On my Atheism Phase, “Universally Speaking,” As Anthony Kiedis Puts It (Sean O’Connor’s Public Comment video diary vlog– episode #18)

I dismiss entirely a notion I believe is in part upheld based on postmodern type grounds that confine people to little groups of their own values which have nothing to do with groups beyond theirs… (even if so called intellectuals want to think themselves the only people who can intellectualize in a meaningful way)– I mean…this is not directed to so called “intellectuals” though I admit there are grounds to describe my tone as “intellectual” or “esoteric”

TRANSCRIPT:

Hey ‘y’all! (Yes, yes, my fondness of the expression “‘y’all,” despite my coastal, NJ/NY Metropolitan intellectual “Yankee” ((?)) upbringing and cultural practices ((?)) manners of putting things ((?)) continues to grow)

I understand, based on viewer feedback that I might want to try not speaking so slow. Why do I do it? Can I blame my poetry phases? My acting phases? I don’t know. I do like the weight of a word.

Anyway, I want to ask you: do you identify with any particular religion?

I mean, when “push comes to shove” as they say (Yes, I love to say “as they say” and I love those little sayings “they” say— of course…who is they? Some mysterious crowd of people in our minds?) …

I mean, when faced with your sense of mortality or your contemplations on the subject of life in a general way…you know…that very wide angled panoramic view of our births, our childhoods, teenage years, young adulthood (ah…channeling Walt Whitman’s genius poem “Eidolons” here?) the intense desire for sex and whether or not you believe in the depth of romantic relationships, and whether or not you believe in monogamy, marriage, parenthood, sense of purpose, sense of meaning….the meaning of the work you do and the money you make, spend, save, how much you do or do not care about how what you do impacts your health, what you make of social life, whether you want friends, what those friendships are supposed to be like in your mind, how you handle disagreements, when you think about what care about, what some of us might refer to as your “values” or “priorities” or “interests”– when you feel sad and reflect…do you in that context call yourself an Atheist, a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, a Sikh, a Buddhist? (Just to name a few “religions” or “ideological identities” of the many possibilities).

To what extend have you, within the greatest depths of your convictions, justified, on the granular level, those kinds of religious, ideological, philosophical beliefs you have?

I remember the first ideological/philosophical/religious thought I ever had.

Now, I don’t know where I first heard of the concept of a “God” but I remember at roughly three years old, I asked my grandmother if God was a boy or a girl and my grandma said: “God is whatever you want it to be.”

That is one of the earliest memories I have in general and perhaps closest to the vertabtim of any of my early childhood memories.

I don’t know when it occurred to me that my father’s side of the family was theoretically “Christian” and my mother’s “Jewish,” but I remember when a dear friend of mine asked me what my religion was. I was not older than 13 when that happened and first I joked and said I was Jatholic because all I knew was that there was contradictory religions professed in my complex family with mother, father, stepfather and stepmother all possessing very unique ideological notions.

My dear friend pressed me to really think about what in fact I identified with regarding religion.

I got to thinking about “Santa Clause” which I knew was a lie by then (or a fun, make-believe idea perhaps we want to call it?)

I got to thinking about scientific concepts such as empiricism (terribly ironic too because I failed Math class and didn’t care at all about science…yet science reined supreme in my mind regardless of my interest in it)

No. I did not know the word “empiricism” or if I did, I don’t remember knowing  or using it then. But it did appear to me…whatever God could theoretically be, it is beyond empirical reach…and absent any legitimate scientific proof as far as I could understand, atheism seemed a perfectly fair mentality to me.

And I thought….the God idea is exceptionally comforting…and I thought…interesting that someone would claim to be the son of a God with no proof and people just believe it…and just believe these heaven and hell ideas. And they have the pretentiousness to tell you that God is something you just have to be primed to “feel” and have “faith” in and if you can’t there is something wrong with you.

I became a full fledged atheist and yet my best friend at the time was what he called a “Seventh Day Adventist Christian.”

Our deepening ideological differences, as opposed to creating some kind of crack in our friendship, appeared to give it tremendous strength. I cannot begin to tell you how many countless hours this individual and I spent debating, from every angle we could, the question of why one should or should not believe a God exists.

And moreover, how should people regard a text such as the Bible?

And…what would the implications of these things be? For example, from certain Seventh Day Adventist Christian perspectives I was exposed to, various aspects of sexuality were regarded as sin.

No sex before marriage.

No masturbating.

No lust.

