Over on the ABC Religion & Ethics Twitter stream, there’s an open discussion about the extent to which religious leaders should take specific policy positions on issues like climate change and gay marriage. For various reasons, I have a locked down Twitter account at the moment, so I thought I’d scratch out my thoughts here.
Following the revelation that the Secular Party is a racist ‘Ban the Burqa’ party in disguise, I cast my mind to the peculiar social phenomenon regarding pop-atheist critiques of Islam. It runs something like this:
Pop-atheist identifies an unpleasant aspect of Islam which has a direct comparison in non-Islamic society.
Pop-atheist damns Islam for having the unpleasant aspect.
Following my post about Dawkins’ strange take on what constitutes racism, a friend asked me why Islam was a major target of New Atheists. The answer is strangely complicated but, fortunately, overlaps with one of my projects to map out a history of New Atheism.
Before jumping to the complicated answer, we have to show why we should reject the simple answer: Islam is a major religion; New Atheists criticise all religions; so therefore New Atheists criticise Islam.
Of the four largest world religions, Islam and Christianity are the two which are routinely attacked by New Atheists. The next two largest religions, Buddhism and Hinduism are rarely mentioned. This isn’t an equal opportunity hosing down of religions. There’s something else that is making Islam and Christianity the major targets.
Christianity is easiest to explain: historically, it is the religion which has attracted the opposition from atheists. Indeed, it’s difficult to understand the centuries-long history of atheism without reference to Christianity. (SPOILERS: By the end of this blog post, we’ll see that New Atheism isn’t actually engaged in this history.)
But Islam doesn’t have a similar history. From the example of Christianity (the reasons are socio-political and historical), we should expect the reason for New Atheism’s response to Islam.
To uncover that reason, we need a solid understanding of what New Atheism is and how it works. We can then see what features of Islam cause it to be of particular interest to New Atheists.
‘The burden of proof is on you to prove your claim!’
Just about every conversation about atheism ends up with somebody asserting the other person has the burden of proving their claim. The most commonly asserted ‘rule’ is that the person making an assertion has the burden of proving the assertion true. ‘After all,’ they say, ‘You can’t prove a negative!’
I have lost count of times I’ve had to patiently explain to the other person that it’s a bogus rule. Oddly, instead of having anybody engage in the question of whether it’s a reasonable rule, I’m almost immediately dismissed as a theist (which is quite strange, given that I’m an atheist).
So I’ve written this entry so I can just link to it and call it a day. Feel welcome to do the same. Also: a shout out to BL who first encountered me when I was an insufferable atheist undergrad who could parrot all the standard pop-atheist lines and knocked them out of me. Being an atheist who can defend their views is difficult work, something our current generation of megaphone atheists simply do not appreciate.
After these many days, Adam said to Mark: ‘You should check out this article by Greg Sheridan in The Australian for I agree with it. Ping Rachel Baxendale.’ And Mark, who was called Mark, agreed that he should check it out but disagreed with the argument. Adam thought Mark’s disagreement was unwise and told him to be a grown up. And there arose a paroxysmos between them, so they decided to duel blogs on the issue. [Source]
It’s hard work being a right wing columnist in Australia. Day after day, you need to pump out your column inches just to fend off all the bright young things aspiring to topple you off your tree. Although Greg Sheridan is already out of his tree, following his argument regarding the Catholic mass proves to be quite difficult.
The article was hardly off to a flying start:
Tony Abbott remarked recently that the great silence about our indigenous inheritance has been blessedly banished, but that substituting for it now is a new silence about our inheritance from Western civilisation.
‘Remarked recently’. ‘Indigenous inheritance’. ‘Blessedly banished’. ‘Substituting… now … new … silence’. The author of this ugly, barbaric sentence is about to lecture us in aesthetics. Hold on tight.
