Monthly Archives: December 2011
There are two articles in the National Post that I think I should be discussing before going on with the Hitchens assessment, but this chapter is so important, I have decided to forego the pleasure and simply dive into Hitchens’ wonderfully restrained dismemberment of religion. (The two articles, just to mention them, before continuing, are: “My right to live trumps your right to die,” and “Euthanasia’s foes, out of arguments, settle for fear-mongering.” You will not doubt where I stand. Derek Medeima is, you will not be surprised to hear, a research hack at the Roman Catholic “Institute for Marriage and the Family.” Of course, as usual, the “institute” does not wear its heart on its sleeve, and pretends to be a “secular” organisation, thus exemplifying the typical bad faith of the religions.)
However, to go on with Hitchens book, and in particular, the fourth chapter, entitled simply “A Note on Health, to Which Religion Can Be Hazardous.” It is worth noting that Hitchens does not start with arguments against the existence of God. He starts with more mundane things such as the more general comments on religion in general in the first chapter, the focused concern of the second chapter on the danger of religion, and the digression on why God hates ham in the third. This fourth chapter follows in those footsteps, by considering the role of religion as a threat to health and well-being. At no point, however, it must be said, does his voice rise to the level of a shriek. There is no screaming, no stridency, just a cool analysis of the faults that he discerns, although he does state bluntly the criticisms that he makes of religion and its effects. In view of the widespread idea that Hitchens is strident and unrestrained in his criticism, this is important to notice. He simply points out, in a matter of fact way, how religions endanger health, whether this consists in refusal to accept vaccination against diseases, in the existence of religious psychoses, or in the violent, apocalyptic conceptions of the end of all things that seems to dominate so much religious discourse, and which, in itself, amounts to a form of mental dysfunction.
Hitchens’ “god is not Great”. An Assessment — III: A Short Digression on the Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham
Since the third chapter of god is not Great is, in fact, short, we can be brief (well, relatively brief, anyway!). Nevertheless, the issue of forbidden foods is an important one in the criticism of religion, because, on the face of it, there is little reason why there should be any connexion between religion and prohibited foodstuffs. John the Baptist, we are told, ate locusts and wild honey, but he was presumably forbidden pork. Why does heaven hate ham? Or lobsters, shrimp and clams? Or rabbits?
Rabbits are cute, and children are naturally drawn to little piglets, but it isn’t for their attractiveness or repulsiveness that forbidden animals are forbidden. The original reason, according to many biblical scholars, for the Jewish distinction between Kosher (Permitted) and Trayf (Forbidden) foods, seems to have something to do with their separation into natural kinds. Animals with cloven hoofs which chew the cud are Kosher, like cows, whereas animals with cloven hoofs which do not chew the cud are Trayf, like pigs. Animals which chew the cud (as rabbits were thought to do, but do not) but are not cloven hoofed, are Trayf. Fish with scales, like salmon, cod, and tuna, are Kosher, but fish with legs and/or shells, like crabs, clams and lobsters, are Trayf. The same restrictions seem to have been taken over by Islam. Birds that eat grain and seeds, like quails, are Kosher, but carrion birds are Trayf, since animals that die of natural causes are Trayf. And so on. There may be a kind of primitive reason behind the distinctions.
This is pretty small beer, but seems worthwhile making a short comment on. In the Independent Mark Steel has a very short piece which claims that “just because you’re an atheist doesn’t make you rational.” Indeed, it doesn’t. Poor Mark. He made some remarks about Richard Dawkins and got fuming responses, he says. But then he goes on to say this:
It’s not the rationality that’s alarming, it’s the smugness. Instead of trying to understand religion, if the modern atheist met a peasant in a village in Namibia, he’d shriek: “Of course, GOD didn’t create light, it’s a mixture of waves and particles you idiot, it’s OBVIOUS.”
But of course this is nonsense. A modern atheist would no more shriek such a thing at a peasant in Namibia, than at a journalist at the Independent. Some modern atheists might write internet comments that seem not very short of shrieking, but then the internet is a medium which both encourages shrieking and makes innocuous words seem like a shriek.
What’s strange about Mark Steel’s piece is that he lards his very short article with comments about what some anonymous atheist has said, and some irrelevancy about missing the point by making the refutation of God one’s primary aim. For instance, he speaks about an interview with Giles Fraser — the one who quit as a canon of St. Paul’s cathedral, and how, during the interview, in which, we are to understand, Fraser spoke with “inspiring compassion”, he was interrupted by an atheist
who declared the Christian project is doomed because we’re scientifically programmed to look after ourselves at the expense of anyone else. So the only humane rational scientific thought to have was “GO Christian, GO, Big up for the Jesus posse.”
