Thursday, January 18, 2018

Religion and Decadence

From the interview Tyler Cowen (an agnostic) did with Ross Douthat (a conservative Catholic):
COWEN: When you see how much behavior Islam or some forms of Islam motivate, do you envy it? Do you think, “Well, gee, what is it that they have that we don’t? What do we need to learn from them?” What’s your gut emotional reaction?

DOUTHAT: I think that Western civilization is decadent, and that decadence has virtues — among them, the absence of the kind of massive bloody civil wars currently roiling the Middle East. But, at the same time, there is a sense in which, yeah, there are parts of Islam that are closer to asking the most important questions about existence than a lot of people are in the West. And asking important questions carries major risks and incites levels of extremism that we’ve tamped down and put away, but that desire for the extreme and the absolute and the truth about things that animates some of the best and some of the worst parts of Islam, I think it’s better for human beings to have that desire than not.
I like Cowen's question, but Douthat's answer get me to one of the things I dislike most about religion: the assumption that secular people are shallow, that they never think about the "important questions." I first encountered this in C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, in which secular people are too obsessed with getting ahead or having fun to take things seriously, and the lower-ranking demon is instructed to make sure they stay too busy with one or the other to pause and reflect. Reflection is dangerous, the senior demon says, because it might lead people to God.

I find this dismissive and irritating. I am not particularly interested in either getting ahead or having fun, and I reflect continuously. I simply don't find that the teaching of half-mad Iron Age prophets provide a very complete understanding of the universe or my own place in it.


szopen said...

I hear you.
There is nothing more annoying than when a religious person assumes that because you are atheist, you most likely ignore moral question - or, even worse, you are amoral.

David said...

I agree with John and Szopen. Though I would also agree with Douthat that deep internal divisions are a sign that a society is grappling with deep, serious questions. Witness the United States today. I think that's what Douthat is really saying, and I also think he's at least as much against a bland, pablumish religion as he is against consumerist secularism.

Perhaps the question is, do we want a society that grapples with deep, serious questions? The members of such a society almost inevitably find that they don't like many of their fellow citizens' answers, that the feeling is mutual, and that no resolution is possible save some combination of exhaustion, state control, consumerism, and a return to politics-as-patronage.

John said...

@David, yes, I also wonder how much seriousness we can stand. I linked some time ago to an essay that promoted forgetting; too much reflection on the past, the writer said, and you end up like the Serbs or even the Israelis and Palestinians, obsessing over how to interpret every historical moment.