Tuesday, May 01, 2007

a serious hitch

Christopher Hitchens: (Cross-posted, here).

An excerpt on Slate from Hitchens new book--God is Not Great: How Religions Poisons Everything.

Hitchens begins with a very good summary of the traditional atheistic humanist critiques against religion:
There are four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.
In other words, the argument runs thusly. The misrepresentation of the origins of humanity and the cosmos is a rejection of the mythic amber/blue wave of existence, predicated on myths. Myths about people rising up from the ground to explain why they live in such and such a place. Or potters who make humans as if out of clay and call forth all of creation on a 6 day timescale.

Religion is therefore, so goes the argument, the cause of maximum servility and solipsism. The solipsism of saying, for example, that Jesus died 2,000 years ago just to save me from my sins. We know psychologically that humans develop from initially egocentric forms of awareness and meaning-making and assume therefore god-like powers. Very young children cover their eyes with their hands and believe no one can see them. At some point the child realizes in the face of rules set by their parents & school, that s/he is not all powerful and so therefore prays to some invented being (“wish-thinking”) existing somewhere far away who is omnipotent and will only do for him/her what is necessary is the child does what God (er society) commands. Hence religious adult believers remain in an essentially child-like position (maximum servility), never growing up and taking responsibility for themselves, so that everything can be afforded them in this life and the one to come (solipsism). The child will principally be loved by God, let us further argue, if the child represses that which is most dangerous from a social point of view—sexuality. For this God interestingly looks often exactly like a middle class bourgeoisie or traditional patriarchal father model.

All of which is true, although not the fullness of truth.

Hitchens also correctly points out that humanists are not the dreary, morose ethical hedonists often caricatured by the traditionally religious:
We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe…We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful. (In fact, if a proper statistical inquiry could ever be made, I am sure the evidence would be the other way.) We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room.

Where then is the mistake for there is one, a major disturbingly so one in Hitchens’ account?

It is here and here:
we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul.

The key mistake, the one that in some way or another, every such dogmatic atheist must make is here. The atheist must define what religious faith is. And religious faith must always and forever only be the most absurd, the most violent and cruel, the most unscientific, the most blatantly evil and irrational. [Which no doubt religions historically and daily in exponential degrees afford.]

Hitchens stupidly falls into the trap of assuming the mythic religious argument that the Scriptures are books wholly separate from human creation (literature). He is letting the amber wave religionists declare what religion is. He wants them and needs them. They are his secret ally, for if there were a different way of religion, his whole argument would crumble into so many pathetic pieces.

To take only two examples from that list of authors Hitchens mentions: Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Both were committed Christians, if considered odd or suspicious by the religious authorities of their Russian Orthodox Church (my point exactly). The deep psychological torment of Crime and Punishment is the prelude to the tale of redemption. The Idiot is one of the greatest Christ-figures in the history of art and literature. Tolstoy wrote works like, “The Kingdom of God is Within You”, “My Religion,” and “The Gospel in Brief.”

What Hitchens can not understand is the Bible is literature. I believe it to be inspirationally (“spirit-in” it) so. The Bible is the basic of much of the great ethical and artistic meditations not only in Western history but the world over.

And the same fundamental mistake here:
Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them. We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazi regime. Hitchens dismisses his work “as admirable but nebulous humanism.” The arrogance and ignorance of such a statement is beyond absurd. Bonhoeffer managed to sneak letters out during his years in prison prior to his execution. They constitute, in my opinion and that of many a devout Christian, as one of the deepest theological meditations of the 20th century and more broadly in the Western Christian corpus. Only if one has predetermined from the beginning that there is this sharp dualism between irrational religion and rational humanism can one make such a patheticly ignorant statement. Hitchens will never understand the depth of such religious faith as with a Bonhoeffer because he has none himself. He has decided beforehand it is impossible.

Bonhoeffer wrote movingly of a religionless Christian. Hitchens only hears the religionless and assumes nebulous humanism. But what Bonhoeffer was after was something far more radical and truly revolutionary, a belief and praxis of Christ without, what Bonhoeffer calls, “the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on?” Bonhoeffer would agree with Hitchens that the 2,000 year history of Christianity was a “historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression.” In other words a worldview/wave of consciousness, in this case amber. Humans have moved beyond this, hence they are religion-less or post-religious people; although technically, as Hitchens is aware of in his own way, everyone develops through a mythic phase. This explains why when humanism and communism were expounded as systems, they developed their own orthodoxies (and inevitable heretics) and like all religions went about trying to kill unbelievers. Mao, The Shinning Path, Soviet Union, the Jacobin Revolutionaries of France (The Red Phase of the Revolution). And in the capitalist West reduced humans to slave labor and consumer objects to be rationally engineered.

What Bonhoeffer said in the darkest of pits was that there was always a way to God. Hardly “nebulous humanism.” [When idiots start defining the world, amazingly everybody else looks like morons too].

I have no problems with Hitchens’ atheism. Though he tries to argue otherwise, it is a perfectly valid and well trod form of belief.

What I do have a problem with are atheists, who by definition and their own admission, do not believe in God, defining who are true and false believers. If atheists are right to point out that we should not trust non-scientifically trained people to determine what is scientifically true, then why should we trust atheists to determine who is in and who is out on the religiously believing front?

Hitchens says “religion poisons everything.” It is hard to square that with say the life of Mother Theresa. She herself no nebulous humanist--hard to see her life as poisoning everything around her.

Religions are simultaneously the source of the greatest evil and violence and the greatest beings to ever walk the planet and grace our lives with their presence. This is how it has always and will always be. A smart (but not wise) person like Hitchens will only ever understand the first half of that proposition and never the latter. For if he did consider it for a moment, his world would shatter.

Which might very well be a good thing. For there is always a way to God, even if there not be an amber religious façade to it, even with and often especially in, a shattered world.


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