Group marriage does not look quite so terrible as the philistines, whose minds cannot get beyond brothels, imagine it to be.
— Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
Nothing need be said
Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, aka. the Marquis de Sade, has his first taste of prison at the age of 23 when he’s arrested for blasphemy after forcing a prostitute to hurl abuse at Christ. At 28, he lures a homeless woman to his chateau, where he binds and whips her and pours hot wax into the incisions he makes in her flesh with a knife; she escapes, and he does as well — from the police. He is never idle. While on the run he haunts the brothels of France. Five years later he organizes a sadomasochistic orgy with a bevy of prostitutes in Marseilles, one of whom almost dies after overdosing on the Spanish fly he’s forced down her throat. By this point the 32-year old aristocrat has become fodder of Continental proportions for the tabloid press (by then already a well-established industry). His wife’s family, also of nobility, secure a letter de cachet from the King to have Sade put away and save the family reputation. Sade manages to return to his chateau and seduce his wife’s younger sister, who flees with him to Italy. She returns early; he’s arrested in Sardinia but escapes from his prison and wends his way back to his chateau in France. Two years later he conspires with his wife to hire a series of unsuspecting female servants on whom to act out more sadomasochistic fantasies. The orgies and the cat-and-mouse game with the authorities drag on for several more years, until he is finally incarcerated for a lengthy prison stay with a freshly issued letter de cachet, at the age of 37.
Sade’s life is among the most wild and lurid ever recorded. But it is his period of brazen excess and outrage between 1763-77 that especially provides choice material for a biopic which has yet to be made, perhaps due to cinematic taboos against the celebration of freedom and violence. Sade can only be approached from his rightful place in prison. Five acclaimed films have appeared over the past half century based on the notorious libertine’s life and writings: Marat/Sade (Brook, 1966), Salo (Pasolini, 1975), Marquis (Xhonneux, 1989), Quills (Kaufman, 2000), and Sade (Jacquot, 2000). All except the second are set in one of the many prisons in which Sade spent half of his adult life, while Salo, an adaptation of his novel The 120 Days of Sodom, is likewise set in a fictional mountain fortress chock full of kidnapped sexually tortured youth. (One B movie entitled Marquis de Sade: Dark Prince (Gibby, 1996) attempts to cover some of Sade’s dramatic decade and a half but has garnered poor reviews.)
Prison took some getting used to for a rebellious aristocrat-debauchee unaccustomed to being ordered around. His nobility, however, gained him certain privileges we might find surprising — a daily menu of delicacies sent by his wife, fine clothes tailored to order, and most impressively, a personal cell large enough to stock his library of hundreds of books. Sade was a voracious reader and intellectual and had always fancied becoming a writer. Now, at the Château de Vincennes prison, and later the Bastille, where he was to spend the next 12 years, his life enabled him to pursue this vocation. He spent the first four of these years researching history and geography and planning travel adventure books. He conceived of plays but his initial efforts failed to impress his acquaintances. Mostly he wrote letters, hundreds of them, to his wife, and they are a marvel of psychological and rhetorical brilliance, energized by growing intolerance at his confinement. It was clear he was undergoing an internal upheaval correlative to the chaos of the preceding 15 years of his life. Leveraged by this mounting rage, he metamorphosed into a writer of genius.
I too wanted to be a writer but with my teaching duties and academic research could never seem to find the time, while at the same time I was writing hundreds of impassioned emails to my friends about my life abroad. One day I realized that all the emails I had written over the years had enough interesting material to fill several books. They were the books I should have been writing instead of wasting my time on emails. Likewise, in 1782, four years into his stay at Vincennes, Sade realized his imaginative energies were put to better and lasting use in books and fiction than the ephemera of letters. He began drafting what would turn out to be one of the most conceptually innovative novels of the 18th century, The 120 Days of Sodom. Also sometime that summer, he penned the most crystalline statement on atheism ever written, the “Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man.”
