Thursday, April 14, 2011

Not worth watching

I'm an atheist, and largely in the Hitch and Dawkins "aggressively so" camp, but even I think Nick's jeremiad against Professor Sir Martin Rees is a bit much.

As Mrs Merton knew, there are questions that answer themselves. "What first attracted astronomer royal Martin Rees to the £1m Templeton prize?"


As far as I can tell, Rees won the prize, which, like the Nobel, doesn't have an application process. They just give it to you. You don't have to ask. Previous winners include John D Barrow and Freeman Dyson. Never mind the million quid, being on the same platform as them is an honour that would be hard to turn down.

First Nick seems to think that Rees's statement that he "respects religion" means that he agrees with Osama bin Laden and the Inquisition. I very much doubt that this is true. I think it's much more the case that Rees (whom I should say I admire) has no problem with the Vatican's interest in science. As far as I know, the Vatican actually does some very good science, and banging on about evolution (which the Catholic Church has no problem with) or the age of the universe (ditto) isn't going to make any difference to that.

Like millions who should know better, Rees is not religious himself but "respects" religion and wants it to live in "peaceful co-existence" with it.


What does Nick want instead? Pogroms?

80 Comments:

Anonymous Larry said...

There's plenty to say about the Templeton Foundation, which is basically a vehicle for members of the US Christian Right to throw huge sums of money at the project of inserting God back into science.

Nick manages not to say any of it, and instead regurgitates the same rant against militant Islam that he was writing last time I read him, probably over a year ago. I only clicked through this time because I've an interest in the topic.

As you say, not worth Watching, or even Reading.

The final paragraph looks borderline libellous. Does Martin Rees endorse the view that "persecution of homosexuals" is "beyond criticism"? In a word, no.

4/14/2011 11:42:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I find some of the phrasing there pretty problematic...

fed by the loot collected by the late Sir John Templeton, a ruthless financier

This, for me, is hysteria of the very worst kind, and is depressingly reminscent of the kind of thing WH Auden (to name one example) was saying about 'financiers' in the 30s.

As with the original post, I also find this a bit worrying:

he is a symptomatic figure of our tongue-biting age. Like millions who should know better, Rees is not religious himself but "respects" religion and wants it to live in "peaceful co-existence" with it.

tongue-biting age? I can't recall a period in recent history when atheists were more outspoken in Britain. And as you say, what does Nick actually want? Especially with this:

"I don't want to force Muslims to choose between God and Darwin," Rees says, forgetting that scientists "force" no one to choose Darwin, while theocracies force whole populations to bow to their gods.

so no 'peaceful co-existence' for Nick, then? Doesn't that kind of go against the 'force' idea here?

religion, which once inspired man's most sublime creations, no longer produces art, literature or philosophy of any worth; why it is impossible to imagine a new religious high culture.

Not the most stellar list, but still: Marilynne Robinson, JK Rowling (not high culture but still), John Updike, Terry Eagleton (who Nick undoubtedly hates but is still a fairly important philosopher)... the list would get a lot longer if we started looking outside the UK/US too.

At some level, the murderous fanatics who plague humanity know that their ideologies are redundant; that the mortars they fire, the nuclear weapons they crave come from a technology that has no connection to the Qur'ans [etc etc] [...]. they insist not on a defence of their truths, which cannot now be made, but on "respect".

er, I'm not so sure al-Qaeda do actually insist only on 'respect'. This is really quite pitiful from someone who claims to have spent the last few years studying radical Islam.

notion Lord Rees so casually endorses – that you must respect the privacy of ideologies that mandate violence

does he actually endorse this, though? He says that he respects relgion, but the only 'religion' which mandates violence is a pretty extreme version of Islamism, which most Muslims agree is not actually their true religion. I don't really want to get into an argument on that front, but it strikes me that the logic of Nick's argument leads us to some pretty worrying places. If it's 'cowardly' to respect religion, then where does that leave all the 'moderate Muslims' Nick has elsewhere claimed to be so keen on?

This is perhaps the most worrying bit though:

They are the equivalents of the celebrities who go to law to keep the press from revealing their secrets.

the thesis of Nick's new book has just revealed itself - libel laws = religion... this ain't gonna be pretty.

4/15/2011 08:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Mordaunt said...

If one's solution to the problem of religious intolerance is to noisily demand that everyone endorse one's own particular account of the Great Perhaps it's fair to say that one may be missing the point, somewhat.

4/15/2011 08:15:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

The Vatican has some pretty decent observatories, so I imagine quite a few astronomers would feel kindly towards them (Native Americans less so, but that's another story).

4/15/2011 09:18:00 AM  
Anonymous skidmarx said...

Next time:
"Quakers: smash in their smug mugs or have a jackboot stamping on a human face forever"

4/15/2011 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Marilynne Robinson, JK Rowling...John Updike, Terry Eagleton

You might want to come up with a better list than that if you eanted to rebut that particular point. I'd have thought it nas sound enough: of course therre are all sorts of fine artists and writers who are strong religious believers, but I find it hard to think of much great art recently produced (and we can have a generous interpretation of "recent") which has been made as an affirmation of relgiious faith, as something profoundly religious in its nature and purpose.

Or are there recent Paradise Losts or Messiahs that I don't know about? (There may well be, and I can imagine a caveat involving architecture, but as it stands, I might be inclined to agree with Nick on this, even if we differed on our reasons.)

4/15/2011 04:23:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Oh don't get me wrong, I didn't mean to suggest that Nick is totally wrong on that score, but just to demonstrate that he's not fully right, either.

and

but I find it hard to think of much great art recently produced (and we can have a generous interpretation of "recent") which has been made as an affirmation of relgiious faith, as something profoundly religious in its nature and purpose

I can't think of too much from the past 100 years if I'm honest.

