To start, a few clarifications:
- Not all atheists are skeptics. There are people who arrive at the position of atheism by other means than skepticism. There is no requirement, logically or practically, to be a skeptic if one is an atheist. My contention is that if one is a skeptic, and one applies that skepticism properly and completely (a difficult task, for sure), then one necessarily becomes an atheist, at least until some good evidence surfaces.
- Similarly, not all polyamorous people are skeptics. In fact, in my experience polyamorous people tend to be attracted to many ideas which are exactly opposed to skepticism. The intersection of polyamory and atheism, let alone skepticism, is pretty small, on the whole. I don’t have any solid numbers, so I am going on my limited experience, so if this is not true, I would love to hear about it.
- Not all skeptics apply their skepticism to all aspects of their lives, specifically not to religion and their relationship structures, in my experience. Skeptics traditionally are interested in things like UFOs, cryptozoology, astrology, psychic abilities, etc. Of course, it deals with religion a fair bit as well, but in some skeptic circles, directly confronting traditional religious beliefs is less common, although this is changing.
Given all of that, we can move on.
Logic, lack of gods, and love in abundance
Some atheists have been known to say that
- skepticism, properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism.
- Skepticism, properly applied, should lead to deep skepticism of traditional monogamy.
Why would I say something so controversial?
What is skepticism?
I will leave it to the experts to provide the fuller and more comprehensive definition of skepticism. But in short, skepticism is the suspension of belief until sufficient empirical evidence is provided. Skepticism shares much in common with the scientific method, in that we should, as skeptics, test ideas (or hypotheses) by attempting to disprove them in light of logic, empiricism, and a willingness to hear criticism. It is a methodology that uses, at it’s core, doubt. With this method in mind, all our conclusions are held provisionally, we keep our mind attuned to alternate points of view, and our goal is what is most likely to be true, rather than what we would like to be true. A more poetic definition is that skepticism is allowing the universe to explain itself, in its own terms, without the lens of our own biases skewing what we hear.
How does ‘skepticism’ necessarily lead to atheism?
Well, until there is evidence for a god which survives probabilistic analysis (and not mere possibility), there is no reason to accept the proposition of a god. As I have discussed elsewhere:
- At minimum, atheism requires the lack of belief in any gods
A skeptic cannot, by definition, say that no gods can exist (at least, until a specific and comprehensive definition of god is given and shown to be logically impossible). A skeptic asks for evidence for a claim and will withhold belief until sufficient evidence is presented. A skeptic cannot, qua skepticism, say that something does not exist, they can only say that they have no reason to believe something exists due to the lack of evidential support. So the stronger definition of atheism, the claim that god does not exist, is not a skeptical claim and is not achieved through skepticism per se. But Skepticism, the position of doubt seeking evidence for, must lead to the lack of belief in any gods, which is the minimum requirement of atheism. Assuming, of course, that no evidence for any gods exists which survives skeptical analysis. I have yet to to see any such evidence despite attempts by theologians over many centuries. I have personally been looking for more than 15 years, and have read work of people who have looked far longer. So, until some good evidence is produced, skepticism necessarily leads to atheism. For more detail on this subject, see:
OK, so how does skepticism lead to polyamory, smartypants?
For this, we need to define polyamory, which has been done here as essentially responsible non-monogamy. It is having more than one romantic and/or sexual relationship simultaneously, with full consent and knowledge of all involved. For the purposes of this essay, I will use the term polyamory in a way which has been articulated by a former writer here at PolySkeptic:
- polyamory is “a relationship that doesn’t have rules against either partner pursuing other sexual or romantic relationships.”
