Friday, June 29, 2007

Atheist Chic

Summer beach-reading season is just beginning, and already several books have broken out from the pack, such as Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein, and Conn and Hal Iggulden's "The Dangerous Book for Boys." But the biggest surprise is a blazing attack on God and religion that is flying off bookshelves, even in the Bible Belt..."This is atheism's moment," says David Steinberger, Perseus's CEO. "Mr. Hitchens has written the category killer, and we're excited about having the next book."

I'm old enough to remember when it was pet rocks and plant consciousness. Of course, atheism isn't just silly and it's probably true--though I'm wagering that it isn't. The annoying thing is that the Hitchens, Dawkins, et. al. have have hit the charts by recycling arguments and critiques that have been commonplace for centuries. Is it really possible that anyone in the Western world hasn't heard these arguments ad nauseum--from Hume, Russell, and Flew, or the pop versions from H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis?

Moreover, in the US especially atheism has been for generations a marker of social status and an automatic admission to the intellegencia. Which of us who has any pretensions hasn't discovered in high school that simply making skeptical noises and trotting out the standard critiques of religious belief English teachers would write laudatory comments on your papers ("I can see you're really thinking!") give you good grades? Religion, like food preferences, hobbies, decor and fashion, is a class marker: there are those disgusting fat fundamentalist rednecks who stuff their fat, ugly faces with greasy junk food, watch Nascar races, and plant pink flamingos in front of their trailers--and then there are us, the secular elite.

Of course religion doesn't make us any better--or worse. There were the Crusades and the Inquisition, Naziism, Stalinism and Fascism; apart from such ideologically motivated programs people have always fought and killed, raped and pillaged, for land, for wealth, and just for the hell of it. People are by their nature violent and enjoy violence. We are also tribal and mark people off as Our Own or Other by tribal and clan affiliation, by race, language and kinship, by ideology, by religion, by the football teams we support or the gang colors we wear. It's all the same: religion is just another marker of affiliation: if it weren't religion, it would be something else. And when there's a decline in religious superstition--visions of angels and saints, the image of Jesus on a tortilla or the Virgin Mary on a watermelon secular superstition takes its place--UFOs, auras, chiropractic, astrology, and every sort of quack medicine and psychotherapeutic self-help regime. We are, by our nature, violent, tribal and credulous.

Of course it would be better if we weren't that way--that was the message of the Enlightenment. And we can improve. Education and affluence make us better people--cosmopolitan, critical and less violent. But achieving that improvement isn't a matter of getting rid of religion any more than it's a matter of getting rid of football teams, Nascar races or nation-states. It's a matter of detachment, universalism, and the critical assessment of our beliefs and practices.

Why is this atheism's "moment"? I suppose because everyone is nervous about jihad, sick of fundamentalists' campaigns to promote creationism and undermine stem-cell research and tired of right-wing politics. Even more so I think because in the developed world, even including the US, Christianity has effectively collapsed from within. The public cult has been replaced by sport, the saints by celebrities. The myths are dead: people don't know the stories anymore. Secular gurus pump out the wisdom literature--self-help books took off when religion ceased to be an effective force in people's lives. Metaphysics has been suspect since Kant and policy-makers in mainline denominations have been, effectively, atheists for years--contemptuous of the religious belief and practice of the laity and working overtime to dismantle the cults, to debunk the myths, and to preserve the institutions that pay them by remaking them as social service organizations and political action groups.

These liberal churches are going extinct because they've jettisoned what people want out of religion. The only religious option left is gross superstition--fundamentalist Christianity and, for the elite, a syncretic mish-mash of commercialized New Age products. It's a pity I'll be dead 2 centuries or so from now when we'll be able to see how this all plays out. It's reminiscent of the world of late Antiquity. The elite were skeptics at most. The cults of the old city gods, the "classical" deities, were little more than civic rituals. With the old city gods effectively dead, Oriental cults flooded in and merged with the native superstitions of the peasantry, which had always been bubbling under the surface, and one of those cults, Christianity, took over.

What will happen to us? What will come out of this Hellenistic mish-mash? I doubt that it will be anything like the Church of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, at least not in the global north. Secular governments are too strong and stable to cede power to an international religious institution and there isn't the critical mass of illiterates to keep the superstitions going. Religion will have its ups and down, but the trend will be down until most of the population is completely secular, completely detached from any religious tradition and clueless about the very idea of religious belief or practice, and only a small minority, a single-digit percentage, dabbles in various flavors of "spirituality."

What a bummer! I suppose most people don't see it that way because all they've ever seen of religion is the bad stuff and the dull stuff--the stupid rules and constraints, the threat of punishment in this world and the next, the sickening sentimentalities, dull preaching and platitudes. As one student put it, "you don't associate Christianity with mysticism." They don't associate it with the spooky, the frisson, the thrill of transcendence, with the romance of history, or even with high art and aesthetic pleasure. Christianity has been so thoroughly gutted, that few will see its collapse as a loss.


Anonymous said...

This is a well crafted little rant that I think is mostly quite true.

I think it is rather amusing that Mass media has become the "opiate of the masses". Religion can't even compete anymore; which in some regards is a bit sad.

The hard line of religion as we know it has to fall, and will fall. Although, I am not totally sure that it will not be replaced by something else other then addiction to television or nationalistic propoganda. It may be a bit of the romantic in me, but I hope to see humanity retain faith in love and empathy while losing the strict laws of religion which are supposed to guide us towards these ideals.

Here's to hoping.

nalfia said...

In my studies I have found that the Bible is funny I really enjoy it.

Just Passing By said...

> Of course religion doesn't make
> us any better--or worse.

In the aggregate, clearly not. I used to think that it held some promise in at least individual cases, "many are called" and all, some wheat amongst the tares.

> We are also tribal and mark
> people off as Our Own or
> Other by tribal and clan
> affiliation, by race, language
> and kinship, by ideology, by
> religion, by the football teams
> we support or the gang colors
> we wear. It's all the same:
> religion is just another marker
> of affiliation:

If one applies John Mitchell's dictum "Watch what we _do_, not what we say" to religion, this seems to be very close to what one sees. The evidence of "transformed lives" ... and some of that is real, surely ... doesn't seem to be any more than one would find by giving the transformed unfortunate some social context and support.

> [People] don't associate
> [religion] with the spooky, the
> frisson, the thrill of
> transcendence, with the romance
> of history, or even with high
> art and aesthetic pleasure.

So, the core of religion ... or at least the "nice" part .. is basically the opiate of the petit bourgeois? Perhaps the mescaline, but no matter. If so, no wonder it's atheism's moment. If religion is just another consumer good, it simply can't compete in today's market.

H. E. said...

It can compete--in a niche market. The problem is that since religious participation went into a decline, churches, imagining that they had "the whole faith for the whole world" tried tweaking their product for wider appeal. They didn't capture the secular majority and, increasingly, are losing the minority of the population that has a yen for transcendence.

Religion is indeed the opiate of the people. Marx however failed to recognize that even some rich people still want opiates, and mescaline, and religion--that they aren't substitutes for something else but enjoyable in their own right. If you can be rich, religious and high, so much the better.