The Wisdom of Doubt, Part IV

Christopher Hitchens published a book this year called God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Full disclosure: I have not read it. I have read excerpts from the book, and interviews of Hitchens describing his book, and reviews of the book. If someone gave me a free copy I might read it, but I’m not going to spend money on the thing.

I take it that Hitchens has decided religion is the root of all evil. Stephen Prothero wrote in the Washington Post:

Historian George Marsden once described fundamentalism as evangelicalism that is mad about something. If so, these evangelistic atheists have something in common with their fundamentalist foes, and Hitchens is the maddest of the lot. Protestant theologian John Calvin was “a sadist and torturer and killer,” Hitchens writes, and the Bible “contain[s] a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre.”

As should be obvious to any reasonable person — unlike Hitchens I do not exclude believers from this category — horrors and good deeds are performed by believers and non-believers alike. But in Hitchens’s Manichaean world, religion does little good and secularism hardly any evil. Indeed, Hitchens arrives at the conclusion that the secular murderousness of Stalin’s purges wasn’t really secular at all, since, as he quotes George Orwell, “a totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy.” And in North Korea today, what has gone awry is not communism but Confucianism.

In other words, in order to prove his claim that religion is the cause of all evil, he defines all destructive mass movement of history as “religion.” See this about “moral clarity.”

Hitchens is not so forgiving when it comes to religion’s transgressions. He aims his poison pen at the Dalai Lama, St. Francis and Gandhi. Among religious leaders only the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. comes off well. But in the gospel according to Hitchens whatever good King did accrues to his humanism rather than his Christianity. In fact, King was not actually a Christian at all, argues Hitchens, since he rejected the sadism that characterizes the teachings of Jesus. “No supernatural force was required to make the case against racism” in postwar America, writes Hitchens. But he’s wrong. It was the prophetic faith of black believers that gave them the strength to stand up to the indignities of fire hoses and police dogs. As for those white liberals inspired by Paine, Mencken and Hitchens’s other secular heroes, well, they stood down. …

… What Hitchens gets wrong is religion itself.

Hitchens claims that some of his best friends are believers. If so, he doesn’t know much about his best friends. He writes about religious people the way northern racists used to talk about “Negroes” — with feigned knowing and a sneer. God Is Not Great assumes a childish definition of religion and then criticizes religious people for believing such foolery. But it is Hitchens who is the naïf. To read this oddly innocent book as gospel is to believe that ordinary Catholics are proud of the Inquisition, that ordinary Hindus view masturbation as an offense against Krishna, and that ordinary Jews cheer when a renegade Orthodox rebbe sucks the blood off a freshly circumcised penis. It is to believe that faith is always blind and rituals always empty — that there is no difference between taking communion and drinking the Kool-Aid (a beverage Hitchens feels compelled to mention no fewer than three times).

Hitchens sees himself as quite open minded, of course. This is an excerpt from the book:

And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically. …

This is from a guy who still defends the invasion of Iraq, mind you. And get this from an interview:

[Interviewer]Your book discusses the problems with the Abrahamic faiths, but then says Eastern religion is not the answer. It seemed like your main criticism of Eastern religion wasn’t so much about its tenets so much as one sex abuse scandal at one ashram.

Oh, no. My objection was to the sign [at the entrance to one tent] saying, “Shoes and minds must be left at the gate.” It’s the idea that the whole effort of meditation is to try and dissolve your mind, which is the only thing you’ve got that’s unequivocally worth having.

In other words, this blockhead who says he stands for “free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake” dismissed centuries of philosophy from the entire continent of Asia because of a sign on a tent. If he’d checked, he’d have found that the sign doesn’t mean what he assumed it meant — Asian philosophy regarding the nature of mind would take a lifetime to learn — but I’ll leave that alone for now. In any event, IMO, Hitchens has a mind that were better left outside with the shoes.

I’m pointing to Hitchens because he exemplifies so nicely one of the real roots of all evil — I’m not saying it’s the only one — which is fanaticism. People can be fanatics about religion and non-religion alike, and even the most benign and innocuous human activity or belief becomes pernicious in the hands of fanatics.

Hitchens fancies himself to be an openminded man of logic and reason, but his intellectual dishonesty reveals him to be quite the opposite. In the last episode of The Wisdom of Doubt I argued that religion gets screwy when people use it to bullshit themselves about themselves. Here we see an atheist bullshitting himself about himself, to similar results.

Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer (1951):

Only the individual who has come to terms with his self can have a dispassionate attitude toward the world. Once the harmony with the self is upset, he turns into a highly reactive entity. Like an unstable chemical radical he hungers to combine with whatever comes within his reach. He cannot stand apart, whole or self-sufficient, but has to attach himself whole-heartedly to one side or the other. …

… The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources — out of his rejected self — but finds it only in clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. Though his single-minded dedication is a holding on for dear life, he easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. … The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justice and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. …

… The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached. [Hoffer, The True Believer, HarperPerennial edition, pp. 84-86]

Hoffer goes on to say that fanatics of all stripes are more like each other than they are like moderates of the same stripe. “The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not,” he writes. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that atheism is a religion, but the point is that a fanatical atheist and a religious fanatic are more like each other than, say, a dispassionate guy who doesn’t believe in God but who doesn’t attach his ego to atheism. Or, for that matter, than a sincerely and deeply religious person who doesn’t attach his ego to his religion.

