This is my 200th article on this blog. I wanted to publish the tour of my element collection as the 200th, but it isn’t quite ready, and a friend shared an article on Facebook that bothered me enough I’m going to respond. So here I am, once again fighting religious people. The fun stuff is coming very soon, I promise. I’m leaving on Saturday for a 9-day road trip.
Michael Sherrard begins his analysis of the Gender Wars with this: “Do you have a hard time understanding how rational people can really think that genderless bathrooms are a good idea?Are you confused about what is happening culturally? Does it make any sense to you that corporations are applying political and economic pressure to reform our social sexuality?”
My answers: No, no, and yes. But let’s see how he spins reality to set up his ideology as the One True Solution.
First, he observes that the fight really comes down to differing opinions about how to live a meaningful life. Which I can agree with; each of us values different things, so a meaningful life for one person may not be meaningful for another. This is because meaning is inherently subjective. Meaning and value are opinions held by sentient beings about the things and people around them.
But Mr. Sherrard departs from reality entirely at this point. He briefly summarizes his Christian worldview, including his belief that the actions and opinions of a sentient being are the source from which he derives his meaning and value (thus accidentally admitting that meaning and value are, in fact, subjective). And then he makes an obviously false claim: “I live in a society, though, where nearly everyone else has a naturalistic worldview.”
If he were talking about methodological naturalism, this statement might be accurate, since a lot of Christians, all deists, and many other people who believe in the supernatural also espouse methodological naturalism. But that’s not what he’s talking about. The naturalism he defines is a twisted mix of philosophical naturalism, materialism, and nihilism. He says it makes the positive claim that god does not exist, and that life has no inherent meaning or value. He thinks this creates a big problem for naturalists…what makes your life worth anything if there’s no god?
Well, as we’ve already established, meaning and value are derived from the actions and opinions of sentient beings. Whether the being is human or god doesn’t matter, it’s subjective either way. In a world without a single sentient mind to value things and derive meaning, there can be no value or meaning. So the answer to his “big problem” is the same whether you believe in gods or not…what makes our lives worth anything are the actions and opinions of sentient beings, because that is the ultimate source of all value.
The very specific ideology he calls “naturalism” is followed by few people. Not even a majority of philosophers accept naturalism, let alone the nihilistic version Sherrard defines. A majority of humans believe in the existence of supernatural things, and most of them also believe that supernatural things interact with the natural world, which means most people don’t believe any form of naturalism. For myself and the vast majority of atheists I know, the positive claim that “god does not exist” is as unfounded and irrational a belief as “god does exist”. The only naturalism I follow is methodological, and it has nothing to say about what does or does not exist, only the method we should use to seek knowledge.
Sherrard goes on to quotemine George Orwell in order to paint a world of naturalism as a “bleak dystopia”. Orwell was writing about the atrocities of the 20th century, and the failures of capitalism and authoritarian socialism (aka state capitalism), both of which elevated the inhumane and greedy to great power and caused enormous suffering. He points out that even though it was necessary to leave religion behind, the social bonding aspect could not be ignored. In the past tribes were held together by religious traditions, so getting rid of it isn’t as simple as just cutting it out. He wrote: “So it appears that amputation of the soul isn’t just a simple surgical job, like having your appendix out. The wound has a tendency to go septic.”
Orwell was a socialist, of the democratic variety, and if you read farther than Sherrard quotes you can see the humanist principles he was getting at: “Man is not an individual, he is only a cell in an everlasting body, and he is dimly aware of it. There is no other way of explaining why it is that men will die in battle. It is nonsense to say that they do it only because they are driven. If whole armies had to be coerced, no war could ever be fought. Men die in battle — not gladly, of course, but at any rate voluntarily — because of abstractions called ‘honour’, ‘duty’, ‘patriotism’ and so forth. All that this really means is that they are aware of some organism greater than themselves, stretching into the future and the past, within which they feel themselves to be immortal. ‘Who dies if England live?’ sounds like a piece of bombast, but if you alter ‘England’ to whatever you prefer, you can see that it expresses one of the main motives of human conduct. People sacrifice themselves for the sake of fragmentary communities — nation, race, creed, class — and only become aware that they are not individuals in the very moment when they are facing bullets. A very slight increase of consciousness and their sense of loyalty could be transferred to humanity itself, which is not an abstraction.”
