Is religion a force for good in the world?

On 26th November 2010, Christopher Hitchens, the well-known atheist, and Tony Blair, the one-time British prime minister and Roman Catholic, took part in the Munk Debate addressing the question, “Is religion a force for good in the world?” The debate resulted in a Black Swan book entitled “Hitchens vs. Blair” published in 2011.

Sadly, Tony Blair’s contribution to the debate amounted to little more a lot of hot air and wishful thinking, so much so that, below, I do not quote from his contributions (those of you keen to find out what he said will have to access the Black Swan book itself). Instead, I quote from Hitchens who had far more compelling things to share with the audience.

What is twisted and immoral in the faith mentality… is… its consideration of the human being as raw material and its fantasy of purity. Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes humans objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well. I’ll repeat that: created sick and then ordered to be well. And a celestial dictatorship is installed over us to supervise this, a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy and exigent. Greedy for uncritical praise from dawn to dusk and swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place. However, let no one say there is no cure. Salvation is offered. Redemption, indeed, is offered at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties…

Religion… makes extraordinary claims. Though I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather daringly religion provides not even ordinary evidence for its extraordinary supernatural claims. Therefore we might begin by asking… is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our skepticism? Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs, and to appeal to our terror of death? To preach guilt and shame about the sexual act and the sexual relationship – is it good for the world?… (Should religion) terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment, not just for themselves, but for their parents and those they love? Perhaps worst of all, to consider women an inferior creation – is that good for the world?…

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Religion forces nice people to do unkind things and also makes intelligent people say stupid things. Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, “Beautiful, almost perfect. Now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia that I may do the work of the Lord.” As the great American physicist Steven Weinberg has very aptly put it, in the ordinary moral universe the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion… 

The Middle East is the birthplace of monotheism, so you might think it was filled with refulgence and love and peace. Everyone is roughly agreed… that there should be enough room for two states (Israel and Palestine), for two people (Jews and Arabs) in the same land… Why can’t we get it? We can’t get it because the parties of God have a veto on it and everybody knows that this is true. Because of the divine promises made about this territory there will never be peace, there will never be compromise. There will instead be misery, shame and tyranny, and people will kill each other’s children for ancient books and caves and relics, and who is going to say that this is good for the world?… 

No one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world. All I’m arguing is that it would be better of there was a great deal more by the way of an outbreak of secularism… 

Name me one religion that stands for the empowerment of women or ever has. Wherever you look in the world and you try to remove the shackles of ignorance and disease and stupidity for women, it is invariably the clerisy that stands in the way…

I would hope (Roman) Catholic charities are doing a lot of work in Africa. If I was a member of a church that had preached that AIDS was not as bad as condoms, I’d be putting some conscience money into Africa… 

The injunction not to do to another what would be repulsive if done to yourself (an injunction so often thought to lie at the heart of the monotheistic religions of the Middle East) is found in the analects of Confucius… But that truth is found in the heart of every person in this room. Everybody knows that much. We don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong…

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

Could religion sometimes be a good thing after all?… What would religion have to do to get that far?… It would have to give up all supernatural claims… the threat of the reward of heaven or the terror of punishment in hell… miracles… the idea of an eternal, unalterable authority figure who was judge, jury and executioner, against whom there could be no appeal and who wasn’t finished with you even when you died. 

There’s something about religion that is, very often in its original monotheistic, Judaistic form, actually an expression of exclusivism. “This is our God. This is a God who has made a covenant with our tribe.” You’ll find it all over the place… It’s always struck me as slightly absurd for there to be a special church for the English people. It strikes me as positively sinister that Pope Benedict should want to restore the (Roman) Catholic Church to the claim it used to make, which is that it is the one true church and that all other forms of Christianity are, as he still puts it, defective and inadequate. How this idea helps to build your future world of co-operation and understanding is not known to me.

Religion… is a surrender of reason in favour of faith. It’s a fantastic force multiplier, a tremendous intensifier of all things that are in fact divisive rather than inclusive, and that’s why its history is so stained with blood – and not just with crimes against humanity, but with crimes against womanhood, crimes against reason and science, or attacks upon medicine and enlightenment.

Four hundred years and more people (in Northern Ireland)… have been killing each other’s children based on what kind of Christian they were and sending each other’s children, in rhetoric, to hell… Northern Ireland… the most remarkable place in Northern Europe for unemployment, for ignorance, for poverty and for, I would say, stupidity too…

Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa… Genocide was actually preached from the pulpits of the (Roman) Catholic Church. Many of the people we are still looking for, who were involved in that genocide, are hiding in the Vatican along with a number of other people who should be given up to international justice right away.

