Black Lamb and Grey Falcon II: Easter in Zagreb

Over the long weekend I made a little more progress on Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I’m going to keep at it in deliberately small increments so that I can stop and stare at the sentences. As it happens, one of the chapters I was just reading describes a visit to the Cathedral in Zagreb on “Easter Eve”:

It has been cut about as by a country dressmaker, but it has kept the meditative integrity of darkness considering light, the mathematical aspiration for something above mathematics, which had been the core of its original design, and at that moment it housed the same intense faith that had built it. This was Easter Eve; the great cross had been taken down from the altar and lay propped up before the stop, the livid and wounded Christ  wincing in the light of the candles set at His feet. It was guarded by two soldiers in the olive uniform of the Yugoslavian Army, who leaned on their rifles as if this was a dead king of earth lying in state. As I looked at them, admiring the unity enjoyed by a state which fights and believes it has a moral right to fight, and would give up either fighting or religion if it felt the two inconsistent, I saw that they were moved by a deep emotion. Their lips were drawn outward from their clenched teeth, they were green as if they were seasick. ‘Are they tired? Do they have to guard the cross for a long time?’ I asked curiously. ‘No,’ said Constantine, ‘not for more than an hour or two. Then others come.’ ‘Then they are really looking like that,’ I pressed, ‘because it is a great thing for them to guard the dead Christ?’ ‘Certainly,’ he replied. ‘The Croats are such Catholics as you never did see, not in France, not in Italy; and I think you ask that question because you do not understand the Slavs. If we did not feel intensely about guarding the dead Christ we should not put our soldiers to do it, and indeed they would not do it if we put them there, they would go away and do something else. The custom would have died if it had not meant a great deal to us.’ For a long time we watched the wincing Christ and the two boys with bowed  heads, who swayed very slightly backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, like candle-flame in a room where the air is nearly still. I had not been wrong. In Yugoslavia there was an intensity of feeling that was not only of immense and exhilarating force, but had an honourable origin, proceeding from realist passion, from whole belief.

It felt odd reading this passage about “whole belief” after days when it seemed I couldn’t turn around without seeing garish rabbit cut-outs and hokey pastel-colored baskets full of cheap chocolate in every imaginable shape. Our customs continue even though they mean  almost nothing to most of us anymore, and the resulting hollow commercialism gets pretty depressing. At the same time, as an atheist as well as someone anxious about nationalism and other ways of marking off identities worth fighting for (“you do not understand the Slavs”), I recoil from this scene, evocative as it is, more than I am exhilarated by it. Something else I did over the long weekend was watch a lecture (which I did find exhilarating) about “Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and Other Delusions: Just Say No!.” The soldiers with their clenched teeth don’t look to me like people willing to change their minds, which (I agree with Dr. Boghossian) is an essential characteristic of rational thought. The problem with “intensity of feeling” is that it is no guarantee of “moral right,” much less of more mundane kinds of “right” or truth. I wonder if West really regrets (as her rhetoric often implies) the more anemic faith of her own country. It may be less exhilarating, but there’s something unseemly about someone who is buffered by it, herself, from the hazards of extremism describing this scene as if it’s an attractively exotic spectacle.

Book Club: Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

Last night was the second meeting of the book club that first met in November to discuss Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved. In keeping with our plan of following some kind of thread from one book to the next, we moved from that sad story of failed religious idealism to a still sadder–but, perhaps, ultimately more uplifting–one, The Power and the Glory. For all of us, it was our first reading of the novel, and for some of us, our first serious encounter with Graham Greene. I include myself in this last group: I had read The Comedians years ago for an undergraduate class, and my copy of The Power and the Glory has my [unmarried] name and then “88” inscribed in it, as if it too was part of my course readings, but I have no recollection of ever actually having worked through it. That’s it, for me and Graham Greene!  (I’ve also seen the movie adaptation of The End of the Affair, but I’d be the first one to insist that doesn’t really count!)  It’s hard to imagine that I could have read it and not remembered it: it certainly seems to me now a highly memorable book, the kind of book that leaves deep and not altogether welcome tracks in one’s literary and moral imagination.

