Thursday, December 23, 2010

In Celebration of Awe


It was a metaphysical standoff befitting the holiday season in the information age, the age of reason, the age of consumerism and The Spirit Age. In late November, American Atheists, an organization the mandate of which is to protect the civil liberties of non-believers, let its views on Christmas be known on a billboard just outside the Lincoln Tunnel’s New Jersey exit. It read: “You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason.”

By early December, the Catholic League, an organization dedicated to protect the civil liberties of Catholics, had retaliated with its own message on a billboard on the other side of the tunnel, which read: “You know it’s real. This season, celebrate Jesus.” Drivers who use the 2.4-kilometre tube to commute between New Jersey and Manhattan were literally caught between the apparently diametrically opposing viewpoints. The media understood that the story was of universal interest – regardless of with which side you aligned yourself – and provided details ranging from incendiary quotes from representatives of these organizations to the cost of each billboard: the atheists paid $20,000 while the Catholics paid $18,000.

A very different sort of duel between the faithful and the rational occurred in Toronto on Nov. 26, when the celebrated Munk Debates centred on the resolution: “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.” In support of the resolution was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who now heads a foundation that “aims to promote respect and understanding about the world's major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world.” In opposition stood Christopher Hitchens, the celebrated journalist and author of the book God Is Not Great.

An Ipsos Reid poll taken immediately before the debate among 18,200 subjects from 23 nations showed that the world was more or less evenly divided on the subject – “half (48%) agreed that ‘religion provides the common values and ethical foundations that diverse societies need to thrive in the 21st Century’ whereas the other half (52%) agreed that ‘deeply held religious beliefs promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions, and impede social progress in developing and developed nations alike.’”

The debate’s transcripts show both men advocated and defended their positions eloquently and insightfully. Hitchens attacked religious faith along the countless ills it has caused in the world. He deconstructed familiar, common occurrences: “Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, beautiful, almost perfect, now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia that I may do the work of the Lord?” He argued with fervour against faith that had potential for catastrophe: “Have you looked lately at the possibility we used to discuss as children in fear, what will happen when Messianic fanatics get hold of an apocalyptic weapon?”

Blair countered with a parable revealing the essence of religious faith: “It was Rabbi Hillel who was once famously challenged by someone that said they would convert to religion if he could recite the whole of the Torah standing on one leg. He stood on one leg and said: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That is the Torah, the rest is commentary, now go and do it.’” Blair also cited numerous concrete examples of immensely good deeds inspired by religion: “I think of people I met some time ago in South Africa, nuns who were looking after children born with HIV/AIDS. These are people who are working and living alongside and caring for people inspired by their faith. Is it possible for them to have done that without their religious faith? Of course it's possible for them to have done it. But the fact is, that's what motivated them.”

There of course were numerous other aspects on each side of the argument discussed and dissected by these intellectual orators. In the end, however, Hitchens apparently made the greater impression: immediately before the debate, 55 per cent of the 2600 members of the audience disagreed with the resolution while 25 per cent agreed. After Blair and Hitchens had their say, disagreement with the resolution had risen to 68 per cent while agreement had risen to only 32 per cent.

My brief summary of their debate does not do it justice. Before returning to it at the conclusion of this post, however, I would like to recount a more directly personal story: A fledgling novelist recently asked me to evaluate his manuscript, specifically asking me whether it was publishable. When I replied frankly that, although any honest, sincere writing is a laudable exercise, his story had not yet been crafted into a product in which a publisher was likely to invest, he became rather defensive. At one point he suggested I was incapable of appreciating his book as I was a spiritualist while he was an atheist. He went on to claim that, since his novel was intended for atheists, it was not suited for, according to his own estimation, 90 per cent of the market. I suggested he not include that idea when he pitched the book to publishers.

The smugness apparent among some atheist is exemplified by my friend’s implication that I somehow could not see what he saw. What he did not realize was how I understood the atheist perspective quite well, because I, in truth, used to be one. Just as many atheists disavow their beliefs after being raised in a traditionally religious family, my spiritual awakening, as trite as the term may be, came partly as a reaction to having been raised by a strictly secular household headed by a theoretical physicist. Furthermore, as a comparative literature major who focused on modernity, I was more than familiar with the existential works of Satre and Camus. Generally progressive by nature as well as by upbringing, I once firmly believed in Mao’s declaration that religion is “the opiate of the masses”.

But atheism did not make Mao or Communism incapable of atrocity. The estimated number of deaths which resulted from his autocratic Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1961) ranges from a conservative 14 million to 43 million. The Cultural Revolution which he launched in 1966 and which ended officially with his death in 1976 created a Kafaesque reality in the People’s Republic which caused both flase persecutions, paranoia and economic stagnation, all for the sake of revolution against all bourgeois institutions, including religion.

The fanaticism of fundamentalist religions has inarguably caused countless suffering throughout history. To therefore condemn all religious beliefs and activities, however, appears equally fanatical and irrational. This was one persuasive argument Blair made during his debate.

For his part, Hitchens maintained that: “If we give up religion, we discover what actually we know already… which is that we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates, on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of a solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very rapidly expanding and blowing apart cosmic phenomenon. These conclusions to me are a great deal more awe inspiring than what's contained in any burning bush or horse that flies overnight to Jerusalem or any other of that -- a great deal more awe inspiring, as is any look through the Hubble telescope at what our real nature and future really is.”

To this, I would only add that spiritual practices – which includes, but is not limited to, religion – evolve over time, no differently in truth from science and rationalism. If a burning bush was fantastic imagery in Biblical times, then so today is the gravitational singularity at the centre of a Black Hole where infinite spacetime curvature is contained in a single point – not to mention countless other esoteric theories that speculate what is occurring on the fringes of our reality. My own sincere belief in such scientific concepts owes itself primarily to one thing: faith. So perhaps the core of the debate between Blair and Hitchens may not be anything much more consequential than semantics.

And perhaps the American Atheists and the Catholic League both have it wrong. It strikes me that at Christmas, we are not celebrating the Nativity myth because it may or may not be real; we celebrate it because of the sense of awe it has inspired in a considerable portion of humankind over the centuries. This is my own best explanation as to why, as a non-Christian, I celebrate Christ’s birth wholeheartedly with my Catholic wife and children.

Thus, whether your traditions around the winter soltice centre on Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanza, or something else, I hope you derive just as much inspiration from them this holiday season.

Photo by Suat Eman at Freedigitalphotos.net

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