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Does Religion Poison EVERYTHING?

God is Not GreatChristopher Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything, was a best seller. This Interfaith Reflections post is more a critique of that book than a review.  Does religion really poison EVERYTHING?  Read on.

Hitchens, without question the star player among five acerbic writers dubbed “The New Atheists”, died of esophageal cancer at the end of 2011.  A renowned journalist, political commentator, and essayist, he had a rapier mind, a bulldog’s persistence in argument, and a charmer’s way with words.  As I began reading God is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything I was dazzled by his command of English.  The man could write as very few can.  The world will be poorer for the loss of his satiric and caustic pen, and his unflagging zeal to to rout ignorance, injustice, and dogmatism.  This pastor and interfaith activist found much to commend in this notorious book, for there is ample evidence that religion has indeed poisoned much in the history of humankind; though not as Hitchens avers, everything.

Does religion poison everything when it motivates an Albert Schweitzer to build a hospital in the jungle? Did religion poison everything when it inspired women of Hanover Street Presbyterian Church to establish classes for the children of laborers, which then, by the women’s persistent lobbying in the state legislature, grew into Delaware’s public school system?  Does religion poison everything when it drove Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, and then persist in the ensuing civil rights struggle until his dream, a dream seeded incidentally by sacred scriptures, began to blossom?

Hitchens acknowledges that religious people sometimes do good works.  However he resists conceding that there might be some benign influences in religion after all, contending that good done by pious people is attributable to their humanism, not their faith.  For example, he writes about King:

King [was] a humanist. . .He endures for that reason and his legacy has very little to do with his professed theology.  No supernatural force was required to make the case against racism.

Hitchens is right that ethics need not be founded upon religious belief, and that a strong case against racism can be made without such an appeal, but on what grounds does he claim that religion played no significant role in King’s prophetic behavior?  By what clairvoyance did he reach into King’s heart and mind, and know so assuredly the derivation of King’s dream?  Were Hitchens’ aim biography he would be ridiculed for ignoring contrary evidence to save his own hypothesis.  To claim that religion is of no account in explaining why King did what he did is a ludicrous twisting of truth.  King was indeed a humanist, but that does not adequately explain who he was, nor the genesis of his dream. Does religion really poison EVERYTHING? Quite evidently not, but Hitchens cannot concede the point, else the whole premise of his book collapses.  Like the dogmatists he decries, he overreaches, begging the major question more and more, his argument devolving into rant.

Christopher Hitchens loved to argue, and he was famously good at it.  He yearned with a passion to argue people out of the notion of God.  But how could he succeed when the belief he wanted so fervently to dispel is not founded ultimately on syllogisms, but rather, experience?  An atheist may argue until he is blue in the face–and from the tone of Hitchens’ voice in this book he probably was–but this will have no effect on a believer who knows God directly. Perhaps “believer” is a misnomer.  Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst and mystic said he did not think God exists.  He knew this, by his own experience.  Such conviction cannot be budged by the most strenuous mental exercises.

Some “believers” attacked Hitchens for being evil minded.  Evil he most certainly was not, but this reader finds him lopsided, a frustrated, lopsided rationalist who didn’t seem to realize that for many “believers” God is much closer to a verb than a noun.

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  1. Barry Zalph Barry Zalph

    Thanks for this post. You hit the nail on the head: Experience trumps belief. Belief is the futile attempt to encapsulate in human concepts and words experiences of the ineffable and transcendent.

    It seems to me developmentally appropriate to play in the field of belief, i.e., to work on refining a self-consistent set of beliefs about how the Universe works…. but _play_ is the operative term here. When I take my beliefs too seriously, I demean Ultimate Reality by presuming an ability to shove it into a box that can sit on a shelf in my mind. The problem with the New Atheists is that they take belief very, very seriously. Defending our beliefs against theirs feeds this destructive tendency.

    The best thing that we can do for human harmony with one another and our ecosystem is to learn humility. This starts with giving up the ludicrous (but seductive) notion that we can comprehend how the universe works, how it came to be, and what happens outside the realm of our senses. We feel free to tinker with that which we think we understand. All of the crises of our era have resulted from this hubristic tinkering.

  2. What a thoughtful reply, Barry. Thanks! The places in Hitchens book that I most admire are those where he has some humility. There aren’t many! I saw an article written by his wife recently. It’s clear she loved him; but was there some annoyance in her remark “He always had the last word.” ?
    — Tom
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