As before, our group discussion was wide-ranging and open-ended rather than conclusive, but also as before, the process of hearing a range of ideas and trying out my own helped me sort my preliminary impressions. I am left with a number of uncertainties about the novel, some quite literal (what happened to the girl Coral, for instance? I thought she had died, perhaps from whatever caused her sharp stomach pains, but it turned out other people had not inferred that, and we couldn’t find any specific information), some more abstract (what is the place of women in the moral and religious universe of this novel, for one? except for Coral, they seem mostly very limited in their roles and their agency and are generally peripheral to the novel’s central dramatic conflict–is it a misimpression that in the priest’s struggle between material and spiritual needs, women are sidelined because they belong to the world of the flesh?). But I am also left feeling I appreciate at least some aspects of it, particularly about how its very dreariness–its immersion in corruption, failure, sin, inadequacy, disappointment, dirt, and death–helps us make the same journey the whiskey priest makes towards a particular idea of God and salvation. Listening at one point to the confession of the mestizo who ultimately will betray him, the priest reflects on the unoriginality of his sins, on the mestizo‘s inability to understand that he is “only a typical part” of “a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant.” But the moral ugliness of the world illuminates rather than obscures the greatness of God:

It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay in death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization — it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.

This is the world–these are the people–for whom the whiskey priest, too, ultimately dies, as, unable to turn away from his duty to a dying Christian, he knowingly allows the mestizo to lead him into a trap. Even before then, he has risked his life repeatedly by hearing confession and performing mass for the motely assortment of variously ugly, corrupt, ignorant, even evil people he encounters on his grim travels. And there is a kind of glory in the fleeting moments of grace he achieves, as well as a kind of heroism in the ruthlessness with which he admits his own inadequacies and failures even as he doggedly serves the God he believes may damn his soul to Hell. He is no saint, if being saintly means transcending the needs and temptations and vulnerabilities of ordinary human life. But if a saint is someone who is fully human and yet who, despite sharing those needs and temptations and flaws, still persists in honoring the ideal he may never reach–then, perhaps, the whiskey priest is closer than he thinks to being “the only thing that counted.” The mother’s story of Juan the Martyr provides an ironic commentary on this perspective on sainthood: our priest, too, may become the subject of such legends and be given in death the purity of heart, the courage, the heroism he lacked in life. But Greene lets us see the superficiality of that simplistic version, which is no more than a story for children. His imperfect man is, I think the lesson is, a perfect priest, truly a man of God.

I found Greene’s prose very effective, especially the unexpected similes which I learned he called “leopards” (because they “leap” at you): “She carried her responsibilities carefully like crockery across the hot yard”; “The world was in her heart already, like the small spot of decay in a fruit”; “the watch-tower gaped over their path like an upper jaw”; or, most poignant of all, “He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place”–that’s the line, I think, that will stay with me. For all the spiritual beauty that oozes out, though, from dark scenes such as the priest’s nights in prison or the remarkable mass he performs in the darkness in his home village even as the soldiers draw near–for all that, I found myself repelled by the vision Greene presents, of humanity as well as of religion. I found myself thinking of Swinburne’s lines (in the “Hymn to Proserpine”) expressing horror at the replacement of pagan joy with Christian suffering. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean;” says his speaker, “the world has grown gray from thy breath”: “O lips that the live blood faints in, the leavings of racks and rods; / “O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted gods!” I don’t usually align myself with Swinburne, but Greene’s world is certainly gray and ghastly. I was also reminded of Cardinal Newman (like Greene, of course, a convert to Catholicism) and his eloquent rant about the fallen world he saw around him: “the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary, hopeless irreligion …all this is a vision to dizzy and appal,” from which he draws the conclusion that “if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible calamity.” You don’t need to be a cock-eyed optimist to consider this a very partial account of the world and man’s nature, one that drives us towards hatred and suspicion of ourselves and legitimizes suffering and misery. “I hate your reasons,” the lieutenant says in exasperation to the cornered priest; “If you see somebody in pain, people like you reason and reason. You say — pain’s a good thing, perhaps he’ll be better for it one day. I want to let my heart speak.” Though Greene doesn’t vilify the lieutenant, he makes him the priest’s antagonist and thus implies, I think, that his principles serve only worldly or material, not moral or religious, interests. But I think in this one thing I’m with the lieutenant, though clearly that goes against the grain of the novel itself. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me or reads my blog that I greatly prefer a moral vision that (rather than offering us a get-out-of-Hell-free card if we repent for our wrongdoing at the last minute, or that expects us to be good under threat of punishment or promise of reward, or in service to the glory of some hypothetical deity) is based on the human capacity for sympathy and the intrinsic value of reducing suffering and increasing joy.

