On absolute truth and those disrespectful accomodationists

I could not have looked for a better way to sum up the difference between Gnu Atheists and fundamentalist theists on the one hand, and liberal ideologues of all stripes on the other, than this quote from Alain de Botton:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

De Botton is an atheist, but he thinks there’s a lot of useful and interesting stuff in religion, which he goes on to discuss. All well and good, and I agree with him that there is much about religion that’s “useful, interesting, and consoling,” — in fact I myself am still looking for ways to fill some of the holes that leaving religion has left in my life (no, none of them are god-shaped.) But through all the changes I’ve been through, there’s never been a point where I wouldn’t have been deeply offended by the claim that the question of religion’s truth or falsehood is “boring.”

De Botton’s position is very familiar to me. A lot of people, both religious and non-religious, have moved into a space of being fairly indifferent to the actual nature of the universe, and instead seeing religion as purely a social institution or personal mythology. Whatever works for you… all paths lead to God… I believe this, but you don’t have to… they’re all ways of saying the same thing: it doesn’t matter what’s actually true. This is compatible with a lot of religions, as well as with atheism or agnosticism, but it is absolutely incompatible with the monotheistic Abrahamic religions (and perhaps others that I’m less well familiar with.)

In a lot of ways the “I don’t care what’s true” stance is a big improvement, particularly in its social effects. But a key tenet of people who embrace it is not offending anybody, and what they fail to see is that that statement is profoundly offensive to those who do think truth matters. It’s worse than dissent, worse than disagreement: it’s invalidation. It’s saying “I reject the entire foundational concept of your belief. I think the things that are most important to you about your religion are irrelevant.”

A few days ago the story about Mormons baptizing deceased Jews got around, and my take on it was somewhat unusual. If I truly believed that a posthumous baptism was going to gain somebody an (optional) admittance to the eternal kingdom of God, I’d probably do it too! Being the compassionate literalist I am, I’d probably devote a major portion of my life to doing it — if I truly believed. That’s the gift of eternal life, people! Am I going to refrain from giving it just because somebody gets offended? To the extent that these baptisms are being done out of a sincere belief in their efficacy, and not for one of a host of other reasons religious rituals are practiced (I know nothing about the church politics around posthumous baptisms), I can’t fault them for doing these; from their viewpoint, it’s the absolute right and loving thing to do.

I pointed this out on facebook, and somebody responded, “But the people being baptized didn’t believe in the Mormon afterlife!” Which is colossally missing the point. The Mormons doing the baptisms do believe it (I assume, giving them all possible credit.) And under that belief, it doesn’t matter whether what afterlife the other person believed in: your belief is true, and you are helping them to eternal life despite their erroneous beliefs.

The happy, harmonious, multicultural view of religion whereby it’s all just social institution and personal mythology and nobody’s beliefs have a real impact on their life, death, and afterlife is completely ineffective in dealing with people who sincerely belief in the objective truth of their religion. I know; I used to be one. People who stood in that viewpoint appeared hopelessly naive and logically impaired to me. The statement “My religion is objectively true and has real-life consequences” cannot be effectively countered with “To each their own, whatever works for you.” The literalist believer will, at best, dismiss the religious pluralist with an annoyed shrug, and go on literally believing. As long as there are people who say “My religion is objectively true,” there will and should be non-believers who say, “No, it is objectively false,” and I think — have always thought — that those non-believers are giving the believers a hell of a lot more respect than any accomodationist.

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Musings on asexuality

I’ve seen several blog posts and commentaries on asexuality pop up recently, and it always prompts a lot of conflicted thought from me. I want to muse through it here… but to understand my thoughts about asexuality as an orientation, readers need to know a little more about my personal history.

About five years ago, I underwent a five-month transition from conservative evangelical Christian to atheist. And what do most teens and young adults do after leaving a sexually repressive ideology? Why, go out and have lots of sex! Many of my friends expected I’d do this; some people probably assumed, as I used to assume about others, that I was leaving religion in order to get license to pursue sexual activities. But for me it was different. Sex had zero appeal to me, although I passionately wanted a relationship of love and pair-bonded intimacy. I’d never masturbated, and the last sexual fantasy I’d had was over ten years ago. As a young teen, I hadn’t found it difficult to repress the budding sexual desires that my religion told me were dangerous and destructive unless I was married; by 25 I had repressed them so successfully they were nowhere to be found.

I knew that I wasn’t “normal,” and began searching out information about what had gone wrong with me, that I rarely felt sexual attractions and didn’t desire sexual interactions. Fairly quickly, I stumbled on the concept of asexuality, and found www.asexuality.org. It was like a revelation: I might not be normal, but I wasn’t alone! On the message boards, I found a community of people who discussed love and attraction in terms I could relate to; I found a place where I could discuss my sparse sexual history without feeling like a freak; I found a language for my feelings of attraction and desire, words like “aesthetic attraction” and “heteroromantic.” It was liberating. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the people on those message boards, for giving me a safe, welcoming place to discuss sexuality and begin exploring my own sexual identity.

