Thursday, October 29, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "The Lowly Stamp of Their Origin’: Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. 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.

In chapter 11, “‘The Lowly Stamp of Their Origin’: Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings,” Hitchens suggests that religions are started either by superstition or by fraud. (Having attacked Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he now turns his target on latter-day religious movements like Mormonism.)

The chapter consists of three anecdotes. The first is from the 1964 documentary Mondo Cane, in which Pacific Islanders gave religious significance to American GIs' arrival there in World War II. According to Hitchens, the movie shows the birth of religion right on camera. The second is the story of Marjoe Gortner, whose parents made 3 million dollars forcing him to preach in charismatic churches from the age of four. He escaped the abuse at age seventeen, and then sought revenge by making a documentary in which he pretended to come back to Jesus and then fleeced the faithful for their hard-earned money. The third story is that of Joseph Smith and the origin of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints.

Hitchens writes:
What interests me and always has is this: Do the preachers and prophets also believe, or do they just ‘believe in belief’? Do they ever think to themselves, this is too easy? And do they then rationalize the trick by saying that either (a) if these wretches weren’t listening to me they’d be in even worse shape; or (b) that if it doesn’t do them any good than it still can’t be doing them much harm?
I am curious about Hitchens’ church background, because he repeatedly returns to the accusation that religious leaders use faith as a means of deceiving people into taking their money. I don’t get that. Either he drastically overestimates how much money people like me make or he is from a radically different tradition than me. If I wanted to make money, I definitely would be in a different career. (Not that my church doesn’t pay me well—they do. But I could definitely make more doing something else.)

This criticism from Hitchens is curious coming from someone who does something almost exactly the same as someone like me. Hitchens reflects on life, writes his thoughts down for people to consider, and receives a pay check from people who read his work. Incidentally, I am willing to bet that Hitchens makes considerably more money than most religious leaders. Are we to suppose that Hitchens is making everything up and that he's only writing what will make money, or is it possible that he actually believes some of what he writes about? Is it possible that he believes that his readers might be happier and more enlightened having read his work? If that's not too much of a stretch, than why is it so hard for him to believe that some religious leaders are genuine in their beliefs and ministry?

Are there bad people who use religion as a means of manipulation? Of course. But do a couple examples of fraud prove that all religions are fraudulent? Of course not. Hitchens even admits, “Jesus, it is true, shows no interest in personal gain.”

The question that Hitchens doesn’t ask (at least not in this chapter) is why people are so drawn to religion. Why does over 90% of the world believe in a god of some kind? Why are educated people drawn to things like Scientology? Could it be part of the human makeup to be “religious”? What might that mean for humanity?

I believe that God has created us with an innate need to know Him. When that part of us is out of whack, we look for other things to replace it. Does it surprise me that religious fraud is a money-making endeavor? No. It would surprise me if it weren’t.

1 comment:

John Pleau said...

Good Stuff Matt. Thanks for diving into this important subject. I really enjoy how you "grapple" with these tough issues/questions.

Your friend John (not the super bright one from Cambridge :~)