Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Everybody's problably read this already, but maybe we should all reread it anyway

I watch football with a friend who suggested I pick it up.

It's frighteningly direct. And strikes me as frighteningly right.

At one point, he asks us to imagine a world where it's believed - on faith - that certain films were made by God. Or that Windows 98 was the word of God in code form, written with Divine inspiration.

Preposterous? Why is it any crazier than believing - on faith - that the Bible was written the same way and should be taken as the Word of God?

Here's an excerpt from early in the book where he attacks "religious moderates".

"...While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God. Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism. The texts themselves are unequivocal: they are perfect in all their parts. By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question—i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us—religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness...."


Dave said...

When I was a teenager I got into a lot of trouble at school for bringing to class a copy of Bertrand Russell's "Why I am not a christian". I like the way "The end of faith" uses very modern references but Bertrand is probably the most articulate (if we can still use that word!) atheist ever. To me the problem has always been the difference between following a text and following your innate spirituality. One is by design rigid and the other by nature fluid. One deals with something greater than ourselves the other with what greater beings we may become.

On another note, I'd love to hear Larry Ellison's reaction to Windows 98 being the word of god!!

malachy walsh said...

I think Larry believes he IS God.

But then you already know that.

The book is also interesting to me because I'm an Alcoholic. Which means I live by a book and have regular contmeplation of - and faith in - something larger than myself in the universe. But no-one is saying the text is sacred or that they know what the "higher power" is doing.

Of course, that book doesn't suggest it's okay to kill people either.

Jaime said...

I've always wondered about the implications of the 'higher power' business for atheists. You don't have to answer if it gets into messy territory - I'm not sure it's something that can be tackled in a blog's comments space. But it's something that's always caught me.

malachy walsh said...

Interestingly though Harris seems to be an atheist, I'm not sure he is arguing for atheism.

The way I read him, God may or may not exist, but there is absolutely no solid EVIDENCE for it one way or the other and so to take words written by human beings as FACT of any kind is insane.

Especially when those words are not always benign.

malachy walsh said... take words written by human beings as FACT of any kind is insane...

I mean, of course, as words by, or dictated from, a/the God.

nick said...

Hi Malachy,

Thanks for your thoughts here. My belief is that this is exactly the dangerous place the art form belongs.

I keep the Kierkegaard anthology bookmarked at Fear and Trembling where he explains the “man of faith.”

When Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia on the command from the Delphi Oracle, and for the good of the nation, he is acting on a high moral plane, but he’s not a man of faith. That’s because all of Greece listens to the same such words from on high. Agamemnon is not alone; he has the whole nation agreeing his sacrifice is righteous.

When Abraham lifts his knife on his son Isaac because God tells him to, the nation of Israel would never have believed Abraham’s god to be the same as theirs. Abraham is the man of faith because of this leap outside the accepted moral realm of the tribe.

Artaud said “to act is to murder” because he understood that theatre possessed the same authority and power over reality as these violent tribal fathers did. Theatre practiced as the metaphysical equivalent to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith becomes an extremely daunting undertaking.

The physicians’ motto, “First, do no harm” is an impossibility for the theatre metaphysician. Just as chemo and radiation therapy kill the good, the bad, and the ugly cells indiscriminately as they seek to arrest the cancer, theatre disrupts reality as both corrosive and cure.

nick said...

I am like a drunk in this comment room; my words are inappropriate and without consensus. Everyone shuts up and just stares.

As the “immoderate” theatre worker, my rationality is as suspect as my religious or philosophical counterpart. And no immunity for Kierkegaard, just because he belongs to the canon.

Moderation has its fascist aspect. So the clown, even when sacred, can be construed as dangerous, activating perhaps an amber or orange alert in our color-coded world of suspicious behaviors.

nick said...

Bird on a wire, drunk in a midnight choir, continues in his monologue backstage at Malachy's place.

In the months following 9/11, New Dramatists initiated a series of discussion forums on the role of the playwright in society. Many playwrights were feeling a need to reexamine their work in the hope of finding ways to position it closer to the problems of community and the world. Their art seemed trivial or ill equipped in the face of the terrorism. As part of that series our theatre brought in Benjamin Barber, author of “Jihad vs. McWorld”, to speak about the terrorist attack on the U.S. and its causes. The playwrights and other artists gathering at New Dramatists at that time were attempting to understand “why they hated us”, and what American artists could do about it.

Now five years later, my feeling is that these questioning playwrights have generally returned to their old tricks and have abandoned that once seemingly important search for new relevance in their work. Anecdotal evidence even suggests a rekindled interest in all things career and market and the development of plays as product, not process.

Theatre “moderates” have only a tentative belief in the power of their art and practice what Sartre termed “bad faith.”