Man is not great

Man is not great

God is having a hard time of it right now. With Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion already top of the British book charts and Michel Onfray’s In Defence of Atheism leading the French bestsellers, Christopher Hitchens now wades in with his own attack on the Almighty.

A recently naturalised American, Hitchens comes from a mildly Anglican Hampshire family and was educated at a Methodist school, so he hardly suffered the sort of bells-smellsand-beatings upbringing that makes good misery memoir. Yet despite flirtations with Greek Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism, as well as that wackiest of all cults – Marxism – he has always been hostile to the idea of religion.

Hitchens’s writing is beautiful, his turn of phrase aweinspiring, and his arguments mature and simple: there is no “why does God let earthquakes happen?” His thread is moral rather than theological: not only are all Holy Books based on the flimsiest of evidence, but religion actually makes people behave inhumanely. Religion poisons everything, as he says.

Most of us cannot argue with the author on the evidence front; that’s why it is called “faith”, rather than “fact”. But his portrayal of religious types as bloodthirsty sectarian psychopaths does not work; good stereotyping has to be based on a widespread, if not universal, truth. He asserts that, “I can say absolutely why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.” Perhaps in Fallujah I might feel the same way, but how many people in inner cities cross the road when they see a group of lads coming out of a church service? How many times do we read the headline “Another Hassidic Gang Slaying in Stamford Hill”?

“In Belfast I have interviewed people whose relatives have been killed by rival religious death squads,” says Hitchens. Personally I somehow doubt that “Mad Dog” Johnny Adair murdered over the issue of transubstantiation, nor did any killers on either side whip themselves into a frenzy during church services. In the Loyalists’ case it was usually the pub. In the scheme of things dark spirits are responsible for far more of Ulster’s woes than the Holy Spirit. Likewise, Hitchens mentions the Tamil Tigers without conceding that the nominally Hindu group is ethnic and secular in motivation. He refers to the war-mongering Buddhist and Shinto priests of Imperial Japan but not to the peacenik Christians of Nagasaki. One has to assume that these are deliberate omissions that do not fit his argument.

On the issue of slavery he fails to concede that religion played any part in its abolition. Instead, Hitchens argues that because 18th-century atheists were naturally reluctant to admit their atheism, we can conclude that most of the good guys in history were on his side. This seems a bit like the Mormons retrospectively converting their dead ancestors. Religious leaders everywhere are corrupt, chauvinistic and hypocritical, although Hitch is prepared to concede that Martin Luther King was a good man. Except: “In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.” For an apostate of Marxism that seems awfully close to the “false consciousness” dogma. Surely if Dr King believed he was a Christian, and behaved in a way he believed to be Christian, then he was a Christian –just as David Koresh was a Christian, Bin Laden a Muslim or, for that matter, Pol Pot a Communist.

Stalin’s Russia and Kim’s Korea are religious states in Hitchens’s eyes, because they centred on personality cults: by that argument religion cannot win. Of course evil men say God is on their side. As the Mark Steel joke goes, no Crusader ever told his followers in disappointed tones: “Sorry lads, I spoke to the Almighty, and I’m afraid he’s backing the Turks on this one.” Religion gives people inner strength – whether they use it for good or evil is up to their non-divine consciences. Man is not great, after all.

This article was published at The Catholic Herald

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