4/15/2011 04:33:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

My guess is that classical music would be the place to look. Unfortunately, though I'm a Radio Three and Radio Clásica listener, I really know embarrassingly little, in detail anyway, about classical music in the twentieth century (and indeed the present one).

Perhaps Ollie Kamm would be the chap to ask?

4/15/2011 04:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarah AB said...

Messiaen and T. S. Eliot?

4/15/2011 06:26:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Maybe, though I know little of Messiaen and I think even the promised generous interpretation of "recent" would put Eliot (of whom I know a great deal more) too far back. Though in every other way he suits the description.

4/15/2011 06:39:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

(Not that that entirely squares with the "last 100 years" of the post to which I was previously responding, mind. Hey ho. I think I'll either plead Walt Whitman or have an early night.)

4/15/2011 06:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Mordaunt said...

I can't think of too much from the past 100 years if I'm honest.

Poetry: T. S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Sally Purcell, Geoffrey Hill.

Classical Music: Benjy Britt, Messiaen (thank you Sarah AB), John Tavener, Arvo Part, Wojtech Kilar, Kristof Penderecki.

Clearly these are hardly negligible. But I'm not actually sure they are much of an indicator either way. There wasn't much poetry better than Claudian before Geoffrey Chaucer but it would be rash to deduce from that that the pagans were on the home straight at the beginning of the fifth century. Racine and Sarah Kane's treatment of Phedre, notwithstanding.

I can also think of some quite remarkable sacred art produced by non-Christians. It would be difficult to improve on the Christian output of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Faure's Requiem or Mark Wallinger's statue 'Ecce Homo' but Faure seems to have been a sceptic who made polite noises about Catholicism in order to secure employment as a church organist and Wallinger and Vaughan Williams are/ were both agnostics.

It's not sensible to say that there are no longer any great Christian artists therefore Christianity is doomed but it would be equally silly to point to the likes of the above and say therefore Chrisitianity will endure even unto the ages of ages.

4/15/2011 06:53:00 PM  
Anonymous bensix said...

I can't think of too much from the past 100 years if I'm honest.

Think again!

4/15/2011 08:52:00 PM  
Blogger FlyingRodent said...

@Ben Six - Harsh, but fair.

4/15/2011 08:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Lobby Ludd said...

Blood is coming out of my ears. Is this normal, or should I go to the Doctor?

4/15/2011 09:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Waugh and Greene. Amongst the mass populars, as well as Rowling, Tolkien and Lewis.

The greatest film makers seem to have been Catholic - John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Luis Bunuel - and kevin smith cos I really like him.

Dali. And a lot of the Surrealists who started off Catholics and then went through aetheism and marxism and anarchism seem to have ended up as Catholics again in old age. (Don't ask me who cos I'm not going to look it all up again).

Was Twentieth Century Art predominantly Catholic?

johnf

4/16/2011 08:11:00 AM  
Anonymous saucy jack said...

If we were to deem it possible that poor black people might produce great art, the whole heritage of US gospel in the 20th century might usefully be included in your inventory.

4/16/2011 08:34:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

johnf - firstly, I'm not sure you can claim Buñuel as Catholic on any grounds other than having been born and raised as one. Ditto Dali. Secondly, not too many of those you list produced works that are religious in nature, which was the point of the comparison with Milton or Handel. (Yes, there's Greene, but even then we're some way removed.)

Of course there are and always will be artists who are deeply religious, but even these mostly find it necessary to take a step or three away from religion in order to communicate what they want to communicate, even where their personal views consciously inform their art at all.

Though Mordaunt's is a good spot. (One which occurred to me - honest! - while watching a Prokofiev concert this morning.)

4/16/2011 08:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ejh

Agree that art and religion are frequently two different things.

On Bunuel I think - like other surrealists - religion's something he returned to. The Milky Way is usually considered to be a Catholic film, despite revelling in the daftness of much of Catholicism.

And much of Dali's later work was specifically religious. Or at any rate mystical and neo-platonic.

(And how about writers like Chesterton and Solzinitsyin? Never "respectable" - mainly because of charges of anti-semitism - but both continue to be read a lot). (I'm a Chesterton fan, not a Solzinitsyn one).

john f

4/16/2011 09:15:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Chesterton's quite some time ago now. Solzhenitsyn would be closer to the mark, though again, we're perhaps talking informed-by-religion rather than in some sense devotional. Perhaps this is difficult to escape when we're talking about the novel as a form, whereas music (of all kinds) lends itself much more directly to the praise of God.

I'd have liked to play some Pärt at my wedding, though my plan was nixed by

(a) the missus taking a different view

(b)discovering that you're not allowed to play devotional music at a secular wedding ceremony.

4/16/2011 09:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>(b)discovering that you're not allowed to play devotional music at a secular wedding ceremony.

I can't go to a single bloody church funeral these days without "My Way" being played.

If widening it a bit, I think a lot of popular music has religious origins. From American black and white religious musicians suddenly discovering they can make a fortune if they substitute the word God with the name of their lover, to English rock musicians like Townshend and Harrison who use Meher Babaism or Hinduism as the inspiration for their music.

johnf

4/16/2011 11:14:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

Or are there recent Paradise Losts or Messiahs that I don't know about?

Off the top of my head with zero thought whatsoever, there is Coltrane and Messiaen. I think that at least one of the great E. European minimalists was religious also.

In Philosophy you have the Scot guy whose name I'm blanking on (Alistair McIntyre?). He's not insignificant. There's more than one painter who were also very religious in both belief and theme.

4/16/2011 05:44:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Film you have two of the great French directors: Eric Rohmer and Robert Bresson. Again very religious in both temperament and form. From Russian you have of course Tarkovsky (there's also another guy, not much known in the west, who I'm blanking on).

