Sunday, November 3, 2013

god is not Great

god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (New York: Twelve, 2007) delivers a coordinated series of complaints with deep merit, each of them fashioned by insight, reason, and experience.  That experience defines the reasons for the insights.

This is Hitchens’s own personal accusation of immorality against all religions. As a prosecutor, he accepts no plea bargaining from the perpetrator.  The crimes committed are documented and often stipulated. Hitchens' begging of us to condemn the malefactor is not enough. For all he cares, ultimately, the guilty should go free lest the innocent suffer unjustly.  While he accuses those who are evil, he grants (always tangentially) that many people live well because of their religions. 

That said, Hitchens remains uncompromising in his charges against Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. (Lesser populations draw fewer references.) At the same time, he advocates for reason, reality, the Enlightenment, and humanism. This is not the perfect book to convert the unenlightened. That claim could only be made for a holy book. 

Ethics and morality are central here. Metaphysics does not get much attention. If the universe – alternate time lines and parallels and all that – the entire Universe is all that exists, then anything outside of existence would not exist.  How could any entity outside of existence create  the universe? That is not one of his points.  Hitchens does cite (page 71) the argument of infinite regression: what created god? He quotes William Ockham page 68 et seq., after taking us to an encounter between Napoleon Bonaparte and Pierre-Simon Laplace. Laplace had constructed an orrery, a model of the solar system.  “Where is God?” asked the emperor. “I do not need this hypothesis.” (“Je ne pas besoin de cette hypoth├Ęse.”)
 Among the many insightful theses about God, the Catholic Encyclopedia cautions us that when we say that a brave man is a lion we understand that as an analogy. So, too, when we say that God is infinite or eternal or all-loving or all-knowing are we only expressing by analogy what we truly cannot understand.  But religionists do not torture and kill people over admitted analogies. They claim absolute knowledge and the right to destroy in the most horrible ways those who disagree with their highly putative assertions. Perhaps some un-analogilizable Aristotlean quintessence was the creator of the hyperspace wormholes traversed by Carl Sagan's Ellie Arroway. Do you believe that such an entity cares about who occupies the Gaza Strip, Northern Ireland, or Tibet?

Traditionally, atheists have a well-known attack in pointing out that other assertions about God are internally contradictory or mutually exclusive. Can God make a stone so big that He cannot lift it? Can God change his mind so that he will not know in advance what he will do next? Omniscience and omnipotence cancel each other. The Catholic Encyclopedia addresses those, also. Hitchens does not. 

He also fails to find the center of the target when admitting to the atrocities committed by communists who were atheists. Any one of Lenin, Stalin, or Mao Zedong, among others, were worse by orders of magnitude than the sum total of all deaths attributed to the Inquisition and the Crusades combined. Though not on the bull's-eye, Hitchens does find the target.
When I was a Marxist, I did not hold my opinions as a matter of faith, but I did have the conviction that a sort of unified field theory might have been discovered. The concept of historical and dialectic materialism was not an absolute and it did not have any supernatural element, but it did have its messianic element in the idea that an ultimate moment might arrive, and it most certainly had its martyrs and saints and doctinaires and (after a while) its mutually excommunicating rival papacies. It also had its schisms and inquisitions and heresy hunts. I was a member of a dissident sect that admired Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, and I can say definitely that we had our prophets... 
... But there came a time when I could not protect myself, and indeed did not wish to protect myself from the onslaught of reality. Marxism, I conceded, had its intellectual and philosophical and ethical glories, but they were in the past. Something of the heroic period might perhaps be retained, but the fact had to be faced: there was no longer any guide to the future. In addition, the very concept of a total solution had led to the most appalling human sacrifices, and to the invention of excuses for them. ... 
...  There are days when I miss my own convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general, I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better, too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.  (Page 151)
Near the end, in Chapter Seventeen, he takes on "An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch 'Case' Against Secularism." There he cites The God that Failed, edited by Richard Crossman, which contains essays by Arthur Koestler, Andre Gide, and other former communists. Hitchens acknowledges that totalitarian ideologies bring religion to earth with central doctrines, orthodoxies, and claims of infallibility.

Although he admitted to finding The Virtue of Selfishness to be the best of Ayn Rand’s works Hitchens had contempt for her fiction and most of what she advocated.  Nevertheless, this from him could have come from her:
“Until relatively recently, those who adopted the clerical path had to pay a heavy price for it. Their societies would decay, their economies would contract, their best minds would go to waste or take themselves elsewhere, and they would consistently be outdone by societies that had learned to tame and sequester the religious impulse. A country like Afghanistan would simply rot. 
Bad as that was, it became worse on September 11, 2001, when from Afghanistan the holy order was given to annex two famous achievements of modernism – the high-rise building and the jet aircraft – and use them for immolation and human sacrifice. The succeeding stage, very plainly announced in hysterical sermons, was to be the moment when apocalyptic nihilists coincided with Armageddon weaponry. Faith-based fanatics could not design anything as useful or beautiful as a skyscraper or a passenger aircraft. But, continuing their long history of plagiarism, they could borrow and steal those things and use them as a negation.” (page 280)
Hitchens was a rationalist and a materialist. Time and again through all of his writings, he appeals to the critical judgment of his reader.  For Hitchens, writing was a conversation between two people. His thesis here is that many people live well and do good by others often because of their own religious experience; and so do non-religious people.  But only religion can justify the horrors perpetrated since its inception, and can only do so exactly because it is not reasonable, not rational, not logical, not empirical, not evidentiary, and not objectively true.

Previously on Necessary Facts

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