Hitchens on God

I’ve been browsing through “God is Not Great” from Christopher Hitchens over the weekend (first 3 chapters down).   The book’s title includes the phrase: How religion poisons everything.  I do not yet ascribe to that idea entirely.  I think religion is a little more complex than Hitchens has made it seem in the early part of this text.  It’s also important to distinguish that ‘religion’ is not necessary the same as spirituality, faith, or belief.  

Anyway, the general idea has been on my mind lately.  I’ve long loathed the intersection of organized religion and policy-making- that loathing has only intensified as of late.  And the more I dwell on the public policy destruction often wroght by ill-conceived pressure from organized religion, the more I can sympathize with Hitchens determination that religion poisons everything.

First, from discussion with some Springfield pals, but for two last minute phone calls from orthodox Jewish rabbis to a north-side Illinois Senator, we would already have civil unions for gay couples in Illinois.  The rabbis’ reasoning didn’t rest on any actual public policy concerns.  They didn’t cite any studies, projections, or examples of the downsides of the policy.  Nope.  They just said that God was opposed to homosexuality.  Game-over.  End of conversation.  

Second, this weekend I had a pair of discussions with two family members who had sent along a request to “support the Mormon church from the hate attack launched by the gays.”  When I engaged them on the merits of their position, we had a civil discussion that ended the same in both cases.  The first concluded with “I have Gods word, and I know what He says is right and wrong, and If it means losing our tax exempt status, to continue our beliefs in Him and what He has taught us then SO BE IT.”  The second ended with a long copy and paste quoting the book of Genesis.  Game-over.  End of conversation.

I do not doubt the sincerity of the rabbis or of my family members.  In the case of my family members, they are decent, honest, compassionate folks who I love.

But when religious dogma devolves a conversation on public policy into a dead-end, we have a problem.  It has no business in policy-making.  In that way, it is a poison.

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12 comments

  1. AMEN! I was listening to a conservative talk show host in the car with my Dad (Actually, it might have been that one guy who is some third party – anyway, I recognized his voice, can’t remember his name, and no it wasn’t Limbaugh) and he was FURIOUS that Obama hadn’t been to church since his presidential campaign started.

    “How is he going to make moral, grounded decisions in the White House? This is over three months without church.”

    Church/Religion does a lot of great things for people in need and the community, but I think the broken logic in the above statement speaks for itself.

    Although it is easy to be kind on religion, it also has one major universal flaw: People Wont Think for Themselves.

    Some can separate “what god says” about homosexuality and what is really going on with homosexual couples. However, if you are religious, and you separate from your church on homosexuality, what else do you disagree on? Being unsupportive of homosexuality is a pretty big staple of the church nowadays. Picking and choosing what you like and what you don’t in your religion makes me more upset than pretty much anything.

    You can’t say you believe in the alphabet, except for the letter Y, because it can be used for a vowel or a consonant. Sure, you can say that, but if your alphabet doesn’t include the letter Y, YOU DO NOT BELIEVE IN THE ALPHABET – and why not question the other letters? Z shouldn’t be a letter because the sound a Z makes is easily replaced by other letters, for example, by X in xylophone.

    If you are a church goer/religions, and you don’t believe “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” — Lev.20:13 You better not believe any of that other…….mmm…text. What makes some text believable and others not?

    Paul, at least your family stays consistent with their beliefs.

    I’ve always been curious to know: How do you feel, on a personal level, when you talk to someone who supports you, but you know they have the traditional believe that you’ll end up in H-E-Double-hockey-stick?

    Interesting website: http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/

    Now that I look like a godless savage – Hope you had a good thanksgiving! Yay Pilgrims looking for religious freedom.

  2. This is an awesome book, and coincidentally enough I just finished it myself. I was far beyond skeptical of organized religion before reading the book, and those feelings are only strengthened now. Hitchens uses many specific examples, and although I must confess that I didn’t verify the claims on my own, if even half of what Hitchens says isn’t a total fabrication, then I think his case is pretty strong. I’ve found myself over the years using many of the same arguments in my own personal life, but now I feel like my arsenal has expanded ten-fold 🙂

    Hitchens has some interesting views (wait until you get to the part about circumcision!), but he clearly knows his stuff and has dedicated decades of his life to these issues. Religion may not poison every single thing, but it’s undeniable that it has resulted in innumerable atrocities and immeasurable ignorance and exploitation.

  3. So much interesting fodder to think about.

    Al, first, a question: What is your father’s reaction to those radio talk show hosts? I only ask, because I consider him to be a subset of at least a certain demographic, and I’m fascinated by the way different groups process opinion rants like that in the real world.

