, marriage is determined by morality. It includes cherishing, loving, and respecting my partner (this was not always the case, as in ancient times, wives were more property than companions). But for the past century, commitment to a single partner has also been a fundamental part of marriage, and this is what makes modern unions so remarkable. When it comes to human desire, lust is second only to hunger, and people will risk prison time (in cases of rape) and the dissolution of their families (for infidelity) to satisfy it. The fact that our society elected to forgo this most primal instinct, in favor of greater emotional and spiritual aspirations, is a testament to our species. Throughout the ages, chastity was synonymous with being “true” and “virtuous”. While the Ancient Greeks and Romans venerated Aphrodite, goddess of love, whose priestesses engaged in orgies; it was the virgin goddess, Athena, whom the Greeks most revered, and named their capital city after. In Christian times, Athena morphed into the holiest of holy women, the Virgin Mary. During the medieval age, chivalry forbade knights from fornication, which is why Sir Lancelot du Lac, in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, remained undefeated in battle, until having drunken sex in a tavern. He was then defeated by his virgin son, Sir Galahad, who found the Holy Grail and ascended to Heaven.

Personally, I can think of no greater proof of love than to remain committed to the same woman for life. But marriage doesn’t always work out the way it should. Fifty-percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce, and the reasons are many, but a lot of it has to do with sex. Swingers argue that resisting our most basic desires is unrealistic and unnatural, even harmful. In my father’s time, it was common for a man to cheat on his spouse, and for the woman to knowingly “look the other way.” But for the wife to do likewise, would be to risk violence, and even death. This is an outdated, sexist system, and I will admit that swinging is preferable to infidelity in that it is, at the very least, honest.

Perhaps someday, society’s mores will shift, and swinging will become the status-quo. But monogamy remains the most successful of social constructs. Ultimately, people will say it is nobody’s business what people do behind closed doors, and I agree. Condemning others is anything but moral. But we should not trade one freedom for another. We must not censure the right to set moral boundaries for ourselves in favor of sexual freedoms for others. My right to define marriage as a moral construct does not infringe upon those who think and act differently. I believe in monogamy, with all its traditional and religious implications—that true love can only exist between two people— and belief makes marriage what it is.

Call of me old fashioned, but love is between TWO.

 

Altruism, Cracked.com, and the Dangers of Pop Philosophy

History, science, and philosophy are terribly nuanced things. They do not easily conform to our instant information age. You cannot condense the intricate mechanics of ancient civilizations to a soundbite or the myriad ideologies of any one philosopher to a TOP TEN list. You will never read a historical journal with titles like “Five Things You Thought about Spartan Oral Sex that is Wrong!” In grad school, my professor literally told me I would be “crucified” by the scholarly community should I make broad generalizations in my research papers, so while Cracked.com may claim that Romans were not as orgy happy as movies portray, the truth is more subtle. The Roman Empire was as vast and diverse as the United States, and people did participate in orgies, just as there were those who found such behaviors abhorrent. Unlike the monotheistic world we live in today, the Greeks and Romans of antiquity dealt with differences of opinion and morality through veneration of different gods. If you believed orgies are morally justifiable, you likely spent time with acolytes of Aphrodite, where sex was part of their religious ritual. For the more prudish, there was Athena, whose priestesses remained chaste through life. If you really want to learn something about the ancient world, log off and pick up an actual history book written by an actual accredited historian.

Sites like Cracked.com have also given rise to pop philosophy, but based on the jaded outlook of most of their articles, I think they should be renamed Cynicism.com. I recently had the (mis)fortune to read a post entitled, 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better PersonWhat incensed me most was this:

Let’s say that the person you love the most has just been shot. He or she is lying in the street, bleeding and screaming. A guy rushes up and says, “Step aside.” He looks over your loved one’s bullet wound and pulls out a pocket knife — he’s going to operate right there in the street.

You ask, “Are you a doctor?”

The guy says, “No.”

You say, “But you know what you’re doing, right? You’re an old Army medic, or …”

At this point the guy becomes annoyed. He tells you that he is a nice guy, he is honest, he is always on time. He tells you that he is a great son to his mother and has a rich life full of fulfilling hobbies, and he boasts that he never uses foul language.

Confused, you say, “How does any of that fucking matter when my [wife/husband/best friend/parent] is lying here bleeding! I need somebody who knows how to operate on bullet wounds! Can you do that or not?!?”

Now the man becomes agitated — why are you being shallow and selfish? Do you not care about any of his other good qualities? Didn’t you just hear him say that he always remembers his girlfriend’s birthday? In light of all of the good things he does, does it really matter if he knows how to perform surgery?

