Why sexuality and spirituality belong together

Comedian Pete Holmes details his struggle with faith, sex, and God.

PETE HOLMES: It was the horniness that was the teacher. I thought it was in the way of my teaching. I was like, if I could only stop being horny, I could meditate and I could find God. Fuck that shit. God is in the horniness.

The reason the book is called "Comedy Sex God" is because God and sex were so closely linked for me. When I was a kid, I wasn't tempted to lie or cheat or steal, or certainly not murder anybody. Those were all very easy ordinances from the church to follow because I wasn't tempted to do them. But sex, it's a biological, pulsing, organically occurring, fresh-batch-every-morning temptation that all these 12, 13, 14-year-olds were being told was the thing, the sin, that was keeping God, basically, from loving us. You know what I mean? We were all good to go to heaven, but three, sometimes four times a day, you're very tempted. Or in my case, I would succumb succumb! to temptation, and I felt terrible about it because that was my understanding of God.

And one of the reasons I wrote the book was to try and reform that understanding of God as this like, basically a bully, as Nadia Bolz-Weber says, with a killer surveillance system who's watching you and who really hates you. He hates what you are and wishes that Richard Rohr calls it willpower Christianity, it's like we can just push these giant boulders away and lean on them, and be at church and be like, "Hey, brother!" But really, you're as human as anybody, and that is a cognitive and spiritual dissonance that is a heavy, heavy weight. So I joke that the book is called "Comedy Sex God", but most of the sex is with myself because it was so internalized and it was so shameful and private. So when I lost my faith because my wife here's sex again: My wife had an affair. So sex, again, betrayed me. I was trying to be a good boy and I got married almost so that I could have sex, so I was playing by the rules. And then she broke the rules. But even worse, it felt like God, who was almost like the mafia -- I paid him a fee to watch my bakery, if that makes sense, and then somebody threw a brick through my bakery window. And I was like, 'You didn't hold up your end of the bargain.' So I lost my faith, and then I really had to redefine what sexuality was. It was almost like coming out of the closet as straight. I'm not trying to minimize how serious and how difficult it can be to come out of the closet as gay, but I had to announce to myself and to the world: "I like boobies." And that was hard because you were waiting for lightning to strike you down.

So the wonderful thing that I've discovered about the universe we don't have to call it God because I understand and sympathize that that's a loaded word but I see a universe that uses these wounds and these traumas and these wrong programs in our favor, ultimately. So I spent all this time, first, repressing my sexuality. Then I lost my faith. Then I went through a period of embracing it as best as I could. I bought the Playboy that I hid in my bedroom in a chair that used to belong to my grandmother. I cut a slit in the lining of that chair and I hid this Playboy that I had stolen with my friend, Opie. So that was two sins, really. And then when I lost my faith, I bought that Playboy on eBay and put it on my coffee table, because I knew that my psyche needed symbols. I was trying to outwardly manifest a world where I wasn't ashamed of being a sexual person. So like a swinger or like Burt Reynolds, I just kept or a barbershop just open air pornography, which was partially healing.

And then I tried having anonymous -- or casual -- anonymous is not true; I knew their names and they knew my name, so it wasn't anonymous. And I didn't have sex with a group of renegade hackers wearing scary masks. I was just having sex with people that I had no intention of marrying, which, if you can believe it, was a huge undertaking for me. So I thought that was healing myself.

But as I talk about in the book, there was a third step, which was I had to learn to irrationally love myself, and that that is the sort of love that, I believe, is coming from the universe or coming from God, whatever image you'd like to use, as indiscriminately as the light. So I went on this retreat to see Ram Dass, who's this spiritual teacher, he wrote "Be Here Now". And I went into I was on a private, basically, a hermitage, living in his guesthouse. But I was alone most of the time. And it was wonderful. I had this incredible transcendent experience sitting with him. I was hallucinating, which is fucking crazy and awesome. Even while it was happening, I was like, "It's happening, I'm having a mystical experience!" But then I would go back to the house, and in the morning sometimes or at night, I would get 10 out of 10 horny, hornier than I had been since I had been 15. And there I was, 39 or something, and I was trying to be spiritual. I was trying to meditate, I was burning seven to 10 sticks of incense a day. I was reading sacred texts. And all the while, I'm thinking about jiggling asses and stuff. And I was embarrassed. It was so obvious my Christian, my puritanical shame psychology was still in there. Playboys on the table and casual sex be damned, I hadn't yet opened all the blinders in my soul, for lack of a better word, and let the light in. So I thought it was in the way. I was very tempted to just masturbate and get it over with, which is how I saw sex. I always saw it as not something to enjoy or to respect or to honor or to just participate with, I saw it as something that you wanted to get out of the way so you could get back to being good or being holy or being worthy of love. So there I was on a hermitage, fucking horny. I don't know if people can even remember what it's like to be 15, And you're just like, everything is sex, everything is sex. And I was really tempted to do something about it. I joke in the book, I couldn't look at pornography on my laptop. The password for the Wi-Fi was the name of Ram Dass's guru. So I couldn't type in the name of an other-worldly guru, and then go to fucking, I don't know, XVideos or whatever. I just couldn't do it. It was all coming in my face coming in my face. [LAUGHING] it was all being held right into my face. So I had this moment of surrender and break, where I tried to do what I had been studying and what I had been telling myself. I tried to just love myself irrationally.

People give out this bullshit Kirkland purified water love to each other. It's conditional, it sucks, it's low grade. It's well love, and I want that top shelf premium love. And that really is a thoughtless love. It's a love without a reason. It's not, oh, I'm horny, Pete, I love how human you are or how conflicted you are or how good you want to be or how carnal you are and virile. It wasn't that. That's justifying why you feel the way you feel. I just tried loving it because love is a place, it's like a state that you can enter into, and you just go, everything, just like I said, as indiscriminately as the light, I love this, too. It's not God is over here with the saying frack instead of fuck, and not seeing R-rated movies and being nice. Richard Rohr points out, the word nice is not in the New Testament doesn't exist. We've lost the narrative. We've turned it into a [HEARTY CHUCKLE] and it was never about that. And I wanted to get into that place.

You think think this is a mistake? This, my body, sexuality, the world, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the whole thing is sex. The universe is undulating eroticism, and that's fucking beautiful. It's not a mistake. And spirituality, true connection and flow with the divine, to me, is not a resistance, it's not about looking good or telling people that you didn't jerk off in Ram Dass's hermitage, which I didn't. But the reason I didn't was because I love myself if I did or if I didn't, and it was in that moment that I realized the pain and that embarrassment and that shame wasn't in the way of the teaching, it was the teaching. And I had another just beautiful moment of actually loving myself. Because I realized I had been giving myself that low-grade, bullshit, conditional love. And I realized if you want to feel that from the universe, it starts by giving it to yourself. Not in the way I had intended, but I did give it to myself.

  • Comedian and writer Pete Holmes explains how he lost his faith after a long struggle with what he calls his Christian, puritanical, shame psychology.
  • Holmes found the antidote to internalized shame was 'thoughtless, irrational love'. Love should be as indiscriminate as light, he says. Many people only give conditional love to themselves and others.
  • Sexuality is not a mistake, says Holmes. Pretending to be pure by saying frack instead of fuck, and not seeing R-rated movies and being really "nice" is not what a connection to the divine is about.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
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Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
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