Religion for Atheists

March 31, 2012

I’m glad I came to Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists at a somewhat slow time.  I don’t know that I would have had the patience for it otherwise, and alongside some parts I took issue with, there were some good ideas. Mostly, I have quotations to share and discuss:

“Much of modern moral thought has been transfixed by the idea that a collapse in belief must have irreparably damaged our capacity to build a convincing ethical framework for ourselves. But this argument, while apparently atheistic in nature, owes a strange, unwarranted debt to a religious mindset–for only if we truly believed at some level that God had once existed, and that the foundations of morality were therefore in their essence supernatural, would the recognition  of his present non-existence have any power to shake our moral principles.” (79)  I think de Botton is mistaken in calling this argument “apparently atheistic.” None of the atheists I know would make such an argument, and all live according to a convincing ethical framework. Most would agree with Christopher Hitchens that it takes a pretty low view of humanity to believe the only thing keeping us from mistreating each other is our belief in God.

“In the secular sphere, we may well be reading the right books, but we too often fail to ask direct questions of them…We are fatefully in love with ambiguity, uncritical of the Modernist doctrine that great art should have no moral content or desire to change its audience.” (119)  I think we mean postmodern, here, don’t we? He’s talking about books, so for me Modernist means D.H. Lawrence, maybe edging back to Conrad, and while those authors, to name two, may be concerned with issues of moral complexity, complexity isn’t the same thing as ambiguity. And even ambiguity of meaning doesn’t mean the same thing as having ‘no moral content’.  I think most serious students of literature, even the postmodern, recognize works’ desire to change their audience.

de Botton goes into some detail on his feelings about books as revered artifacts, and the importance of revisiting important texts on a regular basis, the same way religions make use of guided study. I only take issue with the idea that religious communities are the only groups that work with texts this way.


And some passages I found interesting and helpful:

“Because the ego is inherently vulnerable, its predominant mood is one of anxiety…Even under the most auspicious of contexts, it is never far from a relentless, throbbing drumbeat of worry, which conspires to prevent it from sincere involvement with anything outside of itself. And yet the ego also has a touching tendency constantly to trust that its desires are about to be fulfilled. Images of tranquility and security haunt it: a particular job, social conquest or material acquisition always seems to hold out the promise of an end to craving.” (148-150)

“It is telling that the secular world is not well versed in the art of gratitude: we no longer offer up thanks for harvests, meals, bees or clement weather. On a superficial level, we might suppose that this is because there is no one to say ‘Thank you’ to. But at base it seems more a matter of ambition and expectation. Many of those blessings for which our pious and pessimistic ancestors offered thanks, we now pride ourselves on having worked hard enough to take for granted.” (188)

“Christianity also knows that any pain is aggravated by the sense that we are alone in experiencing it. However, we are as a rule not very skilled at communicating the texture of our troubles to others, or at sensing the sorrows they themselves are hiding behind stoic facades. We are therefore in need of art to help us to understand our own neglected hurt, to grasp everything that does not come up in casual conversation and to coax us out of an unproductively isolated relationship with our most despised and awkward qualities.” (221)

“It may be that we are asking too much of our own secular artists, requiring them not only to impress our senses but also to be the originators of profound psychological and moral insights. Our artistic scene might benefit from greater collaborations between thinkers and makers of images, a marriage of the best ideas with their highest expressions.” (239)

“There is a devilishly direct relationship between the significance of an idea and how nervous we become at the prospect of having to think about it.” (267)

Just saw Rachel Maddow on Meet the Press, discussing her new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. I’m looking forward to reading it, but one facet of the argument seems to be that, along with making the waging of war more palatable to the American public, the dangerous consequence has been removing war from the national experience and conscience.  We’re so scared of talking about what war is that 99% of us no longer bear any of the burden. And there are some burdens that need to be shared, somehow.

Pundits and experts (adults of all stripes who are lacking imagination) do a lot of blaming of narrative. Bands, movies, books, are all blamed for having an impact on the lives and thoughts of children.

Monsieur Lazhar is a film about adults and children experiencing violence. The title character is an Algerian seeking asylum in Montreal; he takes over a class of 11- and 12-year-olds whose teacher commited suicide. Although Bachir Lazhar is reticent about his own trauma (the loss of his wife and children), he is dedicated to providing the children a space to experience theirs.

The film eloquently captures the confusion caused by zero tolerance environments (a boy thinks he drove the teacher to suicide because he complained about her), without pretending to have the answers. A child’s paper that describes the suicide as a violent act towards the class–the teacher hanged herself in her classroom–is then discussed by the school administrator as being violent. Lazhar upholds the student’s right to express her grief and trauma: “It’s life that’s violent, not the text.”

How backwards do we have things when the cultural products that help us deal with violence and death (the student’s paper, Bridge to Terebithia, a national conversation about war) are seen as the problem?

