Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Selling Atheism and Myth

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When transferring from the A/C/E subway line to the N/R/W at 42nd Street in Manhattan, passengers must walk down a long, underground tunnel. If they happen to look up at the tunnel's low ceiling, they'll notice three or four word excerpts on signs mounted to the ceiling reinforcements. If one reads the signs as he walks the length of the tunnel, he'll realize that each sign is a "piece" of a poem. The subject matter is mundane, literally, and the poem rather bleak. In short, the uncredited writer asks why we wake and go to work, day after day, our lives spiritually empty and dull. In the context of the smelly, humid subway tunnel, crowded with commuters, the poem resonates.

This past Saturday afternoon, as I made the E to W transfer, a group of teenage girls walked just behind me. Half listening to their conversation, I realized they were discussing the poem. They mocked it. "It's so stupid," one of them giggled. "What the fuck? I mean...," another girl trailed off. To some extent, I can sympathize with their reaction; the poem doesn't convey the most original sentiment. "You know what I don't get?," said a third girl. "What's it even advertising?"

What is it advertising?! What is this MTA commissioned public poetry advertising?! Burma Shave, this ain't, babe.

I should know better than to be surprised. These girls, roughly seventeen years of age, are plugged into consumer culture. Theirs is the generation of the spectacle and the billboard. They were thirteen when the World Trade Center fell (on television, again and again and again) and they represented America's youngest consumer demographic, parental parasites, during the economic bubble of the late nineties. The third girl's question is, from their perspective, a fair one. Why isn't this poem an advertisement?

I didn't know whether to laugh or shudder. I slipped into a brooding mood. These are dark times, I thought.

But it's not enough to criticize, break down, and dismiss. Even constructive criticism, that much celebrated will-o-the-wisp, which can be invaluable to the artist, politician, and athlete, provides little reward for the critic himself. He may be able to pinpoint a conceptual contradiction, a fatal weakness in policy, or an unfortunate quirk in form, but how useful is his ability to notice the negative? Is the critic able to turn his judgment inward to correct his own failings?

I enjoy reading good criticism, be it social, literary, or aesthetic, but even the most capable wordsmiths can't make criticism complete unless they prescribe some balm. A batter who has fallen into a slump will not be helped by a coach who only cites what the batter does wrong. The good coach - the complete coach - recognizes the failing and attempts to correct it, explaining to his player not just what is wrong, but also what might work.

Incomplete though most criticism may be, negative noise must be made before there exists any serious striving for improvement. I regularly talk with people who share my sense of disillusionment and betrayal. I see folks shake their heads when reading the day's newspaper headlines and I often hear folks complaining about the administration or about the passing of a particular bill, but our overall complacency is noteworthy. There is some noise being made, of course, but the majority of protests lack focus - people shout 'No blood for oil!' while wearing PETA sweatshirts - and the political plays made by those brave politicians - republicans, in the traditional sense of the word - resisting the red tide are far too esoteric for most of America to rally behind. (Thoughtful, politically savvy bloggers may seem ubiquitous, but they remain a tiny fraction of the general populace.)

Why are we so quiet? Has the barrage of bad news made toadies of us all? When I do get worked up about the "general state of things," I feel as though my outrage is excessive. Perhaps vehement rants about the current administration are considered passe, but does this make them any less vital? Is resistance possible in the current culture of distraction and fear? What does it take to reach "every man" in the era of spectacle?

Ronald Aronson has a good review in the most recent Bookforum, entitled, "Faith No More? Against the Rising Tide of Rejuvenated Religion, A Number of Writers Make the Case for Disbelief." In it, he suggests our contemporary apathy results from the unrealized promises of a better future.
"It's safe to say that the future didn't turn out as anyone expected. Scientific and technological progress has been relentless, but its promises of liberation have gone flat. Few still believe that their children's world will be better than theirs. We live after Marxism, after progress, after the Holocaust - and few imaginations are stirred, few hopes raised by our world's long-range tendencies. Indeed, the opposite is happening as terrorism becomes the West's main preoccupation. In countries like the United States, Britain, and France, there has been a turning away from improving societies and toward improving the self."
Aronson, reviewing seven recent books dealing with the decline of atheism, convincingly argues that the return to God and otherworldly authority figures increases the power of those who already hold the reins, and therefore represents a weakening of The Republic, a collapse of democratic ideals. Near the end of his piece, he writes,
"The rational and constantly self-questioning and self-correcting world view is essential to democracy and its ongoing public discussion about everything under the sun. Those disasters of history not explicitly tied to religion in fact still reflect starting points of authority and unquestionable dogma. Democracy, after all, is congruent with freedom, which is in turn congruent with the world view that presupposes little and questions everything. 'Democracy proceeds by one set of principles. Religion by the opposite.' Atheism is 'one of the natural allies' of democratic societies."
As an atheist, I agree with Aronson and the writers of most of the books he reviews. (To feel as I do, you must believe that moral living is better served by non-believers who recognize that an ethical core is "part of the furniture of the universe," as Plato put it. Moral acts or laws - the Ten Commandments, for example - designed to ingratiate a believer to their respective God or gods are necessarily less virtuous and, above all, self-serving.) However, Aronson needs to ask himself why so many atheists are content to revile religion without offering a thoughtful alternative. Such alternatives do exist, but atheists have a hard time making them attractive to the majority because the absence of an afterlife is too troubling for most people to accept. Unhappy in their own narrative, disappointed by the once promising future, they place their trust in a different sort of "future," an altogether supernatural one.

