Monday, March 15, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on "The Last-Ditch ‘Case’ Against Secularism"

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 seventeen, “An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch ‘Case’ Against Secularism,” Hitchens deals with the accusation that a secular state will inevitably fall into totalitarianism. On the contrary, argues Hitchens, it’s religious states that most often fall into totalitarianism. He writes:

“Whether we examine the oriental monarchies of China or India or Persia, or the empires of the Aztecs or Incas, or the medieval courts of Spain and Russia and France, it is almost unvaryingly that we find that these dictators were also gods, or the heads of churches. More than mere obedience was owed them: any criticism of them was profane by definition, and millions of people lived and died in pure fear of a ruler who could select you for a sacrifice, or condemn you to eternal punishment, on a whim.”
What about the Stalinists? Weren’t they secular totalitarians? No, says Hitchens. Stalinism was not secular but religious. He writes:

“Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it. The solemn elevation of infallible leaders who were a source of endless bounty and blessing; the permanent search for heretics and schismatics; the mummification of dead leaders as icons and relics; the lurid show trials that elicited incredible confessions by means of torture . . . none of this was very difficult to interpret in traditional terms.”
What about the Nazis and other post-World-War-I fascists? Hitchens writes:

“Arising out of the misery and humiliation of the First World War, fascist movements were in favor of traditional values against Bolshevism, and upheld nationalism and piety. It is probably not a coincidence that they arose first and most excitedly in Catholic countries, and it is certainly not a coincidence that the Catholic Church was generally sympathetic to fascism as an idea.”
While Hitchens acknowledges that secular humanists have made their mistakes in history and that some religious people have been bright spots in opposing totalitarianism, in general religion has been an embarrassing ally to totalitarians.

It is important to note at the onset that much of what Hitchens has to say is right—religious institutions often have been embarrassing allies of totalitarians. We need look no further than the contemporary situation in some of the Middle Eastern Muslim countries to see what harm can be done when church and state are infused. I have Anabaptist tendencies and affirm the separation of church and state.

But, despite my agreements with Hitchens, there is much to which I object. Unlike the previous chapters that all attack religion, this one sets out to defend secular pluralism against a religious counter-attack. So, when religious people point to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as examples of what can happen in a secular state, Hitchens responds by saying: (1) religious states are inherently totalitarian, and (2) Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were religious, not secular states. I don’t find either of these arguments compelling.

First, I disagree that a few examples of the church behaving badly prove that religion is inherently totalitarian and that all religious leaders are despots. Hitchens neglects the “Already/Not Yet” aspect of the church and the implications on its decision making. While we insist that the church is indwelt by the Holy Spirit so that we have unprecedented access to the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:30, 2:6–16), we also admit that our indwelling by the Spirit is incomplete. We see as through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12). This means that the church does not have inerrant access to the mind of God and that church pronouncements are fallible. Thus, whenever someone is in power—churchman or not—there is the potential for abuse.

Hitchens writes, “Human beings and institutions are imperfect, to be sure. But there could be no clearer or more vivid proof that holy institutions are man-made.” I agree. But just because holy institutions are man-made, doesn’t mean that they are merely man-made. As N.T. Wright describes it, the church is the place where the human and the divine intersect, or where heaven and earth intersect. The church is both a man-made institution and a divine institution.

Second, I object to the way that Hitchens redefines religion in chapter seventeen so that secular states like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia are recast as “religious” states. What makes an ideology a religion? Hitchens has his own ideology. He has his own creation stories and prophecies of doom and gloom. He has corresponding ethics and rituals based on these stories. He even has angels (scientists) and demons (religious people). If Hitchens were put in charge, would he be a “religious” totalitarian?

Is there any middle ground? I think so. I do not think that religious ideas should be codified into public policy simply because they are religious ideas. I am confident enough in the truth of Christianity that I think it should be considered as one idea among many. If we want to call this “secular pluralism,” then I am okay with that. As Christian ideas and policies are tested, the wisdom of God will be vindicated. On the contrary, Hitchens seems to be advocating a different kind of secular pluralism, one in which religious ideas are ignored or suffocated simply because they are religious. That is not pluralism; it’s a theocracy of a different kind.

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