In this compact, ten-page dialogue, a dying man slices up the tired clichés thrown at him by a bedside priest with the only argument atheists ever need to dispatch the religious: Occam’s razor, which holds that the simplest explanation is always the best. To the believer, the universe requires a first cause, a creator. Contemplation of the universe without a creator is intolerable. “What can regulate the whole save it be an all-powerful and all-knowing hand?” demands to know the priest. “Is it not necessary that gunpowder ignite when you set a spark to it?” retorts the dying man, for whom redundancy itself is intolerable. The physical universe and its workings are perfectly self-sufficient. Why worry about who created the universe when the universe is obviously its own creation? What need of a god when nature is everything? The remaining grab bag of arguments the priest resorts to consist of various appeals to fear — punishment after death, the horrifying prospect of nothingness, and so on. When the priest warns that “there is no restoring the blind to light,” the dying man sets him straight:
Softly, my friend, own that between the two, he who blindfolds himself must surely see less of the light than he who snatches the blindfold away from his eyes. You compose, you construct, you dream, you magnify and complicate; I sift, I simplify. You accumulate errors, pile one atop the other; I combat them all. Which one of us is blind? (De Sade)
The dialogue is appropriately short, for two reasons. First, form mimics content. Concision has the sharpest edge, and the priest’s arguments are easily and quickly obliterated with unnecessary verbiage. The man also happens to be dying, and the minutes are running out. Why waste them on the blatherings of a priest when he has six women “lovelier than the light of day” reserved for his final moments, waiting for him in the room next door? (At this point he might have dismissed the priest but he lets the women enter and as he predicts, the priest succumbs to them as well.)
Second, there is something more basic at issue. For the clearheaded and those lucky enough to escape a religious upbringing (I live in China where this is the norm, where the idea of God simply doesn’t occur to most people), the absence of a deity is so obvious and manifest that even ten pages of dialogue are too much. The whole exercise, the mere idea of it, is empty. On the religious question, nothing need be said. Sade took a brief stab at it, before getting back to The 120 Days of Sodom, a more worthy task for channeling his creative energies. He wanted to write on his terms, not Christianity’s.
Two years later he was transferred to the Bastille prison and soon finished the novel’s first draft on a paper roll in microscopic script, hiding it in a chink in his cell (he lost it after his release but it was ultimately recovered and published in 1918). In the meantime a series of books poured out: Justine (1787), Aline and Valcour (1788), Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795), The Crimes of Love (1800), and many other lost novels, an enormous output totaling tens of thousands of pages. The third edition of Justine (pub. 1801), which included the sequel Juliette, was four thousand pages alone. Justine turned out to be too popular for the authorities to stomach, and in 1801 Napoleon Bonaparte had Sade imprisoned for life, in the Charenton asylum, where he died in 1814.
Nevertheless, he kept returning to the subject. We discover pages and pages on religion in Sade’s novels. Their structure soon fell into a pattern: unbridled minutely choreographed orgies alternating with lengthy diatribes against Christianity, typically by one of his many libertine heroes for the edification of whatever younger character was currently in the process of being sexually and morally corrupted. The unstoppable voice of the rage-driven Sadeian writing machine couldn’t get enough of the subject. Here is one abridged excerpt from Justine, a perverse rendering of the Christ story, which the Comte de Bressac, after a lengthy disquisition on the superiority of homosexual to heterosexual sex, delivers to the hapless heroine Thérèse:
“How is it that rational men are still able to lend any credence to the obscure mutterings, to the alleged miracles of that appalling cult’s vile originator? Has there ever existed a rowdy scoundrel more worthy of public indignation! What is he but a leprous Jew who, born of a slut and a soldier in the world’s meanest stews, dared fob himself off for the spokesman of him who, they say, created the universe!…It is through hocus-pocus, antic capers, and puns that God’s envoy announces himself to the world; it is in the elegant society of manual laborers, artisans, and streetwalkers that Heaven’s minister comes to manifest his grandeur; it is by drunken carousing with these, bedding with those, that God’s friend, God himself, comes to bend the toughened sinner to his laws; it is by inventing nothing for his farces but what can satisfy either his lewdness or his gourmand’s guts that the knavish fellow demonstrates his mission; however all that may be, he makes his fortune; a few beef-witted satellites gravitate toward the villain; a sect is formed; this crowd’s dogmas manage to seduce some Jews; slaves of the Roman power, they joyfully embrace a religion which, ridding them of their shackles, makes them subject to none but a metaphysical tyranny. Their motives become evident, their indocility unveils itself, the seditious louts are arrested; their captain perishes, but of a death doubtless much too merciful for his species of crime, and through an unpardonable lapse of intelligence, this uncouth boor’s disciples are allowed to disperse instead of being slaughtered cheek to jowl with their leader.”
Here we have the paradox of the atheist. For while nothing need be said, a great deal can — and must — be said, over and over again. George Smith puts it aptly in his Atheism: The Case Against God:
It may be objected that we have reduced atheism to a triviality. It is not a positive belief and does not offer any constructive principles, so of what value is it? If atheism may be compared to not believing in magic elves, why is it important? Why devote an entire book to a trivial subject? Atheism is important because theism is important….when considered within its proper context — within the framework of its historical, cultural, philosophical and psychological significance — the question of god is among the most crucial subjects of our time.
