Dieu, c’est les autres December 3, 2005Posted 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.