Dear Editors of The Immanent Frame,
Because I can see the deadline rushing toward me with chainsaw in hand and a feral glare in its eyes, I have decided to sit down and write you a letter. The alternative is trying to rush one of my many half-finished drafts to a slightly less half-finished state and send it in. Despite your generous deadline extension, I think it is better if I finally just give in and let the deadline do to me what it will.
You see, I have had serious trouble getting started. Every time I managed to get something off the ground, I have had difficulty wrapping up in a good way. I am sure many, if not most, of the others you invited have had to face the same problem that I have been wrestling with. After all, by design, the question you want the forum to center on—“Is this all there is?”—invites many different interpretations before one can even start figuring out how to respond. This is, of course, to your credit, but it is also hell to work with.
I therefore felt that it would be best to present my own idiosyncratic interpretation of the question, and only after that provide my own equally idiosyncratic response.
In the first go, I went big. I thought I would focus on what the word “this” means in relation to the question asked. And what about “all”? Is it used in an evaluative sense, as if to suggest that there is or could be or should be more than whatever the present “this” is? And then there is that final “is”—all the “is”s, really—which, with the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton, I could not help but consider the sense and definition of: it brings us, or at least me, into the realm of ontology. Clearly, with a maximum of two thousand words at my disposal, this track was a nonstarter from the word go. A post like that would be—could be—nothing but a half-baked preamble.
Hoping that a fresh take would help me get going, I asked a friend and colleague what he made of the question. He saw it as an invitation to do a contemporary history of the reigning spirit of the age, the “zeitgeschichtlicher Zeitgeist,” as he put it. There is every reason to frame a response in that way, not least since the invitation spoke of the last ten years as “an epoch of political change, economic chaos, and artistic and technological innovation.” With these considerations in mind, I aligned the question with a struggle that has been ongoing for over a century, but which has been ramping up in the past decade. In the broadest sense, in this attempt I took the question to center upon the struggle over interpretive prerogative in questions about life, the universe, and everything—“this” in a fairly grand and comprehensive sense. But in order to say anything remotely of substance within the space allotted, I decided to restrict myself to the struggle of ideas between evolution and religion, and did so by resolving to look briefly at a particular piece of propagandistic religious popular culture: Jack T. Chick’s 2008 comics tract Moving On Up!
This would have been familiar territory. In my workaday life as a scholar, I mostly research the intersections of comics and religion. Chick, an independent Baptist evangelical fundamentalist, is also a comics creator I have been interested in for many years, indeed, since before I set foot in a history of religions university classroom. He is most known for his small evangelizing comics pamphlets, known as “Chick tracts.” A Chick tract is roughly 5 x 3 inches in size, with twenty-some pages of black and white cartoons inside. They all end with one of a small number of stock inside back covers that contain instructions for how readers can be “born again.” Witnessing, winning souls for Christ, and saving the unsaved are their raison d’être. For this purpose, from the first tract in 1961 and continuing beyond Chick’s death in late 2016, Chick Publications has put out more than 250 tracts that cover a dizzying array of subjects, from “Basic Gospel” tracts to tracts about the end times, abortion, drugs, Catholicism and other so-called “False Religions,” and, most pertinent for the planned post, evolution.
Despite what some of Chick’s detractors say, we are not talking about a fringe phenomenon here, which can be seen in the fact of the tracts’ popularity. According to the publisher, more than nine hundred million tracts have been distributed to date. While this number is undoubtedly high, there is little reason to doubt it: it is a common strategy among conservative evangelicals to flood the market with their product, and there is also the fact that there are translations of tracts into over one hundred different languages. This is an impressive figure on its own, but it becomes even more impressive when you consider how translations come into being. Someone has to choose a tract, provide Chick Publications with a translation of the text, and then underwrite the endeavor with an order of ten thousand copies (which, because of a bulk discount, will cost the ordering party only $850 plus shipping). It is also important to observe that when reading these tracts, the ideas they present and the arguments they make are commonplace within the culture from which they come, even if they are perhaps made in a somewhat more forceful way, which owes in part to the medium’s characteristic as a form of communication that relies on amplification through simplification and stereotype.
But I needed something else, something more to serve as an “in.” I figured that with the looser format of the blog, I could go a bit more personal than I usually tend to or even want to in my writing. “In the spirit of full disclosure,” I would begin, and continue by noting that I align myself with those who look at the immanent world, not into the transcendent heavens, and respond to the present question in the affirmative: Yes, this is all there is. This makes me either what in recent survey-speak has been termed a “none,” as someone who is unaffiliated with any organized religion, and which, were I American, would place me in a blanket category that of late has been among the fastest growing “religious groups” in the United States. Or it makes me what you could call an atheist, because not only am I unaffiliated, but I hold no beliefs that could be termed in any but the loosest and most reaching or pleading sense as “religious.”
