The Protean nature of the self (that is, the water-shifting nature of the self, from the ancient Greek sea god Proteus) is on disturbing display in Katherine Russell, the widow of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Here’s The New York Times:
When Katherine Russell arrived as a freshman at Suffolk University just over five years ago, she seemed to bond so well with her new roommates in their lively dorm opposite Boston Common that one classmate likened them to sitcom characters. “They reminded me of the show ‘Sex and the City,’ ” he recalled. “Two of them were free-spirited, one was materialistic and Katherine was the social butterfly.”
Then Ms. Russell began dating Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a boxer from Cambridge, Mass., known for his flashy clothes, and her life began to change. As he became a steadily more religious Muslim, Ms. Russell converted to Islam. She started to cover her head with a hijab in public, startling some classmates. She dropped out of college in 2010, the year they got married and had a daughter.
She moved into his family’s run-down apartment in Cambridge, trading her old life of New England comfort and privilege — her father and grandfather both went to Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale — for the struggles of an immigrant family, with money so tight that they were on public assistance at times.
Isn’t that an amazing transformation? The power of religion to shapeshift the personality is astonishing.
Lauren Sandler, trying to come to terms with the attractions of fundamentalist religion, writes the following in her book Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement (Viking 2006, p. 246):
Our [secular] culture needs to offer more than escapism.
In other words, in the presence of death humans need immortality projects with some oomph. Buddhist meditation and yoga classes mixed with consumerism probably aren’t going to be enough going forward to sustain secular culture against the subterranean psychological furnaces that produce revivals of medievalism and fanatic nationalism (both on display in the mind of Russell’s husband).
But if we’re secularists, what can we do? We’ve got nothing to offer the average person but nihilism and distraction–that is, whistling in the dark. Perhaps this is sufficient for the especially gifted and creative, but in general the human psyche doesn’t seem especially stable absent the balm of religion–of some substantial immortality project. Read, for example, an Emily Dickinson poem to get a feel for what it’s like to be sensitive and yet go through life without the delusions of religious hope. Here’s a stanza from one of her poems (poem 328):
A Bird came down the Walk–
He did not know I saw–
He bit an Angelworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw, [...]
This sort of sustained and unblinkered seeing into the rough nature of the world is too much for most people. Not even Moses could look upon the face of God and live. It is the lightning. Too direct an encounter with truth can drive us, Oedipus-like, to pluck out our eyes. Here’s Emily again (from poem 1129):
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind–
The truths behind secularism are painful. Here, for example, is the philosophical compass for a recently launched science magazine that aspires to be “a New Yorker version of Scientific American.” Here’s The New York Times yesterday:
[Nautilus: Science Connected] uses as an epigraph a 1995 statement from Stephen Hawking, the English physicist and man about the universe: “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”
True, but not conducive to cathedral or nation building. For its quarterly published paper edition, Nautilus hopes to have a subscription base of 5,000. By contrast, within seven miles of where I live is a mega-church that actively promotes young earth creationism. It draws in more than 5,000 attendees every week.
Who’s winning–and what’s really being won?