Or as Christopher Hitchens writes: “The argument with faith is the foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning — but not the end — of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature” (God Is Not Great).
It’s often been noted how few respected or recognizable voices of atheism there are in the US, far less even than communism. This most obscure, eccentric of pastimes is associated with the oddball atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who pathetically along with her family was murdered by one of their group in 1995. I would say the reason for atheism’s invisibility has less to do with Americans’ notorious religious conformity than with good old American pragmatism. Nothing need be said. And then, suddenly, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a great deal needed to be said, when the question of religion — the religion of the Other — blasted into the forefront of the national psyche. In the space of four years, four notable books advocating atheism made it into the news: Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (2004), Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006), and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great (2007).
Let’s pick out some of these books’ pithier pronouncements, such as Hitchens’ quip that “philosophy begins where religion ends.” Or Richard Dawkins: “One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” As Dawkins cites Daniel Dennett: “A baffingly large number of intellectuals ‘believe in belief’ even though they lack religious belief themselves.” We’ll return to this notion of “belief in belief” later. Dawkins recycles Marx’s “opium of the masses” idea: “Religious faith has something of the same character as falling in love (and both have many of the attributes of being high on an addictive drug”).” As does Dennett : “Are religions themselves a kind of saccharine for the brain…a subspecies of folk medicine, in which we self-medicate for relief, using therapies honed by thousands of years of trial-and-error development?” Sam Harris is particularly good at penning cutting statements: “While religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are….The history of Christianity is principally a story of mankind’s misery and ignorance rather than of its required love of God.”
We also see a shift in these “New Atheists” from the traditional focus on the internal and logical inconsistencies of religion to actually existing religions’ effects on people and societies and their resultant trail of murder and mayhem, private misery, sexual dysfunction and psychological damage. Harris has taken a lot of heat for his characterization of Islam as the worst of present-day religions, and specifically his contention that in certain cases it “may even be ethical to kill people” to preempt their attempt to kill us. In his “ticking bomb” scenario, if a Muslim terrorist presents a credible, imminent threat to detonate a nuclear weapon in a Western city, “the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own….the West must either win the argument or win the war. All else will be bondage.” That a nuclear state would respond in kind to a nuclear terrorist attack on its soil is fairly certain; to this realpolitik Harris applies the logic of the first strike. Needless to say, a nuclear strike, whether deterrent or retaliatory, on a territory suspected of harboring the ringleaders would be catastrophic for the population affected and accomplish nothing. Such polemics have gotten Harris categorized as an irresponsible rightwing Islamophobe, somewhat unfairly so, I feel, as the accusation doesn’t jive with the otherwise carefully reasoned tenor of his writings. His unfailing efforts to stimulate critical discussion in the fault lines of politically correct discourse is to be respected. It should be repeated that he is an atheist who cuts no slack with Christianity or any other religion. He is carrying out atheism in action: a relentless (and humorless) critique of the religious status quo everywhere, including the liberal-left, with its wholesale embrace of the world’s faiths in the name of progressivism (I love Slavoj Zizek’s quip: “Pascal’s Wager, you know, proved that it was rational to believe in God if there was the slightest chance it would annoy Sam Harris”).
Meanwhile, despite the seeming urgency of the Islamic question in the post-9/11 world, atheism remains what it is, an intellectual stimulant or catalyst with little else to offer beyond clearing the air or leveling the playing field. Since these books reveal only the obvious and offer little in the way of fresh knowledge, they must be read in another frame of mind, as rhetorical or stylistic exercises. You might now guess that this is what I am getting at by the “problem with the atheists” of my title: namely, that the most articulate spokesmen for atheism in our time have, finally, little of anything new to say, since after all, nothing need be said. In fact, this is not what I am getting at. I quite enjoyed these books, especially Hitchens’, the most eloquent of the four, who should be required reading for any doubting Christians. Indeed, it’s the Christian who is really their intended audience, not the jaded atheist. But I have another agenda, and more arguments to unfold before we get there.
The religious continuum
For the sake of systematizing things, I’ve mapped out the following “religious continuum” chart, with “dogma” (enforced or indoctrinated belief) and “reason” (autonomous and critical thought) defining the two extremes. I divide up the continuum into four levels or stages, and I overlay four varieties of three institutions — the state, religion and the family — along their positions on the continuum depending on how susceptible they are to dogma or reason. (Note that my categories are inevitably over-generalized and simplistic and are only intended to be useful for the present discussion.)