I’m not confident I know what this means, but I do not think this is representative of the atheist project any more than I think that Giles Fraser is representative of the Christian project. Nor do I know any atheists who would think that this was a particularly useful interruption.
But by this time the article is almost finished, and he ends on this note:
Similarly, Hitchens appears to have become obsessed with defying religion, so made himself one of the most enthusiastic supporters for a war he saw as being against the craziness of Islam. But the war wasn’t about God or Allah, it was about more earthly matters, which the people conducting that war understood. And, as that war became predictably disastrous, they were grateful for whatever support they could find. And so a man dedicated to disproving GOD was praised in his death by the soppiest, sickliest, most, [sic] irrational, hypocritical Christian of them all.
This just seems confused to me, and I wonder why anyone thought it worthwhile saying, and, moreover, why the Independent thought it worthy of publication. (And, just so that Mark Steel is clear on this point, since religion is really about earthly matters, even when it most pretends to speak about the divine, wars can be about God or Allah even if these non-existent worthies are not mentioned.) Even if Tony Blair is ”the soppiest, sickliest, most irrational, hypocritical Christian of them all”, it’s hard to imagine what Mark Steel had in mind by taking Christopher Hitchens’ death, anonymous atheist commenters, some freeform abuse of Tony Blair, and a few ill-chosen words into a hat, shaking them vigorously, and then writing down the jumbled ideas that resulted. The moral of the story is, just because you write something about atheism not making people rational, doesn’t mean that what you have written manages to achieve rationality. Why do people think that, by writing such empty-headed nonsense, they are doing anything useful? If it’s meant as comedy, Mark, it simply falls flat — this, since Mark Steel is reputed to be a stand-up comic. Apparently, he can’t even do it sitting down. If it’s meant as serious journalism, the man needs to go back to school.
Alister McGrath must be one of the worst examples of a Christian with a degree in science who simply doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand science, and, I suggest, he doesn’t really understand Christianity. The last thing a Christian should do is to try to make Christianity and science compatible. As a mythology that has a possible existential interpretation (see Tillich and McIntyre, for example) Christianity may have some mileage as a figurative way of interpreting the nature of being human, but it has no mileage if put into the race with science; it must stumble and fall at the first fence. But Alister McGrath continues to try to pick Christianity up, dust it off, and send it off on the race again which it has already lost. The latest example of this quixotic adventure is to be found in his essay: Science is about explanation, religion is about meaning.
The problem with this is that Christianity is only about meaning if Christianity is plausibly true. It may be that we cannot stop ourselves from asking the questions: “Where did everything come from? What’s it all about? What’s the point of life?” But we can stop ourselves from trying to answer them before we have plausible answers, and this is precisely what religion refuses to do. Despite the fact that there is not an iota of evidence that Jesus is who Christians claim that he is, or that Mohammed is who he claimed to be, and so on, religious believers in Islam or Christianity go on claiming that these men — supposing them actually to have lived — have vital things to tell us about the meaning and purpose of life.
“Religion Kills” is the title of the second chapter of Hitchens’ book, god is not Great. In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post yesterday (“Has religion made the world less safe“), Steven Pinker suggests that the subtitle of the book, “How Religion Poisons Everything,” is an overstatement, since, as he points out,
Religion plays no single role in the history of violence because religion has not been a single force in the history of anything. The vast set of movements we call religions have little in common but their distinctness from the secular institutions that are recent appearances on the human stage.
And then he goes on to point out that the plasticity of religion is such that it may follow the broader trends at work in the surrounding society. When that is liberal, religion may become liberal. In his words:
Many accommodations instigated by breakaway denominations, reform movements, ecumenical councils, and other liberalizing forces have allowed other religions to be swept along by the humanistic tide. It is when fundamentalist forces stand athwart those currents and impose tribal, authoritarian, and puritanical constraints that religion becomes a force for violence.
While this may be true, there is one thing that Pinker seems to ignore, and that is that when religions take on humanistic colouring from the surrounding culture, it is not religion that is providing the liberalism, but something else. Where religion has had cultural power, as it had, for example, in Christendom from the year 381, or as it has in Saudi Arabia and many other Muslim majority states, its effect has been generally poisonous.
Though I read all the “Four Horsemen” as their books came out, and when they came out, I have never, except for a slightly more concentrated look at Dawkins’ The God Delusion, considered their “arguments” in detail, and now that one of them, sadly, has been gathered to his ancestors, it seems a good time to take a closer look at the book I so admired when I first read it, god is not Great. I have no idea how many installments this will take, but this is the first of what I hope will be an extended series of comments on Hitchens’ denunciation — Michael Lind’s word — of the biggest celebrity of all, God.
