Hitchens v. God

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To the sometimes solemn literary cottage-industry of neo-atheism, Christopher Hitchens — with his manifesto: God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything — brings his famous English-school-boy wit, come to full blossom now in the great American music hall. Of the late Jerry Falwell, Hitchens told Sean Hannity this week, “If they gave him an enema he could have been buried in a matchbox.” On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, plugging the new book, Hitchens opened with the line that the most over-rated virtue is faith, defined as “believing the most stuff with the least evidence…” Of his new enterprise, he added: “If you can call somebody a man of faith, or ‘faith based,’ it seems at the moment like a compliment. I’d like to change that.”

Is Hitchens serious? Or is he making familiar old Enlightenment sport at the credulity of the imbecilic natives, here and elsewhere? I suspend judgment, even on a close reading of his book, and finally it may be a matter of taste. But the push-back that he and others are pressing against the rise of fundamentalism and theocracy is more than merely provocative. It is by now a best-selling phenomenon.

Aren’t the real questions: why now? what if anything is new here? and just possibly true? And by the way: who started the donnybrook, and who set the street-fighting terms, between (as novelist Marilynne Robinson has written in a truly impressive review essay, “That Highest Candle” on American Religious Poems ) “those who assign the failings of the country to its lapse from traditional religion, and … those who assign our failings to the obdurate persistence of traditional religion.”

Anthony Gottlieb’s review in the current New Yorker makes Hitchens the fourth into the scrum of “Atheists with Attitude.” First was Sam Harris with The End of Faith, 33 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list in 2004. Then Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett, with the neo-Darwinist Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, an Open Source conversation in March, 2006. We passed on the British biologist Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion last year. Harris was back in the market with his Letter to a Christian Nation. And now comes Hitchens with the seal of his own style on the sure-fire themes.

There are memorably clever turns in Hitchens’s inventory of personal stories. Like the question from the broadcaster Dennis Prager: were Hitchens to find himself at twilight in a strange city, would he feel safer or less safe on seeing a crowd of men approaching and learning that the they were just coming from a prayer meeting? From his own travels in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad (“just to stay within the letter ‘B'”), Hitchens answered, he had reason to feel “immediately threatend” by men coming from religious observances. On each ‘B” hangs a cautionary tale. Much else in the book could be filed under “bombast.”

Page 56: Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience…

Page 64: One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody — not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms — had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think — though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one — that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.

Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Not for Hitchens the aesthetic and existential subtleties of — from the other end of the reading table — Marilynne Robinson’s piece on The Library of America’s American Religious Poems. She writes:

It is important to remember that religious thought has had brilliant expression throughout world culture, and that the idea of the sacred has refined the sense of the beautiful in every civilization. The very narrow sense in which the word is understood in the public conversation in contemporary America — again, by many of its proponents and defenders as well as by its critics — distracts from the profound resonances of religion throughout history. An afternoon with the Vedas, an evening with The Drowned Book, another look at the Oresteia or the Psalms or at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address would be more than sufficient to recall us all to a recognition of the fact that the Pat Robertsons and the Pat Buchanans of our moment do not epitomize religion…

Marilynne Robinson, “That Highest Candle,” Poetry, May 2007

This, of course, is comparing apples and oranges, but then Hitchens cries out for some comparative context, and we mean to find some for him. Marilynne Robinson is a conversation for another day, let us pray. First, Hitchens’s version of hardball. Questions please!

Christopher Hitchens

Author, most recently, of God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,

Contributing editor, Vanity Fair and The Atlantic Monthly

Contributor, The Nation, Slate, and The Daily Mirror

Eddie Glaude, Jr.

Associate Professor of Religion, Princeton University

Author, Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early 19th Century Black America

Co-editor, African-American Religious Thought: An Anthology

Extra Credit Reading

Christopher Hitchens — Religion

Anthony Gottlieb, Atheists with Attitude, The New Yorker, May 21, 2007: “So how is a would-be iconoclast supposed to tell exactly what the faithful believe? Interpreting the nature and prevalence of religious opinions is tricky, particularly if you depend on polls. Respondents can be lacking in seriousness, unsure what they believe, and evasive. Spiritual values and practices are what pollsters call “motherhood” issues: everybody knows that he is supposed to be in favor of them.”

Leora Tanenbaum, Christopher Hitchens to God: Drop Dead, The Huffington Post, May 16, 2007: “Yes, yes. Atheists and believers alike know that religion has lubricated mass acceptance of misogyny, slavery, and tyranny. But so have secular, non-religious leaders and regimes. Even after reading Hitchens’ catalogue of atrocities committed in the name of religion, I am still unconvinced that religion, in and of itself, is the problem.”

Lupe, The smartest guy in the room , Lupe’s MySpace Blog, May 18, 2007: “I’m not really a Christopher Hitchens fan, not even an admirer. But I do respect his badass-edness. He’s like the Chuck Norris of intellectuals – fast, hard, brutal, and favors blue jeans.”

Jimmy, Christopher Hitchens and my Universalist ideology. , Jimmy’s MySpace Blog, May 18, 2007: “It’s true that I’m a Roman Catholic. I love my faith; it touches me every time I go to Mass; so then why do I like Christopher Hitchens so much? I admire the man’s passion against religious upheaval in the world.”

Gagdad Bob, Freedom, Virtue, and Alignment With the Real, One Cosmos, May 18, 2007: “Thus, it would not be exactly correct to say that Christopher Hitchens is on my side in the war, since he would go after me with similar gusto once the Islamists were out of the way — just as the Islamists went after America as soon as the Soviet Union was out of the way.”

SkeleTony, Atheism on the Rise?, Man Eats Own Brain, May 18, 2007: “I think we are actually seeing real change occurring. Ten or 15 years ago you could not DREAM of an out-of-the-closet atheist hosting or even being a regular contributor to news and talk shows. Even admitted atheistic actors (Robert Deniro, Katherine Hepburn, Christopher Reeve, etc.) did not go to any measurable lengths to talk about atheism or theism.”

Jib, In re Christopher Hitchens and God, Jiblog, May 18, 2007: “What I do not understand about Hitchens and other atheists of his ilk is their deep, personal animosity towards something they do not believe to exist. It is a vibrant hatred that most people can only summon for the real and the tactile.”

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