Sheridan is a great fan of the culture wars. Don’t let me deceive you — I think Greg Sheridan and I share a number of views on the importance of understanding ‘our inheritance from Western civilisation’. Unlike Sheridan, I don’t think this is a zero sum game. I don’t think that there is something to regret from affirming other cultural histories. I don’t think all the other cultures are desperately trying to tear down my history.
Having expressed the concern that we are becoming disconnected from our cultural past, Sheridan focuses the conversation on ‘suburban Catholic mass’. The new Pope, he claims, is pushing for an ‘evangelising church’. Sheridan suspects this arises from the Pope’s contact with protestant missionaries in Latin America.
The religious message these movements preach is similar to Catholicism, but the style is much more vigorous. After attending a range of suburban masses in recent years, I am struck by their evangelical timidity, mid-register blandness and cultural confusion.
I didn’t edit a part out there. Sheridan has jumped straight from discussion about the ‘style’ of missionaries in Latin America into a comment on the evangelical timidity, mid-register blandness and cultural confusion of suburban churches. Remember, this guy is about to get fiery about aesthetics…
Until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Catholic worship was austere but deeply beautiful. It was conducted in Latin (the English translation was printed in the missals). It created a spirit of awe and reverence; its musical tradition was sublime.
So Sheridan has created three quite distinct archetypes: the evangelical vigor of the Latin American protestants, the mid-register blandness of suburbian Catholicism, and the austere but deeply beautiful worship of 1960s Catholics. Now watch the cups spin ’round.
In purely cultural terms, few human creations are more beautiful than Gregorian chant – plain, melodious, rich, serene.
In purely cultural terms. Purely cultural. What does that even mean here? Further, which people back in the 1960s were singing Gregorian chants? The congregation? I can still sing a mean Kyrie but does Sheridan really think this is a skill shared by the faithful?
So Sheridan has created this pseudo-history convenient to his argument. Back in the past, there was this austere but deeply beautiful worship of 1960s Catholics, but:
But in the effort to be culturally hip and contemporary, the mass, in Western countries at least, adopted a kind of folk informality that militates against the sublime, the reverential, the transcendent. The worst mistake was to adopt the folk music idiom of the 60s and 70s for church hymns. This idiom is deeply unmusical and has produced nothing lasting. Folk hymns now are mournful, wholly unmemorable, frequently banal in their lyrics. In desperation, parish priests flee to other styles of music, but this is sometimes even worse, muzak recordings, pop-easy listening hits with a vaguely religious sentiment.
And here we have the problem. Sheridan has seen a shift away from his archetype as an attack on his beloved archetype. We saw this argument structure earlier: a shift towards other cultures was an attack against his own. In Sheridan’s world, the Church was given a menu of options and caved to left wing pressures to select the option which most obliterated the connexion between history and the present.
This is like the Dan Brown of liturgical commentary.
But Sheridan doesn’t stick here. Remember, we have three archetypes in play.
Recently I attended an evangelical Protestant service and the contrast was stunning. The evangelicals don’t aim for the sublime and reverent but rather the energetic and uplifting. They approach the music as a central part of their church service, while the preacher speaks with passionate commitment, drawing freely on their own inner life. This may not be typical, but it was culturally coherent, the aesthetics and sensuous aspects of the worship supporting the religious sentiment. The middle-ground blandness of many parishes now seems exactly the wrong compromise.
So Sheridan’s answer to the conundrum he has baked is to opt, in lieu of the sublime and beautiful, for the entertaining. ‘Energetic and uplifting’ is the aesthetic supporting the religious sentiment.
Theology and atheology in popular culture is suffering from painful vacuity. We are not a culture that can grapple with the big issues and really nut them out. My recent reviews of films and whatnot which analyse my reception has been criticised by a few friends because I should, in their words, ‘switch off’. We have entertainment not to heighten our experience of the world, not to enrich our understanding of our world, but to dull our senses. Opiate of the masses, indeed.
Why, then, would you want this same kind of entertainment to infiltrate religious services? Why should the emphasis of a religious service be on entertaining the congregation rather than trying to reconnect them to the sense of the divine?
