Wednesday, December 15, 2010

2010: The year of the signature movie?

Has anyone gotten the sense, this year, that the "directors of the hour" have all suddenly made their signature movie? By "directors of the hour," I'm not talking about the Hollywood staples (Ridley Scott, James Cameron, etc), but rather of those provocateurs who are emerging into the mainstream. In particular, I've noticed this phenomenon with Christopher Nolan (who's just become the trump card of studios trying to ride the nerd zeitgeist)... Darren Aaronofsky (who's recently graduated from cinema cult-leader to critical boy wonder)... and Gasper Noe (who seems to be following Aaronofsky into the role of "that guy that directs those batshit crazy movies").

For Christopher Nolan, it was Inception. This was obviously the movie the guy's been fantasizing about since he was a teenager, back when he started writing the script. It marries the techno-futurist with the retro-stylist, bring noir into the realm of the virtual and the psychological, and it provides a great forum for structural experimentation and visual flair. As a bonus, Nolan got the creme de la creme of swaggering neo-noir actors, including Leo, JGL, and Michael Caine.

Memento will generally be seen as Nolan's Reservoir Dogs, I think. He came out of nowhere with that little shocker, riding the formal gimmick and stylish presentation out of the obscurity of film school... and The Dark Knight may always be seen as his Pulp Fiction, cementing his fame and proving his genius. But as much as it was a great piece of cinema, Dark Knight was tied down by its reliance on the Batman franchise, and by the legions of comic book fans who don't actually particularly care about cinema per se. Inception is the piece that Nolan will be able to claim as his own, stylistically, conceptually, and in every way necessary for it to become his signature piece.

As I mentioned above, Aaronofsky has gone through a transition recently. He was born as one of those bad-boy director provocateurs, giving us the hyper-intense and disturbed Pi, and then the devastating American neo-realist tragedy Requiem for a Dream. I think that phase of his life ended with The Fountain, which was his little vanity project, offensive to public sensibilities not because it was ugly, but because it was so soaring and uninhibited. But recently, with The Wrestler, he's made a decisive move into character-study territory, and he's become a guy for the middlebrow critics to watch.

Enter Black Swan. Could the man have a more perfect film to give to the world, at this moment of transformation? Black Swan retrieves Aaronofsky the stylist, the impressionist, the conductor of madness and dissociation, which are the themes that characterized his earlier work. It also marries the stylistic precision of The Fountain (the gothic, the erotic, the intimate) with the real-world anxieties and uncertainties that made The Wrestler work so well. And it's admirably reserved, refusing to resort to cheap shocks for his visual and emotional climaxes.

So I think Black Swan will be a signature film, as well: Aaronofsky's first award-winning, show-stopping feature, and also an index of his established themes: trauma, madness, and the tortured mind of the alienated genius.

And finally, we have Gasper Noe, who still sort of fulfills the role that Aaronofsky recently left behind: provocateur, offender of sensibilities, whose challenging and aversive style reads as "courage" to the independent circuit. Irreversible is commonly hailed among cinephiles (horror and extreme cinema enthusiasts, especially) as a breakthrough for extreme cinema. I think it really got noticed because the 9-minute rape scene got so much attention -- but, you know, once he was visible, Noe managed to convince people that he's a proficient auteur, and that's no small task in our skeptical community.

I think it was clear that after Irreversible, Noe had to push his sensationalism to the max before he could break in a different direction. I think, with Enter the Void, he did that. It's not only difficult and arresting in its visual innovations (the strict first-person camera, the hallucinated cityscapes), but it's also provocative in its specific images. If you want to read about them, it's all over the Internet. From what I understand, it's pretty intense.

Sibling loyalty, incest, death, and the cycle of destruction and rebirth are pretty ideal themes for an elusive assault on the viewers' senses. This is the piece that Noe's previous work was leading up to: something that people just had to see, something to polarize the community, something to provide the basis for grand controversy and extravagant claims. Again, it's the signature piece. This is the final draft of Noe's stamp as an auteur, and everything he does from here on out will be a reference to Enter the Void, or a notable departure from it. Or both.

Am I sure? No. It's possible that Aaronofsky will be remembered by his urban grime and realism, rather than his epic stylization. It's possible that Nolan will make an even more Nolan-esque movie in a couple years, or that Gasper Noe will manage to totally leave behind this shock-and-awe period in his cinematic oeuvre. But I'm guessing that one or two of these three films will end up being the signature film of its particular director, even though these directors have a lot of growth and accomplishment ahead of them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Black Swan and the myth of the self-destructive female: The Red Shoes, Perfect Blue, Lust Caution

WARNING: Spoilers for the three movies mentioned in the title.