The book we chose for March is The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Graham Greene once called Brian Moore his “favourite living novelist,” and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne apparently contains both excess drinking and a priest, so the two reads are connected in several ways!

Worth a Look or Listen: Louis Menand, Philosophers and Fiction, and the Dangers of Theism

I haven’t been keeping up my “Weekend Miscellany” posts for a while, so here’s a bit of a miscellany for a Tuesday evening instead:

At Open Letters Monthly, Laura Tanenbaum reviews Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas:

The basic facts will likely be familiar to current or recent graduate students: graduate school takes longer to complete than ever before, especially in the humanities, nearly half in some fields like English drop out before completion, and many of those who do finish will not find tenure-track positions. To his immense credit, and unlike many critics, Menand recognizes that making graduate school more demanding or raising barriers of entry will only exacerbate the problem. Instead he suggests a shorter time to degree, with the completion of an academic article taking the place of the dissertation. He argues this on humanitarian grounds, but then notes the institutional pressures that demand a large pool of graduate students and underemployed PhDs as cheap labor.

At A Commonplace Blog, D. G. Myers writes about philosophers and fiction:

Philosophers want to show that a possibility is valid; novelists try to make it plausible. The distance between validity and plausibility is the distance between philosophy and fiction, but it does not follow that the one is sharp while the other is fuzzy. They are, instead, as Putnam suggests, merely different approaches to knowledge.

Further to his comments, I’ll add that I’ve done some work myself at the intersection of philosophy and literary studies, and I’ve found that many philosophers cannot, or at least do not, understand the textuality of literature. Even Martha Nussbaum, whose Love’s Knowledge is a kind of manifesto for making philosophy literary, or reading literature philosophically, sometimes lapses into readings that extract dicta about how to live rather than finding literary form itself, and the experience of that form, meaningful. Interdisciplinarity, in other words, is harder than it sounds. There are, unsurprisingly, a number of essays on or around this topic in the excellent journal Philosophy and Literature.

And at Common Sense Atheism, another Professor Maitzen is interviewed on, among other things,

  • how many theistic defenses don’t make sense given the demographics of theism
  • how Christian theism leads to twisted morality
  • the problems with free will theodicies
  • the incoherence of ‘Ultimate Purpose’

In my wholly unbiased opinion, the interview is well worth a listen, not least for its articulate explanation of why, “though it’s an extremely popular view that atheism is bad for morality, … it seems pretty clear that theism is what’s bad for morality,” for its crushing judgment of a recent Christian best-seller (“it’s the most intellectually shallow, childish, morally frivolous novel I’ve ever read”), and for its Utopian vision that “maybe the blogosphere can help us where the schools evidently have failed us.”

You all keep busy with these while I go put together my lectures for tomorrow! I hope to be able to do some book blogging myself again soon; I just finished Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, for instance, and am about half-way through Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.

