The curious rise of anti-religious hysteria
It is the Anglo-American cultural elites' insecurity about their own values that encourages their frenzied attacks on religion.
The verdict of my son’s 10-year-old mates was that it was ‘not bad’, but a little bit ‘boring’. Maddie, a sassy nine-year-old, said it was ‘okay for young kids’ but it was not in the same league as King Kong. In a few years’ time, these kids will recall the unexceptional film that was Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and wonder why it attracted so much adult controversy.
The intense and venomous attacks on the Disney-produced Narnia film are truly puzzling. The novelist Phillip Pullman has described CS Lewis’ original book as ‘one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read’. With the zeal of a veteran cultural crusader Polly Toynbee of the UK Guardian cut straight to the chase: ‘Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion.’
What Toynbee seems to find most hateful about religion is that it is able to express a powerful sense of faith. ‘US born-agains are using the movie’, she warned. Many critics seem especially outraged by this prospect of religious organisations ‘using’ the film to promote their faith. The advocacy group Media Transparency warns that the film is based on a book that has a ‘frankly religious element’ – which is not really surprising when you consider that the author was a well-known publicist for Christianity. What is surprising, however, is that Christians promoting Christian propaganda should invite such bitter condemnation.
First there was the controversy provoked by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004, and now there is this censorious dismissal of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Both are testaments to a potent mood of intolerance towards expressions of religious faith in popular culture today. The artistic representation of religious conviction is frequently stigmatised with terms such as ‘fundamentalist’, ‘intolerant’, ‘dogmatic’, ‘exclusive’, ‘irrational’ or ‘right-wing’. As a secular humanist who is instinctively uncomfortable with zealot-like moralism, I am suspicious of the motives behind these doctrinaire denunciations of films with a religious message. Such fervour reminds me of the way that reactionaries in the past policed Hollywood for hints of blasphemy or expressions of ‘Un-American values’. Replacing the zealotry of religious intolerance with a secular version is hardly an enlightened alternative.
I wonder how today’s anti-religious crusaders would respond to The Nun’s Story, the 1959 film about a woman who gives up everything to become a nun? Would it be denounced as a subversive plot to manipulate the emotions of vulnerable girls? Or a conspiracy to give fundamentalism a human face? Might it be described as a sick film with a subliminal plot that promoted the ‘Just Say No’ campaign?
There is little doubt that if Ben Hur (1959, starring Charlton Heston) was released today it would be denounced as a shameless attempt to promote ‘muscular Christianity’. As for the wretched 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street! Its privileging of Christmas would be crucified as a crude example of the politics of exclusion. Instead of enjoying the acclaim of the cultural elites of old, films like The Robe, Quo Vadis or The Ten Commandments are today likely to be dismissed as insidious and disturbing religious propaganda.
Until recently, cultural expressions of religious faith were simply considered old-fashioned and gauche. But over the past decade, scorn has turned into bigotry and hatred.
It is a sign of the times that even some of the people associated with the making of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe self-consciously deny that the film has a Christian agenda. ‘We believe we have not made a religious movie’, said Dennis Rice, Disney’s senior vice president of publicity. Andrew Adamson, the film’s director, says the story’s obvious Christian message is ‘open to the audience to interpret’. ‘Faith is in the eyes of the beholder’, said actress Tilda Swinton, who plays the White Witch. This defensive response suggests that the alleged ‘muscular Christianity’ behind the film is in fact rather flabby. According to Stanley Mattson, president of the CS Lewis Foundation in Redlands, California, such defensiveness is understandable since today’s cultural elites tend to discredit anything judged ‘Christian’.
