Tuesday, May 6, 2008

No Other Gods Before Me

I used to agree strongly with Marx' dictum that religion is the opiate of the masses. Nowadays, I'm not so sure. But before I go on, let me give you the quote (translated slightly differently) in context:

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

I'm down with Marx in opposing the use of religion as a tool the state uses to oppress the people (I'm thinking of the way the religious right and the GOP tend to squash anyone who doesn't agree with them while they're busy fellating each other.), but I think he misunderstands the human condition. If we get to what I take to be the core of what he's saying, we have
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

And I don't think the second sentence follows from the first. (Did I ever tell you that my two favorite Latin words are sequitur and non?) If your world is heartless and your conditions are soulless, then something that provides your heart and soul is perhaps more in the nature of oxygen than opium.

Marx goes on to argue that the enemy is illusion and that by getting rid of illusion, people will become happier because their clear vision will allow them to right the wrongs that plague them. Well, maybe. But even if the whole country gets its collective head out of its collective ass and wrests all three branches of government permanently away from the Republicans, life is still sometimes going to suck. People will still get sick. Sooner or later, your parents are still going to die. Unless you die first, of course, but I'm thinking that's -- at best -- a mixed blessing. Telling people to deal with all of life's troubles with reason and clear vision, well, good luck with that.

If you can't avoid leading a life that's sometimes uncertain and unpleasant (and you can't), then a little illusion in the form of a belief system is necessary. And everyone does it. Everyone believes in something. That something could be one of any number of things or some combination of things. I, for example, believe in the holiness of sex and singing. I'm most likely to feel myself in the presence of the divine when I'm doing one of those things (I've yet to combine them successfully, but I'm still young. Oh shut up.), and when I need something like religious comfort, I'm most likely to beat off, sing, or check out Manhunt.

A lot of gay men (and everyone else, but I maintain that the prevalence is higher among gay men) will tell you that they don't believe in anything. They don't believe in god, they don't go to church, they don't pray. When someone tells you that, you should ask him one simple question: How much time do you spend in the gym? Then you can ask them whether they feel guilty if they miss going to the gym. Or whether they think bad things will happen to them if their attendance is not sufficiently religious regular.

I should note here that I'm not against anyone going to the gym. If you can have an epiphany while doing squats, then go for it. And, obviously, exercise is important for (other) people. I just think that if you're spending more time in the gym than you need to be healthy, there has to be another reason you're there, and to me it seems like a form of religion.

Of course, most guys are spending the extra time in the gym because they want to look good. Their self-worth as a gay man is directly linked to their physical attractiveness (not unreasonable) and their attractiveness will vanish if they don't bow to the bench press.

It strikes me that there's a shallowness to this belief and that it's a shallowness not unlike the mindless adherence to many more traditional religions. There's a correlation between wanting to look like what you believe is some physical ideal and believing that sitting in the pew or saying the prayers will protect you against eternal damnation.

There's also a fair amount of idolatry involved. The idea of having to (or wanting to) sculpt your body so that it's just so is very like turning yourself into a graven image. This is maybe where my problem comes in. I'm perhaps still struggling with the baggage from my protestant upbringing. Here's the relative passage (later condensed into part of the ten commandments from Exodus 20

[1] And God spake all these words, saying,
[2] I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
[3] Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
[4] Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
[5] Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
[6] And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

This passage, by the way, is why Southern Baptist churches never used to have stained glass windows: they considered them idolatrous, the equivalent of graven images. Nowadays, the SB congregations tend to have a lot more money, so they've relaxed considerably on that issue, but (I think) you're still very unlikely to see statues of Jesus in them. Jesus, of course, was divinity incarnate, but he was both human and divine, so he wasn't quite God. One of the unusual things about the Judeo-Christian tradition is the unseeable God. I mean, you can see a representation of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (The RCs are really the worst idolaters ever, or at least that's what the SBs will tell you. And the SBs kind of have a point; it's just that when you start to say that idolatry is evil, your theological support becomes a little thin and murky.), but you weren't supposed to be able to look on the face of God himself. Here's the relevant passage from Exodus 33:

[17] And the LORD said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name.
[18] And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory.
[19] And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.
[20] And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.
[21] And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock:
[22] And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:
[23] And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.

