Atheism is a legacy worth fighting for
March 14, 2006 | Slavoj Zizek | The New York Times
For centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?
More than a century ago, in "The Brothers Karamazov" and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher Andre' Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky's critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan," suggests.
This argument couldn't have been more wrong: The lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted - at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted, since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.
Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume made this point poignantly when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.
Two years ago, Europeans were debating whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity. As usual, a compromise was worked out, a reference in general terms to the "religious inheritance" of Europe. But where was modern Europe's most precious legacy, that of atheism? What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post.
Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers. Consider the debate that raged in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, my home country, as the constitutional controversy simmered: should Muslims (mostly immigrant workers from the old Yugoslav republics) be allowed to build a mosque? While conservatives opposed the mosque for cultural, political and even architectural reasons, the liberal weekly journal Mladina was consistently outspoken in its support for the mosque, in keeping with its concern for the rights of those from other former Yugoslav republics.
Not surprisingly, given its liberal attitudes, Mladina was also one of the few Slovenian publications to reprint the caricatures of Muhammad. And, conversely, those who displayed the greatest "understanding" for the violent Muslim protests those cartoons caused were also the ones who regularly expressed their concern for the fate of Christianity in Europe.
These weird alliances confront Europe's Muslims with a difficult choice: The only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the "godless" atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies.
The paradox is that Muslims' only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of _expression, reprinted them.
While a true atheist has no need to bolster his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: Either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.
What about submitting Islam - together with all other religions - to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as adults responsible for their beliefs.
Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, is the author, most recently, of "The Parallax View."
Paint, brush, and a dream
Artist helps youths develop their talent
March 5, 2006 | Kathleen McKenna | Globe Correspondent
People who pass Susan Rodgerson strolling on Black Rock Beach in Hull might find it surprising that the blond painter with the quick smile is hailed as a trailblazer in art, education, and entrepreneurship.
As founder and executive director of Artists for Humanity, a first-of-its-kind organization that hires Boston teenagers to create and sell artwork, Rodgerson, 52, has racked up plenty of accolades, including a Coming Up Taller award from the White House in 2001. Her arts enterprise is so original that it's being duplicated across the country, and so successful that both Harvard and Stanford business schools have used it for case studies.
But Rodgerson is quick to shift credit for the success from herself to the teens with whom she started the organization in 1990.
''The kids led the way," she says from her Hull dining room, which is filled with bright, funky art created by herself, her students, and her friends.
Two of those kids -- now 28-year-old men -- are Robert Gibbs and Jason Talbot. Both still work alongside Rodgerson, running the painting studio, mentoring student artists, and spreading the word about Artists for Humanity.
They're ideal messengers, since both well remember the day Rodgerson first showed up at their middle school in Dorchester, looking for students to help her paint a mural. Gibbs and Talbot were among the first to sign up.
''Our initial intention," Gibbs says with a laugh, ''was getting out of class." Back then, he says, he and his buddies assumed Rodgerson was ''some very important person."
They didn't realize she was a single mother from Cohasset with no money and no real plan other than combining her two loves, art and teaching. She was supporting herself and her 10-year-old daughter, Haidan, with her paintings and what she earned teaching art to teenagers at places such as the South Shore Art Center in Cohasset, where Rodgerson had studied drawing and painting as a girl.
But she was making a professional shift from the South Shore to Boston. A supportive gallery owner had loaned her a studio on Thayer Street, and she decided she wanted to teach art in the city -- where school art programs are scarce -- the way she had taught South Shore youngsters.
Nine schools turned her down. The 10th, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Dorchester, liked her idea and let her meet with budding artists after school in the library to paint a massive mural of a comet.
''We knew Susan was cool right from the start," Gibbs says, ''because she let us do the mural any way we wanted to." The feeling was mutual.
''I knew I had to have these kids in my life," she says. ''They were so creative and wonderful, but just so under-served."
Rodgerson wanted to do more than create art, though. She aimed to show her students that art could fulfill them, emotionally and financially.
She sold the finished mural to the Hard Rock Cafe in Boston, and the restaurant invited all the student artists to the unveiling.
