Christopher Hitchens’s book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is a lengthy and detailed description of what happens when religious people behave badly. And this apparent correlation between religion and bad behavior is perhaps one of the most common reasons cited by the new atheists as to why all religion should be abandoned. But does Hitchens really believe religion causes people to do bad things? As I illustrate his position is unclear.
An interview with Jian Ghomeshi on QTV reveals the double standard that Hitchens has about the cause/effect relationship of religion and human behavior.
Jian Ghomeshi: I think you would be hard pressed to find a religious person to claim that there’s never been any negative implications or violence or wicked deeds that have been done in the name of religion.
Hitchens: They say in the name of. It’s not in the name of. That’s their get out clause. You echo it yourself. It’s explicit; it’s part of the religion. The most celebrated action of the Abrahamic is the willingness of someone to gut and murder his own son because he thinks it will please God…It’s not in the name of. It’s in the word of God himself. The commandments and instructions. These are warrants for genocide, rape, slavery, infant mutilation and worse.
Hitchens has also stated, “Religion kills,” “is violent” and “has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.” He has also said, “The evil things missionaries do are definitely done because of religion.” Hitchens tries to draw a direct correlation between the violent behavior of people and their religion. His book God is Not Great is mostly a chronicle of all of the horrendous things done by people who are religious. And he disagrees with Ghomeshi who says wicked deeds have been done in the name of religion. But if something is not done in the name of religion how else does it occur? According to Hitchens religion has the magical power to make people do things. But for Hitchens religion only has the power to make people do wicked things. Anything good done in the name of religion is strictly due to human nature and nothing else, “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” After discussing some awful acts carried out by people who are religious Hitchens states, “At minimum this makes it impossible to argue that religion causes people to behave in a more kindly or civilized matter.” But in the same interview on QTv he states [emphasis added],
Jian Ghomeshi: Would you agree that there is anything in the world that that has been done in the name of religion that is positive?
Hitchens: Things done by Jimmy Carter are done by Jimmy Carter. If you’re telling me people wouldn’t help build affordable housing if they weren’t Baptist fundamentalists…
The double standard here is glaring. Anything good done by a religious person is solely attributable to their human nature while anything bad done by a religious person is attributable to their religion. Otherwise Hitchens would make the exact same disclaimer when speaking about Osama Bin Laden or any of the other religious people he criticizes. If someone is inspired by their religious community or a sacred text to serve others this cannot be attributed to religion. But why then wouldn’t the wicked things be attributable to human nature as well? I can easily say, “If you’re telling me people wouldn’t” torture, maim and kill if they weren’t religious extremists…” Is religion really needed to act cruelly? Simply look at the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the Jacobites in the French Revolution or the evidence that the U.S. tortured. If someone beats their wife and claims that their religion justifies it is it the fault of their religion or the person? If religion was the responsible culprit then every man who followed that particular religion would beat his wife. If someone cheats on their taxes, steals, has affairs is their religion to blame? Or their human nature? So why then if someone murders someone in the name of God are they not responsible? The fact that some can interpret the Bible to say God is against homosexuality and others reading the same Bible reach different conclusions makes it impossible to say that this book or “religion” is responsible. Rather each and every time our humanism is at fault. The human nature that Hitchens is so quick to ascribe all compassionate actions of religious people to is the same humanism that leads to religious violence.
Hitchens believes that some wicked statements and actions can only be done by people who are religious. The sentence following Hitchens’s statement, “The evil things missionaries do are definitely done because of religion” is “When Mother Teresa said abortion and contraception were equivalent to murder and were the greatest threat to world peace – nobody could have said anything with such wicked consequences!” He has also said [emphasis added], “The suicide bombing communities are religious, the genital mutilation communities, the genital mutilation of children is a religious commandment. These are things that people wouldn’t commit without God.” First of all clitoridectomy was advocated by the United States and Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries as ways to protect against lesbianism, masturbation and to prevent hysteria. And secondly the Japanese suicide Kamikaze bombers were not religious by any accepted definition of the term (yes I know that Kamikaze means “divine wind,” but they weren’t practicing a religion and certainly weren’t theists which is Hitchens’s definition of what constitutes religion). If anything they were extreme nationalists which would be more reason that we could use Hitchens’ logic to conclude that government has run out of justifications. And what about former president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki’s position on AIDS? He and his government were horrible in how they denied the seriousness of AIDS, promoted false cures and banned antiretroviral drugs from state hospitals. The New York Times reported that these policies led to 365,000 deaths. Mbeki’s views are not inspired by any religious doctrine or belief whatsoever. But if they had been inspired by a religious belief do we blame religion? Why not blame government as Mbeki was the President of South Africa? Aren’t things done by Thabo Mbeki done by Thabo Mbeki? Rather than blaming religion why doesn’t Hitchens concede that things done by Mother Theresa are done by Mother Theresa? Certainly her religious beliefs were central to her reasoning, but so are Jimmy Carter’s when he says he is doing service in the name of his religion. Yet, Hitchens doesn’t claim that Mother Theresa’s actions are only due to her human nature as he does with Carter.
