Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Culture As the New Sacrament

Philosopher Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists, extols the benefits of sacramental religion and suggests that the secular world would do well to imitate religion even if it rejects the basis for it. He proposes that culture could serve very well as an ersatz religion for those like him who've abandoned traditional forms of belief:
When religious belief began to fracture in Europe in the early nineteenth century, anguished questions were raised about how, in the absence of a Christian framework, people would manage to find meaning, understand themselves, behave in a moral fashion, forgive their fellow humans and confront their own mortality. And in answer, it was proposed by an influential faction that cultural works might henceforth be consulted in place of the biblical texts. Culture could replace scripture.

The hope was that culture might be no less effective than religion (which was understood to mean Christianity) in its ability to guide, humanise and console. Histories, paintings, philosophical ideas and fictional narratives could all be mined to yield lessons not far removed in their ethical tenor and emotional impact from those taught by the Bible. Moreover, such material would provide meaning unburdened by superstition.

The maxims of Marcus Aurelius, the poetry of Boccaccio, the operas of Wagner and the paintings of Turner could be secular society’s new sacraments.
Unfortunately for de Botton's thesis, the lessons of literature and philosophy are that life has no meaning, morality is an illusion, and human existence is pretty much "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The fruits of culture offer no hope if death is the end of conscious being, they offer no escape from the pain and despair of losing loved ones. That de Botton thinks they can make the meaningless meaningful is wishful thinking. It's as sad as it is futile.

Nevertheless, Professor de Botton soldiers on:
In his inaugural lecture at Oxford University in 1922, George Gordon, Merton Professor of Literature, emphasised the scale of the task that had fallen to his field: “England is sick, and …English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature now has a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State.”
One problem for de Botton here is that according to his worldview there is no soul. Nor is anyone "sick", at least not in an existential sense. We're just material beings and we are what we are. There's nothing that anyone can do about it, least of all a bunch of novelists. Literature can only describe the human condition, it can offer no remedies. Indeed, if atheism is true there are no remedies for the human predicament. All that culture can prescribe to us is to try to live our lives as if they have meaning even though every thoughtful person knows they don't.
Novels and historical narratives can adeptly impart moral instruction and edification. Great paintings do make suggestions about our requirements for happiness. Philosophy can usefully probe our anxieties and offer consolations. Literature can change our lives.

Equivalents to the ethical lessons of religion do lie scattered across the cultural canon. Why, then, does the notion of replacing religion with culture, of living according to the lessons of literature and art as believers will according to the lessons of faith, continue to sound so peculiar to us? Why are atheists not able to draw on culture with the same spontaneity and rigour which the religious apply to their holy texts?
Why someone as smart as de Botton can't see the answer to his question is mystifying. "Religion" offers moral instruction which effectively shapes human behavior because the moral commands are willed by an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being. They have authority. The moral prescriptions in literature are nothing more than one human being sharing his arbitrary moral sentiments with another.

In the absence of divine authority moral discourse is little more than a discussion about one's preferred flavor of ice cream. Moral declarations are simply pronouncements about one's tastes.

The consolations of naturalistic philosophy are like the consolations of a doctor to a dying patient who's in in great pain: "Yes, you're dying, but it's okay. Everybody has to go sometime. Yes, you're suffering but soon you'll be dead and then you won't hurt any more."

Atheists like de Botton realize that they stand at a fork in the road. One path leads to nihilism and the other to an irrational life lived as if God existed even though they refuse to believe that he does. Neither path is appealing but the third road, the road that leads to belief that there in fact is a personal, transcendent moral authority who invests life with meaning, purpose, and a ground for hope, is, oddly enough, even less so.

So, in their desperation to somehow inject meaning into their lives they embrace silly proposals like making culture the new sacrament, but it doesn't help. Only something transcendent can carry that weight. Only immortality can enable us to escape the absurd pointlessness of human existence. Only if what we do in this life matters forever does anything we do in this life matter at all.