Thursday, August 22, 2019

Still More On Religious Belief And Atheism


"...  we atheists disclaim that kind of faith and that story and fiercely disclaim the truth of the big story of any religion"

I think that puts its finger on the problem, and indirectly points out the helpfulness of seeing religion as a kind of immersive aesthetic experience. Fiercely disclaiming the literal truth of any religion's "big story" seems to me akin to fiercely pointing out that War and Peace is historically inaccurate -- has a kind of tilting at windmills quality. And to say that you "save" such religious functions as being a communal glue, providing values to live by, is cosmological in ultimate significance, and providing a story about the world they take as at least metaphorically true, is to say that your "saving" everything about religion that makes its absence so significant, and maybe tragic. As I say, while I'm a great admirer of science, technology, reason, Enlightenment values, etc., I don't see that they can provide what religion once did, on the fumes of which I think we've been coasting for a while now. The great increase in material plenty means we can coast for quite a ways, but the signs of a slow cultural breakdown, despite the hopeless attempt to substitute politics for religion as a cultural capstone, have been with us since at least the Victorians, and nowhere can we see a modern culture that can so much as sustainably reproduce. That's why I'm interested in finding ways to understand a religious world that is entirely compatible with -- in fact, supports -- a rigorously this world, or immanent focus, and that's why it seems important to me to distinguish empirical beliefs from the sort of aestheticized beliefs that, on a smaller scale, you yourself say you experience in reading a story. But, as always, we'll see. Darwin's nature will have the last word, in any case, as usual. 


Two main points.

First, I argue that protesting the truth of religious narrative is *not* akin to protesting the historical inaccuracy of War And Peace.Religious narratives for believers assert a truth claim over the entire arc of an origin myth to the eschatological myth, which then in some religions is the gateway to a life everlasting in one form or other. 

There is no truth claim as to historical accuracy in War And Peace, which of course there would be if it presented itself as historical scholarship. No one with a scintilla of sophistication reading War And Peace Peace needs that kind of disabusing. People who believe literally in miracles don’t *need* disabusing but for atheists we’d think “it couldn’t hoit” and too “keep your belief in miracles out of schools” and too “stop bugging me about it or you’ll entice me into having a crack at some disabuse.” 

So I don’t see in an atheism that wants to cabin religious belief to the private realm of the believers, that wants people educated in the way of miracle-denying science, and wants to tilt back against proselytization is tilting at windmills. Not at all: it’s rather in one way of understanding it a righteous effort to keep a bright line between church and state.

Now, if to protest the truth of religious narratives is tilting at wind mills because the truth of the stories isn’t the thing, that the thing is, empirical truth or non truth notwithstanding, the communal experience rooted in a shared belief likened to entering the world of a book but more, plus one, I’d say that that attenuates what religion is, turns it into a mode of art plus one. And what that one is elusive. So what I see we’re left with on your approach is neither fish nor fowl and would be an insult to believers, who start from the truth claims, are not very much without them. It’s to cut the heart out of their belief and replace it with efficacies. 

Secondly, when you say that my “saving” those efficacies is in fact the basically the whole of the matter:

...And to say that you "save" such religious functions as being a communal glue, providing values to live by, is cosmological in ultimate significance, and providing a story about the world they take as at least metaphorically true, is to say that your "saving" everything about religion that makes its absence so significant, and maybe tragic...

you I think sort of make my argument. I don’t need to give religion the time of my day in the way of belief or immersing myself in its rituals to understand those benefits. But what I can’t do is formulate a rationale for wanting to privilege a truth claiming view of the world that is magical thinking, or more harshly, to cause and effect materialists, nonsense. 

I have no quarrel with assimilating the Bible to literature, one of its greatest works, and in understanding how our values, moral principles are informed by it in the way life and art inform each other and in the way, too, that that informing evolves. But you’re saying literature plus one, and it’s the plus one, as is clear, I have trouble with. 

More On Religion, Belief And Atheism


I'm an atheist myself, in that I don't have a literal, or what I've been calling empirical, belief in a divine being. And I don't doubt many, probably most, religious adherents do, or at least say they do. The distinction between what they say and what they actually believe has to do with the "problems of belief" that I started with -- i.e., that it's not as simple as many atheists tend to think. But, like you, I haven't read the big-name atheists you mention, and I'm not arguing with them specifically. 

