Saturday, September 15, 2007

Julian: A Study in Tolerance

Can a “liberal” political leader who professes faith — even one who picks and chooses practices from various different religions — be truly tolerant? Or is there something inherent in every system of supernatural belief that causes its adherents to be enemies of those with differing worldviews?

As an atheist, and a student of history, I’d have to answer those questions, respectively, “no” and “duh!” If you’re a person of faith, it’s impossible for you to co-exist peacefully with those who have conflicting metaphysical notions. If your idea of god is the sun, then you can’t have a reasonable conversation with someone who insists that god is the moon. Assuming the two of you can manage to agree, in a begrudging and wishy-washy way, that god is “a light in the sky,” you may be able to strike a temporary accommodation with one another, and even, perhaps, forge a common bond with the guy who knows that god is the north star. But how do you get along with the believer who claims that god is a hole in the ground? And what do you do about the fanatic who threatens to kill you if you don’t accept that god is a giant dead toad who made the sky and the ground—and can change them both whenever he wants to?

This, in a grossly oversimplified nutshell, is one of the central conflicts in Gore Vidal’s Julian: Can a man of faith, enlightened and well-meaning though he be, concoct—and follow—a policy of universal tolerance?

For those of you who haven’t read the book: The title character is the Emperor Julian, who reigned from 361 to 363. Catholics to this day refer to him as “Julian the Apostate” because he was determined to reintroduce the pagan gods to an empire that had slowly but surely become Christianized. When the Emperor Constantine I found Jesus through a miracle (unfortunately not preserved on videotape), Christians had quickly gone from being victims to victimizers. Constantine was baptized shortly before his death in 337, and his successors were all—as Julian calls them—Galileans. Despite the fact that Christians waged some of their nastiest and bloodiest battles amongst themselves, the triumphant priests, once given an imperial toehold in Rome, did their best to eviscerate all other religions. Tolerance, as we atheists all know, is not in the official Christian playbook.

So along comes Julian. After having Christianity rammed down his throat as a young boy, he’s seduced by “philosophy.” For him, philosophy is a combination of neo-Platonism and mystery cults, commingled with a generous dose of old-fashioned superstition: entrails-reading, animal sacrifice, and the deities’ faces appearing, either literally or figuratively, everywhere. Julian is a pious sponge when it comes to learning about the gods. In fact, he could well have been the Stephen Prothero of his day, a vociferous proponent of Religious Literacy. If Julian were alive in 2007, he’d be a theology professor—but one with a dangerous political agenda.

Vidal’s novel is told mostly in the first person by Julian, through his memoirs. And what a liar Julian is, as all “true believers” are, although it’s not clear whether he’s lying to his eventual readers or merely to himself. Here’s my paraphrase of his life:

I definitely don’t want to be emperor. I’m a scholar, not a fighter. You know me and those books, eh? Well, OK, maybe I’d be a pretty good soldier. Um, damn good, actually, if I do say so myself. That’s what the gods seem to think, anyway. But I’m certainly no Alexander the Great. And did I mention: I don’t want to be emperor; I’ve never wanted to be emperor. Although, maybe the gods do want me to be Alexander the Great. You never know, right? I could be channeling Alexander the Great this very minute. I’ll admit, he was kinda like an emperor, which I don’t want to be, but stranger things have happened. And, really, who’m I kidding? I’d make a great emperor—not that I want to be emperor. Hey, wait a minute. Whaddaya know? I’m emperor!
A conspiracy of mumbo-jumbo-spouting opportunists spoonfeeds poor Julian what he most wants to hear: that he’s special, a favorite of the gods. His sycophantic “tutors” tap into his secret, unstated ambitions, and one of them even becomes his spiritual/political adviser on the road to the White House ... um, emperorship. Julian, in short, is hooked on his faith. But he’s the picker and chooser I mentioned in the first paragraph, a little rite from here, a little ceremony from there. And oh so tolerant. Hilariously, he criticizes the Christians for assimilating elements of other religions in order to popularize their own; but Julian himself wants to be the greatest popularizer of them all.

“I plan a world priesthood,” he says, “governed by the Roman Pontifex Maximus.” (That Chief Priest would, of course, be him.) “Every god and goddess known to the people, no matter in what guise or under what strange name, would be worshipped, for multiplicity is the nature of life... We may not know this creator, though his outward symbol is the sun. But through intermediaries, human and divine, he speaks to us, shows us aspects of himself, prepares us for the next stage of the journey.”

Doesn’t this sound oddly like the ecumenical faith of, say, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton?

Look, I believe, and I’m a far better person for it. But you don’t have to. You’re under absolutely no obligation. Still, you’ve gotta admit, it would be a much better world if you did believe. More compassionate. More moral. More democratic. And we all want to spread compassion, morality, and democracy, don’t we?
Julian’s dream is not to spread democracy, but Hellenism. “The failure of Hellenism,” he says, “has been, largely, a matter of organization. Rome never tried to impose any sort of worship upon the countries it conquered and civilized; in fact, quite the contrary. Rome was eclectic. All religions were given an equal opportunity ... As time passed our rites became, and one must admit it bluntly, merely form, a reassuring reminder of the great age of the city, a token gesture to the old gods who were thought to have founded and guided Rome from a village by the Tiber to world empire.”

