Messianic Hitchens

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Religion

Christopher Hitchens critiques the Mark Lilla essay I blogged about yesterday, and makes a botch of it.

Hitchens’s single biggest howler in this piece is here —

Lilla’s most brilliant point concerns the awful pitfalls of what he does not call “liberation theology.” Leaving this stupid and oxymoronic term to one side, and calling it by its true name of “liberal theology” instead, he reminds us that the eager reformist Jews and Protestants of 19th-century Germany mutated into the cheerleaders of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Reich, which they identified—as had Max Weber—with history incarnate.

— where he confuses 19th century “liberal theology” with 20th century “liberation theology,” which were two entirely separate movements. And the word “liberal” in “liberal theology” didn’t mean “leftist” as we might use it now (and as Hitchens uses it, perhaps not having noticed the word liberal to refer to leftist/progressive politics didn’t come into vogue until the 1930s), but rather “free thinking,” an ideal of the Enlightenment. This alone is a big honking clue that Hitchens doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Hitchens writes, “In the first place, it is not correct to say that modernism relied on a conviction about the steady disappearance of religious belief,” as if Lilla had argued that modernism relied on a conviction about the steady disappearance of religious belief. But that is not what Lilla argued. He did not say that religious belief had to “disappear,” but that genuinely democratic government requires that religion be separated from politics. There’s a huge difference between thinking of religion as a matter of private conscience out of reach of government, and saying that it must be eliminated entirely.

Hitchens’s argument is based on the conceit that religion — all religion, mind you — is totalitarian, and all totalitarianism (including totalitarian states in which religion is persecuted) is religion. As I argued here, the real enemy of democracy and modernism is fanaticism. Fanaticism can be religious, and it can be nonreligious. Hitchens himself is a fine example of a nonreligious — nay, anti-religious — fanatic.

The Lilla essay highlighted our species’ doggedly persistent tendency to think ahead to a pre-ordained, perfect future. This tendency can be found in most religions — the Second Coming is a prime example. But it can also be found in non-religious ideologies — replacing bourgeois society with a workers’ paradise, or secular democracy spreading to all the nations of the world. A major point I took from Lilla’s essay is that this sort of utopian thinking can cloud understanding and cause nations to make some very bad decisions. For example, the belief that there is a pre-ordained arc of history that will lead all nations to democracy could lead to misreading of current events. And when utopianism gets mixed up with nationalism, events can get ugly.

Thinking about a better future is not necessarily fanatical. It’s common to hope that, some day, human society will evolve into something more peaceful and compassionate than it is now. Nor does it worry me if some people associate this future benevolent society with religious belief, such as the Second Coming of Christ, as long as the belief is held with humility, as something beyond ordinary understanding that will happen in its own way and in its own time.

But when people are so all-fired determined to make their perfect future come to pass that they are willing to violently overturn the current social order, or oppress and/or eliminate those they think stand in the way, then we’re looking at the kind of fanatical messianism that creates brutal and oppressive totalitarian regimes. I agree with Christopher Hitchens that this is an outcome to be avoided. I disagree, however, that all religion and only religion inevitably leads to this outcome.

Hitchens’s conceit is that religion causes utopian fanaticism, and that if religion were only eliminated the world would be a better place. But I say utopian fanaticism can exist without religion, and that much religion is neither utopian nor messianic. Even if all religion, and all belief in God or gods, disappeared tomorrow (which would be Hitchens’s utopian fantasy, I believe), utopian thinking would still be with us.

Rather than assume religion causes utopian fanaticism, I think it’s more accurate to say that utopian thinking breeds a certain kind of religious thinking, in which a person-God is believed to be leading his believers collectively to a glorious future. And that is, certainly, a common viewpoint of many religions. But not all religions promote that point of view. My religion doesn’t even recognize linear time except as a relative construct, for pity’s sake; past, present, and future are all One. But even in the God-centered religions, people do interpret apocalyptic prophecies as metaphors for individual, rather than global, transcendence. Or, as I was taught, the challenge of the “end times” is one of personal preparation — be “right with God” every moment, because you never know when the End is coming.

And in the modern age it is just as likely for people to think that if only their ideological principles would be put into practice, a perfect society would be born. Think of libertarians and their absolute faith in free markets to solve just about all humanity’s problems.

Many of us use the word “messianic” to describe extreme utopian faiths, whether religious or political. And you can use the word religion to refer to non-religious matters, also. If I say Alice followed her diet religously I would mean that she followed her diet conscientiously, not that she was dieting because God told her to.

Hitchens may be confused by the common practice of using of the word religion as a synonym for faith. I argued here and here why religion and faith are not synonymous. I refuse to call myself a “person of faith” even though I am religious, and I think all religious people should do likewise. When you define the totality of religion as nothing but “faith,” and when faith in anything becomes indistinguishable from “religion,” then the word religion itself has lost any useful purpose and ought to be retired.

But religion is a great many things other than faith, and faith can be about a great many things other than religion. And when we’re clear about that, then it becomes obvious why Christopher Hitchens is a blathering fool.

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6 Comments

  1. felicity  •  Aug 21, 2007 @12:05 pm

    A blathering fool indeed. More people like you should be clipping Hitchens’ wings by pointing out his often factual errors, not to mention his peculiarly designed arguments to reach conclusions from premises which were insupportable in the first place.

