It’s been several years since the publication of the frontal attacks on religion by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006) and Christopher Hitchens (god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007). At the time, they caused quite a stir, even if they failed to usher in the Copernican shift away from God that their authors yearned for and dreamed about. Certainly atheists sensed that they had finally found their voice. Some, indeed, may have been emboldened to “come out of the closet”, just as (so Dawkins analogizes in his preface) after millennia of vilification and ostracism, homosexuals were emboldened to come out of the closet a couple of decades ago. Outside of the official atheist victim groups, however, far from the faculty clubs and fair-trade coffee houses, and especially in those atavistic pockets of Amerika where, as the soi-disant “Christian” President Obama lamented, people cling bitterly to their religion and guns, people still clung bitterly to their religion and guns. The reaction of the “theist” community was vigorous and swift. While genuine scholars of the history of religious ideas largely ignored them; while, no doubt in tacit sympathy, the more liberal Protestant denominations of Unitarians, Methodists, and United Churchmen – but then, no one including its congregants is sure that the United Church is a religion – did likewise; and while fundamentalist Muslims demonstrated their utter scorn for Dawkins and Hitchens by declining, for once, to issue fatwahs against them; the response of the conservative Catholic and Evangelical communities was so defensive as to strike me at the time as over-wrought. Having belatedly read The God Delusion and god Is Not Great, I continue to think so. Not because these occasionally articulate – in the case of Hitchens, at least – rants aren’t as shrill and hateful as their reviewers have alleged; but because their treatment of religion is so profoundly unserious and intellectually dishonest that they are likely to be forgotten as quickly as the nutty anti-Christian conspiracy theories of Dan Brown or James Cameron.
Religion has been almost too fortunate in its enemies. In the second century A.D., nearly two millennia before Obama, the pagan philosopher Celsus lamented sorely as he gazed across a public square swarming with priests, prophets, diviners, mantics, mystagogues, and hierophants of a hundred different cults. It tells you something about the man that Celsus’ own work was modestly entitled The True Doctrine. In the late-nineteenth century, Nietzsche (who was hardly an enemy of religion but is popularly perceived as such) ended his life in madness, one symptom of which was so egregious a psychological inflation that he imagined “Zarathustra” (i.e., God) speaking to an unenlightened world through him. (God may be dead, but He is ever-resurgent in the psyches of His critics.) Within a few decades, Freud was dismissing religious belief as the epiphenomenon of infantile sexual urges incompatible with bourgeois morality, and thereby requiring sublimation in sacred rituals – a theory that, as Jung observed at the time, Freud preached as zealously as any religious dogma.
The anti-religious invective of Dawkins and Hitchens is scarcely more judicious. Their thesis is that all religious propositions are irrational, unsupported or refuted by the evidence, and persuasive only to childish and credulous minds. They regard believing in God as either tantamount to believing in the existence of elves and garden gnomes, or merely psychotic. Religion, moreover, is not only false, it is pernicious: historically inimical to science (the ominous signification of the biblical prohibition of the Tree of Knowledge), hazardous to one’s health, a sanctimonious cloak under which all manner of greed, cruelty, and immorality are permitted, and the principal cause of genocide and war.
The overwhelming bulk of their books is filled with the evidence that ostensibly proves these claims: a treasure-trove of anthropological sordida, liberally punctuated with exclamation marks and often sophomoric satirical asides, exposing the murderous rites and fantastical teachings of a rogues’ gallery of rabid fundamentalists, gap-toothed rubes, machine-gun-toting fanatics, oleaginous televangelists, conjurers of cheap tricks, fakers of miracles, special-effects mediums, prognosticators of apocalypses that never come (!), insufferable moralists who ascribe natural disasters to heresy or sin (!), astrologers who pretend to know the future without even knowing that the earth revolves around the sun (!), and medecine men unacquainted with basic human anatomy(!). (As Dryden said of Chaucer’s pilgrims, “Here is God’s plenty” – except that neither of our authors has Chaucer’s art or humanity.)
Significant portions of Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ books (including the most interesting parts) read, in fact, like Frazer’s Golden Bough, Albright’s From the Stone Age to Christianity, or Levy-Bruhl’s How Natives Think – though, sadly, again, without any of the scholarly acumen or sympathy for the material. (At one point, Dawkins praises Frazer for documenting “the bizarre phenomenology of superstition and ritual” and recommends his opus to those who wish to “marvel at the richness of human gullibility”. But this wholly misrepresents the attitude of Frazer, who points out in his concluding chapter that “rational” science and “irrational” religion have innumerable affinities, including their common ancestry in magic, and that all three are merely “theories of thought”. Then he ends with the sort of unscientific, quasi-mystical speculation of which our authors sternly disapprove: “as science has supplanted its predecessors, so it may hereafter be itself superseded by some more perfect hypothesis, perhaps by some totally different way of looking at the phenomena…of which we in this generation can form no idea”.)
