Is It Me?  It's Him, Right?


I’d like to thank my girlfriend’s cat for convincing me to write this essay.  My girlfriend is at her mom’s for the weekend, which means I slept in this morning, as I tend to do when I have the whole bed to myself.  So there I was, technically awake but with no plans to get up.  And then around 11:00, the cat became very interested in my face.  I asked the cat whether it had become interested in my face because it thought I should get out of bed and finally write another good, full-length 1585 essay, and in its way it answered yes.  And so I did, and here we are.

I suppose, if you’re going to be technical about it, there’s an outside chance that this wasn’t what the cat actually wanted.  Even-handed guy that I am, I’ll admit it is within the realm of possibility that the cat came and got me out of bed because it wanted food, just like every other time that a cat has ever come and gotten me out of bed in the past.  Of course, this would mean that deep down I knew I should get up and write today, but was having trouble making myself do so, and that, somehow, imbuing the blank slate of this cat with the aspects of a human interlocutor assisted me in the process of doing what I knew I should be doing.  But you can’t prove that, so I choose not to see it that way. 

In other words, my girlfriend’s cat is God.

Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about what exactly the idea of God does for believers.  Religious types say it is the only way of knowing how to live correctly.  John Lennon famously sang that it is a concept by which we measure our pain.  Many psychologists and evolutionary biologists, and many of the so-called “New Atheists” inspired by them, suggest that the origins and appeal of religion lie in two properties:  it (increasingly less so as science advances) provides explanations for aspects of the external world that we don’t understand, and it (as much now as ever) ameliorates the uniquely human curse of comprehending futurity by allowing belief in one version or another of life after death.

Indeed, these qualities are basically what religious people themselves would say (in significantly different language) that religion does for them, in addition to the supposed “moral guidance” part.  (Though we could probably lump that in with the “workings of the external world” part, since many religious people see certain moral maxims as so immutable that they seem indistinguishable from properties of the universe like gravity or electricity, and the apparent inability on the parts of many religious people to distinguish between scientific description and ethical prescription [“If you think we’re related to chimps, you must also think it’s okay for us to kill each other like chimps do”] is probably an outgrowth of this propensity.)  But there is another property of the God-concept that gets talked about far less, by both believers and the scientifically-minded who analyze them:  God is a great audience.

And I don’t mean audience in the sense of a hearer or prayers or a judge of morality.  I mean audience for the sake of audience, someone who is watching in the same way that you wanted mommy to watch you dive when you were at the pool as a kid.  We normally think this is about approval, but I don’t see approval as the whole of it:  even a kid who is not terribly bright knows that mommy is going to say the dive was good no matter what, and so assessment of skill is not really the issue.  We just want people to observe and be aware of us, for the sake of observation and awareness themselves, and demonstrations of skill (real or imagined) merely provide excuses.

The analyses that chalk religion up to fear of death and explanations for earthquakes are, I think, biased towards the Western religions we know about, namely Judeo-Christianity and the most prominent forms of ancient European Paganism (and often the latter disguised as the former: there’s nothing in the Bible about Jehovah throwing lightning bolts or causing earthquakes, so belief in that shit is straight-up Zeus and Poseidon with a Biblical sheen).  It is not the case that every religion has posited a life after death, or spent a lot of time and energy trying to compete with chemistry and physics.  What every religion ever, to the best of my knowledge, has had in common is the suggestion that we are being observed by something.  How sentient or humanlike the observer is can vary:  the karmic force of Buddhism is not self-aware, but it still dictates future payoffs or penalties for present actions, and so it is still the case that record-keeping is going on, and record-keeping implies observation — i.e., an audience.

It is not the case that every religion has been particularly concerned with moral guidance.  The Olympian Gods of Greece (and later, Rome) were Gods in the sense that they were extremely powerful, but they were all just as morally fallible as mortals.  Zeus was in charge because he was the strongest, but ethically speaking he may have been the biggest asshole:  you had “moral obligations” to him like sacrifices and rituals, but it wasn’t always the case that what he wanted was necessarily the right thing.  Even if your record was spotless, there was still a pretty good chance that he was going to turn into an animal and rape you just because he felt like it.  “Never bend over in the presence of a mysteriously glowing swan” is not a moral maxim so much as a pragmatic one.  “Good” outcomes happened when, despite their foibles, all the Gods managed to agree on something, which mirrors humanity much more closely than do modern deities.  The idea of a single god who was always right would have been utterly foreign to those societies — but it was still the case that you were being watched.  Hell, there were gods everywhere; you couldn’t take a shit without at least a tree nymph or two watching you wipe your ass.

