July 15, 2007
On Religion, Hitchens is Not so GreatBy James Lewis
Christopher Hitchens is one of the more sensible voices on the Left. He has not lost his moral sense on the matter of terrorists randomly murdering innocent men, women and children for the greater glory of their twisted fantasies of God. But his latest book reveals his feet of clay. Titled "god (with a small 'g') is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" it is little more than a sermon on Karl Marx's throwaway line that "religion is the opiate of the masses."
Well, so it is: It's called the consolations of religion in traditional language, and in a world of pain and loss, as well as love and joy, consolation is nothing to be sneered at. All the world religions are full of words and rites of consolation in the face of loss and death; it is one of the supreme uses of religion.
But Hitch trots obediently in the footsteps of Herr Marx to tar all faiths with the same brush, as if your local Unitarian minister is now using his fiery weekly sermons to whip up his foaming-at-the-mouth congregation, getting them to rush out and mob the kindergarten across the street for deviating from strict Unitarian doctrine (whatever that might be this week at that particularl congregation). It's just bizarre.
Religion is a great many things, including many decent and noble things, and deflating them all into a soggy rubber balloon for the sake of Leftist analysis is much like trying to reduce all of human sexuality to physical friction between genital organs. Hitch could easily write a book called "Sex is not great." Well, it is and it isn't. What kind of sex? Practiced by whom? To what end?
Hitch's book actually stands for a whole Leftist attitude of sneering superiority in the face of religion. The Left just doesn't get it -- maybe because they have never read any serious works on the subject, or haven't paid any attention lately to the vast body of music, writing, art and architecture inspired by religious feelings, giving it an honest effort to understand. Simple Peruvian peasants understand religion very deeply, even living all their lives in tiny villages on the isolated highlands of the Andes. But sophisticated liberals just can't wrap their minds around this weird stuff. They are suffering from a giant intellectual lacuna: A hole in the intellect, if you will.
Hitch is simply befuddled with humanity's most passionate quest, to live and die in dignity, to partake in some small way of the vast and awe-inspiring universe, to keep trying to understand, and indeed to die trying. Until the 20th century the greatest artists dedicated their finest efforts to religious works: A flood of masterpieces from Bach, Mozart, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Verdi, Mahler, Handel, even skeptics like Ralph Vaughn Williams, would be reduced to a small trickle if their religious works were left out.
And that isn't even touching on the great libraries of religion itself, beginning from the very earliest invention of writing. At its towering peaks, the works of civilization are almost always religious in spirit and belief: Think of the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, the buried grave ships of Viking chieftains, or the great carved mountain statues of the Buddha that were systematically blown up by Taliban barbarians only a few years ago. Sumerian ziggurat pyramids rise from the very earliest strata of human civilization: They are nothing if not expressions of religious awe. Even earlier, some 30,000 years ago, the cave paintings at Clerveaux and elsewhere in Southern France and Iberia express much the same awed engagement with an overwhelming reality. Hunter-gatherers express it one way; farming and herding peoples say it another way; settled cities after Sumeria discovered yet more magnificent ways to say it. The human message was much the same.
Religious art begins abruptly about 50,000 years ago, for totally unknown reasons: Suddenly human graves are marked with red ochre, and oriented to a single lode star in the night sky. All over the prehistoric world physical symbols of power and devotion are laid in the ground, next to the honored dead; giant neolithic stone works are found all over the Old World, like Stonehenge but spread far and wide; and even the utilitarian stone hand axes that did not change over hundreds of thousands of years, are suddenly refined into ritual shapes too fragile for any practical use. Something very profound happened to human nature fifty or seventy millenia ago, and it has all the earmarks of what we inadequately call religion.
Just try breaking that great phenomenon down into the tiny pebbles of understanding our Left shows itself to be capable of. Trivial minds reduce even awesome achievements to the only level they can grasp. But that doesn't change the reality.
Now Hitch's hero Karl Marx went right ahead, of course, and concocted an opiate for the masses even purer, more intoxicating, and far more destructive in the 20th century than any religion in history. Marxism killed some 100 million people over a hundred years, trying to coerce its idea of human perfection on earth. Today North Koreans are still dying by the hundreds of thousands at the whim of a chubby little Stalinist monster in Pyongyang. At bottom, of course, Marxism is a secular religion, with its own infallible Prophet, its parasitical priesthood, and a doomed repetition compulsion to create a paradise on earth by coercive force. For any "Man of the Left" like Hitchens not to be utterly thrown and humbled by the last Marx-made century of catastrophes shows a deep deficiency in his moral sensitivities. And in his book "god is not Great," Hitch shows us why he is a basically silly man when it comes to this subject.
I speak not as a religious person myself, but as a skeptic who is nevertheless looking at the facts -- such as the constantly expressed sense of the numinous that pervades human works over the past five hundred centuries. That doesn't mean I like or approve all religious expressions; that would be impossible. It's just that it makes no sense to tar millions of ordinary people living good and decent lives with the same brush as the head-chopping sadists who grab the headlines today in the name of religion. Hitchens is asking us to make precisely that kind of wild, illogical leap.
There's an interesting contrast between Mr. Hitchens and the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, notorious for the slogan that "God is dead; we have killed Him." Contrary to the Left, Nietzsche had the utmost respect and even reverence for religion. That's because he was an extremely well informed scholar, who understood his own cultural history in depth. He studied works from the ancient Greeks to modern Europe with all the finicky care of a trained classical philologist. He believed that Christian religion (and implicitly Judaism) were on their last legs in the 19th century. And he was not entirely wrong about that.
But Nietzsche always spoke about the breakdown of faith as a great cultural disaster, and a devastating challenge for the future. For him, "God is dead" was not a Hitchenesque self-preening slogan about the moral superiority of the secular Left. On the contrary. Nietzsche saw the loss of Western faith as the most profound historical shock, an invitation to cultural disaster. Well, the secular religions of the 20th century, like Nazism and Marxism, have certainly made a strong case for him.
Nietsche expressed those feelings beautifully in his Parable of the Madman. Just compare it to Hitchens' slick superficiality:
Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.]
Oh, and has anybody noticed that Mr. Hitchens' first name, Kristophoros, means "Christ-bearer"? Someone in his family must have understood a lot more about human beings than Hitch does today.
James Lewis blogs at http://www.dangeroustimes.wordpress.com/