I’ve been thinking a lot about religion lately, mostly because I’ve been asked to be on a religion panel at this year’s Yearly Kos convention. I am not sure who else will be on this panel, but I anticipate an exchange between people who support religion and those who think it is stupid. I tend to agree that much religion is pretty stupid, but I support it anyway. It’s a nuanced position.
I understand that Christopher Hitchens has written a book critical of religion, and today his brother Peter writes a criticism of Christopher’s criticism of religion. As near as I can tell, neither of them says anything startlingly original, and both are engaged in circular absolutism to one degree or another.
There are cases to be made both for and against religion. Unfortunately I don’t have time to make those cases this morning. This morning I just want to speak briefly to the end of Peter Hitchens’s op ed:
Liberal world reformers make the grave mistake of thinking that if you abolish a great force you donâ€™t like, it will be replaced by empty space.
We abolished the gallows, for example, and found we had created an armed police and an epidemic of prison suicides. We abolished school selection by exams, and found we had replaced it with selection by money. And so on.
We are in the process â€“ encouraged by Christopher â€“ of abolishing religion, and so of abolishing conscience, too.
It is one of his favourite jibes that a world ruled by faith is like North Korea, a place where all is known and all is ordered.
On the contrary, North Korea is the precise opposite of a land governed by conscience.
It is a country governed by men who do not believe in God or conscience, where nobody can be trusted to make his own choices, and where the State decides for the people what is right and what is wrong.
And it is the ultimate destination of atheist thought.
If you do not worship God, you end up worshipping power, whether it is Kim Jong Il, Leon Trotsky or the military might of George W. Bush. In which case, God help you.
Is not George W. Bush a God-worshipper? And does he not worship power in spite of his alleged devotion to God?
In fact, I don’t worship God, and I don’t worship power, either, although that may be because I never had any. If I had some I might grow fond of it. If I ever get powerful I’ll let you know how that turns out.
In plain truth is that the history of religion is full of people who got power mad and attempted to use religion to exercise power over others. Torquemada comes to mind, as does Pat Robertson and Ted Haggart. Power corrupts religion as easily as it corrupts any other human institution, as David Kuo recently discovered. It is extraordinarily difficult for a person to be handed any power at all and not use that power to some ego-driven end, and I don’t see that the religious have ever been any better at it than the non-religious.
In fact, it seems to me that “morality” imposed by religion is often brittle. How often do we hear about religious leaders committing the very sins they rail against? What’s amazing about Ted Haggart’s story is not how unusual it is, but how typical it is. Show me a holy roller who rails against the sins of the flesh, and I’ll show you someone who’s been making unauthorized use of his own body parts. You can almost count on it. The same church that crusades against abortion tries to sweep the molestation of choirboys under the rug. The same ministers who warn against worldliness get mixed up in partisan politics. The Ten Commandments forbid graven images, and the faithful make a graven image of the Ten Commandments. It’s as if there’s a near-total disconnect between what the religious say and what the religious do.
And these examples are not exceptions. Albert Schweitzer was an exception. St Francis of Assisi was an exception. Jim and Tammy Faye are, alas, the rule.
Yet no matter now many centuries — nay, millennia — of empirical evidence piles up to the contrary, the religious still thump their chests and declare themselves to be the Official Sacred Vessels of all that is good and moral.
The Eleventh Commandment should be “Thou shalt not bullshit thyself about thyself.”