Sunday, September 16, 2007

Shame, Shame, Shame, Shame On You!

Recently I was reading Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea’s Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (Vanderbilt UP, 2007), and found this interesting passage on page 58:

It is important to remember that the shame and potential danger were man-made, not God-given, attributes of the body. Mark Jordan, professor of religion at Emory University, reminds us: “Certainly it is not God who is ashamed of human gender – or God who pulls back from the shame meant to be inflicted on Jesus by crucifying him naked. We are the ones ashamed of our human bodies when we want to humiliate them.”

I agree that the body is not shameful, though not necessarily because I’m an atheist; many atheists do consider the body shameful. But I wonder how Frawley-O’Dea and Jordan know how Yahweh feels about it. “Certainly,” in particular, is a strong word; I can’t help suspecting that Jordan uses it because it’s impossible to be certain.

Even if Yahweh is not ashamed of human gender, it doesn’t follow that he doesn’t want human beings to be. (For what it’s worth, though, the Bible depicts him as quite squeamish about the body and its fluids, except for the blood shed in sacrifice and in the massacre of his many enemies.) God’s ways are not our ways, or Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi as the Romans used to say. According to Genesis, the man and woman he created were not ashamed of their nakedness until they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And then their eyes were opened, and they were ashamed. “Their eyes were opened” indicates that they were ignorant before, they were blind but then they saw that their nakedness was shameful.

Since Yahweh also created various creatures to be unclean or otherwise impure, it can hardly be claimed that he would not create something inherently shameful. I know, Genesis also says that after creating the world, he looked at what he’d made and saw that it was good. Either “good” and “unclean” are compatible (and I’m glad I’m not a religious believer, so it’s not my problem to try to reconcile them), or he changed his mind later. And deities are entitled to change their minds.

Of course, as an atheist I don’t consider the Bible to be authoritative for me. But Frawley-O’Dea and Jordan are Christians (Frawley’s an ex-Catholic Episcopalian, Jordan still Catholic as far as I know), and it would be nice to know where they got their certainty about their god’s intentions and opinions, since other believers, equally sincere and convinced, would not agree with them. (That includes the believers who wrote the Bible.) It’s convenient to be able to blame whatever you don’t like on human beings, letting your god off the hook for everything, and it’s a hallowed tradition in religious discourse, from the Hebrew prophets to the present. So you get one prophet who says that Yahweh wants fatted calves and grain offerings on the altar, and another who says that Yahweh never wanted or asked for sacrifices, and look at these scrawny blemished cattle you’re giving him! (This appears to be the ancestor of Woody Allen’s beloved Borscht Belt joke: “The food is terrible here.” “Yes, and such small portions.”)

But atheists aren’t off the hook either. Atheism in itself, the lack of belief in gods, doesn’t tell you much. Like religion, it has no moral content by itself. I find myself increasingly bothered by atheists, including those whose books are getting a lot of attention lately, who talk about Religion as though it were something independent of human beings, something autonomous with a mind of its own. Look at the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’s current best-seller: How Religion Poisons Everything. However, human beings invented religion. (The most devoted religious believers are generally quite happy to agree that other people’s religions were invented by men – just not their own.) But How People Poison Everything, though more accurate, wouldn’t be quite as transgressive for Hitchens’s purposes.

Religion’s not even a discrete ‘natural kind.’ Richard Lewontin noted that “sociobiologists provide adaptive stories about natural selection for a universal human tendency to form religions, although most cultures, including the classical Greeks, have no separate social function (or word) that corresponds to the modern Western category ‘religion’” (The Triple Helix, Harvard University Press, 2000, 77).

Why, then, did people decide that human bodies are shameful? I wish I knew. Jordan and Frawley-O’Dea see the belief as the wicked contrariness of human beings, but if their God exists, he made us prone, at the very least, to fall into that error, and he mysteriously failed to keep it out of his Holy Scriptures. It’s not just a Christian or Jewish tendency, either, but one common to many cultures. The Latin word for external genitals, for instance, is pudendum, “shame.” Which suggests to me that it can’t simply be blamed, as many atheists like to do, on wicked priests trying to control people’s minds. Shame is “natural”, for what that’s worth. Human beings couldn’t be manipulated by shame if we weren’t prone to it. We put shame into our cultures because it was part of our natural heritage as mammals, primates, Homo sapiens. (Homo pudens might be a more accurate name for us.)

But the rejection of shame is no less “natural.” (Contrariwise, “shameless” is a sexually-tinged English word implying a wicked human refusal to be ashamed of our bodies.) I’m told that John Shelby Spong, notorious for his polemics against fundamentalism, has said that he views God not as an external being, but as the “highest and best” in human beings. It seems to me that people have other qualities in mind when they invent their gods, including (or especially) Yahweh: pettiness and hysterical vindictiveness, or bloodlust and an inordinate fondness for virgins. If people were going to invent an embodiment of their highest and best, they could do better than the pantheons they’ve created so far. (I don’t believe Hitchens would do any better than anyone else: he shares, for instance, Yahweh’s squeamishness about body fluids. I’ve noticed that many male atheists are as uptight about human sexuality as any priest, mullah, or prophet. If they were put in charge… but let’s not go there, at least not today.)

I’d concede that people have put our best and our worst into the gods we’ve created. Frawley-O’Dea and Jordan want to blame the worst on people, while giving Yahweh the credit for the best; many atheists seem to want to do the reverse, which is odd if they really don’t believe in Yahweh. But many, I suspect, still do believe, back in the recesses of their tiny minds. But that kind of splitting-off, denying part of the self and blaming the bad part on something (or Someone) outside, is a major reason why we’re in trouble now.