But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, 'We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'

-Matthew 11:16-17


Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.

-Luke 6:21

I am big; I am small; I contradict myself'

- Walt Whitman


Friday, July 23, 2010

The Strange Case Of A Religion-Obsessed Atheist

NOTE: this essay was first posted on "infidels" in 2007. I am including it here to provide a general overview of my ideas and beliefs about beliefs:


Review of Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great.

If professing atheism is, as I believe, wishing upon the Impotent, then Christopher Hitchens’ newest book title is a muezzin’s call.. Normally, a book with a title God Is Not Great would leave me stone cold, as it connotes a buzz between the ears believing itself to be thought. But two things raised my eyebrow as I was pulling a copy off the shelf at Chapters. One, it was written by Hitchens who is not dumb and whose compulsive trashing can be on occasion witty. Two, as a student of religion, or rather the psychology thereof, I was immediately drawn by the rendering of the title, namely the insistence on the small case ‘g’ for the deity, which was faithfully carried on the back of the book and the frontispiece.

However, as I leafed through the volume, the nature of Hitchens’ religious problem seemed clear and self-evident. Christopher is terribly oppressed by religion the way forsworn bachelors are terribly oppressed by women. Religious folks won’t leave him alone. They are not just trying to seduce him, they want to ruin him. ‘People of faith’, writes the poor persecuted man, ‘are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard won human attainments…Religion poisons everything’.

The first observation a reasonable person, whatever his or her confession (or indifference to one), would make about such a statement is that it is hopelessly overstated. Hitchens does not live in Kabul or Peshawar, not even in Hillsboro, Tennessee. By a huge margin, people of faith do not plan anyone’s destruction. If hell is part of their eschatology, the lot of them leave the actual planning and execution to the Almighty. As they would have it, Mr Hitchens will go to hell because he has earned the passage. Most of today’s faithful do not express ill-will beyond that. Why there is a violent minority of religionists(which tends to swell at times), I will consider at a later point, but for now let me be as reassuring as I can be that it is a folly of clinical proportion to believe that religion causes passenger planes to crash into skyscrapers or high powered rifles to fire into abortion clinics.

Hitchens’ hopeless confusion about the object of his study reveals itself almost immediately. Religion kills, he states confidently in the title of chapter two. But if one proudly claims atheism as one’s personal creed, as Hitchens does, the statement has a way of contradicting itself. If religion is man-made (as he never tires to repeat) and God does not enter into his view of the universe, then something other than God causes (or better, ‘accounts for’) religion. If there is goodness and badness in humanity outside of God, for that which impels men to do good and bad things in the name of God, one cannot invoke or blame God (or religion) for things that are done mistakenly in his name or as his will. The point that loud atheists like Hitchens do not grasp is that if God does not exist as God, God definitely exists as a religious metaphor. But metaphor for what ? If it is not God who commands men to love their neighbour (and sometimes kill him) in the name of God, then what is it ? I absolutely confirm that atheists are capable of doing good, and in fact most are as fit to be taught morals as most theists are. But I also observe that secularist creeds and ideologies are as likely to be invoked in oppressing the mass of humanity, and unleashing death and mayhem. So the challenge for an atheist of is not in resizing God for his genocidal assault on Pharaoh’s Egypt but in the understanding of human imagination that would have God not only unleash the pestilence but first harden the ruler’s heart as a way of justifying the actions of the Omnipotent. Voltaire was of course wrong about the need of inventing God. If God did not exist, only human imagination would have to be invented. God (or other name for the image of the untouched sacred) would naturally suggest itself to it. However, since the paranoid beliefs that are always present in justifying murder, can exist without referencing the sacred, one cannot claim that it is religion that kills. One would be more à propos in saying that killing is paranoia’s mistaken method of trying to get rid of itself.

