Thursday, January 06, 2011

Belonging

I have been reading Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow (I have previously blogged his novel My Name Is Red). Snow is about Turkish politics, and Turkish politics -- as increasingly in the U.S. -- is all about religion.

One thing the novel makes clear: Whatever else religion is about, it is about belonging.

It is about belonging to a group favored by God. No matter how poor, or excluded, or left behind by the onrush of civilization, if you belong to a "true faith" you thrive in solidarity with others of the chosen.

The novel's protagonist, Ka, is a secular intellectual, returned to Turkey from exile in Germany, a solitary man, and in his solitude lost. At one point he asks a holy sheikh, a guru of the town of Kars: "It's because I'm solitary that I can't believe in God. And because I can't believe in God, I can't escape from solitude. What should I do?"

It is an ancient longing -- to belong. To sit in the tiered rows of a megachurch, to stand with others and speak in tongues, to share a holy meal, to march in procession or make collective pilgrimage, to kneel in serried ranks and recite prescribed prayers, to wear a head scarf, to join jihad.

And God is the necessary guarantor of one's specialness. Without belief in divine approval one's collectivity is merely another subsidiary rabble, a fringe group, a lost tribe.

Ka is accused of having been frightened into becoming a believer. He responds: "No, it comes from inside. I want to join in and be just like everyone else."

The agnostic is not uncommonly a solitary person, pursuing a lonely dream, adrift, perhaps a little lost, wanting to belong but afraid of losing something more precious than belonging -- the searching rather than the finding. The agnostic eschews certainty because she values doubt, treasures creativity, finds what happiness she can in the groping quests of art and science, in the private affections of family and friends. She does not want to be "just like everyone else," but she pays a price -- the isolation of the outcast.