4/16/2011 05:49:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Doris Lessing. Also the Scotch writer (Prime of Jean Brodie). The N. Ireland poet, nature guy - isn't he religious? Certainly a theme in his poetry. R.S. Thomas. The Greek guy who rewrote the Gospels (I'm ill, my brain is fried).

There are quite a few American poets, but I'm blanking on names. Flannery O'Connor. American novelist whose female, tough as nails and lives out in the country. Marilynne Robinson (who's a fairly significant contemporary novelist).

And I don't think you can really argue that Catholicism was not a significant theme in both Greene and Waugh's work. Just because Waugh and Greene didn't write explicitly about the bible (which seems to be your criteria here). I don't think Greene will last (I'd be surprised if Waugh didn't however), but still.

There are also plenty of country singers (Johnny Cash, for example), Jazz artists (Coltrane simply being the most blatant) and the like. Also quite a few hip alternative artists who are also very religious and sing about it (Will Oldham for example, but he's hardly alone).

I'm also fairly confident that if I did a tiny bit of research I could up with a longer and more significant list.

Incidentally, there's an amusing conversation between annoying athiest, Sam Harris and some famous scientist (yeah I knew him, I'm just ill and blanking on everything) in the Guardian today.

4/16/2011 06:00:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Some interesting examples but some reference to the works themselves might be useful, given that I was looking for recent and contemporary Paradise Losts and Messiahs rather than just Miltons and Handels.

4/16/2011 06:13:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

And I don't think you can really argue that Catholicism was not a significant theme in both Greene and Waugh's work.

I don't think I have, or would. But none of their novels are devotional as such, though I'd accept that this might be quite a hard thing for a novel to do. You could certainly argue that Greene at least is trying "to justify the ways of God to Man", and I think I'd agree to a point, but it's still a very different way of treating that idea, and a much more ambiguous one.

I think that's the difference that strikes me - there's so much more doubt and difficulty in modern works. And yes, I know that one of the things about Pardise Lost is that Satan is a complex character who has his own justifications. But it's all ambiguities and uncertainties and difficulties, even if the artist believes that God is directing us, or giving us guidance, through that fog. (Quite likely a literal fog, in Tarkovsky's case.)

If you see what I mean.

4/16/2011 06:25:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

So what you're getting is the artist's struggle with the difficulty of God, rather than the artist's direct proclamation of His greatness. I'm sure counter-examples can be found, especially in popular music, but perhaps not very many, and perhaps not the most psychologically insightful works there are.

4/16/2011 06:31:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

I think that's the difference that strikes me - there's so much more doubt and difficulty in modern works.

I think you're making a category error. The novel and the dramatic form's strengths lie in conflict and struggle. And so unsurprisingly that's the kind of work that's been produced in them. There are plenty of examples of celebration in musical work (e.g. Ascensions by Coltrane, or some of the work of Messiaen, Ligetti, etc), as well as painting (less familiar with. But Graham Sutherland and Stanley Spencer leap to mind). Ambiguities and uncertainties, incidentally, have always been part of the Christian faith.

The modern Christian culture is a very different one to the time of Handel, so unsurprisingly it produces different works. Some of that is loud and dire fundamentalist propoganda. Some of it is quietist works from people whose faith is a quiet and private affair, but whose art is an expression of that faith. and some of it would have been familiar to our mediaeval ancestors. And some of it is C.S. Lewis/Bunyan style allegories for kids.

Now poetry perhaps, but modern poetry is as much of a mystery to me as modern music is to you. I like Derick Walcott and Alice Oswald, and that's about it for contemporary stuff. I seem to stop around the 60s.

4/16/2011 09:29:00 PM  
Blogger FlyingRodent said...

I'm one of Graham Greene's biggest fans and if you ask me, nobody ever evoked the sheer misery of religious belief quite like he did.

4/17/2011 03:30:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

The modern Christian culture is a very different one to the time of Handel, so unsurprisingly it produces different works.

Well quite, but isn't that a large part of my point?

I think you're making a category error. The novel and the dramatic form's strengths lie in conflict and struggle. And so unsurprisingly that's the kind of work that's been produced in them.

Well to be fair I have more than once suggested that the novel isn't a form that lends itself well to the sort of work I was looking for.

As it happens, I was just thinking that I attended a lecture given by the late Raymond Williams - quite possibly his last lecture, I reckon - about the socialist novel, in which lecture he opined that he could only really think of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, of English novels, that fitted the description. I wouldn't quarrel with that, and while of course I can see that it depends how tightly you draw your definition, I think it wouldn't be enough, say, that the author was a socialist and that the novel was a critique of capitalism.

Now we might agree that the novel doesn't do this sort of thing very well very often, for a number of reasons including the tendency for preaching to obscure the narrative. But even then I'd wonder whether, if someone were to try and emulate Tressell now, they actually could - whether they could be as convinced a socialist as Tressell was, or whether their characters could be quite as convinced a socialist as Owen is, and yet remain plausible. I don't know that they could, and I wonder if that might be the case with religious works too.

Maybe the only people left who can have complete faith in their ideas are the religious fundamentalists and market fundamentalists. And as neither of those philosophies can offer any kind of rounded account of human beings, I don't see them producing any memorable novels either.

4/17/2011 07:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Rosie said...

This is a large subject of course but having read medieval poetry I would question whether "Ambiguities and uncertainties, incidentally, have always been part of the Christian faith." What you get from medieval poetry, whether it's clearly and explicitly about Christianity - visions of heaven, say in eg The Pearl, or set in a Christian society as in a lot of Chaucer, is a sense of total confidence that the Christian view of the world is set and true. There are no apologetics, no questionings - it's the absolute premise of that world, as fixed as gravity. You couldn't write like that these days in western society.

