I read my 2012 article by the same title, with a few amendments and addendums based on my evolving thoughts regarding religion and atheism.
I have a problem, and it’s a problem that I think many Americans share. My friends voted for Trump. The fact that they could do this utterly mystifies me. Since the day we elected this monster, I have been trying to rationalize the choice they made. But as news reports continue to lend credence to the very worst of our fears, any excuse I can imagine falls apart. It might be different if my friends were to show some measure of remorse, if one were to say to me, “Hey, I didn’t realize it would be like this. Sorry, I was duped.” But that hasn’t happened yet, and I do not imagine it will.
I am truly at a loss for what to do. I don’t want to excommunicate people I have known for decades, who have gone out of their way to help me in times of need. Of my co-workers, friends and family who are Trump supporters, I have only discussed the matter with one. The others, I suspect, are aware of my disappointment. I haven’t hung out with my cycling buddy since the election. It’s not that I hate him, or don’t ever want to see him again. It seems a petty thing to end a friendship over politics. Aside from that, I feel it’s important to keep the channels of communication open between people with dissenting views. To do less would further the harm caused by our echo chamber culture. A divided house cannot stand. We need allies to fight tyranny. But the hurt inside of me is great, and the normalcy of my relationships has been irrevocably disturbed. How can I be expected to go on like nothing unusual has happened? News breaks daily to confirm we are living in a dystopian nightmare.
Trump wants to bring back torture. Trump wants to sell federal parks and landmarks to private business owners. Trump wants to get rid of the Endangered Species act. Trump bans Muslim immigration and denies visas to Muslim countries (except for those countries with whom he has business dealings). Trump makes it so that Christians can enter the country more easily. Trump wants to make a Muslim registry. Trump wants to report on all illegal activities by immigrants, legal or otherwise. Trump wants to build a border wall, a 20 billion dollar project at taxpayer expense, while breaking up Mexican families. Trump wants to take away healthcare. Trump wants to take away tax breaks for new home buyers. Trump removes mention of civil rights and LGBT rights from the White House website. Trump appoints Exxon CEO and climate change denier to head the EPA, and threatens the jobs of any scientist believing in climate change. Trump appoints a Wall Street banker to head the Treasury. Trump calls the news media liars, and limits their access to the White House. Trump appoints a white supremacist to his cabinet, to write his speeches, and in doing so fails to mention Jews in his visit to the Holocaust memorial.
This is just off the top of my head. Have I left anything out? Any one of these things should disqualify him from the office. And we’re only weeks into his presidency. What is the country going to look like in four years, if he is not impeached? Is there any doubt he is an evil man? A criminal bent on the destruction of every value we hold dear? That all he does is for his own personal gain? Whether you are Muslim or Mexican or white Protestant, how can you watch your rights be eroded day after day, and not begin to fear? How can anyone put their faith in a man so clearly delusional, who argues facts—like the size of the crowd at his inauguration—as if they could be debated? We can see the pictures for ourselves, and yet we are supposed to accept what he is telling us, and ignore reality. We are supposed to shut our ears to the media because, according to him, they are all liars. Trust in him alone. Because his ego matters more than the state of the union. Are these not the words of a tyrant? The actions of a dictator? A Hitler?
So I am forced to ask, are my friends not aware of all this? Do they not watch the news? Are their Facebook feeds really so different from mine? I find it hard to believe, when all anyone can talk about these days is Trump. And if my friends see these things, as I suspect they have, what does that mean?
I tried to illicit some sympathy from my friend, explaining to him that I was scared. For my wife. For my friends. I could lose them, I said. If not from Trump directly, from those he has inspired, from bigoted fanatics, Nazis and KKK members encouraged by the knowledge that the president echoes their sentiments. My friend argued that he was more afraid of Clinton. How? What did Clinton threaten to do to him? To his family? I suspect it may have had something to do with his NRA leanings, but Clinton was never in favor of banning the 2nd Amendment, whereas Trump made his threats clear. To export millions of immigrants —calling them rapists and drug dealers—and to ban those traveling from undesirable countries, many of whom are women and children seeking asylum. Assuming Clinton had run on an anti-gun platform, a gun is a material thing. You cannot equate banning a material thing with banning a human being. You cannot equate a disagreement over the minutia of the 2nd amendment with a show of outright hostility toward religious and racial minorities. My friends’ vote, however insignificant, reflects the values they most care about.