[If I'm not mistaken, though, there's another passage pretty close to the above one where the Bible says that God and Moses spoke together as friends, face to face. I reckon it's a translation thing because there can surely be no internal inconsistencies in the divinely revealed word of God that the KJV Bible unquestionably must be. And if you ever find a sentences that lays the irony on any more heavily than that last one, I'd like to know about it. Thanks.]

You might think that I'm going too far when I say that spending a lot of time in the gym is idolatry. After all, in a lot of religions, trying to be as much like the divine or one of his prophets is considered a very good thing. Or maybe you think that the motivation of the gym goer is very different. I think, though, that everyone knows at least one very attractive gym queen who has a bit of an attitude like an irresponsible Olympian deity. And God knows, there are plenty of people who think that because they go to the gym, they're better than people who don't. And I don't mean people who think that they're more attractive. (I agree that the gym makes them more attractive, sometimes greatly so.) I mean that because they exercise a lot (and perhaps because they're more attractive) some people feel themselves morally superior. They're the pumped up equivalent of the Church Lady. If someone feels like he's a better person than those poor unfortunate souls who don't have a gym membership, it's starting to look a lot like a religion. I could point to a number of blogs here, but I won't, mostly because I love those blogs. They're all train wrecks with pictures of beautiful men. (Which, I suppose, could describe this blog as well, but I digress. As often as possible.) What's not to love?

I reckon that muscle worship is as good a religion as, say, Mormonism. I started out by saying that everyone has and needs something, and frequent exercise is certainly better for you than worshipping the bottle (not, I suppose, that the two are mutually exclusive, but I think that going to the gym probably helps a fair number of people deal with or avoid alcoholism, and that's a good thing). Thinking that you're better than other people is probably not so good, and if you believe that you've transformed yourself into the equivalent of the divine, well, you can choose any religious tradition you want for an example of why that's not a good idea. A person (or group of people) who attempts to rival the (seen or unseen) god(s) generally ends up in a pickle. Think of the Tower of Babel. Or, for a more classical point of reference, think of poor Arachne. Ovid relates that she could not get past the notion that she could weave just as well as Athena. And, as it happens, she could, but if there's one thing the divine never fails to punish it's a human attempt at usurpation. It never ends well:

This the bright Goddess passionately mov'd,
With envy saw, yet inwardly approv'd.
The scene of heav'nly guilt with haste she tore,
Nor longer the affront with patience bore;
A boxen shuttle in her hand she took,
And more than once Arachne's forehead struck.
Th' unhappy maid, impatient of the wrong,
Down from a beam her injur'd person hung;
When Pallas, pitying her wretched state,
At once prevented, and pronounc'd her fate:
Live; but depend, vile wretch, the Goddess cry'd,
Doom'd in suspence for ever to be ty'd;
That all your race, to utmost date of time,
May feel the vengeance, and detest the crime.

Then, going off, she sprinkled her with juice,
Which leaves of baneful aconite produce.
Touch'd with the pois'nous drug, her flowing hair
Fell to the ground, and left her temples bare;
Her usual features vanish'd from their place,
Her body lessen'd all, but most her face.
Her slender fingers, hanging on each side
With many joynts, the use of legs supply'd:
A spider's bag the rest, from which she gives
A thread, and still by constant weaving lives.


Tork said...

The thought that came to my mind when you talked about the faceless God that we can never see is that it's like horror movies. The scariest movies are always the ones like Alien where you never get a good look at the monster, so you imagine it being more fearful than it is (or in God's case--more powerful). Bars are like churches too...and like gyms in the way that they satisfy a need we all have to socialize. So does that mean that gay.com and the other chat rooms are like churches too? Does put a whole new light on the "this is my body; take this my body and eat it" idea. Swallowing as an act of communion?

The Neighbors Will Hear said...

