Sunday, December 16, 2007

god is not Great

god is not Great - How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens is an easy read - that man can really write! I found it interesting but full of irrelevant information and cheap argumentative tricks.

I know the scriptures are the writings of humans without the benefit of modern scientific educations. I know they have been translated and edited by humans for thousands of years. I am not a literal believer. Therefore, the rather obvious lack of scientifically verifiable content in holy books does not surprise me at all.

Hitchens claims (page 8) that religion has retarded development of civilization. On what evidence? None that I could find. The very fact that all societies and great civilizations of the past have been infused with what many of us judge to be irrational spiritual belief seems to argue for the benefit of religion for their survival and spread. If religion retards civilization, one would expect non-believing societies, free from religious retardation, to have been most successful. Can anyone cite an example? History proves the opposite!

Hitchens relates how he was asked by Dennis Prager if, approached by a bunch of men on a dark evening in a strange neighborhood, he would be less worried about his safety if he knew they were coming out of a prayer meeting. He spouts (page 18) a litany of cities (Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, ... "and that is only the B's") where, during certain times in recent and ancient history he would be less confortable if confronted by men exiting a religious meeting. Hitchens lives in Washington, DC and spends most of his time away from home in New York, London, Los Angeles, and so on. What would any honest person's answer be to that question?

He goes out of his way to trash both Mother Teresa (page 145+) and Ghandi (page 182+).

Hitchens was a Marxist before he lost his faith in that hopeless cause. He supported Trotsky who was exiled and later murdered by Stalin. One wonders if Hitchens would still be a Marxist had Trotsky turned the tables and eliminated Stalin.

Based on experience of loss of faith in Marxism, he laments (page 153) the pain he knows his book is inflicting on the religious faithful. I wonder if he is simply jealous of their faith? Like a kid whose balloon has popped, he savors the experience of popping everyone else's balloon.

He misquotes Rabbi Hillel, one of our most influential Jewish scholars, claiming Hillel stated the Golden Rule in the postitive version (page 213): "Treat others as you wish to be treated." In fact, even the slightest research would have shown that Hillel used the negative version favored by most Jewish scholars. Hillel wrote: "That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

He has an entire chapter entitled "Is Religion Child Abuse?" and concludes it is much worse (page 217) "'Child abuse' is really a silly and pathetic euphemism for what has been going on; the systematic rape and torture of children ..." He cites cases where children have indeeed been abused by priests of various religions, but that is an argumentative trick. If some Englishmen rape and torture children would it be right to say English civilization is all about rape and torture of children?

In a Comment to a previous Topic I noted Hitchens's reaction to what he calls "Hannukah" (he can't even spell it wrong the "right" way "Hanukkah" as major media do :-(

"Hannukah" is, in his words, a "vapid and annoying" holiday where "the Jews borrow shamelessly from Christians in the pathetic hope of a celebration that coincides with 'Christmas'".

Sorry it annoys Hitchens, but our grandchildren and children and fellow Jews northwest of Boston were anything but "pathetic" a couple weeks ago as we joyously lit the Chanukah candles and consumed more than our share of latkes. In a multi-generational recognition, Vi and I and our family had the honor of lighting one of the candles at a multi-congregation event in Chelmsford, MA.

The Maccabees, the heros of our Chanukah story of religious freedom, were, according to Hitchens, "forcibly restoring Mosaic fundamenalism against the many Jews .. attracted by Hellenism." In doing so, they sired "the stench of Calvin and Torquemada and bin Laden ... a poisonous branch that should have been snapped off long ago."

Hitchens apparantly believes it would have been better for monothesim to have been wiped out by Hellenists in 165 BC because that would have prevented the excesses of Christianity and Islam!

Again, on what historical basis can that claim be founded? The Maccabee revolt was in response to the Syrian Greek effort to replace our monotheistic God with their pantheon of gods. To that end, the Temple in Jerusalem was forceably Hellenized. The success of the Maccabees restored a more traditional Judaism to that area, made the Greeks and later the Romans more tolerant of religious diversity in their empires, and set the stage for the later development of Christianity.

Would western civilization have been better off with a pantheon of Greek gods?