The most repressive type of state, where dogma exerts the greatest force, is totalitarianism (level 1), exemplified by Nazi Germany, North Korea, the “Big Brother” dystopia in George Orwell’s novel 1984, and the like. These societies are not simply police states but seek total control over their subjects’ every thought and behavior. When police states relax their grip somewhat and give people a measure of freedom to speak and assemble while maintaining a tight top-down grip on social organization, we rise to authoritarianism (level 2). The type and extent of authoritarianism can vary from relatively more militaristic societies like present-day China to more benign varieties, such as Singapore, which may seem democratic on the surface but offer few political options or mechanisms for change.
The democracies of the developed world (USA, Europe, Japan, etc.) fall into level 3, capitalism, again with significant variations. States like the US with high income disparities are closer to authoritarianism, since life for the dispossessed largely resembles life under authoritarianism in terms of economic constriction. At the upper end of level 3, we have the social democracies of northern Europe, with their more rational, egalitarian capitalism. Level 4, communitarianism, represents what few societies have attained. It’s unfortunately a loaded word with conflicting connotations, but by it I mean a decentralized type of democratic socialism, with intentional communities mutually engaged in promoting the social welfare, which at the same time preserve various freedoms — speech, personal wealth (excess wealth is expected to be fed back into the community), etc. This is ethically and equitably the most advanced stage of social organization: when reason unadulterated with dogma governs at the level of the state and individuals’ lives.
We can similarly assess religion on the basis of the presence or absence of dogma. In a theocracy (level 1), religious expression is entirely externalized as dogma and codified in group behavior and rituals. These are simultaneously injunctions of the state: obey the rituals and you will never fall afoul of God or of the state. Religion has little of the “spiritual” about it in a theocracy. There is no personal relationship with the deity, only with the state, which mediates the deity through its prescriptions (“thou shalt”) and proscriptions (“thou shalt not”). Examples of present-day theocracies are the regimes under the Taliban in Afghanistan and Isis in Syria and Iraq; a more benign form is Saudi Arabia, where the spartan quality of theocratic existence is upholstered by wealth and consumerism. It should be noted that patriarchal theocracies are almost by definition female slavery regimes, where women enjoy few rights beyond that of bare survival — and even their survival is at the whim of male relatives, who may kill them with virtual impunity for real or suspected sexual relations.
All totalitarian states are theocracies in a sense, since they draw on quasi-religious symbolism — “myths of redemption and messianism” and “the ceaseless invocation of a ‘Radiant Future'” (Hitchens) — to brainwash and mobilize the masses. The Chinese communists and the Maoist Shining Path movement of Peru frequently depicted in their propaganda posters landscapes with glowing rays in the distance or bursts of light surrounding their leaders, reminiscent of halos in Christian iconography. The North Korean founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, the Great Leader and Dear Leader as they respectively styled themselves, have been accorded divine, immortal status and apparently in the minds of the people are still alive, despite the massive state funerals they received.
When a society is able to compartmentalize the religious from the civic sphere, making it the individual’s and family’s, rather than the state’s responsibility to abide by religious norms, we rise to religious orthodoxy (level 2). A measure of religious freedom is allowed, but only one religion, or one sect of one religion (e.g. Catholic or Protestant) is officially sanctioned. This freedom tends to be cosmetic and conditional — you are expected to exercise your freedom by readily conforming to the dominant faith. It is ironic that the Puritans fled Europe for America in the name of religious freedom, only to enforce their own harsh brand of Calvinism on their communities for generations. Religious orthodoxy remained the norm in Europe and the US up until the 20th century
Though it is enshrined in the Constitution, the US did not finally see true religious freedom until the 20th century (level 3). Today, Americans can practice any faith in peace, even create their own new church or faith and receive tax-exempt status from the state. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., are likewise free to practice their faith in this country. Level 3 also implies the freedom not to believe — atheism. As unpopular as atheists are to the majority of Americans, they are not persecuted. This is extremely significant. Atheism may be self-evident, but it should never be taken granted. Nothing need be said, but the right to atheism requires that everything must be said, since it could all be taken away. For most of history, and the present as well in many parts of the world, to assert the unsayable and unthinkable: to deny the existence of god results in your immediate or delayed death, by an attacking mob or execution by the state. Atheists are thus morally obligated to announce themselves where it’s safe to do so in order to make their voices heard loud and clear. The beacon of freedom shines most brightly at the extremes of permissible expression.
