Sunday, December 10, 2006

Invasion of the academic faith-healers

Well, I'm back. And while I was away, I realised a few things. First, the hotel I tend to stay in has avoided, on all eight of its floors, having a room number ending in 13. Second, scary (and sloppy) Russian espionage seems to be on the march (or, expressed differently, polonium is the new black). Third, it really hurts when someone doesn't take the effort to seriously read your book before writing a nasty review of it in a prestigious journal. Plans for revenge are now underway. But none of them, rest assured, involve a certain potentially deadly radioactive substance. No, when I stab someone, I prefer it to be in the front.

But, I shall follow up on some of that soon. For now, here's a guest posting from The Wife, who, needless to say, had some time to think whilst I was away (without me buggin' her all the time).

I agree fully with what she has to say. So, pay attention.


Academia has a new fad, and I am utterly bewildered by it. Over the past year, claims that we are in the midst of a full-blown return to spirituality, or calls for such a return as a long-needed solution to the multiple problems of the Western world – from obesity to terrorism – have become louder, even amongst intellectuals. In the summer, the Frankfurt Kulturzone, a series of events organised by the Schirn Kunsthalle, dedicated one of these to the return of religion in contemporary culture. In a recent review, the one-time godfather of cultural materialism, Terry Eagleton, accused Richard Dawkins of taking materialism too far in his book The God Delusion. And Jürgen Habermas, to bring his lifelong feel-good philosophy to its divine climax, has recently teamed up with Pope Benedict.

I blame fundamentalism for this disturbing academic trend, which has led formerly sane human beings to publicly question their private and professional principles. Their line of thinking goes something like this: Maybe those extreme critics of the Western world are right after all, when they accuse us of godlessness, obscenity and superficiality? Maybe in putting too much store in “getting and spending” we not only “lay waste our powers”, but also “give our hearts away”, to quote another champion of spirituality (of whom more later)? Didn’t we always say so, postmodern theorists triumph, who find their once radical propositions (think: “hybridity”, think: “uncertainty”, think: "plurality") affirmed by this popular esotericism?

I am not only bewildered by the fact that so many academics are willing rise to the fundamentalist bait instead of turning their backs on it with a curt “sod you”. I am also bewildered by the sloppy vagueness of the whole spirituality-talk. None of those using the term bothers to define it. Spirituality: does it mean Chancellor Angela Merkel leading parliament in collective daily prayers or ritual belly dancing on Caribbean islands? Eagleton’s cantankerous attack on Dawkins contains enough of his characteristic critical vigour, but it gets dangerously wishy-washy when he enters the realm of faith:

For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning.

It is not only the blessed vagueness that bothers me about passages like this, it is their elitism. This is a discourse that excludes everyone who is not inspired – that is, all secular rationalists interested in meaning and communication.

But apart from being frustrated by this new celebration of imprecision, I am bewildered by the obvious fruitlessness of the call for spirituality, as well as by its blatant naivety. Rediscovering the spiritual core of our existence, so the underlying argument goes, may return depth and significance to our lives. What is more, it would make us understand the fundamentalist forces that provoke us, verbally and otherwise, better. But a closer look at the arguments thrown into the debate suggests only one thing: that we remain worlds apart from the fundamentalists (and a good thing, too). Which is why we might as well abandon the whole project asap – it’s only going to get us into dangerously self-destructive territory.

First, on the issue of rationalism. Obviously, the type of rationalism currently taking fire from fundamentalists is not the all-too-rampant version usually cited by liberal academics who play the spiritualist card: the one responsible for ecological catastrophes, economic injustice and unnecessary greed. What liberal academics don’t seem to realise is that this excessive form of rationalism is much closer to religion than to its rationalist origins. The belief that reason and rational science can solve everything is the big myth of the Enlightenment – though only insane people think that way.

