Sunday, December 18, 2005

I finished Philip Roth's The Human Stain this morning and jotted a note down in the back of it, after reading a passage where Nathan Zuckerman looks at a crowd of people at a concert and considers the brevity of life:

From the rants of Portnoy to the nightsweats of David Kepesh to Nathan Zuckerman's ponderings of the fate of us all to his miserable, petulant, sour interview in The Guardian, has Philip Roth's fear of death ever matured or, lacking that, developed, advanced, improved, become interesting, become anything more than a shrill tinny howl of rage?

That wasn't all that rang through that interview. There was also this:

I ask him if he is religious. "I'm exactly the opposite of religious," he says. "I'm anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate the religious lies. It's all a big lie. Are you religious yourself?" he asks.

"No," I say, "but I'm sure that life would be easier if I was."

"Oh," he says. "I don't think so. I have such a huge dislike. It's not a neurotic thing, but the miserable record of religion. I don't even want to talk about it, it's not interesting to talk about the sheep referred to as believers. When I write, I'm alone. It's filled with fear and loneliness and anxiety - and I never needed religion to save me."

The grabber here as always is the "miserable record of religion" -- meaning of course that religion causes wars, etc., etc. The main objection I have here is that this idea is such a shallow and revealing fantasy -- namely, the belief, the John Lennon belief, that if there were no religion there would be no wars. As if the 20th Century didn't nail down the coffin on that lie: one athiest government after the next, from Stalin to Mao to Pol Pot, massacring their citizens by the millions. Can't say those people died because of religion, can you?

I will grant that religion makes a great excuse to kill people you don't like, but if you take it away they'll just find other reasons, maybe even more of them.

Here are some other reasons Roth was wrong, according to
Robert Winston.

1 comment:

Elizabeth M. said...

It doesn't seem to me that Winston is mounting a very strong defense of religion, though. His claim is that human beings have innate drives to compete, to reproduce, to live in social groups, to explore, and to have transcendent feelings (religious or artistic as the case may be) is another of those basic drives. So why should we not conclude that it's no more admirable to be religious than it is to have a child or participate in tribal aggression? The point of religion is moral compulsion -- if there's no requirement on some level to be religious, no reason why you "should" worship Jehovah, Christ, Allah, Krishna, etc, then indeed, it is something on the level of an aesthetic taste or genetic quirk, and if so, then so what?

To argue, as I think Winston does, that religious feelings are an inspiration for survival but not a cause of war is just to play around with definitions, like Sons of the Confederacy who don't want to admit that slavery was "the cause" of the American Civil War, so they claim it was "states' rights" instead. Same difference.