Intellectual spirituality (level 4) marks a conceptual advance over all forms of religious faith in that it divests the spiritual of any traces of dogma, i.e., the injunctions and rituals by which the practitioner demonstrates membership in a church. It also frees the mind to apprehend spirituality critically. True spirituality is only and exclusively intellectual; it is enlivened by the intellect. Once severed from the intellect, it collapses into dogma. As contemplation of the unknown, of dimensions more complex than our notions of time and space allow, spirituality is an intellectual endeavor in the full sense of the word, and in this respect atheists like Sam Harris are sympathetic to it:
Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion….Spirituality can be — indeed, must be — deeply rational, even as it elucidates the limits of reason.
There is a great deal that is unknown to us. We are only comparatively less ignorant than Ptolemy, Copernicus and Galileo in our understanding of the universe. It’s easy enough to dismiss the figure of an old man with a beard sitting on a throne in an indeterminate place in the sky, tallying his account book of humanity’s sins (this conceiving of the divine in human form is known as anthropomorphism). It’s harder to dismiss countless reports over the millennia of more manifold and subtle forms of supernatural phenomena — telepathic communication, auras, qi energy, ghosts, spirits, and so forth. A “fairy” may be a metaphorical term, but the entity it refers to, whatever you call it, has been repeatedly and vividly encountered by people for ages in a more immediate and visceral way than an obscure tyrant in the sky (Shakespeare’s plays are replete with references to the busy spirit world at a time when it was far less controversial). The agnostic throws up his hands and says, “it’s all a mystery to me,” as if that were the end of the matter. The openminded and skeptical atheist confronts these mysteries more honestly:
There may yet be good reasons to believe in psychic phenomena, alien life, the doctrine of rebirth, the healing power of prayer, or anything else — but our credulity must scale with the evidence. The doctrine of faith denies this. From the perspective of faith, it is better to ape the behavior of one’s ancestors than to find creative ways to uncover new truths in the present. (Harris)
Dawkins points us to a crucial recognition. Our ignorance at this stage in human development prevents us from distinguishing alien intelligence (which most scientists are willing to posit) from the supernatural (on which see also the recent article “Is Physical Law an Alien Intelligence?” in the journal Nautilus):
There are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century.
The supernatural in fact can be readily investigated through ingestion of the so-called “true hallucinogens,” the drugs ayahuasca, DMT (the synthetic form of ayahuasca), and 5-MeO-DMT (extracted from the venom of the Sonoran toad, whose effect resembles DMT but is even more potent). The true hallucinogens are distinguished from the pseudo-hallucinogens such as LSD, mescaline and psilocybin in that the hallucinating is experienced as wholly real, whereas with the latter drugs the user is always aware that he or she is hallucinating (though at very high doses, LSD hallucinations are reportedly convincingly real). I have done plenty of LSD in my life and have had intimations of the beyond but have not tried any of the true hallucinogens. For one, I’m not sure where to find them (Burning Man Festival?); for another, I’m frankly afraid — of their power. By this point in my life I have made a pact with the nature of things, and do not regard it as a personal duty to explore the supernatural. Reading about it is intriguing enough.
Not only are the hallucinations of the DMT-class of drugs experienced as real, they evidently are real and alive and autonomous. As users describe it, the drugs act as a communication medium that thrusts you into direct, dazzling contact with supernatural entities, typically aliens, elves or serpents. These entities address the user, wordlessly or in speech, with the most profound, even devastating knowledge and wisdom. For the incredulous but curious, there is a growing number of books and articles on the subject. In brief, start with Terence McKenna, whose account in True Hallucinations of his and brother and noted scientist Dennis McKenna’s wrestling with alien wavelengths in the Amazon jungle while high on powerful psychedelics is bizarrely convincing (Terence McKenna’s entertaining accounts of using DMT in his public lectures are also recommended and can be found on YouTube). An eye-opening discussion of Upper Paleolithic cave paintings, aliens and the author’s use of the hallucinogen iboga is found in Graham Hancock’s Supernatural. Daniel Pinchbeck in Breaking Open the Head relates his firsthand experiences of some of the most potent natural hallucinogens that have been consumed for millennia around the planet. James Oroc’s Tryptamine Palace is a fascinating in-depth exploration of 5-MeO-DMT. For a more scientifically rigorous approach, Dr. Rick Strassman administered DMT to scores of volunteers (university students and professors) in a controlled study, all of whom came out of the encounter changed and reporting uncannily similar accounts of contact with aliens (DMT: The Spirit Molecule).