The decline of religion has not, as religious types always warned, resulted in an increase of violence and lawlessness and general evildoing.  It has, however, coincided with a drastic increase in people who have a pathological need for attention.  The concept of fame itself was originally closely aligned with religion:  if you were exceptionally awesome, then the Gods made you into a constellation when you died.  Your story was important, and the point of people like poets and painters was that they were good at preserving your story.  Then the human race discovered aesthetic pleasure, and began to celebrate the artists themselves.  Then Christianity took over and decided artistic talent was bad and for about a thousand years we didn’t do that anymore.  Then we did again and called it the Renaissance.  Then in the late ’90s someone decided talent was bad again and invented reality shows.     

Fame is absolutely a replacement for God.  Now, out of the mouth of someone who believes in God, this would be a criticism of fame.  But I’m not criticizing fame or the desire to be famous, just stating a fact.  Fame at least verifiably exists, and I suppose you might as well want to be famous as want anything else, as long as you’re not hurting anyone.  Fame is not important in the grand scheme of things, but then, neither is anything else, so if you’re looking for something that is “important in the grand scheme of things” then I advise strongly against holding your breath.

Like most people who post their own writing on the internet, I check the stats on visits to this site regularly.  When there are a lot of hits, I’m happy, and when there aren’t, I’m pissed.  I don’t know the people who are reading the stuff, or whether they like or even understand my work, and whether they do or don't read it does not affect my real life in any way, but for some reason, I need to know they’re out there.  In fact, their being “out there” seems to be an essential property of the audience I require, since for some reason I feel like the hits from people who are my friends in real life “don’t count.”

And in case I haven’t mentioned it before, I don’t believe in God.  Would I care so much about the number of hits this website gets if I did?  Maybe not.  Maybe I would feel totally justified by the fact that God reads my essays (and likes them, obviously) and not care whether people did.  Or maybe, since God after all can read my thoughts, I wouldn’t even deem it necessary to bother writing them down and posting them to the internet, and I would be perfectly satisfied by just sitting around thinking all day (which would mean the Rastafarians have a point about God being like marijuana).

Now, I certainly can’t say that no religious people have ever been motivated to accomplish prodigious work.  While I am certainly skeptical of whether many ostensibly religiously motivated works were actually religiously motivated — the private beliefs of Michelangelo or Mozart being very much an open question — I admit that I cannot dismiss every great mind’s piety as a socially convenient mask.  Isaac Newton, for example, was as prodigious a genius as any mind in history, and was also by all accounts religious to the point of derangement.  Even in modern times, there are any number of people who are both religious believers and highly motivated to seek fame.

Another promising theory ruined by Bono

But one advantage that religious fame-seekers have over nonbelieving fame seekers is God-as-audience.  If God thinks you’re great (which he does, obviously), then other people should too, and if they don’t, then fuck ’em.  Religion supposedly teaches humility, but I don’t see how this can possibly be the case.  If you think that an all-knowing, all-powerful entity whose magnificence encompasses all of existence agrees with you about everything (which religious people must all think, because if they had any opinions they thought God disagreed with, then they would change them), how could you possibly value anyone else’s viewpoint at all, much less value it over your own (which is “really” God’s)? 

More than anything else, the idea that religion “shows people the way” is how the religious defend it.  But logically, religion can’t possibly do this:  if you’re religious, then you already think that you think what God thinks, so the only way you could ever change your mind is if deep down what you used to think wasn’t really what you thought.  And luckily, in the case of a great many assholes, it is in fact the case that what they think isn’t really what they think.

Unfortunately, in the cases of the very biggest assholes, what they think really is what they think.  In my case, the cat was able to “convince me” to get out of bed and write an essay because I really wanted to and the presence of the cat simply helped me articulate this to myself.  But when Hitler’s cat came to get him out of bed, it was telling him to hurry up and kill more Jews.  There was no way that the cat (i.e., Hitler's fucked-up idea of God) could have suggested that maybe he rethink the whole Jew-killing thing, because Hitler was so evil that no part of his psyche doubted that this was the way to go.  In short:  if you are a little bit bad, then “God” can make you better, but if you are evil then “God” makes you even worse.

I think the fact that I have chosen to live my life without religion has made me a better person in some ways, but has also made my life a lot harder.  (Still, all things considered, it is probably for the best that I didn’t, since, considering how high an opinion of myself I have now, I cannot fathom how big an asshole I would be if I also believed I had God on my side.)  As a nonbeliever, I have no objective correlative to (pretend to) check in with:  humanity is all there is, and so I am whatever other people decide to tell me I am, because there is no standard by which I could logically believe myself to be anything else.  

Accordingly, I care more about what other people think, regardless of who they are, than does anyone else I have ever known (which, for someone who spends his time arguing on the internet, you can imagine is hell).  And not just about me, but about anything.  I have more than once been out with a group of friends on a Saturday night and left them to debate a crazy religious person holding up a sign on a street corner, and even Billy Joel knows that you should never argue with a crazy ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-man.