During my time as a visiting research scholar in the United States, I experienced firsthand what I theretofore had mostly understood on a theoretical level: that the absence of religious affiliation or belief in my world-view makes me suspect in the eyes of some. People have tried to argue that I am nonetheless religious because all humans are religious, no matter what they say or do. This claim is one of those I would term absurdly pleading, as it balloons the term “religion” to such an extent that it becomes, for all intents and purposes, empty. Others have looked at me with blank faces or even with a hint of fear because they think that in having no religious beliefs, I have no faith in something greater than myself. In these moments, all I can do is try to explain that it is possible to believe in something without recourse to concepts of transcendence or the holy, that religion and morality are not of necessity connected; the irreligious can just as easily be moral as the immoral can be religious, and thinking otherwise is a sign of a dangerous but nowadays common form of religious illiteracy.
Whenever the topic arises, I am reminded of the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who in several of his books described himself as a humanist, an outlook which he described in the following way in the novel Timequake: “Humanists try to behave decently and honorably without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. The creator of the Universe has been to us unknowable so far. We serve as well as we can the highest abstraction of which we have some understanding, which is our community.” Still, being sorted as an atheist puts me in a category that is still widely mistrusted, and being sorted as a “none” makes me a target for outreach and conversion. In the eyes of certain people—millions of certain people—I need to get “saved.” But, obviously, no effort to get to me to take the plunge has succeeded. And this, finally, would get me to the end of the preamble, which was still too long to say anything of interest about the chosen tract itself.
Sure, the space left allowed me to summarize the tract, to point out the flaws, inconsistencies, and problems with it: it misrepresents evolution to make it seem ridiculous; it paints it as a fount of racism and immorality without noting that eugenics survives more as an evangelical trick than a biologists’ one today, or that morals are not within the purview of the study of evolution; and it claims that evolution fosters a belief in human supremacy, which is about as far as you can get from an evolutionary view, in which the teleological disposition necessary for such thinking is completely alien. But this tack left little room for nuance, for complexity. There was no way to both hit all the marks I wanted and also avoid a reductiveness that would seem right at home with the New Atheist crowd, for whom I hold little love and whose ideology, rhetoric, and tactics have put me completely off their brand.
Back to the drawing board it was. My wife suggested that I shift the attention from evolution to abortion or global warming. Abortion was a no-go, since Chick had not produced a tract on the topic since the year 2000, bringing me outside the past decade timeframe. Global warming, on the other hand, was theoretically a good topic; Chick released a tract on the topic in 2012, and there was plenty of supplementary material from the world of religion to add to it. Not least the statement by Republican congressman Tim Walberg in June 2017, to the effect that, if global warming is real, God will take care of it and there is nothing we can do about it. But here too, I hit a wall. There was not much I could do but flippantly note that I guess the argument in the case of people like Chick and Walberg seems to be that “there is a God, so nothing we do matters.”
While this sounds awfully nihilistic and familiar to me—having seen, too many times to count, the areligious accused of promoting the view that since, to them, there is no God, nothing matters—I do not think it would add much to the debate. In part because there should not be a debate in the first place and even more because the risk of falling into “New Atheist”-style reductiveness again quickly arose from the space constraints I was working under. A negligible and vanishingly miniscule minority with questionable credentials and motives is all that stands in the way of complete scientific consensus on the issue. In every real and meaningful sense, the results are in: climate change is real, human activity is undoubtedly an important factor in it, and it is wreaking dangerous havoc on the planet. This is not news to any but the willfully ignorant, and devoting a whole post to reiterating readily available information would not bring a novel angle either to that issue nor to the question of whether this is all there is. (This world, of course, is all we have, so in that sense it is, in a real and emphatic sense, truly all there is.)
So here I am, an hour before midnight on the last day, with nothing to show for my efforts. Call it a failure of nerve, a failure of imagination, or a failure of . . . Well, call it just a plain failure. Whatever you call it, however, the end result is the same. For all my work, I have nothing to say but this: whatever I could have written, it would have revolved around the fact that I have a simple aim for my life, and that is to hopefully leave this world even a little bit better than it was when I came into it. When it comes down to it, that is all there is to me. This is an ambition that in no way precludes religious faith in most of its forms. But it does preclude a faith of the type I have been skirting in all my drafts, a nihilistic one that can only thrive through the denial of observation of the immanent “this,” and of what it is, and of what is happening to it and to the people who dwell here. My answer remains the same, then: Yes, this is all there is, and I am fully and firmly committed to the continued collective pursuit of figuring out whatever the hell “this” is and what it means in this decade, what it meant to others in decades past, and what it will mean for those in future decades, however many we have left. And that, to me, is more glorious, wondrous, inspirational, aspirational, and mysterious than the alternative could ever be.
With warmest regards,