The point of this essay is the exact opposite of the purpose for which Sherrard quoted it. Orwell was not saying that there is no “self”, or that a world without souls is void of meaning and value. Rather, he was pushing against the destructive individualism of capitalism, the blind imposition of authoritarian socialism, and proposing a better way: that instead of magical thinking about souls and afterlives, instead of cold and brutal individualism, instead of ignoring the individual for the greater good, we should find personal value in the reality that we are part of a greater whole. We should consider all of humanity our tribe, rather than just those who were born within the same arbitrary borders, or who share our beliefs about gods or economics. He is criticizing the failure of both religion and authoritarian regimes to properly value human life, while recognizing the real purpose that religion played: “Marx’s famous saying that ‘religion is the opium of the people’ is habitually wrenched out of its context and given a meaning subtly but appreciably different from the one he gave it. Marx did not say, at any rate in that place, that religion is merely a dope handed out from above; he said that it is something the people create for themselves to supply a need that he recognized to be a real one. ‘Religion is the sigh of the soul in a soulless world. Religion is the opium of the people.’ What is he saying except that man does not live by bread alone, that hatred is not enough, that a world worth living in cannot be founded on ‘realism’ and machine-guns?”
With his shallow diagnosis and quotemining, Sherrard betrays himself to be either ignorant or willfully disingenuous. Quoting lines from an essay promoting socialism and humanism, to support the claim that a rare version of naturalism promotes the belief that there is no self, no meaning, and no value in existence, is a glaring non-sequitur. Also, your “self” is not a soul…the self is a coherent narrative constructed by the brain from the information it has collected. A soul is an imaginary extra part that attempts to explain things we don’t fully understand yet with magic.
Sherrard goes on to explain how he thinks this naturalism underlies the conflict about gender issues: “This is what the fight is over. In order to have a meaningful existence, you must have the complete freedom to form yourself according to your will and your will alone. So a threat to, say, the freedom of choosing your gender is a threat to the society that has embraced naturalism and needs to manufacture meaning and value through unfettered freedom of choice. For if you remove the ability to form your essence through choice, you remove any hope of a meaningful life. Lets be clear about what is taking place here. Our society is collectively acting on the assumption that God does not exist and naturalism is true. They are fighting to form a society that reflects this belief.”
Your will alone? That’s what Orwell was critiquing. That’s precisely why I’m a humanist and not a nihilistic naturalist. It’s never just your own will…you are part of an interconnected ecosystem, and you have inherent value as a member of the human species. That was Orwell’s point, which Sherrard either missed or ignored. Orwell contradicted the idea that the only purpose and value for humans without god is what they can invent for themselves, by pointing out that we have inherent value to our species and that people routinely act as if they are part of a greater whole through which they are, in a sense, immortal. Your value, in other words, is the value you can add to the lives of other beings, and you already know that deep down because it drives many of your actions.
So far, all Mr. Sherrard has done is 1) give naturalism a self-serving definition that only a few nihilists would agree with, 2) take quotes from George Orwell out of context to argue the opposite of what he was actually saying, and 3) assert that the only possible source of meaning under naturalism is self-generated through individual freedom, which is obviously false.
He goes on to ridicule the idea that someone who follows his particularly odd version of naturalism could also believe in free will: “According to naturalists, I am a “cell in an everlasting body.” I am merely molecules in motion. Chemistry and physics dictate how I act, feel, and respond to this world. I am nothing more than a machine. Worse, I am a slave to my nature. Free moral agency is a huge problem for the naturalist. It is the very thing needed to have a meaningful existence, but it is the very thing that cannot exist if naturalism is true.”
Given his earlier falsehoods, this subject isn’t actually relevant. Whether or not we have free will in the sense most people understand it (and we probably don’t), we can still find value and meaning in life. You can feel special and valuable because you think a god created you, and I can feel special and valuable because I am a member of a remarkable species that exists because of the sacrifice and courage of countless generations of ancestors. There is fundamentally no difference, in both cases we are deriving value from understanding our origins. You can derive value from the beings that made your existence possible, as well as from what you can offer your species. I find value in learning and sharing my knowledge, in creating music and art, in experiencing and understanding the universe that produced me. This is no different than religious people finding value in learning and sharing their beliefs about god, in experiencing worship, and in fellowship with other members of their tribe.
