Jessa Crispin:

…I had a hard time finding any sympathy for Teofilo Ruiz while reading The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. Ruiz follows Frazer’s model pretty well, offering up a historical document with a helping of his own personal problems on the side. The book ostensibly explores how men and women throughout time have dealt with the immense weight of living in a world with incredible suffering and pain — through religious belief, through art and aesthetics, through decadence and hedonism. Like Frazer, he tracks particular behaviors to find their universality. For example, some of the citizenry responded to the Black Death that killed half the population around them by imagining they were being punished by God and tried to make amends. Others decided to eat, drink and screw until the end came for them. And then others wrote a collection of tales about a society trying to function amid the backdrop of plague and terror and called it the Decameron.

If Ruiz is writing about humans’ avoidance behavior, looking for all the ways we manage not to take responsibility for the state of the world, he is doing so with a significant amount of judgment. The word “avoidance” does not have a positive connotation, nor does “removal” or “ahistorical,” other words he uses instead of “coping strategy.” For Ruiz, there is something shameful about these methods of distracting ourselves from what he sees as the “meaninglessness” of existence. The religious are particularly scorned, as Ruiz believes they use the promise of an afterlife to check out from the here and now. He somehow forgets that throughout history, Christianity was the one reason not to check out.

…Frazer held the religious as superior over the magical. Magic was superstitious, but religion was a higher state. Ruiz takes that further — religion is an emotional crutch, an “attempt to step out of historical processes, to escape the crushing reality of everyday expectations,” and pure rational atheism is not only a more honest belief system, but also a more ethical way to go through life.

…Agnosticism is at least an open, fluid, humane state of being. Pessimism, rigid disbelief, and a view of life as essentially meaningless is its own avoidance behavior. Frazer wrote that there is no true religious belief without action. Religion is (supposed to be) about engagement, not hiding or twisting away from life. Believing that we’re all fucked no matter what, as Ruiz appears to think, is a way of avoiding reality, or at the very least, of refusing to be a part of the rehabilitation process.

It might be churlish of me to point out that Crispin has already shown herself to be highly defensive over this topic and therefore sure is one to talk about authors letting their prejudices spill into the story they’re telling, but I’ll do it anyway, because I am an ornery li’l cuss, after all.

Not having read Ruiz’s book (though it is on my wish list, hint hint), I can’t say whether he is indeed being unfair. I will say that Crispin is overreaching in trying to define religion according to her sensibilities, in suggesting that clearly seeing the fiction of inherent, universal meaning is just another form of avoidance, and in implying that only a progressive, teleological view of human nature and history allows one to act compassionately and morally. Some of us just do the right thing for its own sake, tautologies be damned, even if human history is cyclical, even if the earth will one day be swallowed up by the sun and render this all moot. But arriving at that point does indeed mean letting go of comforting old fables.