How Religion Poisons Everything — Christopher Hitchens’ New Book

9 05 2007

From Slate’s exclusive excerpts:

. . . here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.

. . .How much vanity must be concealed—not too effectively at that—in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan? How much self-respect must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one’s own sin? How many needless assumptions must be made, and how much contortion is required, to receive every new insight of science and manipulate it so as to “fit” with the revealed words of ancient man-made deities? How many saints and miracles and councils and conclaves are required in order first to be able to establish a dogma and then—after infinite pain and loss and absurdity and cruelty—to be forced to rescind one of those dogmas?

. . .Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did. Still less can they hope to tell us the “meaning” of later discoveries and developments which were, when they began, either obstructed by their religions or denounced by them. And yet—the believers still claim to know! Not just to know, but to know everything. Not just to know that god exists, and that he created and supervised the whole enterprise, but also to know what “he” demands of us—from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality.

In other words, in a vast and complicated discussion where we know more and more about less and less, yet can still hope for some enlightenment as we proceed, one faction—itself composed of mutually warring factions—has the sheer arrogance to tell us that we already have all the essential information we need.

Such stupidity, combined with such pride, should be enough on its own to exclude “belief” from the debate. The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.

The argument with faith is the foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.

Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. 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. . . there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it. I would be quite content to go to their children’s bar mitzvahs, to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to “respect” their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations.

And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition—which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing. As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon.

Religion poisons everything.

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15 responses

9 05 2007
Dawn

I don’t know. It’s Hitchens. He makes me grind my teeth and pull out my hair so I can’t give any kind of unbiased opinion of his argument.

9 05 2007
JJ

Dawn, you sound like this effect Hitchens has on you is longstanding–more religious or political, or both, would you say?

10 05 2007
JJ

I agree he can be maddening; although I often think he hits the nail right on the head, he also has hit my thumb a few times in the process! Here’s the only comment I recall making about him at Snook:
“The Freeing Discipline of Wonder”
. . .I appreciate Christopher Hitchens when he’s biting AND illuminating but not when he forces me to choose between thinking him creative and thinking him destructive.

The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn’t like him all that much. . .Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon.

Put this way, it’s not really Ronald Reagan he finds so irredeemably stupid and useless. It is us.

10 05 2007
Dawn

I’ve been thinking about this for awhile. I think it’s that I find him maddening as well and for the reason you stated about whether he’s creative or destructive. Certainly I don’t feel there’s ever an invitation to discussion in what he writes. His tone tends to remind me of David Frum or Bill O’Reilly (except for he admittedly has some real thinking behind his opinions).

But even so maybe I should rethink my reaction to him.

10 05 2007
Nance Confer

This is the atheist’s etiquette problem. How to function in a world of people who almost all hold beliefs you find to be, well, wrong. Some people are more direct, others less so. Some all science, some all passion. It is never an easy discussion because the believers have so much invested in their beliefs. Many have organized their entire lives to fit their particular set of beliefs. For those of us for whom religion is a non-issue on a day-to-day decision-making basis, it is difficult to know when to even get involved in one of these talks. Good people, people we know and love, believe in all sorts of things. OTOH, we can all see the harm done in the name of religions. . .

Nance

10 05 2007
JJ

Bingo, maybe that does hit the nail on the head — he is brilliant, incisive and driven more by truth than ideology (unlike them) but his whole delivery, his TONE is very high-handed (like them).

10 05 2007
JJ

Good point Nance, really good point. Questioning anyone’s religious beliefs is supposed to be taboo but Hitchens along with Dawkins and Harris, etc are doing it now, throwing down the gauntlet. Do you expect that will start to create a new context for such discussions among ordinary non-famous folks like all of us, or is it more likely to shut them down, rachet up the “unspeakableness” of it all?

10 05 2007
JJ

Until the last few years, I wouldn’t have seen this. But after Terri Schiavo (and other republican-literalist policy demands, not to mention post 9/11 Islamofascism or whatever we’re supposed to call it) I now find it the most meaningful and important part:

The argument with faith is the foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.

10 05 2007
NanceConfer

Well, it’s not a completely new context.

It is an evolving context. 🙂

As humans evolve, I hope and am convinced, they will continue to discuss and need to rely on religion less and less.

But it is a slow process. Nudged along by the Dawkins and Pharyngulas (http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/) and Snooks. 🙂

Nance

10 05 2007
NanceConfer

http://humaniststudies.org/enews/?id=296&article=1

And here’s something I haven’t had a chance to read yet. All about how “Religion is good for kids.” Or not. 🙂

Off to see what it really says . . .

Nance

11 05 2007
Dawn

Oh! I saw that study and meant to post on it! Don’t need to now as that link you posted Nance dissects the crap quite well.

13 05 2007
Kinsley on Hitchens' New Anti-God Book « Cocking A Snook!

[…] of Hitchens’ latest polemic is headed “In God, Distrust” and captures the same mixed reactions to Hitchens we’ve been discussing here. God should be flattered: unlike most of those clamoring for his attention, Hitchens treats him […]

17 05 2007
Betty Malone

I just read Dawkins God and Evolution..something like that.. I forget the exact title, sorry guys…I was impressed with his thinking, at the same time that I continue to disagree with salient points.. but….I find myself these days, at 53..growing increasingly concerned by the religious folk amongst us.. leading us…and can’t help wonder what type of world they’re leading us to…espcially in light of the fact that during the MSNBC REpublican debate, three of them…said they didn’t believe in evolution,,and three of them believe that the Bible is the literal word of God…and into my brain flashed some remembrance of a Bible passage in the Old Testament set in Sodom or Gomorrah.. where a man gave his daughter out to two strangers in the street to be sexually abused and raped.. to “save” a visting guest..a priest…..and I wonder what literal truth we are to take from that.. and how to talk to my homeschooling bible believing friends about my questions and fears about the political fights they want to see occur,, where the Religious Right still holds power.. and I think Nance is wrong.. I don’t think they’re going out of favor at all.. I think they’re growing stronger,, Cathedrals and churches aligned with politics in that unholy of alliances..for true democracy..where my little progressive faith is disdained as not religious enough!

Betty M.

17 05 2007
JJ

Betty, you are one of the most real, thoughtful and progressive Christians I have ever come across. I hope the context you help create is the one we’re moving toward. 🙂 JJ

18 05 2007
JJ

Can any religion move any politics forward?:

Politics as gospel makes me no less uneasy than prayer in school. Is this really what we have to look “forward” to — with all our supposed enlightenment and hard-fought economic and policy progress, is this going forward at all, spiritually, scientifically OR socially?
It feels really backward to me . . .




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