Gods and detectives

Gods and detectives
Comment E-mail Print Share
First Published: Fri, Jul 17 2009. 11 56 PM IST

Atheist: Christopher Hitchens. Twelve/Grand Central Publishing/Bloomberg
Atheist: Christopher Hitchens. Twelve/Grand Central Publishing/Bloomberg
Updated: Fri, Jul 17 2009. 11 56 PM IST
Marxists defend God
The one good thing about the rise of religious fundamentalism in recent decades has been a corresponding resurgence of atheistic writing, as in the work of people like Christopher Hitchens. But just as fundamentalism is a simplification of religious beliefs, much of the current writing of atheists is a simplification of the long and complex tradition of atheism and agnosticism.
Atheism is derived from the Greek where “a” stood for “without” or “not”, and “theos” meant “god”. Hence, an atheist is someone without belief in god/s. But the sense in which atheism has cropped up in recent public debates is different. Currently, as espoused by Hitchens and Co., it has come to mean an active belief that god does not exist. But to believe that god does not exist is not the same as to be without belief in god.
Atheist: Christopher Hitchens. Twelve/Grand Central Publishing/Bloomberg
That may be the reason why almost all the recent attacks on god/religion are almost as boring as recent defences of god/religion. Both fail to reach the intellectual heights set by philosophers such as Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, who either believed or did not believe in god, but who engaged with the matter at a very complex level of thought. The most interesting book I have read on the current controversy is Terry Eagleton’s collection of essays, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Slavoj Zizek, too, is supposed to have engaged creatively with the debate in a forthcoming book, which I am yet to read.
It is ironic—and perhaps a sad commentary on mainstream thinking today—that the best examination of the issue seems to have come from two atheistic Marxists! In a sense, Eagleton’s book has a verso-recto relationship to Bertrand Russell’s atheistic book from 1957, Why I am not a Christian. Eagleton is an atheist too, but he basically champions the revolutionary potential of religion.
This is a pity because other religious traditions contain revolutionary (and reactionary) potential as well. To defend only the “radical” potential of Christianity might—despite the best intentions of Eagleton (or Zizek)—end up inadvertently complementing “clash of civilization” Western voices that attack the “reactionary” and “backward” aspects of other religions, such as Islam or Hinduism or Voodooism.
An intelligent thriller
Listed three times for the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, Liz Jensen is not afraid to take on big issues. On the face of it, her new novel, The Rapture, is a crime thriller set in the future—in a world where a major economic crisis has marked a resurgence of faith and fanaticism. The Rapture features a number of crimes, and a rather unusual “detective”. There is a disturbed teenaged girl, confined to a psychiatric hospital meant for dangerous children, who killed her own mother—but no one knows why. As the novel develops, there is the crime of parental brutality and the mysteries of warped relationships and political-economic duplicity. These are the usual crimes, so to say. However, behind them lurks a bigger crime—the crime of environmental depredation. In dealing with this crime, Jensen moves her novel a notch above the level of a gripping thriller. It is no wonder Warner Brothers are said to have snapped up the film rights.
In memorium
I read of Kamala Das’ death a few days ago. I never met her. I wish I had. With Nissim Ezekiel, A.K. Ramanujan, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar and a couple of others who are still around, thankfully, Das was one of the foundational voices of Indian poetry in English. Above all, she was a person who lived her own life and cared deeply for the world. She will be missed.
Tabish Khair is the Denmark-based author of Filming. Write to him at readingroom@livemint.com
Comment E-mail Print Share
First Published: Fri, Jul 17 2009. 11 56 PM IST