The United States has a unique constitution that forbids the government to take sides in any religious matter or to sponsor the church or adopt any form of faith itself… Thomas Jefferson wrote… “Rest assured that there will ever be a wall of separation between the church and the state in this country.” The maintenance of that wall, which people like me have to defend every day against those who want garbage taught in schools and pseudo-science in the name of Christ… is the guarantee of democracy…

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

 (We can all get along fine) as long as you don’t want your religion taught to my children in school, given a government subsidy or imposed on me by violence… They say it (religion) is the way to happiness. Why doesn’t it make the religious happy?… Because they won’t be happy until you believe it (their religion) too. And why is that? Because that’s what their holy books tell them… Do these texts say that until every knee bows in the name of Jesus there will be no happiness? Of course it’s what these texts say. It isn’t only a private belief.  It is, and always has been, a threat to the idea of a peaceful community and very often, as now, a palpable one…  

The Methodist Church of the United States adamantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, and the Vatican adamantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, as it had the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. It wasn’t the first time that a sort of sickly Christian passivity has been preached in the face of fascist dictatorship… Given the number of Muslims put to the sword by Saddam Hussein’s regime, it’s quite extraordinary to see the extent to which Muslim fundamentalists flocked to his defence… It’s those who would have kept a cannibal and a Caligula and a professional sadist in power who have the explaining to do (about the second Iraq war)…

(The Israeli and Palestinian problem is so complicated because of) the idea that God intervenes in real estate and territorial disputes… This is what I mean when I say that religion is a real danger to the survival of civilisation, and that it makes this banal regional and national dispute, which, if reduced to its proportions, is a nothingness. (Religion) makes that (problem) not just lethally insoluble, but is drawing in other contending parties who openly wish for an apocalyptic conclusion to it, as also bodied forth in the same scriptural texts – in other words, that it will be the death of us all, the end of humanity, the end of the whole suffering veil of tears, which is what they secretly want. This is a failure of the parties of God, and it’s not something that happens because people misinterpret the texts. It happens because they believe them, that’s the problem…

If we give up religion we discover what we know already, whether we are religious or not, which is that we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of the solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very rapidly expanding and blowing apart cosmic phenomenon. These conclusions… are a great deal more awe-inspiring than what’s contained in any burning bush or horse that flies overnight to Jerusalem or any of that. It’s a great deal more awe-inspiring, as is any look through the Hubble telescope…

Awe and wonder do not depend on superstition or the supernatural

Awe and wonder do not depend on superstition or the supernatural

The question is how to keep the numinous, the transcendent, I’ll go so far as the ecstatic, in art and in our own emotions and in our finer feelings, and to distinguish it precisely from superstition and the supernatural, which are designed to make us fearful and afraid and servile, and which sometimes succeed only to well… 

(Why is it that many renowned people embraced and then rejected communism – André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, etc. – despite its admirable aspirations?) Because it’s not worth the sacrifice of freedom that it implies. It implies that great things can only be done if you’ll place yourself under an infallible leadership, and once a decision has been made you are bound by it. You might conceivably notice where I’m going here… It (communism, and the same can be said about religion) wasn’t worth the sacrifice of mental, intellectual and moral freedom…

I don’t think someone is religious unless they have faith in what St. Paul calls the evidence of things not seen – in other words, the supernatural  or supervising deity, presence, force, who requires and expects certain kinds of propitiation.

A religious person… (has) special permission… to talk nonsense.

Mother Teresa… her teachings and entire lifetime of work were exerted to make sure that women could not get hold of the means of family planning, so that the effect she had on prolonging and entrenching and deepening poverty and disease hugely outweighed any good she might have done if she’d spent the money she raised on charity – which, as it turns out, she did not do anyway… And then you simply have to ask anyone if they know of a religion – and not just a monotheistic one – that does not, according to the texts, consider women to be an inferior creation.

What one has to avoid is certainty. The Socratic principle is that you’re only educated to the extent that you understand how little you know.

What I think would be nice is if people realised, for example, that a lot of devotional music is written by non-believers. I suppose Verdi is the best example.

There’s no doubt that Judaism is much nearer to being philosophy than religion, or rather much nearer to that claim than Christianity or Islam are, and that it is attractive for that reason.

I think part of having being a marxist meant I could not help noticing how many thinkers and writers of the left were Jews. And I also used to find any hint of anti-Semitism absolutely repulsive… My attitude toward Zionism had always been… that I very much doubt it to be the liberation of the Jewish people.

Auschwitz, Poland

Auschwitz, Poland

The reason for (anti-Semitism’s) virulence is religious… If the events (leading up to Jesus’ execution) as described took place at all – and I think that something like that did, that some charismatic rabbi was executed for blasphemy – then the Romans did it, but it was the Jews who thought, “Here’s another false claimant (to being the messiah).” They were the only ones who knew him, really, and they spat on him and turned away and for that they’re not going to be forgiven. That’s why it took the (Roman Catholic) Church until 1964 to stop saying that all Jews were personally responsible (for his execution)… It’s the same with the Muslims. The first people who meet Muhammad are the Jews, and at first some of them are excited, thinking maybe this is the messiah. But he is not, they decide. Private time with the prophet is something that every Muslim in the world would give their all for… and this privilege was granted to a group who turned their backs.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

2,700 people listened to the debate. The pre-debate vote was 25% in favour of the resolution and 55% against, with 20% undecided. The final vote was 32% in favour of the resolution and 68% against, with no one undecided.

Sadly, Christopher Hitchens is now dead. His memory and work live on in many books and countless articles. Perhaps his most accessible (and controversial and entertaining) work is “God is not Great”, which dates from 2007.

I do not agree with everything Hitchens says in “Hitchens vs. Blair” – if he were alive today and knew I agreed with everything he said, Hitchens would have nothing but contempt for me – but most of what he says “is right on the money”, as our friends across the pond would say.     

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One thought on “Is religion a force for good in the world?

  1. Blodeuwedd

    I listened to this debate. Tony Blair was… embarrassing and clearly punching well above his weight, which is a shame because I would have been very interested to listen to a strong defence of religion. In response to almost all of what Hitchens said, however, I give you… contemporary Paganism and, for my money, in particular the Druids.

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