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 twenty-three when he’s arrested for blasphemy, after forcing a prostitute to hurl abuse at Christ. At twenty-eight, he lures a homeless woman to his chateau, where he binds and whips her and pours hot wax in the gashes in her flesh he made 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 thirty-two-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. As he is being hunted by the authorities, he manages to return to his chateau and seduce his wife’s younger sister, who flees with him to Italy. She returns early; he’s finally 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 yet more sadomasochistic fantasies. The orgies and the cat-and-mouse game with the police 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 thirty-seven.
Sade’s life is among the wildest and most lurid ever recorded. But it is his brazen excesses and outrages of the years 1763–77 that especially provides choice material for a biopic on this period which has yet to be made, perhaps due to cinematic taboos against the celebration of freedom and violence. The man can only be approached from his rightful place in prison. Over the past half century, five acclaimed films have appeared 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 the latter half of his adult life, while Salo, an adaptation of his novel The 120 Days of Sodom, is set during the Nazi era in a fictional mountain fortress packed with hundreds of youth kidnapped for their sexual torture. (One movie entitled Marquis de Sade: Dark Prince (Gibby, 1996) covered some of Sade’s aforementioned decade and a half but garnered poor reviews.)
Prison took some getting used to for the rebellious aristocrat-debauchee, who was 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 cell large enough to stock a personal library of hundreds of books. Sade was a voracious reader and intellectual and had always fancied becoming a writer. Prison—the Château de Vincennes and later the Bastille where he was to spend the next twelve years—released him to do just that. He spent the first four researching history and geography and planning travel adventure books. He conceived of plays but his initial efforts failed to impress those he showed them to. Mostly he wrote letters to his wife, hundreds of them, marvels 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 fifteen years of his life. Leveraged by this mounting rage, he metamorphosed into a writer of genius.
I also wanted to be a writer but with my teaching duties and academic research, could never seem to find the time, all the while writing hundreds of impassioned emails to 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 proceeded to draft what would turn out to be one of the most conceptually innovative novels of the eighteenth century, The 120 Days of Sodom. Sometime that summer as well, he penned his extraordinarily crystalline statement on atheism, “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, without whom contemplation of the universe is intolerable. “What can regulate the whole save it be an all-powerful and all-knowing hand?” the priest demands to know. The dying man, for whom this tautology is itself intolerable, retorts “Is it not necessary that gunpowder ignite when you set a spark to it?” In other words, why worry about what or who created the universe, when the fact of its existence is enough? What need of a god when nature suffices? Among the priest’s remaining grab bag of arguments are appeals to fear—punishment after death, the horrifying prospect of nothingness, and so on. When he warns “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 quickly disposed of 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 females “lovelier than the light of day” reserved for his final moments, waiting for him in the chamber next door? (At this point he might have dismissed the priest but he lets the women enter, and as predicted the priest succumbs to them.)
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 and the thought of God simply doesn’t bother most people), the absence of a deity is so obvious and uncontroversial 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 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 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 the 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 4,000 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, pages upon pages on religion in his novels. Their structure soon fell into a pattern: unbridled and 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 being sexually and morally corrupted. The unstoppable rage-driven Sadeian writing machine couldn’t get enough of religion. Here is one excerpt from Justine, a perverse rendering of the Christ story, which the Comte de Bressac, after a lengthy disquisition on the superiority of anal to vaginal 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.
As does Christopher Hitchens: “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, fewer even than communism. This most obscure and 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 on 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 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 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 adept at aphoristic 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 society, 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,” in preempting 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.” Needless to say, a nuclear strike, whether deterrent or retaliatory, on a territory suspected of harboring the ringleaders would accomplish nothing and be catastrophic for the population affected. Such polemics have gotten Harris pegged as a strident rightwing Islamophobe. This is not wholly fair, as his writings are on the whole carefully reasoned and relentless in stimulating critical discussion in the fault lines of politically correct discourse, which is always a good thing. He is carrying out atheism in action: a thoroughgoing and largely humorless critique of the religious status quo everywhere, including the liberal-left, with its equally humorless brand of progressivism and wholesale embrace of the world’s faiths. Harris’ main fault was to attract the attention of Slavoj Žižek: “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.”
