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I DON’T RUN in his circles, but I have had the rare experience of seeing American religion from two sides. As a teen I left Catholicism for agnosticism, much to the chagrin of some of my own peers. Some advised me I’d go to hell. Another remarked aloud in class, “Don’t say the word ‘Bible’ in front of Bobby. He’ll melt.”
Still others — the vast majority, I should note — were quite decent about the whole thing.
Then I headed off to college, where (to put it mildly) things were different. I held prevalent enough religious views that not once did I have to defend them in a debate. I forgot the talking points I’d developed in high school.
If anything, I found myself on the religious right. In an op-ed for the conservative campus newspaper, I argued that anthropology professors should address the problems Intelligent Design theorists purport to find in evolutionary theory — not teach ID, just explain why it’s wrong. On came the “ignorant” label accompanied, as were the denunciations of my high school classmates, with some genuine argument.
The truth: If you don’t want to face religious tension, move somewhere your beliefs are common. In other words, neither Christians nor secularists are perfectly tolerant, so segregate yourself. Hitchens lives — as I do now — in the D.C. area, where even conservatives aren’t all that pious. (National Review’s John Derbyshire calls them “Metro Cons”, a category I fit into to some degree.) So in everyday life, it’s almost certain that Hitchens dishes out as much hatred as he takes. He can’t use his own persecution to justify his condescension.
STILL, THAT CONDESCENSION abounds in God Is Not Great. The book is chock-full of loaded terms like “pathetic,” “baseless” and “awful.” Hitchens refuses to capitalize the word “God,” even when it’s a proper noun. For some reason, he gets a kick out of labeling those he dislikes “mammals,” or redundantly, “human mammals.” Religion comes from the “infancy of our species.” In short, he insults the religious too much to ever convert them, settling for ginning up his relatively small base of unbelievers. That’s not too much of a loss, though, as his case isn’t that convincing. He starts with the thesis that religion is evil, then finds all the evidence he can for it, rather than weighing competing bits of evidence against each other. He ignores or dismisses ideas he doesn’t like.
Sometimes that’s quite explicit. For example, he mentions he doesn’t believe Mary, if she existed, gave birth as a virgin. Fair enough. But then he makes the startling claim that if someone could prove Mary did exist, and that she had given birth as a virgin, and that no other human had done so before or since, “it would not prove that the resulting infant had any divine power.” And he singles out the faithful for their willingness to ignore evidence.
The problem goes deeper than specific examples of malice and adamant denials that any evidence at all could, even hypothetically, support the idea of God. Throughout the book, Hitchens depicts the good that religious people do as non-religious, and the bad that secular people do as â€” well, religious. Regarding the former, see his discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr. Hitchens points out correctly that one does not need religion to oppose bigotry. He also points out, equally correctly, that the Bible verses King often cited (the Moses story especially) don’t actually support civil rights in the modern sense. It was “let my people go,” not “let all people go.”
But the notion that religion didn’t largely inspire the civil rights movement is simply absurd. King was a reverend, after all, who used his pulpit for advocacy. He used the Scriptures, in context or out, to sway whites and energize blacks. The churches provided a community to organize and a means of doing so.
Hitchens’s treatment of Nazism and communism is similar, though slanted in the opposite direction. He points out some interesting examples where religious groups aided these trends, but more bizarre is his assertion that totalitarianism derives from religion. He quotes “British socialist Richard Crossman” from The God That Failed: “The Communist novice, subjecting his soul to the canon law of the Kremlin, felt something of the release which Catholicism also brings to the intellectual, wearied and worried by the privilege of freedom.”
It’s true that humans often strive for something beyond themselves — something to devote themselves to fully, something through which to strive for perfection. But it’s a logical fallacy to claim that because religion and communism both utilize that urge, and because religion came first, communism is in essence religious.
In fact, in countries that reasonably separate church and state, where religious groups cannot use physical coercion, religion is a quite healthy way of channeling that impulse.
AS HITCHENS SAYS, proof that religion does more good than harm is not proof that religion’s claims are true. (Said claims are a discussion for another time.) But the fact is that God Is Not Great chronicles religion’s evils — even purporting to show how religion doesn’t really “make people behave” when addressing MLK — without weighing them against its benefits. Bear in mind again that Hitchens’s book is targeted at a modern American audience. It cannot prevent the massacres depicted in the Bible by converting the slayers to atheists. Would that it could shake Osama bin Laden’s faith, but it won’t. The fact is that, in America, religion does a lot of good. For an example, see Arthur Brooks’s book about charity, Who Really Cares. The media made much of Brooks’s finding that conservatives donate more than liberals do, but the underlying reason isn’t ideology but religion. Indeed, he finds that secular conservatives donate even less than secular liberals do.p>Brooks writes: br>
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?