Thursday, July 5, 2007

Be There Moabites?

Dear IV,

In my opinion, religion is a lot like prostitution – a basically reprehensible practice in the absence of which our culture would be inestimably poorer.

This observation occurs to me in the context of the recent spate of what you might call “atheist lit” – three popular books by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom are extremely famous in their individual fields (philosophy, evolutionary biology, and the political commentariat respectively). These books excoriate the social reach and mysterious persistence of religion. They present arguments for religion’s irrationality as well as naturalistic explanations for its existence. I haven’t read any of them, but I'm pretty sure I grasp their essentials from reading reviews, both favorable and unfavorable.

On the one hand, I approbate the publication – and popularity – of these anti-religious books, particularly as they might be seen as symbolic of a growing anti-religious temper in society. I am an atheist by individual intellectual sympathy, and I’m “against” religion inasmuch as it’s tantamount to what Kant called Unmündigkeit – “immaturity,” “tutelage,” “self-delusion,” or “childishness” – not to mention the multitude of empirically deleterious phenomena associated worldwide with the sovereignty of religion: terrorism, polygamy, genocide, ignorance, authoritarianism, and the unchecked spread of the AIDS epidemic, to name a few.

However, on the other hand, I recoil when faced with the appalling “unculturedness” of these books (excepting Hitchens’ – to be returned to, shortly). The theses advanced by Dennett and Dawkins by way of explaining religion are so stupid as to be rejected out of hand by a child of five. These theses are wholly inadequate to the phenomena they purport to ground. To say that the explanatory regimes (HADD: religion qua pathetic fallacy, memetics: religion qua evolving assemblage of self-propagating “memes” analogous to genes) offered by Dennett and Dawkins do not even begin to explain somebody like, for instance, St. Augustine or Kierkegaard is an incredible understatement. This affronts me because while I can certainly live without God and Christ, I can’t do so without Augustine and Tolstoy. The Israelites are annoying, sure, but God save us from the Philistines.

What I’m saying is that Dante’s Hell seems like a more interesting place than Dennett’s heaven. Nor is this mere cultural elitism on my part; this is a serious recognition and concern that Dawkins and Dennett may be guilty of the same Unmündigkeit – the same narrow-minded childishness, the same refusal to confront “the world” in its full complexity, a world of which the thought of Augustine and Kierkegaard are necessarily a part – often attributed to religion.

So that’s the quandary I find myself in – constitutionally averse to committing to any sort of religion, while also refusing to give up the cultural and philosophical heritage of religion and “the religious” [i.e., the religious thematic]. Enter Hitchens. Now nobody could mistake Hitchens for a tasteless schnook; it seems like every time you turn around the guy has a new article in the NYTBR on Proust or Flaubert or whoever. What Hitchens advocates is that we should look to great art and literature for the spiritual guidance traditionally provided by – or identified with – religion. In other words, Tolstoy without Christ. However, I think this is begging the question – can we have Tolstoy without Christ? In contrast to the Israelites (straightforwardly religious) and Philistines (straightforwardly and culturally-devastatingly secular), let’s call the advocates of such a position Moabites. Is Moabitism viable? I have reason to be dubious.

For instance, many people talk about reading the Bible “as literature.” However, it seems to me that to do this is implicitly to diminish the Bible and destroy the secret heart of significance responsible for its “literary interest” in the first place. Indeed, I think even reading literature “as literature” is to wrong it somehow. What kind of person reads Kierkegaard for fun? I don’t think I want to know that kind of person. To read a book such as James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men without engaging it on the most fundamental level seems intrinsically perverse and criminal and certainly constitutes a cheating-out-of what Agee intended his book to be. So with respect to the Bible, I would question whether reading it as mere literature – as opposed to a document touching on matters of the utmost profundity and urgency – counts as really “reading” it at all. Likewise, you can’t "read Tolstoy" without taking Tolstoy seriously; you can’t take Tolstoy seriously without taking religion seriously. Such is the essence of what I’m getting at.

To take an example from the plastic arts, a friend in Florence once described Mary’s face in a certain Pieta as having a “porcelain” look. To describe a Pieta this way is to miss the point; to construe the exquisite passivity on Mary’s face in a merely visual or pictorial way as opposed to an adumbration of certain kind of spiritual intentionality is to miss the point of such a painting. The subtraction of the devotional content – the “religious” meaning – destroys the painting and transforms it into mere likeness to be evaluated according to “how it looks.” Art (well, large swathes of Renaissance art) becomes porcelainized and denatured in the absence of its contextual meaning – a meaning which is more often than not necessarily religious. (Walter Benjamin called something similar to this the “withering of the aura.”)

Moabites hold that we can have great art, great culture, and great literature without religion. (For the sake of argument, please ignore straightforwardly secular art and literature (e.g., Robert Rauschenberg, Joyce Carol Oates) – obviously they can be “great” as well, but what I’m specifically concerned about here is the secular redemption of art with religious content). I have tried to problematize the Moabite worldview, even while admitting my own (incorrigibly) atheist proclivities. So what do you think? Are the Moabites living in sin, so to speak? Is their lifestyle intellectually coherent/honest? Are they the eternal dinner-guests at the banquet of religion? Furthermore, are art and literature forever bound to the religious traditions which engendered and nourished them? Or do they possess an emancipatory capacity or universal appeal which transcends or exists independently of these traditions? Perhaps even it’s the other way around. Perhaps it’s those narrow-minded (unmündig) Israelites who are incapable of encountering “greatness” in art or literature without schematizing and moralizing it as part of some orthodoxy.

Anyway, if there’s one thing I hope we can agree on, it’s this: death to the Philistines.