Again, Hitchens injects some magical power into religion by claiming that it can make people do wicked things. Yes, people have claimed the devil made them murder people, they have argued that their religion commands them to blow themselves up and they have said the will of God is against homosexuality. But this doesn’t mean that all religion is responsible. Aren’t religions, doctrines, beliefs and ethical commands just human cultural inventions anyway? And isn’t the way they are practiced the responsibility of humans? We don’t say that “government kills” because of Stalin or Hitler. Religion cannot cause people to do good or evil things. It is in our human nature to do them and if a religion promotes the wicked it is because of how people interpret it. I find it odd that Hitchens argument justifies the claim that “religion made me do it.”
But once again Hitchens has said something that seemingly contradicts his beliefs above, “What’s innate in our species isn’t the fault of religion. But the bad things that are innate in our species are strengthened by religion and sanctified by it…So religion is a very powerful re-enforcer of our backward, clannish, tribal element. But you can’t say it’s the cause of it. To the contrary, it’s the product of it. It’s the deification of it.” Here we have Christopher Hitchens admitting that religion doesn’t cause people to do bad things. This is a remarkable confession from a new atheist. For many this is as obvious as concluding that government is not the cause of Zionism. And one more interesting statement from Hitchens, “Our species will never run out of fools but I dare say that there have been at least as many credulous idiots who professed faith in god as there have been dolts and simpletons who concluded otherwise.” Don’t these quotes and his concession negate his claim that people don’t do things in the name of religion? Does he agree then that it is always our human nature and not religion that is responsible for wicked things? Why then does he conclude that all religion poisons everything if he realizes it is in our human nature to use it for wickedness that leads to bad things? Why isn’t he advocating for better religion? At best Hitchens leaves at best an ambiguous record of what he really believes.
What about the “Holy” Texts?
Wisdom is found in nature and religion. – E.F. Schumaker
I remember my philosophy professor in college asking a number of years after September 11th how it made us feel. The responses were what would have been expected; sad, grief-stricken, overwhelmed, scared…etc. The professor then pointed out that there were people in some areas of the world who celebrated this attack and were elated. Thus, the event didn’t cause anyone to feel anything. Rather, people responded it to it in their own way. Similarly, people report stark differences in how they respond to trauma despite having undergone similar events. The same understanding of causation applies to religion and the numerous sacred texts that accompany it. Religion can’t cause someone to act violently and “Holy” texts can’t cause someone to blow themselves up. Otherwise anyone and everyone who read them would become subjected to this mysterious force within these texts. And everyone would interpret them the same way, just like if the September 11th terrorists attacks caused certain responses we would all experience them equally. Paul Tillich, one of the most well known and influential Christian theologians of the twentieth century describes in Theology of Culture the nature of sacred texts:
There is no sacred language which has fallen from a supranatural heaven and bee put between the covers of a book. But there is human language, based on man’s encounter with reality, changing through the millenia, used for the needs of daily life, for expression and communication, for literature and poetry, and used also for the expression and communication of our ultimate concern. Religious language is ordinary language, changed under the power of what it expresses, the ultimate being and meaning. The expression of it can be narrative (mythological, legendary, historical), or it can be prophetic, poetic, liturgical. It becomes holy for those to whom it expresses their ultimate concern from generation to generation. But there is no holy language in itself, as translations, retranslations and revisions show.
Harry Potter is no less inspired than the Iilad, the Odyssey, Dante’s comedy, the Bible, Koran or Lord of the Rings. And if there is a difference in inspiration no one yet has devised a means to measure this. But what Hitchens wants you to believe is that because things are written down in a book and many people claim it to be holy then the book is somehow responsible. Claiming that the Bible offers “warrants for genocide, rape, slavery, infant mutilation and worse” is no different than claiming Lord of the Rings or any other story does so. Because a story is written in an ancient text about God ordering a man to kill his son, this doesn’t make it real or a “commandment.” Either everything is literature or it is not. One could certainly imagine a group finding a copy of Lord of the Rings in a cave a thousand years from now and creating a myth that this story was the word of God. If they take this myth literally and find ways to oppress people with it, Hitchens logic would suggest that it is not the people’s interpretation but rather the text itself. Somehow for Hitchens the “voice of God” in the Bible has the power to be a real commandment whereas other stories don’t. The reality is that some people interpret religious texts literally others do not. But it is never a problem with the text. If Hitchens believes it is the text then all forms of literature, whether science fiction, horror or tragedy are equally as dangerous. An extremist group of people could very easily turn any novel into a literal and fundamental form of religion. This comment from a previous blog post of mine summarizes my point about texts well:
I will accept a wise teaching from a “holy book” or a comic book. I have found truth in the words of the wise and the words of a skid row wino. If the words hold truth, and edify me, I will embrace them, regardless of what is printed on the covers of that book, or what other nonsense those words my be concealed within.