curious rise of anti-religious hysteria
It is the Anglo-American cultural elites' insecurity about
their own values that encourages their frenzied attacks on religion.
The verdict of my son's 10-year-old mates was that it was 'not
bad', but a little bit 'boring'. Maddie, a sassy nine-year-old,
said it was 'okay for young kids' but it was not in the same league
as King Kong. In a few years' time, these kids will recall the unexceptional
film that was Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The
Wardrobe and wonder why it attracted so much adult controversy.
The intense and venomous attacks on the Disney-produced Narnia film
are truly puzzling. The novelist Phillip Pullman has described CS
Lewis' original book as 'one of the most ugly, poisonous things
I have ever read'. With the zeal of a veteran cultural crusader
Polly Toynbee of the UK Guardian cut straight to the chase: 'Narnia
represents everything that is most hateful about religion.'
What Toynbee seems to find most hateful about religion is that it
is able to express a powerful sense of faith. 'US born-agains are
using the movie', she warned. Many critics seem especially outraged
by this prospect of religious organisations 'using' the film to
promote their faith. The advocacy group Media Transparency warns
that the film is based on a book that has a 'frankly religious element'
- which is not really surprising when you consider that the author
was a well-known publicist for Christianity. What is surprising,
however, is that Christians promoting Christian propaganda should
invite such bitter condemnation.
First there was the controversy provoked by Mel Gibson's The Passion
of the Christ in 2004, and now there is this censorious dismissal
of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Both are testaments to
a potent mood of intolerance towards expressions of religious faith
in popular culture today. The artistic representation of religious
conviction is frequently stigmatised with terms such as 'fundamentalist',
'intolerant', 'dogmatic', 'exclusive', 'irrational' or 'right-wing'.
As a secular humanist who is instinctively uncomfortable with zealot-like
moralism, I am suspicious of the motives behind these doctrinaire
denunciations of films with a religious message. Such fervour reminds
me of the way that reactionaries in the past policed Hollywood for
hints of blasphemy or expressions of 'Un-American values'. Replacing
the zealotry of religious intolerance with a secular version is
hardly an enlightened alternative.
I wonder how today's anti-religious crusaders would respond to The
Nun's Story, the 1959 film about a woman who gives up everything
to become a nun? Would it be denounced as a subversive plot to manipulate
the emotions of vulnerable girls? Or a conspiracy to give fundamentalism
a human face? Might it be described as a sick film with a subliminal
plot that promoted the 'Just Say No' campaign?
There is little doubt that if Ben Hur (1959, starring Charlton Heston)
was released today it would be denounced as a shameless attempt
to promote 'muscular Christianity'. As for the wretched 1947 film
Miracle on 34th Street! Its privileging of Christmas would be crucified
as a crude example of the politics of exclusion. Instead of enjoying
the acclaim of the cultural elites of old, films like The Robe,
Quo Vadis or The Ten Commandments are today likely to be dismissed
as insidious and disturbing religious propaganda.
Until recently, cultural expressions of religious faith were simply
considered old-fashioned and gauche. But over the past decade, scorn
has turned into bigotry and hatred.
It is a sign of the times that even some of the people associated
with the making of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe self-consciously
deny that the film has a Christian agenda. 'We believe we have not
made a religious movie', said Dennis Rice, Disney's senior vice
president of publicity. Andrew Adamson, the film's director, says
the story's obvious Christian message is 'open to the audience to
interpret'. 'Faith is in the eyes of the beholder', said actress
Tilda Swinton, who plays the White Witch. This defensive response
suggests that the alleged 'muscular Christianity' behind the film
is in fact rather flabby. According to Stanley Mattson, president
of the CS Lewis Foundation in Redlands, California, such defensiveness
is understandable since today's cultural elites tend to discredit
anything judged 'Christian'.
The attempts to dissociate the film from any explicit Christian
project are not only motivated by commercial thinking. Despite the
claims of the anti-religious crusaders - especially in the US -
that the Christian right is on the rise, in fact in cultural terms
it is increasingly marginalised. Films with a Christian message
find it difficult to convey a powerful sense of faith and meaning.