I had a black friend in college named Marcus. We weren’t that close, but I thought he was a cool guy, and a great writer. Now, if I had come to school wearing a shirt that read, “I Hate Niggers,” how could I expect our friendship to remain unaffected? I could argue, “Hey, it’s just a T-shirt.” I could go so far as to say, “Listen, this shirt isn’t really going to cause you any harm,” and it most likely wouldn’t. And yet, wearing the shirt would be indicative of my beliefs about Marcus and those of his race. Now I’ve heard the argument that not every Trump supporter is a racist. A lot of them can honestly claim they voted for Obama, but that this time around, for want of better jobs, better lives, they threw their hats in for the man they thought could best deliver. But still I ask, “How could you?” Does your personal, financial situation matter to such a degree, that you throw out all other values? Do guns matter so much, does abortion matter so much, that you risk destroying the lives of those closest to you? Does your compassion for others—for minorities, religious groups, LGBT people—STOP at the first sign of personal hardship?
Before I was married, I thought I understood racism. I’d seen movies. TV shows. Then, during the Bush years, I came face to face with the ugliness and, more importantly, the fear of bigotry. While waiting for his pizza in my restaurant, an older gentlemen started to rant about a certain group of people. “Even if I saw one dying in the street, I wouldn’t raise a finger to help him.” Hearing him say that got my blood boiling. I wanted to reach across the counter to punch him. I was dizzy with rage. Shoving the pizza in his face, I told him never to come back. I recall another incident where I had to tell my wife and daughter to sneak out the back door. A guy had walked in wearing a trench coat with a huge swastika emblazoned on it. Let me reiterate, if you’ve never had an experience like this, you do not know what racism is, and I still can’t even imagine what it must feel like to be black or Hispanic or Muslim. To be the object of scorn. The object of violence. There is no excuse for a racist president. No excusing your vote for one.
I am scared and I am angry. And I am forced to wonder, is there a tipping point? A point at which Trump will do something so heinous, that even his most ardent supporters will be forced to open their eyes? When did Hitler’s most vocal advocates realize they’d made a mistake? Was it when the ovens started? When friends and neighbors started losing their lives? And in that point, could any Jew truly call a Nazi his friend?
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.
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?|
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|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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Every now and again, I like to take a mental detour from whatever book I am writing, to explore the goings on of my favorite naked heroes, Xandr and Thelana. This is a very early rough draft from the upcoming sequel to Ages of Aenya and The Princess of Aenya, tentatively titled, The One Sea (originally Skyclad Warriors). Previously, as seen in parts #1, #2 and #3, Xandr and Thelana decide to give up clothing entirely, even in societies where nakedness is taboo. Given their new statuses as heroes, and as gods in the eyes of many, they seek acceptance for their people and their customs, and for primitive races throughout Aenya.
Xandr followed the guards, hand-in-hand with Thelana. He could feel the moisture budding in her palm, her skin quivering. She would not release him, for his presence, he knew, strengthened her resolve. Shame could possess such power, but such power was an illusion, for it could do nothing to harm them. They had only to suffer their scorn and ridicule, and become pariahs. And yet, despite having lived much of his life in solitude, Xandr could not quell the racing of his heart, as though some predator were upon him. Ilmarin or no, he was like a beast removed from its habitat. Hundreds gathered around him, soldiers and magistrates and holy men, and families of royal birth, and his body quailed and shrank at the sight of them, his member like an ambling minnow between his thighs. And still he could not be called entirely naked, for he remained burdened by his sword, Emmaxis, weighed to his back in its scabbard.
The interior was cold and stony and lacked of wind, despite the searing sun beyond its walls, and the granite floor, patterned in semi-precious stones, was unforgiving against his soles. Every eye was upon them now, from the queen’s courtesans in their flowing silk and lace, to the magistrates in their ceremonial garb and conical hats, to the guards in their bronze and leather. Many had not gone out to the pier to receive them, and would not have known to expect their custom.
