Wednesday, January 2, 2008

"A Pillar Atheists Can't Shake"

Julia Keller, cultural critic (what a dream job) of the Chicago Tribune asks in today's paper: Why do the writers of recent popular books on atheism fume over others' beliefs? Why not shake your head and move on? Her riposte that we have money and property more to blame than religion for most of the strife and bloodshed we've caused I found profound. I excerpt most of her remarks below, as part of this endless and necessary if irresolvable debate we all face.

Sometimes, you just need a cathedral.

That's not a statement about religion, or at least it needn't be. It's a statement about space. When you have spent an inordinate amount of time in confined places, in corners and cubbyholes, you find yourself yearning for the soaring altitudes and ambitious parameters of ancient, breathtaking structures. You find yourself needing a cathedral.

[She visits Lausanne's own medieval Notre Dame, with her airplane novel, Ken Follett's hefty tale of church-building, "Pillars of the Earth," in hand. I saw a man reading this on the subway last week; it's massive, nearly a thousand closely-printed pages. And a sequel at that.]

Beliefs are personal, right?

I walked around the cathedral, clutching my copy of "Pillars" and reflecting on a recent publishing phenomenon: the increasing number of books extolling atheism, from Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" (2007) to Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" (2006) to Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" (2004). Hitchens recently edited yet another one, the just-published "The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever" (Da Capo Press), a showcase for the anti-religious grumblings of the likes of George Eliot, Carl Sagan, George Orwell and Ian McEwan.

Here's the part I don't understand. Why do Hitchens and those who share his views -- intelligent, talented individuals, all -- spend so much time fuming and sputtering over other people's beliefs? Why not simply shake your head, smile ruefully and move on? If religion indeed is "evil nonsense," as Hitchens terms it in his angrily eloquent introduction to "The Portable Atheist," why grant it the favor of making it the centerpiece of all these books? Why dignify it with constant rebuttals?

I don't have to believe what the builders of the Cathedral of Lausanne believed in order to wander through their souls' home, appreciating the craftsmanship. What's the harm in their faith, if it results in this lovely handiwork?
The harm, Hitchens would quickly say, is obvious: Look at all the bloodshed caused by religiosity. Look at Sept. 11. Look at Madrid. Look at the Crusades. Well, many things spur war and hatred.

Money and property have instigated more wars than religion ever has. Should we rail against cash and borders? The misappropriation of religious belief by Islamic fundamentalists needn't be a reason to reject religion; rather, it could be a reason to rescue religious belief from the bloody clutches of homicidal terrorists. Faith provides solace and hope and consolation to a great many people -- but why does that fact continue to get under Hitchens' skin? No one is demanding that he visit any cathedrals or sing any hymns.

Without question, the "new atheism" sells. Even with what seems to me to be a smug, hip, self-congratulatory tone, these books do quite well. Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" is a bestseller. I don't understand that, but it's not the first trend I've failed to understand. ("Dancing With the Stars," anyone?) And unlike Hitchens and his fellow nonbelievers, I'm willing -- to employ the phrase of the great singer and songwriter Iris DeMent -- to let the mystery be.

Mystery. That's really the point, isn't it? The mystery at the heart of religious faith isn't about syllogisms or axioms. It's not about logic. It's not about what I think about your beliefs; it's about what you believe.
Faith baffles. It's supposed to. It's as puzzling and inscrutable as the emotion one feels when strolling through a Swiss cathedral on a cold afternoon in mid-December, holding a book, minding one's footsteps on the chipped and craggy stone floor but dreaming, all the while, of sky.,1,2867693.story?coll=la-headlines-calendar&ctrack=5&cset=true

Image of Lausanne's nave:

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