If you know much at all about Hitchens, you see how well Hoffer describes him. In his life he has swung from one ideology to another, embracing each with passion. He’s a classic fanatic.

I wrote awhile back about elective ignorance. People practicing elective ignorance start with a point of view and then admit into evidence only those facts that support their point of view. Those with a really bad case of elective ignorance become incapable of acknowledging facts that contradict their opinions. Thus, Christopher Hitchens came to the remarkable conclusion that Martin Luther King was not really Christian; acknowledging MLK’s Christianity contradicts his faith that religion is the root of all evil. If the facts don’t fit, change ’em.

Ideologies can be understood as a form of codified elective ignorance, or a strategy to make the world easier to understand by limiting one’s cognitive choices. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Since we all have finite cognitive resources, adopting an ideology is one way to obtain a workable understanding of issues without devoting the time and brain work required to become an expert. As long as a person appreciates that his understanding and knowledge are incomplete — if he has the wisdom of doubt, in other words — and he remains open to changing his views, he’s not a fanatic.

Fanatically attached to, ideologies become a substitute for thinking. When confronted by a new situation, instead of looking at it directly and seeing it as-it-is, the ideologue runs through the list of cognitive choices his ideology affords him and picks the one that seems to relate. No amount of empirical evidence that his choice is wrong will shake his faith in its correctness. The real world is hidden from him; the ideology is all he can see.

Hoffer writes that people become fanatical because they are estranged from themselves. This looks like a paradox — I’ve been talking about ego attachment, and also talking about alienation from the self. When the ego attaches to something, that something becomes a projection of the self. When ego attaches to a religion or a cause or an ideology, that religion, cause, etc. becomes inseparable from self-identity. It is no longer just an opinion or an interest or a practice. It becomes who you are. Fanatics cling to ridiculous positions because being wrong feels like an existential threat.

Now, some of you are probably thinking Hitchens is right and that religion is the root of all evil. Religion is, unfortunately, an easy thing to be fanatical about. Religion presents itself as a solution to our deepest pain and fears. It’s a perfect escape route for people running away from themselves. This is particularly true of dogmatic, authoritarian religions.

In Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm wrote that people who fear personal freedom, who are uncomfortable with their own autonomy, tend to escape into authoritarianism and conformity. Religion that combines passion with absolutism is the perfect medium for fanaticism. Let’s check back with Hoffer and The True Believer

To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without wonder and hesitation. “Who knows Jesus knows the reason for all things.” The true doctrine is the master key to all the world’s problems. With it the world can be taken apart and put together. [p. 82]

Hoffer goes on from there to quote from an official history of the Communist Party claiming that Marxist-Leninist theory answers all questions and even perfectly predicts the future. Fanaticism is not just found in religion.

History shows us that when authoritarian religion gets mixed up with political power, the results can be nasty. The Inquisition — which was as much about political authority as church authority — is a grand example. We should fear for the Middle East; whose residents seem determined to fold themselves into some kind of authoritarian Islamic theocracy. And we should fear for ourselves as long as fundamentalism is affecting the outcome of elections.

But religion is not always absolutist. In 1946 the liberal evangelical theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote an essay titled “Mystery and Meaning” in which he extolled the virtues of not-knowing —

It can not be denied … that this same Christian faith is frequently vulgarized and cheapened to the point where all mystery is banished. … a faith which measures the final dimension of existence, but dissipates all mystery in that dimension, may be only a little better or worse than a shallow creed which reduces human existence to the level of nature. …

… When we look into the future we see through a glass darkly. The important issue is whether we will be tempted by the incompleteness and frustration of life to despair, or whether we can, by faith, lay hold on the divine power and wisdom which completes what remains otherwise incomplete. A faith which resolves mystery too much denies the finiteness of all human knowledge, including the knowledge of faith. A faith which is overwhelmed by mystery denies the clues of divine meaning which shine through the perplexities of life. The proper combination of humility and trust is precisely defined when we affirm that we see, but admit that we see through a glass darkly. [Robert McAfee Brown, editor, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr (Yale, 1986), p. 248]

What Niebuhr is talking about here is the wisdom of doubt.

In this old post I wrote about Saint Anselm of Canterbury, a leading theologian of the 11th century.

Anselm’s motto is “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). … Faith for Anselm is more a volitional state than an epistemic state: it is love for God and a drive to act as God wills. In fact, Anselm describes the sort of faith that “merely believes what it ought to believe” as “dead.” … So “faith seeking understanding” means something like “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” [Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

I admit that the word epistemic gives me a headache, but it has to do with the validity of knowledge and belief. So Anselm’s approach to faith is not about trying to get his belief system validated. Beliefs by themselves have no purpose. Faith is not an end in itself. Rather, Anselm says, faith is a means for seeking a deeper knowledge of God (or the Dharmakaya, or the Great Whatever). A religion that isn’t looking past the dogmas to a deeper truth is a dead religion. Conversely, a religion that is not absolutist, and which accepts the imperfection of understanding, is not necessarily a wishy-washy religion as some assume. It can be the deeper and more wholesome religion.