The recent surge in popular interest in aliens, ghosts, supernatural storms, elementals, and any number of other vaguely mystical beings - check the local TV listings if you don't know what I'm referring to - is proof enough that we are a culture living in fear of ourselves. As Pogo, Walt Kelly's philosophical cartoon opossum, said decades ago, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Aronson, trying to salvage some sense of hope, concludes his review with a recipe for a happy, secular society.
"A new atheism must absorb the experience of the twentieth century and the issues of the twenty-first. It must answer questions about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of thinking about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death, and explore what hope might mean today."
Given the current climate, accomplishment of the goals set forth by Aronson seems highly unlikely at the societal level, though it remains possible for individuals. More importantly, listing what must be done without addressing how it can be done is, like negative criticism, altogether easy and almost pointless.

Underlying the fear and the increasingly fascist feel of the United States is an absence of myth. This is not new. Mark Rothko, the twentieth century painter, wrote extensively on our search for a "master narrative." He was convinced that the loss of myth, so much a part of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, was responsible for the violence and break-down that led to both World Wars. Though Rothko glossed over some of the more repugnant realities of both these eras - and ugly they could be - the loss of myth, of a central story and purpose - did contribute to what so many have deemed the "decline of Western civilization." Religious fundamentalists argue that this decline occurred as a result of loosening morals and a "turning away" from god worship, but the corruption and violence of the first half of the twentieth century is more accurately moored to the industrial revolution and the myriad temptations of free-market capitalism, both of which forced societies to become more focused on the individual good. I agree with Rothko; a myth is needed where a god is not. Star Wars is a myth - this is only true of the first trilogy, before Lucas introduced the idea of genetic superiority via metachlorion count - and so is The Lord of the Rings. Both sagas weave together the universal myths, those elements that can be found in all theology and everyday life, to create timeless narratives of self-worth and social obligation, reminding us that the little man can make a difference and that good can and will triumph over evil, but not without a lot of heart and courage. The philosophical problems with the concept of "good" and "evil" aside - postmodernism and relativism must take a back seat here - myths rarely grant power to a very few and, when this does occur, the powerful are inevitably overthrown and made examples of.

Without livable myths, most of us turn to the Abrahamic God, abandoning mythical narrative to the realms of science fiction and fantasy. But that god, at least as it is usually conceived of, is a pale shadow of myth for "He" is without practice, only ritual and faith. Faith is a virtue, but it is too easily coopted and dubbed loyalty. Scared by the world we inhabit, we turn to television in the hopes of being frightened further by spectres, aliens, and possessed girls. Dissatisfied with our "little" lives, we celebrate garish displays of wealth, influence, and sexuality, turning all three into absurd caricatures of themselves - reducing them in the process, which ultimately makes them that much more easily abused. But wait! There exists a narrative we can all identify with, a truth all contemporary Americans can rally behind.

So Tired.
If Late
Get Fired.
Why Bother?
Why the Pain?
Just Go Home
Do It Again."

But I don't get it. What's it selling?

Photo credit: 1971, Walt Kelly, "Pogo"


Mikhail Capone said...

Excellent post.

Gabe said...

Geez man, that was quite amazing, quite eloquent... Something that bothers me, tho, is this "truth all contemporary Americans can rally behind". You do a great job tearing down some hollow beliefs, but in the end you replace it with more emptiness. I'm not criticizing, but it's something I grapple with myself...

Hungry Hyaena said...