As I explain in the Polyamory page, one does not need to have more than one relationship at the moment to be polyamorous, nor do you even need to be looking for any more relationships. The essential character of the question is whether, with full consent and knowledge, you have the ability to pursue more relationships. To be polyamorous is, in another sense, to not adopt the seemingly default (Western) cultural relationship structure of (usually non-negotiated) default monogamy. In an ideal world, monogamy would only occur accidentally; through lack of interest in relationships with more than one partner, and not out of convention, fear of jealousies, or automatically without explicit considered agreement. If you, or your partner(s), are permitted to explore relationships with other people in romantic and sexual directions, you are polyamorous. So, the question is, then, why should you do so? Well, not all people could or should. The simple, if unpleasant fact, is that not everyone is capable of applying skepticism, properly or not, to aspects of their lives. This is especially true if those aspects of their lives mingle with their emotional health, which both religion and relationships do. As a person with some history of minor mental health (BPD, specifically), I have a fair amount of empathy for that view. But for people who are capable of, and interested in, applying skeptical, rational, and logical thinking to their lives, they should consider how they go about relationships, sex, and handling their own desires, needs, and potential. For those people, I offer the following argument (which will perpetually evolve, as I add to it)
Monogamy as the default goal
It is clear that, at least statistically and as an ideal goal, most people are monogamous, or at least serially monogamous. That is, most people go about the dating world either having one partner at a time or intending towards the goal of finding one person worth “settling down” for. In the end, most people are hoping to find ‘The One’ with whom they can have a happy, satisfying, and life-long sexual and romantic relationship.
Moreover, they are apparently doing so freely, happily, and often with a fair amount of emotional stock placed in its possibility. And when they find such a relationship, they insist they are happy, fulfilled, or at least content with the arrangements. Sure, there are arguments, disagreements, hard times, etc but they have reached a goal and are not interested in more relationships. One relationship is hard enough, after all! And these claims may actually be the case.
There are undoubtedly many examples of healthy, happy, monogamous relationships which could be indicated as encouragement for those seeking such things, and as an attempt to parry my argument, thus far. I have been in pretty successful monogamous relationships, myself. I know that you can be happy, content, and satisfied being so, but what does that have to do with polyamory? What I mean is, how does the existence of happy monogamous couples effect the viability of some non-monogamous alternatives?
What many people, including prior versions of myself, don’t seem to understand is that those desires and needs I had while in those relationships, things I felt fine putting aside in the name of maintaining an important relationship, were not necessary to put aside. I didn’t have to sacrifice every other thing I wanted to be with someone I loved. And neither does my partner, nor anyone else for that matter.
So, the question is this; if there is the possibility to have more than what the confines of monogamy (splendid as they often are) allow, why do so many people remain monogamous in practice and in intent given the existence of other possibilities?
- They are happy with their partner, and feel no desire or need for any other romantic or sexual partners.
This is exceedingly rare, I think, because most people simply choose to ignore, suppress, or act on such desires surreptitiously, rather than being actually completely fulfilled with their
monotonous monogamous lifestyle. If more monogamous people were honest with what they wanted, then more people would at least try some form of non-monogamy. Many would try swing clubs, partner swapping, or perhaps allow for business-trip exceptions or something like that. In the rare cases where both partners really feel no desire to explore other relationships, whether such a relationship might be a purely sexual relationship to a deep friendship with some physical intimacy (but not necessarily sex), then those people certainly do not need rules or agreements not to have other partners; they simply don’t want any other partners, and so they achieve what I call monogamy by accident, not by design.
- Presence of social pressures, leading to monogamy being the default relationship structure.
Basically, this means people do it for practical reasons. It’s easier to not rock the boat. Their partner fulfills enough of their needs to be generally content, and putting aside other wants and needs is not so bad in order to keep the peace. All sorts of social stigmas and sanctions surround many abnormal sexual or relationship practices, and so it’s best to just avoid them, right?
Talk to non-monogamous people, and you will find that many of them are in the closet to family, work, and even to some friends, much like many gay or bisexual people have been for so long, in our culture. In an ideal world, nobody should be in the closet, but I understand why some people choose to be so for practical reasons even if I would not want such a world. Challenging sexual and relationship norms is potentially dangerous to one’s profession, social life, and relationships with family. It’s sort of like being an atheist, queer, or any other minority. Imagine how that works out for some atheist, polyamorous skeptics (some of whom are bisexual and/or women!). Holy intersectionality, batman!
- Lack of familiarity with non-monogamous concepts
That is, there is the (probably common) fact that many people have not heard about polyamory. The thought might have crossed their mind about maintaining a serious relationship with more than one person or simply dating 2 people, but they had no conceptual map to cognitively navigate through such a terrain. They had no example to draw from, no vocabulary to drive the concepts, and this in conjunction with the unfamiliarity of it all simply leaves the thought cold, direction-less, and without form. Without the alphabet and syntax of a language, it’s rather hard to write a convincing story, and we are stories we tell ourselves.
