Camille Paglia on the New Atheism and Contemporary Humanism

In an interview posted at Salon today, Camille Paglia lets loose on godless chic, arguing that it has poisoned contemporary film and art:

People in the humanities have sunk into this shallow, snobby, liberal style of stereotyping religious believers as ignorant and medieval, which is total nonsense. And meanwhile, the entire professional class in Manhattan and Los Angeles is doping themselves on meds and trying to survive in their manic, anxiety-filled world. And what are they producing that is of the slightest interest? Nothing. Nothing is being produced in movies or the fine arts today (except in architecture) that is not derivative of something else.

Why is this? Because the fuel for great art is spiritual quest and an orientation toward the ontological mystery (the mystery of being). In postmodern secularism, these are both ironically abandoned:

A responsible atheist needs to be informed about religion in order to reject it. But the shallow, smirky atheism that’s au courant is simply strengthening the power of the Right. Secular humanism is spiritually hollow right now because art is so weak. If you don’t have art as a replacement for the Bible, then you’ve got nothing that is culturally sustaining. If all you have is “Mad Men” and the Jon Stewart “Daily Show,” then religion is going to win, because people need something as a framework to understand life.

Paglia thinks the original hippie energies of the 1960s possessed an intuitive wisdom about religion’s value that is now lacking in educated circles:

Every great religion contains enormous truths about the universe. That’s why my ’60s generation followed the Beat movement toward Zen Buddhism and then opened up that avenue to Hinduism — which is why the Beatles went to India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Then it all disappeared, when people became disillusioned with gurus. But spiritual quest was one of the great themes of the ’60s that has been lost and forgotten — that reverent embrace of all the world religions. This is why our art has become so narrow and empty.

So Paglia is calling for the return of spiritual quest and reverence for the revival of art and culture. And she has nothing good to say about Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins:

One of the themes in my [new] book is the current impoverishment of the art world because of its knee-jerk hostility to religion, which is everywhere. That kind of sneering at religion that Christopher Hitchens specialized in, despite his total ignorance of religion and his unadmirable lifestyle, was no model for atheism. I think Hitchens was a burden to atheism in terms of his decadent circuit of constant parties and showy blather. He was a sybaritic socialite and roué — not a deep thinker — whose topical, meandering writing will not last. And I’m no fan of Richard Dawkins’ sniping, sniggering style of atheism, either.

I’ve been making some of these arguments at this blog for a few years now. For a sane contemporary meditation on the ontological mystery, I wonder if Paglia has seen Samsara yet.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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29 Responses to Camille Paglia on the New Atheism and Contemporary Humanism

  1. Staffan says:

    This is very clear if you look at prominent atheists within the arts http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_atheist_authors All of a sudden Isaac Asimov becomes a literary giant.

    I suspect it is atheism as such that is the problem. Creativity is all about coming up with stuff out of the blue, a leap of faith. How would the atheists accomplish that? To them everything is cause and effect. What would their spiritual quest be if they don’t believe in the spirit? All they can do is to take what others have created and criticize it or perhaps polish it a little and sell it as their own.

    • colinhutton says:

      ‘very clear’ —- Not. It is a list of atheist authors, not of ‘prominent atheists within the arts’ and even less so of ‘literary giants’. Did you pick Asimov because he was the first name you recognised in the alphabetical listing?

      • Staffan says:

        Good luck finding a list of more prominent atheist authors than this bunch. And no, I didn’t pick Asimov because he was the first I recognized. Are insinuations like that your normal way of debating?

  2. Dan says:

    Atheism is a misnomer, to not believe in something is not the basis for a belief system.

    Those of us who don’t believe in the existence of deities have nothing else in common other than that.

  3. colinhutton says:

    An entertaining interview, thanks. An illuminating example of the fact that being very clever is no barrier to being utterly superficial and illogical.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I wouldn’t say the ontological mystery is logical or that religionists are more logical than atheists. As an agnostic, I see key points being made on both sides.

      Sartre argued that existence as we encounter it can never be wholly inferred in advance from logic. Existence simply presents itself to us as what is, and then we have to choose a response to it.

