Thursday, October 1, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "Why Heaven Hates Ham"

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 three, “A Short Digression on the Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham,” Hitchens extols the virtues and dietary benefits of the pig, and then lambasts the major western religions for prohibiting its consumption. All religions have these sorts of irrational dietary prohibitions, says Hitchens (for instance, the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition of eating meat on Fridays).

Hitchens alludes to King Lear, that “the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash.” In other words, we most passionately denounce the vices for which we secretly long (good insight by Shakespeare). So, the reason that eating pork is prohibited is because it is so tasty. Why would a religion outlaw pork when other tasty meats are permissible? Hitchens says that rumor has it that human flesh tastes like pork. Because eating pork reminded the ancient Jews of cannibalism, the food became taboo.

What does clerical porcophobia have to do with atheism? Well, “In microcosm, this apparently trivial fetish shows how religion and faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world.” In other words, it’s just one more example of how kooky religious people are.

As in my last post, I have to point out that Hitchens accurately debunks the idea that God forbade the Israelites from eating pork because it was bad for them or because they didn’t know how to cook it properly. He points out that one way archeologists can distinguish between excavations of Jewish ruins and those of other groups is the presence or absence of pig bones. In other words, the other people around Israel ate pork, apparently with no detrimental health effects.

Hitchens argument is a straw man, however, since no Old Testament scholar argues that the prohibition of pork was for health purposes. Leviticus 11:7 NET says, “The pig is unclean to you because its hoof is divided (the hoof is completely split in two), even though it does not chew the cud.” The prohibition is based on hooves and cud-chewing, not on health. Old Testament scholars are still searching for a unifying principle behind the various dietary restrictions of the OT, but the best explanation I have heard is that “oddball” animals were restricted. Shellfish live in water, but they are oddballs because they don’t have scales or fins. Pigs don’t eat cud, but they are oddballs because they have cleft hooves.

Do Judaism and Islam’s “irrational” prohibitions against eating pork prove that religious people are kooky? I don’t think so. How would the typical American react if you invited him or her over for dinner and served dog? Do we have a rational reason for our aversion to canine meat? No. It’s a cultural thing. Everybody recognizes that.

I think God prohibited eating pork as a way of setting the Jewish people apart from the pagans around them. Hitchens acknowledges this function: “[Not eating pork] emerged in primitive Judaea, and was for centuries one of the ways—the other being circumcision—by which Jews could be distinguished.” So, when a young Jewish kid asked mom or dad why they didn’t eat ham with their eggs like their Canaanite neighbors, the parents would respond, “Because we’re different.” All cultures have similar mores and taboos that serve the same function.

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