CULTURE

The man who would kill God

During an interview with New York magazine, Christopher Hitchens was asked to name his favorite story from the Bible. «The first of the miracles,» he said. «Jesus changes water into wine. You can’t object to that.» Hitchens, a writer for Vanity Fair and Slate online magazine, really enjoys a drink and a smoke and, all things considered, he also enjoys the reputation for it. Maybe because he considers other addictions to be more foolish and dangerous. After taking on Henry Kissinger, Diana Princess of Wales and Mother Teresa, the contrarian pundit and left-wing pariah seems to have finally found someone more his size. «God is not Great» (pub. Atlantic Books), Hitchens tells us, and one would expect an all-out attack against Him. But the author fires all of his poisonous arrows against religion. And that is hardly the same thing. The atheism industry is running full throttle. Hitchens’s diatribe follows, inter alia, books by Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Like most of the so-called «new atheists,» Hitchens is upset, really upset. Religion, he writes, is «violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.» And that’s just the beginning. He accuses the Bible of sanctioning human trafficking, ethnic cleansing, slavery, bride price and mass slaughter. And all that for an empty tunic as «religion is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few non-events.» Likewise, he finds the Old Testament to be full of contradictions, leaps of logic and later addenda. As for the Quran, it «is borrowed from both Jewish and Christian myths.» Accuracy and cohesion may not be religion’s strongest card. They do better when it comes to marketing. Virtually all religions, Hitchens says, feature a humble prophet or a prince who addresses first of all the downtrodden, i. e. the majority. «But what is this if not populism?» he asks. The things that have made Hitchens popular (which was never his intention) or unpopular are all here: humor and provocation, wit and complacency, erudition and excess. His vitriolic rantings against religion will certainly insult believers. Hitchens, for his part, thinks he’s only returning the insult. For it’s an insult that some want to teach intelligent design at schools. It’s an insult that some Danish cartoonist now fears for his life because he drew an image of Muhammad. It’s an insult that a Dutch filmmaker was murdered for making a movie about the domestic abuse of Muslim women. It’s an insult that the pope rejects the use of condoms when AIDS is taking a deadly toll. His aggressive, ironic style may also annoy liberal secularists who view faith as a private matter. Hitchens however is right in asserting that religion has long invaded the public sphere. Sharia law alone proves that the public/private distinction is alien to Islam. Hitchens raises four objections against religious faith: It misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos; it combines the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism; it is both the result and the cause of sexual repression (too bad for its followers, he says, «Christianity is too repressed to offer sex in paradise»); and it is grounded on wishful thinking. Childhood disease Religion, Hitchens says repeating earlier arguments, dates back to the infancy of our species when man was still afraid of the weather, the dark or eclipses. It served some purpose as long as it offered an explanation for what we could not otherwise explain. But the telescope and the microscope have made religion redundant or, worse, exposed it. «Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion,» he scoffs. Faced with the progress of human knowledge, he goes on, religion could either step aside – i. e. accept its uselessness and disuse – or make itself a stumbling block. Unfortunately, it’s programmed to do the latter. And it does so by inspiring fear, gratitude and submission. «Who but a slave thanks his master for what his master has decided to do without bothering to consult him?» Hitchens asks with Nietzschean wit. But all this is anyway of little consequence as earthly life is only a waiting room for a new world after the coming of the Messiah. To those who claim that religion provides guidelines for moral behavior, Hitchens responds that – at best – religion urges people to do the right things for the wrong reasons. At its worst, religion’s record is X-rated. «Religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.» After all, he adds, picking at the illogical claims of religions, taking religion as a law for right and wrong is to suggest that before God handed Moses the Ten Commandments people lived under the impression that there was no problem with killing, stealing, or sleeping with your neighbor’s wife. Some may say Hitchens takes on religion in its most extreme, fanatical form. For the author, however, that’s the only faithful reading there is. As for those who hold that godless communists and fascists found many non-religious reasons to conduct the most abhorrent crimes of the 20th century, Hitchens says that the ideologies of Stalin and Hitler were in fact secularized versions of religion. No one ever went to war for atheism, Hitchens says. But he often gives the impression that if he were given the opportunity, he would do so. Would a world without religion also be a better world? Hitchens is certain it would, but we shall probably never know. Religion is «ineradicable,» he writes. «It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.» Works like this will probably be of little help, as they usually end up in the bookcases of the converted. People pick books that cement their convictions. Hitchens notes that if it takes faith to believe in something, the chances of it being true are diminished. That’s right but not enough. The charges he makes against religion may be valid, but they are not enough to prove that God doesn’t exist. Only, perhaps, that a malicious God does. [email protected] com