What little air circulated the room seemed to rush out of it just then, as Xandr and Thelana exposed themselves before their prodding eyes, and waited for the jeers and the laughter with which the Ilmar were so accustomed. He was armed for battle, but could not defend against the onslaught of judgement. His only recourse was to stand there, in as proud and godly a manner as one might manage, but truly, what did he know of them and their gods?
Arriving from port, Sif had led them to a bathhouse, where he and Thelana were washed and oiled and meticulously groomed. Their bodies glistened, and their scars masked, and not a follicle was out of place. No sign of human frailty was allowed them. So much trouble for a charade. A lie for a truth. Surely, his scabbard could be altered, with a belt to gird the loins, but Thelana was adamant that they go naked before the world, so that other primitives in hiding might come forward without shame. Even the captain took increasing interest in their stand. While she did not care to preserve their traditions, the idea of a god or gods speaking on behalf of the Delian people could only appeal to her. Even Xandr could recall how the supreme god of the Hedonians—Sargonus—wore no clothing, at least the idol he had seen, did not.
Queen Frazetta acknowledged the Delian host, showing only curiosity, as though she were looking upon some extinct species of man.
It was a long bearded priest who broke the silence. “Who are these rabble? How come they to this hallowed place with such disregard for custom? Do you mean us insult? Have you no respect for our queen?”
Sif addressed the man before anyone else could answer, “Take care how you speak, priest, lest you damn yourself. Citizens of Thetis, we mean no disrespect. As you can see, I, Daughter of King Frizzbeard, Princess of Northendell, stand here in the regal accouterments of my station, as prudence dictates. But I stand here also, humbled before two great divinities.”
“Divinities? What do you mean by this?”
“Have you not heard of the goings-on in Northendell? Of the giant who threatened our world and the gods who cast him down?”
“Gods?” He was about to laugh, but stopped himself, to study the two naked bodies again. There was enough doubt and superstition in him for the captain to twist his mind.
“You think us mad, to bring this man and woman before you, naked as newborns? No . . . do not let your mortal eyes deceive you. Men are frail things, prone to sickness and death and injury, to the cold of high moon, to the heat of the western sun. Men have need of clothing and armor. Gods do not.”
“Jafenji, could this be true?” the queen asked him. “Might they be immortal?”
“I would ask that they grace us with their divinity, so that we may be blessed.”
“Clever words,” Sif answered, “but not so clever to hide your intentions. You wish to test them. Is that not blasphemy? To question a god? To doubt a god? You wager your very soul that they are but mere mortals?”
“I will give him proof,” Xandr said, his voice resonating from wall to wall, “so no one will doubt us.” The naked warrior moved into the center of the room, slowly drawing the six feet of steel from over his head, and where the sun painted mosaics of light against the floor, he thrust the blade down, and the sound of metal on stone resounded, followed by an unearthly rumble and flashes of light.
All who watched were stunned to silence. Even Thelana looked on, forgetting herself entirely. Xandr released the weapon, and it remained, suspended on its tip. Before that moment, even he was unaware of it. But the sword had a will of its own, whispering instructions into his mind, that he often mistook for his own thoughts. The priest opened his mouth, but no sound came out, and at last he cowered with fear.
Standing from her throne, her arms wide, Queen Frazetta addressed them, a slight tremor in her voice, “Truly, the gods of old are not bound by custom, and may come to us in whatever fashion they so choose.” Her words were diplomatic, but whether she spoke out of some religious fear, or to appease those with whom she would seek a favorable treaty, he could not be certain. But his nakedness did not faze her, and he did not doubt that, as queen, she was accustomed to many stranger habits. Rather, it was Emmaxis that moved her. “Welcome to my kingdom. We shall do what we can to honor you.” Without hesitation, the queen moved from her dais, unfastening the gold brooch at her shoulder, and her stola crumpled about her feet, so that she stood wearing only her crown and the gold bands about her arms and wrists and ankles. String of gasps followed. A number of others looked away or covered their faces. It was a powerful act, evoking only confidence, and Xandr could not help but admire the woman. Even stripped of her clothing, she took on a regal air.