Instead, religious values and beliefs tend to be transmitted through
non-human anthropomorphic forms. The attempt to endow even the behaviour
of penguins with transcendental meaning - in the widely acclaimed
March of the Penguins - is symptomatic of this theological illiteracy.
The enthusiasm with which Christian organisations embraced March
of the Penguins showed up their disorientation, if not desperation,
rather than their aggressive confidence. After the penguin it is
the turn of another animal - Aslan, the lion in the Narnia film
- to serve as a symbol of innocence, sacrifice and resurrection.
What beast will Christian filmmakers pick next?
Even when films depict religiosity in human terms, such as in the
figure of Christ in Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, it tends
to be in a degraded fashion. In Gibson's vision Jesus is reduced
to little more than a lump of meat, the victim of whippings and
abuse whose physical suffering is shown in gruesome detail. It is
far from uplifting.
So preoccupied are the critics of religious activism with the alleged
threat posed by their enemies that they fail to notice that many
Christian groups lack the courage of their convictions today, and
seem to doubt the authority of their own faith. This is particularly
striking in relation to the controversy surrounding Intelligent
Design. This theory holds that certain features of the universe,
and of animal and human life, are 'best explained' as having an
'intelligent cause' rather than being the product of natural selection.
Many see only the danger of superstition in Intelligent Design,
describing it as a new form of Creationism on the march. They overlook
the remarkable concession that Intelligent Design makes to the authority
Unable to justify creationism as a matter of faith based on divine
revelation, advocates of Intelligent Design are forced to adopt
the language of science to legitimate their arguments and the existence
of some kind of God. This highlights their theological opportunism
and inability to justify religion in its own terms. Of course Intelligent
Design isn't science; but its appeal to faith in science exposes
the limits of the authority of religious faith today.
Superstition and prejudice should continually be countered by rational
argument. But the vitriolic invective hurled at Christian believers
today is symptomatic of the passions normally associated with a
fanatical Inquisitor. Like the old Spanish Inquisition, anti-religious
fanatics are constantly on the look out for fundamentalist plots.
Richard Dawkins' recent two-part TV rant against religion on Channel
4 demonstrated the fanatical intolerance of critics of religion.
The language and tone adopted by the anti-religious crusade - especially
in the US - frequently acquires pathological dimensions. So, many
anti-religious warriors repeat Dawkins' assertion that St Paul's
idea of atonement for original sin is 'essentially, psychological
and emotional child abuse' (1).
Others continue to attack religious organisations for trying to
exploit films with a religious message or motif. There is a double
standard at work here. After all, films and propaganda are inextricably
linked. AIDS campaigners, for example, embraced films such as Philadelphia
- in which Tom Hanks played a dignified man dying from AIDS - for
the positive way they promote their cause. Currently gay organisations
are celebrating Ang Lee's gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain for
its affirmation of gay love and identity. 'Using' films to promote
a cause is hardly the prerogative of religious movements.
So what is the liberal elite so worried about?
The fantasy of theocratic menace
The liberal elite's obsession with the insidious threat posed by
faith-based films is paralleled by its paranoia about the religious
right. Anti-religious crusaders, in particular in the US, continually
exaggerate the influence of Christianity in culture and politics.
Every time I visit America, this fear seems to have worsened. Raising
the alarm about Christian fundamentalists has become a taken-for-granted
affectation among those who define themselves as liberal or left-wing,
who are forever telling horror stories about the power of the religious
It is now commonplace to attribute the re-election of President
George W Bush in 2004 to his army of religious supporters. 'The
fundamentalists and evangelicals who came out in such great numbers
in this election are driven, and have always been driven, by fear',
argues one critic of creeping theocracy (2). Instead of asking the
harder question of why some of their own arguments fail to resonate
with significant sections of the public, many prefer to point the
finger at the religious right and blame them for using 'fear' and
The idea that religious fundamentalism is on the offensive and threatening
to dominate public life is widely held on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is fuelled by the belief that recent developments in the world
of politics point to a revival of moralism. Many liberal commentators
argue, for example, that the re-election of Bush was made possible
by the ability of the religious right to connect with the search
for meaning among everyday folk. According to this now-standard
interpretation, much of the public 'found a "politics of meaning"
in the political Right'. Why? Because 'in the right-wing churches
and synagogues these voters are presented with a coherent worldview
that speaks to their "meaning needs"' (3).
