Monday, July 09, 2007

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

I didn't even bother to read the reviews of Christopher Hitchens's new polemic against Religion, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Another book about atheism? Yawn!! I am already hostile enough to religion and its many manifestations, innocent and not so innocent, and I don't need another book to convince me of the same. Anyway, I just picked it up on a lark and I am glad I did. It is a hugely entertaining book, at almost every page I was nodding in agreement and in indignation, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all and marveling at Hitchens's wit and his skill at phrase making. It is great reminder of what a fantastic writer and a dazzling polemicist Hitchens is or can be when he is not carping about Iraq. So in the book we learn about "the moral terrorism" and "organized hypocrisy" of the Vatican. The Japanese emperor Hirohito gets the wonderful moniker of "a ridiculously overrated mammal." He calls Calvin "a sadist, a torturer and a killer". According to him Pascal's theology is "not far short of sordid." And the Koran? "A rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms.” He is no less harsh and funny on Judaism. I am not even going to get into the adjectives he has for creationists, mormons and other assorted idiocies.

I was specially excited after seeing a chapter titled: There is no "Eastern" Solution. It is something which interests and also perplexes and annoys me -- the way crap is being sold as a packaged spiritual product by spiritual hucksters. These new age superstitions are real travesties of religion. They may look harmless, even fun at times. All those crystal balls, magnetic therapy and tarot cards but they are equally dangerous, just that their effects are more insidious. One problem with the criticism of Eastern religions is that how easy it is to shift goal posts, or actually there are no goal posts at all. The monotheistic religions at least talk in the same language, the language or arguments and logic. The eastern religions with their hostility towards the language and indeed thought itself leave you without any foundation from which you can criticise their tenets. (For example the possibility logical contradictions and ambiguities inherent in human language is used by Buddist teachings (Koan) to discredit the idea of language and intellectual thought itself.) He also recounts his experiences at the so called "Bhagwan" Rajneesh. The sign that greets him before the ashram says, "leave you shoes and minds at the door." I don't know whether I should laugh or feel indignation.

Hitchens knows a great deal about Christianity but when it comes to eastern religions he is more or less clueless. Add to that the reason I mentioned above, the chapter is a disappointment. He more than makes up for it in the next chapter where he answers the claims of the critics of atheism that Stalin and Hitler's regimes where atheistic regimes or can we link to horrors of twentieth century authoritarianism to the "death of God" concept. He takes this charge very seriously, and indeed it deserves to be taken so, and convincing refutes each and every argument. He knows a great deal of the history of 20th century dictatorships too. Surely it is not hard to see the religious impulse behind most of the dictatorships--secular or religious. The cult of personality, the sourcing of moral laws from a divine authority or his representative on earth, the messianic hope of transcendence and redemption in the form of Utopia, the sacralization of myths of race, creed and nation. These are all religious impulses in their essence. Hitchens has a lot more to say on this. And he is very good at it. As expected from a fervent admirer of George Orwell.

Now to some objections and problems. Not necessarily with this book but in general with the doctrine of "secular humanism". It is understandable why Hitchens and company would give atheism a rosy humanist image, a "positive" way of life. They are after all writing pamphlets and propaganda and are trying to win converts and the version of the atheism based on negation, doubts and self-mortification will not make a very good copy. (Though there is a good deal of misanthropy in Hitchens's book.) Though personally I am drawn to exactly this line of thinking -- the tradition of thinkers like Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Kafka and if one talks of films, Bergman, Dreyer and Bresson. Ivan Karamazov doesn't doubt the existence of God or the possibility of Salvation and redemption. He rejects them because he says the whole religious edifice is built on the tears of innocent children. In fact it was reading the speech of Ivan Karamazov which changed my own personal views towards religious faith--from an indifferent intellectual annoyance to a deep moral disgust.

Another irritating feature of these new atheism propaganda is their faith in human exceptionalism. Ironically this is something that gives it some continuity with religious dogma. This is where I agree with the critiques of thinkers like John Gray. (Though he goes too far in his neo-apocalypticism to make much sense after a while.) Gray says that not just enlightenment humanists but even philosophers like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger who shook every foundation of the entire western philosophy, even they couldn't relinquish and let go their faith in human exceptionalism, this vile and ridiculous remnant of religious belief. Human consciousness, freedom and rationality are NOT absolutes, but rather contingent concepts, mere by-products of our evolutionary history. The refusal to acknowledge this obvious fact makes a few sections of these atheism books sound positively religious.

In conclusion let's not be too harsh on ourselves and our fellow humans. If you want to read one book about religion, let it be this one. Five out of five stars. Two Thumbs up. And all that.

20 comments:

Nelson S. Muntz said...