Sherrard says: “My existence is the source of my meaning and value. Because I am made in God’s image, I have inestimable worth.” In the same way, I can say this: My existence is the source of my meaning and value. Because I am a unique member of the human species, made from stardust and capable of experiencing the universe from which I came, descended from ancestors who beat the odds and lived on through their offspring, I have inestimable worth. To me this is far more meaningful than hanging everything on a being that cannot be shown to actually exist. All of the meaning and value in our lives, no matter what we believe, comes from the same sources: our personal desires, our inherited nature from billions of years of life, and most importantly our love for living things other than ourselves. This truth leaves Mr. Sherrard with nothing to stand on; his entire premise rests on a false assumption that those who disagree with him can’t find meaning outside of themselves.
So what is the fight over gender issues really about? I agree that we are all in search of a meaningful life, but Sherrard’s claim that anyone who doesn’t believe in god manufactures meaning solely through their autonomous will is very wrong. So while he’s right in a sense, he still hasn’t gotten to the root of the issue, and that’s why his article is such a failure. The root of the issue is quite simple: it is disagreement over whether an individual has a right to live and act according to their beliefs, assuming they aren’t infringing on the rights of others.
Transgender people have always existed and always will. They’ve been using the bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity all along, and in most cases nobody noticed. Recently, however, the religious right has manufactured outrage over a nonexistent problem, and attempted to pass laws restricting the civil rights of transgender people. They don’t care that churches are far more dangerous in terms of sexual predators than public bathrooms, or that right-wing politicians are far more likely to commit sexual crimes in bathrooms than transgender people. They simply oppose the concept of allowing people to live and act according to their beliefs, and invent imaginary threats to justify oppressive laws.
Unfortunately, most Christians haven’t really thought about gender issues in a meaningful way. They haven’t recognized how tribalism, which divides people by what they believe or look like, is behind all the fighting. They haven’t connected the dots between their own oppression of those they consider inferior or immoral, and the sometimes violent conflict that results.
Human societies for all of recorded history have accepted and often respected non-binary gender roles and same-sex romance. I’ve written about the Native Americans already, and plan to write more about the numerous cultures across the planet and throughout history that recognized the futility of cramming gender into a strict binary. Native Americans thought their two-spirit members were blessed by the gods, and many of them had same-sex partners. They served important roles in their societies, especially healing, storytelling, and caring for children. Ancient Hindu texts recognized a third gender including homosexual and transgender men, which are described as innate and incurable traits. Thailand has the kathoey, most commonly considered a third gender. Chinese and Japanese cultures have accepted and celebrated same-sex love for millennia. In many ancient cultures, including some in the same time period and places from which the bible originated, eunuchs were men without desire to copulate with women, which included gay men who engaged in exclusively same-sex relationships.
I’ve had conservatives give me detailed descriptions of how the genders are obviously divided into a strict binary, except the “feminine” always describes me far better than the “masculine”. Every single religious book I’ve read about gender and sexuality makes me think I must be female inside. In fact, one of the first steps toward understanding my atypical gender and sexual identities happened when I was a young and devoutly religious teenager, and my parents gave me a book about relationships in which I found descriptions of what it means to be a woman that I very strongly identified with.
That’s the real issue. Their understanding of gender is not based on reality. People are products of their genetics and environments, both of which are strong factors in gender identity. You are not a slave to your nature, you are an ever-changing product of the beautiful universe that gave you life. Given the freedom to explore themselves and figure out who they naturally are and what role they fill in their culture, people will invariably fall into a wide spectrum with numerous slight variations. We are not all homogeneous copies of a divinely-imposed template, nor would we want to be. We are dynamic individual members of a greater whole, acting and reacting within a world that constantly shapes who we are. The conflict over sexuality and gender identities that diverge from the norm is an inevitable result of attempting to force people into molds they don’t naturally fit.
We will always push back, for the same reason a square peg resists going into a round hole. Mr. Sherrard should consider this, and rethink his simplistic approach. Unless his only goal is preaching nonsense to the choir, in which case he succeeded spectacularly.
For more on the specific issue of bathrooms, see this excerpt from a book by Sam Killermann.