And in the first installment of The Wisdom of Truth I linked to a dharma talk by Sevan Ross, director of the Chicago Zen Center, called “The Distance Between Faith and Doubt.” In this talk, the sensei says “Doubt is what unseats the ego.” Doubt — accepting the limitations of one’s understanding — prevents ego-attachment. People without doubt mistake their own ego for the voice of God. This is what makes religion fanatical, and dangerous.

I cannot think of a better antidote to fanaticism than the Precepts of Engaged Buddhism of the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Here are the first three:

1 Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

2 Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

3 Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.

When dealing with fanatics it’s tempting to push back with equal and opposite fanaticism, but that doesn’t work. Fanaticism isn’t easily cured, but it’s best to deal with it as coolly and dispassionately as possible.

See also the Hsin Hsin Ming by Seng-Ts’an (the Third Patriarch of Zen; sixth century).

Update: See also “Not Knowing is Most Intimate,” a dharma talk by Zoketsu Norman Fischer.

66 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Doubt, Part IV

  1. While at a book store last weekend I was surprised to see a section on Atheism. It contained 4 books, one was by Hitchens.
    I saw the interview on Hardball last week with Hitchens and Al Sharpton.
    I consider myself to be an Atheist, but I don’t agree that “Religion poisons everything”. Many religious groups do great work, one in particular is ECHO in North Fort Meyers, FL. ECHO runs a seed bank and helps people throughout the world through agriculture. One of their main rescources is the amazing plant “moringa oleifera” which is literally saving the lives of women and children throughout Sub Saharan Africa, Hati, and the Philippines.ECHO has an exibit and plant nursery that is a must see for visitors to SW Florida.I grow moringa in my back yard and use moringa daily. It is an amazing plant.

    I have yet to read Hitchens book, but I surely don’t believe Reigion poisons everything. Fanaticism on the other hand, is truly disturbing.Religious fanaticism married to nationalism is about malignant as it can get.
    Excellent post, Maha.

  2. Thank you for a very useful essay. I especially liked your quoting Hoffer: “The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not.” I consider myself a secular humanist who is agnostic about the existence of a deity (i.e., I don’t know whether I am truly an atheist.) Hitchens certainly is at the extreme end claiming that religion is the source of all evil. I would hold that ORGANIZED religion is the source of MUCH evil. An individual really can’t be the source of an overwhelming amount of evil by himself, and 30 or so homicides is hardly in the same league as the crusades. No, it takes like-minded people working in concert (or misled in concert) to join the big leagues.

    BTW, is it possible to be a Buddhist fundie? It wouldn’t seem likely, but I have wondered.

    There is an on-going discussion of atheism and atheists at where the current topic is whether atheists are discriminated against and could have their civil liberties infringed. Some posters who are on the fundamentalist end of the atheist spectrum do grate on me after a while and IMO do their cause no favors. The thing is that science really has very little to do with religion, and does not attempt to address first causes. It can only describe what may be observed and tested. On the other side, I won’t go into creationism’s grip on reality; too exasperating.

  3. Maha , I love your blog . I have to disagree however, although I think Hitchins is wrong on Iraq I do think he is right on this issue, Growning up in a very Catholic country ( Ireland ) I saw first hand the enormous power that clergy had , this is unhealthy in society. We should not fear secularists , atheists , whatever you want to call people who think religion is all bunk! This represents progress,

  4. VJB — Yes, there are Buddhist fundies. I’ve met ’em. Interestingly, the worst ones I’ve met were not students of an established sect or members of a sangha, but solo “practitioners.”

    I’ve also known Zen students who were ego-attached to Zen practice, but if they stick with it they get over that eventually. I can’t say I’ve been much attached to it because I was never that good at it. I don’t do the sitting meditation on the pillows any more, for example. I sit in a chair with the rest of the weenies. Not good form, but one does what one can.

    The one thing I hope to accomplish with this series is make the case that the absolutist, literalist approach to religion promoted by the Christian Right is is not just bad for science education and democracy; it’s bad for religion, too. Theirs is a warped way to approach religion.

  5. Lucy — your example actually underscores my point, that authoritarian religion mixed with political power is a prescription for Bad Stuff. But I suggest your experience with religion is too narrow. There are non-authoritarian ways to approach religion, and authoritarian ways to approach other stuff, and fanatical ways to approach religion, and non-fanatical ways to approach religion. It’s the authoritarianism and fanaticism that cause the problems, not religion per se.

  6. As compared with you, I am still half way through the first day of Buddhism 101, but even at that, the notion that attachment causes suffering, seems undeniable, particularly in the light of our current political discourse.

    Ideologies seem to illustrate and clarify at first. But as theory turns to praxis, difficulties arise. We become so wedded to our model that we can’t leave it behind, even when its shortcomings stare us in the face. The “business” model of government and the magical attributes of the so called ‘\”free market” seem blatant failures, but most who invested in them seem incapable of rethinking. I’ve been there myself with a different formula for Utopia, so I can’t be too critical. Maybe the best way to save an idealogy is to declare it dead as soon as it is implemented so it can be discarded when feedback from the real world demands that it be rethought.

    Elective ignorance has been institutionalized in the form of the “think tank”. The object is not to seek the truth, but only what can be spun, distorted and levered into an idealogical form. E.g. the other day on a locally produced showon NPR a representative from the ubiquitous A.E.I. was the sole guest on a show devoted to global warming, excuse me, “climate change”. You can imagine how objectively and scientifically the subject was handled.

