Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Faithlessness in fiction

Few things rile my impatience as the assertion that atheists can't be people of deep thought and values.

Randy Boyagoda, chair of English at Ryerson University, has written an essay for First Things which more or less accurately identifies the waning of explicitly Christian voices in contemporary literature:
I always have ready some recommendations of current writers who take the life of faith seriously in their work—the novelist Marilynne Robinson, the poet Geoffrey Hill, assorted scholars and reviewers writing criticism—but I realize they have a point. While religion significantly matters in minor literary contexts today (as with the eccentric popularity of Amish romance novels) and in vulgar commercial contexts (as with Dan Brown’s books), serious literary fiction largely occupies its very own naked public square, shorn of any reference to religiously informed understandings of who and what and wherefrom we are, which represents a marked break from centuries of literary production informed by Christian beliefs, traditions, and culture.
(Emphasis mine.) There's an absolute ecology of unexamined, and I'd say indefensible, assumptions underlying the idea that identifies deep and thoughtful "informed understandings of who and what and wherefrom we are" exclusively with religiously informed understandings. The unexplored alternative to this idea is that certain author and artists may, by dint of the depth and richness of their understanding, have had to abandon "religious" (read: theistic) framings of the world. This is not a negligence on their part, but a feature of their engagement with reality as it comes. 

Boyagoda has a more sympathetic case, a less privilege-blind case, if he were using the word "religious" to encompass nontheistic worldviews, such as those aligned, e.g., with deep ecology or religious* humanism; but I see no evidence that he is doing so. Very well; we carry on with our own work in the larger pluralism outside the purview of sectarian commentary. You can be sure that the forthcoming companion site to Pen & Anvil's secular imprint, Secular Age, will do diligent work in focusing attention on new books from secular thinkers, and in promoting awareness of the many ways an atheistic worldview may nonetheless have consort with things infinite.

(I encourage anyone reading to recommend in the comments below any authors or books who are exemplary in this respect.)

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* How good if it were more widely understood that the term "religious" can apply with equal usefulness to wholly nontheistic and materialistic traditions such as "religious humanism." Alas, most readers see "religion" and think a god-belief of some kind is involved (the case of some kinds of Buddhism not much changing these facts).

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