The prevailing explanation for these alien encounters is DNA field theory. It’s known that disciplined meditation can heighten one’s perceptual abilities to tap into a wider range of reality than is accessible to normal consciousness. This is how mystics have traditionally attributed their knowledge of the divine. Hallucinogenic drugs instantly and far more efficiently open up consciousness to these extrasensory states. In field theory, energy permeates the universe in electromagnetic waves which act like radio frequencies that resonate together and exchange information simultaneously across space. In humans these waves resonate at the molecular level in DNA, and hallucinogens enable consciousness to tune in to information encoded in the DNA. This explains how ancient shamans around the world were able to visualize “double helixes, twisted ladders, and chromosome shapes” and depicted these in their art long before the discovery of the molecule’s structure. “DNA and the cell-based life it codes for are an extremely sophisticated technology that far surpasses our present-day understanding and that was initially developed elsewhere than on earth” (Jeremy Narby, The Cosmic Serpent).
Whether DNA was seeded on the planet some four billion years ago by extraterrestrials (as Francis Crick, co-discover of the DNA code, believed) or evolved naturally is a gripping question in science. Lynne McTaggart in The Field provides a good overview of the important names that have been working on this problem since the development of quantum field theory a century ago, such as the claim of biophysicist Fritz-Albert Popp that DNA was devised or exploited as a cosmic communication device: “If DNA uses frequencies of all variety as an information tool, this would suggest instead a feedback system of perfect communication through waves which encode and transfer information.” DNA can thus be described as a highly evolved code manifesting itself as dispersed or passive intelligence, perpetually circulating information-bearing energy throughout the universe; in other words, it is itself the highest form of intelligence. Alternatively, it was devised by a highly evolved alien intelligence for the purpose of actively communicating or transmitting information and knowledge and making this information accessible to intelligent life forms throughout the universe.
I have delved into these aspects of the supernatural at some length to underscore their substance and interest, and to contrast their sophistication with that which is the antithesis of knowledge: dogma. Of course, there are plenty of religious believers who would claim their own possession of the word of God is not simply a matter of faith but of knowledge as well. What “psychonaut” under the influence of DMT can presume to state that the insights imparted to him by an elf-alien are more “real” than the knowledge personally spoken to a believer by Jesus? Here we must highlight the distinction between speculative and dogmatic truth, and their relative quality. Speculative truth is complex and intellectual, whereas dogmatic truth tends to regurgitate the same language — the same injunctions and prohibitions — of the Bible or other religious book. Speculative truth is original; dogmatic truth is plagiarized. Speculative knowledge can be held in abeyance at the same time that it is accepted as real; it allows for irony and detachment. Religious faith, by contrast, wholly precludes the slightest doubt.
The pursuit of intellectual spirituality includes aesthetic appreciation as well: contemplation of the arts and music — and religious art. I’ve long found it peculiar that so many fervent Christians show little or no appreciation for the arts of their own tradition — the paintings and sculptures of the medieval and Renaissance masters, the great cathedrals, the Church’s 1,000-plus years of sacred music. Artistic endeavor is itself a form of intellectual spirituality, a way of tapping into the wellspring of divine energy and inspiration. This is why a street musician is more “spiritual” than a street preacher shouting at people to stop living in sin.
“Ah,” you say, finally having figured out what I mean by my atheist “problem.” By closing off any discussion of the spiritual, atheists deprive themselves of a superior form of knowledge. While they are to be credited with rejecting religious dogmatism, they fail to grasp the value of intellectual spirituality. In other words, atheism isn’t spiritual enough. This conclusion, however, is not at all what I am getting at. As previously noted, there are atheists such as Dawkins and Harris who are quite open to the existence of a spiritual reality; they just want evidence. Scientists in their natural curiosity are among the most openminded thinkers around. If there were conclusive proof that aliens or supernatural beings can talk to us in code through our DNA amplified through a select class of hallucinogenic drugs, these scientists would be the first to believe it. No, my problem with the atheists lies elsewhere, on a more mundane level.