I think the case is clear that western civilization is an amalgam of Judeo-Christian and Greek/Roman civilizations and each of those components makes it strong. Had the Judeo-Christian element been left out, I think eastern civilization and religion (i.e., Ghengis Khan) might have wiped us out. Would the world have been better off? I don't know. However, Hitchens seems to hate western civilization so much that he might prefer whatever would have followed from a Mongol success.

On the positive side (at least for me as a Pantheist) he notes Leslie Orgel's comment (page 84): "... evolution is smarter than you are." (Orgel was an associate of Francis Crick, DNA pioneer.)

He also writes (page 165) "... people can be better off believing in something than in nothing, however untrue that something may be."

Ira Glickstein


Howard Pattee said...

Ira and I agree on the value of a belief in existence (reality) that goes beyond what we know in any empirical sense, both things we may yet discover and things we can never discover, like what is beyond our event horizon. We also agree that, like witches, there are good beliefs and bad beliefs. Pantheism is a relatively benign belief because it can never come into conflict with empirical evidence, but it leaves our imagination free to cover our current ignorance with mythical memes that may improve our chances of survival, both personal and cultural. Pantheism is not dependent on sacred, revealed, or scriptural myths, as are most religions, so it can evolve. As we learn more about what exists we may (conservatively!) adapt our myths without being “heretics.”
Mainline religions think pantheism is just an agnostic’s or closet atheist’s cop-out. Of course this depends on what you mean by “theist” and what you mean by “exists.” An atheist can only define himself in terms of the particular god or gods that he doesn’t believe in. Atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins just object to the gods and dogmas defined by the big established religions. They both tend to be angry at anyone who doesn’t agree with them.
Pantheism only requires faith in the humble thought that there is a lot of what exists that you don’t know about or understand. Or even as the Tao says, “Existence is beyond the power of words to define.”

Ira Glickstein said...

Today someone from Victoria, British Columbia (Canada) landed on this Topic. I noticed the hit on our "Live Traffic Feed" and re-read the posting. The Comment by Howard 17 Dec 2007 is particularly apt. A reply is overdue.

As readers of this Blog know, Howard and I disagree on many L- vs C-minded issues. However, we share a deep belief in Pantheism. (Of course, true believers in more organized religions would deny there is any depth to Pantheism.)

Belated THANKS! to Howard for expressing our common view of God (or god or GOD, ...) so succinctly, clearly, and well.

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

Sadly, the author of god is not Great, Christopher Hitchens, has written a biting piece about his having been diagnosed with cancer. It originated in his esophagus and has metastasized to his lymph nodes - a very serious development. He is only 61.

He is undergoing what appears to be quite aggressive chemo-therapy and I wish him the best.

I found the following sentences particularly pithy:

"Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill. But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups."

I wish Hitchens the best possible outcome.

Ira Glickstein

Mark Brinton said...

Regarding prayer groups, I think it likely that Hitchens is now embracing Bohr's practical-minded approach to a similar belief system:

"Surely you don't believe the horseshoe will bring you good luck, do you, Professor Bohr? After all, as a scientist --"

Bohr chuckled.
"I believe no such thing, my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe in such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring you good luck whether you believe in it or not."

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Mark for a well-pointed chuckle.

I am a strict determinist (like Spinoza and Einstein) so I do not believe in such thing as chance or luck. I do not participate in any form of gambling, yet, yet ... for many years, whenever I happen to pass by or be near a digital clock, and it happens to be within a minute of so of "12:34:56", I pause and wait for that to display!

Also, whenever I am caught in light rain, I hum "Singing in the Rain" and I expect some good thing to happen that day - and it usually does! I also read the daily Horoscope for my wife and myself and try to associate the predictions with something that is happening in our lives. Since Horoscopes are totally generic, it is always possible to make some good association.

Perhaps believing in good luck charms is like chicken soup - it may not help but it wouldn't hurt!

Ira Glickstein

PS: Mark, please continue to Comment! Also consider sending an email to me at if you would like to become an Authorized Author on this Blog so your postings will appear immediately instead of requiring me to Moderate and Approve them. advTHANKSance