Being Good Without God

Our local bus company is refusing to carry ads from Humanist Canada because they “could be controversial and upsetting.” The dangerous text? “You can be good without God.” Controversial and upsetting? Isn’t this just a fact? Throughout history and around the world, people without a belief in “God” (by which, in common usage, we mean the God of the major monotheisms)–whether humanists, skeptics, agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, etc.–have lived highly moral lives; many of them have also contributed substantially to the development of a more just, good, and beautiful society. It’s outrageous, and should be plenty “controversial and upsetting,” to insist otherwise. Is the side of a bus the appropriate place to convey this common sense message? Well, I don’t see why not: a pretty wide range of goods, services, and opinions are advertised there already. And the comment that “the transit authority would reconsider its position if Humanist Canada toned down its message” is truly stunning. Nothing about “you can be good without God” is an overstatement, and the tone is no more than declarative. It’s a far less provocative message than the one on display in London, “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life”–and even that is much more evasive than any religious billboard or bumper sticker I’ve ever seen (now that this “truth in advertising” precedent has been set, can we look forward to signs that read “Jesus Maybe Saves,” or pronouncements that “There is probably no god but Allah”?). But it’s not Metro Transit’s decision that really irks me, but the immediate and predictable storm of protest that this represents an unacceptable assault by atheists on religion. Again, it’s a fact that religion is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for virtue. The level of “debate” in the comments thread at the CBC site is so abysmal I can’t see any value in contributing to it. Instead, here is a re-run of a related post from my archives. Embedded in it is an excerpt from a conference paper I presented at ACCUTE in 2006 called “George Eliot: Moralist for the 21st Century.” Today I would particularly draw attention to the quotation near the end of the post from Eliot’s essay “Worldiness and Other-Worldliness: The Poet Young”:

‘And in opposition to your theory that a belief in immortality is the only source of virtue, I maintain that, so far as moral action is dependent on that belief, so far the emotion which prompts it is not truly moral—is still in the stage of egoism, and has not yet attained the higher development of sympathy. In proportion as a man would care less for the rights and the welfare of his fellow, if he did not believe in a future life, in that proportion is he wanting in the genuine feelings of justice and benevolence…

Compelling arguments can be made, in fact, that being good because of God (while obviously better than being bad) is a lesser form of morality, one that substitutes extrinsic reasons, hope of reward, and fear of punishment for a commitment to the intrinsic value of doing what is good and right.

George Eliot: the Friendly Face of Unbelief (originally posted June 25, 2007)

I’ve read a number of reviews lately on the spate of books by the ‘new atheists,’ notably Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and, most recently, Christopher Hitchens. Among the many interesting features of these reviews is how often they protest against the tone of the books, even if they agree with their arguments. A lot of people seem worried that a world without religion will be either a coldly austere, heartless place, or a chaotic place with no moral principles or values drawing people into communities. The complaints about the harsh tone of these books seem motivated by these fears, as well as by the widespread (but, as Harris especially would argue, misguided) attitude that whatever our own views on religion, we ought to treat it with respect. They are also often accompanied by the complaint that writers like Dawkins and Harris are taking away beliefs that bring comfort or satisfy emotional and aesthetic needs, without offering up anything to replace them.

I don’t personally think there is any obligation for critics of religion to be nice, or for them to make up for whatever people may feel has been taken away from them along with their superstitions. And, in fact, all three of the writers I have named have plenty to say about ways an atheistic worldview can enhance, rather than inhibit, our emotional, moral, and aesthetic experiences and sensibilities. But it’s clear that their case is not always persuasive, particularly to those readers who most need persuading. Because I think the world would benefit if they were victorious in their campaign on behalf of reason and evidence, I think they should call in some allies who can help them past what may be primarily a problem of genre. In addition to making the case against religion, they need to help people move imaginatively towards a world in which it is no longer necessary. Who better to assist in this endeavour than George Eliot, who was, as noted by one of her contemporaries, “the first great godless writer of fiction”?