      Atheists tend to encounter existence pragmatically; religionists, in my view, tend to encounter existence fearfully, as something to be appeased in its mystery. I think religionists have got the mystery part right, but not the anal, sexually obsessed concern to please the mystery.

      The mystery just is. It doesn’t speak and God doesn’t speak (except perhaps via the mystery as a puzzle before us). Its depth is real, not an illusion. Art is one way we attempt to decode and notice some aspect of the puzzle EMOTIONALLY: it concretizes our response to the mystery and represents it back to us. I think part of the problem with much of contemporary art is that it is anti-conceptual and even anti-representational. It replaces mystery with irony, especially irony that is focused, not on the mystery, but on society. That is, it does not adopt the soul or cosmos as its central concern. The inner life and the big picture are mostly side-stepped. It reflects the stance of secular pragmatism, which is where most of us live most of the time. But there’s little nutrition there.

      –Santi

      • Alan says:

        Santi, consider your distain for aspects of religion from an evolutionary perspective. More specifically, ‘anal, sexually obsessed concern to please the mystery’. Of the thousands of religions among the tens of thousands of communities known to history, roughly which ones hold to this concern, and which never have?
        I think you will find the answer identical to the question of which communities build cities and which still live in camps or villages.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Alan,

        Cleanliness and daddy and mommy projection and pleasing are tied up with the religious response to the ontological mystery. Freud is right about religion being based in the anal and infantile. But that’s not all that is going on. That’s too instrumental. I think religion starts with the sheer awe of existence, then a groping around for some protection from its full mysterious force entering consciousness unregulated. It’s Oedipus plucking out his eyes. Religionists are drama queens. But the secularist simply acts pragmatically, like everything is fine. But that’s just another way of averting the eyes (without engaging in dramatic gesture).

        Aren’t these things obvious? What’s disdainful about saying what is true?

        –Santi

      • Alan says:

        You are twisting a half truth into vulgarity. I referenced my comment to evolution because society arose in this natural world. I suggest it far easier to fool Freud (and of course ourselves) than Mother Nature – which is why all civil societies have adopted the fundamentals of self restraint, self sacrifice, divine sacrifice and supplication into their religious traditions. Without the commitment to honor (the religious focus/mystery) there is no motivation to greatness. No temples, no cathedrals, no pyramids. No binding sense of community to inspire the necessary labors, no great or permanent works. You are calling for greatness while mocking the sacrifices (and the mind set) required to achieve it. It took far more than awe to build a pyramid or to paint the Sistine Chapel. You should be cautious buying into the popular myths of science. Where ever you find consistency in nature, be wary of dismissing it, and human communities compete in the natural world. Where you find consistency in religion, it is because that technique has out competed the alternatives. No civilization has ever been built without first convincing the larger segments of the public to work really hard to please their religious focus, their mystery.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that the world religions that predominate today have achieved their prominence by being well-adapted to their environments. They assist humans in their survival and the building of human cultures. Secularism is ill-suited to these tasks.

        But what if the environment is changing because of science, technology, and globalism? What if these are akin to the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs? It may be that religion in many of its current forms is ill-suited to the new human environment.

        I think that Paglia’s target is postmodern irony. It strikes her as a dead-end. What is needed is the confrontation with mystery and agon (struggle). Christian art is not especially powerful because of God, but because of Jesus, the agonizing amphibian (half deity, half man). Likewise, Greek tragedies are not so much powerful because they were devoted to the god Dionysus as that they depict the sublime struggle between Apollonian assertion and Dionysian resistance.

        What atheism is in danger of becoming is an irony and not an agon; a surface that scoffs at the idea of depth and meaning. If God is to be dead, you have to care that God is dead. God has to haunt as in Camus’s great novel, The Plague. It has all the pathos and mystery of the stations of the cross without being a religious novel. And yet God is present in the novel as absence. For atheism to maintain its artsy chops, God must be something missed, not just something deconstructed.

        What a lot of contemporary atheists seem to want is a sunny atheism; an atheism that not only intellectually denies God’s existence, but is happy that God doesn’t exist. This is not the best place for art to happen. Art needs loss and longing, not self-satisfaction.

