Christopher Hitchens in his book God Is Not Great has confused religion with religious institutions, and beliefs with dogma. He has used the irrational ravings of fundamentalists against science and dispassionate intellectual inquiry to insist that reason alone is our salvation. Unencumbered by serious theological or biblical knowledge, Hitchens taunts religion with the same bigotry and ignorance that fundamentalists use to delegitimize those who do not submit to their rigid belief system.
What he and the other writers of the new atheist manifestos, such as Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, attack is not religion, but the ossified forms of religious orthodoxy that have been misused for centuries to instill fear and obedience. The charlatans and demagogues who today dominate Christian radio and television stations, the James Dobsons and Pat Robertsons, continue a long and sordid tradition of claiming divine sanction to justify personal enrichment and empowerment. Piety, like blind patriotism, is an effective cover for the corrupt and the venal.
There is a case, of course, to be made against institutional religion. But there are great theologians from Paul Tillich to Ernst Kasemann to William Stringfellow who skewer institutional religion, indeed brand it as a dangerous form of idolatry. They write with a deftness, nuance and erudition that shame the tired cliches that pad out this book.
Hitchens ignores the deep religious urges and moments of transcendence that make up human existence. These forces are not products of reason. They humbled great philosophers and thinkers from Plato to Sigmund Freud, who each acknowledged the unfathomable mystery and power of love—hardly a rational force. Hitchens, to sidestep this difficult discussion, conflates the irrational with the nonrational.
He refuses to concede—and here one wants to hand him Freud for Dummies—that we are all driven and profoundly affected by an array of mysterious nonrational forces such as beauty, grief, love, the yearning for meaning, alienation, and the specter of our own mortality. These forces do not lend themselves to rational deduction. Religion, the religious impulse, is an attempt to grapple with these spiritual truths, not explain a scientific or historical fact.
Hitchens, when he runs up against the authentic religious life, withers. He tries vainly to deny its existence, since its recognition punctures his pronouncement that “religion teaches people to be extremely self-centered and conceited.” He writes of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that “in no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.” He disparages the faith of Abraham Lincoln and insists that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor put to death by the Nazis for resistance, was the product of a religious belief that had “mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism.”
God is a human concept. Religion is a way we attempt, always imperfectly, to wrestle with the mystery and meaning of existence. It acknowledges the dark impulses and urges that can overpower us. It struggles to explain the importance and value of the moral life. The question is not whether God exists. The question is whether we concern ourselves with, or are utterly indifferent to, the sanctity and ultimate transcendence of human existence. God is that mysterious force—and you can give it many names as many religions do—that works upon us and through us to seek and achieve truth, beauty, and goodness. God is a verb. God is a process accomplishing itself, not an asserted existence. And God is inescapable.
Hitchens’ simplistic assault is itself a dangerous kind of fundamentalism. He externalizes evil, something he shares with the religious fundamentalists he ridicules. He, like them, believes in a binary world of us and them, in this case those who embrace reason, which looks a lot like Christopher Hitchens, and those who do not. He too drinks deep of the elixir of moral superiority. He fails to grasp that the danger is not religion but the human heart—the capacity we all have for evil.
Hitchens, as a secular fundamentalist, endorses the myopic and disastrous imperial agenda beloved by the Christian Right. He does so because he imbibes the same toxic mix of self-aggrandizement and intolerance. He supports the war in Iraq and the waterboarding and torture of Muslim detainees.
Hitchens’ blind embrace of American imperialism and disregard for the rule of law makes him no better than the apologists for radical Islam and Christianity he seeks to discredit. His moral certitude and arrogance are no different. The consequences are as dangerous.
Chris Hedges’ latest book is American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America.