Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11th, Evil, and my Favorite Novelist Defending An Ethical Atheist Worldview

PBS just ran a Frontline program called Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. I tuned in just as they showed a clip of Bushie intoning "Today our nation saw evil," followed by a voiceover: "What was unusual about the president's words was his use of "evil" as a noun. Not merely evildoers or evil acts, but evil."

The various ways Bush has introduced a radical evangelical Christian cosmology into the mainstream are fascinating. My interest was piqued, and there were just enough smart observations (usually from humanities professors rather than theologians) to keep me going. But too often it felt like some interfaith roundtable exchange of "here's what my church believes" and "well, here's what my synagogue believes." And call me heartless, but I found some of the more sentimental I mean moving moments campy. I mean, they actually included a clip of a cantor singing voicemails from 9/11 victims, which he apparently does every morning. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to burst into tears or laughter as he arch-earnestly warbled "wassup mom, it's tiffany, how you doin" or whatever.

Shortly after that bit of sentimental folly, or maybe after some theology professor discussed Moby Dick, no, actually I think it was just after Renee Fleming tried not to sound stupid as she explained that 9/11 "really made me think for a long time," there was finally a crisp gust of reason. Ian McEwan. My brilliant, beloved Ian McEwan finally spoke for the Left Behinds nation: (click here for his full, very good interview, in which he more explicitly criticizes extremist thinking of all types)

I don't really believe in evil at all. I mean, I don't believe in God, and I certainly don't, therefore, believe in some sort of supernatural or trans-historical force that somehow organizes life on dark or black principles. I think there are only people behaving -- and sometimes behaving monstrously. And sometimes their monstrous behavior is so beyond our abilities to explain it, we have to reach for this numinous notion of evil. But I think it's often better to try and understand it in real terms ... either political or psychological terms. There's something, at the same time, very, very attractive about this word. ... It's a great intensifier. It just lets us say that we thoroughly abhor this behavior.

But it's quite clear, as a species ... in our nature, we are capable of acts of extraordinary love and kindness, and inventiveness, and mutual aid. And, on the other side, we are capable of acts of extraordinary destruction. And I think it's inherent. I think one of the great tasks of art is really to explore that. ...

But I'm a little suspicious of the way we want to throw up our hands and just say, "Well, it's evil." It's us. You know? And any reflection on, for example, the Holocaust, probably our greatest, lowest moment in modern history, has to finally reflect on what it is we seem to be able to be capable of. Especially once we have the power of technology to kill on a vast scale. ...

I think we have to beware, too, of treating September the 11th as the only and most spectacular event of human cruelty. There have been many, many acts of cruelty. Some of them on an even larger scale. So I can't accept the notion that somehow this punctures our understanding of human nature. We have before us, in the 20th century alone, acts of unbelievable depravity. Deliberate, methodical, bureaucratic, technological destruction of human lives in the Holocaust, for example. ... And we see it again now in those men, in those awful lunatics with their fixed beliefs. We see it again. ...


UPDATE:

I stand corrected. McEwan's lines actually came just after a professor of Islamic law declared "I believe that demons do exist. I think their will is contingent upon ours - in other words, they exploit our own weaknesses." I remember thinking "wait, did that guy really just say he believes in demons? Like with horns and wings?" before McEwan sauntered in as the voice of reason. Renee Fleming was actually just after McEwan, and she was not completely stupid (she prattled on relativistically about how "we live in a world of grey" not black and white, but whatever). He's just a tough act to follow.

1 Comments:

  • At 3:01 AM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I'm sure you meant to say your favorite published atheist novelist.

     

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