Despite the urgency of the Islamic question in the post-9/11 world, atheism remains what it is, an intellectual stimulant with no purpose 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 spokespersons 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 and 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 my own rhetorical exercise, I’ve put together 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, admittedly somewhat arbitrarily, 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 to reason.
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 such as present-day China to more benign varieties like Singapore, which is cosmetically liberal but offers 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 (“capitalism” here a metonym for laissez-faire economics and politics). Plutocratic democracies like the US are closer to authoritarianism, with income disparities deeply entrenched and fortified against change. 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 a loaded word with conflicting connotations, but by it I refer to a decentralized type of democratic socialism where intentional communities promote the general social welfare without sacrificing key freedoms—of speech, assembly, movement, and the right to personal wealth (while excess wealth is fed back into the community). 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 among the lives of individuals.
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 also injunctions of the state: obey the rituals and you will never fall afoul of the state, which is to say of God. 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 less harsh example 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. Women there enjoy few rights beyond basic 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 the 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 are respectively styled, are accorded divine, immortal status. Evidently in the minds of the people they are still alive, despite the massive state funerals they received.
When a society is able to compartmentalize the religious from the civic spheres, making it the individual’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 thereof (e.g., Catholic or Protestant) is officially sanctioned. This freedom tends to be conditional; you are expected to exercise it 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. Religious orthodoxy remained the norm in Europe and the US up until the twentieth century.
Though it is enshrined in the Constitution, the US did not see true religious freedom until the twentieth century (level 3). Today, Americans can practice any faith in peace, even start up their own new churches 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 redundant, but it should never be taken for 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 wherever 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 fullest sense of the word, something many atheists including Sam Harris are sympathetic to:
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.
Much about life 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 allure of anthropomorphism: the figure of an old man with a beard sitting on a throne in the sky, tallying his account book of humanity’s sins. 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, and in a more immediate and visceral way than any obscure tyrant lording over the earth from above (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 an important recognition, and that is that our ignorance at this stage in human development prevents us from distinguishing the supernatural, which science rejects, from alien intelligence, which many scientists are willing to accept:
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.
If the innumerable reports are valid, the supernatural may indeed be readily accessible through ingestion of the hallucinogens, drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, DMT (the synthetic form of ayahuasca), and 5-MeO-DMT (a more powerful type of DMT extracted from the venom of the Sonoran toad). With strong doses of these drugs, the user emerges from the mere world of hallucinations into an extra-dimensional realm that is entirely convincing and apprehended as real. Not only are the hallucinations of these 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, terrifying contact with supernatural entities, typically aliens, elves or serpents. These entities address the user, wordlessly or in speech, with the most profound, devastating knowledge and wisdom. For the incredulous but curious, there are plenty of books and articles on the subject. Terence McKenna’s account in True Hallucinations of his and his brother Dennis’s wrestling with alien wavelengths in the Amazon jungle while high on powerful psychedelics is bizarrely gripping (Terence McKenna’s entertaining accounts of using DMT in his public lectures are on YouTube and highly recommended; Dennis McKenna is a noted scientist and has himself written extensively about these adventures). 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 encounters with 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. A more quantitatively rigorous approach can be found in Dr. Rick Strassman’s DMT: The Spirit Molecule; scores of volunteers (university students and professors) were given the drug in a controlled study, all of whom came out of the encounter changed and reporting uncannily similar accounts of contact with aliens. In a more popular (and tentative) vein, ecology author Michael Pollan has ventured into this realm with his bestselling How to Change Your Mind.
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 effectively 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 instantly across space. In humans these waves resonate at the molecular level in DNA, and hallucinogens enable consciousness to tune in to such 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 drawings and paintings long before the discovery of the molecule’s structure. As Jeremy Narby puts it, “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” (The Cosmic Serpent).
