I’ve been busy all day trying to fix the electric starter on my snowblower, but so far without result, so I take refuge in my blog. First, I scout the usual suspects — Butterflies and Wheels, Why Evolution is True, Metamagician, RD.net, Pharygula, usw. — and then I gravitate back to the one that simply begged to be debugged: a little piece in the Toronto Review of Books by one Nora Parker on “The Future of Religion in a Secular Age.” (h/t Ophelia Benson) Well, you’ve got to hand it to her: it’s a real gripper of a title. And even more scintillating reading! But what follows here is a real cri de coeur, an expression of rage and frustration (and not only at snowblowers)!
Take the closing remark, intended to sum up with one of the religious profundities uttered by the erudite religious believers for people “with a penchant for the numinous”:
… one sensed that this wasn’t the night to confront the New Atheists. It was, instead, a night to be buoyed by Rabbi Sacks’s declaration that “Faith is the defeat of probability by the power of possibility,” whatever that possibility may be.
I know only two things about Rabbi Sacks, neither of them favourable. First, he found his father’s dying in misery a growing experience. He didn’t really explain what his father got out of it. Second, I began reading his book The Dignity of Difference, and gave it up at the point where he dismisses polytheists — the dignity of not too much difference, it seems.
And yet it is Sacks and Taylor — Charles Taylor, that is, author of endless philosophical tomes, dreaming of an age that is past and gone, winner to the Templeton Prize for possibly the longest of them all, A Secular Age. Like me, someone who won’t say in two words what he can stretch out to 2000, I found the Templeton-winning doorstop good in parts, like the curate’s egg, but found very little sustenance there.
See, that’s what you do when you’re frustrated — you lose your train of thought. Yet it is Sacks and Taylor — what? Anyway, back to Taylor. Whether it was his attempt at defeating probabilities with possibilities, I’m not sure, but certainly, for someone beginning the final countdown of years, too many words — and unlike Mozart (the Amadeus version), who asked the emperor – who told him that there were too many notes in his opera — “Just take a few away and it will be perfect!” — which notes he had in mind, I could in fact point to many words the venerable Taylor might have left out.
However, while Nora Parker might have a sense that this was not a time to confront the new atheists – nevertheless:
Much of the evening’s conversation was dedicated to addressing the ideas and popularity of writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Rabbi Sacks argued that these men over-simplify religion, producing critiques that are, in Oxford terms, superficially profound and profoundly superficial. He distinguished these tone-deaf atheists from “atheists with a soul,” those intellectuals who see the failings of religion and want something better for humanity.
“Atheists with a soul” — you know, intellectuals who see the failings of religion and want something better for humanity. Couldn’t possibly have had Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris in mind! They have not seen the failings of religion. They merely oversimplify it. If I hear that one more time, I swear I’m going to scream! That’s why what Julian Baggini is doing in his Guardian series is important. It might just smoke out some of these oversimplifications — like ‘defeating probabilities with possibilities’ perhaps!
Now, notice, Rabbi Sacks is, of course, a Jew, and Charles Taylor is — not of course, but in reality — a Roman Catholic. The first thing to notice about them is that they believe different things. Taylor, presumably, true to the magisterium of his church, subscribes to the beliefs outlined in the creeds and councils of the church, beliefs which hold that Jesus or Jeshua of Galilee was the long-awaited messiah of the Jews. Rabbi Sacks, presumably, is still awaiting the long-awaited one. But it is Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris who are oversimplifying!
The problem with religion, in case any of the religious are listening in, is simply that it is so very very complex, purports to speak about reality, and yet does so in contradictions. This is the starting point. Of course, Rabbi Sacks and Dr. Taylor will no doubt immediately respond that it’s not about beliefs. Let me repeat that, in case you didn’t notice: Religion is not about belief! There, that’s settled then.
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God…
So, let’s get this straight. Religion is not about belief! Ah, yes, of course, it’s about defeating probabilities with possibilities. How could one forget this superficially profound and profoundly superficial utterance? For instance, it is very improbable that Jesus was raised from the dead. Rabbi Sacks doesn’t believe that he was — at least I suspect he doesn’t. But Christians do not faint or grow weary: they slay probabilities with possibilities and affirm the risen saviour! This, no doubt, is the numinous.
