Hitchens Got It Wrong

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What can I say on the subject of the late Christopher Hitchens' personal brand of "anti-theism" that Theodore Dalrymple, has not already put down in his eloqouent, if exasperated, piece, "What The New Atheists Don't See"? By title alone it is not clear what the new atheists even are, but by a paragraph or so in one begins to get an idea of what they posit to the world: the general idea (with its variants, depending on which new atheist one consults, be he Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, or Harris) that the world would be a better place now if religion would just go away. For the more sensible anti-theists like Hitchens, that does not mean dismissing all of religion's contributions to the modern civilisation they sincerely love - just most of them. Mr. Hitchens acknowledges the Renaissance alright, but one gets the sense after reading God is Not Great that he was far from convinced that Christianity was, in large part, western civilisation and that today's modern and liberal West could not have come to be without it. However one might slice the issue, acknowledging the beauty of the Sistine Chapel as sufficient in recognizing Christianity's contribution to the world is a bit like publicly acclaiming the band-aid in lieu of one's dutiful recognition of medical science.

I'm sorry to have come along so late in the great debate, with religion's backers on one side and their opponents on the other, because it seems that everything worth saying has already been said. Atheists have vigorously flogged the dead horse of the Bible's scientific credibility for almost as long as religion's proponents have lauded faith's ability to give hope to the destitute and reason to a bewildering existence. The champions of both sides trudge their well-trodden paths, but now anti-theism, or at the very least atheism, seems to be gaining ground in the secular West; the vision of a completely secular land in which parents would be locked up for giving their children a religious education that has been proffered by the author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins (with a vitality to frighten Bertrand Russell) is unlikely to actualize anytime soon, however his book has sold an astonishing two million-plus copies in a barely literate century. His idea of secularized civilisation on all fronts rests easy on the supposition that religion is responsible for a great deal of humanity's evil - to prove that, Dawkins and likeminded intellectuals point to any of the staggeringly numerous examples of evil done by Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus throughout history. Hitchens, for instance, was a great believer in rhetorical blitzkreig - God is Not Great reads like a catalogue of religious naughtiness.

It is hard to finish the opening chapters of God Is Not Great - crammed full of juicy details of centuries-old sectarian slaughter and modern day fundamentalism - without wondering whether the anti-theists are really on to something. Christopher Hitchens isn't called a great polemic and a brilliant debater for nothing. Then again, it's frighteningly easy to forget when faced with the particulars of Sharia Law about the secularists - a group Dalrymple rightly points out as having a particularly bad track record in the murder department. To avoid belaboring his point, Dalrymple makes no mention of the cases that should spring immediately to mind: that of the communists and the hundreds of millions of people they starved, tortured and shot to death, and of course the irreligious Nazis, whose crimes need no more summary than they already recieve, and all in the span of a few decades to boot. A skeptic with an internet connection might cite Goebbels' own account: "The Fuhrer is deeply religious, though anti-Christian." To avoid wasting space on this paper declaring the suspect nature of any of Goebbels' statements by virtue of his job in the Third Reich - as Chief Propagandist - allow me to remind the reader that self devotion does not make a religion. Any IRS beaurocrat would have told David Koresh the same had he applied for a tax break.

The inevitable rebuttal to the simple and oft argued "well the communists murdered people too!" bit is that the communist murderers weren't practicing true communism - and by implication would not have committed the crimes they did had they been dogmatic Marxists (or Trotskyites, as the unapologetic Trotskyite Hitchens might have claimed). Well, assuming for a moment that such a claim is true or even valuable to the argument, one could just as easily claim in turn the same of history's murderous "Christians" - that their acts of murder, rape, theivery and other violations of the ten commandments for which they are admonished today by anti-theists and the religous alike were patently un-Christian, and that their individual perpetrators were therefore not true Christians. Where does this back and forth argument leave us? With the conclusion that the Communist ideals are better than actual communists and Christianity is better than actual Christians, which is not especially useful. Let's instead consider the corrollary : that human nature is violent and humans are likely to murder eachother whatever their ideology. Given the evidence provided us by the Dark Ages and the second half of the 20th century, would the true answer to this part of a typical anti-religion argument - that a person does more harm to the world with a set of religious beliefs than without - be the opposite of what is currently claimed by men like Dawkins? Should we quickly give our world's ideologically inclined secularists some scripture before they remake Siberia into a gulag?

No, we should not. But neither should we take religion away from the Earth's billions of destitute, hopeless people - some of whose only pleasures of the day are sleep and prayer and whose daily trials include evading marauding bands of raping, murdering thieves in civil war torn parts of Africa. On the less extreme end of human suffering, in the hemisphere least afflicted by deadly maladies and unchecked murder and of primary concern to our new atheists, Western "poor" ("poor" is in qoutation marks here to draw the much ignored distinction between the true poor of the third world who often starve and the relative poor of the developed world) benefit a great deal from the moral support religion provides them and which the state is helpless to supply. For evidence, read of the moral state of the secular "poor" of England, a country afflicted by drug addiction and crime which defies, upon broad or close inspection, the explanations proffered by the liberal intelligensia.

While neglecting to deeply consider aloud the immense good religion does - if not for a deeper understanding of the issue at hand than for the sake of intellectual honesty especially important when distributing ones writing to a layreadership - the new atheists pluck our hearstrings with stories of the Taliban's religious zealotry. Though what should really come as a surprise is not the flagrant one-sidedness employed by the camp of "rationality" but the specious claim that humans can behave morally with nothing other than the will to do good and a solid philosophical, which is to say intellectual, belief in doing right by others. It's a nice idea but asking anyone but a moronic middle schooler to believe it is a long shot. Though it is another issue altogether, it must be said that a wise man knows the value of a little untruth, like the threat of eternal damnation. As Dalrymple puts it, "the attempt [at living a life based entirely on reason] leads at best to Gradgrind and at worst to Stalin."

In the realm of pop intellectualism, Christopher Hitchens held great sway - surely only an evil genius with great respect for our man's sardonic wit could have paired it with the conspiracy-minded witlessness of Mos Def on the Bill Maher show. But Hitchens' endearing wit is what's most destructive in this perennial debate over the value of religion in which he stands firm in the belief that every person is better off coming to terms with the facts. He has garnered immense respect from thinking youth, a group never once accused of wisdom which is drawn to his seemingly courageous commitment to reason in a world seemingly pitted against rationality. However, your most ardent theologian would have a hard time arguing that belief in God is "reasonable" by my understanding of the word, which is why belief in God is called "faith". The atheists love to knock down straw-men, one of which goes something like "God doesn't exist because Noah couldn't possibly have fit two of every animal on a boat," but such an argument is meaningless no matter how many other straw men who look just like him are set up to be knocked down as well. It's obvious to any person not a fundamentalist himself that fundamentalist Christians are stupid - who's disputing that? It seems to me that anyone bothering to declare that those who take the Bible literally are dumb is wasting time better spent playing his Xbox and reading Kerouac. The moral value of Christianity, at least, seems lost on men like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, which is odd and certainly worth noting when one considers that I (and I'm sure many others) have not yet come across an atheist willing to claim that the Bible's general idea of morality is not also his own. What the atheists dispute is how Christians interpret their guide, which they quite rightly point out does not always lead to good things. The issue, then, is not one of a conflicting code of morality. Not to belabor the point, but most religions do more than provide those uncomfortable with accepting the bare science of the world a reason for living - they give those people a moral (and, when Hell comes into play, a personal) obligation to do right by others, the absence of which leads at best to moral relativism (the prevalence of which is recounted in the newly released book Lost in Transition) and at worst to immorality.





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