Wednesday, February 01, 2006

We Hate It. How Can We Use It To Our Own Ends? What's The Trick?

Good article entitled: "The curious rise of anti-religious hysteria". Author is a leftist (I assume) sociology professor.

Just a taste:

The artistic representation of religious conviction is frequently stigmatised with terms such as 'fundamentalist', 'intolerant', 'dogmatic', 'exclusive', 'irrational' or 'right-wing'. As a secular humanist who is instinctively uncomfortable with zealot-like moralism, I am suspicious of the motives behind these doctrinaire denunciations of films with a religious message. Such fervour reminds me of the way that reactionaries in the past policed Hollywood for hints of blasphemy or expressions of 'Un-American values'. Replacing the zealotry of religious intolerance with a secular version is hardly an enlightened alternative.


This trend for blaming the rise of theocracy on ordinary folks' apparent penchant for simplistic black-and-white solutions shifts the focus from the elite's failure to promote and uphold a positive vision of the future on to the alleged political illiteracy of the masses. That is why discussions of so-called fundamentalist movements often contain an implicit condemnation of the people who support them - and why the alleged creations of fundamentalist culture are implicitly condemned as immoral. It is the insecurity of the Anglo-American cultural elites about their own values and moral vision of the world that encourages their frenzied attacks on religion. There is a powerful element of bad faith here: many leftists and liberals denounce those who appeal to moral values as being inferior, but they are also envious of them. So when the 'progressive' Rabbi Michael Lerner criticises his fellow liberals for their 'long-standing disdain for religion' and for being 'tone-deaf to the spiritual needs that underline the move to the Right', he is implicitly paying homage to the power of persuasion among his fundamentalist opponents (4).

In the confused cultural elite's fears of a powerful religious right winning over the masses, we can see a good example of bad faith worrying about real faith.


The problem with politically motivated calls for the restoration of a moral dimension to public life is that they are driven by the instrumental purpose of gaining or retaining power. But a morality manufactured in response to the demands of political pragmatism is bound to lack any organic relationship to lived experience, and is thus unlikely to find resonance with the wider public. An unfocused and disconnected oligarchy is unlikely to possess sufficient sensitivity to the day-to-day problems confronting the public. That is why the pragmatic search for a ready-made moral purpose usually turns into an arbitrary exercise in picking and choosing some inoffensive values. Alexander ends up by opting for the public service ethos of the National Health Service and tackling world poverty - but it could as easily have been world peace or compassion towards the infirm or the celebration of respect, etc. These arbitrary lists of New Labour Hurrah Values only highlight the absence of a purposeful moral perspective that grows from engagement with the public and our concerns.

At the end of the day, politically motivated calls among liberals and the left for morality are not so far from the way in which Christians 'use' The March of the Penguins or The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Both are cynical gestures driven by political calculations rather than by a moral inspiration that comes from the soul. What is particularly cynical is that these attempts to construct a 'moral dimension' are always aimed at others: those who apparently need 'simple' answers and 'meaning'. Such a cynical view of the public was clearly spelled out by William Davies of the London-based Institute for Public Policy research. 'The liberal, secular left has somehow to find ways of supplying citizens with emotional and metaphysical comforts even when it does not itself believe in such things', he warned (6). This provision of so-called metaphysical comforts serves the same function that adult-invented cautionary tales play for children. Which takes us back to Narnia: clearly the problem is not the comforts provided by CS Lewis, but the way in which they're branded.

A final point. The very term 'metaphysical comforts' suggests values built by calculation, instrumentalism, manipulation and cynicism. Morality marketed by people who do not necessarily 'believe in such things' is unlikely to set the world on fire. That is why they resent and hate the Narnia film so much. For all its faults, the movie attempts to transmit a powerful sense of belief, bravery and sacrifice. Such sentiments are alien to a cultural elite that regards the expression of any sort of strong belief as another form of that dreaded fundamentalism. Envy, bad faith and instrumentalism: these are the raw materials that fuel today's anti-religious crusade.

1 comment:

Michael Poole said...

Keep in mind that his essay is ultimately about works of fiction, and shares a peculiarly narrow view with much fiction. The ways in which he attempts to broaden his analysis are sketchy and hollow.

For example, he mentions the claim that there is a "Christian right on the rise", and criticizes "anti-religious crusaders" for making that claim. This conveniently ignores that equally much similar hype is generated by pro-religious crusaders.

Perhaps "The Passion of the Christ" is "far from uplifting" to him; at least at the time, many Christians hailed it as a great movie that inspired them personally and religiously. He should have at least mentioned this, if only to blame it on groupthink.

His comments about ID are equally vacuous, but perhaps as a social sciences professor he is unfamiliar with the scientific method employed by hard science. As a UK professor, it seems likely that he would not know why creationists dress up their agenda before trying to insert it into US schools.

Overall, he seems to blindly accept religion-friendly excuses for things without even considering other plausible reasons. Why do so many in the Western world worry about religious hysteria and mass religious movements? It must be a sense of inadequacy and failure, and have nothing to do with the religious hysteria that has spawned repressive regimes across Africa and Asia and gave birth to Al Qaeda! His argument would be much stronger (and look less like cheerleading) if he skipped less from one example to another and instead addressed one or two examples in depth.