4/17/2011 09:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Rosie said...

Sorry - that Chaucer comment was a bit ambiguous. I said "set in a Christian society as in a lot of Chaucer" as if he wrote stuff that was set in another sort of society. I meant that he wrote explicitly Christian pieces eg saints' tales, and pieces that are ribald and worldly, but that either in the foreground or background there is a Christian world, absolutely taken for granted.

4/17/2011 09:17:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

Rosie: Ambiguities and uncertainties about the relationship with God, good/evil, struggle, etc. Its a major theme of some of the great Christian theologians/writers (St Theresa is filled with this kind of stuff, as is Augustine - to pick two). Its also there in Job.

There are no apologetics, no questionings - it's the absolute premise of that world, as fixed as gravity. You couldn't write like that these days in western society.

Well no. But then you couldn't write like that after the reformation either. I think that's more to do with the totality and power of the Catholic church, together with an intellectual resistance to change/questioning.

And thinking about it, you can write like that today. Fundamentalist/evangelical literature is often written that way. Its not very good, but its there...

4/17/2011 09:55:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

FR: I've got to say that having been brought up Catholic I find Greene's take on it decidedly eccentric. I think he brought his own misery to it.

4/17/2011 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

Justin: But the society that produced Handel was very different to the one that produced Monteverdi. So I'm not really sure where you're going with this. Its impossible to imagine Paradise Lost being produced prior to the reformation, or indeed outside the ferment of the Civil War.

Maybe the only people left who can have complete faith in their ideas are the religious fundamentalists and market fundamentalists. And as neither of those philosophies can offer any kind of rounded account of human beings, I don't see them producing any memorable novels either.

I don't see why complete certainty is a prerequisite for being truly religious. Or why Marilynne Robinson's work isn't (say) as religious as, say, Ragged Trouser's Philanthropists.

I'm also confused by what you think a religious work should be to count. I've told you that in music the equivalent's of Messiah (in intention, if obviously not form) exist. In art also, though this is less common. In narrative arts I'm not sure what would qualify, as you seem to be saying that it needs to be explicitly about god/the bible and in some way celebratory. This seems kind of narrow, and would equally exclude Ragged Trousers, no? I mean the socialist equivalent would be some form of utopian novel.

4/17/2011 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

I don't see why complete certainty is a prerequisite for being truly religious.

I don't think it quite is, but I do think we need to find some kind of distinctions here, even though they can't possibly be absolute or even rigorous distinctions. Religious faith does change, but it also becomes more diffuse, and the fact that it's less certain, in any thinking person, is really important in examining the nature of works that are informed by the artist's religious faith.

We don't have to deal in absolutes, to assume for instance that prior to the Reformation there were no controversies, no doubts, no crises of faith, to see a gigantic difference nevertheless between the relationship of the artist (and their audience) to religious faith then, and now. Crucially much more diffuse, crucially much more uncertain, crucially much more personal and personally-interpreted. The artist is much more visible to us than their God.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists isn't set in in a socialist utopia, but it is explicit in seeing socialism as the answer to what it criticises, and that's why Williams considered it a socialist novel. Could such a thing be written in 2011? And be as good? Possibly. But I doubt it.

4/17/2011 10:48:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Perhaps we can look at it by exploring the question of doubt. Religious people have doubts, of course they do. But religion itself doesn't really teach doubt. (If you attend a Catholic Mass, for instance, you recite the Credo, which is not about what you think might or might not be true.) Religions don't, usually these days, claim to know everything, but they do claim to know (and to do so on the basis of faith and argument rather than science).

So though doubt and religious faith exist in the same person, they don't come from the same source: the doubt comes from within themselves and without the religion. And the more that doubt becomes part of religious-inspired art, the more it's not really religious-inspired, as such, the more it's inspired by the doubting, questioning individual.

4/17/2011 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

By the way, there's no better time of the year than Easter to catch great religious music on the radio. Right now Radio Clásica are doing me Liszt's Christus.

4/17/2011 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/17/2011 12:10:00 PM  
Blogger Coventrian said...

How about the whole of Country, Soul, Gospel and Reggae music?

Then there's Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Sufjan Stevens etc.

James MacMillan is a contemporary Catholic classical composer.

4/17/2011 01:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't News from Nowhere a Socialist/Anarchist novel?

Peter Howson is the Glaswegian Catholic artist I believe you're after. There's not much doubt in his extremely powerful work. One might say it was nailed on.

No one's mentioned Tim Powers, though I know he's popular with some on this blog. (And his inspirer, the best of the Inklings, Charles Williams, who I really like).

In modern Science Fiction/Alternative History metaphysics and Platonism seem to be alive and fashionable. Rather than an actual God, mathematical formulae seem to be the engines of creation in the universe. (EG The Difference Engine) Or, if they're lazy, they just go onto that alternative universe stuff.

Physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili did a recent BBC4 science programme “The Secret Life of Chaos” arguing that there seem to be basic mathematical formulae which drive whole areas of the universe, and control their alternate switching between order and chaos.

He described himself as an aetheist but then - which probably cloese it for Nick - went on to say he was brought up a Muslim.

johnf

4/17/2011 02:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarah AB said...

'Anonymous' makes me think about the many works of sf which have been influenced by religion - for example, Mary Doria Russell's 'The Sparrow'. SF taps into the same capacity for wonder (and fear) as much religious literature, even when it isn't about religion in any obvious way.

4/17/2011 05:04:00 PM  
Anonymous dd said...

Just for the record, John Templeton's fortune came from setting up a successful mutual fund company. The only people who would consider that a "ruthless" thing to do would be those who consider all financial services to be "ruthless" per se.

4/17/2011 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

A very good Catholic SF novel is A Canticle For Leibowitz.

