Edmund Wilson's Words of Ill-Omen: Religionist

The American man of letters gives guidance to writers and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Two: Religionist (American).

The OED’s definition of this is, “One addicted to religion; one imbued with, or zealous for, religion. Sometimes in bad sense, a religious zealot or pretender”. The examples here given show that through the seventeenth centuries in England religionists were contrasted with atheists. Webster’s dictionary echoes the English definition and does not go beyond; yet lately in the United States religionists are referred to in the current press, it is clear that this term includes anyone who is professionally occupied with religion, of whatever church, movement or status – that is, anyone from Billy Graham to Reinhold Niebuhr.

This is, like womanizer, a word that destroys distinctions. Here again one has only to remember the words it is used to displace – priest, minister, rabbi, etc.; churchman, divine, man of God, evangelist, religious teacher, parson, preacher; sky-pilot, hot-gospeller – to see that it is now as generic as businessman, farmer or artist. The contrast with atheist is no longer implied. A religionist is merely someone who professionally works at religion as an industrialist works at industry. Religion is the religionist’s “line”.

6 September 1958. Next up: Massive.

The American evangelist Billy Graham. Photo: Getty Images.

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was a noted American writer, critic and social commentator who contributed occasional reviews and essays to the New Statesman.

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Listening to recordings from the Antarctic, I felt I could hear the earth groan

The Science Hour on the BBC World Service.

A weekend of listening to the radio news ­revealed nothing but sounds of the sucker-punched going through their pockets in a panic and repeating, “I thought you had the keys.” So, never was talk of “a perfectly flat area of just whiteness” more alluring. The oldest Antarctic ice yet recorded was recently found. “For millions of years,” the presenter Roland Pease assured listeners  (25 June, 9am), “snow has been falling, snow on snow, all the while trapping bubbles of air and other chemical traces of climate . . . insights into the ice ages and warm periods of the past.” How was this ice located? “The finding part is pretty easy – you just go there and start shovelling, and ice comes up,” the lead geologist, Jaakko Putkonen, said.

There it was, buried under a layer of dirt “in barren wastelands” high in the middle of Antarctica. An “incredibly mountainous and remote and . . . quite hideous region, really”, Pease said, though it was sounding pretty good to me. The world dissolved into a single, depthless tone. Then Pease mentioned the surprising fizzing of this ancient ice – trapped air bubbles whooshing as they melt. Which is perhaps the thing you least expect about ice regions and ice caps and glaciers: the cacophony. Thuds and moans. Air that folds and refolds like the waving of gigantic flags. Iced water sleeping-dragonishly slurping and turning.

On Friday Greenpeace posted a video of the pianist Ludovico Einaudi giving a haunting performance on a floating platform to mark an imminent meeting of the OSPAR Commission, as it decided on a proposal to safeguard 10 per cent of the Arctic Ocean. Einaudi looked occasionally stunned by the groaning around him. A passing glacier popped and boomed like the armies of Mordor, ice calving from its side, causing mini-tsunamis. When last year I spent some time at the remote Eqi Glacier in Greenland, close to the ice cap, local people certainly spoke of the ice as if it were living: “It’s quiet today,” delivered as though gazing at the fractious contents of a Moses basket.

“This huge cake of ice, basically flat”, Putkonen said, perhaps longing for a moment of deep-space silence, for peaceful detachment. He wasn’t the only one being forced to reappraise a landscape very differently.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies