Thursday, September 10, 2009

Heaven is for losers

A question that is often asked of atheists who spend any time at all discussing atheism is "why bother? I don't believe in Santa Claus or unicorns but I don't spend any time stressing or thinking about it." It is a fair question, but one that also has a real answer. It has several answers, actually, but the one that seems most helpful is that religion is everywhere. It not only drives political policy, but it informs much of our popular culture.

This isn't the point of this post, so I don't wish to get too sidetracked here, but I want to quickly respond to another popular... critique (if you can call it that) of atheism. Maybe it's more of a rebuttal for theism. It is the trope of cultural history. That is, our Western culture has such a long history with theism that we all owe Christianity (and, to a much lesser extent, Judaism - but you can't say Christian without sticking 'Judeo' in front of it anymore) a huge debt of gratitude. Just think of all the art that religion has inspired (always with the art!). To which I say: It is true that the Sistine Chapel and the Brandenburg Concertos and Dante's Inferno may truly be irreplaceable works of art, but what evidence is there that, lacking an oppressive religion, these artists would have been left without any muse at all? Imagine what art could have been achieved if science and nature and the universe had been prevalent ideas throughout our history! But I digress.

Our culture does owe a great many ideas to our Judeo-Christian heritage. But that doesn't mean we have to be grateful. Think, for a minute, on moral values. This is a platform upon which the religious have unjustifiably stood defiantly for centuries. Their credentials on the subject of morality and good judgement are transparently, demonstrably, objectively worthless. But I won't even go into the tired talking points of slavery, misogyny, child abuse, homophobia, genocide or general common sense. Instead I want to complain about the things that effect everyone. What is good and what is bad? What is a sin and what is a virtue? What is vice and what is honest?

I was at the NC Museum of Art over the weekend and, as with most art museums, there was an overabundance of religious artwork. That is one debt to religion that society has paid in full. We need no more grim depictions of martyrdom or sacrifice, thank you. But one picture (I really wish I had snapped a photo) that I have always enjoyed suddenly stood out. It is a picture of judgement, with the top half of the canvas filled with beatific, white-robed people sitting around on clouds. Not doing anything, just sitting. Below them was a hellscape that the artist clearly enjoyed creating. Demons towered over the wretched masses, prodding and impaling them with spears, skeletons leered between the naked bodies - the whole scene was a writhing mass of naked flesh. Say what you will about eternal torment, but it excites our imagination. Hell is visceral, it is vivid, we can imagine what it is like! Why? I say it is because religion has vilified our most basic, primal instincts.

Lux, our adorable little Whippet, does not like going to her crate. For the most part, she has access to the whole house except when we leave. So when we are out of the house, she is in her crate. She does not like to go. But I can bribe her very easily by offering her a treat. What do I give her? Usually I just give her a few bits of dog food. It isn't anything special - she eats this stuff by the bowlful - but just three or four bits of dog food will get her rushing to her crate. For her, eating is its own reward. And with us, many things are gratifying. Food, drink, sex, fun - all of these things are pleasurable. All are sensual and hedonistic. When I grew up, hedonism was a bad word. It described things that were sinful, people who were evil. The pursuit of pleasure was wrong!

As I said at the top, I don't want to discuss ethics or social morality. Although sex is good, rape is bad. There are limits to the pleasures we should indulge in. My 20 pound Whippet would eat through a 40 pound bag of dog food before giving up. I know what is best for her so I keep her on a regulated diet and feed her only a small amount per day. And I know where the theists are suddenly going with this, but I disagree: we do not need a sky-king to tell us where our limits our. We know! Eating too much food is unhealthy. It will kill you if you aren't careful. Alcohol is toxic in large doses. Smoking in public is offensive to those of us who don't want emphysema or lung cancer. This is reasonable and the limits are clear to us. But we can't even have a discussion of pleasure without using biased language. We indulge in dessert. Many products are advertised as sinfully delicious. Decadent is a bad word and makes us think we're getting away with something.

This is why it is easy for us to imagine hell. But what about heaven? All we can think of is sitting there. Sitting around and (presumably) worshipping God, the cause of all that is good and righteous and boring. If I had my way, heaven would be a big giant restaurant with an open bar, video games and an orgy - never mind 72 virgins (or raisins, as the embarrassing translation might read) - this is heaven. I'd want some real sluts!

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