Contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins have attacked religion as a mere fiction. However, Richard Moss argues that the fictions of postmodern literature offer a more complex and subtle view of religion, one in which theology is seen as enriching world narratives.
With the rampant success of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, we have seen a new popularist attack on religion (mainly the Abrahamic ones, a specific detail Dawkins often neglects to mention in his more sweeping generalisations), with Dawkins sharing the iconoclastic limelight with other famous intellectuals such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, the late Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. The tenets of this neo-atheist movement shift from pundit to pundit, but the core propositions are simple:
- Religion is illogical and a fiction. Mythology is reduced to fairy tales. As a result, to be religious is a delusional state and damaging both a culture and an individual.
- Rational thinking and scientific endeavour have a salvific quality. A belief in science is the correct route for human progress. All things that can’t be shown to be empirically true are mistrusted.
- The vast majority of social and global maladies are a result of an uncritical and primitive acceptance of religious thinking.
While I’m not here to launch into a critique of neo-atheism (my preferred nomenclature), it has become apparent that Dawkins’ politics are problematic. Amidst the lack of academic rigour in his claims, he tweeted in August 2013 that “all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” With this statement in hand, one that tells us more about the westernisation of science than a fictionalised intellectual retardation of the Islamic world, can we really trust in the insights of a movement whose leader makes such rash and borderline racist claims? Do we feel uneasy when Dawkins’ attack on the very substance of belief itself reminds us of the proverbial baby and the bathwater? Must we be concerned when the biggest voice for rationalism has become embraced by the far right?
As with most things (as a literary scholar, I will admit to some bias here), a more measured and thoughtful insight into the relationship between religion and modernity can be found in literature. Postmodernist writers have long been incorporating the theological into texts, none more than the Archduke of Postmodernism himself, Thomas Pynchon.
Within his novels Pynchon rejects the notion of a redemptive secular world. Instead the theological is carefully mined and dissected for its revolutionary and rebellious power.
Pynchon, an author famous for impenetrable novels the size of cinderblocks and his not-quite-cool geeky eclecticism, has consistently been in a complex dialogue with the importance of religion in the world. Gravity’s Rainbow, V. and the slim-line The Crying of Lot 49, all display a distain for large power structures as characters become snarled up in sinister, paranoiac conspiracies. Throughout this critique, Pynchon gives these control systems theological structure, endowing them with the elitist attributes of Calvinism, and the paranoid “hidden knowledge” conspiratorial approaches of the Gnostics. Yet while insisting that an oppressive world – a particularly post-Enlightenment, technological and scientific world at that – is governed through theological modes, he also provides religious alternatives for resistance; Zen Buddhism, alchemical magic and animism are all deeply embedded across his corpus. Within his novels Pynchon rejects the notion of a redemptive secular world (the teleological notion of redemption itself is surely in the domain of religion anyhow), and instead pushes forwards towards a post-secular one, where the theological is carefully mined and dissected for its revolutionary and rebellious power.
Pynchon is not alone in his distrust of a secular world. Tony Kushner’s award winning play Angels in America shows the intrusions of a postmodern religious mode upon a right-wing and oppressive secular society. The refreshingly brilliant China Miéville fills his science fiction novels with an intriguing “outlaw theology” that underpins complex meditations of race and class warfare (for the former I recommend Kraken, and the latter, Perdito Street Station). Miéville himself is also quoted as ‘riffing’ on Pynchon in his work. Indeed, sci-fi has a long tradition of critiquing a secular, rationale-dependent form of scientism.
While the neo-atheists focus on the stifling fundamentalism of the American Bible belt, Islamophobia and biblical literalism, they neglect much more interesting religious uprisings happening in the world.
So as the more avant-garde twentieth and twenty-first century writers attempt to explore the value of the religious in an oppressive and secular world, so the world reflects such needs back. While the neo-atheists focus on the stifling fundamentalism of the American Bible belt, Islamophobia and biblical literalism, they neglect much more interesting religious uprisings happening in the world. Countless churches across the nation embark on charity work with a liberal and enlightened agenda that is far from the more typical right-wing image of the larger, organised Christian sects. Buddhist teachings can supposedly be used to help people cope with mental illness. In South America we see a rapid rise in so-called ‘liberation theology’, with evangelical and Catholic communities popping up in the favelas of Brazil, forging communities that resist the poverty-crime-misery narrative that has taken a hold there. In Mexico the Zapatista revolutionaries (more formally known as the Ejército Zapatista de Liberición Nacional; the Zapatista Army of National Liberation) are intrinsically linked to theorists in liberation theology, positing a Anarcho-leftist method of maintaining rights for the indigenous people of Mexico.
Overall, what writers such as Pynchon realise, and neo-atheists like Dawkins don’t, is that religion can be the bass-note of tradition, cultures and identity. To resist a religious world as a whole is to oppress and ride roughshod over a cultural world. When Dawkins promotes a science- led atheism, he misses out one key property of such a path forward: that a science-led secular world is a strictly singular and Western world. Perhaps the lack of Nobel Prizes from the non-Western world speaks of a particular sickness on our part, an obsession that Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow neatly describes as one of “analysis, division and death”. If modernity does indeed have a saving grace in an increasing bleak world, it is its tolerance for and acceptance of multi-culturalism, a belief in a pluralist, melting-pot sort of world. While Dawkins attempts to bludgeon the religion out of culture and identity, writers like Pynchon, Miéville, Kushner and countless others embrace how theology enriches and shapes world narratives, and show how religion is shifting into new, more fluid and relevant forms. I urge any who hasn’t to pick up a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow (as any who knows me will lament) and see the modernity of theology for what it is; not a binary, ‘new-Enlightenment’ bugbear, but a complex and deeply vital issue in the world. As Pychon writes:
this evensong, climaxing now with its rising fragment of some ancient scale, voices overlapping three- and fourfold, up, echoing, filling the entire hollow of the church—no counterfeit baby, no announcement of the Kingdom, not even a try at warming or lighting this terrible night, only, damn us, our scruffy obligatory little cry, our maximum reach outward (Gravity’s Rainbow)
Richard Moss recently submitted his doctoral thesis, entitled Towards a Preterite Theology: Resistance and Spirituality in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon. This explores the way in which Pynchon engages with theology, and proposes that Pynchon’s work displays a “total commitment to spiritual systems.”