So, the intellectually honest atheists will find that it is not religion that kills, even if the killings are done ostensibly for religious reasons. In his seminal essay on the Levellers during the English Civil War, German pre-WW1 socialist Eduard Bernstein showed how religious metaphors in history often mask social justice issues. In Nothern Ireland, sectarian strife which had Left-Right political axis from the start in the early 1970’s, later morphed into warfare between rival drug mafias. The sudden Catholic revival in Poland of the 1980’s had near zero religious content (in the cities, anyhow). At the bottom, it was a nationalist movement against communism and Russia’s hegemony. Europe’s most enduring ostensibly religious conflict, the Thirty Year War in the 17th century, was at the root a dynastic clash, an attempt to control the House of Habsburg’s continental ambitions by Europe’s other powers. In this strife Catholic France was allied with Protestant Sweden. While the anti-reformation crusades were for real, the principle of cuius regio, eius religio withstood the test and the Westphalian Peace confirmed the ascendancy of the dynastic secular state over Church dominated empire. In Europe then at least, one would have to go as far back as the expulsion of Huguenots from France to find a large civil or international conflict based chiefly on religious disputes.
Hitchens supplies religious motives to conflicts where either none figure or figure as transparent mannequins for other issues. The chapter on religious kill opens with the indictment of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic whom the author casts as Orthodox Serbian mass murderers. The idea itself is silly beyond belief, and normally would shock coming from someone like Hitchens, who is bright, curious, and a well-travelled individual. But the problem may be that Christopher also has a short fuse, likes to strike a pose, and prefers taking sides to diving for a detailed analysis. So it should come as no surprise that his views on former Yugoslavia do not exceed for informed content the daily cheerful briefings by Jamie Shea on the progress of 1999 NATO bombing of Milosevic patrimony back to the stone age. In reality, the two Bosnian Serb leaders, though serving the same cause while detesting each other, had no religious motives for their actions. Karadzic’ photo-ops with Orthodox priests equal in religious significance the snapshots of the Clintons emerging from a Sunday church service. His outrageous shelling of Sarajevo drew ire even from Milosevic (with missus badmouthing him publicly), so I am ok with the mass murderer epithet. I am not so sure though that Presbyterianism was the poison that made Bill Clinton order the bombardment of Serbian power grid, water treatment plants, markets, passenger trains and hospitals. Mladic, originally a stalwart communist, became disenchanted, and embraced the Serbian traditional hard-drinking form of nihilism, on the way becoming the most shining exemplar of the VJ necrophilia. Incidentally, every informed school kid in Bosnia knows that Karadzic had nothing to do with Srebrenica. It was all Mladic’ doing at the time when the psychiatrist-poet-embezzler-demagogue was laying low, reeling from the charges of war profiteering. The general did not even bother informing the disgraced politicos in Pale (i.e. Karadzic and Krajisnik) that he was going in.

Curiously, about the only truly religious man in the war, Alija Izetbegovic, Hitchens has nothing to say. Yet it was he who dreamed a strange dream of an Islamic state in the Balkans. When the news reached him of Serbian heads cut off by bin Laden’s mujehadeen whom he invited to fight in Bosnia, he is said to have shrugged them off. ‘O Alijah, o honoured, you drive the Americans crazy !’, sang the mujehadeen. Indeed he did. For the record though, it was the Americans not Allah who told him it was ok to tear up Tito’s Bosnian constitution and withdraw from the Lisbon agreement. The Americans knew they were setting up a regime led by a man, who as far back as 1940’s Ustasha Sarajevo, edited a sophomoric rag called ‘Mujahid’. Without them, Alija would have been day-dreaming to his dying days. Without them, Karadzic would have had to find a fighting cause other than Bosnian moslem integrism to finance his gambling habit by war booty.