Obviously, at some point my identity began to shift. I slowly felt a resurgence of sexual interests and desires, and the label “asexual” or even “gray-a” (usually used to mean not quite asexual, but with a very low libido) no longer felt right to me. But becoming a sexual person was not an easy road — I should say is not, because in many ways I’m still working on it. At times of anxiety and depression, my libido disappears completely. I enjoy sex, sometimes quite a lot, but never as much as others seem to, and at times I feel inadequate, envious, or resentful about this. In short, my relationship with sexuality is still somewhat dysfunctional: sometimes we get along great, I’m happy to have it part of my life, and I’d hate to lose it; other times, I feel like it’s all struggle and confusion, and I wonder if it’s really worth it.

Going back to a self-identification of asexual (or, more likely, gray-a) sometimes seems like a tempting option (ignoring, for the moment, that I’m in not one but three sexual relationships, and how that would impact them). It would be easier, without a doubt. But it would be dishonest to say that it was my only option. My sexuality has grown and strengthened over time and with some deliberate effort, and I believe it can continue to do so. But it takes a lot of energy and courage to keep on that path. I see what sexuality can be for other people, and I want that for myself. But sometimes, when I look at the level of joy and satisfaction I get out of sex, and compare it with the level of joy and satisfaction others seem to, I’m afraid my potential is permanently limited, and I wonder if it would be wiser to just give it up and find satisfaction in other areas.

I know there are people within the asexual community who have approximately my level of libido and sexual connection, who have chosen to let sexuality fall by the wayside and to pursue other avenues of joy and pleasure. Sometimes I worry for these hypothetical people (who I am not at all supposing to be the majority of self-identified asexuals) that they’ve let an orientation label cut off their own assessment of what’s possible for them. Other times I envy them for evading many of the frustrations I feel.

The C-word

Strong language ahead!

I actually really like the word ‘cunt.’ Unlike most words for female genitalia, it sounds strong and earthy and unsentimental, which is how I like to think of my vagina. It’s long been my favorite genital slang word for either sex (I don’t really like any of the slang for “penis.”)

Beyond my personal preference, I’m generally all in favor of word reclamation: a word is only an insult if you let it be. So I’d like to see “cunt” brought to the same level of acceptability that “pussy” holds. Which means I had a weird cognitive clash the other night when I read about Penn Jillette calling a female humor writer a “fucking cunt” just for writing an article he found unfunny.

I’m really not interested in excoriating Jillette: this is not the first thing he’s done that made me think I wouldn’t like him as a person, and there are plenty of other people calling him out anyway. What I’m interested in is how strongly I reacted to seeing “cunt” used that way. It evoked a feeling of threat, of violent hostility, directed not toward a particular personality but toward womanhood — which meant that the threat was vaguely aimed at me as well.

This is pretty much how I always feel when seeing someone referred to as a “cunt” in a way that’s clearly hostile. I know it’s not always meant that way, and that in English-speaking countries other than the US the word is much more mild in connotation. But to me, unique among gender-based insults, “cunt” sounds to me like the speaker is about two steps from brandishing a knife, and lashing out not only at the person who evoked their wrath, but at anyone else who bears the same genitalia.

I freely use words like “dick” and “tool” to describe people who are displaying a stereotypically masculine unpleasantness, and “bitch” to describe people who are displaying a stereotypically feminine unpleasantness. I don’t have a problem with my own or other people’s uses of those words. But “cunt,” to me, is different, and I’m not sure why. Is it because “bitch” seems aimed at female behavior, and “cunt” seems aimed at femaleness itself? But then why am I okay with “dick” and “tool”?

My theory, and it’s pretty off-the-cuff, is that there is not nearly the level of culturally-engrained loathing of the penis as there is of the vagina. (In all the ensuing discussions of culture, I’m talking about the segment of modern US culture I inhabit.) Penis-having is seen as a pretty positive thing; we expect men with penises to be proud of them, and we treat penis-related indiscretions with the kind of indulgent scolding we’d give to a puppy who knocked over a cookie jar. Oblique references to the penis are constant and pervasive in our culture, and most of them are positive.

The cultural view of the vagina is much more ambivalent: there are a lot of people, both male and female, who see the vagina as dirty, disgusting, and treacherous. We talk less about vaginas, we joke less about them, we don’t pat ourselves or anybody else on the back just for having one. While phallic imagery is usually met with a giggle, vaginal imagery is often met with a vague feeling of discomfort. The mainstream cultural voices never seriously think someone’s worth is lowered just because they have a penis; sometimes they do think someone’s worth is lowered just because they have a vagina. “Cunt,” as an insult, draws on a whole deep well of hatred and revulsion that’s just not present, in our culture, for penis-based insults.

I find it interesting that “pussy” is only an insult when it’s directed at a man, which possibly sheds light on another subtext of “cunt.” Pussy is a soft word, in both sound and meaning: it’s gentle and cute and unthreatening. Cunt, as I said at the beginning, is powerful: it’s just as direct and plosive as cock. Women are never insulted by being called pussies: gentle, cute, and unthreatening is what women are supposed to be. Daring to be powerful while having a vagina is what gets women in trouble.