Re: Dylan, I think it's widely agreed that he has not been at his most creative when at his most religious. But at the risk of being a bore, I think we already know that there are many artists who are religious: what's at issue is the nature of the work that derives from that.

4/17/2011 05:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarah AB said...

I like Canticle for Leibowitz too - just finished reading George R Stewarts's Earth Abides which I thought was perhaps the best post-apocalyptic sf novel I've read - and the title derives from Ecclesiastes which means it's at least vaguely on topic!

4/17/2011 05:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Perhaps it's worth reminding ourselves that Nick's observation about art and religion was

religion, which once inspired man's most sublime creations, no longer produces art, literature or philosophy of any worth

(emph. added) - which is perhaps a rather more exposed position than the one ejh has been defending.

4/17/2011 07:45:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

But religion itself doesn't really teach doubt. (If you attend a Catholic Mass, for instance, you recite the Credo, which is not about what you think might or might not be true.) Religions don't, usually these days, claim to know everything, but they do claim to know (and to do so on the basis of faith and argument rather than science).

Don't have time to address the rest, but this isn't true. Its true of some religions/aspects of, others (some versions of Buddhism, Quakers) are all about doubts in the mystic sense (which is very different to the agnostic sense).

Generally what doubt means in the Christian sense is grappling with both the nature of God (loving God let bad things happen being the most obvious, but there are more interesting aspects of it), the problem of living a moral life given human failings (i.e. failing to live up to something), and the problem of perceiving something which is seen as outside human experience (which is why religious people, or ex-religious people, were probably so influential on the development of phenomenology). This is not a new development particularly, just an aspect which got neglected.

A further point. The "christianity" that Dawkins argues with is probably heretical and is fairly recent in origin. Which is I think the point that Eagleton is making (I don't think he's religious, just irritated by militant athiesm). Dawkins clearly doesn't understand what religion is, which would be fine if he'd stop trying to define it. I'm totally on board with fighting the forces of fundamentalism. Telling religious people they're stupid for believing something they don't actually believe is just rude, though.

4/17/2011 08:11:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

which is perhaps a rather more exposed position than the one ejh has been defending

For sure, but then again my position ain't Nick's.

Nor is it Dawkins', although I think Eagleton pushes his luck big-time in their polemics, largely ignoring the point that, whatever the subtleties of actual theologians' actual beliefs, they don't have any actual evidence to base it on.

4/18/2011 05:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

So we've got one position (Nick's) which is falsified by the existence of Marilynne Robinson and John Tavener, and another (ejh's) which seems to be resistant to anything short of the realisation that a second Paradise Lost was written in 2004. Just as well to keep them distinct. (Not that the stuff about faith and doubt isn't interesting.)

argely ignoring the point that, whatever the subtleties of actual theologians' actual beliefs, they don't have any actual evidence to base it on

That's not a point, it's a category error.

4/18/2011 09:35:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

another (ejh's) which seems to be resistant to anything short of the realisation that a second Paradise Lost was written in 2004

not EJH's point so much as the point Nick Cohen was making imo.

If we can go back to the early C20th then there's always the Sagrada Familia... batshit crazy but also ALL about God.

4/18/2011 09:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Well, Nick have meant "there are no longer any universally-renowned masterpieces devoted to celebrating the glory of God" (and that may be a claim he'd stand by), but that's not what he said - his words were "religion, which once inspired man's most sublime creations, no longer produces art, literature or philosophy of any worth". Cf. John Holbo on the two-step of terrific triviality.

4/18/2011 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Coventrian said...

ejh, 'Re: Dylan, I think it's widely agreed that he has not been at his most creative when at his most religious.'

Er, up to a point Justin.

Dylan has always been influenced by religion and has produced many of his best songs as a consequence.

Take 'All Along The Watchtower' as just one example

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0Tckg686L4

There are many more.

4/18/2011 01:02:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Mmmm, the degree to which Dylan has or has not always been religious, or influenced by religion, is debated within Dylanology to about the samke degree as the question of Shakespeare's religious affilations within Bard Studies and I doubt that either question will ever be resolved, particularly given that nobody is going to believe anything just because Dylan says it, a state of affairs much to the great man's liking and one he's spent half a century encouraging.

That's not a point, it's a category error

I don't know why it's not a point. In my view theologians don't just believe things without evidence, but they believe different things-without-evidence than they used to, and the reason for this is that the previous positions became unsustainable. I think it's reasonable to have a jaundiced view of this as an intellectual process. I think there's a very considerable extent to which people are trying to take modern, liberal social views and scientific understandings and then reconcile them with stuff that is simply unsupportable on any rational basis. This doesn't mean that they're deprived of wisdom or human insight, it just means that look, Terry, despite the wisdom and insight they are still believing things which are without foundation, and you cannot do that and expect nobody to cry "bullshit".

As far as religion inspring art is concerned - I do think there's a substantial difference between

(a) an artist using their own imagination and faith to propound, or celebrate, or interpret, something which is directly within a given religious tradition ; and

(b) an artist exploring the world through their own personal imagination, but in a way that is influenced by, among many other things, their own understanding of God and any religion to which they may be strongly or otherwise affiliated.

Now I think this is a difference of degree and of kind, but I'd also note that if we're to take Nick's phrase "religion...produces", then we might consider that this applies to (a) much more than it applies, if it does at all, to (b). (I don't want to waste too much time on Nick, since I don't think he knows, cares or understands much at all about art other than what it 'says', if that. But still.)

Esssentially I think that a much, much greater proportion of the art (if we may think so crudely) is coming directly from the artist, their own thought and experience, than from the religion. I think this changes everything. I think it's a very different sort of relationship, and I even think that where the religion itself is of the artists' own interpretation, then it, and what they obtain from it, is an extension of themselves. The artist is no longer serving the religion: the religion is serving them.