Overall, much as Hitchens wants to make of the religious links of the ethnic Balkan tensions, he has no real argument. The sudden religious fervor of notorious bandits, (like Arkan), does not fool anyone with a thinking hat. The link of the chetnik politicos (the Radical Party of Seselj) with the Serbian church actually predated the Bosnian war, would be best seen as a cynical but futile ploy to break the “godless” Milosevic’ political stranglehold on the country. It was they and not Milosevic who desired a ‘Greater Serbia’ in preference to Slobo’s pious (read twisted) socialist dream of reformed Yugoslav federation where noone would beat up on the Serbs. Hitchens also poorly grasps the historic relation of the Croatian Catholic Church to the Ustashe state. While at the start, the Church was enthusiastic about the mass conversion of Serbs, it quickly distanced itself from the official ethnic policies, and was sharply critical of both the Jasenovac camp atrocities and the murderous spree of Pavelic’ notorious gangs like the Black Legion. If the Nazi German charge d’affaires submitted a number of diplomatic notes of protest to the Ustasha primitive view of the art of genocide, the Zagreb archbishop did one better. Aloise Stepinac intercepted Ante Pavelic on the stairs of the cathedral and refused him entry with the words: ‘It is written, “thou shall not kill”’.

In a similar simplistic fashion the Lebanese civil strife of the 1970-80’s is presented as an inevitable quarrel between many indigenous religious “serpents”. In actual reality, the relatively stable Lebanese entity was rocked in the 1970’s by two very secular political play makers. One, after its bloody expulsion from Jordan, Yasser Arafat’s PLO made Beirut the base of his operations against Israel. Two, Hafez Assad started to play out his ambitions of a pan-Arabic leader from Syria. It was only later that the Iranian theocracy began to assert itself (when the U.S. would not). Among the many things that Hitchens’ book is wrong about, are the origins of the Hezbollah. It did not spring up as a result of Israel’s invasion but from a complex new political situation brought about by Iran’s intervention in the Lebanese Civil War. It did not organize the “Shia underclass” which was already organized as the Movement of the Disinherited with its own militia, the Amal. Hezbollah merely deployed Khomeini’s ideology and his material support in the attempt to dominate the Lebanese Shia. To that end, it continues to engage in a struggle with Amal (allied more closely with Syria). On occasion, the feud between the two parties has turned bloody even though no visible divide exists in their religious beliefs or practices.

It is not just that Hitchens ignores obviously secular motives in conflicts; he simply does not grasp the uses of religious symbols and identities for secularist ends. For example, he tries to squeeze some ideological milk from such trivia as Assad’s Alawi connections or the nominally Christian origins of the Baath party founder, not to mention the earth-shattering discovery that Stalin spent a few years as a teen in a Tiflis seminary. Those who think Saddam Hussein was a secularist, are ‘deluding themselves’ by Hitchens’ reckoning. Unfortunately, the delusion seems to be widespread and include not just the Islamists themselves, who hated Saddam as infidel, and were not at all fooled by his ostentatious displays of a newly-found faith late in his reign, but also the Middle East experts who never changed classing his profile and ambitions as closest to Nasserism. No apparent reason to think of Saddam’s videos of ‘private’ prayers differently than Yasser Arafat’s finding the Koran once seriously tested by Hamas.

The obsession with religion poisoning everything of course has an even greater challenge. What such an idea logically assumes is that nothing outside of religion in humanity is rotten before it is touched by religion. I am not sure Hitchens really means that. (He seems to be contradicting himself freely and often). Like the Book of Genesis on the wife of Cain, he stays silent on the origins of non-religious forms of hatred. The Nazi idea of anti-Jewishness had racial origins, not religious ones – the difference of course being that one could not convert from being a Jew in Nazi Germany. In Rwanda, the basis of genocide was tribal hatred, in Japan-occupied China a homegrown, fanaticized version of the Volksgeist, in the Ukraine and Cambodia the quickening of the class struggle, in the traditional Indonesian pogroms on Chinese trading quarters - frankly and unabashedly – the joy of looting. Bottom line: nowhere in these assaults on humanity at large, religion figured as primary mover or motive. The silence of Vatican on Nazi atrocities was of course shameful and stained the church. The enlightened pontiff John XXIII. admitted as much. But whatever one can say about that, one cannot reasonably hold that religion, Catholic or other, poisoned Nazism, fascism, racism or communism, or addled the rapine instinct. The finding that Rwanda was the most Catholic of all African countries, is as irrelevant as the degree of civilization preceding Hitler in Germany. While the descent into murderous chaos in the country can be ascribed to many factors, none of them had to do with religious beliefs of the opposing sides – both of whom actually favored Catholicism. Neither the evil Old Testament, nor the even more evil New Testament, refer to Israel God’s enemies as cockroaches. That there were church officials implicated in abetting the murderous psychosis is certainly a fact that cannot be wished away or talked around. But these people were not the church and their actions were not its teachings. It takes a mind poisoned by something else than religion not to find an appropriate adjective for those few priests and nuns who betrayed the souls who sought refuge from the madness in their churches and its compounds.