The attempts to dissociate the film from any explicit Christian project are not only motivated by commercial thinking. Despite the claims of the anti-religious crusaders – especially in the US – that the Christian right is on the rise, in fact in cultural terms it is increasingly marginalised. Films with a Christian message find it difficult to convey a powerful sense of faith and meaning. Instead, religious values and beliefs tend to be transmitted through non-human anthropomorphic forms. The attempt to endow even the behaviour of penguins with transcendental meaning – in the widely acclaimed March of the Penguins – is symptomatic of this theological illiteracy. The enthusiasm with which Christian organisations embraced March of the Penguins showed up their disorientation, if not desperation, rather than their aggressive confidence. After the penguin it is the turn of another animal – Aslan, the lion in the Narnia film – to serve as a symbol of innocence, sacrifice and resurrection. What beast will Christian filmmakers pick next?
Even when films depict religiosity in human terms, such as in the figure of Christ in Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, it tends to be in a degraded fashion. In Gibson’s vision Jesus is reduced to little more than a lump of meat, the victim of whippings and abuse whose physical suffering is shown in gruesome detail. It is far from uplifting.
So preoccupied are the critics of religious activism with the alleged threat posed by their enemies that they fail to notice that many Christian groups lack the courage of their convictions today, and seem to doubt the authority of their own faith. This is particularly striking in relation to the controversy surrounding Intelligent Design. This theory holds that certain features of the universe, and of animal and human life, are ‘best explained’ as having an ‘intelligent cause’ rather than being the product of natural selection. Many see only the danger of superstition in Intelligent Design, describing it as a new form of Creationism on the march. They overlook the remarkable concession that Intelligent Design makes to the authority of science.
Unable to justify creationism as a matter of faith based on divine revelation, advocates of Intelligent Design are forced to adopt the language of science to legitimate their arguments and the existence of some kind of God. This highlights their theological opportunism and inability to justify religion in its own terms. Of course Intelligent Design isn’t science; but its appeal to faith in science exposes the limits of the authority of religious faith today.
Superstition and prejudice should continually be countered by rational argument. But the vitriolic invective hurled at Christian believers today is symptomatic of the passions normally associated with a fanatical Inquisitor. Like the old Spanish Inquisition, anti-religious fanatics are constantly on the look out for fundamentalist plots. Richard Dawkins’ recent two-part TV rant against religion on Channel 4 demonstrated the fanatical intolerance of critics of religion. The language and tone adopted by the anti-religious crusade – especially in the US – frequently acquires pathological dimensions. So, many anti-religious warriors repeat Dawkins’ assertion that St Paul’s idea of atonement for original sin is ‘essentially, psychological and emotional child abuse’ (1).
Others continue to attack religious organisations for trying to exploit films with a religious message or motif. There is a double standard at work here. After all, films and propaganda are inextricably linked. AIDS campaigners, for example, embraced films such as Philadelphia – in which Tom Hanks played a dignified man dying from AIDS – for the positive way they promote their cause. Currently gay organisations are celebrating Ang Lee’s gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain for its affirmation of gay love and identity. ‘Using’ films to promote a cause is hardly the prerogative of religious movements.
So what is the liberal elite so worried about?
The fantasy of theocratic menace
The liberal elite’s obsession with the insidious threat posed by faith-based films is paralleled by its paranoia about the religious right. Anti-religious crusaders, in particular in the US, continually exaggerate the influence of Christianity in culture and politics. Every time I visit America, this fear seems to have worsened. Raising the alarm about Christian fundamentalists has become a taken-for-granted affectation among those who define themselves as liberal or left-wing, who are forever telling horror stories about the power of the religious right.
It is now commonplace to attribute the re-election of President George W Bush in 2004 to his army of religious supporters. ‘The fundamentalists and evangelicals who came out in such great numbers in this election are driven, and have always been driven, by fear’, argues one critic of creeping theocracy (2). Instead of asking the harder question of why some of their own arguments fail to resonate with significant sections of the public, many prefer to point the finger at the religious right and blame them for using ‘fear’ and unfair arguments.
