There is a lot of hand-wringing among people of faith about the apparently increasing trend toward secularism. In the past couple of years, I encountered two seemingly unrelated incidents that somehow became linked in my mind. They ended up shedding light on some of the dynamics of present-day secularism (and of our cultural impasse over faith issues generally) that are very much overlooked. The first occasion: a pot of artificial orchids appeared at the security desk of my condo. It momentarily fooled me, until I picked it up and looked at it closely.
I told our concierge Imran it was quite impressive. (I am a botanist, after all, and the thing fooled me.) But Imran didn't see it that way. Imran, a Muslim, expressed his deep dislike for the artificial arrangement. There was something "blasphemous" about it, he said.
On the second occasion, I was at a debate on the existence of God, with the debaters being Father Philip Cleevely of the Oratory and Justin Trottier of the Humanist Association. I found the debate refreshingly civil and promoting of dialogue. Some of us from each side of the aisle went to a pub afterward. In my mental background hovered the pot of artificial orchids and Imran's response to it. This phantom pot made me think of the Flying Spaghetti monster invoked by many recent atheists. For those not familiar with the metaphor, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is an image used to express how ridiculous the idea of a belief in God is; there is even a subset of such parodists who dub themselves "Pastafarians," pulling the Jamaican sect into the metaphor as well.
For most of us, the prospect of a Muslim using the word "blasphemy" raises a red flag. But Imran is not a man who fits in any way into the category of the fanatic or intolerant. Amid our general materialism, he expressed gratitude for Christian practice wherever it was evident, including in my priest-friend Father Dominic, whom he went out of his way to greet whenever he visited. The call of Abraham resonated with Imran, and anyone who acknowledged the sacred was at least a potential ally.
So why did he speak of "blasphemy"? This is, after all, a word associated most often with the cruel misuse of religion; indeed, it is a word associated very closely with the rationale for the crucifixion of Jesus. The words of the Sanhedrin at the time are drearily familiar in the news of today:
"Why do we need any more witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What is your verdict? And they all condemned him as deserving death."
—Mark 14: 63-64
Furthermore, it was just a pot of fake plants, not a Crucifix immersed in urine or a grotesque cartoon of Muhammad. It was, however, an image — a graven image if you will — and the Abrahamic religions have something to say about such images, to a greater or lesser degree.
I do know that Islam tends to be chary of images, to the extent that many Muslims oppose all representational art (hence the abstract geometric patterns one finds on mosques). Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, given the Incarnation, admit them. Protestants are in between. But the old rule about graven images isn't exactly abrogated. I think we still have to be careful about them, and particularly about bad art and propaganda. Such images are a form of deception, and I think that deception had something to do with Imran's reaction. The artificial flowers were not art in the sense of trying to communicate something of the mystery of botany or trying to bring something pretty to the condominium lobby. Rather, they included intent to fool the observer into thinking they were real. I still remember the little jolt of humiliation when I realized that they were not and that I had been duped. Me, a botanist! But there is more. What do fake flowers have to do with atheism?
Being duped by such a counterfeit image is essentially what goes on in advertising, which is the overwhelming paradigm of communication in our culture. Most communication is about trying to get a result — usually purchasing or selling a product, or selling ourselves (social media profile) or our religion (Jesus saves) or, more often, our product as a religion. It is a truism that we live in a therapeutic civilization, where feeling good about oneself is the highest good. This goes for the acquisitive right as well as the pride-and-identity left. We are told to "celebrate" ourselves. But there is a hitch. We tend not to feel good about ourselves. In order to do so (we are told), we must buy this or that. Then we will be at least a bit more complete, a bit more lovable. Then we will be able to celebrate who we are. So buying and selling are what keep us going.
What is there about buying and selling that seems to set off an apocalyptic note in the New Testament?
"'The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's visitation.'
"When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. 'It is written,'
He said to them. 'My house will be called a house of prayer'; but you have made it 'a den of thieves.'"
—Luke 19: 41-46
"The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over the great whore Babylon because no one buys their cargoes anymore — cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and chariots; and human trafficking.
"They will say, 'The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your luxuries and splendour have vanished, never to be recovered.' The merchants who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand far off, terrified at her torment."
—Revelation 18: 11-15
But isn't exchange a natural part of human society, a way of expressing our interdependence and completing one another? Should there not be a free market? I have this, you have that, and in the exchange we can benefit one another?
While there is nothing wrong with the exchange of goods and services and markets as such, they are very easily overtaken by deception and illusion — this is where the defenders of the free market prove themselves naive. The deception is not necessarily as simple as pretending a shabby product is of high quality. First, the tendency is to exaggerate what the product is or can do (even if it's a good product like expensive and well-tailored clothes). We all know that appeals to sex or blissful unity are universal. This, in turn, feeds into our own sense of inadequacy, or lack, and helps to incite us to purchase the product. Second, the paradigm of selling becomes hegemonic: We, in turn, must market ourselves in order to get a job or even a partner. Our intrinsic, transcendent worth is undermined. And some widget takes over the role of bestower of worth and meaning, even as life-giver.
The monk Thomas Merton saw a relationship between the hegemony of advertising, war propaganda and nihilism. He used the example of an advertisement for a hairspray called Arpege that promised to be the "world's most adored hairspray" and confer that adoration on its wearer.