The seeds of change were planted. He could feel it in the way they watched him, and Thelana, and the naked queen. What was for ages a sign of poverty and slavery, and debauchery, would in time fade into obscurity.
|The Prophet Mohammed?|
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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.
|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 values, codes 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.|
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.
“I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination—what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not.”
Let me make a few things clear: I am not a Christian and I am not religious, nor do I align myself with the Intelligent Design crowd. I am a firm believer in evolution, as the evidence for it is overwhelming, and I thoroughly enjoy the writings of noted atheists Richard Dawkins and Philip Pullman. In other words, I am a big a fan of logical thinking. But the same feelings of uncertainty I once had for my Christian faith, I also have for atheism. Like Socrates, who argued that the path to wisdom is to admit ignorance, I am skeptical when anyone tries to argue abstract concepts with certainty. Any certainty we have about existence is arrogant, and atheists’ certainty about the non-existence of God feels equally arrogant. But atheists insist that any non-certainty about God automatically makes me an atheist. They even discredit agnosticism, saying that it is a weak position, a transitional phase for people coming out of the oppression of religion and ultimately synonymous with atheism. Since they account for less than 10% of Americans, it would seem they are trying to bolster their ranks via definition. You don’t have to not believe in God, you simply have to have uncertainty. Considering the Greek root of the word a-theos means no-God, this definition seems disingenuous. I could call many atheists textiles, based on the fact that they are not nudists, but non-nudists will never go around calling themselves or identifying with that term, since that is a judgmental definition based on my own world view. I also reject the false choice I am presented with, the either-or supposition of atheism. Penn Jillette, magician, comedian, and now outspoken proponent of atheism, has made the case that it is impossible to sit on the fence when it comes to belief in God. When you wake up in the morning, you either expect your living room to be there or you don’t. Again, this is a weak argument and a narrow analogy. Naturally, I believe in my living room more than in God, but belief is a matter of percentages. When we watch something on TV that is happening halfway around the world, we only partly believe it is real. Our lack of sensory perception accounts for this. The tsunami that hit Japan was a terrible tragedy, but how much more emotional, how much more real would it be, if we lived in Japan to experience it first hand? Or if we knew people who suffered radiation poisoning? Or if we ourselves were the sufferers of radiation poisoning? If you were to ask me whether I believe in aliens, I could honestly say I don’t know. There could be a group of alien believers and non-believers, arguing passionately for either position, and again I’d have to stand in the middle. The same case may be made for God. I may not know whether God exists, but that does not mean for certain that he does not.
On YouTube, there is a fascinating series of web documentaries called Why I Am No Longer a Christian by Evid3nc3. I highly recommend this video to anyone who has gone through the anguish of “losing God”. But, while I share many of the same feelings and experiences as Evid3nc3, I disagree with him toward the later part of the series. He goes from radical devotion to the Christian God to a radical devotion to evidence. While evidence (and literal truth) is an integral part of the human experience, it is only part of what it means to be human and to be alive. There is also metaphorical truth, which comes from the right brain (he is a computer scientist, I am a writer), which is part of imagination, without which there could be no invention. Human society is often a matter of self-invention. I sometimes believe, as Arthur C. Clarke postulated in 3001, that we may someday be living with dragons and unicorns because we will simply make them. Someday, TRUTH may become a matter of enterprise. With evidence alone, the Wright brothers could never have invented the airplane. Certainly, there was evidence that things can fly, such as birds and bats and insects, but there was also the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that humans have never flown. It took a leap of faith for the Wright brothers to connect the dots of evidence, to believe that the force of “lift” can work for man made wings as it works for birds.
