Religion II

In an earlier article on religion, I expressed a few basic thoughts: Uncertainty with regard to religion in a modern age leads to various tentative interpretive positions; people let an inherent need for veneration become the worship of music; and, the dominance of science has lead many people to question the relevance of art. I ended with a reasonably succinct discussion of the second basic idea, but now I want to explore the relationship between the first and third more carefully, especially as some points were glossed over due to what was ultimately my own trepidation regarding the topic. First of all, there is a burgeoning distinction between music as a component of religion and music as art, especially as the former eschews disinterest and is consequently more capable of aligning feedback. The idea that one should not really feel anything directly, but rather with a type of skeptical detachment, is certainly a factor to consider when examining public reaction to religion in music. The skepticism itself is born at least partly of a scientific orientation, or at least correlates with it, and the sort of artistic detachment cultivated means not only a lack of articulation, but frequently a very bland smoothed-over sound also associated with the modern concert tradition.

In many circles, hard core skepticism is glorified as a pillar of science today. I disagree. To be a good scientist, one must certainly be open to changing one's position in the face of new evidence, and indeed one must be open to seeking new evidence, but what then is to be gained by carrying doubt into one's daily interactions? It may be a subtle distinction, but the latter can yield too easily to cynicism, an obviously negative thought pattern. The truth is that most "skeptics" believe some things very deeply, their professed skepticism being largely a front for bashing other ideas while shielding their own basically orthogonal ones. That is the big problem I have with the contemporary notion that religion is for the feebleminded, and that educated people know better now. It is all arrogance, since what has really changed? We have people taking specific and fiercely argued positions on the nature of "reality" beyond ordinary experience, and we have them believing and stating that their position is best. That is the sum of atheism to me. One cannot apply the same criticism to agnosticism, but then regular readers will know that I am no fan of wishy-washy nothingness. Or put another way: If one is once going to perform a piece of music, even if one thinks that various performance options are equally valid, one must nonetheless pick one and pick it with enough conviction to pull off the interpretation! Maybe tomorrow one picks something else; I can live with that.

So atheism is the dominant intellectual position of our time, is it not? With all their talk of Occam's Razor, it can be easy for atheists to forget that the intent of religion has always been to make people into good people, people who are worthy neighbors and citizens of the world at large. Yes, there have been many obvious abuses by narrow-minded authorities who stamped out individual expression or valuable ideas. But let us examine the lowest common denominator anything-goes mentality cultivated today. What I see is more & more of society openly sticking it to anyone, for any reason. I stated that one role of religion has been to "exemplify the good" and so, is this the "good" of atheism? It is fine to identify abuses, cases of someone speaking of ethics and then doing bad in spite of or because of them, and maybe it is actually better simply to do the bad deed openly and without misdirection. However, that view holds only when considering each bad deed individually, yet we see that doing bad deeds openly merely lets them build upon each other. It is all too easy today to hear what were once "the seven deadly sins" held up as positive traits — not "live and let live" or "mind your own business," both ideas to which I can relate, but out-and-out positive traits! I have mocked ideas of enlightenment in the past, and I have suggested that ideas of Renaissance rest on an arrogance concerning the past, and so I find it easy to believe that the unbridled patronizing hubris of today turns all values upside-down.

Immaturity is easy to sustain, and in fact it takes a firm hand to dispel it. Consequently, it is easy for self-doubting people to want to feel superior to someone else. If it manifestly creates conflict to feel superior to one's neighbors, not that that stops many people, why not feel superior to the past? Then we can all feel superior together. It is a tidy notion, but one which strikes at the foundation of who we are. It is easy to declare ourselves "enlightened" and it has become easy to follow one new technology with the next, but it is rather less easy to see that people are more content with their daily lives. If anything, they are more harried than ever before, because a drive for progress or novelty for its own sake is self-defeating. For all their straightjacket ideas, this is one thing which religions have always understood, and it is a tension reflected directly onto music today in the balance between tradition & creativity. It is certainly true that atheists as a group include many good people, and indeed it is basically impossible for atheism not to change from a symbol of rebellion into a tradition (or religion, if you will) of its own. How that will affect the rather unpleasant combination of insipid expression (I insist that "up is down" is not an interesting statement) and personal cynicism which dominates the contemporary landscape remains to be seen, but one cannot always avoid the image of rats in an overcrowded cage, an image only exacerbated by an emphasis on overstimulation and lack of silence. I must hope that my grandchildren will have had enough of this cycle.

What this rather contentious discussion needs by way of conclusion, a topic I may have rehashed far too often, is consideration of the effects on the role & status of the creative musician today. First of all, I insist that brightly-colored diversity is inherently better than insipid sameness, and ask that musical interpretations seek the former. The first glories in a multiplicity of views, while the second cowers from them. The reader might notice that I discuss the situation with respect to religion in some of the same language I use for the situation with respect to art. They share similar circumstances today, essentially discarded by people who feel no need for them yet whose lives are nonetheless conditioned by their less-considered replacements. Art & religion are in very similar circumstances now, retreating against the onslaught of technological dominance in our culture, yet their antagonism toward each other is on the rise. The latter is part of a cycle, but it may also be driven by the same forces which are said to make academic battles so vicious — both are fighting for the last scraps of society's attention. Both have been oriented toward enriching lives, as opposed to the new religion of technology (its elite intellectual arm being atheism) which is at best oriented toward neutral options, and at worst toward more money in the hands of its pushers. In that context, the relevance of art is tied closely to the relevance of religion, and so it is ultimately a conviction for something beyond the most mundane practicality or amusement which is required for an artistic statement.

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Todd M. McComb