“When the Jews desire something they say God set their hearts to it, when they get it, they say God gave it to them, and when they think something, they say God told them”, wrote Benedict Spinoza for the thinkers in pre-industrial Europe. In this view God existed as a way of expressing the existential reality of one’s passive reception of life. Spinoza brilliantly captured the paradox of his theism (cleverly exaggerating the religious affect) as the obverse of his rationality. It rests with the acknowledgment that our egos are overcome, overwhelmed – regularly, constantly. We don’t go to sleep; sleep comes to us. We don’t like things – they make themselves likeable to us (das gefällt mir /ça me plaît/это мне нравитъся). We get erections. We get lucky. We don’t chose our race, sex, nationality, class, name. It is chosen for us. Our health seems to operate independently of our will. Many things that I or we cannot control, come to play with us. This is as true of a cave dweller in the last Ice Age as of a proud contemporary shareholder in a machine-gun guarded Florida condominium. The latter may of course optionally insist on utter meaninglessness of the universe in the fashion of Christopher Hitchens. Yes, he may believe that have evolved through a completely random process of selection without any purpose built into nature and that Viagra is a proof that erections, like religions, are man-made. He can abstract himself – in the fashion his civilization presently insists on doing- right out of his Existenz. But what he, like his mentors, will not get is that it does not change his Sitz im Leben. Neither will he grasp the failure of his creed of Nihilism when confronted by the charms of Viet-cong, or the Islam of the swarms of ragged-ass suicide bombers who thwart the spread of American Techné as the Ersatz to meaningful life.

Hitchens, like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, chooses to combat 4th and 7th century superstitions with the outmoded scientism of 19th century that died in the equations of Maxwell and Planck. In the emerging physics revolving around the wave-particle duality, the Cartesian divide of matter and mind collapses. There is no “physical reality” beyond the “reality that is observed”, and though one of the founding fathers of modern physics, Albert Einstein, disagreed formally with the quantum boys, in practical terms, the subatomic world destroyed the materialist foundation on which the Newtonian physics built. Paradox has come to dominate both science and philosophy.

It is interesting to observe how thinkers deal with this fundamental (or should I say foundational) absence of certainty. There will be some who will insist that the materialistic collapse is a proof positive that God exists, in the naïve understanding of God as a separate, finite, sentient and speculating being. They do not talk about God but a Giant Antropomorph. But such belief is illusory, resulting from an attempt to cogitate an intuition of a meaningful Whole, as a category (idealized humanoid) belonging to a spatio-temporal (or “local”) reality. When such a mental operation fails, a substitute is sought in which an idealized humanoid is asserted as not God himself but a family relation. But the problem is that nearly anyone who has some intellectual capacity intuits immediately that we are not talking local reality that these figures of speech are relating to.

On the opposite end of the extreme, atheism becomes a virulent creed. Alexander Gilchrist, William Blake’s first biographer, reported that ten-year old William upon reporting he saw angels in a tree was spanked by his father, “for telling lies”. When we read something like that most of us see an innocent child's phantasy of bliss and a brutal attempt to suppress it. The hard-nosed affect which pretends not to grasp that all religious speech is hyperbolic in nature has however more sinister face to it. A Mauthausen SS-commandant (in Volker Schlöndorff’’s movie Der Neunte Tag) screams maniacally at a prisoner priest just before ordering him hoisted on a makeshift cross: Wo ist er ? Siehst du ihn hier irgendwo ? (Where is he (God) ? Do you see him here some place?)

