Religion and Humanism

Until recently, it was widely assumed in the West that the whole world was becoming ever more secular, and that religion would fade away or become a purely private matter as people embraced the rational, scientific worldview associated with liberal democracy and the market, or more radical humanist alternatives. But religion has not only resolutely failed to disappear: in recent years it appears to have made a comeback, sweeping the developing world and increasingly sparking controversy in the West. Debates rage about veils, religious hatred, creationism and so on. Religious extremism, and more generally ‘faith-based politics’ are seen as a threat to secular liberalism. Meanwhile, religious communities often feel under siege, with their values not recognised or respected by wider society.

The chief critics of religion today are not revolutionaries and reformers, but scientists and other rationalists – the so-called New Atheists – seemingly bewildered by people’s willingness to believe without evidence. Whereas progressive critics once argued that religion breeds passivity, detractors now worry that it inspires a little too much political activism and fosters conflict. With the political significance of religion and atheism seemingly in flux, the meaning of ‘humanism’ is up for grabs. These reviews and articles explore the shifting debate about religion and humanism as expressed in popular culture and the arts, as well as books and current affairs.

Friday 9 May 2008

Like imperialism? Love sharia

The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, by Noah Feldman (Princeton University Press)

What is of course excluded from this entire discussion is any reference to the most defining discourse in the Middle East: anti-imperialism.

Monday 21 April 2008

A poster-nun for the West

Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor (1997), directed by Kevin Connor

It is precisely this humanitarian culture of low expectations, of ministering to a romanticised poor, coupled with her reactionary social perspective, which endeared Mother Teresa to right-wing politicians in the West.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Let live or sacrifice?

Die Fälscher [The Counterfeiters] (2007), directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky

Both Sorowitsch and Burger are heroes in their own way, despite the fact that one is justified by social Darwinism and the other by political idealism. The director is almost trying to say that in the extreme horror created by the Nazi regime, the survival of a nation depended equally on physique and on reason.

Monday 17 March 2008

Don’t blame it on the Puritans

God Won't Save America, by George Walden

‘The truth about Puritanism is that it was a schizoid condition, whose contradictions are becoming more visible and revealing in America today than at any time in its history.’ - George Walden

Thursday 13 March 2008

What is (Jewish) literature?

'In Praise of Diasporas', Jewish Book Week, London, 2 March 2008

What is a Jewish book? The short answer might be that it’s a book by a Jewish writer, or perhaps a half-Jewish writer. Adam Thirwell says he feels half-Jewish, though it’s his mother who’s Jewish, which qualifies him to be wholly Jewish. But then, writing in the Jewish Quarterly (which is a quarter Jewish?), Thirwell says he doesn’t think there’s any such thing as Jewish literature, or presumably a Jewish book, any more than there’s such a thing as Italian literature – or an Italian book?

Tuesday 4 March 2008

The end of faith is not the answer (on romanticising reason)

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris / The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left, by Ed Husain

Leering under the surface of both these texts is a fear of ideology, of anything with a utopian tinge, and a tendency to merge having ideals with both these things. Rather than vetting individual beliefs for rationality, Harris would be better settling for rationality as a bearer of value and cornerstone of a broader world-view.

Reasoning out suicidal mass murder

The Second Plane, by Martin Amis

Martin Amis is one of an increasing number of intelligent independent minds who identify the paralysing malaise at the heart of Western liberalism brought sharply into focus by the paradigm shift created by the Islamist attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001. In his introduction to the current work Amis says that if this had to happen - the wake-up calls to the West - ‘then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime’.

Friday 3 August 2007

Hollywood’s ARK

Evan Almighty (2007), directed by Tom Shadyac

American studios’ productions always have included an element of moral education, promoting traditional values. Evan Almighty is in this tradition, and its weaknesses are not so the result of secularisation, as the increasing isolationism of American politics.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Liberalism is dead

Jesus Camp (2006), directed by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady

Evangelicals care more passionately about politics, and in greater numbers than their liberal counterparts. Their enormous fundraising power makes them a force to be reckoned with. Are they wrong to subject their children to brainwashing? Most certainly – but what alternative are kids being offered?

Wednesday 27 June 2007

Humanist cinema

Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki [When a Woman Ascends the Stairs] (1960), directed by Mikio Naruse

Naruse’s whole body of work, like those of many of his 1960s European fellow directors, finds in the life of woman a undying source of inspiration. The love the director has for his heroine is heartbreaking in its purity, making her appear like a goddess demanding respect simply by being.

Wednesday 30 May 2007

What’s left of Christianity?

The politics of belief in the 21st century

Just as the demise of the political left forces us to rethink what is at stake in politics, and how we might seek to shape the future, the transformation of religious thinking raises important questions about the meaning of truth and morality, the nature of authority, and indeed what it means to be human.

Wednesday 23 May 2007

Attitudes towards science and freedom

Häxan [Witchcraft Through the Ages] (1922), directed by Benjamin Christensen

Häxan couldn’t have been made without Freud. A short introduction to psychoanalysis later and the feeling becomes justified. First released in 1922, it is one of the first – and perhaps only – films of its kind. The unfortunate problem with this is that it makes Häxan difficult to judge.

Friday 4 May 2007

Censoring the unknown

El Topo (1970), directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

What made El Topo subversive enough to be deemed illegal in several countries was precisely the confusion between genres and modes of thinking, the incomplete allusions to allegory and myth, the heteroglot centres, the inclusion of the marginalised.

Wednesday 16 August 2006

Jesus: the Guantanamo Years

Underbelly, Edinburgh

The general problem is that irreverence about religion is just not intrinsically funny any more. The portrayal of Jesus’ ‘dad’ as a silly old duffer is maybe funny the first time, but in an overwhelmingly infidel society there is little edge to be had from such cheekiness.

Tuesday 8 August 2006

An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World

Pankaj Mishra

Mishra deftly situates the Buddha in the context of modern and ancient creeds, quoting many artists, scientists, and philosophers, including ‘Albert Einstein [who] called Buddhism the religion of the future since it was compatible with modern science’.

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A collection of essays edited by Culture Wars editor Dolan Cummings

Institute of Ideas with Bishopsgate Institute: Secularism 2008 Series

The resurrection of religion: Moving beyond secularism or losing faith in politics?
Alex Hochuli interviewed Catholic sociologist François Houtart about religion, secularism and radical politics.

Political Theology
A journal of religion and politics

British Humanist Association

Christian think tank

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