That paragraph, with a few minor substitutions— “Democracy” for “Hellenism,” “America” for “Rome,” “country” for “city,”god who was” for “old gods who were,” and “Potomac” for “Tiber”—could sit comfortably in the mouth of any anti-secularist rousing the rabble in the United States today. Remember, though: Julian, so he says, is open-minded. Of course, like John Edwards, he does believe that the state needs its deity. As Edwards puts it: “it is enormously important to look to God—and in my case, Christ” (in Julian’s case, the goddess Cybele, the god Apollo, and various other magical beings, with perhaps the sole exception of Christ)—“for guidance and for wisdom.” But Julian’s, like Edwards’, is a big-tent religion. In my case Cybele, in your case ... you name it. Come on in, and close the flap behind you.

Oh, but that generic faith proposed by Julian cannot absorb the zealotry of Christianity. And Julian, reasonably (most of us atheists would think), remains fundamentally hostile to the spiritual power grabs of the Galileans. They, on their part, adamantly refuse to be assimilated, as religious extremists have always done.

So ultimately, for Julian, it’s not possible to tolerate intolerance. The all-encompassing, mutual-respect state religion he hopes to set up turns out to be exclusionary after all. Julian is forced to single Christians out for unique forms of educational ostracism, as well as disciplinary actions. And in the guise of tolerance, he takes steps to reinvigorate their internal disputes. He even confiscates Christian treasures and closes a cathedral on a bogus charge of arson, but not without first torturing the suspected perpetrator. In short, the oh-so-broadminded Julian becomes, except in name, one of them: a Pat Robertson, a Bill Donohue, yes, and a Meir Kahane, Mullah Omar, and Ayatollah Khomeini, too.

But the emperor’s zeal to spread tolerance is not limited to Christians. In Julian’s lust to extend his hodgepodge Hellenism, he cooks up a phony dispute to make war against the Persians. After all, the god Mithras and the ghost of the dead prophet Zarathustra long for him to take their holy land so it can rightfully be added to the newly tolerant Roman empire’s voodoo stew. And doesn’t the spirit of Alexander himself urge Julian on to greater glory, even when the Persians sue for peace in a lopsided bargain that yields a tremendous earthly advantage to the Romans? Unfortunately, it’s not good enough for the Pontifex Maximus and his catch-all deities.

Long before Richard Dawkins reasoned it out, two generations before Sam Harris warned us about it, nearly half a century before Christopher Hitchens discussed it incessantly, Gore Vidal was telling those who would listen that religion poisons everything. His Julian starts out as a likable—if somewhat insincere—intellectual, but he evolves into a god-crazed monster. No, Vidal says, tolerance is not possible from a man of faith. Superstition, even a makeshift adaptive one, insists on exclusivity.

In the end, Julian is defeated by Christianity, as—Vidal implies—we all have been in the West. But despite any affection the author, or the reader, may hold for the hero, Julian’s success would have been equally disastrous. An allegedly tolerant theocracy is still a theocracy. As such, it cannot long endure religious differences. The lesson for all of us is clear: A political leader who is committed to his faith, however benevolent that particular version of faith may seem, is always on the ready to crush dissent.

Let the voter beware.

15 comments:

Wild-Eyed Atheist Boy said...

Which is why it is SO important for us to make our stand NOW, before why truly do become "a Christian Nation."

John - Evolutionary Middleman said...

Oh, this is FUN! I really enjoyed reading your great essay and I'm definitely reading every one of them. Even Tobe's, whenever he completes it!

I must say, I really agree with the parallels you drew between ancient Rome and Modern Washington. What is so prescient about Vidal is that I think this book rings even truer today than in 1962. In fact, I know it does.

It's not technically the 15th here on the West Coast, but I think you'll forgive me if I go ahead and post now that the first one is up. If I'm doing the wrong thing I will gladly accept 3 extra lashes with the cat o' nine tails at our next cult meeting.

Cragar said...

I am behind also. Should have it done soon. I didn't even read yours yet as I don't want to influence my opinions. :-)

yinyang said...

I like your paraphrase of Julian's life. Oh, and my essay is written and published.

EnoNomi said...

Wait...what... It's Sept. 15 already... Shit...

begging for more time to do my essay.

ordinarygirl said...

I agree. I really wanted to like Julian, but in the end I just found him to be too weak. If he could have gone past superstition then I think he could have done something great, perhaps not lasting, but great in his lifetime.

It was so disappointing to read his naive acceptance of gods and goddesses. Vidal even gave him clear sight a few times when discussing philosophy, which made it even worse.