Of the three writers I’ve named, Hitchens makes the most explicit appeal to literature. In god is not Great, he remarks that atheists “are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books” (5). Later, he notes that 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” (283). This general position is one with which I have great sympathy; it is also one which, though without explicit reference to replacing theistic moral systems, is much considered in the work of contemporary moral philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum who are exploring the contributions literary forms make towards our ethical understanding. But Hitchens could get a lot more specific about just how George Eliot is useful to his project. Here are some excerpts from my paper “George Eliot: Moralist for the 21st Century” that suggest how her ideas, particularly as given literary form through her fiction, might complement his and the others’ work and contribute to forming what Ronald Aronson in The Nation describes as “coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life’s vital questions.”

[A recent University of Minnesota study] found that many people consider atheists “self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good” (Edgell et al. 227). The researchers conclude that “Americans construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether” (230). However contingent the relationship between morality and religion may seem in academic or philosophic circles (witness the decisive critiques of divine command theory in analytic ethics, for example), most of our real-world compatriots are convinced that morality will break down without religion, with dire consequences for human flourishing. To correct this mistake—to lay these fears to rest—we could really use George Eliot’s help.

As her contemporaries noted, George Eliot’s novels portray “a world of high endeavour, pure morality, and strong enthusiasm, existing and in full work, without any reference to, or help from, the thought of God” (Mallock 698). After her own de-conversion from Christianity, Eliot worked tirelessly to develop a secular, humanistic framework for morality. As is well known, she believed, with Feuerbach, that people have given the name “God” to qualities and aspirations of their own, that motives and accomplishments called “religious” and credited to supernatural forces are really the products of human effort, of the human capacity for generosity, sympathy, and love—but also egotism, pettiness, and hatred. In her deterministic universe, we are responsible for our own deeds and their consequences, for our own contributions to, or obstructions of, the “growing good of the world” (Finale). She rejected extrinsic motives for good behaviour, including appeals to the “glory of God” or hope of an afterlife, arguing eloquently that “the immediate impulse of love or justice … alone makes an action truly moral” (rev. of Constance Herbert 322). These are components of an ethos that seems highly conducive to “moral solidarity” and “the common good.”

More important than her specific conclusions, though, is her resolve to work with the facts of human existence rather than comforting fictions. She did not deny the austerity of non-belief, but she agrees with Harris that “the fact that unjustified beliefs can have a consoling influence on the human mind is no argument in their favour” (67). The “‘highest calling and election’,” she asserted, “is to do without opium and live through all our pain with conscious, clear-eyed endurance” (Letter 254).

Other examples of George Eliot’s own statements on the relationship between faith and morality include this, from “Worldiness and Other-Worldiness: The Poet Young”:

‘And in opposition to your theory that a belief in immortality is the only source of virtue, I maintain that, so far as moral action is dependent on that belief, so far the emotion which prompts it is not truly moral—is still in the stage of egoism, and has not yet attained the higher development of sympathy. In proportion as a man would care less for the rights and the welfare of his fellow, if he did not believe in a future life, in that proportion is he wanting in the genuine feelings of justice and benevolence…’

And this, from her letters, a simple statement that would have revolutionary consequences if applied instead of many of the doctrines put forward in the world’s sacred books:

Our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathize with individual suffering and individual joys.

These are all philosophical statements, but George Eliot opted to give her ideas fictional form so that we would not just understand them intellectually, but experience them as principles operating in the world of human feelings, histories, and relationships. I have written more about this choice elsewhere. For my purposes now, I’ll just say that this choice of genres allows her to show us morality and community both flourishing and faltering as the result of human character and human choices. The mathematician Laplace famously replied to Napoleon, when asked about the role of God in his view of the universe, that he had “no need of that hypothesis.” Through her novels, George Eliot helps us understand that we too have no need of it, and that we will do better by ourselves and by others when we acknowledge our own responsibility for the world we live in and the rules we live by.

