A New Movement Blames God for Every Social Problem
God is a delusion, if his enemies are to be believed: nothing more than the creation of a species with prefrontal lobes too small, and aggressive instincts too strong, for its own good. His worship is poison: his adherents commit child abuse - metaphoric and actual - on a daily basis; and the murderous clashes of rival gangs of his followers are the greatest single threat to humanity's future. Whatever else God may be, he is most assuredly not dead. You can take his critics' word, and the depth of their passion, for that.
Next month sees the publication of Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, a coruscating moral denunciation by the polemicist tutti polemicists. It will join the steady stream of atheist texts that began five years ago, after 9/11 so brutally demonstrated that religious fanaticism is still a force to be reckoned with. So too is atheism, at least as far as book sales go. Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which combines merciless schoolboy-level mockery of RELIGION with the lessons of evolutionary biology, has been a fixture on bestseller lists since the fall. Letter to a Christian Nation, in which American Sam Harris casually states that raising children to believe they are members of a religious group is a "ludicrous obscenity," nevertheless became a Book-of-the-Month club selection last year. And Michel Onfray's In Defense of Atheism, which drips with Gallic scorn for the feeble-minded faithful, and praises the French Revolution for turning all the churches into hospitals, was a bestseller across Europe and, in translation, now on this side of the Atlantic as well.
"The argument between faith and non-faith is cresting again, in a way that's not been seen since the Scopes monkey trial," Hitchens says over the phone from his Washington home. "Whether we're arguing about intervening in Darfur or about the recognition of gay marriage, underneath we're always arguing about religion." He could easily have added from an endless series of other topics across Europe and North America: hot-button issues in a debate many thought was long over.
Today, 82 years after Scopes, the never-ending struggle between supporters and opponents over inserting Intelligent Design, creationism's latest incarnation, into the nation's schools is a religious fight. (It's one that invokes fierce passions: judges who have ruled ID unconstitutional have received death threats.) Angry debates over the permissibility of abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and the public display of religious symbols and icons are all essentially faith-based. In America many of the devout not only wish to maintain the customary display of Christmas imagery in public places, but add to it, in particular by posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses.
In more secular Canada the now-settled issue of gay marriage rights was fought over scriptural grounds; so is the residual matter of whether marriage commissioners can opt out of officiating gay weddings. As with pursuing conscientious objector status in wartime, only a religious justification will receive even a hearing. A tiny Quebec town's adoption of "standards" for its (non-existent) immigrants is now internationally infamous. Across the country there have been fights over practices associated with the stricter forms of various religions - wearing facial veils (Islam), carrying even symbolic weapons (Sikhism), gender segregation (Judaism) and the less-than-scientific biology taught in some religious schools (Christianity).
No surprise, then, that what Hitchens calls "the oldest argument in human history" is increasingly engaging the public. In London's Westminster Central Hall on March 27, some 2,000 people turned out to hear Hitchens, Dawkins and philosopher A.C. Grayling debate a trio of religious authorities on the question "We'd be better off without Religion." (The motion carried, 1,205 to 778.) Hitchens is pleased to see the interest. He thinks it's a sign of hope. "We atheists never thought religion would die out," he continues, "because it comes from fear of death, but we did think theocracy would die. Instead, those of us who used to think we'd just live a life free from religion are fed up with insults and threats from believers, with Danish cartoonists who can't work and murdered Dutch filmmakers, with saying getting AIDS is better, more godly, than using condoms. You know who's a neighbour of mine now? Ayaan Hirsi Ali - America's first refugee from western Europe in living memory."
As Hitchens suggests, atheists were already uneasy with trends in their own Western societies when they awoke to the rude shock of Islamic terrorism - the attacks in New York, London and Madrid, the murderous Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq. The events galvanized them, but not only against militant Islam, as one might expect. The atheist authors all agree a clash of civilizations is under way, but it's not between East and West, or Muslims and Christians, but between rationality and superstition. Onfray, who despises equally what he calls "the fascism of the lion" (the Western side) and the "fascism of the fox" (the Muslim world), refuses to take sides, while Dawkins and Harris are primarily devoted to battling American Christianity.