That always troubled me as much as the notion of a God. I thought the notion that a person should not masturbate or explore his or her sexuality was one of the most absurd notions one could possibly come up with.

And there was music many of these kinds of Christians were not supposed to listen to, and ideas of women as subservient that some of these Christians possessed, and a perplexing fixation on Republican politicians…

Other questions that were raised… from the perspective of many who believe in God– I came to learn from this friend of mine-. For example: since God absolutely existed, they thought, truth in general was an absolute thing.

So this was all an introduction for me to the questions of “philosophy” and ethics.

I wonder…if it were not for this brilliant person…this deep, intellectual, philosophical thinker I was so lucky to meet, whether I would have delved so deeply into those topics so many people I know refer to as intellectual or philosophical.

Beyond the scope of the atheism versus Christianity debate I had with this person and then others as I began to develop my own beliefs….and whatever questions arose in this realm…I never thought about concepts such as “philosophy” or “intellectualism.”

I didn’t even…as a teenager, know the meaning of “philosophy” and ironic as this may seem, anyone who, at that time, might have thought themselves “intellectual” was probably somehow — I don’t know how I arrived at this conclusion– detached from life in a more visceral sense.

Because I was an “artist.”

I wasn’t troubled by (or in fact in possession of the confidence to contemplate) notions some might consider “esoteric.”

I want to digress briefly on this concept of the esotertic here.

I am very opposed to a real niche type approach to communication—that is to say, I try to the best of my ability to speak to you in as universal a way…as universal a perspective as I can.

And what do I mean by that? By Universal?

I mean…I don’t view myself as talking exclusively to “intellectuals”  or “artists” or “academics” or “YouTubers” or “Facebookers” or “millennials” or my contemporaries…I mean…for all we know…someway and somehow, this video file will reach an alien life form that can somehow….decipher it.

My point is this…I dismiss entirely a notion I believe is in part upheld based on postmodern type grounds that confine people to little groups of their own values which have nothing to do with groups beyond theirs… (even if so called intellectuals want to think themselves the only people who can intellectualize in a meaningful way)– I mean…this is not directed to so called “intellectuals” though I admit there are grounds to describe my tone as “intellectual” or “esoteric”

((Oh, that reminds me of another “conviction” I had growing up as a kid and a teenager…I didn’t believe in cliques….didn’t want to belong to, confine myself to, or identify with a clique…I didn’t want to be a “jock” or a “nerd:” or a “dork” or a “geek” or a “stoner” or a “goth” or a “punk” or an “emo” or a “band geek” or a “theater geek” or a “bad kid” or any type of group-oriented identifying thing… (though naturally I was an atheist in a purely objective and descriptive sense).

This actually contributed to chronic loneliness as everyone around me seemed to gravitate towards a particular crowd and even when I did gravitate this way or that way I never felt bound to or married to my gravitation.

Getting back to my point here… I’m not targeting anyone IN PARTICULAR here.

What’s that line by Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chilly Peppers?

“Universally Speaking I win in the long run”

And this chain of particular thoughts is to be continued because it’s complex and who doesn’t love a good “to be continued?”

LOL as I love to say. Talk to you tomorrow


Public Comment is a personal journal vlog where I share my free thoughts on politics, culture, and self.

Please feel free to share your thoughts with me at sean.publiccomment@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter at 
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Akhtar’s and Dostoevsky’s Examinations of Freedom, Reason and Faith

“There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either

The Grand Inquisitor (From Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov 254)

 

“…an attempt to liberate the more heartfelt metaphorical version of religious experience from the literalist dogma of the orthodoxy…”

                                    -Ayad Akhtar (From The Essential Ayad Akhtar by Natalie Hulla

of the Cincinnati Play House in the Park)

 

In the essay “How American, How Muslim,” Pulitzer Prize winning writer Ayad Akhtar says one of his inspirations is the late 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (Akhtar Appendix item 3). In both Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Akhtar’s American Dervish there are characters with complex views on religion. As complex as their views appear to be, in both novels there are characters who ultimately possess religious faith or lack it. What makes comparing and contrasting these two pieces especially interesting is that despite both authors examining different religions- Dostoevsky examines Christianity, Akhtar examines Islam-, writing in different centuries – Dostoevsky wrote in the 19th, Akhtar in the 21st-,  and in different countries- Dostoevsky in a considerably homogeneous Russia, Aktar in a considerably diverse and pluralistic America- their characters critically examine religion in similar ways. Both novels examine the importance of freedom (intellectual freedom, and the freedom to do what one wants), and the conflicts between reason and faith (for example, ‘can/should one have both reason and faith?’). Although they examine similar things, one notable difference is how each author’s characters define of reason.  In American Dervish an atheist adheres to a notion of non-contradictory thinking and shows how contradictory interpretation of the Quran leads to antisemitism. In The Brothers Karamazov, both a Christian monk named Zosima, and Ivan, a conflicted agnostic, fear that unchecked reason will lead to violence. Moreover, the monk, specifically, views Christ as the only way to save an otherwise rational mind from this violence. In other words, the rational character in American Dervish sees reason as a path to peace and religion as a path to hate, where as for Dostoevsky, reason leads to violence and only religion can bring peace and love.[1]

