CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Atheism Poisons Everything

Jul 12, 2007

The neo-atheists are having a field day, with vitriol-soaked books pouring from the presses of late. The new militant crusade of the God-haters may indicate a bit of panic on their part. They had long felt that religion was on the path to extinction, with belief in God withering away in the face of new learning, the march of science, and rising secularism.

Yet religion and religionists persist – big time. Far from withering away, theists of various stripes are still in the clear majority around the world. This in part explains the stridency and belligerence of the new atheists. They just can’t stand the fact that despite all their best efforts, people still insist on rejecting crude materialism, and still believe that there is more to life than atoms and DNA.

Thus the atheist offensive has gone up a few notches, as evidenced by their increased nastiness and the proliferation of publications. One of the recent efforts by a committed God-hater is Christopher Hitchens’ new work. His book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is riding high on the charts, and it is said to have already earned him a cool million.

Given that I would go broke in buying all the new books by the God-haters, I have to rely on the authority of others in some cases. And many have noted the negative aspects about Hitchens’ book. Like most of the new anti-theist titles, Hitchens’ book is as full of errors and mistakes as it is of anger and shrillness.

Jewish commentator Michael Medved recently had a two-hour debate with Hitchens on his radio show. This is how Medved assesses the man and his message. “For any sophisticated religious believer, this powerfully popular work represents a maddening combination of stimulation and sloppiness, erudition and ignorance, provocation and puerility.”

The mistakes are many: “The sly distortions and grotesque errors that appear in every chapter of his work demonstrate the author’s carelessness and arrogance. In one especially appalling example (on page 100), Hitchens writes of ‘the pitiless teachings of the god of Moses, who never mentions human solidarity and compassion at all.’ He thereby ignores the most celebrated commandment in the Five Books of Moses, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18), identified by Jewish sages (and in Matthew’s Gospel by Jesus himself) as the very essence of the Hebrew Scriptures. Hitchens also fails to acknowledge the innumerable Old Testament injunctions to show loving-kindness and mercy in dealing with widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor. Whether one imputes these teachings to God or to Moses, they hardly qualify as ‘pitiless’ and most certainly emphasize ‘human solidarity and compassion’.”

One of the points Medved made with Hitchens on his radio program had to do with the issue of evolution: “Hitchens emphasizes his fervent belief in Darwinian evolution as the process that produced all life forms and facilitated human advancement but in this context offers no explanation for what some scientists have identified as ‘the God gene.’ Natural selection means that any characteristic that confers reliable advantage on a species will survive and spread, while an attribute that handicaps this organism will, ultimately, disappear. If, then, ‘religion poisons everything,’ how can one explain the persistence throughout human history of the religious impulse, and the sturdy survival of our pious instincts throughout the modern era? In confronting that challenge today, Hitchens alluded to prehistoric times in which medicine hardly existed, but suffering individuals might consult a witch doctor or shaman for superstitious cures. Even though these ministrations provided no physiological benefit, he argued, they helped the sufferers by adding to their confidence of recovery and emotional health – thereby conferring some evolutionary advantage to the faithful. This strained explanation for the widespread survival and vigor of organized religion in effect concedes a fundamental argument of many believers – that regardless of its theological accuracy, a strong faith can make people healthier, happier and more productive, or at least healthier and longer-lived.”

Another point has to do with decidedly non-material things such as beauty and wonder: “In describing himself and his fellow atheists near the opening of his book, Hitchens declares: ‘We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and – since there is no other metaphor – the soul.’ Ironically, all the literary giants he describes as ethical guides were themselves guided, or at least informed, by their deep belief in God – in fact two of them (Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky) were full-out religious mystics. How can Hitchens unblushingly look to these writers as the right source for handling ‘serious ethical dilemmas’ when their lives and work showed the unmistakable influence of religious teaching which he elsewhere holds in rank contempt?”

