Thursday, May 2, 2013

What kind of modernist?

There is a paradox at the heart of a lot of modernism. On the one hand, many modernists argue that the world has changed and that art and religion need to change or to be changed to better respond to this changed world. (The word "modernity" is often used to describe the changed world while "modernism" is used to describe the strategy adopted in response to modernism.) At the same time, modernists argued and argue that we need to change the world.

Consider, for example,  Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss. These  two scientists argue that religion is no longer relevant in the modern world. But if that were true, religion would simply disappear the way calling cards, morning suits and spats have done. Instead, the opposite has happened. Every day, the percentage of religious people in the world increases. Atheists, meanwhile, are decreasing both as a percentage of the world's population and in absolute numbers. (Among other problems, atheists are much, much less likely to have children than believers.)

But Dawkins and Krauss face an even deeper problem, a problem they share with many, probably most, other modernists. You can see the problem in the following quote from Krauss:
Somehow people get the sense that religion is sacred – if you’ll forgive the pun – and nothing should be sacred. Everything is subject to discussion and that’s what makes life worthwhile. (Emphasis added.)
And there he runs against a brick wall for the vast majority of people cling to sacredness. In fact, we keep trying to make more and more things sacred. You can wish and hope and dream otherwise but the world simply will not be desacralized as long as there are human beings in it. And that is a rather staggering thing given how much the powerful forces of our society have tried.

A long time ago now, Voltaire and Casanova had an argument in which Voltaire took a position not unlike Krauss's. Casanova's response was to ask Voltaire what he meant to replace all the religion and superstition with once he had done away with it. I'm sure the question made no sense to Voltaire, just as it makes no sense to Dawkins and Krauss today. But history has vindicated Casanova. Take away religion, and people go charging for substitutes. And they tend to go for the most appalling nonsense when they do.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if you're familiar with the work of Eugene Genovese and his wife Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. He was a marxist, she was a feminist, but they both became quite conservative, in part, because of modernism's repudiation of religion in general and the Christian tradition.