Friday, April 27, 2007

Fighting Words.

Christopher Hitchens is a frequently cruel alcoholic Brit who foolishly fell in love with the Kurds and thus ruined his reputation by supporting the Iraq war. He is also, in this solipsistic age one of the few biting critics of bullshit left. I wish he had a bit more humility in calling out his own foolishness sometimes (for his sophistry on the war, I'd like to see him march across Dupont Circle wearing a cilice and mortifying his flesh with a bullwhip) but there is no doubt that he is fearless in vivisecting the intellectual bodies of others, even those held in conventional esteem. This is after all a man who wrote a scathing book about Mother Teresa. He's the kind of guy who probably thinks he's doing his job well when someone calls him an asshole. Such is the contrarians lot.

He's picked the biggest fight of his career in his new book though. He's taking on God. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is the title, and like all good essayists, he sticks tightly to the point, or at least he does in the three parts excerpted this week in Slate. In the first bit, he attacks belief in general and lays out his ideal of the non-believer:

Most important of all, perhaps, we infidels do not need any machinery of reinforcement. We are those who Blaise Pascal took into account when he wrote to the one who says, "I am so made that I cannot believe."
There is no need for us to gather every day, or every seven days, or on any high and auspicious day, to proclaim our rectitude or to grovel and wallow in our unworthiness. We atheists do not require any priests, or any hierarchy above them, to police our doctrine. Sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us, as are relics and the worship of any images or objects (even including objects in the form of one of man's most useful innovations: the bound book). To us no spot on earth is or could be "holier" than another: to the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage, or the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth or beauty. Some of these excursions to the bookshelf or the lunch or the gallery will obviously, if they are serious, bring us into contact with belief and believers, from the great devotional painters and composers to the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman. These mighty scholars may have written many evil things or many foolish things, and been laughably ignorant of the germ theory of disease or the place of the terrestrial globe in the solar system, let alone the universe, and this is the plain reason why there are no more of them today, and why there will be no more of them tomorrow. Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them. We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness.


Part Two is a disection of the inconsistancies in the foundation of Islam and the production of the Koran. Part Three, I must warn you if you are one of my old Mormon friends or family members, is entitled Mormonism: A Racket Becomes a Religion. Prepare to be offended, and don't say I didn't warn you.

I can't hardly wait to read the whole thing. Hitchens is great on almost any subject; when he's writing about George Eliot, when he's writing about the moral failings of Bill Clinton, when he's writing about his love of drink. I can only imagine the lather he works himself up into on this one.


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