The idea that religious fundamentalism is on the offensive and threatening to dominate public life is widely held on both sides of the Atlantic. It is fuelled by the belief that recent developments in the world of politics point to a revival of moralism. Many liberal commentators argue, for example, that the re-election of Bush was made possible by the ability of the religious right to connect with the search for meaning among everyday folk. According to this now-standard interpretation, much of the public ‘found a “politics of meaning” in the political Right’. Why? Because ‘in the right-wing churches and synagogues these voters are presented with a coherent worldview that speaks to their “meaning needs”’ (3).
The religious right is often said to be mobilising and gaining support around values that appeal to a primitive and simplistic electorate. That is why even a kids’ film like The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe can provoke such hostility. The liberal elite’s unease with religion is often motivated by the fear that it will become even more isolated from the public unless it can engage with the ‘big questions’ they are apparently asking. It is also concerned that unless it can project a positive vision on to society, people will become influenced by value-driven ‘extremists’, by religious and political organisations that are hostile to the status quo. In short, religion is seen as a powerful force that appeals to those apparently simple people whom sophisticated members of the elite cannot reach.
Such beliefs are underpinned by the patronising assumption that, unlike educated urbane people, ordinary members of the public need simplistic black-and-white answers about the meaning of life. In private conversation, some in the liberal elite discuss the masses – or ‘rednecks’, Nascar dads, tabloid readers, etc – as being crass, materialistic, simplistic, racist, sexist, homophobic.
New theories are doing the rounds to account for the kind of audience that flocks to see The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and other feelgood films and who respond to the appeals of the religious right. George Lakoff – whose book Don’t Think of An Elephant has become a kind of bible that explains their electoral demise for many liberal Democrats in the US – describes those who tend to vote for Bush as the products of authoritarian ‘strict father families’ who are motivated by self-interest, greed and competitiveness. These people hate ‘nurturance and care’, apparently, are religious bigots and lack the therapeutic sensibilities of their liberal cousins.
In the guise of a political theory, Lakoff offers a diagnosis of human inferiority. You can almost hear him murmur: ‘They actually take their children to see The Passion of the Christ….’ In previous times, such contempt for people was the trademark of the authoritarian right. In today’s ‘inclusive’ society, it is okay to denigrate sections of the electorate as simpletons if they are still gripped by the power of faith.
Lakoff and others argue that many people who vote for Bush, or who are influenced by the religious right, simply do not know what is in their best interests. Instead of acknowledging the failure of its own political projects, the liberal elite prefers to indict sections of the public for being thick and gullible.
This trend for blaming the rise of theocracy on ordinary folks’ apparent penchant for simplistic black-and-white solutions shifts the focus from the elite’s failure to promote and uphold a positive vision of the future on to the alleged political illiteracy of the masses. That is why discussions of so-called fundamentalist movements often contain an implicit condemnation of the people who support them – and why the alleged creations of fundamentalist culture are implicitly condemned as immoral. It is the insecurity of the Anglo-American cultural elites about their own values and moral vision of the world that encourages their frenzied attacks on religion. There is a powerful element of bad faith here: many leftists and liberals denounce those who appeal to moral values as being inferior, but they are also envious of them. So when the ‘progressive’ Rabbi Michael Lerner criticises his fellow liberals for their ‘long-standing disdain for religion’ and for being ‘tone-deaf to the spiritual needs that underline the move to the Right’, he is implicitly paying homage to the power of persuasion among his fundamentalist opponents (4).
In the confused cultural elite’s fears of a powerful religious right winning over the masses, we can see a good example of bad faith worrying about real faith.
If you can’t beat them…
Lerner represents a growing body of liberal and centrist opinion that recognises it is not enough simply to denounce religion. Intemperate attacks on the religious right resonate with progressives, but such attacks clearly do little to undermine the powerful search for meaning that prevails across society. That is why a growing number of liberal and leftist politicians have called for a new moral dimension in their own political platforms.
In the US, this argument was eloquently spelled out by Roberto Unger and Cornel West in their book The Future of American Progressivism (1998) and by Thomas Frank in his influential What’s The Matter With America? (2004). Frank believes that values are important because they can connect with what he refers to as ‘they’; that is, normal people. Across the Atlantic in the UK, this point is echoed by New Labour minister Douglas Alexander. In his pamphlet Telling It Like It Could Be, Alexander expresses his concerns that the Labour Party will lose its way if it does not discover a sense of moral purpose.
