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Expired · 23rd February 2011
Ray Grigg
Despite the enormous enthusiasm that accompanied Canada's 2010 Winter Olympic Games a year ago – the crescendo of competition and the excited crowds that transformed Vancouver and Whistler into a festival celebrating the aspiration of "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" – something about the whole event felt contrived, artificial and remotely hollow.

Maybe it was the momentary loss of perspective. The Games, after all, are an homage to humanity, a self-congratulatory ritual honouring the abilities of nature's most noble creature – the same embodied pinnacle of perfection that is causing environmental havoc on the planet these days. Sliding ever faster down mountains or skating ever more athletically on ice are hardly the preoccupations that will extricate us from the global mess we are creating for ourselves and the other life trying to inhabit this most rare and beautiful Earth.

Beneath the facade of professed accomplishment – the contrived drama of winning and losing, the excited theatre of tragedy and victory – lies a hidden insecurity, a shaken confidence, an inkling of profound fallibility, a lurking doubt that perhaps all our speed and stature and strength is little more than empty bravado. Do we need more confidence? Do we want a more inflated opinion of ourselves? In the great scheme of things, do we deserve an enhanced sense of our own grandiosity? Surely, given the difficulties into which we are manoeuvring our planet's biosphere, we need more humility, more modesty, a more proportioned sense of who we are and how we belong in a living ecosystem that is – to our presently reckoning – unique in the universe. Celebrating at the altar of ourselves seems too self-congratulatory for comfort.

An explanation for this doubt and insecurity may lie in our dawning realization that we must somehow reform how we perceive and conduct ourselves on this planet. Despite our evident affluence, many of the structures supporting our material wealth seem increasingly precarious. Government finances almost everywhere are debt stressed and shaky. Basic monetary policies and financial institutions seem insecure. Global climate change and general environmental deterioration erode the basis for optimism. Ocean acidification, species loss, energy challenges, soil erosion, resource depletion and uncounted varieties of pollution loom as ominously intractable threats. Fearing systemic failure, some thinkers are now questioning the very foundations of our modern civilization. Religion does not escape such scrutiny.

This may explain the recent arrival of numerous books on atheism. The explanation that they are to counter the impact of fundamentalism in both Christianity and Islam may be too superficial. A deeper and broader foreboding may be motivating their appearance.

In a poignant review of such books on atheism, Daniel Baird examines the arguments of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Michel Onfray to find a secular and rational replacement for religion ("God's Slow Death", The Walrus, April, 2007). The implicit substance of all these arguments is that the current paradigm that governs our thinking and behaviour is not viable. Belief has coupled with our human character to undermine the logical pragmatism we need to negotiate our way through a world that is becoming increasingly precarious.

Baird's essay ends with the account of a theologian, a "raised and educated Mennonite" who "spent thirty years of his career attempting to resolve the apparent conflict between science and religion." And the end result? He lost his faith. "But I still have a Christian body," he said. "My lifestyle is still the same as it was before." Then Baird asked him, "Do you think it's possible that we simply can't bear to see life and the world as it really is?" And the theologian replied, "Yes."

This "yes" shakes not only the foundations of religion but it sends tremors through almost everything else we do and believe. It suggests that we invent systems, build institutions, form organizations, construct dogmas and concoct entertainments all as tactics of avoidance. They are all merely useful social distractions that allow us to avoid a stark confrontation with the raw reality of our biological dispensability.

This is the place where religion and the Olympics intersect as a common practice. Both are beliefs intended to elevate our status, one concerned with the spiritual and transcendent, the other with the personal and communal. And both are in conflict with the environmental realities now confronting us. How are we to legitimately celebrate ourselves when an objective assessment of the planet suggests that our vaunted human attributes are responsible for an escalating, global, ecological crisis?

Whenever and wherever we celebrate ourselves, perhaps we should pause for a moment of doubt and reappraisal. Did the Olympics reform us? Are we any different now that the Olympics are over and the glow of tribal euphoria has faded? Perhaps we should temper the hysterics of self-congratulation with the same perspective offered by atheists. Elevating ourselves with beliefs or gold medals will do nothing for the sobering environmental problems we must confront. Maybe we should restrain our celebrating until "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" becomes "Smarter, Brighter, Wiser".