Speaking of which, it has also always bothered me that the line I just quoted doesn’t end with “maniac-ac-ac-ac-ac-ac,” since it is a three-syllable word with the stress in the right place that means “crazy man” and ends in “-ac” like the terms that appear in the same place in the two preceding verses.  Seriously, was he sitting there trying to think of a dactyl that ends in “-ac” and means “crazy man,” but couldn’t, and finally said “fuck it, I’m just putting crazy ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-man?”

Anyway, Billy Joel aside, you can see I’ve got problems.  Like most smart people in America, as a child I was tortured by other children.  And like many smart people in America, I therefore have a troubled relationship with the fact that I am no longer a child.  For a lot of years now, I have been trying to develop a post-highschool worldview and failing, and I still genuinely expect active persecution from total strangers in just about every social situation (and living in New York City, where omnipresent hipsters mean that many social situations actually are like high school, has not helped).

The problem of the American Smart Person on this front is twofold:  firstly, though not every smart person is an atheist, at the very least smart people are significantly more likely to have God-concepts advanced beyond one of an anthropomorphic sky-parent, and secondly, upon the completion of school smart people are suddenly and confusingly ejected from a world where virtually everyone is obsessed with them — obsessed with making them miserable, yes, but obsession is obsession.  As a tiny, meaningless being in a vast, meaningless universe, why the hell would I ever let go of the identity that got me the most attention?  I would need to replace it with something, and the only thing I could possibly replace it with is fame, and I’m not famous.

I realize on some level that, as someone who has continued to see himself as a “nerd” and expect destruction at the hands of strangers on the street well into his thirties, I am ascribing to the beings around me powers they do not actually possess and a preoccupation with me that they do not actually have.  Why do I, and others like me, do this?  Because it is better to be observed with negative results than not to be observed at all.  Fame phrases this as “there’s no such thing as bad press,” and religion phrases it as “God sends you to Hell because he loves you.”

Being observed is so important that at the most basic levels it even determines how matter behaves (speaking of which, since no-one else was in the room this morning to see it, maybe the cat was simultaneously waking me up to get me to write an essay and because it wanted food).  Socrates was on the right track when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living — the only problem was, he foolishly meant you were supposed to examine it yourself.  That’s all well and good, but the simple truth is, if no-one else is examining it too, you go nuts.  That’s what God is for, and that’s what I meant by the opening lines of the first poem in my awesome book:

Ever since I stopped believing in God
  I’ve been pretending I was in a movie.

                                                          —from "God As a Thing, or Whatever It Is"

The life of the nonbelieving self-examiner is rough.  We resent other people more than anyone, but we need them more than anyone as well.  Just look at how obsessed Nietzsche was with the opinions and judgments of the herd he despised.  The Nietzschean thinker is a Cassandra, and the cursed prophet is essentially a crippled God:  knowing everything, but powerless to make people believe it (which is, of course, worse in terms of happiness than being a normal stupid person or a semi-smart person with enough clout to back up the few things you do know).  The irresolvable paradox of Nietzsche’s life was, why bother with the truth when no-one stupider than you can understand it, no-one smarter than you exists, and everyone as smart as you already knows it?  (I think he bothered with the truth because he was a good person, but sadly this term would have made no sense to him.)

Friends have advised me that, in order to overcome my fear of social persecution, I need to decide whose opinions I care about and whose opinions I don’t care about.  But I feel reluctant to do this because, if everyone did that, then nothing would ever get better:  everyone would simply decide that they only care about the opinions of people who already agree with them, thereby making it impossible for anyone to ever change (which needs to happen, because most people suck).  I constantly make fun of people I don’t like because I want them to realize they suck and change their minds, which means that I must also pay attention to people who make fun of me.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair.  I’m not sure why I care that it wouldn’t be fair, since no-one would know but me.  I guess it’s because I want to do the right thing.  Except that, since I am also equally aware that I am actually the one who is right, the right thing would be for other people to care about what I say but for me not to care about what they say, which means that I am not in fact trying to do the right thing but instead the fair thing, which in this case would be wrong, and hence not fair, since by definition nothing can be simultaneously fair and wrong, so maybe what I actually need to do is just make this issue complicated enough that the people who oppose me can’t understand it anymore, thereby eliminating them as observers and leaving me as the only possible version of myself, in which case, I suppose, mission accomplished. 

So there you have it: a new full-length essay, and all because I listened to my girlfriend’s cat.  This must be why those pick-up guys who advise abusing your girlfriend’s cat are such shitty writers. 

And why I don’t care what they say.

read more awesome 1585 essays.

like and follow The 1585 on Facebook.

blog comments powered by Disqus