 

FREEDOM

 

Both Akhtar and Dostoevsky have characters who champion freedom. And in fact, both examine different ways to define the concept. For example, in American Dervish, Naveed is a staunch advocate of freedom- intellectual freedom of thought, as well as freedom to act as he wishes- who believes “Eastern women [are] mentally imprisoned” (Akhtar 160; italics are Akhtar’s). Hayat’s mother says implicitly that he thinks Eastern women are sexually imprisoned too. She says, “What the filthy man really means is that [white, ‘free’ women will] put their mouths anywhere, like animals. So he can put his mouth anywhere. Like an animal. That’s what they want and that’s what they like. It’s disgusting” (Akhtar 160-161; italics are Akhtar’s). A possible interpretation here is that Hayat’s mother, Muneer, is saying white women and Naveed both like oral sex but she does not, and Naveed thinks oral sex is sexually liberating while she thinks it’s “disgusting.” This would certainly explain (but not justify) why Naveed is motivated to sleep with women other than his wife- because he feels by holding herself back sexually she holds him back from experiencing what he wants to experience; to enjoy the freedom he wants to enjoy. If she wants to deny herself sexual freedom, to him, it’s her loss but he will not let it be his. It is important to note that it is not only “Eastern women” Naveed is critical of. It’s the Muslim community more broadly, which according to Naveed consists of “fools” and “sheep” (Akhtar 320).  “You can’t live by the rules others give you…you have to find your own rules,” Naveed tells his son Hayat, who is narrating the novel, when he’s explaining to him why he left a wedding they attended (Akhtar 320). A character in The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan, is similar to Naveed though Ivan takes his belief in freedom to the extreme.[2] The topic of freedom comes up with Ivan because he and his brother Alyosha are having a conversation about “the universal questions” such as “is there a God, is there immoratality?” and ethics (Dostoevsky 234). When Alyosha learns that Ivan does not put his faith in God and Christ he asks Ivan if this means Ivan thinks, in terms of ethics, that people should be free to do whatever they want (Dostoevsky 263). “The formula, ‘everything is permitted,’ I will not renounce,” Ivan tells Alyosha (Dostoevsky 263). In both cases, these characters conceptualize freedom as an individual thinking and doing whatever it is he or she wants (though both characters have thresholds at which point things seem cruel which make them squeamish. Naveed cannot stand anti-Semitism [Akhtar 207] or the oppression of women [Akhtar 321]. Ivan cannot bear the “cruelty” of people [Dostoevsky 238]). What readers comparing these two novels may find interesting is that Naveed’s belief in freedom seems more meaningful- that is to say, there are clear, explicit, palpable things Naveed wants as a result of his freedom: namely sex and independence. With Ivan, freedom at its core does not seem to be what he actually desires. Instead it merely happens to be that the ethical justification for freedom is a consequence to the fact that he cannot say with certainty that God exists. In other words, Naveed thinks about freedom in a very personal and psychological sense, whereas for Ivan it is simply an impersonal, detached, philosophical deduction that there is no source from which it can be proven that there are things people should or should not be able to do.[3]

In both novels there is an entirely different conceptualization of freedom posited as well: spiritual freedom which characters in both novels appear to perceive as being based, at least in significant part, on humility. In American Dervish, Mina tells a story of a Dervish, which Mina says is “someone who gives up everything for Allah” (Akhtar 191). She does not call this, explicitly, “spiritual freedom.” She actually refers to it as “true humility” (Akhtar 103) and oneness (Akhtar 104). When we compare the Dervish she speaks of to the Christian monk, Zosima, in The Brothers Karamazov we see a striking similarity. The Monk, says

Obedience, fasting, and prayer are laughed at yet they alone constitute the way to real freedom: I cut away my superfluous and unnecessary needs, through obedience I humble and chasten my vain and proud will, and thereby, with God’s help, attain freedom of spirit, and with that, spiritual rejoicing (Dostoevsky 314; italics mine).