The religious right is often said to be mobilising and gaining support
around values that appeal to a primitive and simplistic electorate.
That is why even a kids' film like The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
can provoke such hostility. The liberal elite's unease with religion
is often motivated by the fear that it will become even more isolated
from the public unless it can engage with the 'big questions' they
are apparently asking. It is also concerned that unless it can project
a positive vision on to society, people will become influenced by
value-driven 'extremists', by religious and political organisations
that are hostile to the status quo. In short, religion is seen as
a powerful force that appeals to those apparently simple people
whom sophisticated members of the elite cannot reach.
Such beliefs are underpinned by the patronising assumption that,
unlike educated urbane people, ordinary members of the public need
simplistic black-and-white answers about the meaning of life. In
private conversation, some in the liberal elite discuss the masses
- or 'rednecks', Nascar dads, tabloid readers, etc - as being crass,
materialistic, simplistic, racist, sexist, homophobic.
New theories are doing the rounds to account for the kind of audience
that flocks to see The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and other
feelgood films and who respond to the appeals of the religious right.
George Lakoff - whose book Don't Think of An Elephant has become
a kind of bible that explains their electoral demise for many liberal
Democrats in the US - describes those who tend to vote for Bush
as the products of authoritarian 'strict father families' who are
motivated by self-interest, greed and competitiveness. These people
hate 'nurturance and care', apparently, are religious bigots and
lack the therapeutic sensibilities of their liberal cousins.
In the guise of a political theory, Lakoff offers a diagnosis of
human inferiority. You can almost hear him murmur: 'They actually
take their children to see The Passion of the Christ….' In
previous times, such contempt for people was the trademark of the
authoritarian right. In today's 'inclusive' society, it is okay
to denigrate sections of the electorate as simpletons if they are
still gripped by the power of faith.
Lakoff and others argue that many people who vote for Bush, or who
are influenced by the religious right, simply do not know what is
in their best interests. Instead of acknowledging the failure of
its own political projects, the liberal elite prefers to indict
sections of the public for being thick and gullible.
This trend for blaming the rise of theocracy on ordinary folks'
apparent penchant for simplistic black-and-white solutions shifts
the focus from the elite's failure to promote and uphold a positive
vision of the future on to the alleged political illiteracy of the
masses. That is why discussions of so-called fundamentalist movements
often contain an implicit condemnation of the people who support
them - and why the alleged creations of fundamentalist culture are
implicitly condemned as immoral. It is the insecurity of the Anglo-American
cultural elites about their own values and moral vision of the world
that encourages their frenzied attacks on religion. There is a powerful
element of bad faith here: many leftists and liberals denounce those
who appeal to moral values as being inferior, but they are also
envious of them. So when the 'progressive' Rabbi Michael Lerner
criticises his fellow liberals for their 'long-standing disdain
for religion' and for being 'tone-deaf to the spiritual needs that
underline the move to the Right', he is implicitly paying homage
to the power of persuasion among his fundamentalist opponents (4).
In the confused cultural elite's fears of a powerful religious right
winning over the masses, we can see a good example of bad faith
worrying about real faith.
If you can't beat them…
Lerner represents a growing body of liberal and centrist opinion
that recognises it is not enough simply to denounce religion. Intemperate
attacks on the religious right resonate with progressives, but such
attacks clearly do little to undermine the powerful search for meaning
that prevails across society. That is why a growing number of liberal
and leftist politicians have called for a new moral dimension in
their own political platforms.
In the US, this argument was eloquently spelled out by Roberto Unger
and Cornel West in their book The Future of American Progressivism
(1998) and by Thomas Frank in his influential What's The Matter
With America? (2004). Frank believes that values are important because
they can connect with what he refers to as 'they'; that is, normal
people. Across the Atlantic in the UK, this point is echoed by New
Labour minister Douglas Alexander. In his pamphlet Telling It Like
It Could Be, Alexander expresses his concerns that the Labour Party
will lose its way if it does not discover a sense of moral purpose.
