Thursday, September 20, 2007

Books: God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens

In a rare foray into non-fiction, particularly of the Best Seller-type, I borrowed my friend's copy of Hitchens' new book and delighted, as I regularly do when reading his Fighting Words column on Slate, in his masterfully vitriolic diction. Some writers are erudite, and some are mean, but no one writes a polemic with such gusto as Hitchens, and even through many of my atheist friends declined to read the book, having dismissed the trappings of religion long ago. I gave the author free reign to preach to my choir, in hopes of augmenting my own writerly skills by osmosis.

I, too, gave up religion long ago—in my junior year of high school—when a very intelligent, empathetic, and demanding theology teacher (who was studying to join the Jesuit order) demanded that we question our faith, write lengthy papers on such philosophical topics as "Where have I come from; where am I now, and where am I going?", and who explained, for the first time after more than ten years of Catholic Christian education, what it really meant to be a follower of Christ's instructions. For me, the choice was more an ethical-intellectual decision than one of so-called "faith," or lack thereof; I had had my share of "spiritual" "moments"—those occasional feelings of heightened awareness and connectedness, usually late at night or on those windswept autumn days when the air is pristinely clear and suddenly still, almost always out of doors, and almost always alone—and it is easy enough to interpret these as belief in God (and just as easy to not do so). No, I eschewed Catholicism primarily because of something called the Preferential Option for the Poor, which is at the very crux of Christ's message, though few Christians have probably heard of it, and fewer probably practice it. In its complete application (and it cannot be partially applied), the Preferential Option for the Poor intimates the complete collapse of capitalism, and it is probably because of the close connection between religiosity and conservatism, in this country in particular, that the call to action is ignored. Then again, the Vatican doesn't seem to be in a hurry to act either.

Simply put, the Preferential Option for the Poor states that, if I have a loaf of bread, and my neighbor has nothing, rather than give my neighbor some, even half, of my bread (which seems charitable enough, and fair, right?), I am obligated (that is an intense word) to give my neighbor all of my bread. The whole loaf. And really, that is the essence of Christianity. Jesus said, "Sell all you have, and come follow me." That's quite easy to understand; it's not a parable, or a metaphor, and it requires no interpretation: it is a call to action, and it has been falling on the deaf ears of Christians for millennia. Christian clergy often take a vow of poverty (Jesuits, for example), and yet have developed legalistic loopholes (as if God operates like a chief justice) that allow the order itself to be quite wealthy, and to provide its members with all of the creature comforts said wealth can buy. I am not saying that everyone should be poor and devote their lives to service. I am saying that if you do not want to be poor and devote your life to service, you should not—nay, can not—call yourself a Christian, whether you believe in the Nicene Creed* or no.

Little of this has to do with Hitchens' book (he does not mention, for example, the Preferential Option for the Poor, or Christ's telltale instructions), although it is very much connected. We are both concerned with hypocrisy. Hitchens is less concerned with the hypocrisy of believers, though, as with the hypocrisy of individual religious traditions themselves, and ultimately the inanity of religion itself. I agree with him wholeheartedly, and I think that his literary-historical excavations of a few Faiths work extremely well to prove his point (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, for example, is expertly trashed (I'm afraid there's no reason to put it in kinder words) as Hitchens demonstrates its founder, Joseph Smith, to be a first-degree charlatan, who had already been convicted as an impostor, and who created his Book of Mormon out of thin air when his prior schemes failed him). Hitchens is particularly hard on Islam, saving his nastiest and most denigrating phrases for this faith that, today, Westerners love to hate, calling it, at best, an "ill-arranged set of plagiarisms" and perhaps not even a religion in its own right at all. But he directs his fury at all three Western monotheisms: Judaism (arguing that circumcision is a brutal practice of infant-abuse and disfiguration, on par with female circumcision, which he even more brutally (and rightfully) excoriates), Christianity, and Islam. He also includes a delightful short chapter on why the flesh of the pig (so exceptionally tasty) is banned by two of these top three religions (allowing Christianity to jump on the dietary bandwagon with its outdated Fish-on-Friday tradition).

The only thing that I found lacking was an address of Eastern religions. Hitchens dedicates only one chapter of nineteen to the topic "There is No 'Eastern' Solution," and yet his chapter did not convince me fully that this is the case. He dips quickly, when explaining how religions have historically been complicit in social evil-doing, into the problems of India's caste system, and the social inequity of the Dalai Lama's lifestyle. And yet, a textual deconstruction of the Tao Te Ching is not included (one might argue that that would be outside of the scope of this book, since for Taoists, there is no "God," but only the Tao). He did not convince me that a regular, dedicated yoga practice does not incite very real, positive change in people's lives (it would be hard to convince me, as a regular practitioner who has experienced said changes), although, perhaps again, such a practice falls outside of the scope of his book, since yoga is not a religion, nor is meditation, and since neither have anything to do, necessarily, with a god. (Although my militantly atheistic friends insist that the practice is made of mumbo-jumbo on par with the Koran, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Tao To Ching, and express intense dismay that I have been so easily duped.)

Hitchens evades the proposed danger of nihilism (always an amusing threat, I think, by those who believe that they will be given some prize in the afterlife) by way of art and artful living (finding greater moral teachings in Shakespeare than the Bible, for example), and though he once or twice criticizes Nietzsche, I interpret his approach to life as quite similar to mine, and thereby similar to the "positive nihilism" invoked by (the so often misinterpreted) Nietzsche, to "Create oneself as a work of art." Perhaps such behavior is a luxury only the relatively wealthy can afford (i.e., creating oneself as a work of art is not likely a priority in Darfur), and furthermore leaves open to interpretation what kind of art is most aesthetically pleasing (I am certain that suicide bombers find that ultimate expression of their faith quite artful), but that problem is better left a philosophical and even political than religious one. Hitchens insists that basic human instincts will tell us how to act ethically (not a member of the William Golding school, him), which is why our stomachs turn when we witness torture or violence, and that it is actually the hegemonic trajectory of religious traditions that sanctify cruelty (sexual abuse of children by priests, arranged marriages and ensuing statutory rape of young girls by men twice their age, genital mutilation of infants and pre-teens (if anything, Hitchens is willing to allow adults to make their own poor decisions, but not to enforce their poor decisions on the bodies of innocent children), slavery, war, genocide, etc.

To address the actual roots of these issues though, Hitchens would have had to dig still deeper, where he would have found that the human condition includes the darker compulsions of greed, lust, fear, and a desire for power. These conditions are the motivating factors that have inspired people to use religion as a tool—an ideology—with which to blind their subjects to the reality of their intentions, and those people who see through the blindfold nevertheless see its utility, and themselves enroll, complicit, punch-drunk with the power to subjugate; others never do see the shadows on the wall for what they merely are, and die, drained, exhausted, empty, but somehow still uncorked. And that is tragic, because, as Hitchens and I know, they will not get a second chance. Christianity's Beatitudes state "Blessed are the Meek;" is that because they will never know any better?

*I still have good chunks of this memorized from my years of Catholic schooling; it is basically a laundry-list recitation of beliefs: "I believe in one God, the Lord, the giver of life, maker of all that is seen and unseen. . . He sent his only son. . . He was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day, he rose again, in fulfillment of the Scriptures. He will come again, to judge the living and the dead. . . I believe in the Holy Spirit. . . I believe in the Catholic and Apostolic Church. . ." and so on.

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