It's hard to know what to say about Black Swan, and I think this is a testament to the film. Every comparison and generalization comes with caveats; the only things that seem to hold unarguably true are the most obvious stylistic observations: it's a psychological thriller with all the aesthetic trappings of the classical world, remixed into a dark psychological landscape. It's a film about the collision of personalities, of the type you only find in an intense world like ballet: aggressive, unreserved personalities that deal in raw human emotional currency, like purity, desire, and control.

What impresses me most about Black Swan, I think, is the intensity of the personalities that collide in order to make this story happen. Portman did a brilliant job playing Nina, the virginal ballet purist who can't seem to let go of herself in order to find her inner "black swan" -- but this role is so perfect a showcase for a brilliant performance, that I think we all sort of expected this of Portman, who's never half-assed a role in her career. Mila Kuniz works wonders as her counterpart, too, but honestly, Kuniz never quite reaches the heights of authenticity that Portman attains. Her character is a bit too much of a foil, a bit too empty and enigmatic, for her to really show off her acting chops.

But Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy, the director of the ballet that drives these characters into conflict... he was really the stand-out, wouldn't you say? His performance is noble and degraded and inspiring and vicious, balancing the things that a ballet director would have to be: an embodiment of the art form's allure, and also a medium for its horrifying expectations, its life-destroying pressure. He sails through so many modes -- creepy, charming, enraged, and sensual -- it's hard for me to do any justice in describing his character.

There's a precedent for this character, of course: Boris Lermentov, the ballet director from the Archer Brothers' The Red Shoes, is a similarly ambivalent, enigmatic figure, a dangerous catalyst for Victoria's love for the dance. Ebert said of him, "... the impresario defies analysis. In his dark eyes we read a fierce resentment. No, it is not jealousy, at least not romantic jealousy. Nothing as simple as that." Lermentov may have a special sort of insidious purpose, but ultimately, he's not much worse than Leroy. Both manipulate their dancers, treat them as objects, and in regarding them as avatars for some dancing muse, forget that they're actually just young girls with real lives.

I think, though, that Thomas Leroy is a more complex character than Lermentov, because in place of Lermentov's melodramatic cruelty and cynicism, Leroy seems to really believe in the human possibilities of dance. And though Leroy is insidiously sexual, he seems to believe in love and sensuality, as well, even if he channels it all into the dance. So he's no less responsible than Lermentov was for the fate that befalls his performer, but in Leroy Thomas's case, it's hard to call him a "villain."

Some friends have suggested that Black Swan was not a literal hallucination-murder-death story, but rather a metaphor for the main character's artistic blossoming. They see a large part of the story as taking place inside of Nina's head (which the narrative gladly acknowledges), and they consider the possibility that the ending is inside her head, as well. This reading may be a little Inception-esque for my taste, but it's a compelling one to consider. Remember, for instance, that Nina saw herself as an actual, physical black swan, whereas she was seen by the audience as a dancer nailing the performance.

If you read the narrative in this way, seeing madness as the catalyst for a butterfly-like personal breakthrough, it comes to resemble another classic tale of creative ambition gone bad, told in Satoshi Kon's anime masterpiece Perfect Blue. That film, though dissociation was its organizing principle, turned out to be a coming-of-age story of Mima, its female protagonist, as she moved away from performing crowd-friendly girl-pop and into the adult world of acting and sensationalism. If you read Black Swan metaphorically, it's close kin to this animated cousin. There are a number of character parallels, as well: Nina's cloying mother has a clear equal in the over-protective casting agent in Perfect Blue, and Aaronofsky's Beth Macintyre, played by Winona Rider, plays a parallel part to the murderous fanboy who stalks Mima in order to prevent her from destroying her own innocence.

These three films are part of a broader cultural myth that's started forming in cinema: the myth of the female artist whose devotion, mixed with the dangerous elements of sexual desire and professional ambition, becomes her path to self-destruction. Aside from The Red Shoes and Perfect Blue (thanks, Frankie, for that observation!), this structure also appears in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution in a slightly modified form (thanks, Mai, for that suggestion!). In Lust, Caution, the theater is the political world, and the dissociation is between the protagonist's performance as a collaborator and her true identity as a subversive. It's a fascinating application of the template, remixed but undeniable in its fidelity.