      • Alan says:

        Yep. The evolving beast always chases the changing environment, trying to stay ahead of disaster. With science, the pace is accelerating. The more specific point I was aiming at that Paglia was not noticing and that you were lampooning is motivation. Sure, great works require inspiration as well, but all works require motivation and I am suggesting that instilling the desire to please the spiritual focus was probably the single greatest insight in human history for creating both inspiration and motivation. I believe that to be the last ‘feature’ of religion to target for change.

  4. colinhutton says:

    @ Staffan. You assert that atheists are incapable of creative artistic output. I happen to disagree, but I allow that the issue is debatable. In support of your assertion you point to a wiki list that, in fact, provides no such support. Is a sarcastic insinuation, in response to an egregious failure in logical argument, a legitimate debating tactic? I believe it is and therefore see no good reason to apologise for hurting your feelings.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Colin,

      I agree that Staffan’s “argument” is a logic-fail. But I do think that atheists who do not experience God as a real loss (as so many great writers and artists of the past have) undercut the tragic energies that make for art.

      If we’re satisfied that existence is one damn thing after another without any ultimate purpose, where does the eros for great art come from? It seems that our very casting from the Garden of Eden (either because of sin or because of atheism) could be a source of artistic energy. But if you deny that the Garden of Eden is even desirable, then what is the psyche working its way back to through representation?

      The atheists or doubting authors that are great and come to mind all Jacob-wrestled with the problem of suffering and God’s death (Shelley, Twain, Dostoevsky, Voltaire, Tennyson, Hardy, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, Tolstoy, George Eliot, John Updike, Emily Dickinson, etc.). The Christian authors in this list go with the atheists because they were filled with doubt and could just as easily have gone either way. Even if you eliminate God, you have to wrestle with his absence to make art because art is an overgoing; a reaching for the furthest border of what can be expressed.

      –Santi

      • Staffan says:

        If you need to include Christians in the category of prominent atheist writers, then I think you have proven my point. The only clear-cut atheist in your list is Sartre. Now that’s a logic fail.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I count seven clear-cut atheists in my list, and if you count Jacob-wrestling doubters and those hostile to religion generally, then just about every literary writer of note since Darwin’s Origin of Species could be put on such a list. People who think after Darwin cannot just take God for granted in an unironic way.

        I think Paglia’s target is the abandonment of depth (and tragic and ironic agon) for the sort of cool surface irony and left-politicization characteristic of postmodernism. It’s a place that secular atheism can go, but in doing so it abandons the eros for great art.

        I would put it in a simpler way: a happy and unhaunted atheist is likely to be a shitty artist. But that’s true of all happy and unhaunted people.

        Another issue is permanence and grandeur: part of the eros for making art is surely that one might make something that lasts (or that at least lasts a long time, sublimely deteriorating in agon with the ravages of deep time). But if existence is just one damn thing after another; and if you don’t take the sublime face-off of the human mind with nature as anything more than a contingent joke; and if you think the self is a social construction, then the persona is neutered and you may not be inclined to make the effort.

        Eat, drink, and be merry–the consumer and disposal ethos–seems to go with this sort of atheism, not agon against what is guessed to be a phantom. Contemporary atheism is very comfy–too comfy?–with our flash media culture. It’s adapted quite well to credit card capitalism but perhaps not to the sorts of capitalism that frowns and saves. It’s on the frowning and saving side of life–the determination to build something worthy of the future–that great art is likely to be made.

        When Richard Dawkins said, “God doesn’t exist, now go have lunch,” he might better have said, “God doesn’t exist, now take up canvas and brush.”

        –Santi

      • colinhutton says:

        Santi, your reasoned comments, here and earlier, regarding atheism and contemporary art provide grounds for a debate. An involved one, but I will try and muster a couple of short points in reply. However, this started, for me, with a brief comment on Paglia, so let me deal with her first. (Incidentally, even though I used the word myself in my earlier comment, I don’t believe the Salon piece qualifies as an interview. It simply provided a podium for her to grandstand her views, unchallenged.)

