File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0106, message 54

Date: Wed, 13 Jun 2001 21:37:16 -0500
Subject: Re: Tantalizing times - arguing for atheism....

Steve, Hugh, Don, Don, Julie and all:

Just a few notes to follow up on the sublime subject of religion.

1. Steve, your notes on the topic of religion focused entirely on
theistic religion.  I thought my previous post made it clear I was
talking about non-theistic religion.  Certainly, I think contemporary
scholarship agrees with me that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion and
that attempts to make it theistic merely represent a Western bias of
interpretation. In the case of Epicurus this is even more the case. 
After all, this is a materialistic philosopher who posited that the only
things existing are atoms and void and that the gods (at least according
to one current interpretation) were merely the images of a fulfilled and
blissful humanity. How do you derive theism from that! 

The only sense I can make of your argument is that you are attempting to
say these are really all hidden theisms, even though they claim to be
something else.  However, if that is true, how does atheism itself
escape from the "secretly theist" charge. (And if you think I am just
being obstinate, consider this is essentially a long-standing argument
that has been made about atheism by Etienne Gilson and others.)

2. Also, how do you reconcile yourself to the fact that something like
religion has been used in liberating, nonauthoritarian ways by such a
diverse lot as Blake, Shelley, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Bataille, Benjamin,
Artaud and others?  Why should we choose to limit the range of possible
experience in the name of "reason".

3. Isn't your whole argument concerning atheism and anti-theism closer
to being a modernist project, rather than an instance of postmodernism. 
It seems to me very close to the Enlightenment project which claimed the
objective development of science had refuted the claims of religion. Now
that the social, cultural and political assumptions inherent in this
epistemology have been made more explicit, science and reason no longer
seem to occupy such a privileged role.  You call it matter.  I call it
mater.  Who decides what is good? What is true? and upon what basis?  If
you cannot prove to me the validity of your arguments regarding atheism,
does that mean we have reached an aporia?  But isn't this very failure a
sign of the postmodern?  

4. I think religion is not merely an historical project or a grand
narrative, but an open project, one that is not yet unfinished.  In my
view, the various religions are attempts to answer various questions
differently framed - What must I do to be happy?  What must I do to have
a meaningful life?  What must I do to end this suffering?  What must I
do to be saved?  I don't think these questions have been answered yet. 
I also don't think they are solved by science, art, politics or our
cultural forms of entertainment.  If it is acknowledged that this is
true, then it seems necessary to acknowledge religion in some form or
another still remains an open possibility and this very possibility is
part of our postmodern situation, not merely a grand narrative.  For the
decline of the grand narrative does not preclude the religious journey
in which each one travels alone.  And the questions remain valid, even
if the answers do not.

5. I agree with Don that it is interesting that there are not more
postmodern discussions of religion. However, that doesn't preclude
attempting to do so here and now.  One of the reasons I think this is
important is because I am convinced that so-called good and evil is
usually a mystification of the root feeling of pleasure and pain as it
arises within a social context.  Even though Lyotard didn't write
explicitly about religion (accepting of course his projected work on
Augustine) his focus upon the libidinal touches on religion in many
respects.  I am not arguing here for a return to the spiritual, but
rather for a resurrection of the body.

6. Hugh raised a question concerning ataraxia.  Couldn't it be attained
through drugs? I think the answer to this question would be as follows. 
The use of a drug to attain such a state would remain a kinetic pleasure
since it is dependent on an external source. This does not make such a
drug bad.  It does raise the question though whether the side effects
would create greater pain and suffering in the long run which would
outweigh the immediate pleasure that is received. By this, I mean
addiction, dependency, toxicity and gradual withering of effects. 

7. Having acknowledged that, I would also add that a number of
historical researches have pointed to the evidence that there is a
long-standing relationship between drugs and religion.  I also think
that the current legislation regarding marijuana, peyote, LSD etc. is
basically a form of religious persecution.  I think the real fear that
underlies the prohibition on these drugs is the underlying fear that if
the population were allowed to use these drugs freely and openly, it
might have a devastating effect on the workforce and that the population
would become less subservient and more difficult to control.  

It is also interesting that the new brain research seem to be mapping
with some success those brain areas stimulated by various mystical and
religious experience.  This raises the question, whether or not these
experiences could be recreated in a way that would make them more
accessible. Although the down side of this points to Huxley's Brave New
World and the capitalist regulation of soma, it also points to a
possible radical transformation of consciousness.  

Part of the reason I don't want to give up on the God gene just yet is
that I feel in my gut that religion (in the good sense) opens us up to
the mystery of such radical experience in a way that implicitly calls
into question the social construction of the human. Hugh is right. 
Religion points to the imagination and our social imaginary.  I don't to
give this up by default to the Christian fundamentalists.  We need to
reclaim religion just as we need to reclaim politics.

8. This is also why I don't believe the question of religion can be
reduced to Leibniz' question "Why is there being and not rather
nothing?"  Many have argued that such a question can only arise in a
late theistic culture which has begun to doubt its own assertions. 
Previously, the question would be meaningless because the answer was
simple: God wished to share his divine treasure with us in a free,
gratuitous and loving act of creation.

It is only after God becomes problematic that the question begins to
show its force.  However, even then it is not necessarily the ultimate
question of metaphysics, as Heidegger would have it.  Sartre, for
example, argued that the real mystery is how nothingness comes to being
and not the other way around.  

There is another possibility.  Beyond cosmology, religion also appears
to reveal a possible state of bliss and happiness outside our normal
suffering. Perhaps this can be conceived as a process of rewriting our
sorrow. One need not believe in God the creator to believe such as state
possible.  I certainly find the evidence of this state communicated to
me through someone like Epicurus and even at times through old
pessimistic atheists like Beckett. (I also consider myself an atheist if
the truth be known. I just don't think atheism means the end of religion
and the triumph of reason.)  

I also find evidence of the state of which I have been speaking in
someone like Dante (whom Beckett also loved) and whom I still find
moving even though I don't participate in his Catholicism.  He still
moves me in ways that are not merely aesthetic, but which I would
consider religious. Here is what he says at the very end of his own
private journey through a shared imagination:

But these wings were not feathered for such flight
Save that my mind a sudden glory had assailed
And its wish was revealed to it in that light

But like a wheel whose motion nothing jars
Already my will and my desire were stilled
By the Love that moves the sun and other stars.


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