In the current issue of Commonweal, Fr. Robert E. Lauder writes about his interview with Woody Allen, which is available here on our Web site. “As a long-time admirer of [Allen's] work I was already familiar with his general outlook, but I was still surprised at the extreme language he used to describe the pointlessness of human existence,” Fr. Lauder writes. The extremity of Allen’s pessimism is evident throughout the interview. For example, here:
Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament? That is what interests me the most.
[T]here are these oases, and life is horrible, but it is not relentlessly black from wire to wire. You can sit down and hear a Mozart symphony, or you can watch the Marx Brothers, and this will give you a pleasant escape for a while. And that is about the best that you can do…. I feel that one can come up with all these rationalizations and seemingly astute observations, but I think I said it well at the end of Deconstructing Harry: we all know the same truth; our lives consist of how we choose to distort it, and that’s it. Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.
In Allen’s version of nihilism, works of imagination provide a temporary refuge from the bleakness of the human condition. For another kind of nihilist, though, it is precisely the meagerness of the human imagination, the naturally narrow limits of human consciousness, that shelter us from the bleakness. In John Banville’s new novel The Infinities, an Olympian narrator says it is the ignorance of mortals that makes their existence bearable, if not blissful:
The secret of survival is a defective imagination. The inability of mortals to imagine things as they truly are is what allows them to live, since one momentary, unresisted glimpse of the world’s totality of suffering would annihilate them on the spot, like a whiff of the most lethal sewer gass.
In both of these accounts, the imagination is understood in pragmatic terms, under the sign of Darwin: What is the survival value of our capacity for amusement and distraction, or our incapacity for compassion? One recent answer to the New Atheists’ hatred for religion — an answer typically offered by an older breed of atheists and agnostics — is that religion, like art, is to be valued for its social function rather than as a rival to science. According to the Simon Blackburn (writing in the New Republic), this was the view of the philosopher R. G. Collingwood:
Although art as magic is not art proper, Collingwood accords it the greatest respect. He dismisses more brutally and contemptuously even than Wittgenstein the patronizing view, held by Frazer, Lévy-Bruhl, and other anthropologists of his time, that religion and magic simply amount to bad science, so that the “savage mind” is one lacking the most elementary knowledge of cause and effect. He also dismisses the ludicrous Freudian view that magic is a kind of neurosis in which the patient supposes that by wishing for a thing he can bring it about. Instead, Collingwood insists, surely correctly, that the end of magic is the raising and channeling of emotion: “magical activity is a kind of dynamo supplying the mechanism of practical life with the current that drives it.” Its true purpose is not, say, to avert natural catastrophes, but to “produce in men an emotional state of willingness to bear them with fortitude and hope.”
This attitude gave Collingwood an uncommon sympathy with religious ritual and practice, and a much more realistic understanding of its ongoing place in human life. He also enables us to see why the majority of people, including those like myself who have no religious attachments, are nevertheless embarrassed at the dogmatic contempt poured on religious practice by our more militant atheists. Every sane person recognizes at some level that dance, music, poetry, and ritual may be just what you need as you prepare to face a battle, or desolation, failure, grief, or death.
On this view, religion is essentially about ritual, and ritual provides motivation. This is very close to what the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas now seems to be saying. Famous as a contemporary exponent of neo-Kantian universalism, Habermas now concedes that the more modern societies scrub themselves clean of all religious commitments, the more trouble they have ginning up solidarity. Liberal secularism provides a good engine for progress, but it doesn’t supply its own fuel. (Stanley Fish succintly describes Habermas’s new position in this online New York Times column.) But even if it’s increasingly clear to Habermas that religion has something to offer secular society, it is not yet clear what secular society can afford to offer religion, save a grudging acknowledgment of its usefulness in providing citizens with a reason for égalité and fraternité. (Secular society has the liberté covered.) In a newly translated book titled An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-secular Age, Habermas says:
[T]he religious side must accept the authority of ‘natural’ reason as the fallible results of the institutionalized sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality. Conversely, secular reason may not set itself up as the judge concerning truths of faith, even though in the end it can accept as reasonable only what it can translate into its own, in principle universally accessible, discourses.
Habermas thinks that European secularism needs to be reminded of its historical roots in Christianity; it did not spring fully formed from Kant’s brow. Stanley Fish doesn’t see how such a reminder can provide secularism with what Habermas thinks it lacks. Fish writes:
Habermas gives us no reason (if you will pardon the word) to believe that such a reminder would be heeded and lead to reason’s being furnished with the motivation-for-solidarity it lacks. Why would secular reason, asked only to acknowledge a genealogical kinship with a form of thought it still compartmentalizes and condescends to, pay serious attention to what that form of thought has to offer? By Habermas’s own account the two great worldviews still remain far apart. Religions resist becoming happy participants in a companionable pluralism and insist on the rightness, for everyone, of their doctrines. Liberal rationality is committed to pluralism and cannot affirm the absolute rightness of anything except its own (empty) proceduralism.The borrowings and one-way concessions Habermas urges seem insufficient to effect a true and fruitful rapprochment. Nothing he proposes would remove the deficiency he acknowledges when he says that the “humanist self-confidence of a philosophical reason which thinks that it is capable of determining what is true and false” has been “shaken” by “the catastrophes of the twentieth century.” The edifice is not going to be propped up and made strong by something so weak as a reminder, and it is not clear at the end of a volume chock-full of rigorous and impassioned deliberations that secular reason can be saved. There is still something missing.
One problem with Habermas’s position, as Fish and others have pointed out, is that religion’s instrumental value may not survive its instrumentalization. It only works as a crutch so long as people believe it is more than a crutch. Even Woody Allen acknowledges that religious people may be happier than he is, on the condition that they are truly self-deceived. In his interview with Fr. Lauder, he recalls an encounter with Billy Graham:
Some people cope better than others. I was with Billy Graham once, and he said that even if it turned out in the end that there is no God and the universe is empty, he would still have had a better life than me. I understand that. If you can delude yourself by believing that there is some kind of Santa Claus out there who is going to bail you out in the end, then it will help you get through. Even if you are proven wrong in the end, you would have had a better life.
“If you can delude yourself…” Self-deception is not the same thing as pretending; to make oneself believe in something, it is not enough to make believe. Playacting won’t provide the social force that compensates for secularism’s inertia — but, as Fish argues, neither will a sincere faith that always yields to secular society whenever the two are in conflict. Pets rarely make good pack animals.