Saturday, May 19, 2007

Drunks and Wussies Slap-Fight Over God

Just when you thought that Americans couldn't handle anymore droll anti-religious screeds as shrill and cloying as the fieriest-and-most-brimstoniest preacher's sermon, along comes drunken sod and world-class asshole Christopher Hitchens with his own contribution to the, er, "literature": God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Not satisfied with having been proven painfully fucking wrong on Iraq, Hitchens--who clings to the liberal left with the tenaciousness that a maudlin drunk clings to "this guy!" whom he "loves" at the bar--has decided to issue a new blast to make the rest of us look bad, and to keep the sad, stupid debate about religion in contemporary society roiling in the opinion pages.

Now, I've written about this sad debate a couple times before ("Why Should Darwinists Care About Creationists' Feelings?", "Cranky Old British Scholars Duke it Out Over Jesus") and frankly I'm depressed to have to return to it. But to get to my point (besides making fun of Hitchens--seriously, the guy's a lush), I find both the ardent atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins) and their middle-of-the-road critics in the media equally objectionable, the former because--as a non-believer and skeptic myself--I can't bring myself to trust anyone who believes in something that strongly, and the latter because I'm sick of the liberal media adopting this strange, apologist, kumbaya, "can't-we-all-just-get-along?" attitude towards the religious right. This isn't a zero-sum game; not all religious people are Osama Bin Laden, whatever Mr. Hitchens might like to believe, but that doesn't excuse the rather shocking and at times just plain crazy crap we get in America from the Christian right.

In the broader political context, this apologetic tone serves to play down differences between liberals and conservatives for political gain; the moderate liberal press has thrown in the towel in the fight against religious conservatism and the defense of secular society, having decided electoral success lies in seducing the faithful away from the Republican right. But while it's now the prevailing wisdom that Gore's loss in 2000 and Kerry's in 2004 were the result of Karl Rove's wizardry at bringing the religious right to the polls, that's just not true. As has been consistently shown, the percentage of Americans who list moral values as a prevailing electoral concern has been declining since the mid-1990s. Moreover, this interpretation ignores the fact that centrist Democratic consultants sabotaged both Gore and Kerry by pulling the rug out from under them on what should have been their core electoral values (the environment for Gore, the war for war-hero and anti-Vietnam War-hero John Kerry); most Americans could be forgiven for assuming in 2004 that the war was going fine and that anyway, a Kerry victory wouldn't signal a substantial change. (Well, "forgiven" is too strong a word--most Americans are fucking idiots and you have to beat the truth into their skulls with metaphorical hammers, otherwise they just don't notice.)

In this case, the objectionable middle-of-the-road apologist is Anthony Gottlieb, reviewing Hitchens' no doubt insufferable book in The New Yorker ("Atheists with Attitude," May 21, 2007).

I agree with Gottlieb when he challenges Hitchens et al. on the tendency to be reductive in attacking religion; the problem of "the varieties of religious experience" is one rarely addressed by anti-religious cranks. (Though to give him his due credit, Hitchens makes very clear that he hates all religious observance equally, arguing that moderate religious institutions and their followers make possible the radicals. From a political perspective, he has a point: often times we find damning links between theoretically moderate institutions and radical groups aligned with them, as we've seen with Western Islamic charities and links to terrorist organizations, or between Christian and Catholic groups in the US and violent counterinsurgencies in Latin America during the Cold War. That said, it seems to me this is most pervasive as a political issue, rather than a religious one.) Gottlieb writes:

One practical problem for antireligious writers is the diversity of religious views. However carefully a skeptic frames his attacks, he will be told that what people in fact believe is something different. For example, when Terry Eagleton, a British critic who has been a professor of English at Oxford, lambasted Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” in the London Review of Books, he wrote that “card-carrying rationalists” like Dawkins “invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.” That is unfair, because millions of the faithful around the world believe things that would make a first-year theology student wince. A large survey in 2001 found that more than half of American Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians believed that Jesus sinned—thus rejecting a central dogma of their own churches.

Now, in a sense, I'm totally in agreement with the above. What I find strange about the anti-religious is how much credit they give the religious and their beliefs. They treat religious practice as a constant, act as though religious texts like the Bible have but one singular interpretation. In short, they're radically orthodox when it comes to religion.

