Sunday, July 8, 2007

God Is Not Great

L.A.P. WARNING: Long-Ass Post.

For the last six weeks, I've had a small obsession (if there is such a thing) with the new Christopher Hitchens book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. First I moved through the audiobook (which, because it's read by Hitchens himself, can be hard to follow); this weekend I finished reading the actual book.

This is new territory for me, as I've only recently read any books on my own concerning theism and religion. I started with The Thomas Jefferson Bible after reading a Harper's article about how strikingly similar that book is to the more recently discovered Gospel of Thomas. Jefferson, a Deist, edited the New Testament to only the passages that he found credible. He believed that the gospel writers were largely unreliable, and he shunned any belief in miracles, but he found many of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth to be "sublime." Thus, no resurrection, no healing of the sick, no turning water into wine, no virgin birth, etc. Just the teachings.

I thought that this study would add validation to my somewhat tongue-in-cheek claim (prompted by the rise of the religious right in this country) that "Jesus was a liberal." After all, in my 13 years of Catholic school instruction, I never once remember being taught that homosexuals deserved fewer rights than heterosexuals. But I do remember--and we're not talking tree-hugger Catholicism here; we're talking Notre Dame and the nuns and brothers of St. Joseph's Grade School--tales of helping the poor, not judging sinners, embracing prostitutes and tax collectors, and casting the first stone when you yourself are without sin.

In short, The Thomas Jefferson Bible proved the insanity of applying political labels to Jesus. He purportedly preached all of the above, but also said that thinking about adultery is the same as committing it (imagine how I would react if John Ashcroft had said that). When I looked to the Gospel of Thomas for further illumination, I was struck at how absurd many of the "sayings" attributed to Jesus are. For example: "He who doesn't hate his father and mother cannot be a disciple of mine. He who does not hate his brothers and sisters and bear his cross as I do will not be worthy of me." In addition, even the editor is sometimes puzzled by Jesus' use of agricultural metaphors that show a stunning ignorance of agriculture.

Bottom line: Nobody knows if Jesus of Nazareth even existed, let alone what he said, let alone what he might have meant by what he said.

Then came Hitchens. He begins by relaying an anecdote about an elementary school teacher who taught separate courses on nature and scripture. He loved these courses separately, but then grew alarmed on the day when his teacher tried to merge the two. When she said, "see what a great designer we have, and how he has made the world green, which is precisely the color that is most pleasing to our eyes," Hitchens knew inside that she had it exactly backwards. The eye has adjusted to nature, not the other way around.

Hitchens comes at religion not as a fallen believer, but as someone who instinctively never possessed a belief in a god or religion in the first place. And there's something about this particular viewpoint that I found compelling. In short--and this is paraphrasing quite a bit--his views are the following:

- Religion is entirely and obviously man-made.

- Any belief that there has to be a "creator" of the universe simply begs the question "who created the creator?"

- Belief in God or gods is a product of the human species' fear death (and thus wishing for an afterlife) and need to explain what it does not (yet) understand.

- As our understanding of the world increases, the need for gods and religion decreases.

- Just as astronomy replaced astrology and medicine replaced alchemy, so should philosophy and ethics continue to replace religion.

- Not only does one not need religion to act humanely, but to act humanely not in the name of religion is more meaningful.

- We are one species of life in a universe that has existed for billions of years. We are mammals. Our distinctive feature is our brains and our ability to reason, but this capacity is still evolving.

- Religion represents "the childhood of our species," and contrary to popular belief, religion and reason are fundamentally incompatible.

These are his tamer assertions. The more aggressive include:

- Religion is inherently dangerous because its most ardent believers cannot rest until everyone either believes as they do or ceases to exist. The three prominent monotheisms continue to kill in the name of their God and their beliefs.

- Religion is totalitarianism. It purports to know the truth instead of seeking it. It mandates belief in an all-knowing and infallible force. It is based on the idea that one set or race of people are separate and superior. Totalitarianism, whether religious or secular, is the real enemy.

- The Pentateuch of Judaism, the Bible of Christianity and the Koran of Islam are collections of hearsay upon hearsay of illusion upon illusion, written hundreds of years after their events occurred and based on the "eyewitness" accounts of illiterate people. They are not "dictation from God." Stories in these books are shockingly violent, strange and obviously contradictory at best and immoral at worst. ("Thou shalt not kill, now go out and kill.")

