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November 19, 2007

Monologue Concerning Unnatural Religion: God is Not Great: The Case Against Religion - Christopher Hitchens

Posted by Lincoln Allison

God is Not Great: The Case Against Religion
by Christopher Hitchens
Pp. 307. Atlantic Books, 2007
Hardback, £17.99

Religion poisons everything.
This is the italicised mantra repeated throughout the early chapters of Christopher Hitchens' polemic. The central tenets of religion are preposterous and fail to satisfy even the most elementary logical tests. The major religions' accounts of their own origins are demonstrable lies. The practice of religion is bad for our understanding of the world, bad for our happiness, bad for our health. The inculcation of religion amounts to child abuse. Whereas forgivable in primitive peoples, religion is not pardonable when modern science and philosophy are on offer. Above all, religion is the source of all tyranny.

I agree with all of these propositions except the last; depending on what was meant by "religion" I would substitute "some" or "most" for "all". The proposition that I have an immortal soul may be a harmless piece of metaphysics in itself, but combine it with the propositions that
a). it is in need of salvation and
b). there are people who know how to save it
and it becomes the most menacing proposition to human liberty which could be invented.

And yet religion persists and, in many cases, prospers. Religious people should not be very proud of this per se since it is clear that much which they, too, would regard as irrational superstition also prospers. A recent survey reported that the number of people believing in ghosts in Britain had risen from 10% to 55% since the middle of the twentieth century. And then there's astrology! I don't find any of this particularly surprising. Sheer weakness of intellect - to use a Gilbertian phrase - and in conditions of greater freedom for sheer weakness of intellect. This is an explanation which I am probably more ready to accept than Christopher Hitchens for reasons which will become apparent.

This is a polemic - a very angry one and probably all the better for that. The level of philosophical sophistication is not high: in Hitchens' view Occam's razor is normally a good enough weapon to deal with the opposition and as a former Marxist he is at least as concerned to undermine religion by examining its political power as he is to challenge its tenets logically. Paradoxically, perhaps, he is a true modern and refreshingly scornful about trendy challenges to modernity such as multi-culturalism, postmodernism, relativism and similar forms of intellectual cowardice.

(It is interesting to see contemporary Islamic apologists quoting Thomas Kuhn, taking the implication that as science is culturally and politically determined there is no objective truth and thus Allah's existence and will are less debatable and mutable than "Western" science. Kuhn rivals James Lovelock as the author in the last half century who has seen his work, very impressive in itself, misquoted in favour of the most bad causes.)

Hitchens is refreshingly rude, even referring to human beings he doesn't like as "mammals". He passes with flying colours the Orwellian test of having something to say before you write. His other strengths are a considerable (though flawed) general knowledge and a very varied experience of people and places acquired as a writer and correspondent. He is also to be commended by not getting misty-eyed in a Western way about Eastern religions, but demonstrates the proper scepticism - and cynicism - which comes with travel.

But in his polemical enthusiasm (bordering at times on fanaticism) Hitchens commits two fundamental intellectual errors. The first (and lesser) of the two is that he does not distinguish between two completely different logical statuses which religious propositions can have. In the past I have distinguished between formal religion and serious religion; in traditional theological terms this is the question of Revelation. Formal religion consists of what Bertrand Russell called "Sunday truths". Though its adherents are entirely sincere they act in practice in exactly the same ways as non-religious people, accepting the laws of physics and being guided by their intuition and common sense on practical questions:

Formal religion allows serious argument. It assumes that God is essentially reasonable and that, whatever his [sic] pronouncements appear to say, they can be properly interpreted as equivalent to something sensible. Thus it is possible for the General Synod of the Church of England to have a perfectly serious debate about unilateral nuclear disarmament, as it did in 1983, in which those who believe in God consider the matter in exactly the same way as if they did not believe in God. It is possible to imagine religious debate about nuclear weapons in which the criteria employed related to the infallibility of one or more persons present, the exact meaning of a Greek or Hebrew phrase or the search for an ominous sign. The Church of England is not, on the whole, like that; it assumes that God could only be a reasonable chap who will fit in with the decisions of other reasonable chaps.