    Thanks for a great post and (sigh) for adding to the list of articles, books and authors on the “must read” list.

  7. ‘God is not Great.’ I wonder if Hitchens is familiar with the via negativa which defines God by what God isn’t – not great, not love, not good…and of course there is no ‘end’ to the exercise so there is never God defined as ‘what is left.’ The via negativa was touted by some of the early Christian mystics as a legitimate way of ‘defining’ God. (Today’s fundamentalist would think it heretical, I’m sure.)

    Hitchens has always struck me as someone with a giant mad on, his biggest mad on directed at himself I think. That said, he is the type who, should he flip, would be a raving, fanatical religious fundamentalist.

  8. Maha,

    I did not in fact ” approach religion ” , it most definitely approached me ! (” assaulted “would be a better term)

    How could we, in fact , strip religion of power? They get us young , fill us with guilt and angst and therefore ” have us ” for life in most cases. Only those with bravery , or desperation ( born of the guilt ) rebel and start to think for themselves. I see no good in organized religion, we can do all the ” good deeds” just as well if not better with a secular community. Religion only holds us back , this is evident in the Muslim world.

    And as for the ” rituals ” dont even get me started on things like circumscision …. at least the Catholic church didnt do stuff like that !!!! Its barbaric, I didnt even know Americans did that kind of thing !!!

  9. Lucy: Who are the “they” that get us? I grew up in the Bible Belt and appreciate what it’s like to be assaulted by aggressive religionists, but I see no such things going on where I live now, in New York. Yet there is religion. Where religion can be freely chosen, and where it is de-coupled from political power, then it can be free to be religion and not an instrument of oppression and authority.That’s what separation of church and state is all about.

    Re established religion: I tell you there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t feel gratitude toward the Zen monastery I spent time in years ago, and that place is as established as all-get out, sanctioned by a centuries-old Japanese Soto Zen organization. Zen taught me to think for myself. This morning I went to a service at a little neighborhood zendo near where I live, and there was nothing the least bit coercive or oppressive about the place. Religion can be like that.

  10. I’ll only talk about a couple of side points. Hitchens is pretty easy to dismiss as he’s writing from the outside looking in. This how he gets to project all his stuff onto people like MLK, Mother Theresa, and the like and come off sounding like a completely self-unaware idiot. It almost defines the word “sophomoric”. I wonder if anyone outside his belief system reads this stuff.

    Belief systems are like foreign countries. There are big belief systems and small ones. They have an internal consistency and all sorts of cultural practices that go with them, especially those belief systems that have been around for a long time and have many adherents. This is why they are a “system”.

    A religion is but one kind of belief system. “America”, “France”, “The General Electric Company”, “The Enlightenment”, “Capitalism”, “Science” are examples of other kinds of belief systems.

    “Atheism” is also a belief system. Atheism and Science are sometimes called religions, and while not precisely correct, this touches the fact that religions, atheism, and science are all belief systems. People put their faith in belief systems, whatever they may be. Some are fanatic about it, gaining ego strength from one or more belief systems, and some have the detachment and healthy doubt that you’ve been writing about.

    If someone is going to discuss or knock a belief system – like writing about a foreign country, they had better be very familiar with it, hopefully having traveled there and lived in it awhile. This is why Hitchens is ridiculous: to my knowledge he has never experienced what he’s writing about. He writes entirely from the outside looking in.

    A great example of what Hitchins is not, is Diana Eck’s Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Benares. Eck is a professor of comparative religion at Harvard, who grew up Methodist (in Bozeman Montana), and spent considerable time in India. The book respects Christianity and (primarily) Hinduism and struggles with Christianity’s claims of exclusivism.

    This is a terrific post, part of a terrific series. I wish you could find a way to take it to a larger audience, it is important and well done. You might consider printing this series and offering it as a freebie at your talk at YearlyKos. Give people something physical to hold in their hands that they can take home with them. Just a thought.

  11. I think your Zen experiences would be described my me as spirituality, which is a different thing.

    I have read Sam Harris and agree with everything he says in his book. I think Hitchins is basically saying the same things , only more rudely.
    To call people who are outraged about strange and barbaric practices ( eg genital mutilation on newborns ) as ” fanatics ” is not fair. As we have all said ( on progressive blogs ) sometimes we SHOULD be outraged . Hitchins makes the point ( a good one I think ) that ” faith ” makes reasonable people do irrational and cruel things eg suicide bombing that would never occur to a person to do if not for the influence of ” faith ” ….( thats a bad sentence I know….. :- ) Anyway I am glad that lack of religion is even being discussed …. this gives courage to many non believers who are hiding in the shadows afraid to speak their minds. Maha when you say there is no coercion that is not seeing the reality ,,,, its as bad as ” coming out ” used to be before we decided that ” homosexuals were people too ” and lets face it , many still think they are evil incarnate .

  12. Would it be perhaps possible to slam Hitchens’ book without resorting to straw men and cheap shots?

    Hitchens is at least knowledgeable enough to know that it is mohels, not rebbes, who perform brises (circumsisions).* If you read the book, you could see that the sucking was an example he threw out of unusual fanaticism by Hasidim – not something he claims ordinary Jews go in for.