4/18/2011 05:26:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Or perhaps better put: where religion is just one of many influences, rather than the dominant one, it cannot any longer be taken as producing art, though it may well be an influence on it.

4/18/2011 05:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

The trouble is that there has been very little art "produced" by religion in that sense any time in the last 1000 years. Paradise Lost, yes; Comus, no. Shakespeare, no. Spenser, definitely not. Chaucer, not so you'd notice. Pearl, yes, but Gawain, no. And so on. So for the current period the question you end up asking isn't whether most literature, or the best literature, is intensely and unquestioningly religious - because neither of those things has ever been the case - but simply whether there's any intensely and unquestioningly religious literature.

In my view theologians don't just believe things without evidence, but they believe different things-without-evidence than they used to

Not sure what you're referring to here. To back up a bit, my 'category error' comment was based on the belief that theologians are basically working in the same field as philosophers and literary critics - and only a couple of fields along from poets - none of whom make disprovable statements. I wouldn't expect the Archbishop of Canterbury's pronouncements on the nature of God to be based on evidence or to be experimentally falsifiable, any more than a new interpretation of Shakespeare's sonnets.

In any case, I'm not aware that theologians have changed their minds in my lifetime. If you're taking the longer view, clearly religion has accommodated both geological timescales and human evolution - but wouldn't it be more of a criticism if most Christians hadn't changed their minds about matters of scientific fact in response to the evidence?

4/18/2011 09:47:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I'd argue a yes for Comus...

4/19/2011 07:33:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

an artist using their own imagination and faith to propound, or celebrate, or interpret, something which is directly within a given religious tradition ; and

I'm not sure how many times I can repeat that 'yes this still happens regularly in the field of music', and occasionally in the fields of visual arts and poetry, without losing my mind.

If you want to argue that its a matter of degree, well fine. But you're not actually making that argument - you're arguing that something doesn't exist, despite having it pointed out that in actual fact it does.

And if you're going to cite Paradise Lost, then I'll cite the (novel), "The Last Temptation of Christ". Yes its a rarity, but then Paradise Lost is also a rarity.

4/19/2011 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

In my view theologians don't just believe things without evidence, but they believe different things-without-evidence than they used to, and the reason for this is that the previous positions became unsustainable.

Two striking things about C20th theology.

1) There has been a return to pre-modern theologists, so in that sense many of them are believing the same things.

2) It has been surprisingly influential in both philosophy and literary theory. FWIW.

Many of the things that theologians discuss, are the types of things where evidence/proof aren't normally brought in for secular discussions unless one is a fairly extreme proponent of scientism (like Dawkins). Ways of living, morality, happiness, duty of care, etc.

Also, I think in your discussion of what religion is, you're rather heavily influenced by your own experiences of Catholicism which is far more institutional than much of protestantism. The moderate expression of this:

an artist exploring the world through their own personal imagination, but in a way that is influenced by, among many other things, their own understanding of God and any religion to which they may be strongly or otherwise affiliated.

is basically protestantism in its 'lower' forms. What you would see as individualism, they would probably see as living within the 'spirit'.

4/19/2011 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

you're arguing that something doesn't exist, despite having it pointed out that in actual fact it does.

Well to be fair, repeated requests for reference to actual works has mostly been met with reference to artists instead, and where actual works have been cited, not all have been convincing as examples (e.g. All Along The Watchtower).

theologians are basically working in the same field as philosophers and literary critics - and only a couple of fields along from poets - none of whom make disprovable statements.

I might agree with you, but I wonder how many theologians would accept that characterisation?

Many of the things that theologians discuss, are the types of things where evidence/proof aren't normally brought in for secular discussions unless one is a fairly extreme proponent of scientism (like Dawkins). Ways of living, morality, happiness, duty of care, etc.

Of course, but when you are I are discussing these things, we don't tend to shovel in any tendentious claims about deities or the meanings and interpretations of divine texts, do we? Or try to reconcile the latter with opinions that derive from ourselves.

Also, I think in your discussion of what religion is, you're rather heavily influenced by your own experiences of Catholicism which is far more institutional than much of protestantism.

Not that heavily, since it wan't all that heavy a Catholicism I experienced, and I'm not such a fool as to think all religion is like Catholicism, nor that there's not a large element of personal interpretation in what Milton does. (Or for that matter, Bosch, whose Garden Of Early Delights is probably the single greatest work I've ever stood in front of.) But I dunno, as the interpretation grows more and more free, and more and more personal, and as the subject matter and imagery gets further and further away from the sacred texts, and as the inspiration of the artists's religion becomes more and more indirect and more and more ambiguous, how far does the process have to go before we can reasonably propose that rather than looking at the same thing, but different, we're looking at a different thing?

4/19/2011 03:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Mordaunt said...

(a) an artist using their own imagination and faith to propound, or celebrate, or interpret, something which is directly within a given religious tradition ; and

(b) an artist exploring the world through their own personal imagination, but in a way that is influenced by, among many other things, their own understanding of God and any religion to which they may be strongly or otherwise affiliated.


The sort of art that appears in a) is going to be much more limited than the sort of art that appears in b) though isn't it? Category a) would include things like Icons, Mass settings and other religious music, devotional art and so forth. (Part's Berliner Messe, Tavener's setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis, Kilar's Angelus and so forth)

Category b) would be stuff which isn't primarily devotional but which is informed by the artists faith so, for example, The Power and the Glory, The Triumph of Love and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Now I grant you that there is a clear distinction between the devotional nature of the first and the way that religion is one of many themes in the second. Now you can interpret that as a dilution but it may also be that the artist wants to say something informed by their faith about something which isn't explicitly mentioned in the sacred texts of the religion (the New Testament nowhere explicitly mentions the politics of Mexico, how Christians respond to the Holocaust or the wrongness of racial purity laws) but which it is, nonetheless, urgent for them to talk about. In other words, what you see as a bug the religious artist may see as a feature.