Ah! Yet there is more. The fair Nora exclaims:
For Taylor and Rabbi Sacks, religion should act as a counterpoint and antidote to the rampant solipsism and breakdown of sociality that characterize the secular world.
What exactly does she mean (or do Sacks and Taylor mean?) by “the rampant solipsism and breakdown of sociality that characterise the secular world”? Perhaps that people don’t go to church or to synagogue as often as they used to? Congregations are smaller? Congregants must be secluded in narcissistic solitude! Of course, that’s it. Society is breaking down. What does that mean? It wasn’t breaking down in sixteenth century England, then, when the murder rate was exponentially higher than it is now? Society was sound, on good foundations then? Let’s see. Jews had been expelled from England; Thomas More (now a saint, no less!) was busy burning heretics at the stake; Kings were lopping of wives’ heads instead of divorcing them! People believed — note that, they actually believed — that there was a god who cared for them – others? — yeah, maybe — but certainly this god had each person specifically in mind:
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so …
But religion is not about beliefs. Let’s get that straight!
But still religion is vital, because it takes us out of ourselves. And you know, sometimes it does. So does football, tennis, chess, dancing, eating, music, hiking, adventuring, fighting, serving, helping, hoping, wishing — well, practically everything, if you put your heart into it. But according to Taylor, says Nora Parker,
… religious practice entails a transcendence of the self that is desperately needed in a culture as self-obsessed as our own.
What does ’self-obsessed’ mean? Compared to what? Compared to the obsession of religious pilgrims visiting a brain-dead girl? Compared to an obsessive devotion to a myth about personal redemption? Compared to an obsessive concern about people not being obsessively concerned about religion?
You know, it really does make me almost sick when I read another piece of nonsense about nonsense like Nora Parker’s. No one, but no one, is denying people the right to their numinous moments, so those with a penchant for the numinous are perfectly at liberty to go off seeking moments when they can meditate, contemplate nature, look raptly at the night sky and be overcome by the awesomeness of the universe. But this is not what religion is about, and that’s not what religious people like Sacks and Taylor are talking about either. They’re talking about religious institutions and their influence and power in the world. They’re pining for the good old days when religion was king and theology was queen of the sciences.
So, let’s get it really straight. No one would much mind if religion was just the background noise of cultural activity, like chess clubs or rugby teams or football fans. But that’s not what religion claims to be. It’s not just there for those with a penchant for the numinous; it’s there to tell people that their lives are all fucked up, that they’re solipsistic narcissists, that they need to pay attention to religious experts like themselves, and shape their lives according to some religious practice — you know what? let’s forget about the beliefs — let’s just think about the practice of religion — how it’s in your face all the time, how it’s so self-absorbed it hasn’t really noticed that it’s not necessary in order to make the world go round. You see it on the street in the clothes that people wear. Buildings proclaim it, insist on it being noticed. Now, in some places, even the kids are being dragooned into showing off their religion in their schools, by their dress, by special places just to pray, by the insistent rhythms of their lives, their particular hangups about the universe, their prejudices about women, their beliefs about what should be and should not be the law that should govern everyone.
Sorry Nora, but leave me out. Go, play your games with rituals and books and scrolls and songs and solidarity with those who think and pray and talk and — well, hell, it’s got to come in some place! — believe like you, but leave me out, and stop pushing these peculiarities on the rest of us. That’s what the new atheism is all about. It has nothing to say about religions except to say that, if they are based on beliefs, there is no reason to believe the beliefs true, and, on the other hand, if religious practice is just a way of wrapping up morals in myths, then that’s fine, and if it works for you, great!, but don’t try to pretend that everyone should pay attention either to your myths or to your particular ritual practices. When you’ve stopped playing games, and pretending it’s real, then get back to us, and see if there’s something we can do together. But, so far, looking at religion around the world, it’s a lot more bother than it’s worth, and a lot more harm than the religious seem prepared to acknowledge. When you’ve sorted this out, get back to us. But meanwhile, keep it to yourself, will ya! And really, Nora – graduate student in English at the University of Toronto — you really must do better than this.