Problems of belief start with the old notion (Coleridge?) of the "willing suspension of disbelief" that we are supposed to adopt in reading fiction, for example. From my own experience, that's not quite an accurate description, in that I don't feel that literal belief or belief in the empirical reality of the fiction ever arises, and so can't be suspended -- but it points to the distinction between "belief" in empirical realities, like chairs or trees or actual people or actual events, and our apprehension of aesthetic reality in general. in which "belief" just seems like the wrong word, the product of a kind of category error. In any case, aesthetic experience is universally accepted and more or less understood -- religious experience, whatever it may be, not so much. My suggestion was simply that it might be viewed as a kind of radical extension of aesthetic experience, in which the frame that defines art is widened to include the viewer, and in such a way that the frame seems to disappear altogether. The nature of the world within that frame varies as we see in the varied religions, but it's functionality depends on its ability to bring and hold people into a community that mingles imaginative and quotidian elements. In that world, "belief" generally takes on different forms. The naive form is simply to believe without question whatever one is told, whether about an event one didn't witness oneself, or about tree spirits. More sophisticated would be to believe events told in myths, but to distinguish them for ordinary happenings around the corner. Another form is belief as a kind of testament or assertion of commitment, and this often takes the form of explicit "creeds" -- the fact that people make such avowals about their religious world but don't about their empirical world is obvious evidence that they themselves distinguish the kinds of belief each entails. And more evidence is in the agony many experience when or if they are assailed by doubts about such beliefs, which can feel like the end of a world. All of which simply points to the fact that the single word "belief" has different meanings in different contexts. 

But all that said, I like Pinker too, and I generally buy his tale of progress -- what I doubt is that "problem solving" and the scientific method, good as they are, can really substitute for the rich imaginative and communal worlds that religion once built, and of which we're still living in the ruins. 


I don’t think Pinker’s positing problem solving and the scientific method as communal glue. They’re the means of the vital job of preserving and improving the community materially. He lumps in humanism as one of his enlightenment values and it’s there that he locates values and principles that can match what religion has done in being sticky. 

Belief(s), its nature, its manifestations, has a lot of variety and can house a lot of distinctions and variables. But in broad terms as you note there’s a basic difference between belief that’s in the nature of faith and a stance that wants evidence for what we believe in the sense of what we take to be so. 
Where I have a problem with what you say and is your main point is the, if I can call it that, the aestheticization of religious belief experience, or a perspective of religion that is “aesthetics plus 1.” I don’t see the helpfulness of seeing it that way save for understanding as is commonly understood that religion is a communal glue that binds its adherents by a common faith, that evinces values to live by and is cosmological in ultimate significance in that it gives the believers a story about the world they take as true. Short of that, what is the efficacy of the “aesthetic plus one” perspective, particularly in guiding atheists’ comprehension of religious belief, especially since we atheists disclaim that kind of faith and that story and fiercely disclaim the truth of the big story of any religion?

As for suspending disbelief when we take in narrative art, I think the phrase is more of a helpful characterization than an analytically precise account. After all, if we’re moved to tears or laughter we do in some telling sense believe and take in the literal story. We do believe in it even as we know it’s not more than a story. There is—oxymoronic alert—a perhaps unconscious willing of imaginative belief. And when we use adjectives like “compelling” to note how we’re moved or our sense of the force of a character, that measures the depth of our suspension. That’s why I never find solace in art. If stuff is troubling me, then I can’t come to the work with a clear, calm mind. It’s only with a clear, calm mind that I can really enjoy what I’m reading or watching or listening to or looking at. 

And comparing the experience of art with the experience of religion, the same point I made about clinical madness and intense immersive experience, religious, drugged out or otherwise holds here, I think. Art ends when it’s finished and we’re back to the regular world, which too, we’ve never really left because, I also think, experiencing art is ongoingly dialectical between our sense of real world and our sense of the work. When the immersive religious experience ends, the religious are still religious, though in between these experiences less intensely so, and there is no full understanding that the experience is just a passing thing bounded by the real world. For the religious, the immersive experience is continuous with their deepest, self defining beliefs. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

On Sneering New Atheists

My Friend:

...My main point, I think, is just that religion involves its adherents in an entire imaginative and yes, communal, world, and isn't a simple collection of superstitions that is often all those outside such a world can see...