Those clever enough to get the drift of this essay, will have already seized on my desire to show that the root of fundamentalism really is one and the same for theist and atheist forms of dogma. It manifests itself as a fanatical denial that God operates as a metaphor. Both camps treat God as something material, palpable and existing outside of creation. The atheist dogmatist of course nixes such an idea, but that does not prevent him of issuing scathing critiques and denunciatons of God. I am sure Hitchens does not even realize the logical embarras of assigning grammatically attributes (not great) to something he swears just isn’t there (God).

Yet this is no mistake. This just happens to be the grammar of the crusader. Richard Dawkins may protest all he wants that he is no fundamentalist (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article1779771.ece) , but the charge sticks. He invades Ted Haggard’s compound, and expostulates with the evangelist knowing full well the wily preacher has not the wherewithal to respond intelligently to his challenges (http://www.panopticist.com/video/richard_dawkins.mov). Why would someone with Dawkins’ brains want to waste his time in this way ? The clip reveals an upset Dawkins accusing Haggard of all manner of iniquity, challenging him with sly innuendo (“a quite a bit of money spent here”) and absurd hyperboles (“reminded of Nurnberg rally”). There is an awful chip on his shoulder which he seems unaware of. There is something that colors his vision of Ted Haggard as a powerful, hugely harmful monstrosity, something that seems as intellectually inaccessible to Richard Dawkins as the concept of environmental pressure on a species is to Ted Haggard. Unless I am very badly mistaken, it was that something, that unseen inspired source of force and passion, within us and without us, against which we all are helpless, that the ancient Jews feared, sought to mollify and pointed to as YHWH.

There is a strikingly naïve assumption present throughout Hitchens’ book, namely that all people in all history and geographical locations have had at their disposal the mental organization which is routinely available to its readers. This mistake leads the author to bizarre judgmental posturing. One would not conclude when an infant shits outside of diapers that it is out of a wicked contempt for hygiene. By the same token one cannot hold that the biblical story of Isaac is one of child abuse. Anthropologists from fields all over the world report deadly assaults of parents on children that happen in a transitory fit of anger or on inexplicable inner promptings. These acts are usually followed by periods of profound sorrow and bewilderment. The ancient Hebrews, like all undeveloped cultures on the planet sought to cope with the violent impulse that was overcoming them, and which most - in a natural psychological maneouvre – sought to control by dissociating their reality-oriented selves from it. Unlike the Japanese culture which isolated the violent impulse as an undesirable mental happening (kikenshiso) and declared a taboo against it, the Jews imagined they would be spared of the mysterious Prompter’s anger if they, as a tribe, entered into a covenant with Him. Whatever one may think of this as survival strategy, one cannot equate it with a conscious desire to harm children.

The chapter on religion as “child abuse” seems particularly revealing in other respects as well. It opens with a motto from Brothers Karamazov, which Hitchens grasps so poorly he deploys for the indictment of religion the very phenom that haunted Dostoyevsky – i.e., the modern man without conscience. Ivan, to Dostoyevsky, stood as the classic prototype of the godless man, a cynical manipulator, a manqué of morality, inexorably driven to patricide. That Hitchens would present Ivan’s fallacious et-tu-quoque to Alyosha – his estranged inner self – as an argument against religion, comments more on the book’s intellectual grade than all the other mementos combined.

A page later Hitchens discovers, when contemplating James Joyce’s Father Arnall and his accounts of hell, that the intent of scaring kids with visions of eternal perdition is itself childlike. He then goes say that men were paid by the established religion to frighten (and to torture) kids in a like fashion. He then says there are other ‘man-made stupidities and cruelties of the religious’. Driving himself into a logical corner, he admits that we cannot blame religion for the nastiness of mankind, or the impulse to torture. But lest he fail on his promise to cut God to size, he will blame religion for institutionalizing and refining the practice. In other words, religion cannot be blamed for the viciousness of humans but for providing the outlet for it. One wonders how Hitchens explains that nearly all the nastiness coming from religious folks comes from breaking the very rules of conduct which they declare as pleasing to God,  and which they swear to uphold.

