Atheism's Slide from Optimism

Isaac Chotiner interviews Ian McEwan:

IC: Do you see religion as ineradicable, or do you think there is a chance to change people’s minds on religion?

IM: I think it is ineradicable, and I think it is a terrible idea to suppress it, too. We have tried that and it joins the list of political oppression. It seems to be fairly deeply stitched into human nature. It seems to be part of all cultures, so I don’t expect it to vanish. And yet at the same time, if it is built into human nature, why are there so many people who don’t believe in it? I think it is important that people with no religious beliefs speak up and speak for what they value. It is a bit of a problem, the title “Atheist”—no one really wants to be defined by what they do not believe in. We haven’t yet settled on a name, but you wouldn’t expect a Baptist minister to go around calling himself a Darwinist [sic – ‘an Adarwinist’ – JGP]. But it is crucial that people who do not have a sky god and don’t have a set of supernatural beliefs assert their belief in moral values and in love and in the transcendence that they might experience in landscape or art or music or sculpture or whatever. Since they do not believe in an afterlife, it makes them give more valence to life itself. The little spark that we do have becomes all the more valuable when you can’t be trading off any moments for eternity.

A sky god – what a reductive bit of silliness for such a heavy-headed guy. I encourage the nontheists to make as strenuous a case for erotic transcendence as possible. In so doing, they might just reveal how irrational they are about it, and then maybe religion will start to acquire different ‘valences’ for them.

[Below-the-fold vague spoiler alert.]

I really shouldn’t be so hard on McEwan, I suppose, because he does say many of the ‘right’ things, but having just watched Atonement a few days ago, which I presume has the same ending as the book, it struck me as a very romantic-atheist film in the petty and crestfallen manner that seeps through McEwans comment’s above, especially the last sentence.

‘Valuable’ — a lot of freight packed into that empty word. The ‘twist’ ending of Atonement was utterly unsatisfying, it debased its characters, and humanity in the bargain, while straining to do the opposite through the substitute gods of ‘art’ and ‘love’, which have a pathetically limited ability to redeem anyone, and thus anything, when the stakes are both high and personal. I concede the argument to Nietzsche that art has the cathartic power to get audiences through the crushing recognition of how alienated we human beings are, by nature, from what we want and need. But it doesn’t do that for real people, people who can’t convincingly reduce the living of their real lives to an act, or themselves into the audience of their own subjectivity. Or at least it doesn’t do without a great deal of therapeutic self-delusion carried on for ‘its own sake’. What we learn from Macbeth Macbeth never learns from himself. (Ditto Hamlet, although he comes closer, because he knew all along what it is he was faithless about.)

Briony’s story is ultimately a tale of the dignity that we cannot recover simply by genuinely trying. Today’s substitute ‘lesson’, part of the energetic lie ‘for its own sake’ that powers (in large but not exclusive measure) our culture and art, is that real dignity consists actually in the genuineness of the try. This is a real downward revision of our expectations about the value-able-ness of our ‘little spark’. McEwan’s real-life reduction of faith to an economics of experiential trade wouldn’t be so offputting if he refrained from importing it into his art. Then again, McEwan’s problem would seem to be even deeper and more telling: suppressing ‘ineradicable’ faith in the lifeworld of his own art.*

*If he doesn’t do this in other of his books, please someone tell me, it’d be a relief, and more interesting. **

**Thanks to Matt Frost for remarking that

I haven’t seen the movie, but it sounds pretty true to the book. And as disappointing as the book. McEwan’s “economics of experiential trade” comes off as the furious scratching of a phantom itch.

Crossposted at Postmodern Conservative.