Thanks, man.


Yup, it's very troubling, isn't it? I intended this post to be obviously hypocritical - I bemoan negative criticism and then offer no suggestions as to how we can improve our swing - and, though happy with the post, I find it discouraging.

What can we do? Suggestions?

Gabe said...

Haha... alas, I'm still grappling :)

Michael said...

Hmm... Yeah, that's one of the big problems. Personally I have my doubts about virtually all over-arching 'solutions.' We live in the aftermath of Big Ideologies. One after another they have surged across the globe and collided. One after another they have been deposed, discredited, or, worse yet, destroyed by their own internal inconsistencies. I think that the last thing that we need is more Big Ideologies... and that, as far as I am concerned, includes Atheism.
Personally I'm fond of the apophatic outlook. This mentality is not a sect or movement, rather it is a general trend within virtually all established religions... indeed it is at the heart of several. In contrast to the kataphatic outlook, which makes positive assertions about the divine, the apopahtic outlook acknowledges the limited scope of the human intellect, which makes us unfit to deal with the infinite.
For example... Theism says 'God is.' Atheism says 'God is not.' Both are essentially kataphatic statements about the nature of the divine. Essentially 'God fits into my conception of being.' Assume, for a moment, a third option. a) is b) is not c) other. Despite the 'sapiens' part of my species name, I can't make heads or tails of option c (quite literally). I am tempted to say 'c makes no sense and is therefore disqualified,' but that would be a supremely arrogant thing to do. Furthermore, I can't even really say if there are options d through m or if in fact a=b. I am fundamentally unfit to pose the question. (To clarify: agnosticism, as generally used, basically says 'I cannot pick between a and b,' whereas apophaticism voids the question entirely)

Apophaticism still leaves room for myth, ethics, morals, and all that jazz. It simply removes the ugly sticking point of Absolute Truth and brings the discussion back to a more grounded level.
Hell, if there's got to be a credo, I'd propose this:
1)Be responsible for your own mess.
2)Don't be an asshole.

Hungry Hyaena said...


1) I'm never responsible; I'm the very definition of irresponsible, dammit!

2) I'm a raging asshole. (That's an unfortunate modifier...gross.)

Seriously, though, I agree with you...if I only consider the "big picture." As I've written here before, atheism is the flip side of religious fundamentalism. The a/b/c choices you mention nicely describe the relationship of fundamentalism, atheism and agnosticism.

My problem with apophatic approaches, however, is that, by voiding the question, you remove yourself from participation in the Void. It is philosophically nihilistic, even if I may, ultimately, agree with the thrust of the apophatic outlook.

It reminds me of one of my old attitudes, one I referred to as "pessimistic optimistism." In the short term, I felt, we're fu*ked, but eventually, Earth will come out ahead, after humans have wiped themselves out. This stance is as absurd as it is reactionary. After all, that "eventually" is temporal - when the Sun novas, the Earth won't fare too well - and believing that humans will ultimately fail is defeatist. If every athlete took the field thinking, "What does it matter if we win or lose? In the end, we'll all be dead anyway," sports wouldn't be much fun to watch. Artists wouldn't "art" and builders wouldn't "build." Most people seem to need a guidebook to living before they are willing to participate.

This often seems unfortunate (the result of a dearth of imagination and intelligence), but if God - or the absence of God - moves people into action, so be it. Absolute Truth, a fiction, seems wrong-headed when peering through a looking glass backwards, but even those of us who would deny it will turn to it when it serves our short term interests.

You might remember a phone conversation we had three years ago, Mike, where I mentioned my increasing apathy regarding environmental matters and my philosophical break with the environmentalist credo. I was at odds with preservation and suspicious even of conservation, with its desire to control and count, thoroughly discouraged by the religious undertones associated with the "greens." Now, however, I feel that we must make the attempt to make things better, which means I have some idea of what better or healthy is. This suggests I have accepted some degree of "truth;" by according value to this over that, I have implicated myself in the mess. I'm part of the problem.

This doesn't do much to clarify; I think it only further muddies the water.

Michael said...

Actually, I think that I reached a similar point of disillusion and paralysis. Yet, voiding the Big Question doesn't negate tangible action. In my opinion, it strengthens the motivation to act. Afterall, the Jehovah's Witnesses write about how screwed up the fisheries are, but end by saying "God'll fix it." By nixing the the debate we can look at environmental questions (and oter questions) on a more pragmatic level... actually similar to the argument for Atheism... just without the fuss about cosmic truth.