---------------
If you want to read one book about religion, let it be this one.
---------------

That's like saying if you want to read about Jews, you should read 'Mein Kampf'.

I'm sorry. I personally am a non-believer and don't much care for religion outside of their philosophical quality and don't intend to be an apologist for religion or whatnot, but to me anyone who has such a simplistic view of religion, not surprisingly one shaped by their prejudices, especially the same people who extol rationality and humanism(a word I dislike though not with the ideas behind it) are to me every bit as narrowminded as the many religious hypocrites.

Religion has developed years of traditions and their own intellectual character and as such were never meant for people with simple views in the first place.

-----------------------
In fact it was reading the speech of Ivan Karamazov which changed my own personal views towards religious faith--from an indifferent intellectual annoyance to a deep moral disgust.
-----------------------

Uhhh, read the book again, Ivan Karamazov does not reject religion in those chapters because of moral disgust. When he's talking about God letting the innocent children suffer, exactly who do you think he's talking about?????

Obviously himself and his brothers. Their own lack of love growing up without their mother's love and living without their father's acceptance and later with his hedonism. The very fact that Ivan became upset that God did not come for them shows that he still depended on him. Ivan's rejection of God's ticket is his way of trying to live without any need for God, something that he fails doing.

I personally have huge problems with people like Hitchens and his love partner Dawkins evangelizing atheism making it a big deal and for that matter acting as if it makes you more moral than being religious. It really doesn't. One's belief system in whatever ethical code does not make you more moral or immoral. How people put that into action is what counts and religion is among those ethical codes.

But then people like Hitchens have nothing to say anymore so they make themselves important by making an unimportant issue as if it's the intellectual question of the century and are actually, unintentionally, helping out their opponents.

--------------------
Hitchens has a lot more to say on this. And he is very good at it. As expected from a fervent admirer of George Orwell.
--------------------

I hope you don't mean to compare Hitchens to the great Orwell. I mean you might dissuade people from Orwell by putting his name alongside an idiot like Hitchens.

Alok said...

We obviously disagree on a lot of things.

My mistake, the sentence should have read "one book about the evils of religion". Even then I think your analogy is wrong and annoying.

I am also surprised by your interpretation of the Ivan Karamazov story. If anything, it is a very standard and a conventional attack on theodicy. It is perhaps the most cited text on this topic ever. Dostoevsky of course turns him into a failure, even makes him see Satan and suffer from delusions. All well and very good, it makes for a great reading, but does it negate what he wrote in the "rebellion" chapter? No, it does not. When one sees the way religion explains away injustice and suffering using dubious logic and fradulent claims, that's the reason for feeling disgusted.

How people put that into action is what counts and religion is among those ethical codes.

But why is this particular ethical code such an appalling failure? From religion inspired book burnings to murder and mayhem to contempt for individual and human rights... you can find it all in the news of just last few days.

religious morality is not just wrong, in the sense that some of its laws and edicts are wrong but this basically carrot and stick philosophy is immoral in its essence. You say you are not an apologist for religion, then where does this refusal to see the obvious come from.

Regarding Orwell, I wasn't comparing Hitchens to him. But Orwell himself could clearly see the totalitarian impulses in religion and vice versa. The crow character in the Animal Farm comes to mind which is always telling the animals of the story of land of sweets (not sure if I remember correctly.)

Cheshire Cat said...

"preaching to the converted" :)

Actually, given Hitchens' track record, believers must believe more than ever before that they are right...

Alok said...

At least for me, he has salvaged a lot of his reputation by writing this book.

Richard said...

"Hitchens knows a great deal about Christianity but when it comes to eastern religions he is more or less clueless."

I recall that Bertrand Russell wrote a long essay on the cultural differences between atheists from Catholic countries and those from Protestant countries, suggesting that their religious background conditioned their non-belief. I do tend to think that an ex-Hindu or Buddhist atheist should really write on this subject, as I don't really think Dawkins or Hitchens have a great deal of expertise to tackle it - too bound up in the monotheist idea of the dictator god.

"Surely it is not hard to see the religious impulse behind most of the dictatorships--secular or religious. "

Yes, I think my objection towards religion is that it does serve as a prototype for a utopian mindset that has to use force to achieve its goals and tends to supress objections and dissent. In that sense, I'm not so much an atheist as an anti-theist.

http://www.logopolis.org.uk/weblog

Alok said...

I am an Ex-hindu myself but I am sorry to say I have little theoretical understanding of Hindu philosophy. All I know is sundry myths from children's books and TV serials.

I don't understand why but hinduism attracts only the Swami, Yogi types or the awestruck western indologists. I haven't come across any good critical, historical and journalistic book on Hinduism.

Richard said...

Which is a particular pity when you consider Hindutva.

km said...

