The Case for Humanity: Hitchens on Religion

“I have been writing this book all my life,” Hitchens says, “and intend to keep on writing it.” Indeed, from his critical biography of Mother Theresa onwards the case against religion is always an underlying theme in Hitchens’s work, and I’m surprised that it has taken him so long to devote a whole book to this subject. It’s worth the wait, though.

This is partly because of Hitchens’s style: erudite but never pretentious, furious without hysteria, serious and laugh-out-loud funny. The breadth of scholarship and learning, and the ease and wit with which he communicates it to the reader, means that you could read Hitchens on any subject regardless of whether you agree with him. To use a cliché in a true sense, he is a joy to read.

Many of his arguments will be familiar. Hitchens demolishes creationism and the argument from design, and shows by close reading that pretty much every act of violence and repression carried out by religious believers can be justified by holy writ. A frequent retort is the truth that atheists can kill people as well, but as Hitchens says, “the chance that a person committing the crimes was ‘faith-based’ was almost 100 percent, while the chances that a person of faith was on the side of humanity and decency were about as good as the odds of a coin flip.” My own view is that this is explained by religion’s devaluation of life to merely a waiting room for the afterlife. Franco’s fascists and bin Laden’s Islamists shout “We love death” for a reason. If you think of mortal life as meaningless except as a preparation for death, you aren’t going to care too much about ending your own life or anyone else’s.

What is new is Hitchens’s demonstration that all religions are essentially the same faith. The story of Abraham appears in Christian, Jewish and Islamic scripture, and immaculate conceptions appear everywhere from the Old Testament to Ancient Egyptian myths, prompting Hitchens to comment that, for religion, the birth canal is a one-way street. These competing faiths are different interpretations of the same totalitarian ideal. No government can know what you dream about, not even North Korea’s, but religion promises “constant surveillance, from cradle to grave – and beyond”. Personally, I can’t imagine a more terrifying prospect.

Also recommended is his study of the tortured relationship between religion and sex. This has rarely been admitted, perhaps because it is so personal to us, but religion has promoted a morbid, perverse attitude to the sexual act that haunts even the most enlightened civilisations to this day. It mutilates its children’s genitals and represses their most natural instinct while promising everlasting orgies in the afterlife. As Hitchens says, “The homicidal lunatics – rehearsing to be genocidal maniacs – of 9/11 were perhaps tempted by virgins, but it is far more revolting to contemplate that, like so many of their fellow jihadists, they were virgins.” Innocence is great up to a certain point in life: after that, it becomes corruption. The Catholic Church is so well known for child abuse scandals that the paedophile priest is now a sitcom joke. And for good reason: Hitchens tells us that there was a time in Ireland when children who went to church schools and weren’t raped were actually in the minority.

I know a lot of people who would nod along at this stuff but still be inclined to seek out spiritual answers. For the secular, Buddhism is a temptation because wisdom always looks better from far off and because it is seen as a nice, cuddly alternative to Western fire and brimstone. Hitchens punctures yet another illusion by exploring Buddhist leaders’ collaboration with Nazis, Buddhism’s pogroms of Hindu Tamils, and its array of charlatans who rip off the naïve seekers of the West. He gives a warning to those seeking wisdom from far away: “Those who become bored by conventional ‘Bible’ religions, and seek ‘enlightenment’ by way of the dissolution of the critical faculties into nirvana in any form… may think they are leaving the realm of despised materialism, but they are still being asked to put their reason to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals.”

Of course, many will not agree. There’s a growing critique of outright secularist thought, often from other atheists and liberals. Dawkins and Harris may have a point, they say, but they are too combative, too forceful, too ready to lose their tempers in public.

There is even a disgusting moral equivalence that has fast become cliché: the idea that, because they hold strong views, some antitheists are basically the same as religious fundamentalists. Cristina Odone describes Richard Dawkins as “a world-famous apologist for secularist extremism”; Prospect referred to The God Delusion as “Dawkins’ dogma” in the earliest of many patronising reviews. In February this year the British Guardian ran a long thinkpiece on faith and secularism, which portrayed the debate as between two parallel fundamentalisms. It interviewed Azzam Tamimi, director of London’s Institute of Islamic Political Thought:

I refer to secular fundamentalism. The problem is that these people believe that they have the absolute truth. That means you have no room to talk to others so you end up having a physical fight. They want to close the door and ignore religion, but this will provoke a violent religiosity. If someone seeks to deny my existence, I will fight to assert it.

The Guardian failed to point out that Tamimi is a Special Envoy of Hamas who has spoken in favour of suicide bombing and the eradication of the state of Israel.

Hitchens deals with the equivalence straight away:

Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith… We do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins, concerning “punctuated evolution” and the unfulfilled gaps in post-Darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication… We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: 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…. We are reconciled to living only once, except through out children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room. We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better and not worse. We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion.

Another criticism of strongly expressed atheism is that it seeks to cruelly puncture the comforting illusions that do no harm. Passionate atheists are seen as akin to someone kicking apart a doll’s house. Hitchens acknowledges this and puts Marx’s famous description of religion as “opium for the people” in context: for Marx religion was not a brainwashing tool but a genuine comfort to people who had nothing.

There’s nothing morally wrong with deluding yourself to be happy, we all do it from time to time. But a big theme in God is Not Great is that faith belongs to the “sinister, spoiled, selfish childhood of our species”. Of course, a five-year-old with an imaginary friend is cute. A twenty-five year old with an imaginary friend is just disturbing. Put simply, it’s time to grow up, and put away these childish things.

Organised religion is declining, despite the best efforts of our governments and of isolated fundamentalist groups. We may be seeing new attempts at censorship and repression, but I agree with A C Grayling that this is faith’s last death-rattle rather than a sign of its resurgence. Religion has had thousands of years to put its ideas into practice, and it’s time to give something else a chance.

Life is there to be lived, and for all its imperfections, it is the only life we are sure of. Slowly, we are packing away our toys and games and walking hand in hand into the mortal sunset. When faith ends, life begins.

God is Not Great: The Case Against Religion, Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic 2007

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