- These books are obviously manmade as they all borrow from each other, and many of their stories (including my beloved "he who is without sin, cast the first stone") were added later.

- Religion does not lead to better behavior, and secularism does not lead to worse behavior. In fact, it's the other way around. Taking the Civil Rights movement as an example (which is often cited as a case where Christianity was on the side of justice), the number of people who supported racial justice in the name of Christianity was dwarfed by the number of people who opposed it on the same grounds.

- Religious shaming of the sexual impulse is laughable at best and immoral at worst. Hitchens cites genital mutilation of African women, condemnation of homosexuality, Islam's promise of sex in paradise as a reward for martyrdom, and Christianity's preference for having African children die of AIDS rather than providing condoms to mitigate its spread.

- If you could actually quantify it, those who have done great deeds in the name religion only mitigate a small amount against those who have done horrific deeds for the same reason (Crusaders, Inquisitionists, Apartheid supporters, Hindu nationalists, Islamist terrorists, Zionists, etc.).

- While millions of people have done billions of great deeds in the name of religion, the fact remains that you do not need religion to believe in doing great deeds.

Hitchens is an equal-opportunity attacker, and he has no (pardon the expression) sacred cows. He's highly critical of those who claim that Mother Theresa performed miracles. He thinks very highly of Martin Luther King, Jr., but not so much of Gandhi. He has nothing but contempt for the orthodox Jews who perform bloody circumcisions. Mormonism is the work of a well-known shyster, Joseph Smith. Fundamentalist Islam is the scourge of our times. And the trendy refuge of "Eastern" religion is no refuge at all.

(As someone raised Roman Catholic, I was most disturbed by the accounts of Papal spreading of and complicity in anti-Semitism, including treaties with Adolf Hitler, aiding in the movement of Nazi war criminals to South America, and only recently changing its position that the crucifixion was attributed, not to "some Jews," but "the Jews.")

What is one to make of all of this? Many have praised the book; many have bashed it, that's to be expected. All I can say about it are four things:

1) Hitchens' case for the man-made nature of religious texts and practices in general is precise, effective and basically indisputable.

2) His case for the intrinsic insidiousness of religion is more problematic. As an economist might say, when it comes to the relationship of religion and violence, Hitchens proves correlation but not causality. Using the term "man-made" begs a second question: Why has man made religion, and if something in his nature has caused him to make it, then isn't that thing the root of the problem, and religion merely its symptom?

3) On the subject of God, I find his view compelling yet lacking something. While he's right about god-worship historically relating to ignorance and mortal fear, he ignores what I can only insufficiently encapsulate as "gratitude." The need for explanation and the desire for immortality are one thing; but the need to assign one's gratitude for possessing life and experiencing its profundities is, in my view, quite another. The fear of death, which I wholeheartedly agree is our primary motivator, does not and cannot exist without its opposite, the love of life. This force by no means proves the existence of God or gods--especially the anthropomorphized version of Western monotheism. In fact, it proves absolutely nothing. But I can't help but believe that this element of humanity exists, that it is somehow spiritual in nature, that it does not change with advances in science and knowledge, and that it begs expression.

4) This book (as well as others) has opened an attractive intellectual door for me that is now leading toward the works of Thomas Paine and the philosopher Spinoza. Hitchens' call for a New Enlightenment truly is a breath of fresh air. And this quote from Gotthold Lessing from his last chapter is the one that will stay with me.

"The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, and proud. If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand."

2 comments:

Stephen Dashboard said...

Gulp. As Woody Allen said, "I'm starting to feel like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis..."

The Wordman said...

this is a beautiful post, Bellamy -- as you might recall, I've been struggling with this New Atheism thing for a while now. Hitchens can be persuasive, and hearing him speak is compelling, even if he's blathering on with more bs concerning the Iraq war.

I think I know what you mean by "gratitude," though I'm not sure I would use that word. my position at this stage is, I can't prove empirically that *anything* is real (retort to Descartes' "I think therefore I am": "what is doing the thinking? who claims to be 'I'?").

only thing I can believe in right now is compassion, because the world is a tough place and we're all gonna die. and even that is only speculation, but I figure you can't go wrong if you're compassionate. put that on my gravestone.