That’s one of the reasons I write things like this; education gives us more perspective and provides concepts for our mind to drive our experiences to places where we previously didn’t know existed, or though merely mythological. Map of monogamy; on the edges are signs that say “beyond, there be dragons!” or something like that. When we fill in the edges of those maps, we can better create a life that we want.
- Jealousy derived from fear, insecurity, and sex-negativity.
Many aspects of our culture see sex as a bad thing, or at least something only good under the right contexts. This lack of sex-positivity makes people feel guilty about their sex lives and is rather common in our culture. Also, you might start to think that you are inadequate as a lover if your partner wants someone else too. If you love someone else, you don’t really love your partner! This is, of course, all bullshit.
There is also the reality that the idea of polyamory is scary to many people. The fact is that relationships are scary, and the more people you make yourself vulnerable to the worse that fear can manifest itself. The presence of intimacy, especially lots of it with more people, forces us to be confronted with emotional challenges (jealousy, competition, etc), complexity, and the real threat of social, professional, and personal sanctions from those around us. It can seem quite overwhelming, and there is no question that it requires hard work, internally and externally, to pull off well. But trust me what I say that the work is worth doing!
- Religious tradition and “morality”.
That’s right, folks! In our culture, which is traditionally Christian, monogamy is derived from our religious tendencies. Go to Islamic nations, Utah (before the Mormons caved to pressure to get rid of plural marriage in 1890) to any of the current FLDS sects around the country, and many other cultures in time and space to find all sorts of non-monogamy being practiced as “normal.” Hell, even in Christian tradition; King Solomon much? People are told that monogamy is the only moral option, and more of that slut-shaming and guilt is poured on through religious traditions. Of course, some religious traditions are fine with polyamory (Paganism is quite common, for example), but in the west, Christianity is dominant and has left its mark on us. So, clearly, being polyamorous is sooo rebellious and radical, right?
Monogamy, as it is practiced in the majority of the West, is hardly even questioned (although this is changing). The privileged position of monogamy, therefore, makes it appear normal because it is commonly expected. To most, what non-monogamous people are doing is abnormal and possibly wrong. But even if it were OK, it is definitely not for them.
But what if we were to dig under the surface of monogamy and ask why we should be monogamous? What evidence is there that monogamy is natural, healthy, or that it leads to better relationships? If we are to be good skeptics; that is, applying skepticism to every aspect of our lives, including how we structure our relationships and pursue our romantic and sexual wants and needs, then we have to address whether monogamy actually is objectively more functional than the alternatives.
Commitment and exclusivity
People want relationships for many reasons. We want companionship, sex, friendship, children, family, and even the financial benefits of sharing some resources. We meet someone we like, whether for their physical attractiveness, sense of humor, intelligence, or some combination of attributes.
If there is some mutual interest, we find a way to spend time with them and either we develop a relationship or we do not. The kind of relationship we have depends, obviously, on the mutual needs and wants of the people involved. At some point, the people may decide to declare each other as significant, as long term partners, and possibly eventually announce an engagement.
That is, there are many levels of commitment that are possible, from casual situations to intense romantic affairs, long term relationships, and even marriage. But why do we include exclusivity in this mix? When we find someone we really like, why is exclusivity an assumed step, at least at some point, for most people?
I think, for many people, the idea of exclusivity is endemic to commitment; they seem to assume that a commitment to a person implies exclusivity. But why should this be? What about commitment in every other aspect of our lives implies exclusive commitment? Nothing in the definition of commitment necessitates exclusivity. I have written about the analogy of a physicist who, later in life, finds a second love in Russian literature, but it basically boils down to the fact that commitment to one thing does not mean you cannot share some of your love and attention to other things that you love.
This goes for people as well. There are many married and committed people who are polyamorous, swingers, etc, and their commitment is still very real and meaningful to them. A person can be “committed to 2, 3, etc people simultaneously, just like I can be committed to learning guitar, Spanish, and doing well at my job simultaneously.