All of this charts an interesting progress of a train of thought to its eventual derailment: Is it religion that institutionalizes religion? Or is it just another instance of Ted Haggard naively representing (in the video clip above) that the eye somehow creates itself ? Does the self-righteous belief in hell for people who are judged not good, automatically extend to sending them there in auto-da-fes ? And if the answer is yes, what is it that attracts saints to religion ? Or if one does not believe in saints, how would one respond to G.K. Chesterton’s assertion that his choice (Catholicism) is evidently the superior Christianity as it admits all faith, even the respectable one ?

The solution that Christopher Hitchens offers for examples of respectable faith, appears to be a very simple one. He will deny it exists. So deep is the anti-religious bite he suffered that he would excise from his scathing critique of Mother Teresa, whom he dismisses as “ambitious nun”, any sort of acknowledgement of her humanitarian mission. She is portrayed simply as a political busybody and the focus of fraudulent miracle mongering (as though she cultivated beliefs of herself as deliverer of miracles). A space alien relying on Hitchens’ report of her could easily mistake her for Leona Helmsley. It is not hard to see where Hitchens gets his negative perception of the woman. She could indeed be indiscreet, and quite frankly, vociferous, in her political crusades. (In a speech here in Ottawa, in 1992, she demanded that doctors performing abortions be jailed). But with equal frankness, I have hard time grasping the poverty of spirit which would deny that Mother Teresa did enormous amount of good, especially among those who until her were untouched by human love. Despite her failings and intellectual frailty, she was a phenomenon. It cannot be denied without a making oneself a graceless lout.

If the conservative Albanian nun comes as easy pickings, another modern ikon, Martin Luther King, proves a nut impossible to crack. Not only Hitchens denies the the force of religious themes in King’s oratory, he engages in a futile, flakey speculations which have as aim proving that King was really not a Christian.

The page where Martin Luther King makes an appearance is preceeded by an assertion that all Christian churches warmly approved of slavery. Here, as elsewhere, Hitchens erudition fails miserably. In fact, on both sides of the Atlantic, English speaking churches the congregations were deeply divided on the issue of slavery. This division existed among denominations (with Catholics, Quakers, Unitarian, and Methodists showing strongly on the abolitionist side, while the Anglican/Episcopalian Church, and Southern Baptist Churches, on balance supporting it) and within the churches themselves, often causing whole flocks to separate. For example, Henry Ward Beecher’s famous Plymouth Church in Brooklyn grew out of the abolitionist schism among the Calvinists. So it is plainly rubbish to say that Christians, as a whole, approved of slavery. Quite the contrary, the earliest impetus for suppressing the slave trade came from the religious folks in England, and the leading parliamentary advocate for it, William Wilberforce was not just a regular Anglican (a precondition for a seat in Parliament at the time) but a religious revivalist who among other things established the first Christian mission to India. Likewise in the United States, the most vehement denunciation of slavery came from the preachers. Many historians commented on the Garrisonian style of political discourse as naturally bonding with the fiery sermons of the Quakers. Most Quakers of the time agreed with the tradition laid out in the church a century earlier by one Benjamin Lay: slavery is a notorious sin.

So, if Hitchens believes that Martin Luther King was driven into a hotbed of vicious racism, he is pathetically misinformed. In actual fact, the view that all humans are equal (before God), came first as a religious revelation to Paul of Tarsus. There were no secular humanists in his time who could grasp the idea that all humans were equal. There was no “local” context for it. It contradicted everything the Greco-Roman antiquity knew and observed about humans and their society. Yet Paul knew differently: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.(Gal 3:28). This was the Christian innovation, this was the promised land. For this reason, and no other, it made sense to Martin Luther King to march and make speeches in preference to preaching mayhem in the streets. He was a Christian. He lived among people who believed themselves Christians.