George Eliot and Prayer

Further to my earlier post on George Eliot as the ‘friendly face of unbelief,’ here’s a passage that stood out to me as I was rereading Middlemarch this weekend for my classes:

Lydgate rose, and Dorothea mechanically rose at the same time, unclasping her cloak and throwing it off as if it stifled her. He was bowing and quitting her, when an impulse which if she had been alone would have turned into a prayer, made her say with a sob in her voice —

“Oh, you are a wise man, are you not? You know all about life and death. Advise me. Think what I can do. He has been laboring all his life and looking forward. He minds about nothing else. — And I mind about nothing else — ”

For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal — this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully illuminated life. (Chapter 30)

It’s a charged moment in the novel for several reasons, not least because it sets us (and Lydgate) up for the painful contrast between Dorothea’s desire to do something if at all possible, and Rosamond’s later indifference to her role in Lydgate’s financial crises (“What can I do, Tertius?”). But it also nicely, and subtly, illustrates George Eliot’s appreciation for religion (as distinct from theology, we might say) as a yearning to have and receive help and guidance in our “fitfully illuminated” lives–and her commitment to redefining it in secular terms. Dorothea is deeply religious, and George Eliot never belittles her for seeking understanding and connection beyond what she can readily see in the world around her. But, as this example implies, prayer (appealing to supernatural forces) is the resort of those who are “alone,” or who fail to understand the primacy of the human connections and resources available in their “embroiled medium.” Her impulse to prayer is rightly channeled here into an appeal to a “kindred nature,” one with the secular wisdom to advise her, at least in this medical crisis. The “cry from soul to soul” repeatedly proves more valuable in the novel than any appeal to doctrine or to supernatural authority: Rosamond, for instance, is famously brought to a sort of ‘confession’ and even ‘salvation’ (though limited in scope) by Dorothea’s climactic visit in Chapter 81:

Her voice had sunk very low: there was a dread upon her of presuming too far, and of speaking as if she herself were perfection addressing error. She was too much preoccupied with her own anxiety, to be aware that Rosamond was trembling too; and filled with the need to express pitying fellowship rather than rebuke, she put her hands on Rosamond’s, and said with more agitated rapidity, — ” I know, I know that the feeling may be very dear — it has taken hold of us unawares — it is so hard, it may seem like death to part with it — and we are weak — I am weak — ”

The waves of her own sorrow, from out of which she was struggling to save another, rushed over Dorothea with conquering force. She stopped in speechless agitation. not crying, but feeling as if she were being inwardly grappled. Her face had become of a deathlier paleness, her lips trembled, and she pressed her hands helplessly on the hands that lay under them.

Rosamond, taken hold of by an emotion stronger than her own — hurried along in a new movement which gave all things some new, awful, undefined aspect — could find no words, but involuntarily she put her lips to Dorothea’s forehead which was very near her, and then for a minute the two women clasped each other as if they had been in a shipwreck.

“You are thinking what is not true,” said Rosamond, in an eager half-whisper, while she was still feeling Dorothea’s arms round her…

To do better–to act morally–they need each other, a sufficiently strong sense of human fellowship and need, and a sufficiently strong sense of responsibility for the outcome of their actions. There’s no need in this scenario for the supernatural. In fact, as George Eliot argues in several essays and reviews (and implicitly in all of her novels) religious doctrines such as belief in an afterlife actively work against “genuine feelings of justice and benevolence.” To go back to my first example, the impulse to prayer is simply the form taken by a natural longing for help and connection, validated and given form by historical tradition but, as our society and our moral philosophy matures, properly redirected to each other.