    Second, I’ve re-read your comments a few times, and each time I agreed with them a bit more. In particular, I’m weighing your contempt for those who ‘split their tickets’ and chose to ignore what they don’t like. I was troubled by it at first, because every religious person I know splits their tickets. The only way to not be a ticket-splitter is to become one of the radical koots picketing funerals with signs saying “Gays Die, God Laughs.” A strong argument could be made that those crazies are actually closer to the word of God as written in the Bible than any other believers. That’s what troubled me with your position, because I thought that if I agreed with you, which I ultimately do, than I should essentially have contempt for every religious person I know. Most people I know are religious.

    But then I realized that perhaps you were specifically referring only to when people jump into the public arena with their beliefs, attempting to justify policy based on their inconsistency. In other words, maybe we can just give people a pass to believe whatever the hell it is they chose to believe, however inconsistent, so long as they keep it to themselves? Am I off somewhere?

    Third, the link that WordPress provided on the poison of arrogance is spot on as well. It is for that reason that Hitchens could never actually enter the “face” sides of the political arena with his ideas. He personally couldn’t be elected dog-catcher no matter how smart or accurate he happens to be.

  4. Kris,

    I think you and I process things very similarly. I also had healthy skepticism beforehand that is only hardening the more I read.

    I’m not sure if he talks about it any more, but I’ve already gone over the Jewish circumcision process that NY courts allowed, and he condemns. Shocking.

    Have you seen him give any interviews? My friend Brandon and I were talking about it this weekend; he’s hysterical. He has this aloof, grumpy personality that makes it seem likes he is pissed by the mere fact that he is even asked questions. Youtube has many examples, I’m sure.

  5. I forgot to answer your question Al.

    How do I feel when talking to people who believe I will burn for eternity?

    I have two conflicting internal reactions.

    First, I feel incredibly uncomfortable, because I’m a conformist at heart. I don’t consider it a virtue, but I enjoy the sense of connecting/belonging/bonding that is a part of most human interactions. That’s what first draws me to politics, because in many ways it is the ultimate form of conforming to the views of society as a whole.

    Second, I always completely disregard the actual merits of their belief. It’s probably my arrogance, but there is never really a second that I actually think they may be right and I may be setting myself up to become a perpetual shishkabob. I haven’t found any rationality in the actual argument. Ever. I know that my sexual orientation is not a vice. So, essentially I always think in my head that they are either (1) Fools who should be forgiven because they don’t know any better, or (2) Intelligent individuals otherwise who have been culturally skewed to think irrationally on the issue.

  6. I think the most valuable thing about ol’ Hitch is that he is absolutely unapologetic. There’s very little qualifying or backtracking going on in his writing or his interviews. I’ll admit that there are some things in “god Is Not Great” that could probably use some secondary research, but he makes his point well enough and, religious or not, it’s worth warning people about the danger of following ANY kind of dogma.
    But as I said, he doesn’t apologize or pull any punches. Most major religions- especially the American breed of Christianity- are used to a certain cushion of acceptance. Hitchens doesn’t give them that. He has determined that they are incorrect and he has no problem informing them and the rest of the world. Good for him.
    By the way, just in case there’s copyright infringement, the “Perpetual Shishkabob” is the Tuesday night special at that Mongolian place across town. $6.99 all you can eat kabobs. Hell of a deal.

  7. Soo, I was afraid to respond at first for fear that Alex will hate me now, but I’ll do it anyways.

    I take the principles of my religion seriously, but not necessarily every word in the Bible as literal statements. Other people may not, and that’s okay. But I believe that I can decide for myself how I feel about things written by people thousands of years ago who aren’t here to explain what they meant. Some people may choose to base their beliefs, political and religious, off of that. In my church, there are some clearly left-wing and clearly right-wing priests. Are some of them wrong? Not necessarily, they just may interpret what they read differently. I feel like faith and religion are your own interpretations of them. We can both read the same passage and interpret it a little differently. Generally, I feel that if I’m following the “do unto others what you would have them do unto you,” I’m in pretty good shape. I am a religious person and I look to my faith when I feel that I’m troubled or am in need of comfort, but when leaders of the church make their interpretations of what they read and tell me “The Bible means THIS,” yes, they are intelligent people and probably have reasoning behind what they are saying, but I don’t have to agree with their interpretations simply because they tell me to. While my religion is an important part of my life, it is not my sole “compass,” if you will.

