Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Religions of the Cultural Elites

Interesting review (entitled, "Mystics of a Materialist Age) of what appears to be a very interesting book on the role of drugs in the historical development of European-American literature: Marcus Boon's The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs. It is particularly timely in the context of recent scuffles over Richard Dawkins's and Sam Harris's attacks on religion (which I admit I have yet to read, but which I plan to comment on here, when I get to them).

In his review of Harris, Alexander Saxton quotes the author: "At the core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition: [that] it is possible to have one's experience of the world radically transformed." Sure, but religion is hardly unique in this respect. Justus Nieland's review quotes Boon: "Psychedelics point out in a very direct and dramatic way that radical, rapid shifts in consciousness are possible."

Shocking! Religion and drugs share an element of consciousness-alteration. Who doesn't know this already? And why do we still need either religion or psychedelics to know this about consciousness? Haven't any of these people ever fallen in love?

Leaving aside for now the question of whether one (of drugs and religion . . . or love, for that matter) is more pernicious than the other, and in what way(s), a summary question for Boon from Nieland:

Finally, given Boon's sympathy for the quintessentially modern desire for transcendence, and his explicit "call for a proliferation of alternative methods of obtaining gnosis," more attention might have been paid to the specific political horizons that have historically given rise to and constrained the moderns various attempts to imagine its transcendent outsides (86). How might the position of drugs and other transcendent "hybrids" on the map of Latour's modern constitution be shifting in our post-9/11 climate; put another way, who needs opium when you've got Jesus or Allah?
Dawkins would, I suspect, put it in reverse: who needs Jesus or Allah when you've got opium? But in such tracts as Dawkins's, "more attention might [be] paid to the specific political horizons that have historically given rise to and constrained the modern's various attempts to imagine its transcendent outsides," or to its various attempts to imagine the world without transcendent outsides . . . also, dare we say, a historically situated perspective. Or is science itself the transcendent?

Eagleton notes in his review of Dawkins,
It was, of course, Marx who coined that last phrase [i.e., that religion is the opium of the masses]; but Marx, who in the same passage describes religion as the ‘heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions’, was rather more judicious and dialectical in his judgment on it than the lunging, flailing, mispunching Dawkins.

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