The cage outside of the cage
I have long wondered why the statement “I am an atheist” rings hollow and falls flat, even to me, an atheist. As if, “Well, gosh. I’m a Cubs fan” is the only appropriate response. One reason is that the subject matter is obscure; religion is a moving target. To claim one is “religious” can mean almost anything — and hence nothing. Faced with the tawdry array of religious products screaming for attention in the supermarket of lifestyle choices, the action of having to select one is banal enough, all the more so when it comes to the poorest-selling product of all — atheism. To compensate for brand unpalatability, your local atheist dons a Cubs baseball cap. His house has a white picket fence and he barbecues the same food in his backyard as his Christian neighbors. He is distressingly normal. And that’s the whole point: atheists want you to realize they are not monsters but just ordinary folk like everyone else. They just don’t feel the necessity of going to church.
And that, to me, is precisely the problem. What’s the point of atheism if one’s life corresponds in every detail to that of your typical Christian but for this one difference, the dispensing with Sunday church and mealtime prayer? Atheists even participate in the same Christian-themed holiday festivals — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. Or does being an atheist consist in silly gestures like celebrating a “pagan” Christmas, shorn of any Biblical references? The Christian’s life seems much richer and more satisfying by contrast, infused as it is with genuine enthusiasm for these colorful rituals. Certainly Christmas Day is more fulfilling after Christmas Eve is spent at the local church joining in midnight carols with the congregation, and Easter more meaningful if one believes in the Resurrection.
Somehow I feel that “I am an atheist” should constitute a strong statement, one with a certain brashness, even militancy to it, implying a radically different approach to living. As a result of declaring oneself an atheist, how does one demonstrate this in action? What do atheists celebrate? What daily priorities and goals supplant conventional ones in a community of atheists? Not much, it seems, apart from freeing up Sunday mornings to do other things besides going to church (not a particularly strong selling point to the many Christians who themselves don’t go to church).
To feel that they belong to the larger community, atheists must act as if they are, or would be, religious. As Dawkins puts it: “The majority of atheists I know disguise their atheism behind a pious facade. They do not believe in anything supernatural themselves, but retain a vague soft spot for irrational belief. They believe in belief” (italics mine; Dawkins repeats Daniel Dennett’s slogan). We can go further and state that your typical atheist is fully chained to dogma and is quite religious despite fervently denying being so. What is this irrational belief that atheists believe in spite of themselves? Before answering this question, let’s return to the religious continuum and consider the third column in the chart, the institution of the family, and its core structural unit, monogamy.
Monogamy must be considered from two aspects, the objective (legal) and the subjective (moral). The legal is fairly straightforward: you either accept the universal right to divorce, or you don’t; and you either accept the right to commit to adultery without violating the law, or you don’t. Under strict monogamy (level 1), divorce is prohibited. (In patriarchal regimes that practice polygyny, to be sure, the husband may easily dispose of one or more of his wives, but I refer here to monogamy in the Western tradition.) Up until the Enlightenment, a wife could not sue for divorce except in rare cases, e.g., where the husband was impotent and incapable of fathering children. Many societies right up to our time have practiced strict monogamy, including secular nations such as Cultural Revolution-era Communist China and present-day North Korea, and England up through the Renaissance (if sexual affairs are so rare in Shakespeare’s plays, it’s because it was a capital crime in Elizabethan England). These regimes cow their population into a terror of the prospect of adultery, which is punishable by death, and divorce is only ever allowed under the most exceptional circumstances.
When divorce is established as a right, one that can be initiated with equal ease by the husband or the wife, we move up to level 2, serial monogamy. Serial monogamy acknowledges that marriages frequently misfire, and allows unfortunate couples a way out and another chance. At the same time, adultery remains a severely punishable offense. In relaxed monogamy (level 3), in contrast, the punitive treatment of adultery is eased or it’s left wholly unpunished. This is the general condition in the developed world today, though in the US, certain occupations (the military) continue to forbid adultery on pain of termination and scandal, and of course adultery can determine the outcome of child custody cases in divorce court. No US presidential candidate is electable who is not married. It need not be the candidate’s first spouse, but there must be a spouse, and adultery is inconceivable. In this respect, the presidential office corresponds to level 2 on the continuum. For the population as a whole, most people are sympathetic to adultery in a loveless or failed marriage, as long as it is transitional and serves to dissolve the marriage. Legally speaking, then, the average Westerner is generally accepting of relaxed monogamy (level 3), that is, the right to commit adultery without legal or other severe consequences.
Polyamory (level 4) is the practice of romantically and sexually cohabiting with any combination of adults (including monogamous arrangements), openly and in mutual acceptance, and to form families and raise children collectively in such arrangements. Polyamory is not presently enshrined as a legal right in any country, though it is practiced informally by a growing minority of people, particularly among the well-educated. Like communitarianism, it is an ideal social arrangement, involving much ongoing experimentation, with no established tradition or precedents and models to draw upon. And like the challenges of intellectual spirituality, it’s not an easy concept for many to get their head around and is not for everyone.