Hitchens begins by considering his growing unbelief in childhood, an unbelief which, I think, is probably almost universal to childhood, and which is so often refused permission to grow into full-scale unbelief. Whether that was due to genius on his part, or a lack of parental reinforcement, is hard to say, but the doubts he remembers from his childhood are in most respects doubts that I had myself as a child, though my doubts were systematically rooted out as time went by, by the missionary context of my upbringing, and by the almost universal conviction of those adults whom I knew at all well that the surrounding world of Muslim and Hindu, Sikh and Parsee belief, was a dark counterpoint to the light that Christians had come to India to bring. A sense of cultural superiority alone tended to subvert my childhood rebellion, which, when combined with the heavy-handedness of religious indoctrination, turned doubts into a kind of racial or cultural betrayal.
Hitchens knew no such restrictions, though he does recognise those early objections as “faltering and childish.” (3) And since I inhabited a society in which, for the most part, adults reinforced the deliverances of faith, my doubts tended to wither on the vine, instead of being pressed into new wine. But questions about the ineffectiveness of prayer, the limitedness of Jesus’ cures of a few unfortunate people, instead of curing disease as such, the brutality of hell, and the maudlin concern about sinfulness in children who could not understand the idea of, let alone blame themselves for any grievous misdoings — and I might add here, my own questions about a trinity of gods that nevertheless managed to be one, or of a virgin who yet bore a child (of which I used to say with such 10-year-old conviction that, if the Virgin Birth mattered, then nothing, surely, about religion mattered, since believing something so impossible effectively subverted our claims to know anything at all): all these occurred to me too, though with less effect, since hell itself seemed real, so real that the Joycean sermon about hell in A Portrait of the Artist seemed, when I first read it years later, to echo the words and aroused the same fears that I had heard and experienced years before when only a child — fears that still cluster about that word, and perhaps will never leave it.
Howard Jacobson strikes and awkward pose in a recent piece in the Independent. He heads it with “The near-religious zeal that drives the godless.” There’s a lot wrong with it, including the title, but I want to use it as a framework to hang a few comments on the many obituaries of Christopher Hitchens which have flowed from so many word-processors around the world. They are a mixed bag, to be sure, from rather trite, artificial, half-believed praise, to adulation, and on to the most scurrilous kinds of yellow journalism seeking to inter the memory of Hitchens with his bones.
Michael Lind’s comes in the last class. It would be hard to find an “obituary” so full of hatred and vituperation. He scorns the old Latin saw, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, and lets Hitchens have it with both barrels, claiming that Hitchens’ being a public intellectual (which he denies) absolves him of wrongdoing; though it is hard not to think that it would have been more honest for him to have addressed such huge reservations about Hitchens standing as an intellectual before he died. The strange thing is that, in justifying his assessment of Hitchens as a “gossip columnist of genius” he has the temerity to use gossip:
A decade ago, a British diplomat told me that he was astonished at the reputation Hitchens had attained in the U.S.: “In Britain we think of him as a gossip columnist.”
This off-hand remark is allowed to stand without challenge, though there is no careful justification of the charge, and certainly no scholarly attempt to confirm it. He goes on to make unsubstantiated comparisons:
He had more in common with Walter Winchell than with Walter Lippmann. A gossip columnist of genius, Hitchens escaped from the ghetto of little-known leftist writers when he discovered that he could become a celebrity by denouncing bigger celebrities.
And then he points out that “Hitchens was famous for criticizing famous people and for being a friend of other famous people, including Salman Rushdie and the British novelist Martin Amis,” but it never occurs to him to ask why such famous people considered him a friend and colleague. Is this just a bit of penis or antler envy, on the part of someone who never got to be lionised as Hitchens was? After all, say what you like, Hitchens, though certainly a publicity seeker and a dropper of names, seemed to have a well-justified claim to many of the names he dropped, as tributes from the bearers of those names make clear. The odd thing is that Hitchens himself would have probably loved Lind’s rather callous take-down of a widely admired writer and essayist, having done it himself, so often, to others whose reputation seemed to require severe reassessment. But Lind never does address himself to some of the most sensitive and nuanced writing of his generation, thinking that a gossipy put-down was all that he deserved, even if Hitchens never did produce “a substantial piece of scholarship.”
Denis Alexander, of the Faraday Institute, the Templeton funded “interdisciplinary research enterprise based at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge,” whose purpose is to show that Christianity and science are compatible, has a piece in the Guardian this morning (24th December), just in time for Father Christmas, entitled “Evolution, Christmas and the Atonement.” Of course, the problem that he is addressing is a real one, to solve which Alexander is prepared to throw Augustine to the ravening wolves of unbelief.
