Christopher Hitchens died two years ago yesterday—has it been so long?—and yet journalists continue to attack him. To me that’s a measure of his influence, and I see the attacks as motivated by two factors: resentment of the success of New Atheism, and the laziness of journalists, who can, by attacking strident and militant atheists (even if they’re dead) draw traffic.
One of the prime attack dogs in the War on Atheism has been Salon, which has published a number of pieces attacking Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and other prominent atheists. About a week ago I discussed Salon‘s latest attack on Hitchens, “What Hitchens got wrong: Abolishing religion won’t fix anything,” by Sean McElwee.
Well, I was amazed to see that, in Saturday’s Salon, Atlantic editor Jeffrey Tayler also wrote a withering broadside against McElwee’s piece and a defense of Hitchens: “The real new atheism: rejecting religion for a just world.” I was pleased to see that we went after many of McElwee’s same points, but Tayler does a much better job I.
He first dismantles McElwee’s stupid claim that Hitchens thought religion was responsible for all humanity’s ills (McElwee discredited himself at the outset with that bit of logic), and notes that, contra McElwee, Hitchens did not advocate the second Iraq war because he thought it would be the final overthrow of religion. (Tayler, by the way, thinks that Hitchens was mistaken.)
No, this was not how Hitchens viewed the second Iraq war. He advocated invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam, who was, he contended, guilty of crimes against humanity, and he (mistakenly) assumed a stable democracy would result from the dictator’s ouster.
Hitchens understood the secular nature of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, which made all the more puzzling and problematic his stubborn insistence that Saddam was colluding with Al Qaeda. But McElwee then asserts that “the force of rationality and civilization was led by a cabal of religious extremists” – in the Bush administration — which “was of no concern for Hitchens.” George W. Bush was a convert to Evangelical Christianity, which does not necessarily make him a “religious extremist,” and the (mixed) faiths of the Iraq War’s other architects (Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, et al.) did not fuel their zeal for deposing Saddam.
McElwee proceeds to mischaracterize Hitchens’ post-9/11 worldview as a “war between the good Christian West and the evil Muslim Middle East.” How McElwee can expect us to believe this of Hitchens, who authored a book (“The Missionary Position”) denouncing Mother Theresa as a fraud and relentlessly attacked Christianity, baffles me, as does McElwee’s blindness to his own blunder. Is Hitchens now, according to him, pro-Christian?
Tayler then rebuts McElwee’s equally dubious claim that Muslim jihad has nothing to do with the tenets of Islam, but is political: a reaction to colonialism:
Stripping jihad of its religious grounds invites nothing but confusion. Jihad in Arabic means “struggle,” but, with respect to Islam, denotes “a struggle in the name of faith,” which includes holy war against infidels waged as a matter of religious duty. Such jihad is, ipso facto, religious.
And it’s really refreshing to read a critique of those who soft-pedal religion:
McElwee then tendentiously defines religion so as to paper over its often decisive role in precipitating conflicts. Though he allows that it might “motivate acts of social justice and injustice,” “[r]eligion is both a personal search for truth as well as a communal attempt to discern where we fit in the order of things.” Religion first and foremost consists of unsubstantiated, dogmatically advanced explanations for the cosmos and our place in it, with resulting universally applicable rules of conduct. A good many of these rules – especially those regarding women’s behavior and their (subservient) status vis-à-vis men, and prescriptions for less-than-merciful treatment of gays – are repugnant, retrograde, and arbitrary, based on “sacred texts” espousing “revealed truths” dating back to what the British atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell justly called the “savage ages.” (Islam by no means has a monopoly on such rules – check Leviticus for its catalogue of “crimes”: working on the Sabbath, cursing one’s parents, being the victim of rape – that merit the death penalty.) Just how such “holy” compendia of ahistorical, often macabre fables are supposed to help anyone in a “personal search for truth” mystifies me.
Without their truth claims, most religions lose force as a social institution, and I don’t understand why believers (McElwee is a Christian) refuse to see that. If McElwee absolutely knew that Jesus was not divine and was not resurrected, would he still be a Christian? Without that, you not only lose motivation to adhere to the faith, but your “acts of social justice” will no longer be based on your perceived interpretation of God’s will and the words of Jesus. Or, if you don’t believe the tenets of your faith, and do good from secular motivations, you can’t really call yourself a Christian. It’s like calling yourself a Republican when you embrace the Democratic platform and always vote for Democrats. This is why it’s crucial to ask Christians, for instance, if they really believe in the Resurrection, Heaven, Hell, the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, and the fact that the Bible is anything more than a man-made text. If they don’t, they’re just secular humanists using fancy language. And that is why liberal Christians always waffle when asked those questions. In their hearts they do believe, for they have a sneaking suspicion that there’s an afterlife, but are embarrassed to admit publicly that they believe in such foolish superstitions.
But I digress. Tayler attacks McElwee’s claim that atheists should lay off religion because it’s best criticized from the inside, that we need a Gouldian truce between science and religion, and so on. I’ll leave you to read the piece for yourself, and you should, for Tayler’s language is strong and uncompromising, much like that of Hitchens’s himself.
And there’s a nice ending:
The sooner we accord priests, rabbis and imams the same respect we owe fabulists and self-help gurus, the faster we will progress toward a more just, more humane future. Enlightenment must be our goal, and that was what Hitchens advocated above all.
On second thought, I think Tayler went a bit too far here. In truth, many self-help gurus—like Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil—are accorded enormous respect in our society, often far more respect than clerics. What Tayler should have said is that we need to accord priests, rabbis, and imams the same respect we owe believers in UFOs, Bigfoot, Nessie, and Scientology.
Tayler really hasn’t crossed my radar screen, but I like the way he writes and his refusal to coddle the faithful.