In that panicked moment, you will take your bloody hands and shake him by the shoulders, screaming, “Yes, I’m saying that none of that other shit matters, because in this specific situation, I just need somebody who can stop the bleeding, you crazy fucking asshole.”

So here is my terrible truth about the adult world: You are in that very situation every single day. Only you are the confused guy with the pocket knife. All of society is the bleeding gunshot victim.

If you want to know why society seems to shun you, or why you seem to get no respect, it’s because society is full of people who need things. They need houses built, they need food to eat, they need entertainment, they need fulfilling sexual relationships. You arrived at the scene of that emergency, holding your pocket knife, by virtue of your birth — the moment you came into the world, you became part of a system designed purely to see to people’s needs.

Either you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving, and polite you are. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold.

Does that seem mean, or crass, or materialistic? What about love and kindness — don’t those things matter? Of course. As long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere.

Funny? Sure. But the problem is that most of the 16 million readers (16 million!) have little to no background in philosophy, and little to no ammunition with which to challenge such ideas.
The last line states that, “love and kindness matter . . . as long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere.” But for this to be true, the inverse must be also, that people only do things for reward, that there is no true selfless action or altruism. Similar arguments have been made by Nietzsche, Hobbes, and Ayn Rand, that one way or another, we are all using each other for personal gain. Even something as seemingly altruistic as giving money to the poor can be viewed as a selfish act, as the reformed Ebeneezer Scrooge’s of the world earn status in their communities or at the very least, enjoy a sense of self-importance. Looking specifically at the Cracked story, however, we can find many flaws. You could argue that the ability to stop bleeding wounds is of primary importance, trumping other human qualities, but without compassion, a trained medical professional would not care to stop and help your loved one. After all, how does helping a stranger benefit them directly? Doctors are not being paid for working “off duty”. But just as crucial in this case is honesty. A dishonest individual without training may lead you to believe they can offer some service while delaying a 911 call. If my wife were shot and bleeding in the street, first and foremost I would hope for someone compassionate enough to care to help me; then and only then will it matter whether they have the capacity to do so. In all areas of life, honesty and compassion matter, whether you possess some helpful skill or not. But let’s take this case even further. Suppose after being shot, this paramedic managed to save my wife, but she becomes permanently disabled, unable to make dinner, take romantic walks or even make love. My wife can no longer provide me with my needs and wants, whereas many other women can. Does this writer contend that I abandon her for someone who can better provide for me? Most people in such instances remain with their spouses, continuing to love and care for them, despite great personal loss.

Altruism is more than just some feel-good hippie philosophy. It is rooted in the evolution of our species. Even among non-humans, survival-of-the-fittest is often less beneficial than cooperation. In nature, we find symbiotic relationships the norm, not the exception. Life forms as brainless as your immune system developed during primordial times for mutual gain. While sea turtles may not care much for their young, human beings, acting only in self interest, would doom the species as a whole. In ancient times, it was not uncommon for a woman to die to bring new life into the world, and even today children come at a substantial financial loss. If women acted without a sense of altruism, their infants would not survive. I would, in fact, make the case that altruism originated among our species due to necessities of childbirth. We learn to care for each other from our parents who cared for us. For this reason, we find examples throughout history of people who acted with enormous risk to themselves for zero personal gain, like the German families who hid Jews in their homes during the Nazi regime, or more recently, the man who jumped under a moving subway train to save the life of a complete stranger who had fallen on the tracks.

Altruism is intrinsic to humanity, which is why we find it in all societies throughout history, serving as the basis for our religions. While pop philosophers may argue the alternative, it does not sit right with me or with most people. Just try telling a friend or family member that you only value them for what they can do for you. While human emotion can often lead to erroneous beliefs, in this case, altruism feels right because it is.

Who is God?