So there are a few common characteristics that surface in these closely-related movies, and I'd like to enumerate them. If anybody knows of any other films that seem to reinforce this myth, please let me know, I'd like to hear about them.

1 - Female protagonist with a creative ambition that she pursues obsessively
1a - to the point of purism, self-denial, and/or monasticism
2 - A career change, accompanied by a high degree of pressure to perform well
3 - A demand, inherent in the performance, that leads to an unresolvable inner conflict for the protagonist

Some other common characteristics:

4 - the protagonist's final self-destruction (BS, RS, LC)
5 - an over-protective maternal figure limiting the protagonist's growth (BS, PB, LC?)
6 - a monster lurking at the margins, nursing resentment and/or jealousy toward the protagonist (BS, PB)
7 - an unhealthy conflation of desire and sexual repression (BS, PB, LC)
8 - a strong male gaze as catalyst for the protagonist's unhealthy obsession (BS, RS, LC)
9 - a theme of psychological dissociation (BS, PB, LC?)

This is among the most powerful mythic structures I've identified in my short time as a cinephile, with Aaronofsky's Black Swan as an apparent epitome of the type. I'd love to hear other thoughts on the growth of this narrative, if anyone has some other ideas. If you haven't seen any of the above movies, by the way, definitely go check them out. They're all amazing.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Walking Dead: The psychology of enclaves

The first season of The Walking Dead ended this past weekend. Did it measure up to the standards set by the comic? Not entirely, but it was damn well done, and I'm excited that there's gonna be a season two. Despite my desperate urge to compare Darabont's adaptation to Kirkman's original, I'm going to do my best to resist, and look at the series on its own terms.

After the various tangents and interjections, what we've ended up with, in this AMC series, is a sort of post-apocalyptic anthropology, showing the breakdown and restructuring of society into various enclaves in an economy of self-defense and scarcity. Rick's family group is the control group, an intensive investigation into the unstable power dynamics and desperate decisions of a fugitive community. It'll provide fuel for a lot more episodes down the line.

But perhaps more interesting are what I just referred to as "enclaves," the isolated autonomous zones that Rick and his group come across as they navigate the landscape. There are really three, aside from the main group: the Jones's household, the Atlanta clinic, and the CDC. Each offers a glimpse into how extreme circumstances may effect human behavior and self-presentation; together, they provide a fascinating perspective on the landscape of desperation.

Morgan and Duane Jones initiate Rick into the world of the walkers, reluctantly taking him in when he wanders into their front yard. When we encounter them (Episode 1), they are isolated and paralyzed, still stuck in the state of shock that the zombie apocalypse has caused. The reappearance of Morgan's wife reflects their failure to accept the zombies as inhuman and come fully to terms with what's happened to the world; they are still undeveloped, showing us the early-development stages of bona fide post-apocalyptic survival. They are an important emotional anchor for the show, but they're not the most interesting fragment for analysis.

If the Jones's are in the primitive stages of adjustment, still showing signs of shock and paralysis, the other two communities -- the clinic and the CDC -- are both communities that have been distilled into pure psychology, representing two opposite sides of pure personality. One is the animal impulse for survival and protection; the other is the rational mind, devouring itself as it stares into the void.

The Atlanta clinic (Episode 4) is truly survivalist. It's a collective of folks from the street, with all the ethnic diversity of urban neighborhoods, who exhibit the highly defensive responses of a family group in the wild. When Rick, Darryl, and T-Dog arrive to demand the return of Glen, Guillermo's group is defensive and reactionary, bristling and intentionally escalating the conflict. Their demand for the guns, and their claim that they're willing to enter into a shootout, is almost a bluff, but it's the type of bluff that could be disastrous if called. Rick and his gang, in turn, refuse to concede the guns, their most important resource. These two groups are like wild dogs, circling, exploring their dominance and trying to find some equilibrium before they tear each other apart.

It's telling, of course, that the clinic residents aren't pure evil. Rather, they're protective of themselves and their families, and they are desperate for the firearms that they noticed in the street. Once they find common ground to cooperate with Rick, they're revealed to be reasonable and deeply compassionate people, holding out in the city to take care of their elderly. According to the show's narrative, their behavior is justified by necessity -- they're really just following their survival and caretaking instincts in a desperate bid for survival.

