Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Christopher Hitchens

I miss Christopher Hitchens, I do. He was a pit bull who would give no quarter. He'd get an idea by the throat and shake it to death. He was fun to watch. He was erudite to a fault and wasted no time letting his opponents know precisely that. Barrel-chested with thinning hair often bunched up on top of his head like an afterthought, he could go through nearly a pack of cigarettes during a debate or lecture, “no smoking” signs be damned. It was that smoking that killed him.

During a debate he would lean back in his chair and turn his body away from his opposition as if even being in the same room with a believer was slightly discomforting. Rarely would he look them in the eye as his rapier wit and condescending tone delivered death by a thousand cuts. He was obsessed.

Sometimes, that obsession would blind him to the bigger picture. His concentrated antipathy to religion blocked him from seeing that often religion is the instrument of oppression, not the origin of it. He failed to see religion as a tool for the more prosaic cause of greed. He never once mentioned the herd instinct—more delicately referred to as “peer pressure”—which underlies the binding power of religion.

The power of the herd instinct, for that matter, is overlooked by all the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism. Each one of them makes the mistake of attacking religion from the point of logic, which is all well and good and terribly easy but of limited effectiveness. The value in the Four Horsemen is not that they spread enlightenment though the land—it's not enlightenment which wins the day—it's that they spread the impression of the popularity and hipness of atheism. It's not important to deliver stunning arguments and inevitable conclusions; it's important to give the impression that the opposition are anachronistic buffoons and hopelessly out-of-date. That they're intellectually bankrupt is a bonus and a not terribly convincing argument to the hoi-polloi, it's fashion that counts.

This was apparent when Hitchens debated the Oxford don, Alister McGrath. He (Hitchens) consistently characterized violence, such as suicide bombers, as religious conflict, when, in truth, it's territorial contests using religion as a motivator. The problem with religion is not that it's wrong; it's that it's a glue used to bind people to corrupt causes. Hitchens made reference to that but failed to see its centrality. The problem is not religion, it's the herd instinct. We needn't teach people about the dangers of religion; we need to teach the dangers of blind obedience. One can readily see why the state doesn't want to get into that business; it would just as soon teach blind obedience.

The great power of Christianity is not in its stories or explanation of the world around us; it's in its fanatical obsession with power structure, as evidenced in the first five Commandments. That, plus its promise of salvation after one's death, made it the ideal religion for governments and capitalism. Despite the myth of Christ and the money-changers, the operating sentiment here is “render unto Caesar what is Caesar's; render unto God what is God's”; “Caesar,” being interpreted to mean, “anyone above you in authority.” Constantine was no fool; there were scores of religions competing to replace Roman paganism when he selected Christianity (although, only half-heartedly, it must be admitted) to be the new state religion; not to mention that he moved the seat of power to Byzantium.

I wish Hitchens would have pressed this point more, the utility of religion, rather than narrowly focusing on its falsehood.

And I wish he'd understood better the nature of morality being a natural animal trait that evolved along with the rest of what we are, such as love, loyalty, wariness, fear, anger, etc. Those emotions are not restrained to us; they didn't first appear with the advent of modern humans. Hitchens badgered McGrath over what sort of morality did humans have before Moses brought the Commandments down from Mt. Sinai; and McGrath responded with the notion of “natural morality,” which he ascribed to pre-Christians, as well as those who don't know of Christianity (this during the debate, when McGrath argued for the necessity of god-given laws); but Hitchens failed to clinch the argument by pointing out that “natural morality” was the source of the Commandments, not god. He was so caught up in proving the evil nature of religion that he skipped over its organic nature, how it grew, not just as explanation for the world around us, but because of its cohesive properties in holding communities together. Hitchens failed to see that attacking the intellectual framework of religion was tilting at windmills; he needed to replace the very ground they stood on.

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