Also striking is the fact that both the Dervish and the Monk find connections between humility and nature. Of the Dervish, Mina says

“He realized he was no better, no worse than the ground itself, the ground that takes the discarded orange peels of the world. In fact, he realized he was the same as that ground, the same as those peels, as those men, as everything else.”

Compare this with Dostoevsky’s monk: “Man, do not exalt yourself above the animals: they are sinless” (Dostoevsky 319). This notion of spiritual freedom then seems to include even a freedom from sense of individuality, distinctiveness and uniqueness for the Dervish and the Monk see people as no different than orange peels and animals. It could be argued that both therefore deny the exceptionalism of human beings and are, ultimately, pessimists who can only experience spirituality via self denial. This is actually important because we see self-denial explicitly and viscerally in American Dervish. In fact, it is Mina- the one who tells us about the self-denying Dervish- who denies herself in the story. Instead of marrying the man she loves and exploring her sense of self and purpose she marries an abusive man she was pressured by family to marry and says it is “an expression of Allah’s will” (Akhtar 343) which in fact “she regretted” (Akhtar 348). Ultimately then, it could be argued that Akhtar portrays “spiritual freedom” through “self denial” as a negative and harmful thing. But compare this to Dostoevsky! In the case of Zosima the monk, what are the consequences of his self denial? When Zosima does not resist his desires (we are speaking of the time before he becomes a monk and discovers self denial), he is driven, in a rage, to take out his anger over the fact that someone else has won the affections of a girl he fancies on his servant who he beats so brutally that the servant bleeds (Dostoevsky 297). Zosima discovers this was wrong; he says “this is what a man can be brought to” (Dostoevsky 298). Instead of engaging in a dual with the man who won the affections of the woman he is fond of, he surrenders to the man saying he can shoot him if he wants but Zosima will not shoot at him (Dostoevsky 298). The point here is that in Dostoevsky’s novel self-denial leads to noble acts. But again, in Akhtar’s, it leads to harm.

There is a third notion of freedom the two novels examine: freedom from faith, or put another way, freedom attained as a result of no longer having faith. Again we see a contras with the two authors; this aforementioned kind of freedom being depicted in a positive light by one author, and negative by the other. In American Dervish Hayat eventually comes to describe losing his faith as a positive and liberating experience (as a young teenager Hayat is a devout, Quran-reading-and-memorizing Muslim) where as in The Brother’s Karamazov Ivan, who concedes God may exist, rejects this possible God and God’s world more broadly and for him this rejection isn’t a pleasurable experience, it’s simply necessary on ethical grounds. I shall elaborate.

In the prologue to American Dervish, Hayat tells us that “to lose your faith” is “So freeing. It’s the most freeing thing that’s ever happened to me” (Akhtar 10-11). Hayat does not fully explain the nature of his lost faith nor of this liberation however it is quite possible that the freedom he feels is a kind of inner-peace after rejecting his notion of Islam and the damage which Islam did to his family and especially Mina. Moreover it is possible he feels free of guilt too We know that when he sees her “two months before she die[s]” (Akhtar 337) he “had been giving up on Islam little by little for years, and…now there was barely anything left” (Akhtar 341). After he brings this up to Mina, asking what her “suffering” had “to do with finding God” she said “Even the pain… is an expression of Allah’s will” he never once hints with the slightest subtlety or implication that she has changed his mind (Akhtar 342-343). When we see two months later he loses his faith, and cites no other significant experience associated with his faith it is quite reasonable to posit indeed this faith is lost because he sees that virtually every example of Muslim faith has brought with it unreasonable, unacceptable suffering which was tolerated as a result of that faith.