 

I’ve been on a philosophy binge lately, spending hours on YouTube watching debates by noted intellectuals, scientists and philosophers, namely Sam Harris, Michael Shermer and Deepak Chopra. It is quite amazing what you can find on YouTube if you try; you rarely find such meaningful discourse on TV. But in watching these debates, I find myself torn between the two sides of my brain, the one side which is purely logical, and the other which is more spiritual. The reasoning part of me agrees with the atheists most of the time, but the part of me that looks for God cheers whenever the Deepak Chopras of the world make a valid point. Unlike Dawkins or Hitchens, Sam Harris concedes there is value in “spirituality”; he recognizes that religious experience is an integral part of the human experience and cannot be dismissed entirely. I made a similar point in my post, Why I Do Not Call Myself an Atheist. But make no mistake, Harris is out to destroy faith. He even rails against religious moderates, making the case that moderates give room for fundamentalists and fanatics to operate. And this is where we part ways, because I do not see how Harris expects to win this battle. Ninety-percent of the planet is religious in some way, and if Harris thinks all these people can be convinced otherwise, if he imagines a time when grandmothers will know more about Newton’s Laws than the myths of our forefathers, he is sadly misguided. There will indeed come a day when we set religious texts on the mantle of literature, but that day will not be coming during our lifetimes.

If you look at the God vs. Science debate as a whole, science wins with regards to reason and evidence, but loses to general public opinion, because, as science itself has proven, people follow their hearts more than their heads. To me, it seems, there are two games being played. When self-appointed gurus like Deepak Chopra are called upon to defend spirituality, they always make the mistake of couching their rhetoric in scientific terms. Essentially, they are playing science’ game, and where reason and evidence are the only currency, scientists will always win. Rather than invoke quantum theory, Chopra should focus on the Sufis and Kabbalists and mystics of antiquity. A literal, empirical description of the universe falls under the domain of science, but how that description should make us feel, and what it means to us and our place in the universe, is something science cannot, nor should not, try to answer. Science deals with what is, not what should be. It is poorly equipped to handle the artistic, creative, imaginative side of the human mind.

Sam Harris makes a passionate plea for a better basis of morality, and with regards to the failings of Christianity and Islam, I am in full agreement. We obviously should not be executing homosexuals or stoning adulterers, but making a case against God by focusing on the atrocities committed in his name is as disingenuous as people attacking atheists for the crimes of Stalin or Pol Pot or Josef Mengele. Atheism did not cause the deaths of millions in communist nations, but neither did it help to prevent it. On the other hand, even Sam Harris has to concede that Jainism is a religion of non-violence, so where would the harm be if the entire world was made up of Jains? People can be good without superstitious beliefs, but removing God from our lives makes us no more moral than Christianity or Islam. There is nothing intrinsic in science or in atheism favoring morality. Science is objective, while morality is subjective. Granted, Harris argues that objective observations speak to the subjective nature of morality; we can, for instance, measure the pain felt by another human being or animal; we can even seek the root causes of evil on a chemical level in the brain, but what we cannot do scientifically is decide what actions we should make upon gathering the data. Science can help us make better, more informed decisions, but the ultimate decision is always subjective. We can determine, for instance, that confining a baby cow to a pen will cause the cow to suffer, but there is no mathematical formula to prove that the right action is to free the cow to open pastures. Yes, animals suffer, but why should it matter to us? Why should any action matter at all, if we are nothing but a network of atomic processes? This is where science stumbles, because questions of emotion, of purpose and meaning, are domains of art and music and literature, and yes, religion.

The ultimate question for modern spiritualists is Who is God? Most people can agree that God is not the way fundamentalists view him. He isn’t Jesus and he isn’t an Anglo Saxon man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud. But I’ll take it further and say that God is neither a benign energy field looking out for us, nor a remote Deist conception who merely created the world. God is neither sentient nor even a “being”. At this point, atheists contend, God must be nothing at all. But I disagree.

One of the most profound things I have ever heard came from my mother, who was never educated past elementary school and is barely literate. I was talking to her about trees. I brought up the question of why we should feel for them, since they have no emotions. Her response was, “It doesn’t matter. We have the feelings for them.” In other words, we can imbue, or impart, emotion onto an otherwise unfeeling object. Bravo, Mom. The same principle applies to God. God is not something “out there”, to be found with some scientific instrument; he is in us; he is an expression of our emotions, our hopes and dreams and yes, our idea of love. God is fictional, like Superman, but just like Superman he is more real and more important to our everyday lives than most physical things are. This is why atheists lose the public debate. When a physicist talks about quantum theory, he may just as well be talking about ghosts. For most people, quantum mechanics is either too difficult to imagine or too far removed from everyday experience. Whether subatomic particles pop in and out of existence is entirely irrelevant to a mother fretting over a sick child. God, whether imagined or real, matters more.

Ultimately, people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are left scratching their heads, wondering why the battle against religion isn’t going so well, because they have nothing with which to fill the God shaped hole in human consciousness.

Jainism is the world’s most peaceful, non-violent religion. Among them are the skyclad monks, a sect of practicing nudists! Coincidence? I think not.