Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The End of Religious Greatness?

Dear old Christopher Hitchens, that bundle of love who pours out well-styled verbal acid on the pages of various publications and believes that Mother Theresa was a monster in human form, has a book coming out titled subtly Religion Poisons Everything. Doubtless he felt bad not having yet cashed in on the recent run of strident atheist best sellers -- and one must certainly concede that anything written by Hitchens is sure to be more pleasing in style (if not content) than anything churned out by the likes of Daniell Dennett, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris.

Salon has up a pair of excepts from the book (hat tip: GeneExpression) and the following is a selection therefrom:
We atheists do not require any priests, or any hierarchy above them, to police our doctrine. Sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us, as are relics and the worship of any images or objects (even including objects in the form of one of man's most useful innovations: the bound book). To us no spot on earth is or could be "holier" than another: to the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage, or the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth or beauty. Some of these excursions to the bookshelf or the lunch or the gallery will obviously, if they are serious, bring us into contact with belief and believers, from the great devotional painters and composers to the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman. These mighty scholars may have written many evil things or many foolish things, and been laughably ignorant of the germ theory of disease or the place of the terrestrial globe in the solar system, let alone the universe, and this is the plain reason why there are no more of them today, and why there will be no more of them tomorrow. Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago.... We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness.
I could note that it seems off base to compare "the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock" to a walk across the library, instead of the "plain horror" of mass slaughter of priests, nuns and active laypeople in Spain, or the sheer horror of starving Ukraine into submission or the sheer horror of sending millions of innocents to the Siberia, but that is well trodden ground and would be far too easy.

What strikes me as odd, rather, is the claim that while there may have been great religious thinkers and artists centuries ago, their like shall never be seen again. From here on, Hitchens believes, all the great men will be atheists, and all believers will be squalid little cranks.

Yet if the province of atheists is that of the library and the art gallery, as Hitchens seems to suggest, where exactly are we to find all these gems of atheist thought, art and literature?

I certainly do not claim that all great art is explicitly religious, or that all artists are good people, faithful to their religions. Far from it. Yet it seems to me that there is in the truly atheist and materialistic mind a demystifying and overly self-observing quality which does not lend itself to great art or writing.

You'd be hard put to come up with two authors more clearly atheistic in their assumptions than Camus and Sartre, and both are good writers. However, there's a tight, closed in feel to their writing. The ceiling presses down upon their characters, because there is nothing above the ceiling. Atheism will never produce a Dostoevsky or a T. S. Elliot. It may produce a Picasso, but it will not produce a Michelangelo, a Rubens or a Rembrandt. There can be a Last Judgement, but no last non judgemenalism.

This is not to say that great art and writing requires Christianity. Far from it. But I think that art beyond a certain level requires belief in something beyond the everyday material reality. Homer wrote great poetry because he wrote of the struggles of men against fate and the caprices of the gods. Virgil dealt with the conflicting moral claims that resulted from an emerging sense of objective, philosophically-based morality vs. a lingering conviction that it was necessary to do the will of the gods. Norse mythology dealt with a pantheon which was itself doomed, and yet that sense of looming destruction also held out hope for a world reborn without the pain and conflict of the present one. All of these can inspire great art.

Perhaps because it is such a modern, urban, middle-class phenomenon, the current round of strident atheist writers project instead a sense of inward-looking self satisfaction. A smallness. How could someone produce much interesting in the way of art who adhered to Richard Dawkins' "secular commandments" which include things like "Do not indoctrinate your children" and "Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else)"?

This is not the stuff of greatness. If great art and thought are dead, it is the comfort of modern secularism sitting in its well padded armchair that killed it.


John Farrell said...

Excellent post. And isn't it interesting, for example, that as good a writer as he is, we can expect no great novels from Hitchens. I don't think he has enough sympathy for human beings to do a great (or even good) novel justice.

Darwin said...

Yeah, it's hard to picture Hitchens writing a readable novel...

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

This is great stuff. You inspired me to actually post something today, which is amazing considering that it's "one of those days" over here.

Anonymous said...

If you're up to it, I'd like to see a list of your favorite non-atheist, brilliant writers and artist of this 'atheist age'. It seems like this fella never picked up anything by JPII or Benedict if he thinks that there are no more mighty scholars today.
I'm sure you can name many more excellent non-atheist writers, but are there any current, non-atheist composers or artists that are worth checking out?

John Farrell said...

Bill, if you haven't tried them yet, I highly recommend virtually anything by William Trevor, and the Soldier novels by Gene Wolfe.

One athiest or at least agnostic writer I think does approach greatness, is TC Boyle. But again, he has more compassion for human folly, I think, than outspoken idealogues like Hitchens.i

Kiwi Nomad said...

Ahhhh Michelangelo. Someone whose works can still take your breath away centuries after his death. Last year I saw his 'Moses' in Rome. It sat alongside other sculptures and gave them the unfortunate look of being dead. Michelangelo's 'Moses' looked like it was ready to stride forth out of its marble into the living world.

Anonymous said...


This is a really great post! I love your conclusion. :)

Literacy-chic said...

I wish I had some brilliant comment or thought to add, but this post is nicely complete--which could be why the best thought-out posts largely defy comment. So I just thought I's add a little note of appreciation. Nice one!

Anonymous said...

Atheism is nothing new. People just aren't legally put to death or suffer suppression of free speech anymore because of atheistic thought. I believe if you seriously looked at art and literature, you might be quite surprised by the number of classics produced by those who merely made no issue regarding the lack of belief in a god or gods.

I don't advertise that I have no belief in the Tooth Fairy. Why any belief system or lack thereof is an issue typically resulting from questions asked by religious folk. To atheists, it merely doesn't matter.