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The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Religion and death

I'm reading Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." While David Barrett, a writer on religion, tells The Guardian that the book is "basically a hack thriller, a typical airport book," it is a compelling read. That said, what is more interesting about the book is what it suggests about its readership.

Umberto Eco, writer of "In the Name of the Rose," criticizes Brown's book in cultural terms. "The existing religions just aren't big enough: we demand something more from God than the existing depictions in the Christian faith can provide," Eco writes in the Telegraph. "So we revert to the occult." While he unfairly tarnishes all occultism with the stamp of racism -- "many of Hitler's henchmen were devotees of the most infantile occult fantasies," he writes -- and while he makes no mention of the atrocities committed in the name of organized religion, he does make a good case for religious tradition.

How does he do this? By affirming a truism of life. "Religions are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their existence and which reconcile us to death," Eco writes. It is very difficult for me to accept that life, as Macbeth said, is "but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more." Religion restores our significance. What Eco is denouncing is society's sense, at least in the West, that it has outgrown religion.

What are the alternatives to religion? Occultism, science and material goods (this category can also include money). Europeans seem to be choosing science foremost among this trio -- England is, after all, the home of Richard Dawkins -- while Americans seek comfort through materialism, whether driving their SUVs, shopping at The Gap, or living in comfortable suburban homes. Yes, they may also go to church, but, as Eco wisely pointed out, "Father Christmas means one thing to children: presents. He has no connection with the original St Nicholas, who performed a miracle in providing dowries for three poor sisters, thereby enabling them to marry and escape a life of prostitution."

Dawkins is more optimistic, though I suppose he would have to be. "Obviously," he tells BeliefNet, "there are other things having nothing to do with science —- music, poetry, sex, love. These are all things that make life, to me, extremely worth living." He adds, "Then there's the added fact that it is the only life we’re ever going to get. Don’t kid yourself that you’re going to live again after you’re dead; you’re not. Make the most of the one life you’ve got. Live it to the full."

Still, in such an anonymous world as ours is, it becomes increasingly difficult to live without some justification for it all.


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