The sense of desperation with which some opportunist politicians are searching for moral values indicates what they really hate about the Narnia film: that Aslan is not on their side. Aslan possesses a superabundance of faith – something that the cultural and liberal elite conspicuously lack. When Lerner exclaims that the ‘last time Democrats had real social power was when they linked their legislative agenda with a spiritual politics articulated by Martin Luther King’, he only draws attention to the moral wasteland inhabited by his political associates today (5).
There is now a new genre of pseudo-religious political books written by the spiritual mentors of the left. Lerner’s Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul succeeds in combining the platitudes usually associated with third-rate self-help books with the mumbo-jumbo generally associated with dogmatic religious tracts. However, when it comes to banality, Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It beats his competitors to the post. This motivational text became an instant bestseller as Democrats looked for ready-made moral formulae with which they might connect with common people. Wallis, billed as a left-wing Evangelical, is critical of the secular dismissal of religion and offers moral values to the disoriented liberal.
The problem with politically motivated calls for the restoration of a moral dimension to public life is that they are driven by the instrumental purpose of gaining or retaining power. But a morality manufactured in response to the demands of political pragmatism is bound to lack any organic relationship to lived experience, and is thus unlikely to find resonance with the wider public. An unfocused and disconnected oligarchy is unlikely to possess sufficient sensitivity to the day-to-day problems confronting the public. That is why the pragmatic search for a ready-made moral purpose usually turns into an arbitrary exercise in picking and choosing some inoffensive values. Alexander ends up by opting for the public service ethos of the National Health Service and tackling world poverty – but it could as easily have been world peace or compassion towards the infirm or the celebration of respect, etc. These arbitrary lists of New Labour Hurrah Values only highlight the absence of a purposeful moral perspective that grows from engagement with the public and our concerns.
At the end of the day, politically motivated calls among liberals and the left for morality are not so far from the way in which Christians ‘use’ The March of the Penguins or The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Both are cynical gestures driven by political calculations rather than by a moral inspiration that comes from the soul. What is particularly cynical is that these attempts to construct a ‘moral dimension’ are always aimed at others: those who apparently need ‘simple’ answers and ‘meaning’. Such a cynical view of the public was clearly spelled out by William Davies of the London-based Institute for Public Policy research. ‘The liberal, secular left has somehow to find ways of supplying citizens with emotional and metaphysical comforts even when it does not itself believe in such things’, he warned (6). This provision of so-called metaphysical comforts serves the same function that adult-invented cautionary tales play for children. Which takes us back to Narnia: clearly the problem is not the comforts provided by CS Lewis, but the way in which they’re branded.
A final point. The very term ‘metaphysical comforts’ suggests values built by calculation, instrumentalism, manipulation and cynicism. Morality marketed by people who do not necessarily ‘believe in such things’ is unlikely to set the world on fire. That is why they resent and hate the Narnia film so much. For all its faults, the movie attempts to transmit a powerful sense of belief, bravery and sacrifice. Such sentiments are alien to a cultural elite that regards the expression of any sort of strong belief as another form of that dreaded fundamentalism. Envy, bad faith and instrumentalism: these are the raw materials that fuel today’s anti-religious crusade.
(1) See Mel Seesholtz, ‘Religion and child abuse, fundamentalism and politics, Justice Sunday III and Pastor Latham’, Online Journal; 17 January 2006.
(2) See Todd May, ‘Religion, The Election, And The Politics of Fear’.
(3) Democracts Need a Religious Left, Michael Lerner, Beliefnet
(4) Democracts Need a Religious Left, Michael Lerner, Beliefnet
(5) Democracts Need a Religious Left, Michael Lerner, Beliefnet
(6) William Davies, ‘Will the secular left continue bowling alone?’, New Statesman, 15 November 2004.
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