I saw with some trepidation an article by an atheist that rebukes the man: the title is “Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheism no favors“. I felt that trepidation because there really are very good reasons to criticize Hitchens: his politics were vile, he was a cheerleader for war, his ‘solutions’ for problems in the Middle East were little more than excuses for genocide. He had the capacity to be thoughtful and interesting and deep, but when it came to world politics, he was a madman waving a gun. Someone could write a strong, well-researched criticism of Hitchens that would actually have a lot of weight, and it could overshadow the fellow’s virtues (and, by the way, I think we should recognize that he was not a saint, and that like every one of us, he had his flaws).
But I shouldn’t have worried. The author, Curtis White, basically writes an apologia for religion, and goes after Hitchens for…not respecting faith enough. Seriously? Yeah, seriously. This guy is an atheist who thinks the great theological circle-jerk is a beautiful ballet.
As critics have observed since its publication, one enormous problem with Hitchens’s book is that it reduces religion to a series of criminal anecdotes. In the process, however, virtually all of the real history of religious thought, as well as historical and textual scholarship, is simply ignored as if it never existed. Not for Hitchens the rich cross-cultural fertilization of the Levant by Helenistic, Jewish, and Manichaean thought. Not for Hitchens the transformation of a Jewish heretic into a religion that Nietzsche called “Platonism for the masses.” Not for Hitchens the fascinating theological fissures in the New Testament between Jewish, Gnostic, and Pauline doctrines. Not for Hitchens the remarkable journey of the first Christian heresy, Arianism, spiritual origin of our own thoroughly liberal Unitarianism. (Newton was an Arian and anti-Trinitarian, which made his presence at Trinity College permanently awkward.) Not for Hitchens the sublime transformation of Christian thought into the cathartic spirituality of German Idealism/ Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. And, strangely, not for Hitchens the existential Christianity of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Karl Jaspers, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, and, most recently, the religious turn of poststructural thought in Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Žižek. (All of these philosophers sought what Žižek calls Christianity’s “perverse core.”) And it’s certainly not that he didn’t have the opportunity to acknowledge these intellectual and spiritual traditions. At one point he calls the story of Abraham and Isaac “mad and gloomy,” a “frightful” and “vile” “delusion,” but sees no reason to mention Kierkegaard’s complex, poetic, and deeply felt philosophical retelling of the story in “Fear and Trembling”. In this way, Hitchens is often as much a textual literalist as the fundamentalists he criticizes.
I think I wrote about this before. It’s a red herring: when we ask for evidence of a god, the apologists point to a whole bunch of people wrangling at daunting length about the interpretation of holy writ and say, “See? There. They couldn’t possibly be arguing about nothing at all, now could they?” I wish this would sink in, that someone making an intricate paean to the ineffability of nothing is not evidence of anything other than the human brain’s immense capacity for masturbatory self-reference.
And then the screed continues this trend with the credulous claim that the Bible actually is a solid historical document, contra Hitchens.
This case has been well made by others, if mostly in places far more obscure than Hitchens’s privileged position on the New York Times best-seller list. For example, William J. Hamblin wrote a thorough and admirably restrained review (“The Most Misunderstood Book: Christopher Hitchens on the Bible”) in which he held Hitchens to account for historical howlers of this kind:
In discussing the exodus, Hitchens dogmatically asserts: “There was no flight from Egypt, no wandering in the desert . . . , and no dramatic conquest of the Promised Land. It was all, quite simply and very ineptly, made up at a much later date. No Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode either, even in passing. . . . All the Mosaic myths can be safely and easily discarded.” These narratives can be “easily discarded” by Hitchens only because he has failed to do even a superficial survey of the evidence in favor of the historicity of the biblical traditions. Might we suggest that Hitchens begin with Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt and Ancient Israel in Sinai? It should be noted that Hoffmeier’s books were not published by some small evangelical theological press but by Oxford University—hardly a bastion of regressive fundamentalist apologetics. Hitchens’s claim that “no Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode [of Moses and the Israelites] either, even in passing” is simply polemical balderdash.
