Secular Right | Reality & Reason

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The cult of Che Guevara (all those posters and tee-shirts, not to speak of the recent movie hagiography) is a persistent—and rather annoying—reminder of the way that the crimes of communism still rank oddly low in the popular imagination.

But if the Che cult is bad in the United States, in Argentina—the land of the murderer’s birth—it is worse. Please see below a few pictures I took recently in Buenos Aires. Some of this tat must have been aimed at the tourist peso, but I suspect that it also reflected a certain pride in a local boy made, uh, good, a pride about as perverse as, oh, I don’t know, maybe irony-free US tee-shirts commemorating “Charles Manson, American”, a design that may somewhere exist but, if it does, remains mercifully rare.

Well, you get the picture.

Then again, back in the USA there is this…..

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Magical thinking watch: Housing crisis chapter

Religious goods stores have been doing a record business in St. Joseph statues.  Buried in the garden of a home for sale, the doll allegedly helps the house to find a buyer.  (We are not told where you put the icon if you live on the 30th floor of an apartment building–perhaps hidden in the dirty laundry hamper.)

Satisfied buyers testify to the statue’s efficacy:

Joe Becwar, an observant Catholic, said he sold his house in Southampton, N.Y., soon after his mother suggested the statue and his real estate agent told him to plant it head down, facing the house, by the “for sale” sign. His brother in Chicago had the same experience, he added.

And Cheryl Katz, who is Jewish . . . , said the statue helped her sell two houses as a real estate agent. Now that her own house is on the market, she’s using it for herself.

The only miracle here is that humanity somehow managed to claw its way up towards the scientific method, given the ubiquity of such arrested thinking.  The religious and superstitious are hardly the only ones oblivious to any elementary concept of a control group, of course.  How many times have you heard such confident assertions of causality as: “I fed my dog organic carob Power Bars, as his acupuncturist recommended, and the tumor on his leg shrunk.  The bars really work!”  I sometimes wonder whether any of us deserve the benefits of science, given how little we appreciate or seek to emulate its basic thought processes.  I recently heard of the following remedy for muscle pain recommended by a relative’s personal trainer: Put a bar of soap under your mattress at night.  Are we living in 15th century Russia?

The suckers who fall for mountebank health scams, such as fill the shelves of every health food store, presumably have some inchoate sense that their favored cure should in theory be explainable biologically.  But I’m not sure that this makes their knowledge or reasoning skills superior to someone who is satisfied with the black box of supernaturalism.  Better almost to believe in a miracle that leapfrogs over all biological pathways than to accept that Kinoki Detox Foot Pads, say, can cure insomnia.  Such gullibility stems as an initial matter from an unconscionable ignorance of human physiology.  But our epistemological problems, it seems to me, stem as well from the  fact that we are incessant conjurors of causality, seeing it everywhere, and from our child-like faith in the association between language and truth.  A wrinkle crème needs merely to assert on its label that it can reduce sagging jowls, without offering any plausible theory for how it can do so, and thousands of women will shell out $50 for 2 ounces. (more…)

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The Mysteries of Faith

A xeroxed announcement appeared in the mail room of my Manhattan apartment building a while ago: “Our Lady of Fatima Visits Our Parish.”  The notice had a photo of one of those creepy painted sculptures of Mary with oversized, tear-encrusted  eyes and an undersized mouth; a very large crown perched on her head.  This itinerant wooden doll was going to visit a church on E. 90th Street, where believers could touch and crown her.  “’In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph,’” the announcement declared.

Non-believers are told again and again that they must respect religion.  I try, I really do, but I confess that such manifestations of religious faith make following this injunction somewhat of a challenge.  It would be one thing if this chromatic doll were putting in an appearance in Mexico City, filled as it is with superstitious peasant believers; it’s another to figure out what the doll is doing on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  I ask in all sincerity: are Secular Right’s fellow highly-educated conservatives ready to prostrate themselves before, and put a toy crown on, a wooden effigy?   Or do religious conservative pundits see such outbreaks of folk superstition as the price they must pay in order to preserve the higher mysteries of the  faith?  But isn’t such a bargain terribly condescending? 

