Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "Religion Kills"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens is one of the so-called “New Atheists” who have written bestsellers in the last five years. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.”

I thought it might be neat to offer my reactions to Hitchens’ book as I read it, chapter by chapter. I am reading the book to better understand Hitchens and those who think like him, not so that I can fight with him (as if he cares I am writing about his book).

Chapter two of God is not Great is titled, “Religion Kills.” (Chapter one is an introduction.) Hitchens notes that most religions speak of a benevolent deity who created us and has a wonderful plan for our lives. He protects us in this life and offers us eternal bliss in the next. “Why,” asks Hitchens, “does such a belief not make its adherents happy.” He offers his own psycho-analysis:

The level of intensity fluctuates according to time and place, but it can be stated as a truth that religion does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents to other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one.
He then goes on to remind us of the atrocities committed in the name of religion—from violence between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, to the events of September 11, 2001. Hitchens concludes that “The true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee.”

In conclusion, Hitchens compares religion to racism. Even though it speaks of heavenly rewards, etc. it is really a tool that the powerful use to promote tribalism and secure more power for themselves and for their clan.

Hitchens is right.

Powerful people use religion as a tool to promote tribalism and secure more power for themselves and their clan.

But does that make religion itself bad? (Perhaps this conversation is not unlike the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” discussion.) Shouldn’t we say instead that religion is one thing among many that bad people use to manipulate others to do what they want? (As C.S. Lewis remarked, “Of all bad people, religious bad people are the worst.”) Could we add nationalism to this list? How many wars or acts of violence can be sourced to one person’s pride in their own nationality? Does that mean we should eliminate nations, because national distinctions promote nationalism, which has been shown to lead to violence? What about greed? How many wars have been started because one nation has encroached on what another nation supposes to be its rightful property? Does that mean we abolish private property? What about love? How many people are killed every year in lovers’ quarrels? Should we abolish love, since it drives people to violence?

Hitchens asserts that religious people “may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one.” Really? All religious people? Kip Dynamite would respond to Hitchens, “Like anyone could know that.”

Ultimately, I think we have to say that people kill for whatever they are passionate about—and people are certainly passionate about religion. But if we want to eliminate everything that people use to justify violence, we will have to eliminate everything that makes us individuals or that gives us passion for living.

I’m not interested in a world like that.

I will never deny or justify terrible acts of violence done in the name of religion—even in the name of Christianity. In some cases, violence is inherent to a religious system. In the case of Christianity, it is not. While Hitchens could spend 20 pages recounting acts of violence done in the name of religion that he has personally witnessed, I am sure he could spill just as much ink recounting acts of love done in the name of religion. You can’t point out one side of it without mentioning the other.

The final irony of chapter two is that accusing religious people of tribalism is in itself tribalism. We could summarize chapter two, “Religious people are crazy and prone to violence." Implicit in this judment is a call for them to be eliminated or at least marginalized. Otherwise, why write the book? Is it too far-fetched to imagine that such rhetoric could provoke violence?


Russ & Becca said...

Well said Matt,
Looking forward to reading your next posts.

Anonymous said...

Matt, Thanks for taking the time to explore the gap that yawns between these sides. Increasing such knowledgs will, for me, increase the love for them.
Eric Lauer