Smirks

'And I remember one night, wandering around Brooklyn through some semi-slums ... not even knowing what I was looking for, but going out, drinking in a bar, sizing up the bar, looking ... in those days you actually would go to a bar and look for a woman. ... Anyway, I found no woman. I went into an all-night diner--because I realized I was hungry, not only drunk but hungry--and ordered a doughnut and coffee, finished it. Then a voice spoke to me. I think it's one of the very few times I felt God was speaking to me. ... This voice spoke to me and said: 'Leave without paying'. It was a minor sum--twenty-five cents for coffee and a doughnut in those days. ... I said: 'I can't do it.' And the voice--it was most amused--said, 'Go ahead and do it,' quietly, firmly, laughing at me. So I got up, slipped out of the restaurant, and didn't pay the quarter." This is perhaps the silliest passage I have ever read in the literature of spiritual autobiography, which is a literature of considerable silliness. Its author, the man to whom the Lord spoke from out of the doughnut, who found redemption through sin at Chock full o'Nuts, is Norman Mailer, who recalls it in his primitive new book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation. Chock full of nuts, indeed. This is a book that has a kind word for Aleister Crowley. I was not aware that Mailer has "spent the last fifty years trying to contemplate the nature of God," though I am not surprised that he wants in on the God action of the Bush years. If he has been trying, he has been failing. About the victims of the Holocaust, Mailer teaches that "most of those who desired reincarnation received it, but in unsatisfactory fashion." The fool explains: "If populations die at a steady rate with only a statistical spike here and there. ... God can receive and judge incoming souls. ... [But] when reincarnation is flooded with a huge number of deaths that have no meaning ... then they enter reincarnation with less preparation within. ... [W]hen the Creator is not functioning at His or Her best ... then the choices made for reincarnation can be deemed gross--there's not enough of God to go around. It is a way of saying the Holocaust deadened God's wit."

From this sort of theobabble, who would not rush into the arms of the most delirious atheist? But that is precisely the intellectual curse of the Bush era, this golden age of gangs and mirror images and mutually invigorating militancies. Bush has been very good to atheism. Compared to the obscurantism that is the doctrine of this government, godlessness has come to seem glamorous, and perfectly obvious. Nothing can make you feel more like an outlaw these days than a smirking shot at one of religion's many crudities and excesses. There are many things that may be said against contemporary atheism--against its dogmatism, its self-satisfaction, its evasion of the vast history of godless violence, its philosophical shallowness (when our Filene's Basement Voltaires bother about philosophical argument at all); but I am increasingly struck by the extent to which many of the books against God are mainly psychological expressions. More specifically, a lot of atheism looks to me like just a lot of adolescence. They are always telling you about their parents. They rebel against the false idea that God is the father because they have the false idea that their father is God. (Sometimes the villainous deceiver of young minds who must be deposed is an early teacher, who unaccountably failed to assign Why I Am Not a Christian to the second grade.) When it comes to the articulation of one's view of the world, of one's understanding of what is true and false about the universe, who cares what one's parents believe? The answer is, children care; and there is something childish about the freethinker's pouting critique of his own childhood. Atheism can be as infantilizing as theism, an inverted form of captivity to one's origins, as if biological authority confers intellectual authority. Je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothese. In matters of conviction, we are orphans. And there is also, of course, the boyish thrill of naughtiness, the titillation of sinning, that attends the witticisms against religion. Here is Anatole France on Baudelaire, by way of Edmund Wilson: "In his arrogance he wished to believe that everything he did was important, even his little impurities; so that he wanted them all to be sins that would interest heaven and hell." Religion may confer a preposterous cosmic significance upon the individual, but atheism is the true friend of egotism.

Speaking of smirking, I was watching "Charlie Rose" the other night and there was George Clooney. His fun-loving face has a certain vitiating effect upon his moments of solemnity. Even when it is not winking, it is winking. There he was peddling one of the great hoaxes of American life: the celebrity as moral leader. He reported on a recent mission to China, which he made to reverse Chinese support for the genocidal tyrant in Khartoum. "I took Don Cheadle and a couple of Olympic athletes. ... Our argument was to sit there and say, 'We need you, the world needs you.'" That ought to work. And if Beijing remains unmoved, it may be time to send in Bernie Mac. Clooney, Brad Pitt (who remarked last spring that sitting in a room with Angelina Jolie and Marianne Pearl is "like sitting down with Roosevelt and Churchill--only much better-looking"), Matt Damon, Cheadle and others have started an organization to help "stop and prevent mass atrocities," called Not On Our Watch. Their watch? They are mere movie stars. Just as philanthropy should not be regarded as sufficient for social policy, celebrity should not be regarded as sufficient for foreign policy. The attention that Clooney can focus on Darfur is certainly useful, though I suspect that it passes quickly, since fandom is not a form of political action. Clooney is plainly an intelligent person, even if he may not be, as one human rights activist described him, "smarter than any politician I've dealt with on this issue," which is anyway faint praise; and it is nice to see Danny Ocean giving back. But I must insist that one of the many wonderful things about Cary Grant was that he never believed he could get Mussolini out of Abyssinia.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

By Leon Wieseltier