Monday, May 14, 2007

Big Daddy vs. Hitchens vs. God -- a showdown!

Longtime commentor "Big Daddy" offers his take on Chris Hitchens' new book, "god is not Great." Here's his argument, reprinted in its entiretly. My rebuttal to follow sometime this afternoon...

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At Ben’s request, a few comments on “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens; reasonable people may see it differently....

This is not a defense of organized religion; the catalog of horrors and stupidities compiled by Christopher Hitchens is too extensive and compelling. And, I share with him the desire and hope for a free, civil, and rational secular society. I will avoid discussing several assertions about specific beliefs that are open to debate and focus on one point: I will assert that the root cause of these horrors are [sic, dammit] not religion per se but go deeper and are darker and, if true, to eliminate religion by itself will not correct the sickness. To use an analogy, if a death certificate lists the cause of death as “stopped breathing and heart stopped,” this is technically true but not the heart of the matter. If it states the cause of death as “shot in head by shotgun” we have a better idea of what happened.

There are many ways to define religious Fundamentalism but I will define it as having these characteristics: (1) accepting a set of statements as True (i.e., “divinely inspired”); (2) the statements are considered a comprehensive explanation of reality (“all you need to know that is important”); and (3) the statements are exclusive (“we are right and everyone else is wrong”). There are secular systems of belief that have similar properties (e.g., Marxist-Leninism) and I will, as shorthand, refer to these systems as Absolutist. If we compare the two, it is hard to see how religion can be singled out and considered causal; the root cause seems deeper in our psyche than religious beliefs. Let me list a few examples:

(1) Take, for instance, the twentieth century. By any measure (the number of people affected, the severity of the horrors inflicted, and so on), the most harm to our fellow human beings was inflicted by National Socialism and Marxist-Leninism, two Absolutist systems of belief. The point is NOT to defend religion in comparison but to point out that religion has no special place when it comes to committing horrors.

(2) Let’s take an example that turns down the metaphorical heat. In chapter four, Christopher Hitchens describes how religious beliefs can be dangerous to our health. All true and all tragic. But let’s remember the story of Joseph Lister. Lister demonstrated that if obstetricians washed their hands in a simple antiseptic solution, there was a dramatic (startling) decline in post-delivery infections and deaths. It was a simple procedure and would cause no harm so why not use it? But the medical establishment refused for some time to accept Lister’s findings. Eventually it was accepted (a great strength of science is that eventually “truth will out”) but the data did not change; the information and proof were there all along. There are many such examples in the history of science. Science has self-correcting mechanisms built in but scientists are human beings and human beings tend to cling to dogmas, religious or otherwise.

(3) Finally, let’s use Christopher Hitchens as an example; we can agree that he is not a religious person. However, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, he showed some of the traits he decries about religious belief. Hitchens vilified anyone who opposed the invasion of Iraq. I think it is fair to say that he considered anyone who opposed the invasion as not just wrong, but immoral. I do not recall Hitchens ever acknowledging that reasonable and decent people could have a different point of view; in fact, I will send a check for $100 to “the charity of your choice” to anyone who can cite a statement by Hitchens before the invasion that acknowledges this. To be fair, Hitchens is not the only one who had this point of view. We are now living with the consequences.

The shorthand summary is that the horrors and stupidity of religious beliefs are not the cause but the effect – the effect of the tendency of our species to desire and cling to dogmas and submit to authority.

-- Big Daddy


Anonymous Anonymous said...

ACKKK! Looks grim for the home team, but I submit for your consideration the SciFi story Footwork. We may be dogma needy, but we are persistent and curious. Maybe that will be our salvation. ~momther

11:23 AM  

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