So Mark Morford (the SF Gate/SF Chronicle columnist) wrote this column last week about how pathetic it is when people can't relate to the mystical energy of inanimate objects, and it really honked me off. I normally like Morford a fair amount -- he's smart and he's funny, and he convinced me and Ingrid to stop shopping at Safeway, for which I will be eternally grateful. But this piece had my blood boiling, in that special way that won't let me sleep until I've written a calm-but-passionate, closely reasoned, blisteringly eloquent reply, pointing out in careful detail exactly why someone is wrong.
Here is that letter. Enjoy!
In your column of 7/21 ("Please Kiss Your Old Toaster"), you wrote at some length about people who don’t believe in the mystical divine energy of physical objects. You had many harsh things to say on this topic, most notably that this lack of belief "reeks of a sort of deep sadness, a sort of spiritual decay, a savage limitation of perception."
I'm generally a fan of your column. But with all due respect, I must strongly and passionately beg to differ. (I was originally going to write, "With all due respect, bite me," but decided that it wouldn't set the proper tone.)
It is entirely possible to be a skeptic, an agnostic, and/or an atheist -- regarding all metaphysical beliefs, not just deities or organized religions -- and still lead a rich, satisfying life, full of creativity and connection and love. More to the point, it is possible to be a skeptic, an agnostic, and/or an atheist, and still experience awestruck wonder at the mysterious majesty of the universe, and a feeling of transcendent oneness with it.
Let's take your case of inanimate objects. I get very attached to the things in my life. (Probably more than I should, in fact -- I have a hard time getting rid of anything I'm sentimental about, so I'm a bit of a pack rat.) I have an ongoing argument with my wife about my milk crates, which she wants out of the damn house, but which I fondly associate with my wild Bohemian youth (as opposed to my stodgy middle-aged life as a sex writer). I have intense emotional attachments to books I love, gifts my friends have given me, clothes I've worn to memorable parties, boots I've had wild kinky sex in, my mother's recipe book, my vibrator, my wedding ring. And yes, my computer. They aren't empty to me. They have meaning.
But as an agnostic/skeptic, I don't believe that these objects have meaning because they carry some sort of metaphysical energy. (More accurately, I believe that there's no evidence that they carry metaphysical energy.) They have meaning because they trigger memories and emotions and connections. They have meaning because I’ve invested them with meaning.
I think part of the problem here is with the use of the word "energy" -- and two extremely different meanings of it that get conflated. There's the colloquial use of the word "energy" to mean someone's persona, the way they come across to other people. Their "vibe," in '60s/'70s parlance. As in, "She seemed nice enough, but I got a really weird energy from her." And then there's the literal, physical meaning of the word "energy," kinetic and thermal and whatnot, the energy that equals mass times the speed of light squared. These are both useful and expressive meanings, and I use them both myself -- but they don't mean the same thing, or even a similar thing. And this confusion is, I think, responsible for a pseudo-scientific mysticism that makes actual scientists -- people who devote years of their lives to difficult, tedious work in labs and swamps and astronomy towers making sure the things they believe are actually, you know, true -- want to tear their hair out and scream.
Why does this matter?
Well, I could go on at length about the problems of basing your life on beliefs for which you have no real evidence. I could talk about the ease with which the mind deceives itself, and the value of careful, rigorous testing of beliefs to minimize that self-deception. I could talk about the hazards of "arguing from ignorance" -- the error of thinking that, because you don't currently have an answer to a question, the answer must therefore be X... X often being something supernatural. (Read a few issues of the Skeptical Inquirer if you want documentation of the real-world harm that untested beliefs in the supernatural can cause -- from the refusal of proven medical treatment to rip-offs by fraudulent psychics.) I could even point out that disdain for the scientific approach has led to serious social disasters, from crappy sex education to global warming.
And I could go on, at even greater length and in appalling purple prose, about the mind-boggling beauty and mystery of the physical universe, and how every new answer we get about it leads to ten new questions. I could talk about the giddy delight I feel when I learn about pygmy dinosaurs, or dolphins using nouns, or spider species that turn out to be social. I could talk about the awestruck humility I feel in the face of everything we don't know about the world, and at the almost certain fact that in 100 years, things we're dead certain about now will turn out to not be true. I could talk about the admiration and respect I have for scientists, and the patience and rigor and years-long attention span that they're willing to devote to their work -- especially in a society that increasingly holds science and reason in contempt. I could even talk about those rare, raw moments of existential presence and epiphany, and how my lack of belief in a metaphysical soul makes me feel more connected to the stars and plants and planets, more of an integral part of the universe -- not less.
But that's not really the point.
Here's the point. I try very hard to be tolerant and understanding of people with religious and metaphysical beliefs (as long as they come by them honestly and don't try to shove them down everyone else's throat). I am, in fact, an agnostic and a skeptic, not an atheist. I know that questions about God and the soul and such are questions that nobody really knows the answers to, and I try to remain humble in the face of -- how did I put it? -- the mysterious majesty of the universe, and the vastness of my ignorance about it.
But it's very difficult to do that when religious people are scornful, or hostile, or pitying of my skepticism. And I don't just mean narrow-minded sex-hating fundamentalists, either. I mean Goddess-worshipping believers in sacred vibrations and mystical energy fields, too. My life is not sad or empty, decayed or cynical, flat or leaden, detached or cold or dead (all words from your column, by the way) merely because I decline to base my life on a belief in mystical energy. I don't want or need your pity, any more than I want or need the pity of sanctimonious parents because I'll never experience the wonders of parenthood, or the pity of sanctimonious straight people because I'll never experience the joys of heterosexuality. It's insulting and patronizing, and I respectfully request that you knock it off.