"When we reflect that the ultimate conceptions of theology and metaphysics have surfaced in such a context — hairspray," writes Merton, "we no longer wonder that theologians are tearing their hair and crying that God is dead. After all, when every smell, every taste, every hissing breakfast food is endowed with the transcendental properties of being…."i
It was when I was cleaning the bathroom at a retreat centre and noticed some cosmetic products on the counter (Figure 1) that I realized just how observant Merton actually was.
Perhaps the connection between blasphemy and the fake orchid and merchandise in general can be seen more clearly if one recognizes God as Truth: indeed, Truth (al-Haqq) is one of the 99 Names of God in Muslim devotion. The fakery constitutes an offence against truth. Those of us who admire Pope Benedict XVI will also see something resonant in such a line of reasoning.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster is also quite capable of taking on different world religions, not just the Abrahamic ones (Figure 2).
In the face of this, what is the poor atheist supposed to do? He can shoot down the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Bertrand Russell's orbiting teapotii only to find that the beast has morphed into a pot of phony orchids or a shampoo bottle presenting itself as sacrament. We may look to the heavens, but what do we see? The view of Heaven is in fact obscured: by our glitzy lights, by our overload with trivia, by metaphysical space junk.
So what we see is space junk up there, circling the earth and forming a ring like Saturn's — or perhaps Sauron's? If that's what Heaven is, I'll give it a pass. It's the heavenly equivalent of the great garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, which is gradually killing off the sea turtles and seabirds who mistake it for food.
This stuff is so pervasive you cannot escape it, even by means of atheism. One can easily avoid contact with the Church these days; it is not so easy to avoid the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Figure 3). This beast may be cute and silly and avoid using words such as mandatory, but it doesn't really believe in freedom of worship, let alone religion. It monitors you for compliance; it has all your demographic information and page views in its database. It's in your face.
One might still ask, what is the fuss? People know that this stuff is not to be taken seriously. You don't have to buy it. Everybody knows that the brand name is just a name and that artificial flowers don't have the issues of insect pests, watering or other needs.
But it is serious.
Remember Merton's words, more cogent now than 50 years ago. Much has been made of the decline of organized religion, especially among millennials. A lot of it has been attributed to the failure of organized religion itself, notably the sex-abuse scandals in Christianity and terrorist cells in radical Islam.
But these explanations are not sufficient. There has always been corrupt religion. There has always been struggle over sexual desire. People still believed when pope fought antipope and when the caste system was enshrined in Hinduism. Not too much of what we have now is new. Monotheistic terrorist fanatics (the Zealots and Sicarii) were a plague in the Middle East during the Roman Empire, and at least several of them were cruelly put to death. Anti-religious Epicureans and their fellow travellers did exist, but they never became the mainstream of culture. So what is going on?
The new element is precisely the level of information overload and propaganda, mostly related to marketing, that saturates our culture. The counterfeit drives out the true and, more precisely, inoculates against it. Exposure to the counterfeit requires one to defend against it. And saying "this stuff is not to be taken seriously" is a kind of defence. We are bombarded by information and by people trying to sell things, to make them out to be something other than what they actually are. This is unbearable, and we shut down under such overstimulation and falsehood. Such a shutting down is highly adaptive and enables us to survive and do reasonably well in our current environment. We are immunized against both truth and falsehood: just as a vaccine made of a dead virus protects us against the actual live virus, so exposure to dead gods makes us immune to the real one. Of necessity, we develop a cynical, detached, worldly attitude. As Merton puts it, "To say 'God is love' is like saying 'Eat Wheaties.'"iii Our ability to ignore comes at a cost: the cost is that we are no longer capable of receptivity to the sacred; everything becomes an annoying sales pitch for some falsehood. We tune it out.
It should be clear now that this deadness to the sacred — which is also deadness to the profane — is not something that can be overcome by strategies or sales pitches. Certainly, enmity and railing against unbelievers or believers or wrong believers is utter absurdity; if the above conjecture is correct, it is possible that many committed atheists are more sensitive to the fatuity of our culture than the general public. In the face of death, the natural response is mourning. You don't try to cure it. The work of grieving what we have lost is probably what is most important at this juncture. For Christians, hope does not in any way imply the bypassing of grief. To bypass grief is to fall into violence and resentment. At the same time, separation and detachment from idols must be possible. One could speak of platitudes such as the need to be immersed in real nature and real art, though these are not always available and we are often insensate. Maybe part of the response is monastic. (Merton was, after all, a Trappist.) There is a need to be silent and accepting: you stay in the poverty and simply be there. This is a kind of asceticism that actually liberates. It takes a certain level of discipline that, frankly, is often beyond me. But one must try.
There are 21 kinds of native orchid growing wild in the Toronto area, mostly in places where you get your feet wet if you're not careful. There used to be a lot more, but the pressures of consumer society and its effect on natural areas have eliminated many. Some species are barely hanging on. Invasive weeds do much better and exhibit greater fitness in our postmodern ecosystems. It would be easy to rhapsodize about orchids' beauty, purity and honesty. The fact that some of them "deceive" hapless pollinators through their own form of "false advertising" makes it a little more difficult to do this, but it still won't stop me.iv
One of the strangest orchids I found was showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis). Ironically, the unearthly magenta-and-white flowers and thick glossy leaves made me think, at first, "how could this thing be real?" I lost the photo, and the last time I looked for the plant, the hillside was covered with dog-strangling vines.