Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Hitchens Dawkins Axis of Anti Religion

Religion: poison or life-giving, false or true?

(Update: For another view on current promotion of atheism see a column by Theodore Dalrymple. Hat tip to Ron Ashford).

Alongside The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins as a pot-stirrer in the world of religion is a book called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. Richard Dawkins himself reviews the latter in the Times Literary Supplement in a review entitled ‘Bible Belter’ (accessible from Powell's Reviews).

Before taking up some challenges posed by Dawkins in the review, let me briefly introduce Christopher Hitchens to readers unfamiliar with him. Hitchens is a brilliant writer of columns, articles, and books; British in origin, currently domiciled in the States, and becoming widely known as a maker and shaper of opinions. Some of those opinions are sharply divided about the philosophical integrity of the man as he was once perceived to be unambiguously ‘left-wing’ but now, post-9/11 leading to Hitchen’s support for Bush’s militant response via Afghanistan and Iraq, he is often criticised by former colleagues on the left, even as he vigorously asserts that his present convictions are contiguous with those he has always held! Anyway, back to the Dawkins review:

Challenge One: attacks on theism are not rebutted by suggesting atheism requires as much faith as theism.

“Peter Hitchens begins his negative review in the Daily Mail quite well ("Am I my brother's reviewer?"), but the substance of his complaint seems to be that Christopher is as confident in his disbelief as any fundamentalist is confident in his belief. The answer to the familiar accusation of atheist fundamentalism is plain enough. The onus is not on the atheist to demonstrate the non-existence of the invisible unicorn in the room, and we cannot be accused of undue confidence in our disbelief. The devout churchgoer recites the Nicene Creed weekly, enumerating a detailed and precise list of things he positively believes, with no more evidence than supports the unicorn. Now that's overconfidence. By contrast, the atheist says the humble thing: of all the millions of possible entities that one might imagine, I believe only in those for which
there is evidence -- trombones, pelicans and electrons, say, but not unicorns or leprechauns, not Thor with his hammer, not Ganesh the elephant god, not the Holy Ghost.”

Response: setting aside the fact that Dawkins under-rates the ‘case for God’ which underlines the Nicene Creed, I suggest he also under-rates the many things people believe in without evidence such as life having a purpose, the concept of beauty having meaning, and so on. But he has a point: if being a Christian (to name the particular religious preference I identify with among all possible religious choices in the world) is accepted by Christians themselves as involving faith which goes beyond bounds of reason and evidence (‘we live by faith not by sight’), it is a bit rich of us to respond to an atheist whose worldview is consistently materialist and rationalist by saying, ‘you have as much faith in what you believe as we do.’

Challenge Two: attacks on religion are not negated by suggesting that there is a difference between bad religion and good religion and its only bad religion which is the problem.

“The second commonest complaint from reviewers is that Christopher Hitchens attacks bad religion. Real religion (the religion the reviewer subscribes to) is immune to such criticism. Here is the theologian Stephen Prothero in the Washington Post:

"To read this oddly innocent book as gospel is to believe that ordinary Catholics are proud of the Inquisition...and that ordinary Jews cheer when a renegade Orthodox rebbe sucks the blood off a freshly circumcised penis."

This complaint, too, is familiar, and the answer (even when the point is not exaggerated, as it is by Prothero) is obvious. If only all religions were as humane and as nuanced as yours, gentle theologian, all would be well, and Hitchens would not have needed to write this book. But come down to earth in the real world: in Islamabad, say, in Jerusalem, or in Hitchens's home town, Washington DC, where the President of the most powerful nation on earth takes his marching orders directly from God. Channel-hop your television in any American hotel room, look aghast at the huge sums of money subscribed to build megachurches, at museums depicting dinosaurs walking with men, and see what I mean.”

Response: I think Dawkins is right and wrong here. He is right that even when a religion is being true to itself and acting in the best possible way according to its core values and beliefs, it is not thereby immune to criticism. Further, he is right to raise the question why religions seem to struggle to be ‘good’ rather than ‘bad’. But he is wrong to imply, as he does by the way he characterises Christianity solely in terms of Bush, money-grabbing churches, and creationism, that each religion has no merit or is incapable of exhibiting merit. There are great swathes of Christianity, for example, which (accepting for a moment Dawkins critical measurements) do not support Bush, building mega-churches, or promoting creationism AND which contribute to the development of the world through building great Christian lives, assisting the poor, and caring for the needy. (Picking up on Hitchen’s subtitle) many Christians (and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists) do NOT experience the practice of their faith as poisonous and are baffled by how religions have, in some places, at some times, become so horrible. To speak from a openly Christian position, it is difficult to understand how a grace-filled, love-your-enemies as well as love-your-neighbours, caring for the poor Christ-like manner of life is necessarily poisonous.

Challenge Three: The lifestyle and values of the messenger do not negate the message.

“Finally, there are those critics who can't resist the ad hominem blow: "Don't you know Christopher Hitchens supported the invasion of Iraq?" But so what? I'm not reviewing his politics, I'm reviewing his book. And what a splendid, boisterously virile broadside of a book it is.”

Response: this is the easiest challenge to respond to. We can agree with Richard Dawkins. Ad hominem attacks are exciting in the bear pit of a debating arena, but valueless as ideas. Occasionally the lifestyle and values of a proponent undermine the case they are trying to make (e.g. a serial murderer trying to tell us we should not resort to violence), but Hitchen’s views on Iraq have nothing to do with the case he brings against religion.

In sum, Christians in the face of the Hitchens/Dawkins onslaught need to take care: poor reactive arguments will be ravaged! We would also do well to humbly accept fair criticism and make changes when repentance is required. Ditto, standing back when sacred cows are being slaughtered (which of course does not require an atheist to be the throat-cutter; Luther and co were pretty sharp in this area)! But Dawkins/Hitchens have not made the case that religions, Christianity in particular, are completely, utterly, and permanently wrong.

A final thought, perhaps we need to prove Dawkins and Hitchens wrong by our deeds and not by our words.

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