In The Brothers Karamazov Ivan has a somewhat similar experience however his qualm is spelt out for us, and it is not mere religion that troubles him, or even Christianity. It is God and reality. For Ivan, if a God exists, God is evil for God has created a world of suffering, and Heaven, according to Ivan, does not make up for that suffering, thus he will have nothing to do with Christianity, even if there is a God (Dostoevsky 245). As he puts it, “I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong…it is not that don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket” (Dostoevsky 245). In what sense then is Ivan free? He is free,  at least thinks he is, of a certain kind of guilt[4]; he feels free in the sense that while God may keep reality as it is, and while God may think He makes up for the awfulness of life with Heaven for the good believers and Hell for evil non-believers, Ivan will not give it his moral sanction-  for he says: “it is my duty, if only as an honest man” to maintain his rejection of this (Dostoevsky 245). He is rebelling (“Rebellion” is in fact the title of the chapter. Strangely enough yet true to his sort of contradictory, paradoxical way, he says “One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live” [Dostoevsky 245]) and saying God’s system is unacceptable to him, even hell for evil non-believers and heaven for the innocent is not enough. Speaking specifically about those who torture children he says “what can hell set right here, if these ones have already been tormented?” (Dostoevsky 245). Both Ivan and Hayat can be viewed as rebels here but they are rebelling against different things; Ivan is rebelling against reality[5] where as Hayat is merely rebelling first against his father when he deeply embraces Islam  and later against segments of the Pakistani community that his family sometimes associates with when he rejects Islam. He is also rebelling against the pain which these Muslims inflict on themselves, Jews, women, et cetera, as a result of their strict Quranic interpretations.

 

REASON VERSUS FAITH

 

What’s especially interesting about Ivan is that it is not reason which makes him agnostic and resentful of the universe and potentially God if there is one (at least, it is not reason according to him). Reason, or what Ivan in this instance, calls “logic” is something, first of all, left undefined, and secondly, loveless, or insufficient in terms of providing people with a capacity for love. “Sticky spring leaves, the blue sky- I love the, that’s all! Such things you love not with your mind, not with logic, but with your insides, your guts” (Dostoevsky 230). A little later Ivan says “reason hedges and hides. Reason is a scoundrel” (Dostoevsky 236). A possible interpretation, if we compare the two aforementioned quotes, is that Ivan perceives reason as a detached, over intellectualized, cold mental operation with no room for emotional experience, or sympathy. If reason “hides” it is perhaps more exactly, “feeling/emotion” which it hides, remaining cloaked only in detatched factual deductions.[6]

In American Dervish we get another interpretation of reason and that comes from Sonny Buledi- a Pakistani friend of Naveed’s who is an atheist. Sonny’s version of rationality is non-contradictory thinking. We learn this when he debates Quranic interpretations among fellow Pakistanis. Specifically they’re debating whether an interpretation has anti-Semitic implications.

“C’mon, man!” Sonny exploded. “God condemns them [Jews] in verse sixty-one, which    you choose to underline, and then follows it with accepting them in the next?! That’s an outright contradiction and unless you can explain it, it renders both versus utterly meaningless…” (Akhtar 131)

It would follow- if we apply Sonny’s epistemological standard- that Sonny is probably an atheist because as he sees it, there is no proof or logical deduction which can verify that a God exists.

But something else is interesting about Sonny’s rationality. It doesn’t only lead to atheism. It also leads to peacefulness and tolerance. Sonny’s rationality leads to a justification for Chatha’s anti-Semitism (which Chatha claims is based on the Quran) to be discredited and rejected. It is extremely noteworthy that in Akhtar’s novel, it is the rational atheist (or agnostics, or the spiritually ambiguous/open-minded) who reject(s) hatred and it is the religious characters who have hate in their hearts (whether it be outward hate for others, such as the anti-Semitic Chatha, or even Hayat when he goes through such a phase as a pedantic, literalist Muslim,  or what appears to be self-hatred in the case of Mina and Muneer who deny themselves of better lives where they could be less oppressed).

However, in The Brothers Karamazov, reason is associated with violence and is conceptualized as something that is of limited use for people. This relationship is really rather complex and is articulated by several different characters in different ways. For the sake of succinctness and focusing exclusively on the ultimate essence of this idea I shall bring up only the example of sentiment expressed by Zosima, the Monk. Zosima says:

These, following science, want to make a just order for themselves by reason alone, but with Christ now, not as before, and they have already proclaimed there is no crime, there is no sin. And in their own terms, that is correct: for if you have no God, what crime is there to speak of? In Europe the people are rising up against the rich with force, and popular leaders everywhere are leading them to bloodshed and teaching them that their wrath is righteous. But ‘their wrath is accursed, for it is cruel’[7]  (Dostoevsky 315)

Zosima assumes that rational thinking cannot lead people to goodness.[8]  Why does he think this? He says earlier of science (of which reason and logic are a part) that it consists only of “that which is subject to the senses” (Dostoevsky 313). Clearly than Zosima assumes ethics have no basis in “the senses” or that which can be abstracted from them; in other words, we see that classic notion of original sin inherent in Monk’s assumptions, i.e., Zosima thinks people are inherently bad and can only be saved by God and God’s standards- standards which could only even be first discovered by a God.