The Oxford professor, in particular, seems genuinely worried over the possible emergence of the ultimate rogue state, a nuclear-armed American Christian fundamentalist theocracy. (Dawkins' anti-religious beliefs are tightly grafted to his anti-Americanism. Especially his anti-Bushism: "I just can't stand the man's style," he told the Times of London, "the way he swaggers and struts and smirks and the way he looks sly and deceitful and the way Americans can't see it.") Like Harris, Dawkins thinks something can and should be done about this - oddly enough, through ridicule of "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads."
Hitchens, on the other hand, is virtually the last leftist supporter remaining for George W. Bush's war in Iraq, and finds himself rather in the position of Churchill making common cause with Stalin. ("If Hitler had invaded hell," the wartime British prime minister remarked, he, Churchill, would at least have made "a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.") As a British expat and an admirer of Hirsi Ali, who was driven from Holland by Islamic death threats, Hitchens is not inclined to see Europe as the font of all secular virtues, or America as its antithesis. (Not like Harris, an American who constantly exudes the impression his overtly religious countrymen are embarrassing him in front of the Europeans.) And he allows himself to have been a "guarded admirer" of Pope John Paul II's moral and physical courage.
But even Hitchens can find no good in religion that is not dwarfed by the virtues of humane secularism. He - far more than the other authors - never takes his eyes for long off the real shooting war going on alongside the ideological struggle. "As I write these words," Hitchens pens in conscious echo of the celebrated opening of George Orwell's 1941 essay, "The Lion and the Unicorn," "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."
The thrust of all four books is a common assault on the world's three great monotheisms. They have a field day with the soft targets Judaism, Christianity and Islam present: the sexual obsession, the dizzying array of contradictions between and within the faiths and, above all, with the violence they've unleashed on humanity. The common God of the Old Testament is painted as a terrifying, murderous tyrant - a God whose followers can find ample precedent for their most homicidal impulses. But Yahweh's not the only culprit. Hitchens devotes a chapter to hacking away at Eastern religions - pointing out that it was Hindu Tamils on Sri Lanka who, long before Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, pioneered "the disgusting tactic of suicide murder," and the enthusiastic participation of Japanese Buddhists in their country's genocidal 20th-century wars.
Indeed, in ways large and small, from the Biblical accounts of slaughter in the Holy Land through Christianity and Islam's recurrent fratricidal wars, to the genocide in heavily Catholic Rwanda (for which numerous clergy have been charged with war crimes), the religious record is blood-soaked. The 20th century was not much better than the dim past, Hitchens points out, even if you exclude religion's snug embrace with fascist regimes, which Hitchens emphatically refuses to do. "No one can tell me fascism was not a religious movement at bottom," he says. Consider that most of it took place in Catholic countries, often formalized by concordats with the Vatican, or that the Greek Orthodox Church blessed the junta colonels, or Hitler's Nordic paganism; "and, of course, it was literally true in Imperial Japan, that Buddhist-militarist alliance."
Religion kills, Hitchens says, because it is tribal and totalitarian, the most extreme form of in-group/out-group marker ever known. Although some faiths are more pacific than others, that has more to do with their relative powerlessness - were the Amish, say, to rise to supreme authority over other faiths, they would soon begin to resemble the medieval Catholic Church. Power corrupts religion uniquely; because it considers its doctrines uniquely right, it necessarily seeks to interfere in the lives of non-believers. Thus religion offers a constantly available licence for ordinary people to behave cruelly, sometimes "in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow." The entire history of Christian anti-Semitism - not to mention its racial offspring, the Nazis' Final Solution - is a case in point. And the cruelty and irrationality is still enacted regularly in less violent ways in the present day.
Two of the monotheisms, each with millions of followers in Africa, campaign against condom use in a continent rife with AIDS. One can only infer they think the cure - non-fatal sexual relations - is worse than the disease. Outside of the religious box, who could possibly come to that conclusion? Members of the Bush administration resist funding the vaccine against human papilloma virus, a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer, on the grounds that fear of the disease should act as a deterrent to premarital sex. Or, if you get cancer, as just punishment for it.