I must respect religion.  I understand, but I honestly don’t see how to distinguish the worship of a wooden icon from the belief in the healing power of crystals or in the predictive power of entrails.  I know I must be missing some essential distinctions here, but for the moment they elude me and I remain at a loss to understand.




Religious Art

Heather, I’ll admit to being a fan of quite a lot of religious art from the masterpieces of the (early) Renaissance to the blood, bile and hellfire of some of the Flemish to,  for that matter,  the radiant gloom of so many Russian icons,  so perhaps I’m biased.  Nevertheless,  I’m not sure that you can write ‘religious art’ out of the picture (so to speak) as quickly as you suggest.  As a proportion of the art being produced,  it certainly declined,  for some of the reasons cited by you and your commenters (commentators?)  and others besides. These include shifts in taste, the rise of Protestantism, relaxed religious controls, the fact that there was already so much religious art around, and so on.  At the same time (and if we’re talking about Europe), it continued to survive and flourish both in the Orthodox East and, also most notably, Victorian England.  Some of the work produced in the latter may come across as doggerel when compared with the high poetry of Caspar David Friedrich (a painter to whom I think you implicitly refer in your post), but it was religious nonetheless – and an important part of the backdrop to one of the most prosperous and, eventually,  law-abiding eras in British history.

If we move on into the twentieth century, we see that religious art continues to flourish (as it always will, given human nature),  most strikingly in the service of the political religions of National Socialism and early-to-mid period Soviet communism (both of which cults, but particularly the latter,  made extensive use of devotional imagery),  a process that rapidly spread beyond Europe,  notably into the China of the Cultural Revolution. Efforts there to transform the Great Helsman into a living god (zaosheng yundong) may have reached a peak in Liu Chunhua’s rather fine 1969 depiction of a Christ-Mao visting Anyuan.  Nine hundred million copies are thought to have been made of this work, and if it’s not to be considered religious,  I don’t know what is…


While in Boston this weekend for the opening night performance of L’Incoronazione di Poppea at the Boston Early Music Festival (an elegant, historically sensitive production, created, like all of BEMF’s work, in conscious rejection of the ignorant narcissism of Regietheater) I went to the Titian-Tintoretto-Veronese exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts.  Off the top of my head, I can think of no greater marker of the secularization of the West than the near disappearance of religious art over the last two centuries.  I would love to see a graph showing the ratio of religious to non-religious art since the 11th century.  Eighteenth century Baroque painters like Tiepelo were obviously still creating Christian canvases, but even those were a  small proportion of their own and of  total artistic output compared to four centuries previously.  By the mid-19th century,  I can conjure up few major religious works—perhaps a Millet here and there, and some kitschy Beaux-Arts saints.  But in general, artists’ attentions and those of their patrons were caught up in the things of this world—history, portraits, landscapes (however occasionally infused with divine light), urban street scenes, peasant labor, domestic arrangements, factories, and still lifes.  Churches were more often objects of paintings rather than the source of their content.   A chronological stroll through any art museum demonstrates this trend.

All I can say is: Phew!  I wonder whether even the religious grow occasionally weary at the pierced, flayed, and bleeding bodies, the bloodless faces, the upturned eyes, the naked babies with the oddly elongated limbs.  (The MFA show contained a Veronese thought to show Christ healing a beautiful blonde who had been constantly bleeding (we are not told from where); she touches his garment and is cured.   Do our peers find such episodes credible?) 

Now perhaps the drying up of religious art says nothing about the course of human preoccupations; maybe there was just no more space needing to be filled.  The great eras of Renaissance and Baroque church building obviously ended, and fortunately, no one thought of upgrading a church’s altarpieces and frescoes with the latest Wunderkind’s work.  But churches were not the only patrons of religious art up through the Baroque era.  Noble families built their own private chapels, and for centuries wealthy bourgeoisie wanted their own devotional paintings showing them worshiping a saint or the Holy Family.  But by the 19th century, these religious themes disappeared, leaving only the patron himself.  

(Religious music, on the other hand, continues to be produced at a higher rate than religious iconography.  I am not aware of even Popes commissioning much religious art anymore.  Perhaps they’ve gotten a little self-conscious about the conspicuous consumption that was once the glory of Rome.) 

What has been the fall-out of this epochal shift of attention?  A highly prosperous, stable, law-abiding society. (more…)


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