Thursday, December 13, 2007

Camille Paglia on Secularism

Paglia is an atheist, but she wasn't disturbed by Romney's attack on secularists last week -- she freely admits that America was founded by Christians (or, rather, deists). Rather, she is disturbed by the failure of secularism and the resulting spiritual vacuum.

This is from her article in Salon:

Romney's move may have been tactically necessary to counter evangelical Protestants' rejection of Mormonism as a cult, but the speech wasn't as conceptually developed as it should have been. As an atheist, I wasn't offended by Romney's omission of nonbelievers from his narrative of American history. On the contrary, I agree with him that the founders of the U.S. social experiment were Christians (even if many were intellectual deists) and that our separation of church and state entails the rejection of an official, government-sanctioned creed rather than the obligatory erasure of references to God in civic life.

But what does Romney mean by the ongoing threat of a new "religion of secularism"? The latter term needs amplification and qualification. In my lecture on religion and the arts in America earlier this year at Colorado College, I argued that secular humanism has failed, that the avant-garde is dead, and that liberals must start acknowledging the impoverished culture that my 1960s generation has left to the young. Atheism alone is a rotting corpse. I substitute art and nature for God -- the grandeur of man and the vast mystery of the universe.

But primary and secondary education, which should provide an entree to great art and thought, has declined into trivialities and narcissistic exercises in self-esteem. Popular culture, once emotionally vibrant and collective in impact (from Hollywood movies to rock music), has waned into flashy, transient niche entertainment. The young, who are masters of ever-evolving personal technology, are besieged by the siren call of materialism. In this climate, it is selfish and shortsighted for liberals to automatically define religion as a social problem that needs suppression or eradication. Without spirituality in some form, people will anesthetize themselves with drink or drugs -- including the tranquilizers that seem near universal among the status-addled professional class of the Northeastern elite.

Europe, which has settled into a comfortable secularism, is no model for the future. The great era of European achievement in arts and letters seems to be over. There are local luminaries but no towering figures any longer of the stature of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or Ingmar Bergman. Europe is becoming a museum and tourist trap, as people from all over the world flock to see the remnants of Europe's royal and religious past -- the conservative prelude, in other words, to today's slack liberalism.

Searching, for example, for online news about Italy in recent years, I've been dismayed by its near-total domination by soccer, with archaeological discoveries and the restoration of Old Master paintings coming in second. The pope flits hither and thither, but that's it. Is there nothing new in post-Fellini Italian culture? It's as if Europe, struggling to incorporate massive Muslim immigration, has retreated into a bubble where the beautiful artifices of the past float like a mirage. Secularism evidently cannot stimulate creativity as profoundly as religion does -- whether in the artist's soaring affirmation or angry resistance.

Nevertheless, the pervasiveness of religion in American politics is becoming a tedious distraction from urgent social problems like healthcare. I detest sanctimony in any form -- from the unctuous piety of smarmy televangelists to ostentatious badge-wearing (such as the gold-cross necklace that Hillary Clinton was regularly flaunting around Capitol Hill). Religious protestations are now a rote formula for asserting family values and opposing moral relativism, with which the Democrats have been tagged since the hedonistic '60s. One reason religion is so intrusive in the United States is because of the mammoth institutional power of our mass media, which is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Religion has become a prophetic voice crying in the wilderness against our Hollywood Babylon.

In some ways, Paglia is making the same arguments that Huston Smith is trying to make in What Religion Matters, but rather than conflate all materialism into scientism, as Smith does, Paglia rightly targets the mass culture. The scientism that Smith abhors could not exist without a spiritual void in this country that is largely created by the cultural obsession with all things trivial.

I think she over-generalizes a bit in this section of her article, but I'm sympathetic with her views.


~C4Chaos said...

cool! excellent quote from Paglia. i agree with you that she over generalize a bit. but she's viewing things from the lens of humanities.

here are some views that Paglia may or may not agree with.

"The inconvenient truth is that the West should be exporting secularism around the world before it exports democracy. Democracy implies not just one person one vote but—no less important—that the political process proceeds by rational means, by argument, by persuasion, and is based on knowledge that is as objective, as scientific, as one can make it. The objective knowledge has to come first."

Here’s an improvement on democracy | Peter Watson - Times Online

“Religiosity now seems at least as important for public office as leadership qualities,” said Karl Kaiser, a German political scientist. “The entrance condition for the American presidential race is being religious. If you’re not, you have no chance, which troubles Europeans.”

Secular Europe’s Merits - New York Times

Anonymous said...


I'm afraid you employ non sequitors in your comment.

The United States cannot export secularism. We are not a secular country. No country, U.S. included, that in one of its founding documents -- the Declaration of Independence -- declares that rights come from God, not government, can be considered "secular".

That's your first quote. As for your odd second one, why don't you find a president in our history that talks atheism. And then the esteemed Mr. Kaiser may have a point. Maybe.

Bill -- nice post.