Contrast this with the CDC (episodes 5 and 6), where the lone Dr. Jenner holds out, having just given up on continuing his research into the zombie plague. Rick and the gang find him on the verge of suicide, having just lost his stock of fresh samples. He makes an exception to let them into his sanctuary, where he's the little glimmer of consciousness in the center of a big electronic brain.

Jenner's misfortunes are telling and troubling. He's absolutely isolated, and his wife died under his observation. He is clearly a smart man, driven by a rational engine that continue to run even after his great emotional breakdown. In a pivotal scene, he uses his wife's brain-scan as an illustration to explain all the functions of the mind and the zombie disease that takes over it. This real-time brain scan even includes the bullet that takes the test subject's life. For Jenner, this lecture is an act of self-deconstruction, ending with a reference to the human "extinction event."

Jenner's wife invested him with a final purpose before she departed, perhaps because she knew he was a goal-seeking type of guy, but with the destruction of his samples, this purpose died, as well. Jenner does not seem to be a man who's interested in pressing on no matter what the costs... for him, life has had a point, and it no longer has one, so there's no longer a reason to sustain it. Jenner's tragedy isn't that he dies for no reason, but that he lives for no reason. This is not how they would frame the situation out at the clinic in Atlanta.

And of course, Jenner's despair almost leads to a suicide for the whole company, including the survivors, the protectors, and the children. Jenner's computer, carrying out a "decontamination" that's actually just a self-destruction, is an extension of his own sense of hopelessness. He is higher consciousness turned on itself, the death drive turned into a suicide impulse, and he even goes so far as to argue to Rick and his companions that it's more merciful than trying to live on.

With these two communities, The Walking Dead sets up an interesting argument by juxtaposition. I'm going to stick this into a classic Freudian framework, so bear with me. Jenner, representing the higher faculties, is a nod to the superego, especially since he ultimately directs his own aggression toward himself... according to Freud, this was the basic mechanism that created self-control. Presumably, this would make Guillermo and his crew the id, a vicious, protective, uninhibited animal instinct for self-preservation. It holds pretty well, considering the Atlanta clinic crew seemed so quick to violence and so desperate for resources.

But the inversion brought about by the economy of scarcity is striking. The Atlanta clinic may be aggressive and reactionary, but it's also protective and self-perpetuating, and ultimately these urban warriors live to protect their own and take care of the collective body, even when it's made up of thugs and aging grandparents. Jenner the superego, on the other hand, despite his claims to rationality and order, is the more destructive of these two forces, because in the absence of a purpose, he directs his frustration back on himself. Reason implodes, and without the raw desire to survive into another day, Jenner just gives up on the whole human project, not just for himself, but for those around him.

Assuming there's something to be said here about Freudian psychology and different cognitive levels, it seems that the show is arguing the reverse of the Freud assumption. The Walking Dead is in fact suggesting that in the absence of order and civilization, it's going to be the animal part of the human that preserves the self and the species, and the rationalizing, intelligent part that dooms us to self-destruction.

If I have time, I'll discuss some more of this fascinating show. Shane alone is worth the price of admission -- his character is thoroughly complex and conflicted, an authority figure tortured by a sudden loss of power and intimacy. If Kirkman had developed Shane more thoroughly in the comic, I'm pretty sure he would have looked like Darabont's rendition. It will also be interesting seeing the development of Andrea, as she's already got the emotional groundwork to build into a strong and complicated character.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hitchens versus Blair on religion, and an alternative defense of religion (warning: Jesse in philosophy mode)

Sometimes I think I spend too much time trying to read provocative stuff on the computer, and I wonder if I should be getting out more? Or at least watching movies, instead of trying to read words, on these video screens? But today my attention was called to a transcript of a debate between Christopher Hitchins and Tony Blair on the following topic: "Resolved: Religion is a force for good in the world." So I had to read it. And now, having read it, I have to respond to this public display of rhetoric, a showcase of a debate carried out in the most mundane terms possible. It's a sad truth... Hitchens' sensationalist provocation versus Tony Blair's apologism just didn't make a very interesting debate.