The deeper discovery we can make as readers then is that Dostoevsky and Akhtar appear to be at very opposite ends of the spectrum, not only when it comes to their views on reason, but of human nature itself, for there is nothing implied by Sonny, Hayat or anyone espousing rationality in American Diverish, that suggests they think humanity is inherently depraved. For Dostoevsky, religion saves humanity from its depraved self. For Akhtar, reason saves humanity from religion!  

While reason in the two novels is interpreted by the characters differently, religious faith is viewed quite similarly, even in the face of suffering. Hayat questions Mina’s faith at the end of the novel, when she is in the hospital (Akhtar 342).  He thinks “all these Sufis tales [are nothing] but fictions she’s using to shed a redeeming glow on a life scored with pain, pain I caused her, pain Sunil caused her, and that she should have sought not simply to bear, but escape” (Akhtar 342; italics are his). To her he says, “What did the suffering she had gone through over the past eight years at her  husband’s hands- and for that matter the suffering she was experiencing now, as she lay dying- what did any of this have to do with finding God?” (Akhtar 342). She answers: “this is how the divine is choosing to express Himself through me…everything, everything, is an expression of Allah’s will. It is all His glory. Even the pain…That is the real truth about life” (Akhtar 343). In other words, Mina herself, according to her thinking, is irrelevant. Mina does not even exist as Mina in her mind. She exists as a manifestation of God. So whatever God throws at her, including pain and dying, God throws at her. Mina’s submission to God is a dramatization of that haunting cliché that is so often sighed, “it is what it is.” And this for her is not just perfectly okay, but good and wonderful. As Hayat describes her as she is nearing her death in the hospital: “Her eyes sparked when she saw us. However sick she appeared, she looked no less alive” (Akhtar 338) (It is only in that light that we can really understand the significance of the final page of Akhtar’s novel when he feels inexplicable gratitude which he can finally discern, saying he “finally” is able to hear what he is grateful for: “my heart, silently murmuring its steady beat” [352]. Hayat acknowledges the fact that he has a self).

We see a very similar sentiment articulated by the monk- a sentiment the monk learns from his brother. Like Mina, Zosima’s brother is close to death and aware of it. In speaking of natural beauty, his brother says “there was so much of God’s glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone lived in shame, I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and glory of it all” (Dostoevsky 289) As Zosima is about to die before his visitors to whom he has given his final talk,  everyone notes how despite the pain he appears to be in, he is “still looking at them with a smile…bowed down with his face to the ground, stretched out his arms and, as if in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying…quietly and joyfully gave up his soul to God” (Dostoevsky 324). Both Zosima and Mina face death and pain and find spiritual satisfaction in surrendering to God. Despite the element of self-denial inherent in both Zosima’s and Mina’s surrender there is one positive thing: in their final moments, God, or their idea of a supposed God can provide comfort. Say what one might about all the various aspects of elements of religions, we see at least that belief in a God can be comforting when one is confronted with one’s mortality. Religion, as depicted by both authors, has at least something to offer.

There are two wider takeaways we can gain from comparing and contrasting the examination of religion in these two novels. First,  it is interesting that pain plays such a strong role in the characters of both novels as it pertains to their attitudes on religion, and implicitly on their views of human nature (are we inherently bad? Are we capable of being good? Do we need a God to be good?). This is not to say we learn anything universal about the experience of pain.  Rather, it has to do more with how each unique individual processes pain. In the case of the non-religious in both novels, it is specifically that pain that motivates them to rid themselves of their faith (Sonny, who seems to be an atheist most fundamentally as a result of drier, detached rationality, is an exception). Ivan, for example, is in so much pain he can barely deal with reality so he rejects God even if God exists. Hayat sees the pain that religion has caused him, his family, Mina, and Nathan. On the other hand, the believers in God see pain as almost superficial when compared to the glory of God. That or they are so humble and self-denying that it would be a betrayal of their values to deeply sulk or curse God. Spiritual characters on the verge of death in both novels (Mina and Zosima) both find tremendous pleasure and peace despite their pain.  A second takeaway is that just as each person processes pain differently, each person has different definitions for words- sometimes even multiple definitions- perhaps not even dictionary definitions, or universal definitions, further complicating these kinds of discussions. Most notably, we see different notions of freedom: spiritual freedom versus moral freedom, and the freedom that comes from losing faith. We also see different notions of reason. Dostoevsky’s characters- regardless of their broader theological differences- seem to agree that reason leads to violence yet in Akhtar’s novel, reason is shown to be supreme, even implicitly by the narrator who says, when discussing his loss of faith, that it did not bother him like other Arabs in his class on Islam when his professor suggested there was proof that the Islamic notion of “the Quran as the direct, unchanged, eternal word of God was a fiction” (Akhtar 7-11). His response, when his girlfriend asks him how he feels about the lecture is: “What’s to feel? The truth is the truth” (Aktar 9). By not putting his feelings into the validity or lack-there- of, he is being objective, i.e., he is using reason, and he grows compassionate (when he is no longer a Muslim he is also no longer an anti-Semite)[9] and is doing so in a way which it appears Dostoevsky could not imagine or fathom.