Geno said...

Exterminator,
I picked this off of your blog - “Can a “liberal” political leader who professes faith — even one who picks and chooses practices from various different religions — be truly tolerant? Or is there something inherent in every system of supernatural belief that causes its adherents to be enemies of those with differing worldviews?”

How do you yourself differ from this description? You have set yourself up as the enemy of those with a differing worldview? This can be seen by your phraseology above - “If every idiot’s insistence that he had a dream-within-a-dream is “evidence…” Wouldn’t you have to say that your atheism (and that of all adherents ) are by nature enemies of others?

But I do agree, it is a battle of worldviews!

Geno said...

I would also quote from above - Wild-Eyed Atheist Boy said...

" Which is why it is SO important for us to make our stand NOW, before why truly do become "a Christian Nation."

So obviously, atheists are ready to take a stand against those with an opossing worldview.

Sat Sep 15, 12:59:00 AM EDT
Jo

The Exterminator said...

Geno:

I'll respond to your second comment first. Wild-Eyed Atheist Boy and I, although we read one another's blogs and tend to agree more often than not, do not speak with one voice. Feel free to challenge me on anything that I've said, but not on statements by others. I'm not part of any fictional atheist conspiracy, so don't ask me to defend statements that aren't my own. Fair enough?

Now, as to your first comment:
There are a number of ways I differ from the description you quoted.
(1) I'm not a political leader;
(2) I don't profess faith;
(3) I don't pick and choose practices from various different religions;
(4) I don't follow any system of supernatural belief.

Most of all, though, I've never set myself up as an "enemy" of any worldview. Yes, I've said in many posts that I think religionists are idiots, fools, morons ... fill in whatever other synonyms you'd like. But they're not my enemies unless and until they intrude on my freedoms. I don't respect their opinions about god -- and why must I? -- but I do tolerate those opinions, at least in the legal sense. If you've read my blog at all, you'll know that I'm a purist when it comes to all clauses of the First Amendment.

And just to clarify: I think lots of people -- those who care about American Idol, for instance, or non-gamblers whose moods are affected by sports results -- are also idiots, fools, morons, etc. But they're not my enemies either, unless they force me to partake in their manias.

So don't put words in my mouth, OK?

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Geno

There's a big difference between being oppositional in one's thinking, and being an enemy.

Please take note that we were discussing a fictional character, albeit, one based on a real historical figure, the Emperor of Rome. He was a leader of the then known world. He was oppositional vis a vis Christianity, yet he also held distinctly different religious beliefs.

Ex's point was that assuming all those characteristics, he could not be tolerant unless he was religiously neutral, which he clearly wasn't.

Atheists are, by definition, religiously neutral, in the sense that we don't believe in the supernatural, so we have no ax to grind in the war of religions. We don't pit one god against another, as Julian did. So your comparison is not apt.

Geno said...

Exterminator and Spanish,
I think you missed my main point - we are all in a "battle" of worldviews. Are you saying that people with religious views should not have a voice or a vote?

If you applied your opening paragraph to Sen. Obama, a liberal who mixes many religions, why would he in particular be an enemy of people with a differing worldview?

The Exterminator said...

Geno:

I've never banned a commenter on this blog, and I won't do so with you. But I will refuse to get in a dialogue with you -- and urge all my other commenters to shun you as well -- unless you read and digest the comments that have been posted. You can't just make up any piece of horseshit and expect people here to take you seriously.

No one at this blog said that people with religious views should not have a voice or a vote. That's antithetical to everything I believe in, and I expect most of my atheist readers would agree with me. And no one accused Senator Obama of being an enemy of the people.

If you need help with your reading skills, I'd be happy to tutor you.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

I really hesitated to reply to Geno, because that is his modus operandi. He loves to take your words, combine them with others, create something new, then attribute them to you.

I swore I wouldn't debate with him again. If he continues, I won't bother.

Geno said...

Perhaps I do have trouble with my reading skill,
but you asked;
"Can a “liberal” political leader who professes faith — even one who picks and chooses practices from various different religions — be truly tolerant? Or is there something inherent in every system of supernatural belief that causes its adherents to be enemies of those with differing worldviews?"

And then you answered;
"As an atheist, and a student of history, I’d have to answer those questions, respectively, “no” and “duh!” If you’re a person of faith, it’s impossible for you to co-exist peacefully with those who have conflicting metaphysical notions."

And then you made the link;
"Doesn’t this sound oddly like the ecumenical faith of, say, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton?"

By your own statements, I have the sense that it is the atheists who are intolerant, you just don't have the population to do anything about it.

So now explain why you don't categorize Sen Obama with you statement in the first paragraph?

As a person of faith (me)who allows my policy decisions to be informed by that faith, what would you have me change? We have opposing worldviews that may clash on certain issues - why is that a bad thing?

And then you conclude "Let the voter beware."

The Exterminator said...

I urge all my readers not to respond to Geno. Thanks.