        We ordinary humans allow a great deal of latitude to those, male or female, who happen to be endowed with great beauty and wit. They often capitalise on this indulgence by being outrageous and provocative. Fair enough. However, we need to be extra alert about calling them out when they are irrational, or present their own, un-evidenced, opinions as fact.

        Paglia gives reasons (not dissimilar to those I gave in the comment I made earlier this week!) for why she considers that Romney would be a better president than Obama. However, because she does not like the motivations of a segment of Romney’s support base, she will vote for an unknown, no-hope, green candidate. That is perverse, self-indulgent and irrational.

        Regarding the arts, her underlying theses, which are no more than opinionated sweeping assertions, are that ‘Nothing is being produced in movies or the fine arts today (except in architecture) that is not derivative of something else’ and ‘the current impoverishment of the art world (is) because of its knee-jerk hostility to religion’. Her ‘reasoning’ in support of the assertions is no more than a superficial rant. We can conclude that she doesn’t like what David Hockney, Tracey Enim, Jeff Koons Damian Hirst et al are doing and blames Hitchens, and Dawkins, but does like I. M. Pei, Norman Foster, or whoever and that these are immune to those dreadful NAs. All quite entertaining, but not to be taken seriously.

        I am finding your points harder to argue against and somewhat different (certainly more nuanced), than those in Paglia’s rant. And I’ve run out of time for today. Will hopefully be able to muster something, tomorrow, more coherent than ‘I don’t agree’.

    • Staffan says:

      I think a list full of science and science fiction writers does support my argument. Can you compile a list with more prominent writers, musicians, artists of any sort? If you could you would have a case.

      And making insinuations in response to perceived logical failure is not legit. The civilized debater would just point out that the logic was flawed and show how. Your sarcasm didn’t constitute an argument in any way.

      • colinhutton says:

        Your first comment strawmanned atheists as a class. Neither the list nor any atheists claimed that Asimov was a literary giant. In this comment you are now strawmanning me. I neither said nor implied that my sarcasm was an argument (or even that it was a legitimate debating tactic) It was a smackdown for your illigitimate tactic. I am quite happy to engage in a debate with you provided you accept a smackdown when you have earned it and move on without playing the injured party card. .

  5. Staffan says:

    “I count seven clear-cut atheists in my list, and if you count Jacob-wrestling doubters and those hostile to religion generally, then just about every literary writer of note since Darwin’s Origin of Species could be put on such a list. People who think after Darwin cannot just take God for granted in an unironic way.”

    I don’t know what your definition is but seven clear-cut atheists? Voltaire called the atheist a monster and was terrified of getting buried in unconsecrated ground. Looking through the rest I can’t see any clear evidence of atheism in any one but Sartre and possibly Shelley, but that’s debated as you probably know. But even so, fact remains, your list is even by your own admission not a list of atheists. That alone says something.

    “I think Paglia’s target is the abandonment of depth (and tragic and ironic agon) for the sort of cool surface irony and left-politicization characteristic of postmodernism. It’s a place that secular atheism can go, but in doing so it abandons the eros for great art.

    I would put it in a simpler way: a happy and unhaunted atheist is likely to be a shitty artist. But that’s true of all happy and unhaunted people.”

    Personally, I think whether you are happy or haunted is only part of it. It’s most likely necessary to have some negative life experiences to be able to say something meaningful about life. Being close to death is for instance something you can’t fully understand unless you’ve actually been in that situation.

    But I believe there is also a problem in that atheists by their worldview deny the possibility of a world out of reach of the senses or one in which is not dictated by logic. Such constraints limit their imagination and this shows up when they try to be creative.

    “Another issue is permanence and grandeur: part of the eros for making art is surely that one might make something that lasts (or that at least lasts a long time, sublimely deteriorating in agon with the ravages of deep time). But if existence is just one damn thing after another; and if you don’t take the sublime face-off of the human mind with nature as anything more than a joke; and if you think the self is a social construction, then the persona is neutered and you may not be inclined to make the effort.

    Eat, drink, and be merry–the consumer and disposal ethos–seems to go with this sort of atheism, not agon against what is guessed to be a phantom.”