Strangely, though the resolution seems to place the burden of proof on Tony Blair's shoulders, Christopher Hitchens immediately takes up the role of arguing a constructive thesis (in essence, arguing the inverse of the resolution), possibly because he's called upon to go first. He does this with relish, of course, because it's a position he's been practicing his whole life. Hitchens' argument is almost too predictable for my taste: organized religion is an irrational institution that makes conflicting and regressive demands of its followers, and it amplifies their negative tendencies, especially tribalism, dependence, and submission. His evidence is pretty obvious: a litany of global conflicts and suppressions undertaken in the name of religion, or at least with religion as an essential component, however ambiguously. Disempowerment of women and the crisis in Gaza are two of his favorite situations to cite, but he also manages to co-opt a number of other genocides and point out the role of religions in their perpetuation.

Tony Blair argues a hazy counter-position that attempts to drag Hitchens' claim into doubt. He essentially says that Hitchens can't prove religion is a wholly negative influence, given all the positive work done in the name of the church. He downplays Hitchens' anecdotal evidence, provides a few counterexamples, and appeals to a sort of common wisdom: that just from everyday social experience, you can tell that a great many people can be part of a religious community, and channel that experience into positive actions and intentions... and that these people can be fully logical and reasonable, as well. But Blair isn't making any positive argument in favor of religion, so much as taking a defensive stance against Hitchens' rabid atheism.

This is a weak-ass debate, I have to say. I'd expect Hitchens to take a stronger position, but he waters down his argument, saying in his second speech, "Well now, in fairness, no one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world, and all I'm arguing is it would be better if there was a great deal more by way of an outbreak of secularism." This echoes the circumlocutive nature of Blair's argument, which is infused with apologism. He keeps saying things like, "My claim is just very simple, there are nonetheless people who are inspired by their faith to do good." I'm telling you! Weak weak weak!

These two characters are basically arguing the same thing: religion's done bad stuff, but it's not ALL bad stuff. Hitchens says there should be more secularism, Blair says it's important to see religion in its positive aspects and try to reinforce those aspects. They're like two samurais who circle without ever coming in for a sword strike.

Hitchens won the debate, according to the polls. I think this is just because he's a lot more passionate about secularism than Blair is about theology. But couldn't one of these two find a more creative way of framing and expressing their argument? I think I can, and though I'm a mere non-committal agnostic, I think I could have made a better case for religion as a "positive force in the world" than Tony Blair did. Let me give it a shot.

WARNING: Long, abstract argument about religion looms ahead.

First, to answer Hitchens, who sets the tone for this debate: Hitchens spends his words characterizing religion as a supernatural belief system with detrimental outcomes. Among these:

  • "To terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment"
  • "To consider women an inferior creation"
  • "[to force] nice people to do unkind things, and also [to make] intelligent people say stupid things"

  • These points do not stand as self-evident, no matter how loyal you are to enlightenment thinking. Images of hell and eternal punishment are an Abrahamic staple, mirrored in images of heaven and salvation, and linked to a deeper philosophy that moral choices have spiritual consequences (not, in itself, a terribly negative idea). In many religions, they are replaced by karmic mechanisms of rebirth, or by a yearning for emptiness as freedom from self-indulgence and vanity (Eastern philosophies are definitely religions, make no mistake). Historically, churches have been connected with female empowerment as well as subjugation, and they've been accredited as a powerful part of the civil rights movement. And the last of those three points is such an abstraction, it's almost meaningless... it can be answered readily with the claim that religion provided a social and institutional groundwork for GOOD works, for humility and community and human solidarity, and that religion's role in tribalism is as much a consequence of the latter as a fault of the former.

    So these points neutralize themselves, simply because the anecdotal effects of religion are so contingent on its historical conditions (and also, so subject to observational bias and retroactive interpretation). Instead of trying to find reasons to praise or blame religion, we should consider its historical role in the world, the dramatic ambient influence it has had over the centuries. That's where, if anywhere, we'll discover its overarching value: its long-term outcomes, whether they're positive or negative.

    When you say, "What has religion always given us, in different ways, throughout the history of civilization?" I think the best answer is that it's created a space for the discussion of morality as a function of transcendental consciousness. There has always been power, and self-regard, and goal-seeking behavior, but by appealing to a transcendental authority, religion has put morality beyond the reach of the contingent historical circumstances, so that "virtue" and "right and wrong" can be discussed and regarded as an independent sphere of principles. That's what's so important in the idea of a higher power, whether it's a monotheistic consciousness or an oligarchy of conflicted dieties... or even, in Eastern cases, a highly-abstracted "heaven and Earth," a Tao or a true nature of the universe. And I'll argue that this not only makes religion justifiable in pragmatic terms... it also clarifies the logic and validity of its truth-claims. Looked at as an historical artifact, religion is neither "evil" or "misguided."