[Lincoln Allison, Right Principles: a Conservative philosophy of politics, Basil Blackwell, 1984, p. 168]

This distinction allows religious and non-religious people to live together. Specifically, it allows me to share a bedroom with the head of a "faith" school which I could not do unless I could have a serious argument with her. And it allows me to celebrate the elevation of a team mate of great decency to a bishopric. There is a great deal of both kinds of religion about. It may be that the serious variety is prospering more than the formal. In which case if Hitchens' book is part of an emboldening of the anti-religious party for the coming struggle then I welcome it and I am on his side.

The most important problem which Hitchens has is that he does not have a clear concept of religion. If I went round muttering Art poisons everything (and I am a good deal more likely to do this than anyone else you are likely to meet) I would at least feel bound to offer a solution to the tricky problem of distinguishing art from non-art.

The "religion" which Hitchens castigates is mostly anthropocentric theism. It is usually risibly anthropomorphic in its theism: primitive desert-dwellers have a primitive desert God, hard-working capitalists have a hard-working capitalist God, etc. This sort of religion was given a knock-down blow by Hume in the eighteenth century when he argued that even if you accept an argument for Creation, there is no case for moving on to an anthropomorphic Creator with a will and a mind, particularly one who pandered to our pathetic solipsism.

But you have not really rejected religion if you have merely moved from anthropomorphic theism to humanism, because they are so obviously the same sort of thing: Man-as-God and Man-as-Humanity. The metaphysical nonsense may change from transubstantiation and eternal life to natural rights and equality, but it is no less metaphysical nonsense, equally dangerous to liberty and happiness. The Reign of Terror, the Gulags and the Holocaust were done in Man's name, not God's. There is no doubt that Hitchens is a Humanist, a creature of the Debased Enlightenment. If you really wants to be irreligious, there are two tests which you must pass:

First, you must be in favour of capital punishment (and of several other ways of getting the death rate up). You cannot believe that life is sacred or that incarcerating people for life is preferable to the utility-neutral option of a terminated existence. You cannot believe that we are all valuable or improvable or worthwhile since those beliefs are no more grounded in reason or evidence than is (say) the doctrine of the trinity.

And don't try and hide behind some irrational fear of executing the innocent: of course, the system must kill some innocent people. Every other state activity kills innocent people so it is religiose, not rational, to think that punishment is any different from health or traffic management. All rules, of course, to be subject to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

And you can't be a republican of any kind. (Hitchens makes a number of snide remarks about monarchy, both about legitimate hereditary monarchy and, perversely, about "Hanoverian usurpers".)

Republicanism is a dangerous condition, lending itself to enthusiasm. Popular sovereignty is an even more dangerous principle than an omnipotent deity: just as power tends to corrupt, republics tend to be totalitarian, most obviously in the mental condition of their citizens - some form of political correctness is their natural effluent. The one where Hitchens lives is at least as bad as most in this respect. The only hope for liberty and individuality must lie in decayed monarchies. The evidence for this is that the intellectual output of the United Kingdom and the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy has been greater than that of all the republics that ever were put together.

I had thought that Hitchens was going to ignore these arguments, but he attempts to refute them in Chapter 17: An Objection Anticipated: the Last-Ditch "Case" Against Secularism. This is an astonishingly weak piece of writing, an argument which consists almost entirely of the Humpty Dumpty manoeuvre, or at least that version of it which Charles Stevenson called "persuasive definition". All the tyrants and mass murderers of the twentieth century were really religious. They include Stalin (former trainee priest), Mussolini (Concordat with the Pope), the Kims (references to the Supreme Being) etc. Hitler is rather more difficult and the coverage of him in this chapter is mainly about the Roman church sucking up to him.

Apart from its philosophical fakery, this chapter is full of factual errors and misrepresentations: Victor Serge was not the first person to use the word "totalitarian" (Hitchens has obviously never read any Mussolini or Gentile); at least 4,000 Spanish priests were murdered by the Spanish left before Franco crossed from Morocco; Mussolini was seven years in power before the Concordat (which was nothing more than vulgar expediency in any case). Etc.!

