Friday, July 27, 2007

More on Religion

To me the most interesting aspect of the critiques of recent spate of atheism books by Richard Dawkins, Hitchens and others was the part where the critics accuse the authors of philistinism, smugness and putting forth a rival school of thought which is as shallow, as comforting, and as free of all doubts as doctrinaire religion. I agree with this claim but I don't think it is in any way a substantive critique of the content of the books. Only because their aims in writing these books are far narrower than what these critics attribute them to be. The first thing, and this is more prominent in Dawkins' attack, is the way religion encroaches on science's (or more generally any evidence based intellectual enterprise) turf. As Dawkins rightly argues this should be resisted and ridiculed with all vehemence by all sane people for reasons too obvious for me to list here. The other part is religion's encroachments in the domain of law and politics. The case here is comparatively more complex, but only slightly. What we need is just a very elementary course in history to convince us why religion inspired political movements are such a bad idea. (Hitchens is very knowledgeable on this topic and very entertaining too.)

What people of more refined sensibilities contend is that this portrait of religion, as an unwelcome meddler in affairs outside its territory, is not only inaccurate and mischievous in intent but also unfair and deliberately fabricated to malign the "true" religion which is more interested in probing serious questions confronting all of us. Questions like how do we find a firm and universal grounding for our values and a sense of what is good and bad? The problem of freedom, and concomitant existence of evil and suffering? And perhaps the most important of all -- the problem of Death. Or rather, the problem of how to live with the presence of death all around and how to prepare to die. This of course doesn't belong to science's domain and Dawkins' and his cohorts' attempts to add mystical touches to the scientific enterprise (the beauty of nature, glory of the universe etc) ring as hollow as the sermons of the next door priest. Science can explain the source of morality and freedom (or the illusion of it) but the answers can never be satisfactory.

Personally I find it very admirable the way religion insists on the centrality of these important questions for any meaningful human life, even though often it soon muddles up everything by providing ridiculous solutions to these questions. (Immortality of soul, Original sin, the carrot and stick theory of morality etc.) Here religion's rival is not science but art and literature. (Hitchens in his book does mention repeatedly that we should turn to great works of literature rather than canonical holy texts to look for answers to these grave questions confronting all of us.) What we now need is a different kind anti-religion writing. The writing that comes not from scientists or rationalists but rather from writers and artists. Basically we need heirs of Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. And may be a few descendents of Bergman, Dreyer and Bresson too. A few more in the line of Mouchette, Ordet and Winter Light should be enough to silence these critics.


Falstaff said...

William Blake. You forget William Blake. Blake is the original visionary - anti-religion and anti-science, a prophet of the imagination above all else.

Cheshire Cat said...

Kierkegaard, Dreyer, Bresson... The irony.

And yes, Blake was a revolutionary, and a genius, but what was that stuff about "I will not cease from mental fight/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand/Till we have built Jerusalem/In England's green and pleasant land."?

Richard said...

"a rival school of thought which is as shallow, as comforting, and as free of all doubts as doctrinaire religion. "

Bear in mind that it is up to believers to prove their claims, not the other way round; you can't expect atheists to prove an absence but if someone tells you that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden, you do have the right to ask them to justify the claim (paticularly if said supernatural entity imposes a number of doctrines that have very material consequences).

KUBLA KHAN said...

I think you have completely misunderstood Dostoevsky, for he IS the religious writer par excellence, obsessed with knowing God, and his Ivan karamazov is the most religious character he created for he argues with God and doesnt take anything for granted.
these days most anti religious rants are written by writers with no knowledge of the subject matter, especially in relation to Islam, not knowing Arabic etc.
there is no fashion in being anti religious for the sake of it.
And i dont really understand what you mean by anti religious writing, as if it is a new genre you are talking about. If you mean journalistic, neo convservative ranting, then that is not writing but misery.

Alok said...

falstaff: Yes and many others too. poets have long been interested in religious questions and at the same time have always raised objections to the solutions offered by religion too.

cat: no irony there. The works of all these are nothing but challenges to religion. I wish more religious people would think about these writers and thinkers.

richard: I wasn't really talking of a rational case against religion. That is onvious and self-evident. I am more interested in the deeper and spiritual aspects of religion and the kind of critique one find in art and literature.

kubla: Dostoevsky was an intensely religious person no doubt, even a religious fanatic some would say. But in his books he presents an unsurpassed and eloquent case against religion, or at least christianity. The grand inquisitor chapter and the chapter before -- Ivan's "rebellion" monologue -- contain some of the most stirring arguments against religion and its plan of human salvation, its attempts to explain evil, suffering and human freedom.

In fact in his notebooks Dostoevsky himself despaired over his inability to find a counter-argument which can match the Ivan chapters in their intensity and literary effect. He laboured hard on the chapter about the life of the monk which follows the grand inquisitor, but was not satisfied with it in the end.

Just like Milton, he was trying to justify the ways of God to man, whereas ultimately ended up playing the devil's advocate.

Vidya said...

There is always the case for an organized Vs a personal religion. Organized religion has all its flaws, even if one is aware of languages and source texts of canons it is largely based on interpretation.Science for example permits individual differences on crucial unproven theories.Two scientists may hold opposing viewpoints both of which cannot be proved. This is where I find that proponents of science or rather the anti-religionists have no arguments. Dostoevsky, I'd say questioned aspects of religion in relation to ethics rather than argue against it. A shade of grey religion than a plain black and white view is what he seems to paint.In other words all the names you mention are not anti-religion but of the reexamining religion kind