Then there's the even more grotesque situation that unfolded in New York in 2005, cited by Hitchens in his book. It concerns a 57-year-old mohel, a Jewish circumciser, who like many deeply Orthodox mohels practised an ancient form of his ritual. In this now-rare variant, the mohel completes circumcision by taking the infant's penis in his mouth and sucking off the amputated foreskin. By so doing, the New York mohel gave herpes to at least three babies, killing one of them and bringing brain damage to another. It's estimated that two-thirds of all adults, most of them unknowingly, have the oral herpes virus, which merely leads to cold sores in them while posing a mortal threat to infant brains. The risk of contracting it from a mohel is slight indeed - fewer than a dozen cases have been recorded, including one in Toronto in 1994, in the past 15 years. It's slight but real, nonetheless, and the need for the procedure, from any rational perspective, is non-existent. But in an election year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed off from the city health department's recommended ban, in the name of freedom of religion.
But, for the atheists, the entire religious response to death, and to a lesser degree, pain and suffering, is dangerously and immorally irrational to begin with. As far as they're concerned, believers are repellently willing to allow their own - even their own children - to die in the name of sacred tradition, because the desire for death is something inherent in monotheism. "Being told you're not really going to die is simply contemptible," Hitchens remarks. "Those who offer false consolation are false friends. Especially when behind that lie is the religious' dirty little secret: they want the world to end, they pray for the end to come soon." Christian obsession with the end of the world has real world implications, Harris notes. Almost half the American population professes the belief that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead within the next 50 years. That means, adds Harris, that should New York be destroyed in a nuclear fireball, "some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining. Beliefs of this sort do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves."
Moderate believers naturally won't recognize themselves in these portraits of a bloody pathology, nor should they. But the story of the mohel brings up an aspect of the atheist argument that is even more enraging for believers. Religion claims a central role in the protection of children - in Christianity, the command comes directly from Jesus: "Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea" (Mark 9:42). But the atheists argue that the monotheistic record, beginning with the chilling story of Abraham's willingness to obey God's command to slay his son Isaac - a foundational myth for all three faiths - is one of constant child abuse. It runs the gamut from the contemporary Catholic Church's pedophilia scandal, in which known rapists were protected and moved from parish to parish, to religiously sanctioned female genital mutilation, to Jehovah's Witnesses refusing blood transfusions for their offspring, to the regular instilling of religious terror.
Dawkins writes of Colorado pastor Keenan Roberts, who runs what he calls "hell houses," where children are taken by their parents to be frightened by actors playing out "scenes" of abortion and homosexuality, and by hell itself, complete with recorded screams and the smell of burning sulphur. The fear of damnation, in its most literal and lurid forms, has been thrust into impressionable children's minds for millennia as a means of binding them to their faith. "Millions when young have had this particular terror inflicted on them," Hitchens says. "As for what happened behind the arras," he adds in reference to sexual abuse, "well, what can one say?"
In actual fact, quite a lot, if you're Christopher Hitchens. "If I was suspected of raping a child, or torturing a child, or infecting one with a venereal disease, I might consider committing suicide whether I was guilty or not. If I had actually committed the offence, I would welcome death. Religion, because it claims a special divine exemption, is not just amoral but immoral."
The polemicists' total rejection of faith makes the very existence of religious moderates a puzzle to them. (Dawkins, in particular, seems spiritually deaf to everything from the sense of wonder to the pull of family and community.) Except, perhaps, for Hitchens, who seems to be the only one who admits to having religious friends, the atheists' own dirty little secret - their contempt for moderates - is never far from the surface of their books. They assert that moderates enable fanatics by allowing religious arguments a privileged place - it was a liberal Catholic debating partner who told Hitchens that religious liberty demanded that mohels be allowed to carry out their ancient rite as they saw fit. "In a funny way," Dawkins said in an interview last fall in reference to one devout scientist, "I have more respect for a young creationist," referring to someone who proclaims that life on earth is only 6,000 years old.
That contempt, along with the stridency and a totalitarian disdain for everything to do with religion, is rooted in fear and failure. They think they're losing. The triumph of atheism, so confidently proclaimed by its prophets more than a century ago, now seems as far off as the Second Coming. In 1867, in his landmark poem "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold could only hear the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith, but the religious tide has turned with a vengeance. "This Letter," Harris concludes his book, "is the product of failure - the failure of many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand, failures great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God and despising those who muddle differently."