    I feel that I’m entitled to have my own opinions that may not always go with the church, and I have a feeling very few people out there 100% agree with their church 100% of the time. A few hundred years ago when Catholic church leaders interpreted passages of the Bible to allow the selling of “pardons” into heaven as a way to make money, foolish people followed every word they said. Those leaders exploited or interpreted what they read for their own agenda. So by disagreeing with those “interpretations” and practices, it doesn’t mean that I can’t be a real Catholic. Your religion is what you make it out to be. A Catholic church is where I worship, and I consider myself a Catholic, but I still think for myself. However, if by some standards I am not the most devout Catholic, so be it.

    I just wanted to say that’s how I feel, wrong or right. While religious leaders of the church offer their opinions and guidance on things, including gay marriage, I don’t see what’s wrong with having the freedom to go with my own opinion and interpretation of my religion to form my beliefs, so maybe we can agree to disagree.

  8. Well, well, well. I too have been waiting to utter my words, but I have now been compelled.

    To begin, Paul, your first answer to Al’s question encapsulates who you are and endeared you to me all the more upon reading it. You are a diplomat, seek peace, want all to be happy, and are willing to lend an ear and offer advice whenever- always focusing on the positive.

    In regards to Al and Tracie’s comments, I take more of a middle ground on the issues raised. I do not participate in organized religion and am skeptical of religion and god in general, but more so due to the organized connotations I have of them.

    The first issue I would like to address is that of people picking and choosing what they believe. I have one friend that I highly respect for her reverence of the bible and her faith in Jesus Christ and God. Because of her I feel like I need to expand on certain issues that Al brought up. To me the definition of Christianity is the belief in Jesus Christ and the Bible. We can run around in the circles of organized religion and what the Catholic Church says in comparison to the god knows how many Protestant Churches, but the basis of all claims to Christianity are encompassed in two beliefs- Jesus Christ is the son of God and the Bible is God’s written word.

    Having that said, people are more than welcome to pick and choose what they want to believe from what they read about in the Bible, and what their faith in Jesus leads them to do. I’m not saying that a good majority of “Christians” go to church and mindlessly follow what the reverend, priest, whatever says.

    However, true believers will read the word and interpret it to match what they feel is right. At this time, I want to bring up the difference between the Old Testament and New Testament (and a disclaimer that I’m not an expert on the Bible, so feel free to show me wrong, but this is what I, an agnostic, have been told by close Christian friends). The Old Testament contains the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and other terrible stories of killing your own children, etc, etc. However, most Christians and I think Churches (yet I don’t know for sure) reference the New Testament that preaches more about love, acceptance, helping thy neighbor, minding your own business, finding Jesus/ God in everyday things, being more thankful, etc. My friend also tells me that she thinks of the bible more as lessons to be learned and open for interpretation. This is one person vs millions, but she’s a smart cookie, so I listen.

    So, in order for anyone, including me, to judge other people’s thought formulations or where they go to worship, I truly feel that you need to read the bible and listen to how other people interpret what they read or hear to formulate their beliefs. It’s people like that guy on the quad that ruin things.

    That being said, I don’t believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God or that the Bible was written by God because clearly it was written by man… And I just can’t get over the Old Testament or other things like that. The argument above is a hacked up regurgitation of what I’ve been told in the past by others. Basically, this is America and people have the freedom to believe in what they will. We don’t have to respect all people’s beliefs, but I don’t think that “picking and choosing” (i.e. interpreting) items from the bible is something bad. Comparing religion to the alphabet is simplifying the situation too much. Religion is not as black and white as the letters I used to type this sentence.

    Next, I have no idea why people do not understand one of the simplest concepts that this country was founded on– SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE. I know that some may argue, “How do you have morals if you don’t have religion,” and my simple answer is to go by what makes you feel good or bad. Killing makes me feel bad (not that our government has much of a problem with that one), and homosexuality does not make me feel bad (yet many of our leaders feel uncomfortable by people loving people).

    This is a huge philosophical issue that cannot be discussed to its fullest extent via blogging, but I hope that my ramblings make some sense.

  9. Is it possible to agree with Al, Tracie, and Shari at the same time?

    This issue is too complex to me for me to be able to condense my thoughts and feelings into a post here, but suffice it to say I’ve been struggling with this issue for a long time and have gotten no where near a conclusion/ cohesive thought.

    But Paul, I feel you are right: “But when religious dogma devolves a conversation on public policy into a dead-end, we have a problem. It has no business in policy-making. In that way, it is a poison.”. And that was a point I attempted to make in our email conversation about Huckabee.

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