Are these various commitments mutually exclusive? Can I not pledge a portion of my life, consideration, and time to two (or more) people without somehow necessarily failing at my commitments? There is no necessary conflict here. I am able to love and maintain a committed relationship with more than one person, and anyone who meets the right persons will find the capability to do the same. Just as we divide our time and energy towards a career, relationships, hobbies, etc, we can make time for relationships that matter to us. It’s not that you have to find more relationships, but when you find them accept them for all that they are. Life is too short to pass by happiness just because of convention and jealousies.
Being everything to someone is an unrealistic ideal
If you love someone, shouldn’t you want them to be happy? Shouldn’t you want them to pursue happiness in all its forms, in safe and consensually negotiated ways, of course, so that you allow that person you love to be all they want to be in life?
None of us are perfect people. But even if we were perfect, at least in the sense of being precisely what we want to be, there is no guarantee (and there is only a very small probability) of being everything another person would want their partner to be. In short, we cannot be all that our partners want and they cannot be all that we want. No matter how much the New Relationship Energy (the falling in love stage of a relationship) may feel perfect, magical, and lacking nothing, eventually a more mature love will still love the things that aren’t there, and which might be found in others.
Sharing yourself with others does not mean you love your partner less, only that we are complicated beings and our complexities do not match up 100%. What reason is there to agree to limit our happiness in the name of some ideal of being “the one” for someone? What good is it to delude ourselves with the cultural trope of ‘happily ever after’ with ‘the One’ when reality perpetually slaps it back in our face as a delusion? The facts are that the best, most loving, most compatible person you are likely to meet will lack something, as a partner, that you desire to have in your life.
Monogamy cannot satisfy all of our desires and needs, it can only limit them to what one person can offer. And to decide, based upon convention and insecurities left unchallenged, to forgo developing relationships with other awesome people is, frankly, unwise.
Sacrifices v. Fear of Loss
People do make decisions to sacrifice lesser desires in the name of greater ones, sure, but if it would be possible to satisfy more desires, perhaps even at least a little bit of all of our desires, why shouldn’t we give this freedom to the people we care about? Why should we not at least request to satisfy our own? It’s not like it actually prevents you from loving them less.
Unless you think it does! You would be wrong in thinking that; love is not limited in such ways, only our cultural relationship assumptions are so parochial as that. Wouldn’t it be selfish of us to request, through negotiation, manipulation, or demand, that our partners to give up things that they could easily have if we were just to allow our minds to grow past social expectations, fears, and our own stupid jealousies?
Why would you want your partner to not have something that they want, and that does not take anything away from you? Do you think it does take something away from you? Again, you are probably wrong. If they love you, genuinely, then no matter how amazing their other thing is for them, they are still coming back. Because they love you for some reason, and that other thing cannot erase that. If they don’t love you, then it was not polyamory that caused it, as a monogamous person will still eventually leave if they don’t love you. So be careful not to conflate polyamory with relationship issues that would effect any relationship.
Meeting someone new and awesome is a problem, why?
What do you do if, after some amount of time with a partner with whom you have a wonderful relationship, you meet another person you are attracted to, have wonderful conversations with, etc. Well, if this were a romantic comedy, the plot would be about resolving the conflict, right? What conflict?
Oh, you mean how the competitors will feel jealous, will fight over your affections, and ultimately you will find ‘The One’ for you with hilarity mixed in. Romantic comedies are just awful relationship models wrapped in embarrassing mis-communication antics followed by disappointing resolutions of monogamous coupling.
In what kind of world do “mature” adults with intelligence, creativity, and basic critical thinking skills stop short of saying something like, for example; “hey, I like both of you. I want to date you both! What do you think about that, two other people I like?” How is that idea so difficult for our culture that it seems so wrong, so dirty, so impossible?
It’s just unskeptical thinking. It’s just avoiding challenging our assumptions about love, sex, and relationships. It’s just stupid. There is no basis for thinking that monogamy is actually better, unless by better you mean that it is less difficult, less challenging, and won’t get you strange looks as you walk down the street holding hands with two people while stealing a kiss from each occasionally. How boring.
So, if after reading all that you still think monogamy can survive skeptical analysis, I’d be interested in hearing why. Because while monogamy might be where you end up, so long as you are ignoring, repressing, or intentionally giving up other possibilities you might not be acting rationally.