Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Best Mind of the 18th Century

January 24, 2010

The Best Mind of the 18th Century
by Benjamin D. Wiker
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God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
Christopher Hitchens, Twelve Books, 307 pages, $24.99

One is tempted to quip that Christopher Hitchens is certainly one of the best minds of the 18th century, but that would be to give Hitchens too much credit as an equal to Voltaire in wit. He is not, and his God Is Not Great presents little of substance beyond what one would hear murmured in Enlightenment salons. Even more irritating, the style rarely rises above naughty school-boy sniggering. (One imagines him as a young boy penciling in a mustache on the Madonna in the town crèche at Christmas, much to the delight of his fellow rogues hidden in the bushes.)

Perhaps I am not being fair, or more likely, I have best-seller-atheist-book fatigue after reviewing Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and finding in Hitchens nothing new and a lot more of it. Given the tedious similarity of Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation, Dawkins's The God Delusion, and Hitchens's God Is Not Great, I'm beginning to think the triumvirate hatched its literary blitz after a club meeting and all used the same outline.

Well, weary or not, here we go. The most significant problem with Hitchens's argument is precisely that it does belong in the 18th century, that is, in a time when it was still possible to declaim upon How Religion Poisons Everything (the subtitle of Hitchens's book). In those heady days of overt deism and covert atheism, enemies of religion could gather together, exchange stories of religious hypocrisy and savagery, and imagine that once the poisoned barbs of Christianity were removed from innocent human flesh, and priests and kings were suitably strung up by each other's entrails, the world would breathe a long and peaceful sigh of relief.

That was before the French Revolution, before Stalin, before Hitler, before Mao, before Pol Pot; in short, before any actual attempt to politically eliminate either Christianity in particular or all religion in general, and set up a regime based entirely on secular foundations. Before it was ever tried in earnest, the intellectual atheist could wade through many a hypothetical reverie of the innocent and Edenic future of practical atheism.

That is the whole problem with Hitchens's book: He still thinks he has that enviable luxury. His finale -- a mere seven pages long -- is titled "The Need for a New Enlightenment," as if it hadn't been tried already and found woefully wanting. The ending appeal -- to "undreamed-of vistas inside our own evolving cortex," the "proper study of mankind" being "man, and woman," the idyllic "study of literature and poetry," "unfettered scientific inquiry," and certainly most of all, the long-awaited "divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny" -- is so drippingly theatrical and naïve that the reader becomes embarrassed on Hitchens's behalf.

Of course, Hitchens realizes that his anti-religion must answer the obvious objection: "Is it not true that secular and atheist regimes have committed crimes and massacres that are, in the scale of things, at least as bad if not worse?" His mode of defense consists in (1) avoiding the issue by continuing to talk about all the bad things done in the name of religion or by anyone with a religious name; (2) admitting that some bad things were done by allegedly atheist regimes, but that when, say, communists were slaughtering people by the millions they were actually acting out of an as-yet-not-exorcised spirit of religion; (3) hinting that this spirit might be stitched into our genes by evolution, so that our genes unhappily deflect atheism from achieving its glorious potentialities; (4) deflecting consideration of Hitler by finger-pointing at popes and cardinals who allegedly supported Hitler; and (5) sidestepping the wickedness of Stalin by examining the banalities of his attempts to parrot religious ceremonies. All that allows Hitchens to say -- with an entirely straight face, as far as I can tell -- that "totalitarian systems, whatever outward form they may take, are fundamentalist and, as we would now say, 'faith-based.'"

Really? What if I cleverly disowned all the wickedness done in the name of Christianity by saying that all the evil perpetrated by so-called religious people was actually done out of a spirit of rebellion against God, and therefore true Christians are entirely innocent of any crimes?

That would not only be disingenuous, but unmanly. If I am to be a Christian, I must swallow hard, and look with a clear and humble eye at the sins of Christians, my own first and foremost. If Hitchens really wants to be an atheist, he should have girded his loins before taking up his pen, and taken a good, long, hard, sobering, honest look at the blood and darkness of the 20th century, almost all of it done in the name of unbelief.

If he had, he would have to conclude that it is not religion that poisons everything, but human beings that poison everything, including religion and atheism. They also poison garden clubs, baseball teams, industrial corporations, moose lodges, academic departments, and charitable trusts. In short, wherever one finds humanity, one also finds inhumanity. But that is a point for Christianity -- indeed, a point of doctrine. The doctrine of original sin, noted Chesterton, "is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved."

For both believers and unbelievers, it is a sobering thought that the same kind of hypocrisy, cruelty, sloth, cowardice, pride, short-sightedness, shallowness, injustice, and greed is found among believers and unbelievers. The error of Hitchens is to assume that because he finds all these vices among believers, it is belief that causes vice -- even among unbelievers.

Benjamin D. Wiker is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of the new book, The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Regnery, 2009). This review originally appeared on September 20, 2007.

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