    * There is no call for a rebbe to even be present at a bris.

  13. I think your Zen experiences would be described my me as spirituality, which is a different thing.

    How is it different from religion? There are priests and monks, there are rituals, there is incense and bowing and chanting of a standard liturgy. It’s institutionalized; priests are ordained, and teachers must be certified. Trust me, it’s religion.

    To call people who are outraged about strange and barbaric practices ( eg genital mutilation on newborns ) as ” fanatics ” is not fair.

    Now you aren’t being intellectually honest. You have issues with religion that are getting in the way of seeing things as-they-are, just like any other dogma or ideology. I don’t doubt you have had terrible experiences and have a bad attitude toward the religion you experienced for justified reasons. But, assuming those experiences are in the past, it’s you and only you choosing to carry the past around with you now. And only you can liberate yourself from what bothers you, by letting it go.

  14. Oh and BTW – the main point re the penis sucking wasn’t that it was disgusting – it was that a diseased mohel infected several babies, two of whom died.

  15. Would it be perhaps possible to slam Hitchens’ book without resorting to straw men and cheap shots?

    I’ve never heard Hitchens speak of religion without resorting to straw men and cheap shots, so I hope you are as critical of him as you are of me. Further, if you have issues with Stephen Prothero’s review, please bother him about it.

  16. Horselover Fat — I really don’t know what Hitchens’s issues were about circumcision, and don’t much care. If you want to argue with Hitchens because he thinks circumcision is barbaric, please argue with Hitchens, not me. It’s not something I have a strong opinion about, blood sucking or not.

  17. I don’t see where it justifies your (Prother’s) use of straw men to claim Hitchens does it too.

    If you can’t stand behind Prothero yourself, why publish him?

  18. Several babies get sick, two of them die, and Maha has “no strong opinions?”


  19. Horselover — I admit in the first line that I haven’t read Hitchens’s book, but I have heard him bloviate about religion many times, and Prothero’s review tracks nicely with my own opinion of what Hitchens’s bloviates. YOU say Prothero is using straw men; I doubt it. I suspect it is your view that is skewed. Certainly Hitchens does, so I hope you take up your dislike of straw men with him.

    Regarding the circumcision incident you speak of, again, I know nothing about it. Never heard of it; have no idea what you are talking about. If what you say it true, it sounds awful, but I have no strong opinion for or against circumcision per se.

    Clearly, you have a bug up your butt about something, and I suggest you deal with it.

  20. well Maha I think the other posters are making the point that religion and its rituals are not benign things but in many cases cause death and suffering…. again suicide bombers who believe truly that they will be rewarded in the next life is another example that currently, religion does more harm than good in many parts of the world. I have no problem with Hitchins getting irate and outraged by it all, in the same way that Michael Moore gets his points across but with more satire. I think Michael Moore could make a great movie about religion just imagine him talking about a circumscision , ” and here we have the little unsuspecting baby , all happy and gurgling …..

    the fact is , it is odd for you to say things like ” I have no opinion about circumscision either way ” and then talk about religion , since this is such and integral part of a religion, the Jewish faith.

    Religion has so profoundly touched EVERYTHING in society that it is hard to imagine a world without it….. but I do , and its a grand place.

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  22. Lucy — First, most boys in the U.S. are circumcised. My Welsh-Irish-American Lutheran-Buddhist son was circumcised. Religion had nothing to do with it. He doesn’t seem to be traumatized now (he’s just short of 23). It’s been found to drastically reduce the spread of the HIV virus. Get over it.

    Second, the opposite of one kind of craziness is not falling into an equal and opposite craziness. You’re oppressing yourself over religion by your hatred of religion, and not seeing anything clearly.

    BTW, not holding strong opinions for or against things is part of my religion, which I don’t always practice well.

    The Great Way is not difficult
    for those who have no preferences.
    When love and hate are both absent
    everything becomes clear and undisguised.
    Make the smallest distinction, however,
    and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
    If you wish to see the truth
    then hold no opinions for or against anything.
    To set up what you like against what you dislike
    is the disease of the mind.
    When the deep meaning of things is not understood
    the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

    — From the Hsin Hsin Ming by Seng-Ts’an (the Third Patriarch of Zen; sixth century).

  23. I have always had trouble with Hitchens because he seems to have an emotional investment in knowing more or knowing better than I do. He’s not the only smart guy on the planet, and as one of the rest of them, I find it bewildering to be treated as if he were.

    His certainty tends to come wrapped in an implied denigration of my own knowledge or ability to reason. He never comes to me with the message “Please look; this is how I believe the world may be, and I think you may find you agree.” Rather, the undertone is more “Listen up. The world is the way I say it is; I know more than you do. (And it’s important to me that I do.)”

    It doesn’t surprise me that he would react poorly to the ‘shoes-and-mind’ sign on that tent, since he seems to identify with his intellectual “knowing”, and how could one possibly do that without a “mind”? Following Thich Nhat Hanh’s reminder, I will attempt to respond compassionately in the face of such narrow-mindedness.

    Thank you, maha, for that Niebuhr quote. It resonates for me.

