Baiting the devout

Intellectuals who have lost their belief in progress are turning venomously on those who retain a vision of the good society: the religious.

Michael Fitzpatrick

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This review is republished from the June 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

When I first came across Christopher Hitchens’ diatribe against Mother Teresa I enjoyed its knockabout exposure of this unctuous old fraud and her preposterous celebrity networking (1). But I increasingly found myself wondering why it was that such an able polemicist of the old left had been reduced to taking on such a trivial and demeaning target. The question ‘Why bother?’ returned with greater insistency when I discovered the recent flurry of popular anti-religious books by a range of atheists, agnostics and secular humanists (Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, who are now referred to collectively as ‘The New Atheists’), to which Hitchens has now added his own contribution: God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion (2).

Readers of these books will learn little about religion; they are much more revealing about their authors’ own insecurities. Lacking much knowledge of religious faith, its contemporary critics focus on its superficial aspects and extreme manifestations (notably, Christian and Islamic fundamentalism). Once-influential radicals, now condemned to the margins of society, tend to exaggerate the importance of religious authorities, who in reality have little more legitimacy than the politicians who patronise them, in the (often mistaken) belief that they provide links to the masses. Having lost their own belief in progress and liberation, secular intellectuals are irked by their encounters with people who, on whatever basis, retain a vision of the good society and a commitment to realising it. They clearly feel rebuked by the undaunted practice of those who have not given up. Indeed, in their own state of confusion and demoralisation, old radicals give too much credit to religion, in this respect, and furthermore, they often misinterpret as religious fervour popular affiliations that are largely pragmatic and instrumental.

Moving from his childhood alienation from conventional Christianity to his adult disillusionment with Marxism, Hitchens leaves little doubt that this book is not so much about religion as about himself. His current state of bewilderment is profound. On one page he confesses that his ‘own secular faith has been shaken and discarded’, only to tell us a couple of pages later that he has ‘not quite abandoned’ Marxism. He admits that ‘those of us who had sought a rational alternative to religion had reached a terminus that was comparably dogmatic’. Hitchens here makes a conventional nod towards the ascendancy of Stalinism (though this was a terminus that many of us, including Hitchens himself, never accepted). However, this statement could also serve as a characterisation of his personal apostasy – culminating in his notoriously dogmatic endorsement of Western military intervention in Iraq.

In trying to explain the failure of the quest for an alternative to religion, Hitchens retreats into the sort of sociobiological notions favoured by some of his fellow anti-religious propagandists: ‘What else was to be expected of something that was produced by the close cousins of chimpanzees?’ In his foray on to the terrain – and the temporal scale – of the neo-Darwinians, Hitchens moves further from his leftist traditions. Marxism was rooted in the present, and in its concern for the proximate transformation of society, it sought social and historical explanations and political solutions. By contrast, theorists of evolution work in the disciplines of biology, geology and cosmology: the scope of humanity is diminished by adopting a cosmic timescale and emphasising the contingent character of the emergence of human life and the prospect of its ultimate disappearance. ‘Probably the most daunting task that we face, as partly rational animals with adrenal glands that are too big and prefrontal lobes that are too small, is the contemplation of our own relative weight in the scheme of things’, writes Hitchens.

Hitchens is so taken with this formulation that it appears twice in his book, leading to the sombre reflection that ‘the awareness that our death is coming and will be succeeded by the death of the species and the heat death of the universe is scant comfort’.

Here we find what the youthful Hitchens would have called ‘a contradiction’. On the one hand, he endorses the misanthropic notions of environmentalism: the cosmic insignificance of humanity, the constraints of biology and the prospect of planetary climatic doom. On the other hand, he saves some of his harshest condemnations of religions for the way they ‘look forward to the destruction of the world’. He has nothing but ‘contempt and suspicion for those who beguile themselves and terrify others with horrific visions of apocalypse’. Yet he appears oblivious to the fact that by far the most influential ‘cult of death’ in contemporary society is not to be found in mainstream denominations or even in millenarian sects, but in the all-pervasive environmentalist movement with its eager anticipation of diverse global ecological catastrophes. Indeed, ‘heat death of the universe’ is pure ‘hell-fire’ bombast.

In his introduction, Hitchens complains – rightly – that Marx’s famous statement that religion is ‘the opium of the people’ has generally been misquoted and taken out of context. Yet Hitchens, too, has missed a key point about these historic paragraphs written by Marx in 1844 when he was still in his mid-twenties. Marx believed that once the true nature of religion as spiritual compensation for social alienation had been revealed, it had been exposed as a secondary phenomenon dependent on socioeconomic circumstances and therefore merited no further independent criticism: ‘The criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.’ (3) Hence, in his subsequent theoretical and political writings over nearly 40 years, he rarely returned to the subject.

Given the recent anti-religious convergence of old Marxists and neo-Darwinians, it is interesting to note that Darwin shared Marx’s disdain for baiting the devout. In the early 1880s, Marx’s shady son-in-law, the radical atheist Edward Aveling, sought Darwin’s endorsement for a book on evolutionary theory he was editing (4). In his fascinating account of this episode, the late Stephen J Gould records the terms in which Darwin, who ‘understood Aveling’s opportunism and cared little for his anti-religious militancy’, explained his refusal:

‘It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, and I have confined myself to science.’

What a pity that the followers of Marx and Darwin have not followed their wise example.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is author of MMR and Autism: What Parents Need to Know (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA) and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).

This review is republished from the June 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion by Christopher Hitchens was published by Atlantic. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

(1) The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, Christopher Hitchens, 1995

(2) The Dawkins delusion, by Michael Fitzpatrick; The New Atheists, by Ronald Aronson, The Nation, 7 June 2007

(3) Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx

(4) ‘The Darwinian Gentleman at Marx’s Funeral: Resolving Evolution’s Oddest Coupling’ in I Have Landed: Splashes and Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould, 2002, pp113-129

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