Early April brought us the Jon Meacham cover story in Newsweek – The End of Christian America. In short, the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen ten points in the past two decades, and Meacham contends that statistic “explains who we are now – and what, as a nation, we are about to become.” In the past atheists were pretty much fallen liberals with quite traditional religious backgrounds – think Christopher Hitchens or Woody Allen. Now all bets are off – now there are millions of wholly secular people. They didn’t react to religion, rejecting it – they just aren’t interested in it. There’s no angry, rebellious atheism involved. They never started down that path, and they’re fine with that. It’s a new world.
One month later everyone is talking about God once again. If Nietzsche said God is dead, and Newsweek was providing an autopsy, someone jumped the gun. It seems God isn’t going anywhere. Out here in Hollywood you seldom see the little fish emblems on the back of cars – somehow one of those wouldn’t seem right on the back of a ticked out new Bentley coupe with twenty-two inch wheels cruising down Sunset Strip, and most of the stars are into Scientology anyway. But you do see those little chrome fish now and then – there are Christian evangelicals everywhere, fishers of men, out to grab your sleeve and get you right with Jesus. And even big thinkers – public intellectuals, respected critics, whatever you wish to call them – are seeing that if we are walking away from God, well, we may not get too far.
In godless New York City, at the godless New York Times – yes, you know there are people who are convinced of both propositions – there is the ironically named Stanley Fish, offering God Talk, a discussion of Reason, Faith and Revolution, the new book from British critic Terry Eagleton. And Fish centers on the opening sentence of Eagleton’s last chapter – “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?”
That is the question, with this summery of Eagleton:
His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance – science, reason, liberalism, capitalism – just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”
Of course Eagleton concedes that many quite awful things have been done in religion’s name, but it tries to be better than that, after all. You see, religion is about the big things – its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” Science, reason, liberalism, capitalism and all the rest are minor matters compared to that – or at least that’s the idea. Fish points out that Eagleton is making a rather sweeping claim – religion, with its one great subject, and the aspirations it generates, is the only thing that can lead to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.” Nothing else can do that.
That seems like nonsense – reason should be able to do the same thing, or capitalism (see Bernie Madoff) – but Eagleton is arguing that everything else only provides comforts and pleasures, and these end up being superficial and do little more that perpetuate of the status quo. That’s not change you can believe in – “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”
Oh, you know the questions. Why is there anything in the first place? Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us? Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from? Science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can neither ask nor answer such questions. That not what they do, really.
Well, maybe – but those questions do come up in advanced science, with Big Bang Theory, and cognitive theory, and all the work on language and cognition. Eagleton is on firmer ground when he argues that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works, and shouldn’t try. Eagleton wants to keep them separate. But Fish point out it may be too late for that:
When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”
What? Fish explains:
Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “Believing that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world … is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.
Okay – but what is it after, exactly? And this will not do – “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.”
Fish unpacks that:
Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”
Progress, liberalism and enlightenment – mere piffle, it would seem. Sure we cure diseases and master the world with our technology – so what? It fact, it seems Eagleton slaps the label of “superstition” on the idea of progress, not religion – “The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy.” All we get is more stuff, of no value. You see where this is going:
“Self-sufficient” gets to the heart of what Eagleton sees as wrong with the “brittle triumphalism” of liberal rationalism and its ideology of science. From the perspective of a theistic religion, the cardinal error is the claim of the creature to be “self-originating”: “Self-authorship,” Eagleton proclaims, “is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence” …
That is where science and reason come in. Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws – the laws of entailment and evidence – cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith. …
If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.
In case you hadn’t guessed, Fish finds that the book starts out witty and then gets angrier and angrier, and Fish sees two possible explanations for that:
One is given by Eagleton, and it is personal. Christianity may or may not be the faith he holds to (he doesn’t tell us), but he speaks, he says, “partly in defense of my own forbearers, against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.”
The other source of his anger is implied but never quite made explicit. He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.
But a reader attached a curious item to the Fish review, which includes this:
Eagleton seems to put aside any requirement that faith-based theology demonstrate its competence. The inability of science to provide accurate answers concerning the supernatural is not proof that one of the multiple faiths does so, or that we will be able to reliably recognize which of those faiths does so.
It is odd that, in his summary, Fish does not mention the roles of rational and cultural ethics in supplementing the truths we learn from science.
It would be more useful to discuss whether right and wrong depend upon whether there is a God, an after-life and faith, and whether our knowledge of what is right and wrong depends upon the intermediation of clerics and theologians.
Matt Taibbi, on the other hand, steps outside the terms of the argument:
As for the actual argument, it’s the same old stuff religious apologists have been croaking out since the days of Bertrand Russell – namely that because science is inadequate to explain the mysteries of existence, faith must be necessary. Life would be meaningless without religion, therefore we must have religion.
But this sort of thinking is exactly what most agnostics find ridiculous about religion and religious people, who seem incapable of looking at the world unless it’s through the prism of some kind of belief system. They seem to think that if one doesn’t believe in God, one must believe in something else, because to live without answers would be intolerable. And maybe that’s true of the humorless Richard Dawkins, who does seem actually to have tried to turn atheism into a kind of religion unto itself.
But there are plenty of other people who are simply comfortable not knowing the answers. It always seemed weird to me that this quality of not needing an explanation and just being cool with what few answers we have inspires such verbose indignation in people like Eagleton and Fish.
Yep, some of us, maybe many of us, are comfortable not knowing the answers. Maybe you had to teach high school English and deal with the kid, puzzled by a poem or Hamlet or something in Dickens, worried about the paper he has to write, asking what the one right answer is – who do you want me to say? No, Billy, say what you think and explain why. But what’s the right answer, sir? What do you think it is, Billy?
