Sunday, October 25, 2009

On Religion

An aging libertine, such as myself, is perhaps a poor champion for organized religion, in general or in any of its specific manifestations.


I was raised Catholic and the epic weirdness of that faith is as much a part of me as my bones. Certainly my artwork is completely influenced by Catholic aesthetics, saturated colors, twisting bodies, ecstatic pain and painful ecstasy, incense and peppermints... While there isn't much of a Catholic intellectual tradition to speak of--certainly not compared to the towering traditions in Judaism, Islam or, say, Buddhism-- there is a kind of ancient intensity to Catholicism that appeals to me. It is more a religion of images than words, sensual and visceral. We fetishize Christ's tormented body, his blood. And at the height of our ritual we eat God, consuming His flesh and taking it inside of ourselves.

It is no accident we have the best art.

Philosophically too, I have been shaped (for better or worse) by Catholicism. For example, it employs paradoxes as a matter of course: God is one and also three, Mary is both Mother and Virgin, Christ is both God and man, etc. So from an early age I understood at a deep level that seeming opposites could co-exist without negating one another --a surprisingly elastic world view that has served me well.

So, despite the fact that I do not attend mass, it would be disingenuous to refer to myself as an "ex-Catholic", or in a joking way, a "recovering Catholic" because it would mean inserting a wedge of ironic distance between Catholicism and myself, and therefore denying its influence on me. But I am talking here about the faith, which I distinguish from the Church. I have fundamental differences with the Catholic Church about sex, sexuality, the infallibility of the Pope in matters of faith, the role of women in the church, and so on. Not to mention my strong feelings of disgust over the history of Catholic complicity in colonialism and more recent abuses like political opposition to same-sex marriage, the shielding of pedophile priests from legal prosecution etc. etc. etc.

All of which is to say that my relationship with religion is complicated.

In general, I find public displays of faith discomfiting, usually because they seem to require something of me that I am unprepared to give. My relationship with the Divine is private and I don't want to explore it in public. Besides, religion is so often employed to disguise and justify xenophobia, that I am reticent to praise it, even in the abstract. And I have no investment whatsoever in getting anyone else to sign on to my perceptions about religion in the sense of missionary conversion.


As easy as it is to find horrific examples of adherence to the belief in one God used as a weapon, you can also find examples of that belief employed as a positive force, not only on individuals, but on society. For example, millions of 12-step members, whether they are affiliated with an organized religion or not, surrender to the notion of a higher power, over which they have no control, and are healed by it. In the post-enlightenment West the notion of submission to God is difficult to reconcile, which is the source of many uninformed knee-jerk critiques of Islam. But if considered honestly we can see that this concept has also had undeniable benefits.

The current wave of new atheist literature by European figures such as Richard Dawkins exemplify the mistaken notion that atheism is the final refuge of rational men. These discourse seem to suggest that if religion were to suddenly disappear then the ills that have been perpetrated in its name would go along with it. This seems to me a terribly naive idea. The simplistic notion that organized religion is the root of divisions between people and cultures is a cartoonish oversimplification that denies the political dimension to such dealings. If men and women have used religious doctrine to marginalize, attack and destroy one another and those doctrines were suddenly unavailable, they would simply use another ideology to do the same thing. For example, atheists like Hawkins and Hitchens, etc. prove that ideologies that have nothing to do with religious faith or philosophy can be used to perpetuate division and reinforce hierarchies. The blatant Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism of the new breed of European atheists is as dangerous as anything the televangelists are cooking up.

Perhaps it would be more proper to say then that ideology--whether it is religious, political or cultural-- can be used to incite violence, torment and exclude those who fall outside the limits it imposes. To give organized religion (any organized religion) the entire credit for messing up the world, is a partisan political statement and should be understood as such.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece. It's so easy to use religion to fuel our less-noble impulses and so hard to live the way our holy books really want us to. Ah, paradoxes.