What about morality? Medved says that “only a fool would suggest that all atheists will prove incapable of moral conduct or sentiments. The enduring case for associating religious teaching with human goodness doesn’t contend that Biblical truth alone makes such goodness possible, but rather that religious adherence makes that decency more likely. In his compelling recent book ‘Who Really Cares,’ my friend Professor Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University shows that the faithful contribute to charity and volunteer their time to compassionate causes with far greater consistency and generosity than their secular colleagues. One might quarrel that these statistical studies reflect only a coincidental connection between religious belief and good behavior, but they certainly undermine the Hitchens contention that ‘religion poisons everything’.”

He concludes: “The greatness and goodness of the American experiment haven’t arisen in spite of the nation’s ardent religious heritage, but because of it. For those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the blessings of this freakishly favored society, religion hardly amounts to a poison, but represents rather the elixir of life.”

By overstating their cases, atheists risk becoming just laughing stocks. Serious rebuttals of religion have their place, but the amateurish over-generalisations, straw men and red herrings so often found in the writings of these new atheists makes us wonder why we should take them seriously at all.

www.townhall.com/columnists/MichaelMedved/2007/07/11/hitchens_vs_god

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13 Responses to Atheism Poisons Everything

  • Bill, see also
    http://www.news.com.au/story/0,10117,22060312-401,00.html?from=public_rss
    reporting that an “Old Testament figure named on 2600-year-old tablet”
    Especially see the frantic anti-Christian comments, and some of the sadly inane Christian and pro-religious comments.

    The comments betray some pretty shallow viewpoints, I regret to say. Out of nearly 300 comments there would be occasional nuggets but it gets either boring or depressing to read of the community ignorance of how anything historical or scholarly is done, and where the Biblical documents fit into the context of world “secular” history.

    John Angelico

  • What about the basic logical errors Medved makes?

    “Love thy neighbor as thy self”? A statement clearly impossible. We can not love other people as we do ourselves and our family, nor would it be moral or wise to do so. Medved was embarrassed in the interview.

    Steve

  • Hitchens’ misotheistic petulance is well illustrated by his refusal to spell ‘God’ with a capital ‘G’. Apparently, it’s meant to be a sign of serious scholarship…
    Michael Watts

  • Thanks Steve

    (You need to provide a full name here.) I am afraid your objections are simply bordering on the silly here. There is no logical problem at all with the statement. Only an atheist who has problems with basic Biblical ethics would consider it to be problematic. The biblical idea of love is willing the highest good of another person. Both in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament God’s people are called to do that to ourselves and to others. Nothing illogical or problematic about that whatsoever.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • With the theory of evolution goodness and badness have no place. If the benchmark for goodness is simply existing then this depends on whose existence we are talking about. Cancer germs, termites, poisonous snakes and all those things that threaten our existence and that of one another might have different ideas of what is good and bad.

    If Christopher Hitchins thinks that goodness and badness mean progress in terms of morality, that somehow society is becoming more and more enlightened, tolerant, peaceful, – its just getting better and better, higher and higher, then how does he explain that as man’s destructive capabilities do indeed get more sophisticated then the planet is becoming a more and more dangerous environment? Why indeed is it that great social reformers are walking in the opposite direction to the general flow – that they look backwards to the past in an attempt to get us to return to some ideal laid down a long time ago. Indeed, throughout history, those who tried to point out society’s failings were themselves attacked. This hardly suggests that human nature naturally tends towards moral progress.

    I would agree with Steve on one point: our natural inclination is to be selfish, to look out for number one, no matter the cost to others. However, I just hope that if I were to steal all his most precious possessions and in the process hit him over the head, kick him in the shins and pull his nose, he doesn’t shout “That’s not fair!” because I would only be doing what he said was the right thing to do which is to be selfish.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Spiked Online magazine came to a similar conclusion in its own review of God Is Not Great.
    http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/earticle/3601/

    Olivia Tan, Melbourne

  • Dear Olivia in your link from ”Spiked.” it talks about contradictions within Hitchen’s logic. It says, “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.”

    Unless I have misunderstood this paragraph, I find no contradiction in his endorsing “global ecological catastrophes,“ whilst condemning religions that look forward to the destruction of the world. If, in his view, man is after all less than a machine, only dust and vapour, this renders him free of all responsibility regarding the way he conducts his life. Death, when ecological disaster strikes, will simply be a cessation of life being aware of itself- end of story. Whereas if it is a God whom he hates who is the one bringing the curtain down, in His own time, and who will demand an account from us, of the life we have led and who were made in His own image, then that is not the end of the story; there is judgement. I believe that within the deep and darkened recesses of Christopher’s mind he understand this and it is this that fills him with rage.