The problem, to put it simply, is this. The birth of Jesus, which Christians in the West celebrate on 25th December, and Christians in the East (even if they live in the West) celebrate on 6th of January (when Christians in the West celebrate the Epiphany) — it all gets easier after this — is thought to serve a purpose for the whole of humankind. According to the story, we are — all of us — so sunk in evil and sin that only something like the sacrifice of a god can save us. This is outlined in the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, long thought to have been written by St. Paul, but now known to have been written by Anonymous. According to Hebrews, Jesus’ sacrifice, unlike the sacrifices of the Jews, is alone sufficient to atone for the sin and evil in which humankind is so deeply sunk. Jesus entered into the holy place (viz., before the throne of God) with his own blood (Hebrews 9.12), and thereby saved those who believe.
St. Paul put it quite simply in the 15th chapter of his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, where he sums up the faith that he had received. First, the heart of that faith:
15:1 Now I declare to you, brothers, the Good News which I preached to you, which also you received, in which you also stand, 15:2 by which also you are saved, if you hold firmly the word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 15:3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 15:4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures …
And then its relationship to the history of humankind:
15:20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead. He became the first fruits of those who are asleep. 15:21 For since death came by man, the resurrection of the dead also came by man. 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
The whole passage, incidentally, is prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer (1549) to be read at funerals, and you can see why.
This started out to be a potluck on a number of things observed in the last twenty-four hours, but one thing seemed to deserve extended attention, so now it’s about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of one Lawrence Solomon, who has an article in the National Post this morning entitled “Godless societies are unfit for survival.” It’s a contribution to the increasing endarkenment being brought about by a resurgence of religion (or at least religious rhetoric), now under increased negative scrutiny almost everywhere since the publication a few years ago of the first truly successful atheist books: The End of Faith, The God Delusion, god is not Great and Breaking the Spell. These books have been so successful that religious commentators and leaders of churches have taking to calling the “new atheists” one of the greatest challenges facing religious belief today. In response and retaliation, religious believers and leaders of different stripes have launched a veritable avalanche of protest and condemnation of such shrillness and vituperation that it is plain that they know how powerful a case has been made against their favourite superstitions.
Lawrence Solomon is one of them, though he’s toned down the rhetoric – just because it’s Christmas? Unlike his namesake — or like him — who knows? – King Solomon didn’t seem to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, despite his offer to cut a baby in half – Lawrence Solomon is not especially — that you’d notice, anyway — wise. To start with, if he wants to show that religion provides survival value, he needs a lot more evidence. Taking totalitarian societies as examples of godless societies scarcely works, since, while totalitarian societies – like the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, or the brief and tentative flirtation with godlessness during the French revolution – may have been officially atheistic, this doesn’t show that the populations of those societies were irreligious at all. In any event, since religion, in Poland and Russia, for example, tended to become a focus for opposition and protest to the totalitarian regimes in those countries, the claim that these societies were godless doesn’t really stand up. China is a special case, for, though attended by many superstitions, Chinese “religion” was more in the nature of a philosophy of life than like the religions of other cultures and civilisations. In any event, totalitarian societies don’t fare particularly well, even religiously totalitarian ones — which is no doubt why, as European societies matured, and achieved cultural identities that were largely independent of Christianity, the power of the church was toppled, and Europe became increasingly secularised.
It really does strain credibility to be confronted, yet again, with nonsense about the Turin Shroud, the medieval piece of cloth with the image of a man imprinted upon it, widely believed, at one time, to be the actual grave clothes of Jesus. We don’t even have evidence that Jesus was buried. Most crucified people were never buried. They were left on the cross for carrion creatures like dogs and vultures, and then, if there was anything left, it would be thrown on the rubbish heap, where it would either burn or rot away. Crosses, at the time, were short. They were not “noble” and tall, as the crucifix often pictures the crucifixion of Jesus. They were short things, just tall enough to make the torture effective, and to enable them to be accessible to animals on the ground. Even before they had died animals might tear away the flesh of crucified persons. There was nothing noble or beautiful about this way of dying. It was deliberately to treat the human being as less than human, to torture, degrade and humiliate them. They were hung out naked in the sun to die in torments. There was no discreet loin cloth to cover the pudenda (‘pudendus’ just means ‘shameful’ in Latin). The whole purpose was to dehumanise and to degrade by making a person’s naked suffering public. It was supposed to deter offences against the law, or against nobility.
But now we are being told that the shroud has been shown, scientifically, no less, to be genuine. According to Nick Squires at the Telegraph, “Italian study claims Turin Shroud is Christ’s authentic burial robe“. The claim is that
Italian scientists have conducted a series of advanced experiments which, they claim, show that the marks on the shroud – purportedly left by the imprint of Christ’s body – could not possibly have been faked with technology that was available in the medieval period.