If unfunny comedians are the cancer killing pop-atheism, energetic music is the cancer killing protestant church services. It is just so unspeakably awful.
A bit of personal background: I used to play the organ and keyboard for the local mass. I was the only atheist who ever did so. When I moved to an Anglican school, I was the only atheist on the chapel committee. The music might be more bland at the Catholic mass, but it’s a damn sight better than the ‘Pop song with one key word changed to “God”‘ approach. The latter is more energetic and uplifting, but it does not provide the intellectual space for reflexion on the divine.
Or, in my case, the opportunity to reflect on what it meant to be an atheist.
Ignore the rest of Sheridan’s waffly garbage. Let’s get to the heart of what Sheridan got wrong: the purpose of sacred music.
For some background, we can turn to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, particularly the Sacrosanctum Concilium.
112. The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.
Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song, and the same may be said of the fathers of the Church and of the Roman pontiffs who in recent times, led by St. Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.
Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship.
It’s hard to see protestant ‘energetic and uplifting’ songs meet the measure of ‘greater solemnity’. There’s nothing solemn about the soft rock hymn ‘I’ve been forgiven, I’ve been set free, restored and sanctified, my God has set me free…’. The ‘hymn’ is flatly ridiculous. Or that other hymn which stole the music from the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West. That was funny, not solemn.
Sheridan doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of what sacred music is about. While pining for the good old days when everybody’d gather around the pipe organ for a rattling out of some Gregorian chanting, he forgets the reason why we had to shift. Again, from Sac.Conc.:
114. The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches; but bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs, as laid down in Art. 28 and 30.
So there are two main requirements for sacred music: that it is solemn and that the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute. Gregorian Chant fails the latter; protestant Christian rock fails the former.
But let’s scroll back to Sheridan’s earliest comments about the Pope being from Latin America. Again, Sac.Conc. has Sheridan’s puzzle solved long before Sheridan started navel gazing:
119. In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius, as indicated in Art. 39 and 40.
Therefore, when missionaries are being given training in music, every effort should be made to see that they become competent in promoting the traditional music of these peoples, both in schools and in sacred services, as far as may be practicable.
The problem with modern hymns is not that they are boring, but that they do not celebrate our musical traditions. The solution is not to go down the fancy path of ‘energetic and uplifting’ songs, but to go down the path of rediscovering our musical heritage as it is understood in the modern context. We should have the most beautiful English language hymns which reflect the solemnity of the Catholic mass and which allow the whole body of the faithful to contribute.
‘I’m Greg Sheridan and I am bored’ is not a helpful piece of commentary on the aesthetics of religious worship.
Admittedly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sheridan hadn’t read the background texts before passing comment. Here’s my copy:
Look, the part where Sheridan and I agree is the lack of beauty in modern culture. But our society is not currently geared towards having nice things like Latin mass. School children are not forced to study Latin (despite my Tweets to Andrew Leigh). And the broader population is seeking something new in its connexion with the divine. It’s seeking a new form of meaning which Gregorian chant simply does not provide. Hell, a few years ago, a bunch of monks released pop songs in Gregorian chant form.
Yeah. Totally sublime.
We need to recapture what was important in our cultural tradition. Too many conservatives think that we need to preserve every last detail and ensure they are repeated in perpetuity. But we need to remember why the Church uses Latin in the first place: to connect with the ordinary people. The Vulgate connected them with what was beautiful in Scripture. A modern hymn should connect ordinary people with what is beautiful about the Church.
We’re not living in the 1960s, Sheridan. It’s time to buy a new calendar.
So we have a new Pope and he’s totally a Jesuit. A Jesuit. From the Society of Jesus. Didn’t Dan Brown say something about Jesuits? Weren’t Jesuits another name for Opus Dei, the Illuminati, and the Reptile Lizard People? Wasn’t Tony Abbott advised by an influential Jesuit?
