June 2007

Arts & Letters

Letter to a young friend on God and the question of a good lunch

By Amanda Lohrey
Recent books about religion

Dear Virginia,

It's good to hear from you again, and I'm delighted to learn that you have decided to enrol in Cultural Studies 101. In light of this you might be interested in some books that have come my way recently on the subject of religion. There has, as you know, been a great deal of talk over the past decade about a religious revival, but religion is always with us and revivals are often more apparent than real. What is true is that in the culture wars, religion is now more openly deployed - sometimes cynically - in campaigns to occupy the moral high ground. This is a development that agitates secular humanists a good deal, and it has especially aroused the atheists among us who, 30 years ago, felt it was safe to assume that the Enlightenment was a done deal. Now they are confronted by jihad on all sides and George W Bush claiming that God told him to invade Iraq. What to do?

Well, judging by a new crop of books the atheists are in a fighting mood and have gone into pamphleteering overdrive. The Sydney Writers' Festival recently featured the French philosopher Michel Onfray, whose new book, The Atheist Manifesto (Melbourne University Publishing, 288pp; $32.95), sold over a quarter of a million copies in Europe. This Onfray is a pretty cool dude, Virginia. Like many French intellectuals he dresses all in black and his book features a witty author portrait in which he poses with the pipe and nozzle of a vacuum cleaner at his feet, an allusion no doubt to his project of suctioning up all that murky superstition and leaving the field prepared for hygienic rationalism.

M. Onfray's excursus into metaphysical housecleaning is a dashing polemic: easy to read, written in a playful Gallic style, never ponderous or dull. His reaction to an education in an orphanage run by Salesian priests is to espouse an enlightened hedonism and, it has to be said, he walks the talk. When at 28 he had a heart attack and was advised to change his diet he replied with the now widely quoted response - appealing to a Western culture congested with dietary advice - that he would prefer to "die eating butter than to economize my existence with margarine". He then wrote a book on the eating habits of the world's great philosophers, so writerly a response to a health crisis that I warmed to the man. Twenty years on he is still with us, and has published over 30 books and established a free university in the town of Caen as part of his personal war on monotheism. He has, of course, had death threats, but this doesn't prevent him from appearing regularly on television.

The Atheist Manifesto focuses its critique on the three great Abrahamic religions of the Book, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In Onfray's eyes they are equally pernicious, since they are all based on a misanthropic "death fixation" that denies the value of the body and of this earthly life. Their revealed texts are riddled with unsavoury injunctions to, among other things, ethnic and racial cleansing, along with breathtaking contradictions in teaching from one section to the next. There is no conclusive evidence that Jesus existed, and the Gospels were cobbled together by political fiat and promulgated by Constantine's theocratic "coup d'état", a rigid regime that initiated waves of book burning. There is more in this vein on the Old Testament and the Koran, all a "tissue of incoherencies". In the process Onfray gives a brief history and analysis of the discourse of atheism from the time of the Greeks.

There's nothing new in this; it's material that's been covered before many times, though not always with Onfray's gift for the arresting turn of phrase. When moderate or liberal believers complain that he is choosing the softest targets - the extremists - he is no less scornful of those liberals who attempt to rationalise the more brutal teachings of God's own book. Moderate practitioners of the faiths "cherry-pick" the scriptures to validate their preferred moral slant - "turning the other cheek" - and they are not the only ones. Hitler, for example, was fond of the story of Jesus taking a whip to the moneylenders in the temple, and cites it approvingly in Mein Kampf; later the incident was used by the Nazis to justify Kristallnacht. For Onfray, fundamentalism is the only religion - everything else is a wishy-washy rationalisation of the barbarity of revealed texts, a kind of liberal spin, or what the late Pope John Paul II dismissed as "vague mysticism", feel-good religion without the flagellation and the hellfire.

Onfray's end project is to argue for a "post-Christian secular order". Atheism, he writes, is not about nihilism, nor is atheism an end in itself. Do away with God, yes, but then what? The answer, he writes, is to construct a new morality, a new ethic: "We are living now in a new transitional phase, heading towards a third era, a post-Christian era based on philosophy, utility, pragmatism, individual and social hedonism." In the name of this he adamantly rejects relativism. There are limits to tolerance and the correct ethical position is not that all religions are equal but that all are equally bad (Buddhism he exempts as not a religion but an ethical system).

As a student of politics, Virginia, you will perhaps hear an echo here of another, more famous manifesto. Unlike Karl Marx's brief but incisive polemic, Onfray's goes on for too long and there are passages of windy rhetoric. And because it's a manifesto there are no footnotes, index or bibliography. Where Onfray does resemble his famous model is in the vagueness of his alternative program for the future. He proffers the consolations of philosophy but not persuasively, because what we get is mostly a series of slogans. Though he professes admiration for the English Utilitarians, for example, he is light on specifics. If his utilitarian ethics are as coherent and thought-through as, say, Peter Singer's, there are no signs of it here.

