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New Gods For Old? (Part One: The Problem of Faith in a Secular World)

by published

A review of Strange Rites: New Religions

A Godless World - Tara Isabella Burton Public Affairs Press, 2020.

Other books discussed:

1. Believing In Film: Christianity and Modern European Cinema Mark LeFanu Bloomsbury Academic
2. Two Dozen (Or So) Arguments For God: The Plantinga Project Jerry Walls And Trent Daugherty (editors) Oxford University Press 2020
3. The Meaning Of Belief: Religion From An Atheists Point Of View Tim Crane Harvard University Press 2017
Key Words: Religion, God, Gods, Atheism Belief Film Studies Philosophy Of Religion Social Change Internet Religions New Religions
Joseph Harder Macomb Community College, Warren, Michigan, USA
Copyright Joseph Harder, 2000

Prefatory Note: This is intended as the first in a series of review essays of recent books that explore key concepts of contemporary cultural or social debates. This is the first of several essays on religious changes in the modern world and on the debate between believers, non-believers, and those in between. My next review essay will focus on the nature of time, reviewing a recent book on Bergson and Einstein.


I will begin with two quotes from a famous atheist and his reaction to a famous work of religious music.

Nietzsche's letter to Peter Gast, on hearing the "Prelude" to Wagner's Parsifal -
"When I see you again, I shall tell you precisely what I then understood. Putting aside all irrelevant questions(to what end such music can and should serve ?) and speaking from a purely aesthetic point of view, has Wagner written anything better? The supreme psychological precision and concision as regards what is said, communicated here, the extreme of concision and directness of form, every nuance of feeling conveyed epigrammatically, clarity of musical description that reminds us of a shield of consummate workmanship; and finally an extraordinary sublimity of feeling, something expressed in the very depths of music, that does Wagner the highest honor: a synthesis which to many people, even "higher minds", will seem incompatible with strict coherence. "Loftiness" in the most startling sense of the word, a cognizance and a penetration that cuts the soul as with a knife, of sympathy with what is seen and shown forth. We get something comparable to it in Dante but in nowhere else. Has any painter so sorrowful a look of love as in the final accents of his prelude?"

In another letter, a few months later, to his sister -
"I cannot think of it without feeling violently shaken, so elevated was I by it, so deeply moved. It was as if someone were speaking to me after many years about the problems that disturb me the most; naturally, not supplying the answer I would give, but the Christian answer, which, after all, has been the answer of stronger souls than the last two centuries of our epoch has produced. When listening to such music, one lays Protestantism aside as well- I will not deny it, other really good music I, at other times, heard and loved, seems, against this, a misunderstanding"

And now two quotes from famous film-makers, found in Peter Lefanu's book, Believing In Film: Christianity In modern European Cinema -
"Culturally, I am a Christian. I've prayed two thousand rosaries I don't know how many times. All this has marked my life. I understand religious emotion. There are certain experiences of my childhood that I would give anything to enjoy again: the May liturgy, the locust trees in full bloom, the image of the Virgin surrounded by lights. These are, for me, unforgettable experiences."

Luis Bunuel, an Atheist -
"I believe I'll be able to show how this transformation of the sou can still occur, - but in secret. it will be expressed through images, and through the relationship between images and sound. Redemption isn't achieved in death; we don't know what happens after death. Redemption must occur now, while we're alive. Christ redeemed us with his death, but we must redeem ourselves with our lives. . For it is up to us to choose to be saved."-
Robert Bresson, a Catholic.

Finally, a quotation from a Conservative philosopher - "A belief means what it means to a believer" (Michael Oakeshott On Human Conduct)

New Gods For Old?

Early in his life, Nietzsche was a friend and an admirer of Richard Wagner; this friendship and admiration were reciprocated by the composer. However, later in their lives, this friendship and admiration turned towards hatred and contempt, at least on Nietzche's part. In Nietzsche Contra Wagner, "Zarathrusa" bitterly attacked Wagner for betraying his art.

As far as is known, no reconciliation ever took place. Therefore, it seems remarkable that Nietzsche should have been so overwhelmed by the splendor of the prelude to Wagner's most explicitly "Christian" opera, Parsifal.

On second thought, it may not be so remarkable at all. All but the intransigent "secular humanists" often confess to being deeply moved by "religious" art, music and poetry, whether it be the cathedral of Chartres, Parsifal, the Bhagavad Gita, or the poems of Rumi. T.S.Eliot wrote The Waste Land when he was still a non-believer, but he ended his vision of modern apathy and futility by invoking Augustine's Confessions and The Buddha's 'Fire sermon'. The poem ends with the sacred Hindu words, "Shantih, Shantih, Shantih", "the peace that passeth understanding". We quoted Bunuel. Bunuel was a fierce, proud atheist, whose films often mocked Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. Yet even the director of such films as Viridiana, Belle Du Jour, The Milky Way, and The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie said his rosary and went to confession.

The profound spiritual disquiet and anxiety felt by many non-believers, are felt in a different way, by many believers. Centuries ago, in The Bible, the psalmist asked "How shall I sing The lord's song in a strange land ?" One does not have to be a Jew in captivity in Babylon to ask a similar question. As the quote from Bresson indicates. Many religious people want to find a way to make their faith intelligible to a rapidly changing world and are seeking new ways of giving voice to their faith. As a Christin, Bresson wants to make the Christian idea of salvation relevant in everyday life. Adherents of its amher faiths, face a similar task. A famous Christian theologian named Stanley Hauerwas likes to say "outside the church, there is no salvation". At first blush, that may sound offensive. However, he is not saying that all other religions are false he is simply saying that the idea of "salvation" makes no sense outside of a Christian context. Similarly, a Buddhist could be justified in saying "outside of Buddhism there is no Nirvana", (Unless, of course, one is a fan of "grunge rock".)or a Moslem might be justified in saying, "outside of Islam, there is no Koran." At the same time, t, Hauerwas is making a different point. For a Christian, salvation is intelligible only when enacy=te in the practices of their faith, in "the church". The same is true of Moslems in a mosque, or Jewes in a synagogue, or other believers in their chosen places of worship.

All interesting. However, these arguments beg a question. How many "unbelievers" are really "unbelievers". Is it possible that many of the religious "nones" are inventing new ways of being religious, and building their kinds of churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and ashram. Recently, a fascinating book has argued that this is precisely what is happening. Many people, especially the young generation are trading in New Gods for old. That book will be our subject in the concluding section of this essay.