For an institution as old and as influential as it is, it is strange that the Catholic Church is so poorly understood and so often misrepresented. Misunderstandings and misrepresentations of theology are understandable; theology is difficult and popular culture has neither the time nor the inclination to grasp its subtleties. It’s why Dawkins can sit on Australian television guffawing about Cardinel Pell’s grasp of human evolution, while simultaneously making stupid comments about how Catholics understand the concept of the soul. Knowing about science is Important, but knowing about theology is a Waste of Time (especially, it seems, for people who write books with titles like God Is Not Great and The God Delusion).
But misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the Church itself seem less understandable. Perhaps it’s because of the huge amount of anti-Catholic propaganda circulating the place. Perhaps it’s because the Catholic Church has a history of not being entirely open about its wheelings and dealings. And perhaps it’s because people just like to think the worst about large organisations and powerful individuals.
When Pope Benedict XVI declared his intent to resign, social media went into meltdown. ‘The Pope?! Resigning?! Can the Pope resign?!’ I had a rather testy exchange with Alan Fisher, a senior journalist with Al Jazeera, when he added to the noise of ‘Oh, wow! How is this even happening?!’ His role, I argued, was not to be as ignorant as the average punter, but to be a source of information for the average punter. He disagreed, figuring that the media was supposed to be a mirror of public reaction or some crap. But when the media appears to be mystified by the mysteries of the Church, how is the ordinary public supposed to keep up? (More cynically, I think they feign mystification in order to hype up the news: ‘The Catholic Church acted in a way contrary to ignorant public expectation; this is extraordinary news! Click here! Retweet this! Linkbait! Linkbaaaait!’)
But problems with Pope Benedict XVI’s image went further than mere astonishment at everything he did. He had significant image difficulties. This shouldn’t have been a problem, given that he was a man of substance — but when the wider world gets its information in 2-second bites, looking like Emperor Palpatine did more to influence public perception than anything written in an encyclical.
Perhaps that’s a bit unfair. It also appears to be true that the wider world wants nothing more than a non-Catholic Pope. ‘This Pope is anti-condoms, homophobic, and believes in the resurrection of Jesus?! Way to stay in the Dark Ages, Catholic Church.’ It is strange to compare the Pope with the Dalai Lama; while the Dalai Lama is homophobic and occupies a weird place in Tibetan politics, he gets the benefit of being a smiling, goofy-looking Asian. Pope John Paul II was an Old, White Guy. Pope Benedict XVI was formerly of the Hitler Youth or something. And while the Dalai Lama occupies a fantasy role in the lives of hundreds of thousands of white Buddhists (who totally think it’s a philosophy and not a religion, and who think they can pick and choose the bits which affirm their affectations), the Pope is Catholic. Horribly, horribly Catholic.
Somewhere in this space is the attitude that you don’t need to understand the Catholic Church in order to criticise it. Child abuse! Anti-condoms! Dan Brown! But it could also be that we feel it’s not possible not to know something so omnipresent and influential.
The Church has a lot of problems to resolve, and it needs to resolve them quickly. The problem of child abuse (and abuse in general) has a systemic and long-standing problem, and an academic Pope might not be the best person to address those needs. But the problem needs to be understood before it can be solved: is the problem that there’s abuse within the Church, or that the Church knew about the abuse and did nothing, or that the Church knew about the abuse and covered it up, or that the Church suspected the abuse but had structures which tried to avoid addressing the issues, or &c.? When the prevailing attitude is ‘Boo! Catholics!’ it is difficult to nut out the problem of abuse. I hope that the Catholic Church in Australia engages with these questions. Given some of the people responsible for engaging with the Royal Commission, I think that there’s a good chance of that happening. In fairness, although the Catholic Church has had some of histories finest apologists, the Church itself has never been sufficiently apologetic for its past and current crimes.
But part of the solution has to be a reengagement with the community. The Church has become like an estranged father, shadow looming over the community as it tries to rebel. The image problems, the conspiracy theories, and, now, the questions about what it means for a Jesuit to be CEO of the Corp are symptoms of the disconnect.
