Tedious Faith

Grandpa simpson
And now, as a moving and profound personal testimony of faith in troubled times, we bring you a meandering story that doesn’t make much sense and isn’t going anywhere.

In debates about religion, there’s a point that atheists frequently concede. Yes, they say, religion is mistaken. It’s harmful. It’s irrational, contradictory, unsupported by evidence or logic, poorly understood by the bulk of its followers, poorly defended even by its most informed ones. But you have to admit, they say, it’s powerful. The ideas, the imagery, the hope it offers… it’s stirring stuff, even if it doesn’t hold up.

Well, sometimes that’s true.

But sometimes, it’s really, really not.

Sure, as an atheist I’ve felt the occasional twitch of, “This is kind of beautiful, I almost wish I believed it.” Mostly with religious music. When listening to shape- note or gospel or Mozart’s Requiem, I’ve sometimes had a twinge of Black Gospel Choir Makes Man Wish He Believed In All That God Bullshit.

But at other times, I really don’t. When debating with a believer whose ideas are an incoherent mess, for instance. When being preached at with bland, unoriginal platitudes. When watching an ad for sugary “inspirational” Christian music on late- night TV.

And when watching a “testimonial” video that would do Grandpa Simpson proud. A testament of faith so pointless, so unfocused, so self-involved, so completely devoid of content, it’s actually hilarious.

Like this one.

Video below the fold, since putting it above the fold mucks up my archives.

I think my favorite part is the dream, where her prophetic response to a friend’s serious illness (a mental illness, apparently) is to recount a long, meandering dream about boats, with heavy- handed symbolism about Jesus but no real purpose or point. I kept amusing myself by making up new bits for the dream. “And then my mother was on the boat, and she ate one of the tunafish sandwiches I had made for the twelve men, but she said I’d put too much mayonnaise in it…”

No, strike that. My favorite part is at the end, when she asks, “So when someone comes up to you and asks, ‘Where’s your Jesus now?,’ what are you going to tell him?”

Her own answer: A long, meandering, pointless dream about boats, apparently.

I don’t have any brilliant, cutting- edge point here. I think I just want to say this:

When brilliant, inspired artists get hold of religion, then sure, they can transform its ideas and imagery into something beautiful and powerful and stirring, even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense. But when mediocre artists get hold of religion, its ideas and imagery get transformed into vague, half-assed, wanna- be- inspiring pablum.

So it isn’t the religion that’s powerful and beautiful and stirring.

It’s the art.

Religion is just the hook that the art hangs its hat on.

And art can hang its hat pretty much anywhere.

Via GalleyCat.

Tedious Faith

15 thoughts on “Tedious Faith

  1. 1

    If anybody asks me “Where’s your Jesus now?”, I’ll tell them… “locked in the cupboard under the stairs”.
    Really. That’s where he is.
    “When listening to…… Mozart’s Requiem”
    I just take refuge in the fact that it’s written in latin, so I can sing along with “Tuba mirum”, oblivious to the fact that it’s probably all about Jesus (incidentally my brother once played the trombone solo that goes along with the vocal solo in that movement, it’s a great piece of music).
    Right now I’m listening to Rossini’s “Stabat Mater”, which I recently discovered hiding on the second disc of another requiem. I really like some of this old sacred music. Still, I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t be able to stomach it if I could understand the words.

  2. 2

    I’ve felt the same way myself many times. When I watch children singing about Jesus with tears in their eyes, I don’t find it beautiful, I find it disgusting that they are so emotionally invested in a lie.
    Similarly, when I meet a person so infused with faith that they cannot get out a sentences without mentioning God, I don’t find that inspiring; I feel regret that what could have been a real and interesting person has instead turned out to be an automaton.
    When I see a large crowd cheering, or crying, or praying, I feel bewildered to see the power of the herding instinct over us.
    When someone finds solace in religion, I feel disappointed that they were unable to pull through and come out the other side, and instead gave up on thinking in favour of self-delusion.
    There isn’t much that I find inspiring about the religous mentality. It’s powerful, that’s for sure, but in a rather scary kind of way.

  3. 3

    “sugary ‘inspirational’ Christian music on late- night TV.”
    Sugary, eh? I always thought, even when I was a Christian, that “bleached” was the best word for it, as if all the color had been removed from the music.

  4. 4

    Hehe, good point. I’m especially irritated/amused by wishy-washy, new age, DIY religions. I think the only reason they don’t get lampooned more is that it’s hard to make things up that are more ridiculous than the “genuine” article.
    But then I’m no artist either, so perhaps I shouldn’t be laughing!

  5. 5

    “Art” is often brought up as a Pro on the great list of Pros and Cons of Religion. (Mozart, apparently, balances out genocide. But I digress…)
    This argument is propounded as evidence that God inspires humans to their greatest achievements, and is often followed with: Show me one great piece of art inspired by atheism.
    Artistic people are artistic people, and it’s harder to stop them from creating than to find something that inspires them. That so much of humanity’s artistic energy has been channeled into religion is mere coincidence.