    You, and Paglia, seem to think that there is a meaningful way of being atheist. The problem with humanism is that it just hold some values without anything to back them up with – which is just as irrational as any religion. “Secular humanism is spiritually hollow right now because art is so weak”, she says. I would say secular humanism is by definition hollow and the fact that art is so weak is just an expression of that. She goes on to say,

    “If you don’t have art as a replacement for the Bible, then you’ve got nothing that is culturally sustaining.”

    The idea that art can replace the Bible is revealing. What would that atheist art contain that would somehow work as a substitution for religion?

    The sad truth is that the atheist can’t really offer anything in the form of values, faith, imagination. That’s why he sitting with a drink in his hand, complaining about religion, and showing off his intelligence in pointless debates. That’s all he’s got.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Staffan,

      I agree with you that humanism’s problem is nihilism. It tries to build values and meaning despite believing that existence is not grounded in mind and design, but matter and chance. If Nature is one damn thing after another, where’s the ground for values and meaning? What Nietzsche said we need is the Superman to overcome nihilism–some creative genius who can make of art a real counterweight to Nature. Humanism is frightened by Nietzsche, but has no satisfying answer to him (or religion).

      –Santi

  6. “The idea that art can replace the Bible is revealing. What would that atheist art contain that would somehow work as a substitution for religion?”
    Paglia’s basic argument, found in the first chapter of her first book Sexual Personae is that Nature, natural, human, male, and female, exists and that Nature is dark. It is like the Christian Fallen Man and we have Christ and the Holy Spirt to help us deal with our darkness. Paglia thinks art serves that purpose. She thinks art is how we express and therefore understand and exert some control over Nature. Art is how the atheist copes with Nature. Her problem with secular humanism right now is that art has been captured by relativists and has no real meaning, that liberals have rejected the idea of a dark nature—they are romantics who think that man is good but corrupted by society—so they don’t use art to shed light on the dark. She thinks, rightly, that this will tend to decadence and lead people to religion in self defense. So she wants to show meaning in art, to restore the expression of meaning in art. If art dies to the left, to the secular humanists, they are done.

    • Staffan says:

      Ok, but that doesn’t make art a substitute for religion. Sure it can serve as a way of coping with existential issues, but religion is more than that. It’s hope, revelation, miracles. And in the other direction I think these things envigor art, as I was trying to illustrate with the fact that what I take to be clear-cut atheist are lacking in creativity. When you look at their art – Paglia mentions the tv show Mad Men – it is just recycling and polishing ideas that were already there in the first place. And these polishers have not hijacked art, it’s open for anyone – even the cartoonists who made fun of Muhammed are still alive – so just maybe Paglia is dreaming about a meaningful atheism that by definition can’t exist.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Staffan,

        In other words, a non-nihilistic atheism may be an oxymoron. Good point.

        Is it then cruel to castigate the atheist for not making more meaningful art?

        –Santi

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      AHL,

      You summarize Paglia’s argument in Sexual Personae admirably, but the irony is in how glib it sounds when you say, “Art is how the atheist copes with Nature.” That’s actually the problem. The contemporary atheist is NOT COPING with Nature because no one within contemporary atheism is actually wielding the sword of art with adequate force to tame Nature. If Nature is one damn thing after another–that is, if Nature’s heart is not just dark Dionysian energy but NIHILISM–then the task of the atheist artist is monumental: to overcome Nature and nihilism by art, you must offer something for humans to VALUE in spite of God’s death.

      Religion has always had it easy. Posit God and you have an antidote to Nature and nihilism and a ground for art and philosophy. The atheist, however, must do art and philosophy so compellingly that it has the power to replace God and theology as sources of value and meaning.

      I’m making, of course, Nietzsche’s argument on the need for an “overman”–someone who wills and fashions art, language, music, and architecture so creatively that a godless universe is made livable by him. In a way, the first “overman” was the person who came up with the idea of God. The task of those who reject that idea may thus be in an ultimately unresolvable situation. Their efforts at remedying nihilism are most likely to result in an epic fail.