And this is all said by a devout and practicing atheist. A healthy, open, and connected Church is in the interests of everybody, not just Catholics. I hope that Pope Francis is capable of the task.
We need to get something out of the way: Australia is not Syria.
I know. You’re probably shocked at this revelation. You were probably sitting at work in your office, going slightly grey under the fluorescent lights, contemplating going for another coffee, and thinking: ‘Shit, I can’t work it out. Am I in Australia or am I in Syria? They’re so alike.’
No. Australia is not Syria. Australia is not even close to being Syria. No policy implementation exists which could increase the risk of Australia being Syria. Australia is not Syria.
Now that we’ve got that controversial point out of the way, we can talk about freedom of speech.
The language we use to describe our rights often reveals our biases and assumptions. ‘Freedom of speech’. It sounds so noble but it hides a lot of implications. ‘Freedom of speech, even if that means offending.’ ‘Freedom of speech, even if that means a group of people don’t feel welcome in society.’ ‘Freedom of speech, even if that means putting people in danger.’
Make no mistake, Wilders has nothing new or interesting to say on the topic of Islam. But in an ideal world we would welcome him to Australia with open arms so he can be torn to shreds in the arena of public debate.
What he’s really saying is that tearing Wilders to shreds in the parry and thrust of public debate is more important than the right of Australian Muslims to go about their lives here in Australia unmolested by racist cranks. A lot of our debate about freedom of speech is really about normalising or silencing the problem of externalisation: somebody else pays the price of our pursuit of particular rights. As I said in a recent post, nobody can say anything — short of making absurd death threats or shocking me with praise of Osama bin Laden — which will upset me in the same way I can upset somebody who’s religious, or homosexual, or an ethnic minority, or any other marginalised group.
Most people accept that defamation is a legitimate restriction on the freedom of speech. You can’t use your freedom to damage the reputation of somebody else. If ever there were a self-serving case of special pleading, I’ve yet to come across it. ‘Oh, protecting the interests of wealthy people who can afford to use the legal system is a legitimate restriction of free expression… but protecting the interest of marginalised people who are excluded from easy access to the legal system? No. That’s making us much more like Syria.’
Despite being an atheist, it’s no secret that I’m pro-Islam. I think it’s a great religion, as far as religions go. It preserved the works of Aristotle, after all. I’m also a staunch pluralist (rather than secularist) and think it’s extremely important for the promotion of conservative values to make Australia as inclusive as possible.
But perhaps you don’t share my enthusiasm for inclusiveness. Perhaps you’re really attached to the idea that freedom of speech is not just an adolescent whinge.
I still think you should support anti-blasphemy laws.
On the one hand, you have the indignation and outrage of a large group of people who feel marginalised and excluded from mainstream public conversation. They are repeatedly told: ‘No, you don’t belong here. Your anger is illegitimate. Your outrage shows how uncivilised and backwards you are.’ In response, they look to the organs of state to protect them. They want some legislated protection from the excesses of ‘freedom of speech’. They want anti-blasphemy laws.
To define something is to limit it. So an anti-blasphemy law not only restricts freedom of speech in some way, it also restricts the informed conversation about blasphemy. It draws a circle around it.
Imagine if we had a law which said: ‘It is unlawful to perform an act in public which would, in the view of a reasonable person, insult, offend, ridicule, or humiliate a person or a group of people based on their religious beliefs (including atheism as a religious belief because it totally is)… except where the act is a good faith engagement in a scientific debate, or artistic production, or public debate, &c., &c.’
In one swift move, you have protected the most important aspects of freedom of speech — the right to have an open, honest, frank, and fearless debate — from the increasingly persuasive case of various minorities that they’re victimised in society by the assumptive pursuit of freedom of speech.
Thus, everybody should be in support of anti-blasphemy laws. They make a more inclusive society and they uphold the importance of free speech.