Tragedy and Melodrama

March 16, 2012

“Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of the tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilised world.”  Jose Ortega y Gasset

I just started Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and that’s a prefacing quotation. I like Krakauer’s books; they demonstrate the brilliance and tragedy inherent in everyday life. Well, not everyday life, but in real people’s lives.

But before this I had just read Tatiana de Rosnay’s The House I Loved. Her first novel, Sarah’s Key, was very well-reviewed and much loved by many readers. I hadn’t read it, but when I saw this new, third novel, I thought I should try it.

It’s an historical novel set in 1860s Paris, as Georges-Eugène Haussmann undertakes his rebuilding of the city. Our narrator, Rose Bazelet, is haunted by her memories as she stands guard in her house against the destruction of her neighbourhood.

The description was appealing to me, but the writing wasn’t. It’s exacerbated by the 1st-person narration (Rose is writing to her dead husband), but the melodramatic tone was off-putting, and some of the writing was just awkward.  “I knew, then and there, that that tall bearded man with the redoubtable chin was to become my bitterest enemy.” “This had not concerned me, as my daily life as a mother and wife had not altered. It is true that the prices at the market had soared, but our meals were still abundant. Our life was still the same. For the moment.”

And as it went on, it got worse. Finally, two pages from the end:

“There is nothing romantic about Monsieur Zola’s writing. There is nothing noble about it either. For instance, the infamous scene at the town morgue (the establishment down by the river, where you and I had never gone to despite its growing popularity for visits by the public) is no doubt the most powerful piece of writing I have ever read in my entire life. It is even more macabre than what Monsieur Poe achieved. So how, you are surely wondering, can your meek, bland Rose approve of such literature? You may well ask. There is a dark side to your Rose. Your Rose has thorns.”

What? “where you and I had never gone to”?

And the feeling of melodrama isn’t helped by the ending. Rose just never felt real to me, which is a shame, because I think there could be a great story, in that history. It feels like playing at tragedy.


March 5, 2012

If you love books, or history, or both, and have a sense of humour, make sure you pick up Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant, a book of cartoons. It’s absolutely hilarious!

One of the best parts is the commentary Beaton offers, aside from the cartoons. Here are some of my favourites:

“InAnne of Green Gables, the plucky young orphan grows from a child with a wild imagination and a tongue she cannot hold into a sophisticated and responsible young lady. If there were no scene where she gets the puff-sleeved dress she pines for, I think there would have been a chapter where she slaughters the whole town.”

“Dynasties the monarchy way are so easy! You have a kid? Great, they are next in line for the best throne in the Throne Room. In America it’s hard because you have to ‘prove yourself’ and maybe people have to ‘vote for you’ and that’s difficult! No one knew that better than Joe Kennedy Sr., who trained his wife to give birth to the United States Senate.”

“Weren’t most superheroes first created to fight Nazis? Guess they had to find something else to do after the war.”

“At Queenston Heights there is a stunning monument to a man who would not order his men anywhere he would not lead them. Somehow, mysteriously, this man got himself shot by a sniper. By mysteriously, of course, I mean that everyone was largely dressed the same, except for the fellow in front with the giant hat, big brass buttons, and, oh I don’t know, rippling epaulettes. And anyway, of course you’re going to shoot that guy.”

“These days Tesla is enjoying a belated surge in popularity. Everyone seems to be on Tesla’s side now, against Edison; whereas before, Edison was the hero and Tesla was some nut job making a different lightbulb. Edison is getting to be well known as the jerk he totally was! But let us never forget: he wasn’t the only one, as Marconi demonstrates for us. I bet there is a ton of shit Tesla invented that got stolen by other people. Probably cool things like skateboards and helicopters. Patent your inventions, kids.”

“Pearson had the Little Minority Government That Could, giving people free health care, pensions, and student loans for the first time, among other achievements. He gave a lot to Canada, which we–correctly or not–like to claim as proof of some national character; he symbolizes the things we like about ourselves. If only we could go back in time now and tell that to the people who made fun of his lisp.”

“Everyone has to read The Great Gatsby in high school because it’s the best example of constructing a novel with themes and symbols, like legos, only not legos but The American Dream and the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. Fifteen-year-olds can really get behind an essay on what the green light means, which is good, because they sure as heck won’t relate to any of the characters, who are all huge jerks with enough money to be wasted most of the time on top of being miserable.”

“Wasn’t it lucky for Henry that disagreeing with the Catholic Church and wanting to get rid of its power also meant pocketing a load of cash? Those monks were holy bros who prayed a lot, but they were also getting their Friar Tuck on in the Party Room of the Monasteries and Henry needed that wine money for wars and probably some wife-related funeral expenses.”

“The play Hamlet is a case study in the behavior of depressed young dudes during the time before your could just let off steam by listening to Morrissey records in your bedroom with the lights turned off. How many monarchs has Morrissey really saved with his music. We may never now. But what is irrefutable is that there are many less regicides these days. A connection??”

And one of my favourite comics: