Camille Paglia calls atheists “juvenile”

Salon just published an interview with Camille Paglia in which she attempts to skewer atheists who critique religion, saying we are “juvenile” and have “stunted imaginations” Paglia clearly thinks highly of herself, as she suggests at one point that her own professions to be an atheist started the “fad” of identifying as an atheist in the early 90’s.

Richard Dawkins was the only high-profile atheist out there when I began publicly saying “I am an atheist,” on my book tours in the early 1990s. I started the fad for it in the U.S, because all of a sudden people, including leftist journalists, started coming out of the closet to publicly claim their atheist identities, which they weren’t bold enough to do before.

I can’t speak with certainty for others but I can say my own identification as an atheist had nothing to do with her, particularly since I’d never even heard of her before I read this article and subsequently read a Wikipedia entry about her. I suspect that her identification as an atheist had very little influence on anything. Regardless, let’s take a look at the content of her arguments about atheism.

She is asked what she thinks about people like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, and others who have no respect for religion, to which she answers.

I regard them as adolescents. I say in the introduction to my last book, “Glittering Images”, that “Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination.”  It exposes a state of perpetual adolescence that has something to do with their parents– they’re still sneering at dad in some way.

In terms of content she hasn’t said much here, preferring a bunch of name calling, and bad psychology. How exactly did she determine that atheists who criticize religion are angry at their fathers? Part of the irony of these statements is that they are delivered in the context of the rest of her statements in which she says that liberals think of themselves as open minded but are in fact not. Does Paglia actually think her name calling is being open minded? Why is it not OK to sneer at the ideas of the religious, but completely reasonable to sneer at the ideas of the non-religious?

I’m speaking here as an atheist. I don’t believe there is a God, but I respect every religion deeply. All the great world religions contain a complex system of beliefs regarding the nature of the universe and human life that is far more profound than anything that liberalism has produced.

OK, first let me say that there are religious individuals who I respect. There are, and have been, many important intellectual figures who held religious beliefs, and dismissing the rest of their contributions to humanity because I disagree with them on this one issue would be quite irrational. However, there is a difference between respecting someone despite disagreeing with them on some subjects, and respecting the ideas on which we disagree.

Secondly, while many religions have produced complex ideas about the nature of the universe, I’m not sure why that, alone, is something which we owe respect, incorrect ideas are still incorrect even if they are complex. I’m also not sure how she came to the conclusion that liberals don’t have any profound ideas. I find that philosophers who address these big questions without appealing to religion do a much better, and more honest, job of grappling with them than religion generally does.

She continues.

We have a whole generation of young people who are clinging to politics and to politicized visions of sexuality for their belief system.  They see nothing but politics, but politics is tiny.  Politics applies only to society. There is a huge metaphysical realm out there that involves the eternal principles of life and death. The great tragic texts, including the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, no longer have the central status they once had in education, because we have steadily moved away from the heritage of western civilization.

I’m honestly not entirely certain what Paglia is actually arguing here. Is she claiming that there are not non-religious attempts to address issues like value and ethics? If that is the case then I would suggest she is the ignorant one since there are any number of philosophers, some of them even Christian, who have written about these issues without appealing to religion.

Though perhaps that reading does not treat her statements with enough charity. It’s also possible that she is merely claiming most modern liberals don’t have enough nuance in their views, and haven’t spent enough time understanding the moral philosophy and ideas that are suppose to underpin liberal values. If this is what she is attempting to say then I agree that this is true of many liberals, but point out that this criticism could just as easily be used against virtually any other political or religious affiliation. How many libertarians have studied the works of libertarian academics like Robert Nozick; how many Christians have done the same with Thomas Aquinas or Martin Luther?

Though Christianity has played an undeniable role in the intellectual history of western civilization, I see no reason to think that the average conservative Christian is any better educated on political philosophy or that history in general than the average liberal atheist. I’d also point out that her statement seems to smack of a kind of intellectual arrogance that declares other people are ignorant or stupid because they aren’t well educated in the subjects she considers most important.

There are no truly major stars left, and I don’t think there’s much profound work being done in pop culture right now.  Young people have nothing to enlighten them, which is why they’re clinging so much to politicized concepts, which give them a sense of meaning and direction.

I’m not sure how else to read this except as a statement from an older generation chastising the younger generation for not being as good as their generation. We aren’t producing art up to her standards, we aren’t producing political discussions up to her standards, etc. Thing is, forty years ago people were saying the same things about her generation, and forty years before that…well you get the idea. You can find writers in ancient Greece saying the same things.

The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. – Socrates

Maybe in another thirty or forty years I’ll be right there in the same place, loudly denouncing the future generations for not being exactly like me, though I’m going to make a concerted effort to not end up that way, but what baffles me is that, for all her anger at the rest of society for not understanding the past she doesn’t seem to be making much effort to understand the present.

The rest of the article proceeds in a similar fashion, she criticizes the “liberal media” for failing to report adequately about the recent video of planed parenthood supposedly selling organs even though it turns out the video was essentially a lie created by creative video editing, and at the moment I see multiple non conservative news organizations who actually have reported on it. She also praises Donald Trump for being willing to say rude and mean things as if that is something we should actually encourage in people. In short with a few minor exceptions, like her praise of Bernie Sanders, most of what she says is terrible.

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  • nick.gotts

    Paglia is a professional contrarian and antifeminist. The British satirical magazine Private Eye, at a time when her fame was at its height (OK, that still wasn’t very high!) used the phrase “a complete load of camillepaglia” for the kind of self-regarding, pseudo-profound pieces which are her speciality.