  24. Maha , I am over it , no skin off my nose….. I only think its a strange practice, am I not allowed to say that ????

  25. Unfortunately, at the heart of Christianity is Tertullian`s dictum, ‘credo quia impossibile est’. What kind of mind does that describe, and what kind of mind does it create? It is wrong to suppose that all other religions involve belief in this way, and that is irrespective of whether or not they have the rituals and buildings that you suggest shows that they are properly institutionalised and defines that they are, indeed, religions. I think you should stop looking at religious phenomena through the distorting prism of Christianity. I have small time for Hitchens’s political writings, and I have no doubt that he cuts corners in his writings about religion (I have no particular religion myself, and am not anxious to read through arguments I am already well aware of), but, from extracts I have seen, he certainly does show up the foolishness and self-deception that informs a great deal of so-called ‘belief’ – and it is no good saying that ‘civilised’ believers believe something differently, when, as is quite clear from seeing Hitchens talking to Sean Hannity and Al Sharpton, a great many people (and a great many influential people, too), particularly, I’m afraid, in the USA, seriously believe the most infantile nonsense. Christianity, more than any other religion with the exception of Islam, is founded on claims as to its ‘truth’ (which is one reason for its constant warring against ‘false’ religions and science), ‘truth’ in which the Christian should believe if he or she is to be a Christian, and unfortunately no reference to attractive mediaeval mystics or humane modern theologians is going to make that go away.

  26. I think you should stop looking at religious phenomena through the distorting prism of Christianity.

    Religious “phenomena”? What sort of “phenomena” do you describe?

    It is wrong to suppose that all other religions involve belief in this way,

    Did you not pick up on the fact that I’m a Buddhist? Even worse, I’m a Zen Buddhist. We zennies don’t believe in believing things. I try not to look through any prism. I’m looking at Christianity as-it-is, today and through its history.

    There’s some seriously screwed up “phenomena” going on in Christianity today, but the point of the series is not to defend or rehabilitate Christianity — Christianity has to do that for itself, and I wish it good luck with that — but to point to the absolutism and fanaticism permeating our culture today, in politics as well as religion.

  27. Maha , I am over it , no skin off my nose….. I only think its a strange practice, am I not allowed to say that ????

    It is a strange practice, and you are allowed to say that. I’m just pointing out that you seem to have some big hairy issues you might want to take care of.

    This about sums it up for me.
    I’m inclined towards atheism, but there is a chance that I’m wrong.
    Imagine if I’m not, and all those billions of faithful are wasting their time building mega churches to a non existant being and people are wanting to kill each other becaues their God is better.Funny thing, but the Muslim vs Christian thing is rather new in modern times, funnier still is that RADICAL religion seems to be on the rise in the U.S.A. and many other countries.Is this perhaps because we have been fixated with killing fascists and communists, and now are in need of a new enemy? Funny how God put all that oil under Muslim lands, maybe he’s just “testing” us?
    I was “trapped” in a vehicle with a fundamentalist Christian for over 5 hrs last week, the guy decided to preach to me most of the time, testing my patience. I almost lost my cool, but didn’t, letting him ramble on about how preachers just don’t focus enough on the Old Testament anymore, on how the rapture could happen at any time, and that no matter how good or bad you are, just say the magic words about Jesus being your personal saviour, and BINGO, eternal salvation, everyone else boils in the eternal fire.
    ‘Makes perfect sense to me
    Now, a word about circumcision…..
    Save the foreskins.
    They make great wallets, rub them hard & fast, and you get a suitcase!
    Happy Sunday eve!

  29. Erinyes @ 29– I am so sorry the cash and cards you carry can fit into a foreskin. Most of these mini-wallets are harvested at infancy and wouldn’t hold a dime. Of course, mini-calamari rings as an amuse bouche… Not a dining suggestion, of course. It’s been a while since forcible circumcision made mountains.

  30. I’m inclined towards atheism, but there is a chance that I’m wrong.

    God is a conceptualization, but a conceptualization of what? Most of the conceptualizations are absurd, and nearly always they are just projections of whoever is doing the conceptualizing. I think all of the conceptualizations are wrong. However that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something real that the conceptualizations represent. Not necessarily anything supernatural, just something not usually perceived.

  31. A perhaps interesting quote I came across from Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”:

    “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt. “

  32. I agree that Hitchins is a bloviator, and he loves controversy, after all he wrote a book slamming Mother Teresa not long before she died.

    But he has some good points, for example would Mother Teresa not have been more effective if she had been an angry activist distributing condoms in the slums of Calcutta instead of holding the hands of prostitutes dying of AIDS? Religion makes us meek and accepting of injustice .
    I remember the nuns and priests in Ireland sighing and saying ” God love her, Ill say a Rosary “, when heaing of a 10th or 11th pregnancy of an already exhausted mother…. things like this. Sorry Maha , yes I do have ” issues ” , these issues opened my eyes to the world and the many injustices and cruelties of this world. I am saddened and yes, very angry to hear of ” honor killings ” , as women we should all be outraged about things like this . IT is anger that propels us to activism, and perhaps its time people stood up to priests, mullahs , imams and rabbi’s who only seek to hold us back and so hold on to power.