      Therefore, Nietzsche, conservatives, and Camille Paglia are probably placing atheists in a double-bind. Or, rather, atheists are “always already” in a double-bind by rejecting God, and Nietzsche, conservatives, and Paglia are saying, “Do art so well that values and meaning can be derived from it.”

      Easier said than done.

      Maybe atheists should be content with their bad postmodern art and capitalist “last man” status and not heed the siren call to attempt epic things.

      As one producer in Hollywood put it, “They call it show business, not show art.” Maybe to be an atheist is to give up the quest, not just for God, but for any larger ephemera.

      –Santi

  7. Staffan says:

    @colinhutton

    I respond to arguments but not to what you call smackdowns. I suggest you debate with someone who enjoys that sort of thing.

  8. colinhutton says:

    Santi – continuing from yesterday. In your comment responding to Alan you say “I think that Paglia’s target is postmodern irony” I disagree with you. Her target is atheism/atheists. That is especially clear in light of her ad hominem attacks on Hitchens and Dawkins. I stand by everything I said about her in my comment yesterday.

    If I read the totality of your comments as being a critique of postmodern irony, as I now do, I do not have any significant disagreement. However, to the extent that you may be building on (as opposed to re-interpreting) what Paglia says, the whole edifice is on shaky grounds. Her comments relate to the fine arts and cinema (is that an art??) and, as I pointed out yesterday, her underlying theses are dodgy.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Colin,

      You are right. In retrospect, Paglia’s target is larger than I narrowed it to. At first, I felt she overstated her case and I was trying to make it more defensible. But actually I think she means what she says and is calling on atheists to match the ambitions of religious art in the realms of values and of meaning. But her provocation is, the more I think about it, a double-bind on atheism.

      What I wasn’t seeing earlier in the week, but that I now see clearly, is that Paglia’s provocation is actually the one Nietzsche already tried to respond to after he thought about the universe post-Darwin. Nietzsche’s Superman–the creative genius who makes values and meaning of art after the death of God and after concluding that Nature is one damn thing after another–is Nietzsche’s answer to Paglia. And, indeed, it is the only answer. And it is an impossible answer. And yet it must be attempted.

      If one is an atheist, one must try to make the absurd effort of creatively making values and meaning against the background of nihilism–to “overgo” nihilism. It’s a monumental task of spell-casting; as large as the spell cast by religion. It’s what Nietzsche and Paglia are calling the artist to.

      Paglia, however, blunts Nietzsche, castigating atheists for being dismissive of religion. She’s saying, in effect, that art needs religion for values and meaning and that the secular world has to find its way back to, at minimum, some “respect” for it. But, actually, Nietzsche is saying, “No. You can’t go back. The task is to make art after God has died.”

      The contemporary humanist and postmodern world is declining the task to make larger values and meaning in art in any form, and that’s what pisses Paglia off (and would have pissed off Nietzsche).

      The contemporary art world’s affinities are with show business and Nietzsche’s last man, not with religion or the Superman.

      And, of course, democratic humanists are terrified of Nietzsche. They’re thus stuck in the middle between Paglia tugging them toward religion and Nietzsche tugging them toward the Superman.

      Better to become a couch potato, flipping channels with a bag of Doritos and a Prozac prescription?

      –Santi

      • colinhutton says:

        “Paglia, however, blunts Nietzsche, castigating atheists for being dismissive of religion. She’s saying, in effect, that art needs religion for values and meaning and that the secular world has to find its way back to, at minimum, some “respect” for it. But, actually, Nietzsche is saying, “No. You can’t go back. The task is to make art after God has died.”.” QFT

        Now that I ‘do’ like. It explains, for me, why my reaction to Paglia was, and remains, a choice between disdain/amusement and pure rage. The notion that I, as an atheist, could ever be so dishonest as to grant religion even one iota of respect is a total anathema to me.

        It also explains why I found it difficult to find major fault with the totality of your comments. Since, if I understood you correctly, you were outlining the problem faced by atheism/atheists. And I have no doubt there ‘is’ a problem. I am confident, however, that it will be solved.

        Though not by me. The Doritos are to-hand. Now all I have to do is refer this post and comments to my GP and the Prozac should follow.

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