    David Skinner, UK

  • On the other hand David, our natural inclination towards selfishness is what leads most people into conformity with social norms and values. Most people fear the consequences of acting outside of social norms, hence out of self interest seek the safety and comfort of society.

    Indeed, your reponse to Steve is ironically little more than an appeal to Steve’s own self interest in avoiding the indignities you imagine for him. Don’t encourage selfishness because bad things might happen to you.

    Paul McNamara

  • Dawkins is also frothing at the mouth against ID proponents like Behe—see refutation, Misotheist’s misology: Dawkins attacks Behe but digs himself into logical potholes.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Bill, everytime I leave your site, I carry away yet another heavy piece of artillery with which to pound the enemy – a fantastic article and link, Jonathan. Many thanks.
    David Skinner, UK

  • I agree with you Paul that most people fear the consequences of acting outside of social norms and hence, out of self- interest, seek a peaceful existence by conforming to current, majority morals which may change from moment to moment. What consensually might be considered a virtue in the morning may well land you in court in the afternoon because the law had changed. The whole German nation did this under Hitler, along with the Russians under Stalin, etc. Britain is rapidly going down this road. What I, as a Christian, might regard as good behaviour may well lead me to be at odds with society – indeed may even lead to persecution. As a Christian, if I do bad things, I may well wish bad things to happen to me, simply because it would confirm in my mind that there is a moral order. There is justice and fairness. What I really meant to say to Steve was nothing to do with not being selfish because of negative consequences – he and I might not even care – but simply to tell him he won’t be able to appeal to some (in his eyes, non-existent) referee in the sky by shouting, ”That‘s not fair, if painful consequences do occur.
    Paul, the point you have raised is explored in C.S . Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” Chapter 3 http://www.philosophyforlife.com/mc03.htm and is extremely relevant to present statements made by British politicians regarding the family.

    David Skinner, UK

  • My father was an atheist. He was miserable everyday of his life. He loved history and said the Bible was rubbish. He sited the Bible was copied from the Sumer civilization. I went to the library and discovered the two chief Sumer cities with verified history are Akkad/Accad & Erech (Genesis 10:10 cities) for all civilizations and nations occured AFTER Noah’s flood. Before the flood Adam’s people were one tribe. After dad died, I cleaned out the sheds. He checked magazines with red pen on Iran in Bible prophecy. I don’t know where dad is spending eternity right now but I talked to mom and she has accepted Jesus. Too bad the Biblical Archaeological Review is so into bashing the Bible – I could have used archaeology to win dad over.
    Lujack Skylark

  • Have you heard about this court case?
    In Florida, an atheist became incensed over the preparation of Easter and Passover holidays. He decided to contact his lawyer about the discrimination inflicted on atheists by the constant celebrations afforded to Christians and Jews with all their holidays while atheists had no holiday to celebrate. The case was brought before a wise judge. After listening to the long passionate presentation by the lawyer, the Judge banged his gavel and declared “Case Dismissed.”
    The lawyer immediately stood and objected to the ruling and said, “Your Honor, how can you possibly dismiss this case? Christians have Christmas, Easter and many other observances. Jews have Passover, Yom Kppur and Hanukkah……yet my client and all other atheists have no such holidays.”
    The judge leaned forward in his chair and simply said “Obviously your client is too confused to even know about, much less celebrate, his own atheists’ holiday!”
    The lawyer pompously said, “Your Honor, we are unaware of any such holiday for atheists. Just when might that holiday be, your Honor?”
    The judge said, “Well it comes every year on exactly the same date…..April 1st! Since our calendar sets April 1st as ‘April Fools Day,’ consider that Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1 state, ‘The fool says in his heart, there is no God.’ Thus, in my opinion, if your client says there is no God, then by scripture he is a fool, thus April 1st is his holiday!”
    Phil Brabin

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