How Great Thou Aren't?
Christopher Hitchens’ new book blasts religion. But can reason alone solve humanity’s problems?
By Paul O'Donnell
One of Western civilization’s worst follies involves men in robes—women too—chanting and gesticulating like they're trying to lure the Great Kong—only what they're up to is even more bizarre: acting out myths bastardized from the pagans and Zoasterians and the like, all to the glory of, let's face, the elite. Power and wealth are what's being worshipped—which is why all this goes on in glittering showplaces, temples to their financial prowess and power. Oh, there's constant talk among devotees of reaching out to the young--lest the ancient lore and practices die out--and the poor, since the higher planes are not for the privileged alone. But please: the faithful participate precisely so they can feel superior to those who don’t "get it." They spend on one ritually repeated performance what could feed hundreds. As for the young, particularly young boys, this elite famously sacrificed them, even castrated them once upon a time, for the sake of their pleasure.
I refer of course to opera. I'm put in mind of its regrettable history by Christopher Hitchens' controversial new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, wherein Hitchens condemns religion for encouraging violent tribalism, inhibiting healthy sexual release, and filling children's heads with fairy tales. Above all, Hitchens rails that religion does not answer to reason. But wait, Hitch is no literalist. Hitchens writes that he and his co-nonreligionists "are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe. We have music and art and literature." Does that mean Hitchens stands by opera, which combines all three?
Okay, this isn't quite fair. No one ever flew a plane into a building to protest a Peter Sellars "Rigoletto." But every human institution seems to fall prey to our prejudices, petty cruelties and monstrous inattention to suffering around us. Religion no less than any other. But anything that attracts crowds with its beauty or portrays its conclusions as the truth can be adapted to serve bad ends, and usually is—just as, say, Hitler enlisted Wagner to his cause.
The problem with Hitchens' bestselling indictment of religion, then, is not that he's wrong about religion's failings. But he doesn't explain convincingly how religion is different from politics or sports or science.
Once you admit that Hitchens’ critique can't be limited to religion, the ills he associates with religion can be seen as chicken-or-the-egg quandaries. Does religion spur tribalism, or does tribalism turn religion to its own use? Does society invent religion to control sexual behavior, or does society's wish to control sexual behavior co-opt religion’s moral authority? A wise preacher once observed that religions are usually invented at the hearth by women to explain nature to children, and that men then adopt it to increase their power. Who, in short, is poisoning whom?
Whether you admire Hitchens, as I do, or spend much of your time disagreeing with him, as I also do, "God Is Not Great" is a disappointing read, because its argument is littered with second-grade level ironies about religion—at one point he notes that the earliest Christians couldn't have been Christians, since the books Christians have to ascribe to didn't exist yet—and is uncharacteristically careless at so many points. Socrates' murder, blood sacrifice and modern-day violent squabbles over holy sites in the Middle East are of a piece in Hitchens’s mind.
He's right, I suppose, but not the kind of right that strikes to the heart of prejudice, or false beliefs. It's not quite clear who Hitchens imagines will be disheartened by this book. Surely he realizes that not all religious people are "planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon," an apparent reference to militant "Islamists." Many closer to home who believe in God would point out simply that those bent on destruction are, at best, mixed up about what their faith asks of them.
Hitchens’s argument gets fogged up further by his admission that he himself is not a believer. Some of his best friends are, and they have ickily suggested that his own animus toward religion is the result not of disbelief but of a sneaking subconscious faith. Alas, not so, says Hitchens. If there's a faith gene, he was born without it. What's more, he doesn't consider his lack of belief a kind of faith in itself. He's even mad at philosopher Daniel Dennett for pushing "Brights" as a category for those who see through religion's traps. Hitchens doesn't even believe in not believing.
The point of his declaration seems to be to rebuff any suggestion that his insistence on reason's superiority to religion is itself a belief system. This is a rear-guard action that proselytizers employ to force unbelievers to defend themselves and distract from their own lack of hard evidence. Were the book about the potpourri of ideas that goes into Hitchens’s worldview, his refusal to admit belief in anything would be a pertinent and satisfyingly impertinent rebuke. But as Hitchens' subject is the evils of religion, what he believes (or doesn't) is like a prosecutor going on to the jury about how he has never personally murdered anyone, nor would he. His record sheds no light on that of the accused.
Hitchens' disavowal does create space, if he needed any, to wield his own club at the beliefs of others. There are long passages in "God Is Not Great" on the fruitier nuggets that stud the major religions' founding stories. He rips from the headlines examples of the lie that is religion's near universal call for peace. In his chapter "Mormonism: A Racket Becomes a Religion," Hitchens rehearses the dubious details surrounding the revelation of the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith (most of which are uncontroversial enough to have appeared on last month's Mormon PBS special). In "There is No 'Eastern' Solution," he disabuses Western readers of our notion that Buddhists are compassionate contemplatives by informing us that they can be vicious combatants, as in the civil war going on in Sri Lanka.
Duly noted. But as he's blasting away it's hard to ignore Hitchens' original thesis that the unbeliever's way promises a world every bit as good, if not better than the one inhabited by religionists. Hitchens never provides a basis to think that reason, practiced properly, would allow us to solve or at least rise above the baser human predilections. If secularists are "not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe," neither are they immune to visiting suffering on others for the sake of their ideas. Before "God Is Great," Hitchens was best known for being the rare lefty political columnist who backed the Iraq War. In their own way, reason's ideals of democracy for all and a desire for a peace in the Middle East have resulted in a disaster. Well-meaning rationalists have espoused mass sterilization and sided with Stalin. Reason has yielded the polio vaccine, yes, but also the atomic bomb.
These objections don’t prove the existence of the divine (any more than lambasting religion proves the opposite), or even suggest reason is a bad guide to moral behavior. I pray never to have to choose between the evil of bad religion and the evil of bad reason. But to say that you can't abide by religion or reason is to deny human nature. You might as well say you don't believe in opera.
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Paul O’Donnell, a former editor at Newsweek and Beliefnet.com, has written on religion for The New Republic, Science and Spirit, Science & Theology News and is a contributor to Beliefnet’s "Idol Chatter" blog.
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