Windsor Humanist Society

May 7, 2007

An Ecumenical Contempt for Religion

Filed under: Uncategorized — moderator @ 1:38 pm

Pretty Much Every Faith is Fair Game in Hitchens’ New Book 

Make no mistake, Christopher Hitchens is not of the view that political discourse is improved when U.S. presidential candidates are invited to publicly state a preference for boxers or briefs.

But since the formerly unmentionable subject has long since been broached, maybe it’s time someone asked current Republican hopeful Mitt Romney if he favours the sacramental, chastity-supporting undergarments endorsed by others of his Mormon faith.

Not that Hitchens, an English-born journalist and author who has adopted the U.S. as his home, is holding his breath. Such a question regarding Romney’s unseen sartorial preferences would be deemed an unfit topic for even the most adversarial debate, the assumption being that since the matter is an extension of religious faith it is generally understood to be off-limits.

Hitchens, author of the newly published “god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”, couldn’t disagree more.

“(Mormonism) is supposed to be his core belief,” says Hitchens, during a phone interview from his hotel room in New York. “No one should be thinking, `Oh dear, we shouldn’t be bringing up the chap’s religion.'”

Not, Hitchens hastens to add, that Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, is dodging the issue. It’s more that the media rarely think to inquire.

If you read Hitchens’ assertively argued book, you will discover its author has serious reservations about Mormonism – as well as Christianity in general, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and pretty much every other set of religious beliefs ever espoused in human history. The volume is nothing if not ecumenical in its contempt for religion, a stark contrast to the customarily respectful way issues of faith are discussed, even among non-believers.

“The word `faith,’ on its own, is enough to evoke deference,” says Hitchens, who will promote his book with a June 9 appearance at Harbourfront Centre. “It’s considered an axiomatic good, for instance, to say that someone is a person of faith.”

Hitchens, in a chapter headed “Does Religion Make People Behave Better,” sets out to prove otherwise. And, in keeping with his previous books and columns in Vanity Fair and online at Slate, he is never one to mince his words.

In the book’s pages, Islam is dismissed as a “ridiculous cult,” Mel Gibson derided as “an Australian fascist and ham actor” and Hanukkah belittled as “vapid and annoying holiday.”

Then there is Mother Teresa. Hitchens once devoted an entire book, The Missionary Position, to debunking the celebrated nun’s saintly reputation, claiming that “the ghoul of Calcutta,” as he called her, misused funds and caused untold human suffering through her opposition to contraception. Hitchens was invited by the Vatican to present his iconoclastic position when Mother Teresa’s beatification was being considered.

“Until I took on the subject, she had nothing but a Niagara of uncritical praise,” he recalls. “She was a synonym for virtue. You don’t have to agree with the book I wrote, but if what I said was factually true then what was believed about her up until then could not have been the case. And no one’s ever made a factual challenge to what I assert.”

Hitchens, who last week won a National Magazine Award in the U.S. for his columns in Vanity Fair, is normally scrupulous about marshalling evidence to back his unpopular positions, although questions are being raised about the veracity of claims made about certain religious practices in god is not Great. Blogger Mark Oppenheimer, writing at the, slams Hitchens for endorsing an “urban legend” about Orthodox Jewish sexual practices.

In recent years, Hitchens has burnished his contrarian reputation by becoming a tireless and unapologetic advocate of the Iraq War. In the process, he parted ideological company with many of his former friends and acquaintances on the Left. You might imagine that “god is not Great” will go a ways to mending that schism but, typically, Hitchens thinks otherwise.

“I find the Left absolutely saturated with religiosity,” he says. “In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’ve run out of patience with it.”

You might also think that Hitchens’ anti-religious sentiments would put him at odds with some conservatives. And it has. But he is quick to point out that two intellectual cornerstones of the Right, author Ayn Rand and philosopher Leo Strauss, were both atheists.

“There has only been one president in the United States who has ever said that he was born again,” Hitchens says. “And he’s the one who everyone on the Left more and more thinks is wonderful: the moron and dolt Jimmy Carter. He’s probably the worst president the United States has ever had and one of the most objectionable personalities in American public life. But he’s believed to be a peacemaker and a hero by every self-centred liberal in the country.”

Hitchens insists that contrary to conventional wisdom George W. Bush, a Methodist, has never claimed to be born again.

“I don’t think (Bush) has any religious convictions of any kind, but he’s a sap for the idea of faith,” Hitchens says.

As evidence, Hitchens cites the famous introductory meeting between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, after which Bush told the media he had gleaned a sense of Putin’s essential decency from peering into his soul. Hitchens assumes that something other than Putin’s soul caught Bush’s eye.

“Putin was wearing a crucifix from his grandmother,” Hitchens says. “I have a feeling that crucifix was around his neck only for that one day. I’d bet my house I’m right on that.”

Hitchens’ deep-seated suspicion of religion was forever confirmed by the 1989 fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie after the publication of “The Satanic Verses”. Rushdie stayed with Hitchens for a period of time after Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced the death sentence, but the experience hasn’t heightened any concern Hitchens might have for his own well-being.

“The religious nut jobs who hate me already do so,” he says. “And I hope I’ve done enough to earn their contempt.”

Besides, he further suspects, the tide is shifting. Advance orders made “god is not Great” a hot seller on even before it came out. And the book’s publication was preceded by the popularity of Richard Dawkins’The God Delusion”, a similarly skeptical treatise that only recently fell from the New York Times top 10 after 30 weeks.

“People around the world are annoyed at religious bullying and intimidation,” says Hitchens, before going on to enumerate factors that have contributed to increased support for – or at least in interest in – the arguments of unbelievers. “There was the cowardice of the American press in the face of the Danish cartoon controversy. No one would undertake to show their readers what the fuss was about, lest they become part of the fuss.

“Then there is the ludicrous attempt to teach garbage to our children under the guise of so-called intelligent design.

“The view that AIDS might be bad but condoms are worse, which is widely understood to be the dogma of the church, is quite shocking to many people. And there is also the lingering effects of systematic rape of children – I refuse to call it child abuse – and the church’s unpunished guilt in that.

“All I know is that if you have a meeting to raise these issues now, you can pull a large and enthusiastic crowd of people who feel quite confident that they are not morally inferior for refusing to affirm the incredible.”

…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist J.Pkr. after a May 7, 2007 article in The Toronto Star by Vit Wagner

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