Hamblin is thorough, patient, relentless, but also, it seems to me, a little perplexed and saddened by Hitchens’s naked dishonesty and, in all probability, by his own feeling of impotence. You can hardly blame him. Criticism of this character would have, and surely should have, revealed Hitchens’s book for what it is … if it hadn’t been published in The FARMS Review of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Hitchens need never have feared the dulling of his reputation for intellectual dash and brio from that source.
No, Hitchens was quite right. There is no archaeological evidence for the dramatic events of the Exodus. The stories of a vast and powerful rising Hebrew kingdom are all mythologizing and self-aggrandizement. I’m sure Hamblin was quite saddened by the criticism of the self-serving Biblical archaeological community. He probably wept when he read Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies.
I see no “historical howler” in Hitchen’s comment. The people who argue for the historicity of the Bible are religious apologists who read their interpretation of the faith into the historical record, who ignore evidence of the minor significance of the Jewish tribes of that era, and who constantly inflate trivial anecdotes into evidence of empires. It’s a discipline tainted by people who go into it solely to make excuses for their faith.
This is not to say that the Jewish people didn’t exist, or that they were never enslaved in Egypt, or that they never invaded Palestine — merely that the stories in the Bible are grossly exaggerated and untrustworthy.
White does make one justifiable argument, that Hitchens tended to sweep all Eastern religions into the same rubbish bin, and was rather too casual in lumping them all together. I think it’s valid to say Hitchens was not an expert on Eastern philosophy…but then the responsibility falls on his critics to explain exactly why we should grant an Eastern religion greater credence than something a two-year old babbles? And why then, isn’t the atheist author of this piece now adopting the superior ethical philosophy of ancient Tibetans?
And finally, White goes galloping off to attack secular reasons for moral behavior.
Hitchens’s second metaphysical claim has to do with conscience. He counters the claim that without religion we would have no ethics by saying that conscience is innate. He writes, “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.”
Well, as Hitchens likes to say, this is “piffle.” After all, what is a conscience? Does it light up on a brain scan when we think virtuous thoughts? And if it is innate (and just what exactly does it mean to be innate?) why was Crassus’s crucifixion of six thousand Spartacans lined up along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua in 71 BCE thought by the people of Rome to be an expression of Roman vertù and a very good reason to honor Crassus with a full triumphal procession back into the city? Are we to imagine that the citizens of Rome threw garlands in the path of the conquering hero against their better judgment? Are we to imagine that after the celebration the citizens were stung by conscience and were unable to sleep at night? Or did Crassus merely confirm for Rome that it was what it thought it was, a race of masters?
White does not understand at all. Humans are plastic, with some innate biases. If you raise a child with love and encourage them to love others, they will (well, usually — we’re also too complex to be programmed simplistically). If you raise them with hate, they grow up hating. If you bring them up believing that slaves are a less worthy other, they will feel no guilt if you murder them en masse. Romans were recipients of life-long propaganda about the virtue of Rome…just as Americans now are raised with a lifelong faith in the superiority of their way of life. And there are all kinds of indoctrination systems out there.
Religion is one. It’s not the only one, obviously. Religion is just something that raises people to unquestioningly accept the superiority of a system of beliefs — not just about ethics, but about the nature of the universe. And it’s a system that is demonstrably false. It’s also a useful tool for obedience that is often coopted by other beliefs — American exceptionalism, for instance, is also all tangled up in Christianity.
I have no religion, and after meeting many people who were sincere in their beliefs, I realized that I never did — as a child, I was going through the motions, but never believed in any deity, nor even felt fear or concern or love for one. I acquired that basic human decency not from religion, but from family and friends, being brought up in an almost totally religion-free home that regarded fairness and justice towards others as an important value.
And that’s what Hitchens meant: ethical behavior is independent of religion, which merely claims against all evidence to be the wellspring of human decency. He does not imply in any way that freedom from religion automatically gives you good values, but that the causes of those values precede the nonsense your church layers upon you. And further, when you look at what religion effectively teaches — deference to authority, gullibility, guilt and fear — it’s true, religion really does poison everything.