Now, as one of those damned secular humanists who believe in the Big Bang and evolution and all, I was under the impression that, given that God does not exist to establish universal constants or deliver divine texts to the world, that religion should be therefore viewed as a socio-cultural phenomenon, its tenets and practices prone to evolution, its texts endlessly reinterpreted by successive generations in order to remain pertinent to the ever-changing quotidian demands on the faithful. And of course I'm right about that. No religion is absolute, and any reasonable historian of religion could easily provide countless demonstrations of how religious practice and theological interpretation have evolved over the centuries. Does religion influence the society at large? Yes, and the society at large influences religion. By ignoring that fundamental reality, Dawkins, Hitchens and their ilk open themselves up to an idiotic chicken-and-egg style argument (which, for the record, Gottlieb chooses to indulge: "The idea that people would have been nicer to one another if they had never got religion, as Hitchens, Dawkins, and [Sam] Harris seem to think, is a strange position for an atheist to take. For if man is wicked enough to have invented religion for himself he is surely wicked enough to have found alternative ways of making mischief.")

Furthermore, Gottlieb clearly agrees with me on the charge that these "atheists with attitudes", like Hitchens, are more than a little shrill and hyperbolic: "After rightly railing against female genital mutilation in Africa," writes Gottlieb,

which is an indigenous cultural practice with no very firm ties to any particular religion, Hitchens lunges at male circumcision. He claims that it is a medically dangerous procedure that has made countless lives miserable. This will come as news to the Jewish community, where male circumcision is universal, and where doctors, hypochondria, and overprotective mothers are not exactly unknown. Jews, Muslims, and others among the nearly one-third of the world’s male population who have been circumcised may be reassured by the World Health Organization’s recent announcement that it recommends male circumcision as a means of preventing the spread of AIDS.

But my problem with Gottlieb is his attempt, like so many people in the liberal media, to problematize the atheists' arguments with counterpoints:

When Hitchens weighs the pros and cons of religion in the recent past, the evidence he provides is sometimes lopsided. He discusses the role of the Dutch Reformed Church in maintaining apartheid in South Africa, but does not mention the role of the Anglican Church in ending it. He attacks some in the Catholic Church, especially Pope Pius XII, for their appeasement of Nazism, but says little about the opposition to Nazism that came from religious communities and institutions. In “Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century,” Jonathan Glover, who is the director of the Center of Medical Law and Ethics at Kings College London, documents such opposition, and writes, “It is striking how many protests against and acts of resistance to atrocity have . . . come from principled religious commitment.” The loss of such commitment, Glover suggests, should be of concern even to nonbelievers.

Now, is it me, or does the reader of the above paragraph not come up with a rather different interpretation than Gottlieb, using Glover to speak for him? Again, religion stems not from the word of God absolute (as both Hitchens and his enemies in the cloth believe) but as a cultural practice that--as Gottlieb illustrates with contrasting examples--is just as amenable to cruelty and destruction as to righteousness and justice.

What's fascinating to me here is that both Gottlieb and Hitchens are simultaneously engaged in trying to generate a political narrative regarding the role of religion in society starting from the same political perspective: the liberal left. Hitchens embraces a radical criticism of religion on the grounds that it leads to extreme partisanship between diverse sects and religions, while religious texts generally encourage militancy and hatred of religious and cultural others. In the process, he forgets his own humanist perspective and sets up a straw man that turns out to be a three-ton stone statue by giving religion the credit its most ardent believers demand: that it be treated as immutable, eternal, and singular, instead of evolving and open to diverse interpretation, as any reasonable liberal knows. Finally, Hitchens' critique is linked to the same ignoble service as his support for the Iraq war. While it may not at first be patently obvious--given the Bush administration's evangelical zeal--that this is the case, the reality is that the "religion is the cause of all the world's problems" argument goes a long way to absolving the Bush administration of fault for the current disaster in Iraq, as well as encouraging everyone to ignore the rather obvious social, economic and political causes of many of the world's ills and our rather shameful role in bringing them about. It becomes the catch-all explanation for radical Islam, the internecine conflict in Iraq, Al Qaeda, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and why otherwise westernized second-generation Muslims in Europe turn vehemently on their host countries. (A good corrective to this is Mahmood Mamdani's Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, which goes a long way in explaining how our current problems stem both from the messy aftermath of colonialism and America's post-Vietnam containment policies.)