    It's hard to imagine a culture entirely without religion -- without any sense of a higher power or a transcendental framework. However, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that such a society would be deeply driven by survival instincts and power struggles. Human interaction can't happen without some sort of heirarchy and authority, however provisional it is, and without the stabalizing force of a "higher power," isn't it pretty reasonable to assume that power struggles would entirely dictate our loyalties and our deference? And that the strongest would become the final authority on moral good? People like Christopher Hitchens may hate the idea of a transcendental source of absolute authority, but isn't this far better than what we would get from an earthly source of absolute authority?

    By making morality and virtue a conversation that can take place outside the immediate, strength-based power structure, religion has been an excellent tool to challenge the social and political hegemonies throughout history. If you can have communities of faith, you can escape the tendency to organize into ethnic enclaves, or alliances of wealth, or (especially) strength-based classes of master and slave. I find Nietzsche's ideology to be a bit noxious, but there's something to be learned from his work in The Genealogy of Morality. He claims that religion allowed the slave to become the master by effectively inverting the standard dominant/submissive parity. With religion, weakness could become a virtue; excess and brutality could be seen as flaws. Nietzsche thought this was a shitty development, but I think it's not so bad. Morality SHOULD be more complex than "do what the strongest guy tells you," shouldn't it?

    Indeed, as long as we're talking about philosophers, we should mention the idea of discourse ethics: that "moral truths" are gradually being illuminated by way of a collective process of reasoning, carried out in conversation, debate, and rational rhetoric in public discourse. This idea is championed by contemporary philosopher Jurgen Habermas... and though Habermas doesn't talk directly about religion, as far as I know, he does claim that ethics are evolving within society by way of ongoing conversations about morality. And it's hard to imagine many conversations about morality without some appeal to a transcendental moral authority. It's the public institution of religion that's provided the changing platform for this kind of discourse throughout history.

    It's actually kind of amazing, the way religion's focus on virtue and moral self-awareness has allowed it to be such a dynamic system. The various reformations couldn't have happened in such a strong, hierarchical system, if that system was purely political and terrestrial. It's only by appealing to the higher power that Martin Luther was able to question the Catholic Church's corruption at the time. And I think, arguably, religion has been involved in every major moral evolution throughout the history of man's moral consciousness. Even in times like the Enlightenment, when man was moving away from centralized organized religion, there was still an appeal to the higher will of God, manifesting in various forms of deism and religious fragmenting throughout the world. This fragmenting led isolated communities to seek freedom, and their spiritual solidarity and desire for liberation led to the formation of our current democratic republic.

    The newest version of this kind of shift is the new movement from institutional organized religion to pluralistic, personal religious conviction. It's a credit to the power and flexibility of religion that this evolution can take place so naturally.

    I said above that the "transcendental moral" nature of religious thought isn't just pragmatically justified... it's also rationally justified. The reason I say this is that religion, the placement of trust in a higher power, mirrors an actual human faculty for which there is no ultimate natural account. This is the human capacity to treat virtue and moral rightness as ends to be pursued in themselves, rather than mere survival techniques or responses to threats of force. Indeed, we can look for a rational reason for empathy and purity of conviction all we want, but it's always going to become a bit ambiguous when you account for self-sacrifice, stewardship, pacificism, and the passionate devotion to abstract principles. Rational explanation is too strict, too raw, too cynical to account for this whole moral structure.

    Religious faith is a way of reconciling the knowledge that these moral impulses come from something greater than the biologically-determined, self-regarding individual consciousness. It's not illogical to perceive a transcendental force of harmony at work in the world, and this force would exist outside the plane of rational, deterministic explanation. Religions are all ways of encountering this transcendental force, through various traditions, metaphors, narratives, and belief systems. Reason legitimizes them, purely by virtue of its inherent incompleteness.

    That's my argument, I think -- not short, but hopefully succinct enough to be clear. Religion is indeed a force for good in the world, because it's provided a platform and pivot-point, at every stage in history, for a debate on morality and virtue outside the demands of power and self-preservation. And even in the face of reason, religion is a legitimate project, because we will always have to go looking for "truth" in places that logical and reason can't entirely illuminate... especially in the case of moral and spiritual truths.