Something is going on in DNA besides gene transmission to an organism’s progeny. 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 through natural selection is a question that’s attracting leading scientists. Lynne McTaggart in The Field provides a good overview of the important names working on this problem since the development of quantum field theory a century ago. Among them is the biophysicist Fritz-Albert Popp, who investigated the idea that DNA was devised or exploited as a cosmic messaging 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. It is itself, in other words, the highest form of intelligence. Alternatively, it was devised by a highly evolved alien intelligence for the purpose of actively communicating or transmitting knowledge and making this knowledge 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 to that which is the antithesis of knowledge: dogma. Of course, religious believers would strongly assert that 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 claim that the insights imparted to him by an elf-alien are more “real” than the insights spoken to a believer by Jesus? Here we must underscore the crucial distinction between speculative and dogmatic truth, and their relative qualities. 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 it is accepted as real; it allows for irony and detachment. Religious faith, by contrast, precludes the slightest doubt.
The pursuit of intellectual spirituality includes aesthetic appreciation as well: contemplation of the arts and music, religious art included. I’ve long found it peculiar that so many fervent Christians show little enthusiasm 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, and the like. Artistic endeavor is itself spirituality in practice, a way of tapping into the wellspring of divine energy and inspiration. It’s why a street musician is more “spiritual” than a street preacher shouting at people to stop living in sin.
“Ah,” you say, now having figured out what I mean by my atheist “problem.” By dismissing 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 in fact what I am getting at. As previously noted, atheists such as Dawkins and Harris are quite open to the possibility of a spiritual plane; they just want to see 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 act of selecting one is banal enough, 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 ordinary folk like everyone else. They just don’t feel the necessity of going to church.
This, to me, is 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 little gestures like celebrating a “pagan” Christmas shorn of 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 statement of a stronger sort, 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 their community? 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.” We can go further and state that your typical atheist is firmly chained to dogma and is quite religious despite fervently denying being so. What is this irrational belief that atheists believe in 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 (ethical). 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 adultery without violating the law, or you don’t. I thus demarcate how monogamy falls along the continuum based not on what is allowed but what is not allowed. 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 adultery, typically punishable by death, and divorce only ever allowed under the most exceptional of 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. With relaxed monogamy (level 3), punitive 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 the discovery of an extramarital affair in the highest office is traumatic for much of the nation. 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), namely the right to commit adultery without legal or other onerous ramifications.
Polyamory (level 4) is the practice of romantically and sexually cohabiting with any combination of adults, 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 represents an ideal, with no established tradition or precedents to draw upon and requiring much ongoing experimentation. And like the challenges of intellectual spirituality, it’s not an easy concept for many to get their head around and is certainly not for everyone.
This point needs stressing: what all three institutions—the state, religion, the family—share at level 4 is that while they represent an ideal, they are 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, as 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 a sufficient realization and outcome of society’s legally enshrined freedoms, whereas level 4 is merely theoretical.
Ethically or morally speaking, on the other hand, monogamy looks very different. Consider your reaction to a prospective marriage partner who said to you, “You know, I am totally into marrying you, but the fact is passion inevitably falls off over time and there will come a day when I am 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 mortally off-putting and as a result of which could no longer 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. Now let’s say the same person were to add, “And to be perfectly frank with you, given that statistically divorce occurs to around half of all couples, our marriage is no more than a toss-up. Still, let’s see how it goes.” If this definitely disqualifies such a person as a candidate for you, you are at level 1: you cannot countenance a marriage with even the remotest possibility of divorce.
What accounts for the paradox that so many people rush into a marriage only to cheat, have affairs and get divorced, yet to raise this highly 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. And the reason for this is that monogamy, or monogamism, is a religion in its own right. It is 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 exception; the mere suggestion of relaxing its strictures unleashes the wrath of jealousy, with or without cause (on the 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 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. Not to believe this makes one an infidel in the eyes of the religious and atheists alike.
Human history presents us with countless alternatives to monogamy, from various group marriage configurations to matriarchal polyandrous households to loosely allied “pairing” marriages to sex hospitality (wife-sharing) cultures. A summary of these traditions is eloquently 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 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 female Other—the mistress, the adulteress, and the prostitute. I invite the reader to have a look at Engels’ account, in lieu of wearing out my discussion here (for more on the polyamory movement, see Ryan and Jetha’s Sex at Dawn).
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 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