Even though I disagree with Hitchens most of the times, the time he wrote that letter to the Times' editor (re the John Le Carre-Rushdie affair) was supremely entertaining!

That said, everything (and everyone) is selling us a beautiful vision of the future. Religion is yet another ugly instance of that salesmanship.

Nelson S. Muntz said...

------------------
I am also surprised by your interpretation of the Ivan Karamazov story. If anything, it is a very standard and a conventional attack on theodicy. It is perhaps the most cited text on this topic ever.
-------------------

It's actually the interpretation priest friends of mine told me. The funny thing is priests who read the novel relate to Ivan more than Alyosha. Yes it is a conventional attack on religion but then people aren't robots, Ivan's obsession with God, right down to that vision with that pseudo-devil is of course based above all on personal experience i.e his own anger at God for not protecting him and his brothers from their father.

True non-believers like me don't give a hoot if God exists or not, it's not agnosticism since we don't call ourselves that or even the dreaded 'a' word. It's just that to us religious questions like why doesn't God do anything while so-and-so, this-and-that is suffering is absolutely not of interest for us. Those are theological issues and something for priests to do. Like the character in that Bunuel film -'Nazarin'.

To us, God isn't even there in the first place, i.e. questions of his existence/nonexistence are meaningless. That is, if we found out that there was incontrovertible proof that God did not exist, it wouldn't matter at all to us. But it would to millions of others. But then such a thing can't happen since you can't prove the 'non-existence' of anything.

Basically Ivan's journey in that novel was his self-realization that God did in fact matter to him and he struggles with his supposed 'silence' and also his own realization that for all his 'everything is permitted' talk he was all along a very moral person. Ivan probably is the character closest to Dostoevsky himself.

--------------
Dostoevsky of course turns him into a failure, even makes him see Satan and suffer from delusions.
--------------

He doesn't turn him into a failure!!! Well not anymore than the others. Success and failure don't mean the same things for Dostoevsky. And in his nightmare chapter where Dostoevsky makes a joke out of the whole concept of the devil read that carefully again.

Novels are more than philosophical tracts which is what makes it superior to most of it. They are equally about human behaviour and the relation between one's mind and what he does and about ideas and their realization.

Nelson S. Muntz said...

Okay leaving aside novel discussion...

-------------
Even then I think your analogy is wrong and annoying.
-------------

Maybe, but doesn't make it less truthful. In any case most Nazis were just like most ordinary citizens walking down the streets making the same mistakes, blind to the same generalizations. I wasn't equating you with the author of that book. Just making a point of your shallow comparison. If people seriously have gripes with religion then the best thing you should do is read the books for yourself and try and understand them, because religious questions are very complex, by which I don't mean contradictory or anything. Just because you dislike it doesn't give you the right to think that your dislike is based on complete knowledge of the subject.

---------------
But Orwell himself could clearly see the totalitarian impulses in religion and vice versa
---------------

To my reckoning he never said anything critical of religion. From what I hear, he was an Anglican. And in any case it's one of the most famous observations that in '1984', the missing presence is of course religion and religious institutions. Some I suppose like Hitchens hilariously hold totalitarian impulses as similar to relgion but then people with anti-manichean viewpoints get rid of that fairly quickly.

The most interesting thing about relgion by which I mean across the world though is that it deals with it's central topic with greater depth than any n number of philosopher has ever done - the nature of freedom which is a very scary and bleak issue for people to think about especially today where questions of freedom beyond their conventional meaning is rarely broached upon.

------------------
You say you are not an apologist for religion, then where does this refusal to see the obvious come from.
------------------

Because I have a clear idea about fanaticism and have seen how it comes about and in general - religion i.e. the actual religious texts are in no way responsible. And trust me it's not limited to religion as well.

Basically people need to make the subtle difference between religious violence and violence carried out in the name of religion. Compared to violence carried out in other names like patriotism, nationality, culture or for that communism...it's in no way alone.

But then if you are going to read only books against religion especially from people who have no knowledge about theology like Dawkins then...clearly no point.

In any case those religious texts themselves point out that those who misunderstand what their saying are going straight to hell assuming it exists. Part of the Ten Commandments is of course that God has no forgiveness for those who misuse his name.

The main problem and actually chief virtue of religion s that unlike other moral philosophers, religion was able to reach a wide audience and at the same time connect to both high and low and on rare occasions unite the two without creating a new middle ground.

Eventually of course the bad guys got access and that's how the problem started. But that was before the printing press. Today it's different because even though you have more sources than any generation ever had, people are too stupid and lazy to actually read and think for themselves. And I'd be hanged if any of those telvangelists actually read the Bible themselves page-by-page. Sure I haven't either. But at least I don't call myself a priest.

Alok said...