Harris and Rushdie on Ayaan Hirsi Ali

From this week’s LA Times, a good op-ed piece by Sam Harris and Salman Rushdie, both of whom know something themselves about living with threats from religious fanatics:

Hirsi Ali may be the first refugee from Western Europe since the Holocaust. As such, she is a unique and indispensable witness to both the strength and weakness of the West: to the splendor of open society and to the boundless energy of its antagonists. She knows the challenges we face in our struggle to contain the misogyny and religious fanaticism of the Muslim world, and she lives with the consequences of our failure each day. There is no one in a better position to remind us that tolerance of intolerance is cowardice. (read the rest here)

I was somewhat disappointed in the arguments of The Caged Virgin, which I thought relied too heavily on personal experience and anecdote to draw large conclusions (sometimes, to say “I saw such a thing happen” or “I was a Muslim, so I know” is not enough to go on, however compelling it may be as individual testimony)–this despite, of course, my strong sympathy for and general agreement with those conclusions. I haven’t had a chance to read Infidel yet. But Hirsi Ali’s story is truly both remarkable and horrifying, and everything I’ve seen and read about her, including her interview with my former UBC classmate Irshad Manji in her documentary Faith without Fear, has increased my respect for her dignity, forthrightness and courage.

God’s Incompatible Warriors

I’ve just finished watching the three installments of Christiane Amanpour’s CNN series “God’s Warriors,” and although I appreciated the information and the varied perspectives the series offered us, I ended up frustrated (though not surprised) that the most important question of all was never asked (or at least never aired), namely, “What makes you so sure that you are right in your beliefs and the guys in the other episodes are wrong?” Over and over her interviewees proclaimed their absolute conviction about what God wants of them, but they can’t all be right (and this applies not only across the three monotheisms that were her main topics but internally as well, as she met with Jews, Christians and Muslims who profess widely divergent views of the obligations and teachings of their own religions as well). Of course, the problem is that at bottom, their answers could only be of these three kinds:

  1. I’m absolutely sure I’m right because I have faith/belief; I feel it in my heart/soul.
  2. I’m absolutely sure I’m right because I was raised in these beliefs.
  3. I’m absolutely sure I’m right because I have read the infallible word of God in [fill in title of book here].

The first position gives us no way to distinguish the religious believer from someone who believes, say, that she is the reincarnation of Joan of Arc: the latter may be equally convinced on internal ‘evidence’ and strong feeling, but nonetheless we don’t hesitate to call her delusional. The second is really an admission that the person might well have believed something else altogether if raised in another family, parish, or country (as in fact we know to be the case, since religious beliefs vary widely according to geography). And the third simply returns us to the original problem–there’s more than one book that purports to be the definitive word of God, and they can’t all be it. How do you know that yours is the right one and your neighbour’s (or enemy’s) is not? Here we have people prepared to sacrifice their own lives, take the lives of others, engage in time-consuming, sometimes self-destructive, often expensive rituals, influence the outcome of elections, subvert the teaching of science, put their children at risk of STDs by denying them sex education…and on what solid basis? None at all. Overall, the series was very depressing. I ended up feeling a lot of sympathy for Richard Dawkins‘s provocative notion that religious education is a form of child abuse. We intervene to ensure medical treatment for children when their parents’ beliefs would deny it to them; why not consider it equally unacceptable for children to be raised to idealize martyrdom, or raised in dangerously controversial settlements in occupied Palestine, or denied the benefits of a modern scientific education because their parents cling to superstitious, magical ideas about the world and their role in it? There’s no question that, historically, religious belief has contributed to what George Eliot calls “the growing good of the world” as well as to its cruelties, irrationalities, and evils, but we can see now that the foundations of modern faiths are no stronger, no more defensible, than, say, the Greek or Roman beliefs in their deities (as Sam Harris likes to point out, we’re all atheists now with respect to Zeus and Poseidon). So why should we accept them as guides for living–or killing, or dying?

I hope Amanpour’s planning a follow-up series on “Reason’s Warriors.”