You know how that goes. It’s a certain mindset – there has to be an answer, one only good answer, simply right and absolutely correct. Matt Taibbi asks why. Why would you think that? What odd needs are driving you? You think that to live without answers would be intolerable? Good luck with that. Your life is going to difficult.
And Taibbi say his view is not a creed or anything like that, in spite of what Fish and Eagleton are batting about:
They seem determined to prove that the quality of not believing in heaven and hell and burning bushes and saints is a rigid dogma all unto itself, as though it required a concerted intellectual effort to disbelieve in a God who thinks gays (Leviticus 20:13) or people who work on Sunday (Exodus 35:2) should be put to death. They’ll tie themselves into knots arguing this, and they’ll probably never stop. It’s really strange.
And there’s no going back. As David Aaronovitch argues in the Times of London – Rumours of God’s Return Are Greatly Exaggerated (British spelling of course) – and he’s reviewing God is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World. He’s not buying it, but he comes from the outside:
On a desk in my school, long ago, some past sixth-former had written four words: “God is dead – Nietzsche”, followed by four more: ” Nietzsche is dead – God.” Even as a juvenile atheist I could see that the idea of the mad German getting his comeuppance from the un-believed Almighty was funny.
He says the new God is back book is like that. The two authors, the Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, John Micklethwait, and his colleague Adrian Wooldridge, are being childish:
“You thought God had gone,” they seem to chant in the direction of the national grandstand where sits the secular elite, “you were wrong, you were wrong.”
Not surprisingly the geist that gibbers in this straitened zeit is a pessimist. Articulated by a small army of declinists, the dominant sentiment is that it’s all gone to the dogs in the West: community, spirituality, morality – and left us in a state of alienation, of anomie, eating apart in front of American Idol, obesely exercising on our Wiis, leading unsatisfactory lives of consumption and envy.
At least a couple more new books this week have suggested that our etiolated and weakened sense of higher self is consequently no match for rampant, self-confident Islam. We are the new late Romans and the Muslims are the new equivalent of Gibbon’s destroying religious army. “Man is a theotropic beast,” argue the authors of God is Back: we will have Jehovah – or Allah – one way or another.
All the God guys are arguing the same thing – men need simple answers, even if those answers are based on pure faith and have nothing to do with reality, and are thus based on nothing at all, and even if you don’t know if they are right or wrong. You simply say they’re the right answers, the ultimate answers – because dealing with ambiguity is a bitch, and you’re certainly not one of those people who would ever say, well, you just don’t know. There are always answers, and the one right answer, the only right answer. When someone says there’s no one right answer, and maybe no possible answer, to this dilemma or that, your blood boils. And you weren’t happy at all in high school English.
Aaronovitch sees what these two particular guys are up to:
They argue that religion is a part of “the quest for community in an increasingly atomized world” and “atomized”, of course, is bad. But globalization has not atomized us – it has done the exact opposite, it has made us far more aware of each other than we have ever been.
What they mean is that we have become hyper-mobile compared with our forebears, and that organized religion can be a fairly instant way of gaining a community. This is the American model – modernity plus the deity – in which you up sticks, move to a new town or state and begin the process of belonging by finding yourself an attractive church or a temple. The church opens its doors and welcomes you in, doubly welcoming you for the very fact of your newness.
And if there is an upsurge in faith, maybe, Aaronovitch is not pleased, as everyone seems to confuse secularism with atheism:
We atheists always have a problem with appearing bad mannered when we say what we believe. Take the God is Back duo’s deployment of studies purporting to show that “Christians are healthier and happier than their secular brethren”, citing a Pittsburgh doctor’s belief that going to church added three years to someone’s life and a 1997 study that religiosity reduces blood pressure. To which I can riposte with all those other studies showing even better health outcomes for owning a pet – which may appear churlish of me.
I also seem rude when I say that I can see nothing in terms of believability to distinguish the idea that Muhammad had the Koran dictated to him by Allah from Joseph Smith’s strange education at the hands of prophet Moroni, or an animist’s belief in the spirit of the river. So, on the whole, I don’t say it.
It may be best to let it go. You have your cat, Hodge, they have God.
But there are a lot of them, for various reasons:
Annoyingly it may well be that religion is gaining greater traction, not because of its own strength, but because of the weakness of political parties. Politicians are desperate to reach and use pockets of activism, and – with the death of class politics – the most available and vocal belong to religious organizations.
This is slightly worrying, but I wonder whether it is religion as we understand it, Jim. Religion used to be spread by conquering others or evangelism, and maintained by static communities. Now, as with the new middle-class Chinese Christianity described in God Is Back, it is a mark of mobility – an individually decided preference for this Americanized religion over home-grown Confucianism or Buddhism.
It may be as much the “cool” of freedom that is being aspired to, as the love of Jesus Christ Our Savior. If so, Nietzsche may be dead, but God only survives by being available in many exciting flavors.
But there are all sorts of religions. Mark Kleiman of UCLA reporting on a campus visit from a CNN big-wig:
Today at UCLA:
“The Republicans aren’t a party, they’re a cult.”
“The moderates aren’t a wing of the Republicans, they’re a feather.”
In each case, Schneider said he was quoting what people in Washington are saying to him. But he didn’t seem to disagree.
So CNN’s Bill Schneider sees where this is going:
Schneider also had a good line about what “pragmatism” means in American politics: “Americans are pragmatists. A pragmatist thinks that if something works, it’s right. An ideologue believes that if something is wrong, it can’t possibly work, even when it’s working.”
Yep, dealing with ambiguity is a bitch, and you can see why the God folks joined with the Republicans and then pretty much took over the party. It all fits together, and Nietzsche is still dead, and God, or any substitute, isn’t.