I have already conceded that atheists may be, and are, as moral humans as theists. Personally, the most morally fit individual I have met in my life was my uncle Mirek, who was a communist. “You cannot teach bastards to be communists”, he told me stoically when I confronted his creed, as I was leaving Prague shortly after the Soviets invaded in 1968. Like all heroes of my youth, my uncle was utterly unsentimental. He was forthright, unaffected, had a wicked sense of humour, unerring sense of fairness, and distaste for any kind of posturing. His creed was communism, I teased him, because it would happen whether people believed in it or not. It was a fix, not a proposition. He told me matter-of-actly that I was full of crap. He believed because to him exaggerated material self-interest was the root of evil, and it was common sense. Unless I could show him something better to believe, he stayed put and I should not waste his time. When I – a twenty-one year old punk - told him I believed in democracy, he gave me his patented mocking look, and offered me a tea cake with his favourite stopper to anyone getting on a high horse with him: neserme se (let’s not piss each other off).

If Marxism is an expression of will, as André Malraux wrote in La condition humaine, so are all other belief systems around which humans organize themselves. The first thing one should be aware of when attempting a critique of one set of beliefs, is that it is made only by another set of beliefs. They appear as ridiculous to another expression of human will. Many Marxists swear they find the Bible preposterously childish, yet they insist on the History`s inevitable march to one person - a German cigar-smoker by the name of Karl Marx, and his discovery of an ultimate philosophical method which could be applied to anything. (For Marx`s hilarious occultic dabbling in math see an appendix to Edmund Wilson`s To Finland Station.) So how is the belief in the finality of Karl Marx`s scientific method materially different from the belief that all creation was fixed in the past by God (or gods) ? The patterns of obsessive thought seem to find themselves across beliefs, do they not ?

Like Hitchens, I count myself a rationalist, and therefore I share in many of his observations. Like him I have a hearty dislike of religious ceremony. I take in this after my father. He was an agnostic from a Jewish-Catholic background, but as my Catholic mother told me when I was very sick as a child, he actually went to church. Knowing my father , I had a hard time believing it: “Did he pray ?” Mom said, “ No, he went there because he didn’t want to lose you, but he was too stubborn to pray or kneel in the pew. I suppose he went there with the idea that his showing up there would be enough to attest he was genuinely confused on the subject of God’s existence, and that God, if he existed, would understand and feel compelled to take pity. When you recovered, he continued to blaspheme.”

At any rate, the point that really divides Hitchens and I on the subject is that I do not believe religion to be any kind of a danger to a civilized, rationally ordered society. I am convinced that the West operating with a sober, self-confident civil edifice would quickly do away with any of the fundamentalist accretions and revivals of primitive, intellectually and humanly inferior, forms of faith that we have seen in the recent past. As Christopher Lasch pointed out, civil disorders and revolutions happen whenever a vacuum of power is created. The re-appearance of militant, violent faith, coincides with a rapid decline in civilizational standards, and a positive self-image of the West. One quick example of this was the debate over the use of torture in combating terrorism. No self-respecting politician in the West in the last two hundred years past would have contemplated torture as an acceptable method of extracting information from political prisoners. It’s an abomination. It is at loggerheads with the elemental principles on which our civilization has been built. There simply cannot be a compromise on that point. The pictures from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo however do not lie, and that the problem has become endemic is attested to by the lack of public outrage to this manifest depravity. No, it is not religion that threatens to destroy what has been built up in the West; it is the narcissistic self-seeking that has come to displace almost completely the transcendent values that were once cherished and for which we suddenly find ourselves unable to find a new intellectual face. Beyond that, there is no real divide between the secular and the mystical, two aspects of our selves reflecting the two hemispheres of our cortex receiving, and responding to the gift of life. No Berlin Walls need to be invented for the two hearts of man of Goethe. Poetry(, religious or other,) does not kill. In a healthy brain, the corpus callosum will eventually take care of the poet should he or she reveal the ambition to rule the world. At any rate, that is in capsule my reading of the allegory that came to be known as the gospel of Mark.

October 2007

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