I think you could say that in the Middle Ages it was possible to produce art that unified your categories a) and b). The Divine Comedy being the obvious example, which is a hymn of praise to "the love which moves the sun and other stars" but also works in the politics of Italy, the state of the church, the known science of the time, the importance of the poetry of Virgil and Dante's love life. To that extent, I agree that something has changed. But that's a rather more modest claim than Nick's.

4/20/2011 01:42:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Now you can interpret that as a dilution

I can. Similarly, if I had a nice glass of Talisker and somebody watered it down to the proportions of fifty parts water to one part whisky, I would also interpret this as a dilution. Even if the purpose was to achieve something substantially different to what the pure Talisker might have done.

Yes, artists are trying to do something else, something less limited - indeed so, but instead of looking at that as a feature rather than a bug, it's worth looking at it as part of the point rather than its contradiction. It's what artists (and their audiences) have come to want to do, to address wider questions, to step outside their religion even if is that religion which they are in part addressing.


Even where explicitly devotional works are concerned - I was thinking about Haydn's Creation, and about the story that on its first night, when the notably devout composer came on to the stage to acknowledge the applause, he pointed heavenwards to show who he thought really deserved the credit. Now I reckon that none of that could happen now....in part, because people would laugh, because nobody believes either the Creation story or that we can locate a God living somewhere above ourselves. (Note: literally this is not true, many millions of people do of course believe these things, but no-one believes them who is going to produce worthwhile art.)

Now it depends where you want to go with this, but for me, this is where the nature of contemporary theological discussions relate to the nature of modernday art. Do you view theology as having changed, through its encounters with contemporary scientific knowledge, or do you (as I do) regard that process as attritional, as religion having been obliged to concede things that
came from outside it, and which it nevre wanted to concede? So to make sense of things, even the theologian is obliged to stand outside the religion, observing it as a historical entity, whose texts have a historical origin and have to be understood as such etcetcetc. And as far as I can see, the artist does similarly, stands outside the religion rather than being immersed in it, even while being attached to that religion. If you see what I mean.

It's a different world, in which we think differently and in which even believers believe differently: they have to, in order to be able to take themselves seriously. The whole relationship is different: the artist is big and the religion has got small. Even where the religion is the subject.

4/20/2011 04:29:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Meanwhile, any readers who are so inclined may wish to pray for the healing of Blogger's comments function.

4/20/2011 04:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Lobby Ludd said...

Meanwhile, any readers who are so inclined may wish to pray for the healing of Blogger's comments function.

I have done so, but so far, no release.

4/20/2011 10:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

do you (as I do) regard that process as attritional, as religion having been obliged to concede things that came from outside it, and which it nevre wanted to concede?

Firstly, you haven't specified what any of these things are; I've said upthread that I can't think of anything like this in my lifetime. Unless you're still thinking of geological time and human evolution, in which case (a) most religious people have not had any trouble with Science for over 100 years and (b) those who do oppose Religion to Science are strongly challenged by other religious people.

Secondly, I can't see any significant difference between "change after encounters with external influence" and "yield ground reluctantly to external pressure", except that the latter is written in a kind of manichean heroes-and-villains style. (It's rather rare for an unexpected external influence to be welcomed, or for the changes that result to be entirely voluntary.)

Upthread a bit...

Ways of living, morality, happiness, duty of care, etc.

Of course, but when you are I are discussing these things, we don't tend to shovel in any tendentious claims about deities or the meanings and interpretations of divine texts, do we?


Substitute 'powerful but unobservable forces' for 'deities' and 'unchallengeable' for 'divine' and I think we probably do, quite a lot of the time. (Class is unobservable. Consciousness is unobservable. Good mental health is unobservable...)

I just don't think religion is that different from other ways of thinking, and I think that to make the case that it is different you're having to make religion out to be something that it isn't.

4/21/2011 08:46:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

I just don't think religion is that different from other ways of thinking

The devil here is in the "that", isn't it? Because plainly it is different to a degree, it's just a question of how much difference that makes. To me, at the best, the God stuff is a superfluity: if they want to discuss all these questions relating to what we are and how we should behave, what purpose is served by the texts and the mythology?

There's an unavoidable problem here. Either you incorporate God into your thinking or you do not. If you do, it's not a trivial incorporation, you're positing something gigantic, and gigantically important, and there are consequences that flow from it. You can't just posit that, and then say, hmmph, what I'm doing is the same as any other philosopher.

Alternatively, you can say well, we've got no evidence for that, might be true nevertheless, but given the absence, but we'll just leave it aside from our thinking because we can't go anywhere with that thesis.

But it seems to me that you can't both leave it aside, and incorporate it. And the effort to do so isn't, to my mind, religion, so much as religion struggling with reality. The synthesis isn't the same thing as the thesis, is it?

Substitute 'powerful but unobservable forces' for 'deities' and 'unchallengeable' for 'divine' and I think we probably do, quite a lot of the time. (Class is unobservable. Consciousness is unobservable. Good mental health is unobservable...)

The unobservable is the same as the non-existent? You don't think so, I'm sure, but if you don't, what point are you trying to make here?

4/21/2011 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Shorter me: religious people want it both ways,and I don't see why they should have it.

4/21/2011 09:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

The unobservable is the same as the non-existent?

I just don't think it's useful to assert that God doesn't exist. Lots of people find a God-centred frame of reference to be a good way to think about the world, just as lots of people start from class or the unconscious. I don't believe in God, but I have done in the past and respect a lot of people who do. I do believe in Freud's model of the unconscious, but I know that lots of people don't and that I may change my mind in future. I believe that class conflict is the motor of history, and I can't imagine anything ever changing my mind about that; equally, I don't expect it ever to be proved. None of these things are provable or disprovable.