''We'd never even heard of the Hard Rock Cafe, much less been there," Gibbs says. ''We were just happy to get a free lunch. When we saw our painting there, it was such a good feeling, that we'd done this thing and we'd done it together. And at that moment, we were like, 'OK, Susan. What can we do next?' "
Rodgerson was just as eager as the boys were to continue their collaboration. School was nearly out for the summer by then, so she invited them to work in her studio.
''We made so much art in that small space that summer," Gibbs says. ''I'd never held a paintbrush before Susan showed me how. I thought I'd grow up to be this graffiti dude, spray-painting my way through life."
He recalls Rodgerson driving her Volvo station wagon around the city, often with Haidan and her dog in tow, to pick the boys up. She gave them keys to the studio, bought them food, taught them technique, and most of all, Gibbs says, regarded them as equals.
''First she became our friend," Gibbs says. ''Then she became everybody's second mom."
During that summer of 1990, the unusual little group brainstormed ways to sell their creations. They airbrushed T-shirts and sold them outside Newbury Comics, MIT, anyplace they could attract customers. Earning money was a revelation, Gibbs says, and they eagerly put their cash toward building the business.
Fast forward 15 years, and that combination of art and entrepreneurship is still the cornerstone of Artists for Humanity, where more than 100 teenagers spend after-school and summer hours at the organization's 23,500-square-foot Epicenter in Boston's Fort Point Channel arts district.
Under the watchful eye of mentor artists -- most, like Gibbs and Talbot, who went through the program themselves -- teens create paintings, sculptures, photographs, clothing, notecards, clocks, furniture, in short, anything artistic that might be marketable. And they get paid for the privilege, by the hour. What's more, the artists keep 50 percent from all sales brokered through the gallery.
The Epicenter was designed by architect Carlos Lewis, who attended Rhode Island School of Design and was one of the boys driving around in the Volvo with Rodgerson, Gibbs, and Talbot that first fateful summer. [A fourth boy, Damon Butler, works with designer Mark Echo in New York City, where he runs a similar program.]
Built mainly with money from donors and proceeds from artwork sales, the Epicenter has won awards for design and environmental friendliness. Solar panels on the roof transform light into electricity. A fan system eliminates the need for air conditioning; restrooms, stairwell guardrails, coffee tables, and other items are built from recycled materials. Big, colorful artwork hangs everywhere.
The first floor features open gallery space, rented for large-scale parties. [Attendees often buy art.] The second floor houses the studios, which pulse each afternoon with adolescent energy. Rodgerson's daughter, now 25, is a professional photographer who manages the Artists for Humanity photo studio and commutes from the South Shore with her mother every day.
The Epicenter is the realization of a long-held dream for Rodgerson, who says she has considered herself an environmentalist ''since the first Earth Day" in 1970. Having brick and mortar in place, she says, also ensures that Artists for Humanity will be here to welcome new generations of student artists.
It might seem that Rodgerson -- who was named Social Entrepreneur in Residence at Pace University last fall, and granted the 2005 Alumni Community Service Award from Lesley University -- would be content to revel in what she has accomplished. But she is far too busy, advising schools [including her alma mater, Notre Dame Academy in Hingham] on building ''green" facilities like the Epicenter, helping other cities, including Los Angeles and London, copy the Artists for Humanity model, and dreaming up bigger and better ways to empower teenagers.
''Every young kid should experience being treated as an adult," she says. ''They should experience respect and responsibility, and above all, have their voices heard."
Global Warming: What Can I Do?
We have invited a variety of experts and industry representatives to join in the dialogue as we seek to more fully understand not only the impending threat of climate change but what we in southeastern Massachusetts can do to alter the course. “Global Warming: What Can I Do?” is a series of lectures and panel discussions co-sponsored by the Marion Institute and The Coalition for Buzzards Bay. Our aim is to construct an answer for future generations when they ask: “What did you do when you learned of this impending environmental crisis?”
The second seminar in our series will focus on the topic of food.
What does food have to do with global warming? With global warming, climate change, storm damage and rising fuel and transportation costs, our growing seasons and food distribution and costs will be severely impacted. Come learn how you can make better choices for you and your family that will help provide a more nutritious lifestyle and reduce global warming.
Global Warming: What Can I Do?
March 15th, 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Marion Music Hall
164 Front Street, Marion