Oddly enough, thundering scolds such as Amos, Hosea, and Elijah are the real polemical allies of Dawkins and Hitchens. The indignant sermons they preach against religious “superstition” can’t help but put one in mind of the bigoted diatribes of these Iron-Age Prophets of Yahweh who, obedient to their jealous God, and jealous of their own prelatical privileges, fulminated against the irrational beliefs and wicked practices (polytheism, idolatry, etc.) of the pagan high places. But this is not a comparison that Dawkins and Hitchens would welcome, I imagine. They are above all disinterested men of science; and if they are jealous defenders of the truth, they are the defenders of a verifiable truth, one that is purely rational, impartial, ratified by the evidence, etc., etc. (How often, in the history of religion, have we heard that before[!]) Unfortunately, their own violently skewed treatment of the phenomenology of religion does not inspire confidence – faith is perhaps the better word – that modern men of science are any less prone to zealotry, misrepresentation, and manipulation of the data than prophets and priests.
Readers will search their works in vain for the delicate “shades” and subtle “nuances” that are the special ornament of advanced thought. Neither of these delusion-busters deigns to make the requisite distinctions, lumping together under the same rubric of “religion” the Christianity of the saints and mystics, the Islam of the Taliban, the human sacrifices of the priests of Baal, and the flaky “spirituality” of Madonna. Our authors seem to suffer from the perverse inability to distinguish between Osama bin Laden and Mother Teresa, between mana and Manicheanism. Scholars have spent lifetimes anatomizing the infinite varieties of religious experience, but to Dawkins and Hitchens every “theist” looks alike. Dawkins actually proffers this prejudice as an index of his own impeccably relativist credentials and multicultural sensitivities: “I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural…” Making fun of “religion” in this way is a little like scoffing at the uncertain science of meteorology, while counting everything from Doppler radar to the rain dances of the Mau Mau as examples.
The title of Hitchens’ book, god Is Not Great – throughout the work, Hitchens takes his stand against convention by refusing to capitalize the G in God, resurrecting the mood of dangerless defiance of the dress-up revolutionaries of the Sixties – illustrates the strategy. It’s a play, of course, on the mantra of today’s radical Islamists, whose primitive sensibilities Hitchens thereby imputes to all religions, including, and above all, Christianity. Both authors see only religion’s shadow, and define the whole by its most spectacular aberrations and atavisms (the honour killings, suicide bombings, witch-hunts, child-abuse scandals, abortion-doctor murder [sing.], etc.), upon which they dwell lovingly. Once again, don’t hold your breath for any of the so-called “balance” or “fairness” that the Progressive Axis is always bragging about. The “Everything” in Hitchens’ subtitle betrays a mind severely disequilibrated by hatred (surely there is something that religion doesn’t poison); the subtitle ought really to have read, “How the Rhetorical One-sidedness of Religion’s Enemies Poisons Everything”.
Their argument – if that is what you would call it – against religion is in fact a sorites: Dawkins and Hitchens prove that in generally barbaric times and uncivilized places, religious practices have also been barbaric and uncivilized; that in illiberal societies, religious ideas are illiberal. It shocks and outrages them that religion has its snake oil salesmen, hypocrites, sleazy seekers after power and wealth. Of course, for every example of sleaze, hypocrisy, and greed they adduce from the orbit of ancient, third-world, or contemporary religion, they could have found two from local D.C. politics. Whether naively or mischievously, they seem to expect that religion should be the only sphere of human action exempt from the taint of original sin.
A-Sneering They Will Go
A glance at the tables of contents of these two nearly contemporaneous works reveals such striking symmetries in their organization and polemical themes as almost to suggest plagiarism or collusion; in fact, they merely demonstrate the pre-conscious instinct that regulates the liberal “Hive” (as Tom Bethel has called it), ensuring that its drones will be able, through independent thinking, to find their way home to the same politically correct opinion on all the issues of the day. In the characterization of Bethel’s friend and fellow reactionary Joseph Sobran, contemporary liberalism is not a set of ideas, so much as an attitude, encapsulated in a sneer.
The real subject of Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ books is indeed their own moral and intellectual superiority, and the sneering contempt that they and every other thinking person ought to feel for the modern primitives who still credit the myths and dogmas with which a depredatory clergy has enslaved them. As Dawkins writes in his preface, though “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument”, it is the earnest hope of its author that The God Delusion will help those “whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious,…or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it”, to “break free of the vice of religion altogether”. The reek of messianism that emanates from Dawkins’ mock sympathy for the captives of religion is overwhelming at times. Like the nineteenth-century Christian missionaries amongst the brown-skinned savages of Africa, he will lead the religious heathen out of their long, dark night of superstitious ignorance. One should like to pay Dawkins the compliment of hypocrisy, but the irony of his own messianic condescension seems to have completely escaped his superior intellect. Dawkins calls himself an atheistic “consciousness raiser”, but alas, hypocrisy requires a quantum of consciousness of which the apostles of Progress are too often incapable.