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins makes the excellent point that evidence for God is equal to evidence for fairies. He states that anyone believing in fairies is no less justified than a Christian or Jew or Muslim for their faith. But my immediate reaction upon reading this was, so? Why shouldn’t we believe in fairies? While Dawkins makes an excellent case for evolution and for why there is no evidence for God, he fails to make the case, just every other atheist fails to make the case, for why we shouldn’t believe. Atheists are completely confounded by religious people. They don’t seem to understand why people have a need to believe in something beyond everyday experience. They apply the same rigid scientific scrutiny to religious dogma and are frustrated when 90% of Americans don’t come to the same conclusions. Despite his vast scientific knowledge and his steal-trap logic, Dawkins is dumbfounded by the ignorance of religious people. Atheists like him seem to think that it’s only a matter of time before humanity moves away from superstition toward an age of evidence-based enlightenment. But they have been waiting for hundreds of years already, and I do not believe their day will be arriving any time soon. The origins of science and the origins of religion come from the same place. It is a crossroads from when mankind first looked to the heavens and asked the BIG questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? What is my purpose? In order to give answer to these mysteries, some looked outward to the physical world, to evidence; these left-brained individuals would evolve to become the first scientists, and later, the first atheists. The right-brained people, on the other hand, looked inward. Using imagination, they invented stories about gods which gave their lives meaning and purpose. In The History of God, historian Karen Armstrong argues that the authors of religion, the Sumerians, Babylonians, Israelites and Greeks, did not believe or seek out literal truth, as fundamentalists and scientists do today, but metaphorical truth. For the earliest humans, religion did not take the place of science, but was closer to poetry, art and fiction. This theory makes sense when one considers the absurdity of Ancient Greek myth. For instance, did the Ancient Greeks literally believe in the story of Ouranos (the sky) who was so busy fornicating with Gaea (the earth) that her children could not come out of her womb? Not until Kronos (time) dismembered his father, allowing his brothers and sisters to spill forth? To me, the metaphorical aspect of Greek myth has always been apparent, a means for an ancient people to express their feelings for a world in which they had little understanding but that possessed them with awe and wonder. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins states that a garden is wondrous enough without there having to be fairies (or God) in it. But Dawkins has it backward. It is not that nature lacks sufficient wonder to be without fairies, but that nature is so wondrous, human beings cannot help but be inspired by it, be moved to invent a thing like fairies.
Belief serves many purposes. For scientists, evidence-based belief has practical uses. A biologist could not do his job if he were to believe in Creationism, which is why the Intelligent Design movement died so quickly. But for most people who are not scientists, belief, or faith, can be a great comfort. This explains the 90% of Americans who claim to believe in God or in a god. Just as the ancient Sumerians, people today have the same need to put their faith in something transcendent, in something more meaningful than raw, physical data. Why else would so many people in Britain claim to be of the Jedi religion (more than Judaism!) when they know, for a fact, that the Force is merely a fictitious plot device from a movie? My mother is not a religious person and does not go to Church, but she is a firm believer in God. I have always sensed that she has no interest in literal truth. She has no desire to study the Bible, to prove or disprove it either way. For my mother, belief is a personal matter. The belief that someone is watching over her children is a comfort to her, and as she approaches her 80th year, the notion that something awaits beyond death must also serve some comfort.
I was baptized Greek Orthodox, raised for eight years in a fundamentalist Baptist school, and married into a Muslim household. So, as anyone can see, my religious background is diverse. There was a time when I believed in the literal truth of the Bible, as I was taught at school, but even as a child I had my doubts. I never accepted the morality of the Abraham story, when Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. I never accepted that non-believers, born in countries that did not practice Christianity, would go to Hell. As I entered college, the things I learned in science, religion, and history classes quickly dispelled my indoctrination, which was very distressing for me at the time. Like Jean-Paul Sartre, I felt a God shaped hole in my life, which I tried to fill with philosophy and science, but it has never been satisfactory. As for atheism, I could find no solace in a philosophy that chiefly defines itself with non-belief. At first, I thought it might be fear of declaring myself an atheist, as many of my friends suspect me to be. But years after denying Christianity, the idea of atheism still leaves me feeling empty. There is just something about it that my right-brained brain finds shallow and unfulfilling. To quote Karen Armstrong, “The poets, novelists and philosophers of the Romantic movement pointed out that a thoroughgoing rationalism was reductive, because it left out the imaginative and intuitive activities of the human spirit.” Modern day atheists focus their arguments on easy targets. They attack fundamentalists, in part, because both camps speak the same language of literal truth. Where are the atheist rants discrediting Buddhism or Taoism? After a long time seeking, I came back to examine the Orthodox faith. Even though I do not consider myself Orthodox, I can appreciate the concept of mystery central to the religion. In the Greek Church, the Bible is not the WORD OF GOD, but simply inspired by God, and is prone to being fallible just as the authors of the Bible were fallible. For a Greek Orthodox believer, no one can know the mind of God, it is a mystery. In the monasteries of Sparta, built on mountaintops so remote from the rest of the world that you almost get a sense of Heaven, the monks and the nuns who live there exist in a transcendent state. The peace I have seen in their faces defies definition. How would offering them literal truth improve their lives? How would turning them to atheism make things better?