The mock humility of this may be worthy of a televangelist - can't Harris see a single positive reason for religion's ongoing vigour? - but it is the atheist perspective encapsulated. That makes it an enigma for Christians, particularly those outside robustly religious America. Aren't the ungodly in charge now, the churches empty on Sunday, religious leaders and religious viewpoints shouted out of the political arena? Are not contraception, abortion and, very soon, homosexual marriage the norm across the Western world? Who's winning this war anyway?
Maybe nobody, maybe each side's reading - that the other guys are surging - is correct. In sexual morality, the religious would argue, the secular-minded have effectively won the day. Even the U.S. Christian right, bitterly opposed to gay marriage and abortion (although more in rhetoric than in action so far as the latter is concerned), has accepted divorce - a social change that, a half-century ago, it fought hard against because Jesus himself condemns it in Scripture. In Catholic France, Onfray notes, few "still believe in transubstantiation, in Mary's virginity, the Immaculate Conception, papal infallibility and other dogma - not even (and especially) those many Catholics who fervently attend Sunday mass."
But Christianity survives, Onfray shrewdly goes on to declare - dominates across the West, in fact - in habits of thought inculcated by 2,000 years of "ideological, mental, conceptual and spiritual control," expressed primarily in the idea that this world is not all there is. This Christian concept, that there is something beyond science and beyond our senses, Onfray believes, devalues the only life we have and makes us too prone to violence. Habits of mind ensure that most people will adopt the faith of their fathers - Frenchmen will be Catholics, Turks Muslims and Cambodians Buddhists - without much thinking about it. Even atheists, without noticing it, profess a way of thinking that is "saturated" in Christianity.
True enough. It's the residual Christianity sunk deep in Western cultural DNA that explains, as well as anything could, why a grab bag of beliefs, from the alternative Jesus of the Da Vinci Code to New Age spiritualism, is doing better than pure rationalism in attracting disillusioned ex-Christians. And it recalls G.K. Chesterton's famous dictum that when men stop believing in God, "they don't then believe in nothing, they believe in anything." Like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens, Onfray too believes that religion is stirring anew in an irrational age.
The atheist ideologues' stated purpose is to make all but the diehard "faith-heads" think (as well as to rally the already converted). Of course, what they disdain as the arrogance of faith, its claim that everything we ever needed to know was revealed from on high 3,500 years ago (or 2,000 years ago, or 1,300 years ago), is matched by their own. They don't believe that moderates could really accept what their faiths teach. Surely it's time, Dawkins writes, for them to accept the truth they've been inching toward (as proven by their very moderation), embrace their inner atheists, and come on over to what he infuriatingly calls the "bright" side.
So they all address their books to religious moderates - believers who do not take their scriptures literally, who do not live in hopeful expectation of the destruction of everyone and everything they hold dear. The atheists want them to choose. And they want them to choose a new Enlightenment - each mentions this profound desire - before it's too late, before, for instance, New York does become a heap of ashes. Under Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hitchens writes, "a version of the Inquisition is about to lay hands on a nuclear weapon." It may have once been tolerable, Hitchens asserts, that religion retarded human progress and made a wasteland out of the lives of millions, but now faith "has run out of justifications" and into new ways of terrorizing.
And if the appeal to the moderates is primarily negative - that only a moral idiot could seek middle ground here - Hitchens, conscious always of the pull of culture, family and tradition, will seem the most welcoming. Wavering moderates should know that Christopher Hitchens, surely the only atheist polemicist to have held a Passover seder this week, feels their pain. "My ideal reader," Hitchens says, "is somebody who will be happy rather than sad that they now have to think for themselves." Just as Hitchens had to learn after he shed his Marxism, the once-comforting material god that failed, a doctrine much like religious faith in the supposed totality of its answer to all difficulties, and much like it too in the way it led to horrific human sacrifices: "I say this as one whose own secular faith has been shaken and discarded, not without pain. There are days when I miss my old 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 doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking."
Maclean's April 16, 2007