The sense of desperation with which some opportunist politicians
are searching for moral values indicates what they really hate about
the Narnia film: that Aslan is not on their side. Aslan possesses
a superabundance of faith - something that the cultural and liberal
elite conspicuously lack. When Lerner exclaims that the 'last time
Democrats had real social power was when they linked their legislative
agenda with a spiritual politics articulated by Martin Luther King',
he only draws attention to the moral wasteland inhabited by his
political associates today (5).
There is now a new genre of pseudo-religious political books written
by the spiritual mentors of the left. Lerner's Spirit Matters: Global
Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul succeeds in combining the platitudes
usually associated with third-rate self-help books with the mumbo-jumbo
generally associated with dogmatic religious tracts. However, when
it comes to banality, Jim Wallis' God's Politics: Why the Right
Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It beats his competitors
to the post. This motivational text became an instant bestseller
as Democrats looked for ready-made moral formulae with which they
might connect with common people. Wallis, billed as a left-wing
Evangelical, is critical of the secular dismissal of religion and
offers moral values to the disoriented liberal.
The problem with politically motivated calls for the restoration
of a moral dimension to public life is that they are driven by the
instrumental purpose of gaining or retaining power. But a morality
manufactured in response to the demands of political pragmatism
is bound to lack any organic relationship to lived experience, and
is thus unlikely to find resonance with the wider public. An unfocused
and disconnected oligarchy is unlikely to possess sufficient sensitivity
to the day-to-day problems confronting the public. That is why the
pragmatic search for a ready-made moral purpose usually turns into
an arbitrary exercise in picking and choosing some inoffensive values.
Alexander ends up by opting for the public service ethos of the
National Health Service and tackling world poverty - but it could
as easily have been world peace or compassion towards the infirm
or the celebration of respect, etc. These arbitrary lists of New
Labour Hurrah Values only highlight the absence of a purposeful
moral perspective that grows from engagement with the public and
At the end of the day, politically motivated calls among liberals
and the left for morality are not so far from the way in which Christians
'use' The March of the Penguins or The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Both are cynical gestures driven by political calculations rather
than by a moral inspiration that comes from the soul. What is particularly
cynical is that these attempts to construct a 'moral dimension'
are always aimed at others: those who apparently need 'simple' answers
and 'meaning'. Such a cynical view of the public was clearly spelled
out by William Davies of the London-based Institute for Public Policy
research. 'The liberal, secular left has somehow to find ways of
supplying citizens with emotional and metaphysical comforts even
when it does not itself believe in such things', he warned (6).
This provision of so-called metaphysical comforts serves the same
function that adult-invented cautionary tales play for children.
Which takes us back to Narnia: clearly the problem is not the comforts
provided by CS Lewis, but the way in which they're branded.
A final point. The very term 'metaphysical comforts' suggests
values built by calculation, instrumentalism, manipulation and cynicism.
Morality marketed by people who do not necessarily 'believe in such
things' is unlikely to set the world on fire. That is why they resent
and hate the Narnia film so much. For all its faults, the movie
attempts to transmit a powerful sense of belief, bravery and sacrifice.
Such sentiments are alien to a cultural elite that regards the expression
of any sort of strong belief as another form of that dreaded fundamentalism.
Envy, bad faith and instrumentalism: these are the raw materials
that fuel today's anti-religious crusade.
(1) See Mel Seesholtz, 'Religion and child abuse, fundamentalism
and politics, Justice Sunday III and Pastor Latham', Online Journal;
17 January 2006.
(2) See Todd May, 'Religion, The Election, And The Politics of Fear'.
(3) Democracts Need a Religious Left, Michael Lerner, Beliefnet
(4) Democracts Need a Religious Left, Michael Lerner, Beliefnet
(5) Democracts Need a Religious Left, Michael Lerner, Beliefnet
(6) William Davies, 'Will the secular left continue bowling alone?',
New Statesman, 15 November 2004.
published on spiked, 23 January 2006