In The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, the author describes the strange phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, which he experienced while practicing the Jewish and Christian faith for one year. He describes the sense of peace he found in honoring the Sabbath and the serenity he found in the act of prayer, even though he did not believe any divine being was up there listening. In the same sense, I have tried to find a spiritual dimension in the natural world. Whether my sense of spirituality, or God, is all “in my head” is irrelevant. The love I have for my wife and children is also “all in my head”. I cannot prove or disprove love, and I have no evidence to back it up, but it is the most powerful and important part of my life nonetheless. Other atheists may choose to lump me into their camp based on their own definitions, but that label feels too confining for me. I am someone who believes that metaphorical truth can be just as valuable to a society and to an individual as literal truth, and that to dismiss the myths of our forefathers as nonsense and ignorance would be to do a great disservice to mankind. There is certainly great evil done in the name of religion, but evil is here to stay, whether we choose to call ourselves men of God or men of Reason. Someday in the future, I believe, the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and other such religious texts will sit on the shelf as great literature from antiquity. We will no longer regard these works as literal truths, but will value them no less. We will find in their archaic stories meanings to help us understand our own time. We will read the Bible and be aghast by the amorality of the Abrahamic story, or the tolerance for slavery, or the Mosaic Law which advocates the killing of homosexuals. But we will also be enlightened by that perspective, in seeing how far we’ve come in our society and, perhaps, how far we may still need to go in a future present with ethical challenges yet undreamed of (alien prejudice, maybe?). We will marvel at the poetry of Psalms and the teachings of love professed by Jesus Christ and Buddha. This will become what religion will mean in the future, and whatever new definitions exist for people of that era, I will count myself among them.
I read an article today in the St. Petersburg Times by Stephen Prothero, author of God is Not One.
In his essay, Prothero refutes the growing popular notion that religions are essentially the same, an idea proposed by the likes of the Dalai Lama and one of my heroes, George Lucas. He makes the valid point about the Iraq War and how our misunderstanding of Islam has created lots of problems for the U.S. I agree that if Americans had a better understanding of the Koran and its role in politics, we probably would not be trying so hard to turn them into a democracy. On the other hand, history has proven time and again that thinking the other guy’s religion is a heresy never leads to any Kumbaya sing-alongs. Prothero makes the point that each religion has different goals and ideas, that Buddhists are atheists and don’t believe in sin, unlike Christians and Muslims. But I don’t think that what the Dalai Lama or George Lucas meant was that all religions are identical, but that all religions end up in the same place. It’s like many highways going to the same city. Granted, Buddhists care about ending suffering, Christians about salvation, and Taoists well, if I were to say it wouldn’t be Taoism—but aren’t those things more similar than not? Isn’t Heaven a place where suffering does not exist? And wouldn’t Buddhists call a world without suffering a kind of Heaven?
I do think, we can all agree, that all religions do have certain things in
1. Religions strive to better mankind.
2. Religions generally advocate good over evil. (Aside from Satanism and
Norse God-ism, hurting others is a No-No).
3. Religions deal with the Other; in other words; they deal with things
beyond normal everyday experience.
4. Religions make life meaningful.