Thursday, June 21, 2007

Credulous unbelievers

(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays.)

The following is an excerpt from a review by Sam Schulman on Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great.

At heart Hitchens is an unrelieved misanthrope. And, to his credit, he does exhibit a deeper familiarity with human depravity than any of our other anti-religionist authors, whose faith in the perfectibility of mankind is almost comically touching. The question, given his root-and-branch misanthropy, is where on earth he derives his conviction that mankind would be better off without religion.

The answer would seem to be: nowhere. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of sexual repression, which Hitchens blames on religion and regards (it goes without saying) as an unmitigated evil. But sexual repression, in one form or another, has characterized every human community in history, and always will. Religion can be a highly efficient means of enforcing sexual repression; but if it did not exist, some other means would have been found to impose limitations on the expression of human sexuality.

What, then, does Hitchens wish to put in place of religion? He calls for a new Enlightenment, and proposes that we realize its promise by imitating the Socratic method of rational thinking—a suggestion that compels him to engage in some fancy footwork in order to deny there was anything supernatural in Socrates’ insistence that he had a daimon, an inner voice, that enabled him to distinguish good from evil. But this recommendation falls into the same morass as Hitchens’s urging of Shakespeare and Tolstoy over the Bible as teachers of morality. In each case the point is not only anachronistic but odd, given that none of these sages, let alone the Enlightenment itself, is remotely conceivable apart from the religious civilization out of which they all sprang..

There is worse to come. Hitchens is what Hazlitt would call a “good hater.” He hates the idea of the fall of man. He hates the doctrine of atonement and sacrifice. He hates the notion of eternal punishment: “ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it.” He hates the proscription of masturbation and the prescription of circumcision. Most of all, it emerges, he hates Hanukkah.

Why Hanukkah? It is not just the fact that, in America, the Jews borrowed “shamelessly from Christians in the pathetic hope of a celebration that coincides with Christmas,” a holiday that is itself an “annexation . . . of a pagan Northland solstice.” It is the underlying meaning of the events that Hanukkah memorializes: namely, the success of the Maccabean revolt against the heretical Jewish Hellenizers in the 2nd century b.c.e. For, as Hitchens reads it, that victory—won by a hair—allowed Jewish monotheism to survive, and thereby “eventually to lead to Christianity (yet another Jewish heresy) and thus ineluctably to the birth of Islam. We could,” he laments, “have been spared the whole thing.”

This stroke of counterhistory has been heavily prettified in the details. On the one hand, as Hitchens tells it, there were the Hellenized Jews of Palestine—suave, cosmopolitan, athletic, well educated, yearning to enjoy the finer things in life as represented by their Greek overlords. On the other hand, there were the religious fundamentalists of the day, the Jewish reactionaries seeking only to proscribe and to prescribe. In Hitchens’s reconstruction, the Maccabean revolt sounds like nothing so much as the struggle between “aesthetes” and “hearties” in the Oxford of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

But the Maccabean wars were not like that. The Greeks were not fighting for the mellow and the metro- sexual. They aimed to pour hogs’ blood over the altar, erect statues of Jove in the sanctuary, eradicate Jewish identity itself. Had the Maccabees failed, there would have been a victory not of secular humanism over religious fundamentalism but of the pitiless Olympian gods—and their Egyptian co-deities—over monotheism and the complexities of ethical life.

Hitchens’s yearning for a world purified of Jews (and therefore of Christians and Muslims) may remind some of Nietzsche. The comparison is unfair, but inevitable. Hitchens’s sketch of a new Enlightenment posits not a world of supermen but only a mild utopia, populated by men in togas discoursing eternally on the eternal verities, a world like the one painted by the Victorian romanticist Lawrence Alma-Tadema, or envisioned by Oscar Wilde in his gullible, amateurish tract The Soul of Man under Socialism. But that is just the trouble. Shorn of the culture we have, a culture nurtured and preserved by monotheistic religion, his proffered utopia amounts to just another invitation to barbarism. Hitchens here shows himself to be more credulous and sentimental—and much more insidious—than any of the religious mythmakers he so earnestly despises.


