An atheist's defence of religion

If there were such a thing as a scholar-gunslinger, it would be Camille Paglia, the American critic and teacher.

The paradox of Camille Paglia, the cultural gunslinger

If there were as such a thing as a scholar-gunslinger, it would be Camille Paglia, the American critic and teacher.

Camille Paglia: a jitterbug thinker who relishes paradoxes. ((Reuters))

That's the image she offered us on the cover of Vamps and Tramps, her 1994 collection of essays. Camille is dressed in black, hands raised mid-air, wearing a holster over her hip. But her main weapon is not the classic six-shooter (or the punk makeup she wears on the cover). It's the Gatling gun that sprays words from her sprightly and sputtering mouth. 

Take cover. Her thoughts ricochet like a good ol' fashioned western shootout. 

So I learned when I went to see her at Toronto's stately and refurbished Royal Ontario Museum for a lecture on the Ten Commandments. (It was one in a series of ROM lectures promoting their Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit).

The hall was packed. People had come to see Camille talk about that immensely popular, old-fashioned idea: religion. Christopher Hitchens, the evangelical atheist, had preceded her by two weeks.

The 'unObama' as academic

Camille had come to defend religion, she said, but as an atheist who respects it. She grew up in a working-class Italian family where women went to church and men avoided Sunday Mass if they could. She loved the art, theatre and ceremony, but hated the dogma.

She knows religion can be repressive, joyless and constraining. After all, as a young girl she was once chastised by nuns for asking why the God of mercy couldn't forgive Satan if He's so all wise and powerful.

Now, it must be said that Camille (I can't stop calling her by her first name, I enjoy her so much) talks faster than most people read. She's so manic, so impatient to complete a sentence, that she runs her words together as if she were speaking in tongues at a service of holy rollers. By her own admission she's an out of control troublemaker. 

She is, by temperament, the unObama.

Nevertheless, Camille knows a great deal about religion and mythology. She holds a PhD from Yale and caused a sensation with her 1990 book, Sexual Personae, a combination of partisan attack and scrupulous scholarship. 

She's been teaching for 38 years. (As a precise scholar, she doesn't round off her decades). Academia is her natural, embattled home.

Savouring the paradoxes

Part of the fun of watching Camille is the rock 'n' roll of opposites she presents. She's a jitterbug thinker who loves to butt ideas together and relishes paradoxes. 

She's a feminist who hates what she calls a "politically correct" feminist establishment. She's a lesbian who can't stand women's studies and hates all "whining" and "victim"-speak. She listens to right-wing talk radio, as theatre, but is a lifelong Democrat who voted for President Barack Obama.

Paglia is a lover of opera and Madonna, of the high arts and pop culture. She also wants to be known as a serious scholar, which means thorough research and footnotes.

So another paradox: the brilliant entertainer and the careful pedant.

Her case for religion

While managing to engage and entertain, Camille did take some shots in her own, ongoing cultural war. Religion is serious business, she says, and cultural elites like Hitchens are foolish if they think they can jettison it.

For one thing, she says, religion ties into the the glorious art and cultural traditions of the West. With their bare-bones, secular education, students come to university knowing nothing, Camille says. "NOTHING!" she shouts to the audience, the heavens, the ancient statues that lurk in adjacent rooms.

They don't know Bible stories anymore (except, occasionally, for working-class students from religious homes, she said). They don't know the story of Moses, fleeing slavery from Egypt.

How can you understand the depth of the American civil rights movement, she asks, without a regard for the religious underpinning of Martin Luther King Jr. and other clergy? "Let my people go," which black slaves used to sing, had a great resonance that allowed them to unite their pain and longing with a powerful, religious tradition. 

What do we have? Homer Simpson? O.J. Simpson? The Terminator?

The supremacy of nature

Now it's important to be clear about what Camille is getting at: Religion, to her, is not a set of specific beliefs, or theology. It's about the human relationship with nature. Art helps us to accommodate ourselves to its vastness.

"Religion is the metaphysical system that honours the largeness of the universe," she writes in the first chapter of Sexual Personae. And society is "our artificial construction, a defence against nature's power." It's our fortress in the wilderness. (We, as Canadians, should know all about that.)

How pathetic, she told us at the ROM, that environmentalists want to turn even nature into a victim. Silly people! Instead, she thunders in Sexual Personae: "Let nature shrug and all is in ruin."

So Camille doesn't worry about God as a transcendent being. She doesn't believe in that 'Old Man in the Sky' god. She believes in ALL gods, she told us at the museum. She describes herself as a pagan. But she adds, Italian Catholics flirt with paganism when they worship and revere their host of divinities and saints.

Our small place in the universe

In a way, Camille is no different than other secularists who don't believe in religious dogma but believe religion has a social purpose. It's our way of dealing with our small fragile place in the universe. "Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair," she says in Sexual Personae.

Religion serves a deep need, she tells us at the ROM. It orders our existence and it provides the basis for meaning.

But to believe in the job that religion is doing is not actually "believing" in religion. It's analyzing its purpose. That's a pale substitute for meaning.

It's yet another paradox found in this compelling woman: she wants to restore religion to a central place in our culture, but doesn't believe it in the usual sense.

Still she, like so many of us, is faced with a vast universe of uncertainty. Let Camille rail on, but the old gods of the past, who gave us a little certitude, are gone and buried. And they won't be coming back soon. Even when you're a dandy cultural gunslinger.