Sunday, September 16, 2007

Hitchens: Redux. Rampant,, and Repellent

After its American editio princeps, Christopher Hitchens' atheist jeremiad "God Is Not Great" has now appeared in England No, the expression "atheist jermediad" is not an oxymoron. It highlights an unfortunate effect of religion, at least in its monotheistic versions, to infect its opponents with a cloud of self-righteous and invective that is all-too evocative of the hell-raising preachers in our midst.

Does religion poison everything, as the subtitle of Hitchens' original book has it? The British publishers judged it prudent to abandon this improbably claim, at least at the outset, by substituting the bland phrase "The Case Against Religion." Unfortunately Hitchens' sweeping argument continues to underly the main body of his screed.

Hitchens is simply wrong in making this absolute assertion,for religion cannot simply have poisoned everything, Was the music of J. S. Bach, predominantly religious, hobbled by this commitment? That is, would Bach have been an even greater composer if he had not seen fit to taint his work with the pollution of Christianity? On the contrary, the composer's musical achievement was symbiotic with his Lutheranism.

Moreover, would Chartres Cathedral have been an even finer building if those who constructed it had chosen to erect a royal palace or a town hall instead?

The issue is not confined to Christianity. The writings of Homer, Plato, and Euripides, which many secularists affect to revere, are shot through with allusions and appeals to the gods of Greece. After all, was not Socrates's last admonition to his follows "Don't forget that I owe a
cock to Asclepius? And of course it was not Asclepius or any other god who ordered the fatal dose of hemlock, but fallible human beings.

Outside the European sphere, one need only cite the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, two of the greatest epics ever penned. Both are shot through with the beliefs of Hinduism.

I suspect that Hitchens is tone deaf to culture. Rarely, if ever does he attend a Bach concert or open the pages of the Ramayana. In this sphere he is no better than the redneck evangelicals he so clearly dispises.

The issue of the TLS for September 7 contains a review by the Hitchens fellow traveler (or is it the other way around?) Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion." This choice of reviewers should raise eyebrows, for just as editors should not assign a book to a sworn enemy of the author, they shouldn't give it to a close ally. Indeed, Dawkins does find it hard to find much to say that is critical of his fellow debunker.

The reviewer does briefly address the most glaring defect of both Hitchens and himself, and that is their attempt to brush off the murderous Marxist regimes of twentieth-century Eurasia, which were officially and energetically atheist. As usual, there is an attempt to kick sand in our eyes by mentioning Hitler. As he was not a Marxist atheist, he has nothing to do with the matter. As regards Stalin, Dawkins asserts that he ruled by appealing to the ingrained religiosity of his subjects, a set of responses inculcated by centuries of tsardom. If so why did Stalin destroy so many churches and icons, while persecuting the clergy, often with great brutality. Were such actions really well calibrated to assure the loyalty of the credulous masses of the USSR? Or did they make Stalin's task harder? Then there are such individuals as Mao and Pol Pot, who had no Christian masses to appeal to.

What is clear is that in such inconvenient cases, and they are huge, glaring instances, atheism afforded no relief from the "poison of religion." Instead, it administered its own poison.

I find it simply inexcusable that most commentators on the current flock of atheist books do their best to duck the reality of atheist evil.

The issue is scarcely new. More than two hundred years ago the Marquis de Sade posed the question of what would happen after the end of religion, a consummation he so clearly desired.
Then everything would be permitted. By definition that means that a variety of options are open.
Many will chose to be just as moral as they would have been otherwise. But there will also be those who follow the path of Joseph Stalin, who arguably made fewer but finer Russians.

Religion may not convince. I myself am an agnostic. But there can be no cosequentialist or utilitarian argument to the effect that we are always better off without that thing that "poisons everything." Sometimes we may be better off--and sometimes not. We must judge each case on its merits.


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