On the other side of the Atlantic, M. Onfray is joined in battle by the celebrity journalist and pundit Christopher Hitchens, once a young Trotskyist and now a convert to the moderate Right. ‘The Hitch', as he is not always affectionately known, has form in the religion game; he once wrote a scarifying critique of Mother Teresa. Galvanised by September 11 he has turned to a bigger canvas and he is not a man to mince words, as the title of his new book indicates: God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Allen & Unwin, 320pp; $29.95).

The Hitch's personal manifesto is to oppose anything that gets in the way of "free inquiry". Religion belongs to the infancy of our species and like any childhood artifact it is crudely and clumsily made: "Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or gurus actually said or did." After an incisive and often witty deconstruction of the Book(s) he then goes on to set out a catalogue of horrors: the complicity of the Catholic Church in the Rwandan massacres, its contribution to the spread of AIDS in Africa through its prohibition of the condom, and the Danish cartoon fiasco with radical Islamists. He also gets to lampoon lesser absurdities in chapters with titles such as ‘A Short Digression on the Pig; or Why Heaven Hates Ham'. Like Onfray he focuses at length on religion as organised child abuse and misogyny. Unlike Onfray he draws more explicitly on the position of neo-Darwinian biologists like Richard Dawkins and he uses the rhetorical ploy of referring persistently to humans as "mammals"; it's a word that functions in his writing as a kind of reality check to remind us that we are in a still-early state of biological evolution, in which "our frontal lobes are too small and our adrenaline glands too big". This means we are afraid of the dark and apt to deify anything that might serve to allay our primitive fears.

Unlike Onfray the Hitch takes time out to fire off a few missiles in the direction of "the East". He once spent time, for the purposes of free inquiry, in a Rajneesh compound and it was a horror show. Then there are the Tamil Tigers, Hindu terrorists who claim the distinction of having invented the suicide bomber. He's wrong about their being Hindu terrorists - the Tamil Tigers are mostly Marxists - but never mind; it's true that Hinduism has its share of violent fundamentalists and if we add in the feudal failings of Tibet under the lamas and the support of Japanese Buddhists for imperialism and mass murder then it's QED the world over.

The greatest strength of the atheist polemicists is their intellectual iconoclasm, combined, it must be said, with their personal courage (death threats are a given). On the other hand they tend to be poor anthropologists and are not at all bothered with the psychological underpinnings of faith. Onfray, for example, is all in favour of pleasure and there is, as he asserts, a dismal life-denying aspect to the religions of the Book, but this is not inherently true of all religions, or even all monotheistic religions. For many people religious observance is an expression of individual and communal joy; a pleasure in ritual, in ceremony, in dressing up, in singing, dancing, lighting incense and a kind of ecstatic theatrical poetry. Anyone who has ever observed a Pentecostal church meeting in the Deep South of the US or the mass celebrations of the ten-day Durga festival in Kolkata knows that, whatever else is going down, a great many people are having a hell of a good time.

If anything, the Hitch is on even shakier ground in this regard. Like Onfray he devotes his final chapter to the case for "a New Enlightenment". He acknowledges the awe and wonder in our experience of the numinous (as opposed to the supernatural) but, he argues, there are better places to look for it than religion, like Art: "The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected." Now this, Virginia, is where some of our secular humanists can begin to look a bit, well, limited. They have this tendency to make of Art a substitute religion; Shakespeare especially is made to function as a Great Father figure, all knowing, all wise and full of useful moral instruction. Loss of faith, writes the Hitch, can be compensated for by "immersion in the near-miraculous work of Homer, Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy and Proust".

Picture this, if you will. A young couple in Sydney's western suburbs who feel some dimension is missing from their lives go regularly to, say, one of the big Pentecostal churches where they get feel-good oratory (the scriptures are mentioned only briefly and there is not a lot of sin talk), lively music, a network of support groups, a sense of connection and - you will appreciate this, one day, Virginia - free child care. And what would the Hitch have them do instead? Stay home and read Milton and Proust while the kids run riot in the pool?

