Monday, January 3, 2011

Christopher Hitchens' Polemic Against Religion

God is Not Great, the first book I've read in 2010 (category: non-fiction), is a polemic par excellence. One thing I've learned in preparing this post is that the word "polemic" does not imply any particular vitriol, sarcasm, or hyperbole, as I had assumed. Instead, according to, a polemic is a controversial argument, usually against some doctrine or opinion. One could pen a gentle, mildly pleading polemic, but of course that's not Christopher Hitchens's way. Nor would it be anywhere nearly as fun to read as his scathing and oh-so-literate critique of religious belief in all its contradictions and cruelties.

Hitchens, as anybody who pays attention to such things is probably aware, is an atheist essayist and journalist who is currently suffering from metastatic esophageal cancer. He has made it a point of honor to warn us in advance that any reports of a deathbed conversion will be spurious. He has lived by honest, critical examination of the evidence he sees; he is a liberal or rather radical humanist who considers religion dishonest, totalitarian, and laughable; and he would consider it the greatest of hypocrisy and cowardice to try and hedge his bets at the last.

I don't agree with all of Hitchens's opinions and stands; he has been a Marxist and an avid supporter of the Iraq war, while I am neither. But I value his stance that reason is our best hope of improving the world and our own lot. Like him, I'm bemused by people who believe that without religion, people's behavior would inevitably fall into immorality. (Does this mean that all that keeps religious people good is their fear of hell? Rational people can see lots of good reasons for honesty, fidelity, and kindness.) Like him, I believe that our reason (and our empathy, which should reach beyond those of our own tribe) are our greatest human attributes, and we should not sacrifice them on the altar of secondhand revealed truth.

My youngest sister, who is very religious, once accused me (I was talking about my children's education) of "worshiping the mind." I was taken aback by the comment, and I questioned myself. Do I worship the mind? Certainly I respect it, probably more than I respect the body, or beauty, or obedience. I don't value cleverness above kindness, but I do seek knowledge as a good and assume that others will do so, too. At my sister's words, I caught a glimpse for the first time of a different value system - one that sincerely does not want children to learn anything that might challenge a chosen system of belief.

So philosophically I find myself very much aligned with the view Christopher Hitchens espouses. At times, reading his book, I found myself wanting to say, "Come now; reasonable religious people don't really believe all this" - the inerrancy of the Bible when it gives contradictory accounts of the same events, say, or the literal existence of djinns in the desert. "Some fundamentalists may believe these things, but what about reasonable people who hold that these are valuable metaphors to guide our moral life?" But if they are metaphors, gathered together by long-ago chroniclers from ancient oral traditions, then why should they command greater respect than, say, Greek myth or ancient Native American wisdom for guiding our conduct? Why should it be considered such poor taste, such intolerance, to argue with these doctrines and beliefs?

I said I would try to find a lesson for my own writing in each book I read this year. For God in Not Great, the lesson, I think, is not to shy away from the polemical, and not only among my characters. I write fiction, it's true, but my writing is still based on beliefs about such matters as freedom, learning, war, and truth. Fear of offending our fellows might lead us to speak respectfully, but it should never make us keep silent about something important.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to drop in to say hi and...WOW! You write fantabulous blog posts. You could easily fill a nice size book of essays.

I didn't realize your connection with Intel until a couple of posts down. I was in the pre-Silicon Valley with a computer startup. Sigh. IMSAIs didn't make the cut. Crashed and burned on E.S.T.

Sorry about the Anon. Your blog doesn't love me for some reason.


Penny said...

Thanks, Marva. Yes, I remember those days before the valley came to be named for Silicon. We lived in a green place, across the street from a golf course, and we had ponies, a very devoted sheep, and a vicious goose. It was a bit of a sleepy place.

And on the note of religious intolerance, today's news has another scary story about Islamic fundamentalists' fear of blasphemy: a Pakistani governor was assassinated by his own bodyguard for daring to oppose the country's vicious anti-blasphemy law.

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