I wonder how many thinking atheists, and I’m thinking especially of the new ones, see religious belief simply as a collection of superstitions and don’t see a communal world comprised by its adherents, adherents who don’t believe or think the world they’re devoted to is imaginative but think and believe it’s real. I’ve read more about the new atheists than I’ve actually read them though I have read some of Harris and Dawkins and have listened to and read bits of most of them from time to time, not so much lately, mind you. There is a sneering in them, especially Dawkins and Hitchens, at those enraptured by magical thinking, and the most for its proselytizers. But I don’t think they discount or glide over the communal glue religion provides. And Dawkins particularly in analogue to Reform Judaism prizes the that kind of ritual and ceremonial bonding but wants it grounded in something apart from a literal belief in divinity. Pinker too, who in my impression doesn’t sneer, he’s much too genial, makes a big point of that communal experience in enriching life while being steadfast in his non belief (and in his argument that things have been overall steadily improving given the replacement of religious thinking by problem solving rooted in enlightenment values maybe best encapsulated by the scientific method—rationality, deliberation, evidence, or as he puts it, “reason, science, humanism and progress.)

Thursday, August 15, 2019

A Note In Answer To Two Young Kids Who Dared Me To Disprove God’s Existence

Being asked to prove that God doesn’t exist is an irrelevant question. That is so because there is no empirical or conceptual way to attend to the question. And the practical proof of the irrelevance is that there are an infinity of assertions that can’t be disproven because there is no empirical or conceptual way to test them. Prove that a cow didn’t create the universe. Or two cows. Or as many cows as you wish to number. Prove that a teacup isn’t the centre of the universe and everything that happens comes from its say so and will. And on and on. Asking to disprove a negative that can’t be tested empirically or conceptually beggars discourse. So the burden of proof is in the claimant. Prove that God exists. Failure to do so with legitimate evidence or arguments ends the matter: needing to disprove what can’t be proven is a philosophical absurdity. Saying that someone can’t disprove the existence of God is either of only the thinnest meaning—like saying elephants can’t fly—or simply makes no sense. 

Saturday, August 3, 2019

A Short P.S. To My Immediately Below Note On The Meaning Of The Ending Of Once Upon A Time In...Hollywood

P.S.  I can’t believe Tarantino, as I see it, didn’t know what he was about, didn’t intend for us to see his ending shot through with foreboding and wanting to make a point about that in a general theme of fantasy interwoven with reality. He does change history in Inglorious Basterds. But there is something so outsized and universally iconic about Hitler that the fantasy is, as I would put it, “permissible,” that the iconicity of Hitler can accommodate our fantasizing his alternative fate. In contrast, the Tate murders were so local and specific, so intimately shocking, so, so to say, individual and personal that inverting their reality seems to me another order of alteration, one that doesn’t stand up to the reality, can’t accommodate it and isn’t meant to. Booth’s turning down the blow job, if it’s meant to intimate, in a sly, implied way, and underscore Polanski’s later statutory rape, seems to me consistent with the movie’s ending being more obviously, even explicitly, inseparable from our knowing the fact of the Tate murders. It may be, however, that different arguable inferences arise from that inseparability.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Some Thoughts On The Ending Of Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In...Hollywood And On The Film Overall

An exchange with someone prompted a few considered thoughts on this most excellent movie, one that goes into the pantheon.

I wrote this in answer to someone saying he found the ending unfulfilling, too easy, facile.

I’ve only focused on one part of the film and what I see as a big theme in the film.

The movie is capacious. Somebody could write a very, very, very—that’s three verys—long essay about it and not begin to exhaust what’s to be said.

....You misunderstand the ending. It’s not easy or unsatisfying, not at all. 

It’s ominous, anti fairy tale, anti Once Upon A Time... For we know what the Mansonites will do to the very pregnant, innocently sweet and luminously lovely Sharon Tate. No one will live happily ever after. So the final scene of a happy social coming together of Tate and Dalton is forebodingly undercut by what history tells us murderously happened. 

In that, a central theme in Once Upon, the play between what’s made up—tv, movies, all art—and actuality culminates. It reaches a dizzying height in the film-represented Sharon Tate watching the actual Sharon Tate on screen in the Dean Martin movie in a fictional scene. Fiction and fact are juxtaposed throughout, informing each other. Dalton and Booth jostle cheek and jowl with projected real life characters, (who are also made up insofar as they’re represented by actors in the movie in fictional scene after fictional scene.) Bracketing all of that, as noted, are the sheer facts of what happened to Tate and her guests and, too, the later awful statutory rape by Polanski of a 13 year old girl, pushed on him, as it happened, by her mother. That rape is implicitly referred to in the scene when Booth turns down a blow job from Pussycat in part out of concern for how young she is. 