  33. Maha, I thought you were unnecessarily impatient with and condescending towards Lucy… also I get tired of seeing these regular attacks on “fundamentalist atheists”. What are people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris etc. doing that earns them the title “fundamentalist”? Are they forcibly converting people to atheism, passing laws discriminating against religionists, exploding bombs in churches etc? No, that’s the province of real fundamentalists. All the “uppity” atheists are doing is pointing out the irrationality and cruelty of religion, and the fact that it cannot be reconciled with reason and science – that the emperor in fact has no clothes. You don’t have to like what they say, or like them personally, but religionists have had a monopoly on the media for as long as it has existed (not to mention political and judicial power) – it’s time atheists got a word in edgeways.

  34. Maha, I thought you were unnecessarily impatient with and condescending towards Lucy

    When I see people drowning, I have a mighty compulsion to throw ropes.

    What are people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris etc. doing that earns them the title “fundamentalist”?

    Did you read the post? Is there any particular part you want explained?

    All the “uppity” atheists are doing is pointing out the irrationality and cruelty of religion, and the fact that it cannot be reconciled with reason and science – that the emperor in fact has no clothes.

    So to balance the scales, Hitchens throws off his clothes and declares himself emperor. Yes, that’s helpful.

    it’s time atheists got a word in edgeways

    There is a lot about religion that’s terribly dangerous and damaging, and one of the reasons I embarked on this series is to look at that and also at the parallel (of a piece, I think) extremism and fanaticism in U.S. politics. I hope not to come across as atheist bashing, but you don’t counter hysteria and lies with more hysteria and lies. Reason, truth, and a little compassion are in order here.

    I would like to draw your attention to a couple of essays by Madeleine Bunting that I think are spot on — “The New Atheists loathe religion far too much to plausibly challenge it” (Blurb: Anti-faith proselytising is a growth industry. But its increasingly hysterical flag-bearers are heading for a spectacular failure) and “New Atheism encourages what it disavows
    (Blurb: Yelling insults won’t reduce the appeal of extremist religious belief. We need to be more shrewd about this peculiarly modern phenomenon.). As Bunting explains, what Hitchens, Dawkins et al. are doing — and more important, the way they are doing it — must be wonderfully gratifying to atheists, but it’s doing nothing to solve the problem of religious extremism. So do you want to solve the problem, or do you want payback that leaves the problem in place? I don’t think you can have both.

  35. Lucy – see comment #35. Certainly, some of what Hitchens says about various religious people is true. And some of it is not true, and spectacularly so. It’s just hysteria and delusion and fanaticism. You seem to think that if it’s partly true, it must be entirely true. The real world doesn’t work that way. One sided, delusional thinking is one-sided, delusional thinking, whether pro-religion or anti-religion.

    You don’t have to tell me that there’s all kinds of shit going on in the name of religion these days that is oppressive and wrong and destructive. I’ve been fighting this stuff all my life. But religion also saved my life, and I’m grateful to it for that. I’m trying to minimize the bad shit so that some of the good shit can be more prominent.

  36. thanks you No More Mr Nice Guy ! I’m fairly thick skinned ….

    Maha , I do understand your loyalty to YOUR religion and yes religion does save lives and gives some people hope where there is none, but should we not find ways to keep the good parts and discard the not good parts?
    My life experiences , like yours, helped form my opinions , I ended up feeling duped , you ended up feeling saved .
    Which one of us is ” right ” ?

  37. Maha , I do understand your loyalty to YOUR religion and yes religion does save lives and gives some people hope where there is none, but should we not find ways to keep the good parts and discard the not good parts?

    I’m sorry, but when I explain the same thing as clearly as I can 27 times, and people want to argue with me without having read or absorbed any of it, I do get testy.

    Take a deep breath, dear. Focus.

    First, this has nothing to do with “loyalty” to “my” religion. All the major religions have potential to do harm and potential to do good. I’m trying to point out how and why that is, so that we can mitigate the bad stuff in all religions without also eliminating the good stuff.

    My life experiences , like yours, helped form my opinions , I ended up feeling duped , you ended up feeling saved .
    Which one of us is ” right ” ?

    We’re both “right.” The question is, right about what? I wrote above, “I don’t doubt you have had terrible experiences and have a bad attitude toward the religion you experienced for justified reasons.” I meant that. I don’t doubt for a minute that everything you say about your experiences with religion are completely true, and that you have very good reason for your feelings toward religion. I’d like very much to identify that part of religion — all religions, including mine — that oppresses and hurts people, and eliminate it as much as possible.

    However, when someone says that all religion is evil and must be eliminated, I object to that. Because, in fact, all religion is not evil and harmful; it can be beneficial. And this is true of all the major religions. It’s even true of Catholicism, although under its current leadership Catholicism is hard to like, I admit..

    Your opinions are perfectly valid for what you experienced, because what you experienced is what you experienced. Where you go off the rails is when you assume your experience allows you to pass judgment on and override everyone else’s experience.

