[Paleopsych] Telegraph: Umberto Eco: God isn't big enough for some people
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Fri Dec 9 21:34:22 UTC 2005
Umberto Eco: God isn't big enough for some people
[This completely backs up what Lene told me, namely that the secularization
thesis (with modernization secularism) has failed in Europe, too:
Christianity's decline has been replaced by the rise of New Age religions.]
We are now approaching the critical time of the year for shops and
supermarkets: the month before Christmas is the four weeks when
stores of all kinds sell their products fastest. Father Christmas
means one thing to children: presents. He has no connection with
the original St Nicholas, who performed a miracle in providing
dowries for three poor sisters, thereby enabling them to marry and
escape a life of prostitution.
Human beings are religious animals. It is psychologically very hard
to go through life without the justification, and the hope,
provided by religion. You can see this in the positivist scientists
of the 19th century.
They insisted that they were describing the universe in rigorously
materialistic terms - yet at night they attended seances and tried
to summon up the spirits of the dead. Even today, I frequently meet
scientists who, outside their own narrow discipline, are
superstitious - to such an extent that it sometimes seems to me
that to be a rigorous unbeliever today, you have to be a
philosopher. Or perhaps a priest.
And we need to justify our lives to ourselves and to other people.
Money is an instrument. It is not a value - but we need values as
well as instruments, ends as well as means. The great problem faced
by human beings is finding a way to accept the fact that each of us
Money can do a lot of things - but it cannot help reconcile you to
your own death. It can sometimes help you postpone your own death:
a man who can spend a million pounds on personal physicians will
usually live longer than someone who cannot. But he can't make
himself live much longer than the average life-span of affluent
people in the developed world.
And if you believe in money alone, then sooner or later, you
discover money's great limitation: it is unable to justify the fact
that you are a mortal animal. Indeed, the more you try escape that
fact, the more you are forced to realise that your possessions
can't make sense of your death.
It is the role of religion to provide that justification. Religions
are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their
existence and which reconcile us to death. We in Europe have faced
a fading of organised religion in recent years. Faith in the
Christian churches has been declining.
The ideologies such as communism that promised to supplant religion
have failed in spectacular and very public fashion. So we're all
still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the
inevitability of our own death.
G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: "When a man ceases
to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in
anything." Whoever said it - he was right. We are supposed to live
in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous
The "death of God", or at least the dying of the Christian God, has
been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have
multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church --
from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian
superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.
It is amazing how many people take that book literally, and think
it is true. Admittedly, Dan Brown, its author, has created a legion
of zealous followers who believe that Jesus wasn't crucified: he
married Mary Magdalene, became the King of France, and started his
own version of the order of Freemasons. Many of the people who now
go to the Louvre are there only to look at the Mona Lisa, solely
and simply because it is at the centre of Dan Brown's book.
The pianist Arthur Rubinstein was once asked if he believed in God.
He said: "No. I don't believe in God. I believe in something
greater." Our culture suffers from the same inflationary tendency.
The existing religions just aren't big enough: we demand something
more from God than the existing depictions in the Christian faith
can provide. So we revert to the occult. The so-called occult
sciences do not ever reveal any genuine secret: they only promise
that there is something secret that explains and justifies
everything. The great advantage of this is that it allows each
person to fill up the empty secret "container" with his or her own
fears and hopes.
As a child of the Enlightenment, and a believer in the
Enlightenment values of truth, open inquiry, and freedom, I am
depressed by that tendency. This is not just because of the
association between the occult and fascism and Nazism - although
that association was very strong. Himmler and many of Hitler's
henchmen were devotees of the most infantile occult fantasies.
The same was true of some of the fascist gurus in Italy - Julius
Evola is one example - who continue to fascinate the neo-fascists
in my country. And today, if you browse the shelves of any bookshop
specialising in the occult, you will find not only the usual tomes
on the Templars, Rosicrucians, pseudo-Kabbalists, and of course The
Da Vinci Code, but also anti-semitic tracts such as the Protocols
of the Elders of Zion.
I was raised as a Catholic, and although I have abandoned the
Church, this December, as usual, I will be putting together a
Christmas crib for my grandson. We'll construct it together - as my
father did with me when I was a boy. I have profound respect for
the Christian traditions - which, as rituals for coping with death,
still make more sense than their purely commercial alternatives.
I think I agree with Joyce's lapsed Catholic hero in A Portrait of
the Artist as a Young Man: "What kind of liberation would that be
to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to
embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?" The religious
celebration of Christmas is at least a clear and coherent
absurdity. The commercial celebration is not even that.
o Umberto Eco's latest book is The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
(Secker & Warburg, £17.99)
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