Gottlieb, in contrast, starts from the liberal position that, well, we've lost the culture war. Blue collar Christians will keep Republicans in power no matter how bad Republican policies are for their pocketbooks (and their children's future) until we give in and make peace on abortion and gays and prayer in school. And so he looks through the history books and, hey, turns out not all religious leaders were crazed zealots. There was Niebuhr, and MLK, and probably some others. Moreover, religious leaders helped fight peaceful crusades against injustices they opposed with their religious values. So maybe there is some common ground. But from my perhaps ignorant humanist perspective, aren't the achievements we credit to the religious here really achievements of human decency when confronted with injustice and cruelty? Or in other words, while Pope John Paul II was certainly a crucial figure in the anti-Communist reform movements in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, is it really fair to give him as much credit for their eventual success as his hagiographers have? He was not, after all, the one who had to strike or go on march and--God forbid--risk arrest, torture, or death for his freedom. And while the marchers at the Lenin Ship Yard or Wenceslas Square may have taken comfort in the Pope's support, the likelihood either he or God was going to be able to save them from a Soviet crackdown, as had occurred in Hungary in 1956, was, I think, rather small.

But to follow the apologetic liberal line that religion also does good things (look at Civil Rights!) ignores how bad their electoral values are for many of their constituents. As Thomas Frank rather devastatingly showed in What's the Matter With Kansas?, the legislative priorities of Republicans are painfully at odds with the needs of the American working and middle classes. The Moral Majority has a lot of blood on its hands when it comes to the dismal future its Republican allies have made for many Americans. And these days, Christians seem more united in denying rights to women and gays--while indulging in no small amount of self-pity at their own perceived oppression and marginalization--than in fighting injustice in the world.

In this, Gottlieb's own narrative ignores one of the few things that Hitchens does get right: that religious observance is far less absolute than religious leaders would have us believe, that the religious right has not achieved a critical mass capable of achieving their political and cultural aims. Attempts by creationist school-board members to force "intelligent design" on schools have been most decisively rebuked not by the courts but by the outraged electorate which has, in virtually every case, voted out the offending members the first chance they got. On abortion, the majority of the population has consistently supported legal access, and the victories Christians have won are narrow and incremental and may lead nowhere. And as far as gay rights are concerned, gay marriage remains legal in one state and looks to stay that way; nationwide, attitudes are becoming more and more progressive on gay rights. So why the hell do Gottlieb & co. continue arguing we should step back?

In short, Hitchens is a moron with a booze-addled brain and no one should pay attention to him. His credibility was shot from supporting a cruel war in Iraq for bad reasons. And I for one am not amenable to having my atheism represented by a man who himself maintains a number of beliefs--such as America's ability to remake the world in its image--on faith and faith alone. In other words, Hitchens needs to be taking lessons in skepticism, not giving them. But the alternative offered by middle-of-the-road liberals in the Times and The New Yorker, the make-nice approach, is no better for the commonweal. Given the degree to which the conservative religious establishment believes it should be given deference in issues of marriage, child-birth, women's rights, and education, it seems increasingly clear that what's needed is not rapprochement but rather a staking of claims. For the good of our country and our society, we need to establish norms for the separation of secular and religious spheres of influence; for my money, I think the religious right has already gone too far. The last thing we should be doing is encouraging them by all but admitting our fault. That doesn't mean we need embrace shrill radicals like Hitchens and Dawkins, but rather that secular society needs to assert that (a) it can develop ethical norms without the need of religious assistance, and (b) that a free society both ensures the freedom of religious institutions within their realm, while divorcing that realm from the secular one. It is precisely this sepatation to which the political religious establishment most objects, and therefore it is of paramount importance it be defended against encroachment.

Yet this entire issue is all but absent from the work of the above-mentioned anti-religious radicals. For them, rationalism and religion are engaged in existential struggle, which only one will survive. The reality is that both religion and secular rationalism are here for the long haul, and the real issues that face America in addressing this uncomfortable marriage of liberalism and anti-liberal doctrines (with a great many churches falling in the first category, it should behoove us to remember) are no better served by the salvos issued by the drunken prat in question than they are by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or any of the other pseudo-religious figures who put the faith of their flocks in the service of political radicals.

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