Sunday, July 19, 2009

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens

Oh, wearisome condition of humanity,
Born under one law, to another bound;
Vainly begot, and yet forbidden vanity,
Created sick, commanded to be sound.
—Fulke Greville, Mustapha

So goes one of three epigraphs Hitchens chose to precede his polemic against belief in God and the role of religion in society. And in it, he comes out swinging. This is on page 7, in his introductory chapter titled, sardonically, “Putting It Mildly.”

While some religious apology is magnificent in its limited way—one might cite Pascal—and some of it is dreary and absurd—here one cannot avoid naming C. S. Lewis—both styles have something in common, namely the appalling load of strain that they have to bear. How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible! The Aztecs had to tear open a human chest cavity every day just to make sure that the sun would rise. Monotheists are supposed to pester their deity more times than that, perhaps, lest he be deaf. How much vanity must be concealed—not too effectively at that—in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan? How much self-respect must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one’s own sin? How many needless assumptions must be made, and how much contortion is required, to receive every new insight of science and manipulate it so as to “fit” with the revealed words of ancient man-made deities? How many saints and miracles and councils and conclaves are required in order first to be able to establish a dogma and then—after infinite pain and loss and absurdity and cruelty—to be forced to rescind one of those dogmas? God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.

Reading Hitchens’ prose is a delight in and of itself—he is a master at turning a phrase. But it becomes all that more appealing as he uses that razor wit to skewer the religious rituals and taboos of our human societies.

Across a wide swath of animist and Muslim Africa, young girls are subjected to the hell of circumcision and infibulation, which involves the slicing off of the labia and the clitoris, often with a sharp stone, and then the stitching up of the vaginal opening with strong twine, not to be removed until it is broken by male force on the bridal night. Compassion and biology allow for a small aperture to be left, meanwhile, for the passage of menstrual blood. The resulting stench, pain, humiliation, and misery exceed anything that can be easily imagined, and inevitably result in infection, sterility, shame, and the death of many women and babies in childbirth. No society would tolerate such an insult to its womanhood and therefore to its survival if the foul practice was not holy and sanctified.

Time and again, he sets it up just like that—illuminating the sickening folly of it all in ways most would rather not see—and then drives home his telling and crucial point.

Richard Dawkins created quite a controversy when he wrote in The God Delusion that indoctrinating a child into a religion was a form of child abuse. Hitchens goes even farther and, even though both men are clearly eloquent, Hitchens makes the point much more savagely than Dawkins probably dared.

Now, religion professes a special role in the protection and instruction of children. “Woe to him,” says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “who harms a child.” The New Testament has Jesus informing us that one so guilty would be better off at the bottom of the sea, and with a millstone around his neck at that. But both in theory and in practice, religion uses the innocent and the defenseless for the purposes of experiment. By all means let an observant Jewish adult male have his raw-cut penis placed in the mouth of a rabbi. (That would be legal, at least in New York.) By all means let grown women who distrust their clitoris or their labia have them sawn away by some other wretched adult female. By all means let Abraham offer to commit suicide to prove his devotion to the Lord or his belief in the voices he was hearing in his head. By all means let devout parents deny themselves the succor of medicine when in acute pain and distress. By all means—for all I care—let a priest sworn to celibacy be a promiscuous homosexual. By all means let a congregation that believes in whipping out the devil choose a new grown-up sinner each week and lash him until he or she bleeds. By all means let anyone who believes in creationism instruct his fellows during lunch breaks. Bu the conscription of the unprotected child for these purposes is something that even the most dedicated secularist can safely describe as a sin.

And when Hitchens turns to the child molestation and abuse scandals currently rocking the Catholic Church, his arrows grow additional barbs.

“Child abuse” is really a silly and pathetic euphemism for what has been going on: we are talking about the systemic rape and torture of children, positively aided and abetted by a hierarchy which knowingly moved the grossest offenders to parishes where they would be safer. Given what has come to light in modern cities in recent times, one can only shudder to think what was happening in the centuries where the church was above all criticism. But what did people expect would happen when the vulnerable were controlled by those who, misfits and inverts themselves, were required to affirm hypocritical celibacy? And who were taught to state grimly, as an article of belief, that children were “imps of” or “limbs of” Satan? Sometimes the resulting frustration expressed itself in horrible excesses of corporal punishment, which is bad enough in itself. But when the artificial inhibitions really collapse, as we have seen them do, they result in behavior which no average masturbating, fornicating sinner could even begin to contemplate without horror. This is not the result of a few delinquents among the shepherds, but an outcome of an ideology which sought to establish clerical control by means of control of the sexual instinct and even of the sexual organs. It belongs, like the rest of religion, to the fearful childhood of our species.

Part of me feels I should comment on this, but Hitchens states the case so well and so clearly, I’m not sure my additional commentary is necessary. Perhaps I’ll settle for my own tired refrain. When will the Catholic Church be held responsible for its crimes against humanity?

In this same vein, Hitchens attacks a lot of religion’s other sacred cows, and the myths it has perpetrated about itself in our culture. An extended section is about religion’s role as the source and supporter of slavery, despite the fact some of the abolitionists of the 1850s-60s were motivated by their deep religious faith, and the resulting cultural myth that it was religion that brought slavery to an end. Hitchens draws a much different conclusion when he takes into account what the deep religious beliefs of generations of people on the pro-slavery side had done.

Whatever may be the case, the very most that can be said for religion in the grave matter of abolition is that after many hundreds of years, and having both imposed and postponed the issue until self-interest had led to a horrifying war, it finally managed to undo some small part of the damage and misery that it had inflicted in the first place.

Another section examines male circumcision. I mention this only to correct what I think might be a mistake in Hitchens’ text. In addressing objections to interference with something that god must have designed with care—the human penis—Hitchens says that believers of long ago invented the dogma that Adam was born circumcised and in the image of god.

Indeed, it is argued by some rabbis that Moses, too, was born circumcised, though this claim may result from the fact that his own circumcision is nowhere mentioned in the Pentateuch.

Well, here’s a few verses from the English Standard Version of Exodus 4:

24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

I quote this because I’ve heard at least one Bible expert say that “feet” is a purposeful mistranslation of the original “penis,” changed by some of the more puritan defenders of the faith. Supposedly, the reason the Lord sought to put Moses to death in this cryptic little story is that he was uncircumcised, and Zipporah’s actions placated the violent Yahweh, symbolically circumcising her husband by touching the bloody foreskin of her son to his member.

And if that’s not true, then at least consider this version from the King James Bible:

24 And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. 25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. 26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.

In which it can be more reasonably argued that Zipporah’s actions are meant to show Yahweh that Moses had been circumcised, the proof of “his” bloody foreskin lying at his very feet.

Whatever. It’s a minor point and I’m probably misremembering what I heard. It’s hard to fault an author too badly who fills his book with pithy little observations like this:

In the United States, we exert ourselves to improve high-rise buildings and high-speed jet aircraft (the two achievements that the murderers of September 11, 2001, put into hostile apposition) and then pathetically refuse to give them floors, or row numbers, that carry the unimportant number thirteen.

In other words, if we lived in a world where the number thirteen had to power to harm us, it wouldn’t be very likely that we could master the engineering and mathematics necessary to build tall building and airplanes. Those things work because the world is orderly and predictable, operating in ways that can be understood and leveraged to the advantage of our own internal visions. Despite the protestations of the faithful of all stripes from the beginning of time, the world is not run by magic.

The various forms of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people to be equally true, by the philosopher as equally false, and by the magistrate as equally useful.
—Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
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