I take your point, Tork, but I don't think there's anything new about the notion that communion is homoerotic. (Which, I think, is a lot better than the alternative: that communion is cannibalistic.) Some people would say that I see sex in everything (true), but I don't think I'm alone. Surely, I'm not the only one who smiles and suppresses a chuckle when he hears the line from "Mysterious Ways":
To touch is to heal, to hurt is to steal
If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel
On your knees, boy

I think that part of the reason so many guys want to be on their knees when they give a blowjob may be that the posture is so similar to a posture of religious submission. I would like to say that my preference not to have the fellator in that position is because I don't want to play at being god, but, truthfully, I just find it a lot more comfortable to lay down for that half hour.

anon in paris said...

Sorry Ted... I really love your blog but the word *religion* makes me want to rant like a madman (but see... no scare quotes, I know you hate them!)

Religion is a social control tool used to exert power over the masses, telling us how we should behave, spend our time/money, when and with whom we should have sex, etc. It's like a dictatorship really - a very small numbers of obscenely wealthy men (and only men) dictate how the masses should live. And I hope no one starts the subject of Eastern religions being closer to the people - just thinking of the caste system in India (with the religious caste coming on top) makes me want to puke.

I was walking through http://www.notredamedeparis.fr/-English-
the other day with my parents like tourists do (I must have a masochistic streak, really) and there was a service going on, with the priest saying something along "the dead will rise from their graves" (now that's a scary quote...) - come on, what reasonable adult can listen to such drivel? It's like believing in Santa Claus really.

So equating religion with harmless rituals (e.g. going to the gym, or thinking a little prayer will make our lives better) is doing real religions a big favor, by putting the word religion in a good light. All religions are evil.

The Neighbors Will Hear said...

Oh, anon. I love your comment. I see at least two misconceptions however. First, apologizing for a rant is always misguided: nothing is more entertaining than a good rant. Second, when you refer to a word as a word (as in "the word 'religion'"), those quotation marks are 1) not scare quotes and 2) absolutely appropriate.

I don't think we disagree all that much (I could be wrong). I just think you have a problem with the word "religion." And I share your feelings, but I think you're equating "religion" with large, organized religion. I, for example, am a (not especially devout) Unitarian Universalist, and you would be hard pressed to convince any reasonable person that UUism is a "social control tool used to exert power over the masses," etc. On the other hand, if I tell a lot of Christians that I'm a UU, they'll tell me that it isn't a true religion, largely because we're very reluctant to tell anyone what to believe. I always take "that's not a religion" or "that's not a church" as a great compliment. But obviously I'm using the term "religion" more broadly than you are. But I think my use of the term is also appropriate.

I certainly don't think that gym-going Western gay men are going to organize a Crusade any time soon, and I think I was clear that I don't disapprove of gym goers, but some of them really do take their fervor to religious levels.

But if your point is that large, organized religion is evil, I agree with you. I'm sure Christianity was just swell when it was Christ and twelve other guys wandering around or maybe some larger (but still small) number of followers a century or two later. A small number of christians would like to get back to that, and I'm pretty sure that if they did, they wouldn't encourage the hurtful interplay of religion and government that we have now.

Jason said...

TED, much good stuff and nice erotic garbage read, thanks. Lucky that we don't live in the age of "theocracy", when it was really just another time of bad government, period.

I have come to regard idolatry as a universal human condition that has brought forth countless pesky errors and sometimes sorry historic aftermaths (still counting too!). As blogged, idolatry begins as some detachment from divinity yet disguised initially as faith and religious worships (whether they be muscles, cocky rock outcrops, or fecund sources of non-gay interests...etc). Yet in idolatry, inevitably it remains about a deep-set rebellion and unwillingness to be at peace with the divine; it is really a secret misprojection in competiting with and overthrowing divinity (oh, the allusion the "morning star". Poor planet Venus). So that is, idolatry and faith differ in that the former is rooted in a guilt-riden separation from or the desire to castrate the Good, with the illusion of replacing them with itself. Marxism, seemingly aspired to liberate humanity from religious oppression, in fact became the intellectual basis that spawned several of the most murderous and inhumane idolatry in modern regimes world wide.

On an (un)related thought, what goes through the mind of a religious dom when standing over his kneeling sub, eagerly servicing and "worshiping" him? My theory is that when the "giving" and "receiving" occur to both parties at will, it is in effect a mock idolatry both enjoyable and trenscending for lust-beset men.