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 why I think that Hitchens’ speculations about the reasons for the prohibition of pork are probably wide of the mark. He thinks there is some resemblance between the flesh of roast pig and roasted human flesh, and, as the eating of human flesh would have been reserved to sacrificial rites, the eating of pork, by association, may have been “privileged and ritualistic.” (40) As he writes in more detail:
The simultaneous attraction and repulsion [to and from pig flesh] derived from an anthropomorphic root: the look of the pig, and the taste of the pig, and the dying yells of the pig, and the evident intelligence of the pig, were too uncomfortably reminiscent of the human. 
These reminded people too much, he thinks, of night-time rituals of human sacrifice and cannibalism, at which, he suggests, “the ‘holy’ texts often do more than hint.” (40) And then he points out that optional things are usually not prohibited unless there is already a repressed desire for the prohibited thing. I’m afraid my own knowledge does not extend so far, but some evidence I think is required. The more than hints to which he refers should have been adduced here in support, and some anthropological evidence provided as well.
An important point, however, is that these ancient prohibitions are now pointless and unnecessary, and the preservation of them equally so. The exaggerated response of some Muslims to stories about pigs, such as in Winnie the Pooh, or Animal Farm, is simply ridiculous, and should be seen to be so. As Hitchens says:
In microcosm, this apparently trivial fetish shows how religion and faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world. 
The same thing applies to regulations regarding the strict separation of milk and meat for those who observe strict rules of “keeping kosher”. For these rules also lead to other forms of separation which are less harmless or trivial, as is evidenced in Israel, where the strict separation of women from men is being enforced by bullying religious conservatives, which reminds us of the kind of bullying which religions more generally practice in attempting to see society’s regulations and laws based on religious prohibitions and permissions. As Hitchens said in the last chapter regarding Catholics and the Irish referendum about the legalisation of divorce:
There [was] not even the suggestion that Catholics could follow their own church’s commandments while not imposing them on all other citizens. 
This is a characteristic of religion that we will meet with again and again. Religions tend to bully others into acquiescing in practices and regulations which have no rational warrant, just because they can.
As I have said on numerous occasions and in different contexts, religions do not respect boundaries, and they are very quick to trespass on matters that are quite simply issues of personal preference. Just because Catholics and others think of embryos as “pre-born” and entitled to all the rights that are granted to full moral persons, does not mean that others must so regard them. It simply does not follow. Indeed, if they go back far enough in their own church’s history they will find that earlier Catholics did not regard human embryos as full persons. They may argue that this is because of early ignorance about the processes of development, but this is irrelevant. For, however regarded, they were then and still are potentially persons, but are not for that reason entitled to be regarded as persons equal in rights to the women who bear them. This is an idiosyncratic belief based on religious pretension, a pretension based on the church’s urgent need to retain power over others. Without the power to govern others and their behaviour, in ways that can be seen to be effective, leaders of the church (or any other religious group) feel and appear powerless. The need to be able to control certain aspects of social life is urged largely because without such control religion appears to be of marginal significance. This marginalisation was actually beginning to occur in the late twentieth century, and has been particularly marked in the Scandinavian countries. The increased intrusiveness of religion in the public sphere which is everywhere apparent — David Cameron’s remarks about Britain as a Christian country is only the latest evidence of a change now well underway – is related directly to the increasing sense of powerlessness experienced by religious leaders and their followers.
Islam is especially intrusive in this respect. The spectacle of men all bowing in unison is clearly meant to be controlling as well as menacing. A society this regimented, we are being told, is one that can bring about its own aims in society. This is further reinforced by the veiling of seclusion of women, and the threat of violence for those who question the regimentation imposed by the religion, and the respect demanded by it. Dietary laws, laws regarding dress or facial hair, regulations governing cleanliness and other aspects of personal or social life are all designed to keep religion central to the ordering of society and individual life. The prohibition of pork, regardless of its origin, is a form of social control which extends into the inner life of individual persons, just as rules regarding sexuality — how, when, why and with whom — reach into the most intimate spaces of individual life.
The interesting thing about this form of social control is that the more marginal, the more idiosyncratic, the less rationally based the demands are, if a religion can convince its adherents to observe them faithfully, the more immediate and effective is the control that is exercised. This seems to me to be the key to understanding religious prohibitions and permissions regarding food, routines of cleanliness, sex, and other things which, for secular people, are matters of individual choice and preference. Whether the prohibition of pork is related to ancient classifications of living things, or to its relatedness to human sacrifice, its effect now is apparently a matter of arbitrary command, adherence to which, if successfully managed, gives the religion greater control over its devotees.
That for which we have good reasons, we have good reasons, quite independently of religious command, but regulations that are arbitrary and unexplained, if observed, are observed out of faithfulness to the religion and its requirements, and thus gives the religion itself and its leaders greater control over individual action and even, in some cases, over thought and the uses of language, thus shaping our whole picture of the world by the demands of religion. Hitchens calls such control a distortion of our picture of the world. Since such restrictions on thought and action are not founded on reason or evidence, this seems to me to be a reasonable conclusion. Religions distort the way that people perceive and understand the world, and thereby maintain control over the individual both in his private and in his public behaviour, thought and expression. Since religions cannot justify their foundational beliefs, and much less the incidental regulations of thought and behaviour, dress and food, there are no reasons — other than cultural ones — to shape one’s life according to religious beliefs or regulations. There are better and more reasonable ways to organise our lives, and beliefs and practices that distort our picture of the world should be abandoned in favour of them. Besides being foolish and controlling, religious beliefs are socially divisive and dangerous. It is time for us to abandon them.