The only difference between you and me I think is that I see a grave and real threat, that you don't, to exactly the kind of open and frank discussion that we are having now by religious hordes intent on taking back the civilization to the 12th century. You say they are doing it only in the name of religion and religion itself as a system is not responsible. Nobody will disagree with this position. A Knife or a gun in itself is not evil it is what humans do with them. Not a perfect analogy but still... But no one will also deny that everybody should be made aware of the dangers of religious faith. It is here that people like Dawkins and Hitchens come into picture. Most of their book is just a laundry-list of horrors perpetrated in the name of religion and they explain how this process works through indoctrination and exploitation of natural human gullibility and tendency towards wishful thinking.

I also agree with you, religion can have important things to say about such abstruse concepts like freedom or subjectivity, but to think about them in a critical and detached manner you have to first extricate yourself from faith! Even here I don't know who in his right mind would prefer bible and koran to, say, Spinoza and Hume when it comes to these subjects!

Alok said...

km: He is very entertaining in this book too. Perfect antidote to the image of gloomy and embittered losers that atheists have.

richard: yes, but hindutva doesn't have much to do with hindu religion unlike its islamic counterpart. It is a majoritarian nationalist movement built on false claims of grievances against minority community (imagine that!). It is already fizzling out...

wildflower seed said...

Alok
Read Nirad Chaudhuri's "Hinduism : A Religion To Live By"

nelson s. muntz said...

The world isn't going back into the 12th Century!!!!!

That kind of simple minded paranoia is precisely what Hitchens and his ilk are dangerously spreading.

Hitchens' reactionary wish fulfilment fantasies of going back to the 18th Century is as many have pointed laughable. But then that's typical of intellectual thought in Europe today - a civilization obsessed with cannibalizing it's own decaying culture reminding the world of how Europe was in the 18th Century. He used to be interesting and had something to say but then so did England.

Not that I am denigrating the 'Enlightenment' but preaching atheism(which was not part of the Enlightenment) is just ridiculous and not even all that enlightened in the first place. Since atheism isn't a way of life of at all and for us it's not even that big a deal. Him preaching it is just making things worse along with those sad Atheist organizations people put up.

The problems of the world in the Middle East for one, as any subscriber to Ha'aretz and Al-Jazerra will tell you have little religious motivation anyway. And jihad as those terrorists practice it is so far away from what the book says it's actually in its odd way funny. Those terrorists in any case are victims of border warfare and U.S. Imperialism.

For a better and more intelligent writer on world politics and so more relevant - read Noam Chomsky.

The funny thing is atheists who get some kind of fulfillment by calling themselves the 'a' word(which real non-believers never call themselves) and even give awards it's almost like people are rewarded for their non-belief only on earth. With religion at least, any reward is between that person and what ever the hell is beyond but this is even worse.

But then that's typical of reactionaries or narrow-minded people.

Alok said...

wfs: Hey, glad to see you here!!

I didn't know about this book thanks. I haven't even read An Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. I know I will like it very much from what I have read about it... Will definitely look out for a copy. thanks.


nsm: it is okay, I understand your position completely. One need not agree with their arguments or style but at least they have brought these issues in the mainstream public domain. there has been so much commentary in the media in the last year on this subject, mostly critical if you look closely. this can only be good.

Anonymous said...

How does one become an 'ex-hindu'....do enlighten me!

Alok said...

yes it is tricky, isn't it. it is mostly a matter of labelling in the end. so when someone asks me if i am a hindu i say i am not, i am an atheist. i find it better this way.

Anu said...

You could try also reading "The Continent of Circe" by Nirad C Choudhary. I don't remember the precise content, but I do remember a great amount of stringent dissection on Hindus and Hinduism. By the way, saying you are an atheist doesn't make you any less Hindu. Because Hinduism is not just a religion, but a collective shared past. Just like you don't have to follow Judaism to be a Jew. The bottomline is that you can be an atheist and still a Hindu. Saying ex-Hindu only shows you are too conscious about being a Hindu, which you don't have to be.

Alok said...

My library here only has the "Autobiography". Will see if I can get my hands on this one too. Thanks.

Yes I agree with you about Hinduism. Hindusim can potentially accommodate even a hardcore atheistic/naturalistic stream... I really don't know the category/label of "Hindu" even means anything specific and if it is of any use at all.

anu said...

Now that you ask this question of what "Hindu" means, I remember that Nirad C. answers this question in the book I mentioned. At any rate, one knows this much that "Hindu" started as a geographic-cultural marker rather than a strictly religious one. This word existed even before a religion Hinduism evolved around this cultural-geographic Hinduism. So in that pristine sense, it just bundles up all the humanity gathered around river Indus, or in the Indian subcontinent (Indus, Hindu, India have the same etymology).