 

Works Cited

 

Akhtar, Ayad. American Dervish. Back Bay Books/ Little, Brown and Company, 2012.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Princeton University Press, 2010

Hulla, Natalie. “The Essential Ayad Akhtar,” Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 20 June 2017,

https://cincyplay.com/blog/cinncinati-blog/2017/06/20/the-essential-ayad-akhtar

Trepanier, Lee. “The Politics and Experience of Active Love in the Brother Karamazov,” Voegelinview, 20 January 2017,  https://voegelinview.com/politics-experience-active-love-brothers-karamazov/

 

[1] Both of these novels in my view are exceptionally complex and thus there is more they have in common, and there are more distinct differences however it would require a lengthy amount of time to be so comprehensive.

[2] To be clear, Ivan is complex because he is conflicted, wishy-washy, and contradicts himself. He says “everything is permitted” (Dostoevsky 263)  and yet loathes God’s supposed cruelty (Dostoevsky 235). Likewise, Naveed is all for freedom yet cannot stand how Muslim men oppress women (Akthar 321).

[3] This is not to downplay the philosophical capacity, depth or nature of Naveed. This simply appears to be a manifestation of ,what appears to me, to be a stylistic differences between Akhtar and Dostoevsky: that Dostoevsky’s characters tend to deliver long, theoretical, sometimes even discursive monologues, whereas Akhtar’s characters are much more succinct.

[4] Noteworthy here also is that however free Hayat feels, unlike Ivan, he actually does not feel free of guilt. The same night he says he feels free, he learns that Mina has died, and says “Now that she was gone, how could I ever repair the harm I’d done” (Akhtar 12).

[5] Ivan’s denial of reality suggests psychological trouble far more complex and potentially problematic than Hayat’s disagreement with religious claims. Hayat is making a philosophical, and theological discernment. Ivan, it appears, is struggling to cope with what is for him the malady of existence.

[6] This of course, is a claimed notion of reason, and not necessarily the proper notion. After all, is Ivan not in the act of attempting to reasoning when he is essentially saying what is what and why what is what?

[7] According to the end notes the quite within the quotes comes from Genesis 49:7

[8] One could argue this is hard as a reader to reconcile since if we apply Sonny’s definition of reason (non-contradictory thinking) to Zosima’s application of it, his very act of reasoning is what suggests to him that reason is insufficient for arriving at ethical standards.

[9] And ‘oh, the irony’- it is the all-loving Christian writer Dostoevsky who, throughout his life was an anti-Semite. He once spoke of “Yiddifying” ideas as “third-rate” (Frank 744). Other disturbing examples abound in Joseph Frank’s comprehensive biography.

CBS’ SCOTT PELLEY: “I TRULY, DEEPLY, DO NOT CARE”; “MAYBE IT’S A GENTIC DEFECT”

I had the wonderful opportunity of attending the College Media Association (CMA) Spring National College Media Convention in Times Square, where I got to ask CBS’s Scott Pelley a few questions about freedom and bias.

The CMA describes itself on its website (http://www.collegemedia.org/site/about.html) as “the preeminent source for education and support for professionals and students engaged in creating all forms of student produced media on college and university campuses.”

Also according to the website, it was founded in 1954 and has more than 900 members.

The CMA published a program for the convention and inside that program it says they hold two annual conventions. Every Spring they hold a convention in New York City, and every fall the convention “convenes at varying sites across the country.”

One of the convention’s keynote speakers was CBS’ Evening New’s managing editor, Mr. Scott Pelley.

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Photo by Sean O’Connor 

When I got to question Mr. Pelley I mentioned some specific things that I found to be troubling that prompted me to ask my question: things such as the Washington Post article about former CBS employee Sharyl Attkisson, who resigned due to the network’s alleged liberal bias, and their alleged refusal to air certain stories on the Benghazi scandal (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2014/03/10/sharyl-attkisson-leaves-cbs-news/) , and a commentary in the USA TODAY that day on America’s drastic loss of freedom of the press. (Preserve Freedom Of The Press; Jonathan Turley; 3/13/14).

