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Dieu, c’est les autres December 3, 2005

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

In the kitchen this afternoon, I sang Kyrie Eleison (Κύριε ελέησον) (disc 2, no. 15) to keep myself amused. This is the nice thing about having attended a faux-posh, wannabe-public-school, formerly-grammar comp. The songs – chiefly hymns – we learnt were heaven. Attending an Orthodox church service (which I’ve done about three times in my life, be it said, although I’ve often wanted to visit the Orthodox church that peeks mythically out of the trees at Gunnersbury station and must do whenever I next make it back to the island) is a total thrill.

As an atheist, this again got me thinking. Look at the EXTRAORDINARY contribution of religion to art. Were it not for god, or codified religion, these songs would never have been composed, these churches would never have been built, the frescoes at Assisi would never have been painted, these words would never have been written. (Kyrie eleison is pre-Christian, actually, but anyway.) I am not well travelled, but when I once left Christendom behind and visited Thailand, the same applied. Were it not for Buddha, the extravagant temples would not have been built. That commitment to beauty, to something out of the ordinary, could only have been inspired by what they held most sacred, just as in the West. Buddhism is a far more earth-bound religion than the various Christian faiths, of course, yet only what is the least earthly, the least everyday, begets beauty.

So what inspires an atheist to want beauty? If, for Haydn, god is what makes him want to write heavenly music, what might inspire an atheist composer? And what should an atheist beauty-appreciater want to see his beauty devoted to? Of course, as I personally do, one can muck along. I can take what I want out of a church and leave the bits I don’t want. I can see a glittering temple in Bangkok, golden Buddhas lining the wall, and be awe-struck without, for a second, having to adopt any of the tenets of that faith. But if such faith can inspire such beauty, isn’t it therefore logical to conclude that faith is a good thing? That faith is a force for good? That faith has made man want to do better, to make beauty where formerly there was none? Where there had been nothing, man built Wat Arun. From nothing, man built St. Basil’s. I have the same convictions, the same will to be/do/want good, the same desire to set something higher than myself, but believe in no god. So the only alternative I can see is to put my faith in other people, and to think they are worthy of the adulation that some reserve for god (which isn’t to say I’m not a complete fiend, of course. I am, almost constantly, but nor is hypocrisy the redoubt exclusively of atheists). Sartre was wrong that, “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” The other can be everything you want him to be. Indeed, for an atheist, the other must be everything you want him to be.

Now I daren’t suggest a whip-round be made for some humanist Sacré Coeur to be built in the centre of Berlin (perhaps to replace the Fernsehturm). No, we can plod along without that. But I unfashionably believe (again, with hypocrisy get-out clause built-in) that we should put others before ourselves, that we must delight in our fellow man, that the welfare of others should be our absolute priority. Let songs be written in his praise and paintings painted in his glory. (They are already, of course. Religion doesn’t have a monopoly on art.) This is my religion.



1. Bren - December 4, 2005

It’s funny that you have written as such – and it will force me to have a good ol’ think the next time I find myself alone with a bottle o’ red.

You see, I’ve always thought that without my belief in God, any belief in mankind would dissolve very quickly. I’d be as miserable as Satre. But not as ugly, ha ha. Poor bastard…

Anyway. Bring me that red! Some thought is required.

2. lukeski - December 4, 2005

But what about the great works of art not created due to religious/humanist/positive feelings? Obviously, as it’s Sunday morning and I’ve just woken up in my church conversion, I can’t think of any at the moment. Admittedly, I imagine that suicidal thoughts/depression/mental health issues (to try and create a vague blanket term) are probably not much use for the creative process of architects, surely most of the great songs in the world are about pain and loss, and there are numerous books that have sprung from a long dark night of the soul (too Christian a term, I know, but you get the idea).
Another point is surely that although the great religious (i.e. St Basil’s, etc), and human (Piter) constructs have been undertaken with some positive sense, can this be offset against the suffering caused during/by their construction? The architect of St Basil’s was blinded (although I may have imagined that), and how many thousands of serfs died to build Piter?
The Sartre quote is also very apt, and I think (my god!) that I agree with you – hell can be other people, if you allow it. They can also be heaven, though.