John Gray, one of the thinkers repeatedly cited here at OD, has discussed this mythical dimension of modernity at length in his book Al Qaeda and What it Means to Be Modern, where he points out that amongst modernism’s monstrous progeny are not only positivist nerds à la Comte, but also dictators like Hitler and Stalin – and more recent terrorists – who harness science to their apocalyptic utopianism. No, when fundamentalists criticise 'rationalism', they mean its benign and benevolent form that shapes our everyday existence in the West and has brought us such things as human rights, votes for men and women, modern medicine (with the blessed miracle of anaesthetics) and free speech.

Mad excesses? I don’t think so. In many ways (and even at the risk of simplifying matters), this is the best of all worlds.

Second, on the issue of spirituality. Quite obviously, the critics of Western rationality will not be satisfied with the cushy kind of “light-a-scented-candle-and-meditate-on-the-awesome- reflections-of-the-flame-in-my-magic-crystal” spiritualism its newly appointed defenders might be thinking of when they use the term. They don’t mean the mellow Buddhist capitalism still popular in Hollywood, folks!

No, theirs is a hardcore spiritualism based on total abandonment and an absolute willingness to face and perpetuate destruction as a means to purge the planet of the godless. That violent spirituality of course is the basis of Christianity, although its secularised, mainstream (and 'Enlightened') forms have fortunately transcended it. Present and powerful during the Reformation in continental Europe, it also characterises radical Evangelical sects in the twentieth century dreaming of the apocalypse as their ticket to eternity. Again, this is not something I think should be revived, especially by Western academics who should know better.

Anti-rationalist trends are entirely human; they have sprung up again and again throughout human history as a form of resistance and critique. Romanticism, for instance, made use of lyrical poetry to complain about the loss of spiritual significance in an increasingly industrialised world:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune,
It moves us not.-- Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
There is of course something terribly endearing in Wordsworth’s criticism of capitalist materialism and senseless greed. And the sublime experience of standing on a lovely spot overlooking the sea is an experience that is neither unknown nor unpleasant to me.

However, my atheistic mind is always unsettled by the theatrical apostrophe to the pantheistic deity that marks the poem’s argumentative turn, as well as by the obscenely phrased evocation of paganism (why “suckled”?) in Wordsworth’s escapist solution to the issue.

What is more, of course Proteus and Triton spoil Wordsworth’s brief instance of pagan abandon, containing it within a sobering classical framework indicative of the poet’s own Enlightenment background (and education). Scholars have been emphasising Romanticisms dialectical relationship with the Enlightenment; here, in Wordsworth’s own acknowledgement of the limits of his radicalism, they find argumentative ammunition. The poet’s dreams of a golden age of spiritual fulfilment are tinged by the awareness that he can’t get back there – and I wonder whether that insight wasn’t also a source of relief for him.

But what if the Romantic criticism of our loss of spirituality is misinterpreted or taken to extremes? Gray has pointed out that contemporary forms of radicalism of whichever provenance have their intellectual roots in the counter-Enlightenment. However, “the Romantic belief that the world can be reshaped by an act of will is as much a part of the modern world as the Enlightenment ideal of a universal civilisation based on reason …. In the nineteenth century, Romanticism was a German protest against the French claim to embody universal civilisation. In the early twenty-first century, Romantic ideas have returned as part of the resistance to American universalism” (Al Qaeda, 25-26).

And even if one disagrees with the latter, there are many other ways of not succumbing to it than Molotov cocktails (or worse): secular scepticism and critical rationalism being two of them.

So, no, it is not less rationalism we need in this world, but more. Of course, pressured academics forced to compete on the cutthroat educational market may see in the topic of spirituality a neat little niche to exploit, maybe even with the aid of public funding (most likely under some kind of nifty-sounding ‘faith-based’ initiative or other). But surely academic excellence must not come at the price of believing in fairy tales and consulting astrological charts.

If Americans are in doubt as to whether the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa (not to mention their limited knowledge about that planet - and that sun's - age), if Holocaust deniers can voice their opinions at pseudo-academic conferences, if conspiracy theories are considered serious “alternative” views to established facts, then we have reached the point where those Enlightenment ideas that have recently come under attack are in desperate need of protecting.

Maybe UNESCO should consider making reason a cultural heritage – like the beautiful countryside around here.

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