Ever since 1789 regimes which claimed to believe in science, reason, progress, humanity and so on have very quickly slid back into more conventional religious forms. Given a choice between two groups of nasties who believe a lot of untenable nonsense, Hitchens knows which side he's on. But it isn't real non-belief! (If he really is one of the world's "Top 100 Public Intellectuals" as it says on the dustjacket, then Gawd 'elp us. Though, perhaps not . . . . )

Thus I regard my non-believing Anglicanism as far more genuinely irreligious than the kind of anti-clerical humanism which Hitchens represents. (The point about Anglicanism here is that it's like fake ID: it saves you having to be anyone else or join any other group not headed by my very contingent Sovereign. It also indicates the church I would attend if there were to be a swingeing tax on non-attendance at church.) So it behoves me now to explore and admit the ways in which I might be religious.

I accept both Mystery and Marvel. The elegance of logic, physics and mathematics is the best that we have or have done. But it has limits. It stops because in order to be rational we must have concepts of time and the universe and these must acknowledge infinity. And we can never understand or successfully contemplate infinity. And it stops, also, because we can never understand our own consciousness and its outputs and we wouldn’t want to if we could. Musical notes, the play of sunlight on the land . . . these give us feelings of the profound which have no corresponding profound propositions. Thus I agree with Joseph Conrad, quoted here (p. 73):

No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article.
That the marvellous is not miraculous is best expressed in terms of James Lovelock's view of life:
. . . an infinitely improbable set of events with an infinite number of chances of happening.
Mystery is beyond statements and dogmas. As F.P. Ramsey summarised what had been a rather more portentous-sounding "thought" when expressed by Ludwig Wittgenstein:
What we can't say, we can't say and we can't whistle it either.
I suppose I might accept, in some sense, in the Humean spirit and given the inadequacies of language, that the universe is a Creation and therefore has a Creator. What I could never accept is that the Creator was one of us, with beliefs and desires. He would have to pass all understanding and be securely in the "thereof we cannot speak" territory. Nothing at all, in short, like the egotistical bully of the Old Testament or the irritating hippy of the New. Not remotely a Universal Big Daddy who ran favours for people if they were subservient enough and made rules about bacon sandwiches and masturbation. And certainly not uncool enough to be interested in me.

The most objectionable aspect of religion as practised is that it drags our senses of the Marvellous and the Infinite into a morass of sexual psychoses, petty rules and tacky imagery. A God worth worshipping would punish them for that.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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You are obviously right about Hitchens' arguments- I havent read the book, but his points sound simplistic and even nonsensical. One of the chief role of religion in the West and probably elsewhere has been as a source of national unity- the Church of England was the Church of England (italicised), and the Church of Scotland was supposed to be the church of the Scottish people. This is one reason why dissent from Anglicanism, especially Roman Catholicism, was regarded so negatively for so long- it was a form of treason. One reason for the decline of religion in Britain has been that the Anglican Church has for the most part lost any pretense to being the Church of England, adopting instead a mushy universalistic left-liberalism which secular radicals for the most part reject as superstitious mumbo-jumbo and conservative Anglicans reject because it is no longer nationalistic. Conversely, Protestant Dissent has declined because there is no longer anything to dissent against, and no longer a shared sense of persecution, which underpinned the popularity of Dissent for centuries. If the C of E had a nationalistic, conservative Archbishop, my guess is that Anglican church attendances would rise, instead of falling to the vanishing point.

Posted by: Bill Rubinstein at November 20, 2007 08:59 AM

We like to sneer at one another, to villify and persecute people, and even to slaughter innocents when we can get away with it. If deprived of religion as an excuse we shall fnd others: from 1917 to 1989 communism killed 4,000 of its own subjects every day and many if not most Russians lament Stalin's passing. Now, under a state that increasingly persecutes believers, we stigmatise smokers, illegalise hunting and soon shall deny medical treatment to the obese. It isn't religion, folks, it's folks.

Religion kills, so does humanism, so did communism. But religion inculcates genuine personal charity, whereas its competitors tend to produce little more than false piety and political flatulence.

Posted by: s masty at November 20, 2007 04:47 PM

It often amazes me how the writings of Dawkins, and now (it seems) Hitchens, bear out the words of Jesus himself. Take:

”You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”

Here our Lord seems to be saying that religion gone bad is worse than useless. And Anglicanism as the religion of the British Empire is a very cogent example of religion gone bad. Since (as I read recently in the Guardian) both Dawkins and A.C.Grayling came “out of Africa”, this may have something to do with their hatred of religion. From an article of his own, I gather than Hitchens explains himself in the book.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 21, 2007 01:28 PM
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