  1. He hates the idea of the fall of man ... the notion of eternal punishment ...

    I'm not an atheist, nor do I admire Hitchens at all. But I see his point here. What rational person would, in the absence of heavy religious pressure, be drawn to all these harsh doctrines?

    Stepping outside of your theology for one or two seconds, I'm sure you can muster the empathy to see how some might find these ideas offensive:

    God gives his creatures specific instructions about not eating of a certain tree, yet He allows a crafty devil to enter the garden and trick them (to boot, they had no knowledge of good and evil at all). As a punishment, God pronounces a number of curses (pain in childbirth, death, weeds in the soil). But without telling anyone, God imposes the curse of endless torment in hell after death for the whole race, to whom He also transmits a wholly depraved nature incapable of any real good whatsoever. God later commands all men to repent and believe the gospel ... but this inherited nature precludes their ever listening to it. So in eternity, God keeps humans (most of them, in fact) in an immortal state for the sole purpose of inflicting on them the most ghastly tortures imaginable with no hope of abatement.

    Honestly, aren't you bothered by any of these ideas? Don't you wish in your heart of hearts that you could discard some of them and still be Christian?

  2. I suppose I would be bothered if I believed SteveJ's silly caricature of what the Bible teaches.

  3. There's lots there.

    On the one hand, what you say is true...if you get it from some of the shallow fundamentalist theologies out there. But Hitchens should know better, as should anybody that would write a book like this.

    A. When the Bible says they did not know good or evil, its descriptive of their not having experiential knowledge of it, not to them not knowing the difference between good and evil, so this objection would either miss what the text says or equivocate over the meaning of "knowing good and evil."

    B. God tells them what to do and what not to do, and He tells them that in that day they will surely die. So, what exactly is hidden here?

    C. Adam in particular is depicted as the high priest in God's temple. He's supposed to tend the Garden the way the priests tend the tabernacle/temple. He's supposed to cast out the serpent.

    D. The serpent doesn't trick them. The serpent deceives them by lying to them. "Tricking" and "deceiving" are not similar but not the same.

    E. As to eternal torment, the whole "hell is cosmic torture chamber" is more derivative of Dante than Scripture. Hell is more like Arminian heaven where men are allowed to do whatever they want to each other while hating God for all eternity; so God piles judgment upon judgment by letting man do his own thing and inflict his own worst evil desires on his fellow man for all eternity. What's more every person there actually wants to be there. There's nobody there that does not desire it and nobody is depicted as wanting out. Notice that in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man wants Abraham to come to him, not to go to him.

    The one thing that they won't want more than anything else is to be in God's presence, so where's the outrage at that? Why would the unbeliever object to such a place when that's his heart's greatest desire in lieu of being able to destroy God? The fact that an unbeliever would object to this isn't a testament to his "rational" thinking at all. Rather, it's a testament to his irrational thinking, for on the one hand he hates God and wouldn't have anything to do with a holy God but on the other when he hears about hell he objects and says that he doesn't deserve it or that God is cruel for sending him there, while all the while bragging he has free will and God should give him what he wants. He's like the petulant child who wants to gorge himself on ice cream and has a father who says, "Okay, if that's what you want." He eats until he's full and then gets sick and the pouts about how mean his father is.

    So, no, I am not bothered by these ideas in the sense that these are the facts, and I don't wish any would be discarded, but on the other I don't rejoice the way that God Himself does not delight in the punishment of the wicked.

  4. Regardless of what Christians think of Hitchens or his message, it is clear that he is making big waves. His book premiered at the #2 spot, right behind the Harry Potter book.

    Think about the change in culture that is happening: The #1 book was a witchcraft book, and the #2 book was an atheist book.

    These kinds of books will continue to hit the shelves, just as they will continue to fly off them. Currently, faith is shrinking and disbelief is growing.

    Christians are going to need to come up with more effective ways to protect and replenish their flock.

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