Too mush Christianity in this post for me, so I shall leave it at that and head out for some Xmas shopping (definitely no Christianity there. Capitalism, pure and simple.)

3. Wyndham the Triffid - December 5, 2005

As an aethiest, no, agnostic, no aethiest – oh, it’s so difficult; I do mostly comedy posts, you see – I wholeheartedly agree. Religion may have been responsible for thousands of years of cruelty, submission and conflict but it has also been responsible for some of the most-beautiful art, architecture and aesthetic ideas ever created. But religious structures reflect the two sides of Man, who will be forever cruel and beautiful. You can’t have one without the other.

4. Broke in Berlin - December 5, 2005

To be honest, I’m not sure what I mean myself by this post, but it’s kept me awake two nights running. So I’m doubly grateful for any answers.

Maybe I should separate faith, religion and god in this ‘discussion’. Or at least faith and religion. As I say, I am not religious and I do not have faith. And I agree, of course, that religion has done as much harm as good (maybe more, maybe less – can’t think how to quantify). Robert Winston, a religious man of science, seems to agree. I think an awful lot of wickedness has been done in religion’s name, or religion has been used as an excuse to do much wickedness. And when, if I marvel at some extraordinary cathedral (or even fairly ordinary one), and think, “You can even see the chisel marks,” as the rock has been hewn to create this masterpiece, I do also remember that the fervour that went into creating that was also no doubt equally fervent in forcing folk to build the bastard. (Liukchik, I think you’re right that the man who built St. Basil’s had his eyes poked out afterwards so he could never build anything as beautiful ever again.) So maybe I was lazily only thinking of the positive side of faith. But I do still think it’s an awesome power. It makes many want to be a better person. I too want to be a better person and wonder what to seek inspiration from. Hence, I think, living for others as a starting point (said the childless homosexual).

Liukchik, yes, also, there is plenty of beauty for beauty’s sake, and I am extremely glad of that. I worried – this caused one night’s insomnia – that my humanist fervour sounded something like Communism or even Nazism, crying out for huge Homo Sovieticus statues of perfect beefcake or Riefenstahl-style propaganda films of perfect Aryans throwing perfect discuses. Obviously I don’t fantasise about that (and I’m not at all for anything collective), although I do happen to think there’s nothing more beautiful than a beautiful human so, yes, thank heavens for portraits of straightforwardly beautiful – I don’t mean Brad Pitt – people as well as the innumerable Virgin and Child paintings.

My thoughts are all majorly half-baked – I’m in the middle of a translation! – of course. My former mother-in-law thinks this time of life – vaguely settled, middle aged, satsfied with my lot (sort of) – is ripe for a bit of religious conversion, which is what I suppose got me thinking about the subject a bit more.

5. Wyndham the Triffid - December 5, 2005

I speak as someone who can’t spell atheist. What’s worse it I spell-checked it. The word I used, which must have something to do with aesthetics. The shame.

6. Broke in Berlin - December 6, 2005

Wynders, if I may call you Wynders, and you a media whore too! To get away from the otherworldly altogether for a minute – or even for ever – why is there no spell-check for comments? I wrote ‘satsfied’ earlier and am livid not to have noticed, yet I don’t want to delete and then resubmit.

7. Bren - December 6, 2005

It might be an easy way out, but perhaps we might consider that (most) of the glorious works of religious art have actually been in honour of God, whereas the religious horrors have merely been in His name?

8. Bren - December 6, 2005

I think what I meant by the above is that the religious artisan is motivated by a love of God, whereas the religious evil-doer is motivated by earthly things, and uses God as a way of justifying it.