  38. Pingback: The Mahablog » More Doubts

  39. Maha,
    Thanks for a couple great posts on the demonizing of doubt. It’s with considerable reluctance that I’m commenting, close to half of my brain is saying “Don’t do it!” I consider the current fad of discussing atheism equivalent to abstinence education: after you’ve said “Don’t have sex”, or “God doesn’t exist”, what more is there to discuss? But like everyone else, I won’t let that fact get in the way of a little bloviation. I’ll try to confine myself to a couple points I haven’t seen brought up.
    First, the arguments of our current atheism advocates suggest that human culture would get by just fine without religion. I’m not an anthropologist, but I don’t think there’s ever been a human culture that didn’t have rituals and a belief system for dealing with unexplainable, heartbreaking mysteries of human life. Of the tremendous number of human cultures scattered (literally) over the entire globe, every single one has had religion. This suggests strongly to me that some kind of spiritual curiosity is hard-wired into our brains. Given that we are prone to curiosity on all levels, it’s unlikely that it doesn’t extend into this realm.
    Second, there’s another set of traits hard-wired into the human brain; that of animals who live in small family bands with homicidal tendencies toward fellow species members outside their own small group. Observation of almost any pre-agricultural society strongly suggests that this is true, and the behavior of our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, confirms it. The Buddha, Confucius, Christ, and Muhammed, in direct contradiction to human nature and casual observation, all discovered that compassion and altruism must extend beyond your own tribe. Has this precept been more ignored than practiced? Of course. Have imperially-supported religions of the last couple thousand years engaged in behavior that is downright evil under any sane value system? You bet. But the contributions of the founders of the major religion are truly revolutionary. They remain the ideals of the great faiths, and bad as things are today, the mere fact that they exist is cause for hope. Could they have developed without a religious tradition? I think that question is practically meaningless. Many of us hunger to be part of a tradition that possessed the wisdom to develop such radical, transformational ideals.
    The past couple centuries have seen religions worldwide in a struggle to redefine themselves as literal interpretations of their foundational myths have fallen apart, one by one. Some of the contortions taken to accomodate these apparent contradictions are truly grotesque, most visibly in the Middle East, but even stranger and less understandably in Christian America. I’ve left my Bible-Belt Christianity and embraced Buddhism because I feel that Buddhism is truer to the teachings of Christ, and is more adept at dealing with challenges (partially because doubt is something that’s encouraged, not condemned). In some ways I wish I had the strength to carry on within my family’s tradition, but I got tired of the fight.
    Religions will change, but those who think that enough rational explanations will make them go away are just wrong. God bless science, I’m grateful to be alive in a time when it’s in such a prolific state, but there are some innate human appetites that it will never satisfy.

  40. Jeez,
    point taken, …… feeling suitably rebuked,

    HOWEVER, I think what Hitchins , Dawkins etc are saying, is lets try to look at this thing objectively ( as we would at science ) without all this ” reverence ” thats expected .

    Why do people take it in such a ” personal ” way , ( same as circumsision actually , people really seem to flip over this topic ) If you came to Ireland and asked me a cultural question , eg why are all those people getting drunk as skunks ? , I would try to give you a cultural explanation without getting so defensive ….. just saying …

  41. HOWEVER, I think what Hitchins , Dawkins etc are saying, is lets try to look at this thing objectively ( as we would at science ) without all this ” reverence ” thats expected .

    That’s what they’re saying, but that’s not what they’re doing. They’re looking at religion with hostility. It’s understandable hostility, but hostility is not objectivity. Hitchens’s book is full of lies. (Martin Luther King not a Christian? Please.) Hitchens in particular is one of the biggest bullshitters on the planet.

    Please see two essays by Madeleine Bunting: “The New Atheists loathe religion far too much to plausibly challenge it” (Blurb: Anti-faith proselytising is a growth industry. But its increasingly hysterical flag-bearers are heading for a spectacular failure) and “New Atheism encourages what it disavows
    (Blurb: Yelling insults won’t reduce the appeal of extremist religious belief. We need to be more shrewd about this peculiarly modern phenomenon.).

    Why do people take it in such a ” personal ” way , ( same as circumsision actually , people really seem to flip over this topic)

    You tell me; you’re the one who flipped.

  42. Lucy,
    If you’d like to see an objective, scientific, response to the neo-atheists, I’d recommend Scott Artran’s comments linked in Dan S’ comment #42. It contains all the scientific jargon you could hope for, it’s rational, detailed, fascinating, and to me, somewhat exhausting.
    Discussing religion rationally is like music criticism. I read it, but it ain’t music, and I’d much rather be playing than reading.
    One of my main beefs with the new atheism is that it has distracted Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins from what they’re really good at, interpreting science so we lay people can understand.

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  44. Maha,

    Thanks for the Bunting links, but after reading them all the way through, I’m underwhelmed. Bunting obviously hates atheists whether they are “fundamentalist” or “softies” – “Dawkins is just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube.” Excuse me, how many people has Richard Dawkins murdered? I’m amazed at how defensive people get when their religion is criticized, even mildly. You seem absolutely certain that anything an atheist says about religion can be dismissed out of hand as pure hostility with no basis – a position rather at odds with your theme of the wisdom of doubt. I’ve responded at greater length in the trackback I sent.

  45. No more Mr nice Guy ‘s post is excellent.

    I too have thought that these great and powerful faiths should not be threatened by a few non believers , if its so great , it will stand up to scrutiny and even ridicule ..

  46. ps ,
    would it be any different ,or easier to hear, if the atheists said
    ” please sir/madam , may I tentativley put forward the notion that there may not in fact be a god…… ?
    would they then be allowed to the table ? … I certainly doubt it ….. may as well be raucous.

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