The Talking Lion

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

I love Salman Rushdie

Case in point:
If religion were a private matter, one could more easily respect its believers' right to seek its comforts and nourishments.

But religion today is big public business, using efficient political organization and cutting-edge information technology to advance its ends. Religions play bare-knuckle rough all the time, while demanding kid-glove treatment in return.
This harkens back to a previous post of mine, where I complained that religious extremists want their religious reasons to be acceptable to justify policy, but at the same time want their beliefs to be beyond criticism. One's beliefs can't be put into the public discourse, and then be treated as private. Rushdie is criticizing the view that atheists should treat relious beliefs with "kid-gloves":

"Not believing in God is no excuse for being virulently anti-religious or naïvely pro-science," says Dylan Evans, a professor of robotics at the University of West England in Bristol.

Evans has written an article for the Guardian of London deriding the old-fashioned, "19th-century" atheism of such prominent thinkers as Richard Dawkins and Jonathan Miller, instead proposing a new, modern atheism which "values religion, treats science as simply a means to an end and finds the meaning of life in art."

Indeed, he says, religion itself is to be understood as "a kind of art, which only a child could mistake for reality and which only a child would reject for being false....

Evans' "Atheism Lite," which seeks to negotiate a truce between religious and irreligious world views, is easily demolished.

Such a truce would have a chance of working only if it were reciprocal — if the world's religions agreed to value the atheist position and to concede its ethical basis, if they respected the discoveries and achievements of modern science, even when these discoveries challenge religious sanctities, and if they agreed that art at its best reveals life's multiple meanings at least as clearly as so-called "revealed" texts....

To see religion as "a kind of art," as Evans rather sweetly proposes, is possible only when the religion is dead or when, like the Church of England, it has become a set of polite rituals.

The old Greek religion lives on as mythology, the old Norse religion has left us the Norse myths and, yes, now we can read them as literature.

The Bible contains much great literature, too, but the literalist voices of Christianity grow ever louder, and one doubts that they would welcome Evans' child's storybook approach.

Meanwhile religions continue to attack their own artists: Hindu artists' paintings are attacked by Hindu mobs, Sikh playwrights are threatened by Sikh violence and Muslim novelists and filmmakers are menaced by Islamic fanatics with a vigorous unawareness of any kinship."

Rushdie makes the very valuable point that we aren't just to be concerned with the assault on the teaching of evolution and our already meager sex-education programs in public schools, but that the rise of fundamentalism worldwide is of a piece. While they employ different political tactics, and have somewhat different short-term goals, the Christian Dominionists who seek to destroy the Constitution in the name of god and patriotism, the Islamists, and also Hindu and Sikh fundamentalists, and the Jewish fundamentalists who are temporarily aligning with the Christian right, are all part of the same threat to modern civilization. There are many of them, and they may win.

The moderately religious, for whom religion actually is a private matter, raise deep questions for me. Many of my dear friends are included in that number, and it is not a habit of mine to attack their beliefs (open discussion is of course wonderful), but I feel as though that inability to criticize religious beliefs stems from a desire to not offend moderate friends. So what is needed is a unified front between the privately religious and the non-religious, in defense of a secular public space. And that means that the difference between public and private needs to become well-known. Victory in this fight is not assured, especially in the short term.


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