  6. 6

    Hmm. Great art inspired by atheism, eh? Well, what about the plays of Christopher Marlowe – playwright, probably spy, gay or at least bisexual in an age when gay sex was punishable by death, and an atheist when that was also punishable by (gosh) death. Admittedly he didn’t put atheism in his plays directly (hardly surprising, given he’d have been speedily executed if he had), but they’re certainly characterised by the same rebellious spirit that caused him to question established religious teachings even though he was risking his life to do so.
    Or how about George Eliot, who may have been fervently religious in her youth, but who was an atheist by the time she wrote all her great masterpieces, and whose works reveal a profound questioning of establishment thinking on just about every level?
    Or, if you want art directly inspired by atheist philosphy, how about Philip Pullman? The Dark Materials trilogy may be written for children, but so was Alice in Wonderland and that hasn’t stopped that becoming a classic.
    And the only reason I can’t come up with more of these is that, until very recently in historical terms, publicly announcing yourself as an atheist was a way to get yourself a heap of social condemnation at best, and death at worst. Still like that in some countries, sadly.
    And now I’m imagining the ensuing conversation:
    Religious person: But those people weren’t inspired by atheism! They would have made that art anyway.
    ErinM: Funny – that’s just what I was trying to say to you…

  7. 7

    … and is often followed with: Show me one great piece of art inspired by atheism.
    Well, not necessarily inspired by atheism itself, but there’s plenty of good stuff inspired by things and events other than God(s) or belief in God(s).
    Besides, a lot of that blather about religion inspiring all our greatest work, tends to come from people whose religion actually offers no inspiration at all (to me at least), and who don’t seem to care for any inspiration that comes from outside their belief/church/community.
    I’ve had my inspirations and ideas brushed off out of hand by religious zealots who said I was interfering with their spiritual high. Hey, to each his own, and it’s not like my ideas are required reading all over the English-speaking world; but I tend to get pretty closed to people who are that automatically closed to me.

  8. 8

    I guess that the idea behind religion are ‘powerful’ in so far as they are intuitive. They are kinda like a mental Mac OS X, while atheism is far more like a mental Linux (you are responsible for any bit of the configuration, you can trust distributors like Dawkins (probably the equivalent to Ubuntu)) or go ‘compile everything and anything yourself’ from the sources, you consider fitting. And, well, there is a reason, why Mac OS X has so many users (nothing against mac users, BTW, I just prefer to tweak my OS much more).

  9. 9

    Only late night Christina music I ever hear on the TV are ads for zombie cult CDs of various “favorites”, nearly 100% of which make me cringe.

  10. 10

    Just looking at it in Wikipedia:
    Atheism has inspired plenty of artists.
    Two favourites? George Carlin and Douglas Adams for homour.
    We get Terry Pratchet too apparently.
    Isaac Asimov, one of the three fathers of Sci-Fi (Thus in his own right, a master) is another example.
    George Eliot is yet another example.
    David Bowie, Bob Geldof (So much for atheists not being charitable) and Roger Waters.
    We also get Jack Nicholson, Noel Coward and Nigella Lawson (Yummy).
    And that is just some of the better known ones. This idea that atheism and art don’t go well together kind of doesn’t square with the evidence.

  11. 11

    Regarding the feelings generated by music – Read “This is Your Brain on Music” it directly addresses how your brain processes music and how those feelings, both happy and sad, are generated.
    Back when I believed, it was often music that reinforced my religious “feelings.” I now see the feelings as a natural response to the sounds for me. And I think I like the music even better, knowing that the skill of the composers and performers is directing my enjoyment.

  12. 13

    Religion is powerful is a pro? Hitler was powerful. Atilla the Hun was powerful. Atom bombs are powerful.
    Power alone is not a positive. Power is a notoriously corruptive influence.
    That religion is powerful seems to me to be more of a bug than a feature.

  13. 14

    Sorry, just a bit of a non-sequiter observation here, but did anyone else get wierded out by the fact that the lady in the video never finished the story about what happened to her friend? She mentioned that her friend was hospitalized for nerves (code for mental illness?) for about a year (so one _can_ assume she was discharged after that) but there doesn’t seem to be any indication as to what happened or how this woman felt about her friend’s illness. She talks about how her friend “fell into a darkness” and “took with her, our shared childhood.” But she goes on to talk about how she was comforted by the dream about the bearded dude (not Lebowski) and how she needed never to fear the dark metaphorical storm as long as he was there.
    This renewed faith in Jesus appears to be an end unto itself. But it almost seems as though she resented her friend (or the experience of having to deal with her friend’s illness) and was only able to turn things around in her head by rationalizing that it brought her closer to Jesus or something. It’s not uncommon. All too often people’s reaction to someone else’s psychological problems is to resent the inconvenience it causes them. But to have a vision of Jesus protecting you from someone else’s personal storm speaks of a very strange kind of faith to me.
    Kind of nitpicky I guess, but I watched that damned thing at a very early hour of the morning with a fairly high blood alcohol level, and I ain’t going to bed before I write this out. For all I know there’s a Pt 2 out there that explains everything, but I really don’t want to go looking for it right now.
    So was anyone else creeped out by this?

  14. 15

    Sorry for the self-linkage, but if anyone ever doubts that there have been great artists and authors among atheists, then I have a list of counterexamples. There are a lot of names on that list that the average person will readily recognize.
    And I love that line about art “hanging its hat” on religion. It’s a very true observation. When society was intensely religious, and when being underwritten by the church was practically the only way to make art as a living, of course most great works of art were religious in nature. All art reflects the dominant symbols and myths of its culture, really. But that’s just the medium in which those great artists chose to express themselves. Had they lived in an atheist culture, I’ve no doubt they would have taken their inspiration from that instead, and produced works of art that were different but equally sublime.

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