(It is worth noting that I was later told by an advisor at the convention who once interviewed President Barack Obama, that one should never ask someone in a political position to “comment” on something, because it only gives them the opportunity to dance around the issue. A point well made.)

While Mr. Pelley responded by saying “I will put The CBS Evening News- of which I am managing editor- up against any news organization, broadcast or print, when it comes to coverage of Benghazi”, and that he has been accused of having both a liberal and conservative bias, which in his opinion means he has “nailed” his interviews, he said nothing about whether or not he believed we are losing the freedom of the press.

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Photo by Sean O’Connor 

For Mr. Pelley to fail to point out that the U.S. Justice Department seized phone records of reporters and editors of the Associated Press,and seized records of Fox News phone lines, and that the FCC had planned to monitor news rooms, and grill journalists on how their organizations select news stories, and that these events are problematic, is, on his part, most discouraging, especially because he is a veteran journalist, and was in a room full of people who will become future members of the media industry.

It was also rather inconsistent with the message he began his speech with, as he spoke of how without a free press there is no democracy.

He identified the lack of free press in Syria but failed to mention a single attack on free press here in America. Considering how important the issue theoretically is to him, he should have at least raised questions: Should the government monitor news organizations?

If it does, what is the difference between news that is officially run by the state, and news which is unofficially run by the state?

Why do we call the unofficial state ownership of the press “free press”?

There is something else Mr. Pelley said, in response to another person’s question. Mr. Pelley was asked if he worries about being a tool of the government. He said he did not worry about that and then added “I don’t care whether there’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. I don’t care which party is in the leadership, on either side of the house or senate. Maybe it’s a genetic defect that I have of some kind, but I truly, deeply, do not care. My job is to report on what those people do or say and illustrate the contrast between what they do and say.” He said he is neither a conservative or a liberal, and that he just tries to “inflict as much pain on both of them” as he “possibly can, because…that’s what journalists do.”

It is one thing for a reporter to be unbiased in his official report, and another thing for him to have an opinion. Having an opinion does not make a reporter’s report inherently biased. Injecting an opinion into a report and refusing to tell all sides of the story is biased and is essentially what we would refer to as propaganda. I wonder what Mr. Pelley would say in response that.

I also wonder: was Mr. Pelley being honest?

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Photo by Sean O’Connor

Does he just tell us what he thinks we want to hear so we’ll like him and trust him, or does he mean it when he says he “truly, deeply [does] not care” whether America is led by Republicans or Democrats?

While I wish I could speculate that by not caring, he means that he believes both the Republicans and Democrats are corrupt and he himself is an independent, unfortunately his comment that “maybe it is a genetic defect” suggests that he doesn’t think that deeply about it, and instead, considers his apparent political apathy to be just some bizarre and very paradoxical aspect of his personality.

When he said that his job is to “report what those people do and say and illustrate the difference” and that “we [at the CBS Evening News] just try to inflict as much pain on both of them as we possibly can” it comes across as impersonal, detached, and somewhat nihilistic.

What does he mean when he says he tries to “inflict pain”?

Even supposing he is speaking figuratively, it still comes across as arbitrary since he “truly, deeply [does] not care” about who is leading America, causing his projected ideal image of a journalist to look, not like a person with a moral consciousness, but rather a sadomasochist who views an interview as a means of “inflicting pain” on people merely because it is his job to do so.

A journalist should care about the state of the universe. All people should care about everything that is produced, from ideas to food.

As for journalists in particular, it should be their rational consciences that prompt them to ask the questions they ask and report events honestly. No, not all journalists have to broadcast or publish commentaries.

Perhaps some would rather let reporters report, and commentators publish and broadcast their opinions. That is fine. But all people- no matter what job they work- should most certainly analyze the news and have opinions and share them if asked and act on those opinions.

I would have loved to ask Mr. Pelley if he even votes, and why or why not, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough time for me to ask a follow up question.

As I mentioned earlier, the CMA describes itself as “the preeminent source for education and support for professionals and students engaged in creating all forms of student produced media on college and university campuses”. If the association is what it claims to be, then it should be clear to students, that above all things, they should never be politically apathetic like Mr. Pelley, because in doing so, further attempts by the U.S. government to manipulate the media would grow more and more successful, would trickle down to the college media, and reach a point where American media begins to resemble the Syrian media that Mr. Pelley rightfully condemned.