Lots of people believe horrible or stupid things, or stupid horrible things, about the God they believe in. That doesn't mean that believing in God brings those beliefs along with it, any more than believing in a classless society means that you have to join the WRP tomorrow.

4/21/2011 03:40:00 PM  
Anonymous skidmarx said...

There is a good SF novel about Manicheanism, though I'd forgotten there were actual Vatican guidelines for dealing with extra-terrestrials.

Believing in the prospect of a classless society as Option A for humanity may co-exist consistently with a set of beliefs including that if you can't see it (not necessarily you, but it's there to be seen by someone), it ain't there in a way that other conjunctions of opinion might just not cut the mustard.

4/21/2011 04:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the ejh/Cian divide over whether modern religious art is more art than religion or vice versa, let's try something concrete. I would call myself a religious - or at least mystical - artist - or script writer. As an artist I don't really have much analytical sense of what my art is about or whether its religious or not - I just do it.

I wrote a radio play, Death and the Tango some years ago which isn't rubbish - it won a Giles Cooper and came second in the Prix Italia - and contains a mixture of Italian Renaissance Neo-Platonism and tango dancing.

Its available (free) on:

http://www.mediafire.com/?fttll64pwsua6sh#2

Anyone like to tell me whether its religious or artistic or both - because I haven't the foggiest.

johnf

4/22/2011 07:22:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

I just don't think it's useful to assert that God doesn't exist.

I think at very least it's useful to observe that it's an evidence-free theory: certainly in the context of philosophical discussion, in which we are supposed to support our premises and arguments, to explain why the authorities to which we refer are relvant, and in which we can be expected to be challenged if we do not.

Respect is a difficult thing to pin down. If I say "look, I know you love EastEnders but really, it's mostly rubbish, isn't it?" a lot of people would find that disrespectful, and could reasonably argue both (a) "why don't you just not watch it, then?" and (b) "well, let's run the rule over what you do instead, shall we?". On the other hand, it is mostly rubbish, isn't it?

4/22/2011 07:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

If you're saying that people whose foundational beliefs aren't religious find it impossible to find any common ground to debate with religious people, that's self-evidently false - which tends to suggest that the incompatibility of underlying principles, although real, isn't that big a deal after all. If you're saying that some non-religious people in practice refuse to try to find any common ground with religious people, that's clearly true, but it doesn't follow that that refusal is a good thing.

I repeat that this issue isn't unique to religion. Bring a Freudian and a logical positivist together and one of two things will happen - either one will demolish the other one's arguments by showing them to be founded on appeals to authority and axioms which no intelligent person could accept as valid, or they'll stay well away from the ultimate foundations of their respective discourses and find something they can talk about more productively. I think the second outcome is preferable.

4/22/2011 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

JohnF: Having just looked through your back catalogue, I'm impressed. I really liked Tamburlaine. I don't know the play you just mentioned, but I'll definitely listen to it.

4/22/2011 11:18:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

I think at very least it's useful to observe that it's an evidence-free theory: certainly in the context of philosophical discussion, in which we are supposed to support our premises and arguments, to explain why the authorities to which we refer are relvant, and in which we can be expected to be challenged if we do not.

This is really philosophically naive to be honest. Everyone brings assumptions to a discussion which are not (and possibly cannot) be supported by the evidence. Is dualism, or consequentialism, any less so? At least with Christians the assumptions are clear and well documented - that counts for a lot. Most people operate by a set of implicit, often unexamined, rules that they may not be fully aware of.

4/22/2011 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

So they do, but you get to examine them properly when you work out what they are.

4/22/2011 06:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

There are lots of people who will tell you that talking about [X] is just groundless, unobservable Magic Sky Fairy babble. This is true for values of [X] including 'the unconscious', 'class' and 'truth'. There are also lots of people who think it's more important, when faced with believers in premises they think are groundless, to carry on the conversation and try and find conclusions they can agree on.

There are people who are dedicated to making that kind of conversation impossible. I'm against them. Not all of them are religious.

4/22/2011 09:39:00 PM  
Anonymous saucy jack said...

"I think at very least it's useful to observe that it's an evidence-free theory"
I would say that about 80% of the debate amongst philosophers of religion in the 20th century concerned the possibility of meaningfulness or otherwise of religious statements, so your observation would hardly be earth shattering. Philosophy is not, however, a bar room debate. As D Z Phillips puts it, "philosophy is neither for nor against religious beliefs.After it has sought to clarify the grammar of such beliefs its work is over".

4/23/2011 07:01:00 AM  
Anonymous skidmarx said...

Philosophy is not, however, a bar room debate.
Funny,I came to exactly the opposite conclusion, probably on the same evidence.

God Gave Us Life

4/23/2011 09:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

I'd just like to emphasise a point I made in passing in my last comment - the set of "people who are dedicated to making a constructive conversation between religious and non-religious people impossible" includes lots of religious people and not a few religious authorities. I particularly don't believe in 'respect' for religious beliefs, because it seems to mean respecting the other person's right to stop the conversation whenever they want to. To put it a bit glibly, I just don't believe in disrespect for religion, as that seems to mean stopping the conversation from the other side (ah, but you're just saying that because your imaginary friend said so...)

4/23/2011 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

so your observation would hardly be earth shattering.

Well no, I don't think it is. But it does seem to me that (as I said above) the God-claim is a really large one, it's not just any old premise, and hence the gap between the size of the claim and the quantity of the evidence is particularly striking.

4/23/2011 03:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Bristolian said...

The 'Pogroms?' with which this piece concludes is the best punchline I've read in a while.

5/19/2011 12:25:00 AM  

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