9. Broke in Berlin - December 15, 2005

…or, perhaps, Bren, nice people who believe in God have done nice things in his name and nasty ones have done nasty things? I’m a touch uncomfortable, as an atheist, with the earthly being equated with wicked and the godly with goodness. Or is equating earthliness with sinfulness and fallenness central to Christianity? I so understand the logic in religion of a life after death being better than the current one. That is, of course, incredibly comforting. It’s another one of the reasons why I envy believers their faith (sometimes). But if you believe, like I do, that this is as good as it gets, and aren’t a complete misery (which I am most of the time, actually!), then I have to conserve my, as it were, religious fervour for what is of this world and not the next.

Am I talking total bollocks?

10. Broke in Berlin - December 17, 2005

Bren, what I also wanted to ask was does Christianity say that non-believers are inherently wicked? Is not believing a sin? I’m feeling a bit berated by a number of believers at the moment – namely Dostoevsky and Mark Steyn – and am wondering if the traditional view is that we non-believers are simply wicked and beyond the pale OR, in the name of redemption, should we be instructed to, Kierkegaardly, just believe and accept that it’s beyond our comprehension? Even if we don’t have faith?

11. Blonde at Heart - August 30, 2006

I will try to answer your Big Questions (usually it is my job to ask them) from a Jewish point of view, but first, it is such a beautiful piece of writing. You write from the bottom of your heart.
So, to business:
Judaism does not place such an emphasis on religious art (Judaica is a recent developement), since there are rules about art in Judaism, like no human figures and so on. Therefore, a Beth Knesset is much less beautiful than the average church. Of course, there are Beth Knessets that are inspired by Christian art and look like a church, but that does not derive from Judaism.

Afterlife: as for me, since my grandmother did not send me a postcard from heaven, I consider this life to be as good as it gets, in a moral way: I know that there is a slight chance there is heaven and you must be a good person to enter it, but since no one proved to me there is heaven and it is just a belief, I try to make the best out of this life. That is not to say I do drugs etc, because we have only this life, but rather, be a good person.
This reminds me of the dichotomy (love that word) between Judaism and Christianity. While Christians believe that faith in Jesus will earn them heaven, Jews belive that doing good in this life will earn you heaven and that if all people will be good and do good, the Messiah will come. I think that if all people be good people the world will become a better place, and then it will be LIKE the Messiah has come.

I hope I make sense. Again, loved your post. Really insightful.

12. BiB - August 30, 2006

Glad you liked it. And, yes, you make perfect sense. Although my ‘philosophy’ has no god-figure or redeemer or Messiah attached, I too believe we must and should (and lots of people do TRY, admittedly) make this world as good a place as possible for its residents. I think this would be best done by putting others before oneself, by which I don’t mean total self-sacrifice. Isn’t there an idea of the kingdom of heaven on earth, or something? I don’t mind if my humanist (or whatever it is) thinking overlaps with religion. I’m sure my morals are just the same as most religious people’s.

I didn’t know humans weren’t to be depicted in Jewish art. But isn’t the classical church design based on that of a beth knesset? (What do those words actually mean? Is beth house? And knesset must be something to do with assembly, I suppose, if it’s the name of the parliament.) Have you seen the ‘new’ beth knesset in Berlin? I don’t know about the interior, but the dome is beautiful, and is truly a landmark in Berlin now.

13. Blonde at Heart - August 31, 2006

Maybe really a church is based on the design of a beth knesset, as there are pews and in front of them an apsis(sp?) in church and pew and the place where they put the Torah books in front of the pews in a beth knesset.

You got it right. A beth knesset means literally “house of assembly”.

I have never been to Germany (I am not one of those who will not go to Germany because of WWII, but rather, I never had the chance). So I never saw the new Beth knesset.

14. BiB - August 31, 2006

Well, I’m sure you’ll make it to Berlin one day. It’s an interesting city, for a million reasons. And it is so incredibly CHEAP! Put it on your list of destinations!

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