    “…but when people are so all-fired determined to make their perfect future come to pass…” It seems to me that the key word, and perhaps biggest problem, lies in the word ‘their.’ And I still can’t understand why ‘their’ future must not only come to pass but must invalidate anybody else’s ‘future’. I get fear operating here, but I don’t get the basis for the fear. Anyone have an answer?

    As an aside, I do remember a sister-in-law of mine, not particularly ‘religious’ – at least not a fanatic – say that she wouldn’t attend Hal Holbrook’s “An Evening with Mark Twain” because she was AFRAID it would ‘shake her faith.’ She is a bright, well-educated, well-informed woman whose reasoning abilities, however, went south when up against her ‘faith.’ I mentioned the account because it seems to me to be an example of fear in operation.

  2. We Are The 801  •  Aug 21, 2007 @1:31 pm

    “Hitchens’s conceit is that religion causes utopian fanaticism, and that if religion were only eliminated the world would be a better place. But I say utopian fanaticism can exist without religion, and that much religion is neither utopian nor messianic. Even if all religion, and all belief in God or gods, disappeared tomorrow (which would be Hitchens’s utopian fantasy, I believe), utopian thinking would still be with us.”

    Bingo! Absolutism has many guises (Stalin, hello!). I myself am an atheist, however, I have no problem with religion insofar as it is what provides some form of meaningfulness to one’s life (my meaningfulness is just not metaphysically based, that’s all– “faith” if you will– though personally I dunno if I could accept that term, but I understand what you mean, Maha).

    It is only in its absolutist forms that I find any religious or political movement dangerous. Hitchens’ critique totally misses the point, becuase he’s looking at one particular manifestation of absolutism & saying that THAT is the problem.

    And while it is quite easy to point quite a lot of instances of religious totalitarianism, there are those such as Gandhi, MLK, Bonhoeffer and others who based their ethical actions on their faith, their own religious foundation. Or does Hitchens just brush that under the rug?

    Something I never tire of saying (even now as an atheist), an idol is not merely made of wood, stone or metal. It is made of concepts, words & slogans. And some people will sacrifice friends, family & neigbours to that idol (figuratively & literally). And sometimes that idol may be in the name of a political (secular) revolution or even “Jesus” or “Allah.”

    When the “god” trumps human life & dignity, then you have an “idol.” For me, my “atheism” means not merely the rejection of a metaphysical entity called “God” but of all forms of absolutism. And yet, I see my own atheism as having more in common with someone like Thomas Merton or MLK than with Dawkins or Hitchens. But that’s just me.

  3. Dr. X  •  Aug 21, 2007 @2:19 pm

    “Hitchens’s conceit is that religion causes utopian fanaticism, and that if religion were only eliminated the world would be a better place. But I say utopian fanaticism can exist without religion, and that much religion is neither utopian nor messianic. Even if all religion, and all belief in God or gods, disappeared tomorrow (which would be Hitchens’s utopian fantasy, I believe), utopian thinking would still be with us. ”

    Bingo-ditto! I cut that paragraph to repaste it, then noticed that the previous commenter already cited it. Hitchens has the mental machinery of a very bright man, but he is compromised by a bloviating arrogance unchecked by a more humble, circumspect recognition of others as beings with 3-dimensional mental lives that occassionally include wisdom born of experience.

    The upshot is that Hitchens is very much the fanatic who imagines a better world if he could only cut out those cancerous others (the religious) as if it would cure the disease that animates his own attraction to the fanatical.

  4. James  •  Aug 21, 2007 @8:49 pm

    McCarraher also exposed Hitchens as an ignorant prick:

    http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/article.php3?id_article=1962

  5. julia  •  Aug 21, 2007 @9:04 pm

    It’s always amusing when Hitchens, whose addiction to magical thinking is by far the one which is damaging his mind the most, opines about the unreason of religious belief.

    We had to go to war to save the iraqi people from brutality. We have to stay at war because we went in for the right reasons. The whole thing was a humanitarian enterprise, and asking that it be done in a more humanitarian manner is tantamount to being a genocidal fascist yourself. We’re there to save these people from the tyranny of religious fundamental terror, dammit.

    Which is why he supported George W. “Jesus told me to lie because he really wanted this war” Bush and his party of bible-thumping unbelievers (because you can’t convince me that it’s just by coincidence that there are that many randian supermen with deep religious faith in the world) in taking out the only secular country in the middle east with the support of the country that finances Wahhab (and lets them impose their religion with clubs) and the Taliban’s BFF in Pakistan.

    Because it doesn’t matter how much damage Christopher Hitchens does to the world, as long as his intentions were pure and his dogma unsullied and the liberals who earned his scorn and wrath by knowing him too well to think as well of him as he does himself are put in their proper place.

    Which appears to be at the feet of Christopher Hitchens, the piece of shit the universe revolves around /ann lamott

  6. julia  •  Aug 21, 2007 @9:11 pm

    also it’s kind of amusing for a fucking trot to claim that religion leads to genocide. Presumably that was the Pope consolidating power with that icepick in Mexico on the way to the biggest cleansing until the next one.

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