Sunday, August 3, 2014

Hitchens, 2007, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (political theory)

Christopher Hitchens was a journalist, teacher, and public intellectual, who died in 2011. He seems to have been building up to this through much of his life, during which he was exposed through family and circumstance to Methodism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism.  He investigated miracles for the Catholic Church, debated fundamentalists over the Danish cartoon imbroglio, and was repeatedly called to the barricades to defend secular humanism and the right not to believe – something about which he felt passionately.  He was particularly outraged by the effort to insert creationism and “intelligent design” into school curricula in the US. He avows that he would be happy to leave others to their belief, if they would leave him to his atheism, but the religious believers cannot do so, and cannot abide a secular world, so there must be a counter-attack.  All this is in here, which must stand as something of a capstone to his life’s work in service to the heritage of the enlightenment. It is a book that should be read by thinking believers, no less than skeptics, because it lays out in pitiless detail and relentless logic the sins of man-made religion and the absurdities of unthinking faith.  I listened to Hitchens himself reading the audio-book, and he sounds clear-eyed and unsentimental, measured and reasonable, only occasionally outraged by justifiable outrages and sad at the pitiable consequences of organized religions’ assaults on humanity through its dysfunctional and manipulative belief systems. His criticisms are not reserved only for Christianity. He is erudite and eloquent in tracing back the plagiarisms, repetitions, deceptions, and shifting and contradictory revelations called into service of the interests of the priestly castes that have preyed upon the poor and poisoned societies for millennia.  He knows his scriptures - more than can be said for many of the simple faithful.

            He opens with both barrels. The five irreducible objections to religion are: it misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos; because of this misapprehension, it combines servility and solipsism; it is both result and cause of dangerous and dysfunctional sexual repression; it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking; and it is used by those in authority to manipulate and abuse the vulnerable. But he comes to these charges with humility. He is as certain that he doesn’t have the ultimate answers as he is that they do not reside in religious belief, and he is therefore much more convincing than more arrogant intellectuals like Dawkins or Dennett, who are confident in our inevitably limited knowledge.  He is convincing about the extent to which religion kills, with personal anecdotes from Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad. It’s an impressive testimony. His short digression on why heaven hates ham is amusing but illustrative of the problematic logic of belief.  He demonstrates the false metaphysical claims of religion, which set back scientific and social progress. The illogic and absurdity of “intelligent design” claims are easy to dispel in the light of science, in which he places his faith, but here it seems to me that humility in the limits of our knowledge can leave the door open to unfounded faith, in which there is no harm if it is not imposed on others.  More difficult to dispel is the logic of Epicurus: “Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” Of course, every religion has explanations, and the eighteen chapters covering wars, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the borrowed and plagiarized Koran, the tawdriness of the origins of the Book of Mormon and nineteenth century sects, the manifest failures of religion to make people behave better, the awful impact of religious beliefs crafted to scare children, repress or distort sexuality, and stunt intellectual growth, the absurdity of original sin (he is particularly harsh on Calvin), and the equal inadequacy of Eastern religions amount to a powerful argument for his thesis that religion poisons everything.  Two of the best chapters are the last-ditch case against secularism (Ch. 17), and the finer tradition of rational resistance (Ch. 18).  In the first, he argues that the worst of the secular atrocities – Hitler’s fascism, Stalin’s Communism, Pol Pot, and so on – either had the trappings of a religion, or the support of the religious, or both.  In the second, he traces the cautious resistance of rational free-thinkers from Plato and Epicurus to Galileo, Spinoza, Hume, and Jefferson, arguing that they had to pull their punches and couch their insights in language acceptable to the religious ideologues of their day – something which retarded human progress immeasurably. Religion has run out of justifications, and it is time to know the enemy and to prepare to fight it, says Hitchens. He has certainly done his part.

At the end, as a skeptical believer (faith consisting of belief despite the absence of evidence) I’m left paraphrasing Solzhenitsyn: perhaps the line between good and evil does not run between religions, or between faith and atheism, but through every human heart. If religion helps some people stay on the right side of that line it can still serve a purpose, but to the extent that it oppresses and generates evil and violence, it should wither in the face of a new enlightenment.
David Last, 3 Aug 2014

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