Is it fair to play the anthropological card against the hyper-rationalists? After all, truth is truth. Yes, but if your avowed purpose in writing a book is to ‘convert' readers to atheism then you must aim to be effective, and creating a hole in their head, and heart, won't do. To be an effective iconoclast you must address the psychological underpinnings of what it is you aim to combat, otherwise you are merely shouting at the converted. Wilhelm Reich once presciently remarked in the 1920s that the flaw in the leftist critique of Hitlerism lay in its blindness to the psychic satisfactions which Nazi mysticism and ritual offered its followers. An atheist critique of religion that fails to take into account its psychological potency, and what some claim are our innate mystical yearnings, cannot expect to make much headway. After reading Messers Onfray and Hitchens I am afraid that you might feel, well, empty; they are the suburban Chinese take-away of the sceptical position.

It's time now to wheel in the heavy artillery, the man voted one of the world's "top three intellectuals" and the number-one scourge of the God-botherers, Richard Dawkins. In his hugely bestselling book The God Delusion (Bantam Press, 406pp; $35) Dawkins is aiming to raise consciousness. He's fed up with atheists being put on the defensive as moral retards and speaks of them needing to "come out" and display atheist "pride". Atheists, he writes, are persecuted and need to get organised because there are too many places, mostly in the US, where even university-employed intellectuals are afraid to openly espouse a godless position.

Dawkins is a biologist of the neo-Darwinian school, not just a vigorous defender of Darwin's model of evolution (he has been called "Darwin's Rottweiler") but a type of monist: he holds that there is no reality other than the material. This means he is opposed to the idea of God and also to the idea of the soul or spirit. You might think the two are inextricably linked, Virginia, but in both science and theology it is possible to believe in one and not the other. Dawkins knows this and in The God Delusion he is concerned to dispose of them both.

The cornerstone of his argument against God is set out in chapter four, ‘Why There is Almost Certainly No God'. You will note the word "almost", and it's there because Dawkins' position relies heavily on arguments about statistical improbability and the process of natural selection - "the adaptive fit of species to their separate environments" - as an explanation of that "irreducible complexity" that Intelligent Designers claim as their prima-facie case for the existence of God. In Dawkins' view all versions of Intelligent Design are a thinly veiled camouflage for Creationism. He is also opposed to the more scientifically respectable but equally fallacious notion of the anthropic universe - the belief that we exist only because the universe is as it is, which must mean that it was designed that way (see Paul Davies' The Goldilocks Enigma). Who, he asks, made The Designer? The riposte of the theologians is to argue that God exists outside time, so the question of origins doesn't apply. This is known as a stalemate.

So much for God, but what about the soul or spirit? Dawkins is against the theory that there is something non-material about life, some non-physical élan vital or mysterious pneuma. This he refers to as Soul One. He prefers to believe in Soul Two, which he defines as "a highly developed intellectual or spiritual power" that arises out of the evolution of the human brain, a process that is ongoing and through which the brain may yet evolve to new heights, new powers. In his preferred model, mind is equal to the physiological activity of the brain, in particular the information-processing activity of the brain. How then do we explain consciousness? How is it that humans, alone among sentient creatures, can have, say, an alienated sense of self? Well, some neo-Darwinians are prepared to concede, at least for now, that consciousness as such is a mystery. "It is possible," says the Dawkins ally and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, "that the existence of subjective first-person experience is not explainable by science." Now this, Virginia, amounts to a major concession; it is the kind of thing to make a bishop smile, and even some non-religious philosophers have objected to neo-Darwinism as a "flight from Meaning", at best an account of the mechanisms that transmit meaning but in no way a satisfactory explanation of its provenance.

Dawkins is sensitive to his portrayal as the godfather of a dry and mechanical rationalism that squashes the human spirit and he wants us to know that he approves of "the god of Einstein", i.e. wonder and awe at the "patterning" of the universe. This is one thing; it's quite another to ascribe this patterning to a Divinity, and he is much exercised by those scientists who argue for a cosmic intelligence or Mind that is equivalent to God. For these boffins he reserves his greatest scorn; they are people with brains and should know better, and he cites the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson as a prime example of their "vague sophistries". "I am content to be one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much about the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels," writes Dyson, and "I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension." This, argues Dawkins, is a metaphorical or pantheistic God, not the kind of guy you petition to smite your enemies and no more, really than a form of "sexed-up atheism". It's John Paul II's vague mysticism again and Dawkins objects to it because it provides a liberal humanist window-dressing for the backroom fundamentalists, while also encouraging them to believe that "science", in the broadest sense, is on their side. In political terms, the metaphysical fuzzies are only "making the world safe" for the fundamentalists.

I sympathise with Dawkins, Virginia, and I like his high-caste warrior style. As a general in the culture wars he is effective, capable of knocking out an armed division or three; as a philosopher of science, however, he is limited. Reading the hyper-rationalists is invigorating but after a while it can feel like being stuck under a bell jar. What they remain weak on is the question of what is outside the bell jar, that is, consciousness and meaning. Why do people feel they are part of something larger than themselves that is inherently meaningful?

Dawkins' chapter on this in The God Delusion, ‘The argument [for God] from Personal "Experience"' is one of the weakest in the book, superficial in its survey and slapdash in argument. It tends to focus on the crudest superstitions, like those who claimed to see the face of the Devil in the smoke from the World Trade Center. For Dawkins, inner promptings are either illusion or hallucination. He is right to ask the question: Where does the "inner voice" shade into pathology? And when George W Bush hears God telling him to invade Iraq, is he schizophrenic? Who is speaking here, and who is listening? These are important questions and at this point you might expect Dawkins to call on some model of psychology, but instead he sidesteps into his comfort zone of evolutionary biology. In response to the question of why people persist in believing, and what exactly it is they are experiencing, he wonders if the religious impulse may well be just a gene that was once functional and is now self-replicating, like a virus.

The poverty of Dawkins' model of psychology is addressed in a new book by the Melbourne philosopher Tamas Pataki. In his Against Religion (Scribe, 144pp; $22) Pataki makes the psychoanalytical case. Dawkins and Onfray lament the baleful effects of key religious texts, but anyone who has attended a religious school knows that exposure to these can have little lasting effect. Why then, asks Pataki, do religious doctrines and teaching capture some minds and not others? Because, he argues, they appeal to certain unconscious needs and fantasies arising out of certain kinds of narcissistic pathology. On this model, all forms of God are substitute attachment figures for the idealised parent, or stand-ins (Jesus) for an idealised self. "The sense of importance, power and self-esteem that has to be surrendered in infancy may be retrieved by establishing a ‘special relationship to God'," Pataki writes. This accounts for fanatical groupism and attachments, not just to an organised church or cult but equally to, say, Manchester United. Pataki does not claim that this accounts for all religious belief, only the pathological case, but how then to explain the rest, the moderate Anglicans?

Pataki's is as lucid and insightful an account of the psychoanalytical model as you will find, Virginia, and I recommend it, not least for its theory of why fundamentalists are so afraid of women. The problem with psychoanalysis in general, however, is that it presents us with yet another bell jar, a closed system. If you attempt to argue with it you can always be pigeonholed as a captive of your own unconscious needs and drives.

The immediate issue here is a political one and it's about the rules of engagement: how best to manage those unconscious drives, not to mention our robust diversity of opinion on the subject of religion. It's here that the liberal secular state comes to our rescue, and the preparedness of the atheists to argue for its defence, at all costs, is their most admirable trait. Under the protective umbrella of the liberal secular state a large number of people are at liberty to pursue their individual path to meaning. Often they do this via a kind of zany eclecticism, a personal synthesis arrived at through a suck-it-and-see process of self-help. This is sometimes referred to as being New Age. Only a few weeks back I opened a copy of the Australian to find a full-page article on how the Sydney Swans' co-captain Brett Kirk is a serious practitioner of yoga and meditation. That orthodox Christian CS Lewis once said that when people cease to believe in orthodox religion they don't believe in nothing, they believe in everything. He meant this as a put-down and it has been seized upon by critics of the New Age and its attendant self-help movements as a pointer to the ethical and spiritual chaos that arises out of scepticism. But I prefer to think of it as a realm of freedom, a democracy of privately pursued and individually tailored salvation, a realm of resistance to orthodox straitjackets of all kinds, and that includes both religion and rationalist materialism.

If, like our squad of combative atheists, you regard these people as a bunch of flakes, squandering good money on oriental technologies of the self, not to mention phone-in astrology readings, then you will have to wait on Science. In time, says Dawkins, science will come up with all the answers. But this is evolutionary time we're talking about, Virginia, so it could be thousands of years, a very long wait indeed. In the meantime, Dawkins suggests that we concentrate on the simple pleasures of the here and now. In a typically donnish moment he tells of interviewing the Nobel-winning geneticist James Watson in his rooms in Clare College. Whenever people put it to him, says Watson, that his atheism must make his life pretty bleak, he replies by saying, "But I'm anticipating having a good lunch." And, adds Dawkins, "We did have a good lunch, too."

This is the kind of smug, culturally blinkered anecdote that does little for Dawkins' cause, and it is unlikely to make converts. If human consciousness is indeed still in its infancy but evolving to a point beyond the need for a god, it remains the case that, for whatever reason, viral or otherwise, the current model of homo sapiens continues to crave both communion and transcendence. There is here a genuine mystery, and it's not the mystery of the Divine Will; it's the mystery of the nature of the self, of consciousness. The best way to manage its more extreme and destructive manifestations might be to begin by treating it, at the very least, with a cautious respect.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

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