As—so it’s often argued—the murder of Tate brought the sixties, the ludicrously so-called “decade of peace and love,” to a close, so does Tarantino by obvious implication. He sets the happy, sweet, convivial, neighbourly getting together of Dalton and Tate against our knowledge that her very, very pregnant self and her guests will be horribly stabbed to death many times over. 

For that matter, in line with this anti fairy tale theme, the ending also undercuts the Western film mythos of the good guy riding off into the sunset on his horse after putting down the bad guys. Here Booth, badly stabbed and shot, is brought low. He can do no better than be carted away in a stretcher by an ambulance. 

In the scene at Spahn Ranch, brimming with menace and incipient violence, Booth seems invulnerable. He’s totally self-confidently undeterred in checking in on George Spahn out of concern for him. He with a few hard punches to the  head straightens out the hippie who flattened the tire on Dalton’s Cadillac. He then easily holds back the threatening, approaching group of hippies by warning that the guy he slugged will get more. Tex comes riding in to save the day—as if he could—but by then Booth is comfortably driving away. The whole scene suggests Booth is impervious to any physical defeat. But the ending shreds that suggestion. 

So the notion that Tarantino is too accommodating or facile or understated or evading fullness in the ending of this movie is misconceived and reflects an unnuanced, ill thought through reading of it and of the movie as a whole. 

Tarantino—I’m no expert on his films—often subverts, explodes really, his movies by surreal episodes of violence that are so beyond belief as to have him winking at some of us by joining those of us who get it in the realization of how ridiculous it all is, how he winkingly qualifies the very thing he’s created. We get it; he gets it; and aren’t we clever, superior really, in that, in finally not taking it all too seriously. 

But there’s a subtler, more nuanced, more complex iteration of that subversion in Once Upon. The surreal, subversive-of-the-movie-itself violence occurs in the penultimate over the top violent scene culminating in Dalton’s over the top firebombing of the Mansonite hippie in his pool, literally incinerating her. But the movie doesn’t end on that absurdly surreal note. It softens and the surreal fades into the real as though, as I see it, Tarantino isn’t satisfied with his former hip, we’re cooler than school, winking subversion. 

Booth, as noted, is in an ambulance on his way to a hospital. Dalton affirms their friendship and says he’ll visit him tomorrow. Then Dalton recounts the night’s events yet again, before to the cops, this time to Sebring, and then confirms everything’s ok to Sharon Tate herself, speaking to her for the very first time. He’s always wanted to, ever since she and Polanski moved in beside him. Hey, maybe Polanski will cast him, he tells Booth.

I take this in part as Tarantino’s bracketing his former kind of subversion. The movie goes on for a bit to its end afterward, placidly, prosaically and convivially between these nice, charming neighbours. The fictional ending is believable but, as I keep arguing, it’s surrounded by the ominous horror at what actuality tells us what all too really happened. And the point here is, I’d argue, that reality will overwhelm an ostensible fairy tale—Once Upon A Time...—every time.


Thursday, July 25, 2019

Shakespeare, Feminism And Male Sexuality

My comment:

..Great essay.

A keeper.

I think I only disagree with this:

…Male sexuality is basically a form of slave morality, in which women are the oppressors. They make us weak. Only in the moment of surrender and penetration is this reversed, and redeemed. This is the deep mystery—why men are so enslaved to women, so keen to please them.” His response was politically incorrect, borderline indecent, sexually subversive, and, I think, entirely accurate…

This over-characterizes, over-dramatizes and over-indicts male sexuality. 

Lusting after a woman is not enslavement in any sense unless we’re powerless against our urges, which most of us are not. They’re urges after all, not Internal whips and chains. 

And in acting on that desire, that lust, like in flirting, trying to pick a woman up, all of which most of us can try to do or not do as we happen to choose, we’re the opposite of enslaved: we’re simply taking a shot. 

And should we, as we say, “get lucky,” we’re hardly redeeming our enslavement or bringing women low—save physically in the act itself, and often, we in this literal sense bring ourselves lower—we’re rather mutually with our partner both enjoying the, what to say, the organic fulfillment of our urges, urges that are relatively strong in women too.

All this talk of enslavement and redeeming and reversing it in sex, in tearing women down to some low state is way over the top.

So, in contrast to Ms Simon, whose scintillating essay I love, I judge her friend’s account of male sexuality politically irrelevant, indecently silly in being histrionic, subversive only of common sense and reasonableness, and, I think, generally inaccurate.