My Quiet Life My Quiet Life

in which I fisk umberto Eco

Katherine Coble links to an essay by Eco on religion and consumerism. I evidently share a man-crush on Eco with Katherine, although my favorite by far is Foucault’s Pendulum. This essay, though, is a little weird. He starts with a (false) premise that lays the groundwork for his critique of consumerism:

Human beings are religious animals. It is psychologically very hard to go through life without the justification, and the hope, provided by religion. You can see this in the positivist scientists of the 19th century.

I take objection to this. Human beings are not religious animals. Human beings are just animals. It’s actually not very hard to go through life without the justification and hope provided by religion. I do it every day. It’s pretty easy. I could give two shits whether or not there’s a god. I realize that this, empirically, means nothing to you. For all you know I could have some deep-seated issues with god and my mortality, and maybe I treat my rebuke of God as an external rebellion to seem like a bad-ass, but deep down inside I am praying to the almighty that I don’t get struck down by lightning for my transgressions. Maybe. But I know that’s not true. I know that I don’t really give a rat’s ass about god. Because of what I know about myself, I also know invalidates the notion that “human beings are religions animals”. I’m not. It must come from somewhere else. Religion is a social construction. (Dur.)

The ideologies such as communism that promised to supplant religion have failed in spectacular and very public fashion. So we’re all still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the inevitability of our own death.

G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: “When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything.” Whoever said it - he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.

The “death of God”, or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church – from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.

Here Eco is right to some extent. Consumerist idolatry perhaps is a surrogate for religion, but that doesn’t validate his premise that religion is some deep-seated flaw in human nature. It’s just the trading of one flimsy crutch for another. Chesterton’s quote sounds very clever, but it is, in fact, stupid. I assure you I am quite skeptical, and it’s because of this that I don’t believe in God (among other things).

(A side note: I think it’s funny that he takes a pot-shot here at The Da Vinci Code, which is a vastly more popular book than Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, but is often compared to it. It’s like Foucault’s Pendulum For Dummies.)

In conclusion, consumerism isn’t dangerous because it forsakes the logic and coherence of religion. Consumerism is dangerous because it sucks on its own merits. Because it encourages the oppressed underclasses to dig their holes deeper by frittering their economic securities and futures away on crap. It’s a symptom of the collusion of capital to maintain an artificial demand for this crap so we can continue our unhealthy fixation on GDP and production as the benchmark of our well-being. Isn’t that enough? Who cares if it’s supplanting religion. Consumerism sucks, and so does religion.

I can’t guess Eco’s motivation in making nicey-nice with the frailty of a religious habit. I know he’s an agnostic, and he’s certainly no apologist for organized religion’s darker sides, but he seems to be making a crucial error here by explaining away religious tendencies as a symptom of human nature. Religion is a human creation, and we should treat is as one – particularly in our efforts to abandon it.