jueves, 22 de diciembre de 2016

Lighting candles: on the curious habits of the spiritual-but-not-religious

Like a Candle In Berlin

by Theodore Dalrymple

A moment used to be defined as the amount of time between a Mexico City traffic light turning green and the sound of the first car horn, but now it might be defined as the period between a terrorist attack in a Western city and the first public appearance of a candle. Every terrorist attack, including the latest one in Berlin, is immediately followed by the public exhibition of lighted candles. It is almost as if the population keeps a store of them ready to hand for this very purpose.

What do they dignify, these candles? We are all accustomed to the lighting of candles in Catholic churches, but Berlin is not a Catholic city and, like most Western capitals, is not notably observant of any religion. Its Christmas markets belong more to folkloric tradition than to a living faith. It is likely, indeed, that most of the people whose first impulse was to light candles were proud of their lack of religious belief. On the other hand, quite a few of them might say that they were not religious, but spiritual.

The reason (I surmise) that so many people claim to be spiritual rather than religious is that being spiritual imposes no discipline upon them, at least none that they do not choose themselves. Being religious, on the other hand, implies an obligation to observe rules and rituals that may interfere awkwardly with daily life. Being spiritual-but-not-religious gives you that warm, inner feeling, a bit like whiskey on a cold day, and reassures you that there is more to life—or, at least, to your life—than meets the eye, without actually having to interrupt the flux of everyday existence. It is the gratification of religion without the inconvenience of religion. Unfortunately, like many highly diluted solutions, it has no taste.

The candles, then, are a manifestation of modern paganism, a striving for transcendence without any real belief in it. They are also a somewhat self-congratulatory symbol of our own peaceable temperament: the violent are not great candle-lighters. We cannot, for example, imagine Genghis Khan lighting many candles for the souls of the departed (not that we really believe in souls).


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Book reviews – Faking It: The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society

by Robert Sibley
The Next City

Edited by Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen 

YOU MIGHT REMEMBER THE SCENE LAST SEPTEMBER 6TH ON THE STREET outside Westminster Abbey where thousands had gathered for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. An American television reporter, her voice choking with emotion, repeatedly referred to the “parade” that would soon take Diana’s body into the cathedral.

Eventually, the reporter twigged to her mistake and turned the “parade” into a “procession.” Perhaps, though, her choice of words wasn’t inappropriate. Perhaps she was unconsciously expressing some new zeitgeist. Perhaps in the age of entertainment, funerals have become carnivals.

You might come to such a conclusion after reading Faking It: The Sentimentalization of Modern Society, which skewers many of western liberal civilization’s cherished shibboleths. The editors, Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen of The Social Affairs Unit, a London-based conservative think tank, encapsulate the book’s theme this way: “There is a word for the decadent disposition in our culture which falls for the fake: it is ‘sentimentality.’ The sentimentalist is a person in denial, and what he avoids or denies is reality. He likes to think that good ends can be achieved without unpleasantness. He would rather not be reminded that pain, effort, personal responsibility, self-control and patience are inevitable. He is attracted by schemes which offer good ends without the need for any striving — learning, a just society, community and even pleasure. Most of all the sentimentalist is frightened by the idea that men have a natural capacity for evil. For to admit evil, and the will to evil, is to destroy his world which rests upon the supposition that utopia may be ushered in by the mere adoption of the right plan.”

Building on this foundation, Faking It‘s 12 essays depict a flaccid and phony society in which self-indulgence, fakery, and a “voracious appetite for sentimentality” shape politics, religion, art, and even our eating habits. (Most of the essays focus on British society, but readers will have no difficulty finding Canadian parallels.) One contributor castigates our fondness for therapeutic relief and feel-good counselling as a refusal to grow up; another describes the psychologists who indulge us as “peddlers of utopia.” And yet another portrays alternative medicine as catering to immature people unable to accept medical realities with fortitude. According to these writers, radical environmentalism reflects the false assumption that nature is benign and that the manmade world is alienating. Contemporary literature and music represent, in the main, emotional fakery.

Trendy religious practices come in for a particularly scathing critique. Peter Mullen, an Anglican cleric, writes that our sentimental society is reducing mainstream Christianity to a clap-happy form of wish fulfilment that seeks to evade the realities of life and death. “The new sentimentality in religion glosses over our dark side, and therefore it is not only a doctrinal failure; it is psychologically inaccurate and so finally incoherent.”

Nicholas Capaldi, an American academic, argues that sentimentality has eroded the values and coherence of middle-class virtues, resulting, in less than 20 years, in “a dependent underclass — the drug-addicted, the violent, the unemployed and the promiscuous.” Moreover, as Capaldi writes, “The lifestyle of this underclass is sentimentalised — as poverty once was — as real life. The word disadvantaged is used to identify the underclass with the stultifying badge of dependency. This has now reached the extreme limit in which we even sentimentalise crime and so abolish the moral distinction between right and wrong. No one is to blame for anything, except wicked capitalists and conservatives.”

However, the most devastating essay in the book — and the one that created the most controversy in Britain — is “Diana, Queen of Hearts” by Anthony O’Hear, a professor at Bradford University. The Princess’s funeral, the extreme grief shown at her death, and her subsequent idolization betray a fake society that has shifted away from traditional standards of conduct. “Diana’s personal canonization, for it amounts to no less, was at the same time a canonization of what she stood for. What she stood for was the elevation of feeling, image and spontaneity over reason, reality and restraint. The Britain of our fathers and grandfathers, the Britain of World War II has been replaced by the New Britain in which the mother of the future King publicly weeps at the funeral of a vulgar and self-publicizing Italian dress designer.”


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