This point needs stressing: what all three institutions (state, religion, family) share at level 4 is that while they represent an ideal, they are also optional. They develop and grow by example and persuasion rather than coercion. They demand only the right of enthusiasts to practice them and expressly resist the urge to impose them on the rest of the population, since to do so would betray the totalitarian impulse. We will assume for the purpose of this discussion that the majority of people everywhere would consider level 3 sufficient in terms of what is acceptable and necessary as legally enshrined freedoms, whereas level 4 is merely theoretical.
Morally speaking, on the other hand, monogamy looks very different. Consider your subjective reaction to a prospective marriage partner who said to you, “You know, I’m totally into marrying you, but the fact is passion inevitably falls off over time and there will come a day when I weary of you in bed and will need to sleep with someone else. But don’t worry, you can too! We might even work this into the marriage.” Most people, I presume, would find such a confession shocking and off-putting and as a result of which would no longer be able to entertain marriage to such a person. If you agree that this would nip the marital prospect in the bud, then you are at level 2: you cannot countenance a marriage with even the remotest possibility of unfaithfulness. If the same person were then to add, “But to be perfectly frank with you, given that divorce occurs to around 50% of all couples, our marriage is no more than a toss-up. Still, let’s see how it goes.” If you feel that this statement also disqualifies marriage to such a person, you are at level 1: you cannot countenance a marriage with even the remotest prospect of divorce.
What accounts for this paradox that so many people rush into a marriage only to cheat, have affairs and get divorced, sometimes even in a matter of months, but to raise this realistic possibility instantly wrecks the marriage prospect at the outset? Monogamy, like dogma, is all or nothing. It cannot tolerate the critical gaze but must be accepted on faith or not at all. Monogamism is a religion in its own right. It’s the Ur-religion, providing the template and structure for all patriarchal religions. The sine qua non of acceptance into the religion is unquestioning faith. The marriage proposal is the binding declaration of this faith; the elaborate wedding, its baptismal ritual. To question the necessity of lifelong sexual fidelity is blasphemy, and adultery is sacrilege, resulting in hasty excommunication — divorce. All religions have zero tolerance for irony and humor, and monogamism is no different; the mere suggestion of relaxing its strictures unleashes the wrath of jealousy, with or without cause (on the relentless mutual policing and surveillance regimes couples voluntarily institute see Laura Kipnis’ Against Love). And like all religions, monogamism requires exclusiveness among its faithful. Just as Christians sincerely regard their religion as the only true faith among the world’s faiths, and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists theirs, monogamists likewise believe monogamy is the only possible sexual arrangement for domestic life, and anything else is a violation of nature.
As an infidel who rejects monogamism, I would point out that human history presents us with countless alternatives to monogamy, from all sorts of group marriage configurations to matriarchal polyandrous households to loosely allied “pairing” marriages to sex hospitality (wife-sharing) cultures. A summary of these traditions is beautifully and sympathetically laid out in the second chapter, “The Family,” of Frederick Engels’ classic The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (pub. 1877). Engels also reminds us that patriarchal monogamy with all its punitive restrictions emerged historically out of man’s violent enslavement of woman, and has survived as an institution only in tandem with its destructive Other — the mistress, the adulteress, and the prostitute. I invite the reader to have a good look at Engels’ account, in lieu of wearing out my discussion here. For the current “bible” of the polyamory movement, Ryan and Jetha’s Sex at Dawn is an excellent introduction.
Correct me if I am wrong, but no atheist has ever brought up the crucial problem of monogamy, the last and most robust of faiths — the biggest and most ferocious dragon remaining to be slain, which the atheist fails to behold because it’s too big to be taken in at a glance. To fail to recognize the problem is to be fully in its grip. Atheists are invariably nuclear family types, faithful members of the covert religion of monogamism, even as they proclaim their freedom from religion. For when there is no more religion, the need to attach faith to something, anything, the need to believe in some kind of belief remains, and creates its own religion. The atheist proudly affirms his intellectual independence from the cage of dogma, only to find himself in the cage outside of the cage.
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You may also find these posts of interest:
From Van Gogh to the Camino de Santiago: Symbolic travel and the modern pilgrim
A modest proposal regarding sex work: Why all sex should be paid for
Advanced love: An introduction to polyamory
Like this post? Buy the book, coming January 2017:
American Rococo: Essays on the Edge