The Dog is Dead But the Tail Still Wags

Twenty years ago, P.J. O’Rourke quipped that he was going to use that title for the next Christopher Hitchens book. I think it’s time. I saw his shambling performance on The Daily Show and Sullivan links to a HuffPo review of his new book.

I haven’t read the book, but the HuffPo comments and Hitch’s rambling assertions have gotten me in the mood to rumble. There is an ongoing backlash against fundamentalism among certain parts of our culture. Not content with simply doing away with the mythological aspects of religion, they now have to denounce religion itself as an evil. The very title of Hitch’s book is that religion poisons everything. And the comments in support this view, the diatribes I’ve been reading lately by people like Douglas Adams and Richard Dawkins and even the little commenters on HuffPo support this view. Religion is bad. It never does anything good. Humanity would be better off without it.

This is utter total ignorant arrogant bullshit.

  • The first laws and morals came from religion. Every heard of the Ten Commandments? Or “Love Thy Neighbor”? That religion and religious people have not always lived up to these ideals is irrelevant. No one ever lives up to their principles. But the very basis of law, morality and order throws its roots into religion. If nothing else, it lies in the recognition that even the most barbaric pagan had — that there is something in the world greater than yourself.
  • Many of the ardent atheists look through history and confuse excuses with reasons. The Spanish Inquisition had more to do with power struggles than faith. The Crusades were more a response to invasion that true religious fervor. As I have said many times, I don’t think many of the fundamentalist Islamic leaders believe what they say — they use it to control and manipulate credulous young people.
  • OK, you say, but without religion, these massacres of the Crusades, the Inquisition and 9/11 wouldn’t have happened. Bzzzt. Man is a violent animal who needs no excuse for slaughter. In my anthropology classes, I learned of Amazon River Indians who are constantly at war and have only vague ideas of faith. And could someone, anyone in the “religion is evil” camp reconcile this with the great crimes of the 20th century having been committed by atheists. Hitler was not religious and his hatred of Jews had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with race. His plan was eventually to abolish religion altogether and exterminate hundreds of millions of Slavs (read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, please). Communism, a political philosophy that specifically opposed religion, was the most murderous institution in human history. Mao specifically said that “religion is poison”. He would probably enjoy Hitch’s book.
  • How do you write off the men – Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Michelangelo, our Founding Fathers – who acheived greatness because of the inspiration religion inspired in them? (Yes, I know the Founding Father were Deists. They were not atheists.) What about the knowledge preserved through the centuries by monastaries?
  • Why is is that the millions of people who form communities, act morally, lend their time and money to charity and help their fellow human beings — because of religion — always get ignored in favor of the fanatics? The kindly minister who visited my widowed lonely grandmother once a week; my first Rabbi and one of my best teachers; the two Christians on my sophmore floor who would intelligent and respectfully discuss faith with my atheist friend and I until 3 am — and millions of other people who are good and kind, millions who have become educated because of their faith (particularly Jews, Catholics and Muslims). People who, to be honest, are more open to religious discussion than your typical atheist. All of these people get thrown into the same barrel with James Dobson and Bill Donahue and Ted Haggard and even Osama bin Laden. This is stupid. This is insane. Why shouldn’t I lump atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens in with Mao, Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot. After all, all four of those were devout atheists.
  • This is pure Cost Without Benefit Analysis. We look at the bad things done in religion’s name and ignore the good things. Worse, it reflects the tired leftist philosophy that humans are naturally nice and gentle and it is external stimuli — civlization, capitalism, religion, whatever, that makes them mean and violent.

    Perhaps I have a different take on this because I’m Jewish. In my faith, no one can speak ex cathedra. Debate and discussion is encouraged. Fundamentalism is kind of unusual. A lot of people follow practices I don’t — not eating shellfish, dressing very conservatively in July, not turning on lights on Shabbat, sleeping in a booth on Sukkot. But then again, they probably think going into the middle of the desert to look at stars while reading Thomas Pynchon is a bit weird. And they’re probably right.

    The Bible says a lot of things — a lot of horrible things, to be sure (for intelligent criticism, try Plotz’s Blogging the Bible). But we have three thousands years of scholarly commentary that are just as important.

    So maybe I’m the wrong person to comment on this. But still, I’m getting sick of these arrogant, know-it-all dogmatic atheists. I’m fine with skepticism. I’ve lost a lot of sleep to pondering atheism and doubt myself. I’m fine with culture criticism and satire. I enjoyed Letters from the Earth. Hell, I’m fine with atheism. There’s no proof that God exists.

    What I am not fine with is the increasing assertion from some that theism is bad and ignorant while atheism is good and educated. Atheism holds no more answers than deism — fewer, actually. Atheism has absolutely no explanation of the Sandage question (“Why is there something instead of nothing?”) or the ego question (“Why do I experience the Universe through a 34 year-old short white shy Jewboy’s body that isn’t terribly well co-ordinated?”).

    And for God’s sake, to base your philosophy on the idea that science holds all the answers? I’m an astronomer and I wouldn’t claim we know much about the universe at all.

    In the last decade, we’ve discovered (we think!) that 90% of matter is dark matter – a substance whose nature we don’t have a clue about. We’ve discovered that 70% of the Universe is dark energy, a concept competely alien to the human experience. Yet smart people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Douglas Adams and Penn and Teller have the audacity, the arrogance, the religious unreasoning fervor to not only claim that we understand the universe but to do so with a conviction that would make the Discovery Institute blush.

    We have no objective constraint on what happens to us when we die. By definition, there is only one way to acquire it. We have no idea of the nature of God. All we can say is what he isn’t. We have no proof that there was such a person as Jesus, although some fairly persuasive evidence that there was. We have no proof of what happened to him or why people chose this particular Messiah to follow. Why is it stupid and backward and ignorant to insist on one set of unsupported answers to these unanswerable questions; but enlightened, intelligent and informed to insist on another set of unsupported answers? I don’t get it.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the baby that’s cooking up in Sue’s belly right now. Could that baby, assuming her brain were developed enough, even begin to understand the world that I move in with seeming ease? All she knows is the cramped darkened space of the uterus where all her needs are provided by a cord in her belly. When she is born, she will suddenly be confronted with an existence so radically different, so jarring to what her first nine months have been, that it will be months before she can function, and years before she even begins to grasp the fundamentals. As far as she is concerned, there is no proof of an outside world. Just vague sounds and sensations that filter in. She has no concept of having to consume food to live. Hell, she doesn’t even know why she’s practicing her breathing! I could just imagine a tiny Hitchens in there, saying, “Why are you wasting your time breathing? There’s no proof that you’ll ever need air!”

    I once wrote a sci-fi story about a race that was blind. How could they know the stars were out there? Could their world-view even embrace the possibility of broader Universe? Would the idea of a bigger Universe be regarded as a silly unfounded idea by “educated” people? I gave up when the story was veering too close to Nightfall, Asimov’s brilliant tale of what can happen to people who are far too confident of their scientific rational world view.

    We humans have evolved to deal with survival on our planet. That our senses and minds are sophisticated enough to even begin to grasp the nature of existence is miraculous. But we now know from cosmology, from that science that dogmatic atheists stand on to proclaim the answers to the Universe, that 97% of the Universe is well beyond our experience and our understanding.

    And yet, some people can claim, with absolute certainty, that there is no God, no existence beyond our flesh, no ego survival after death, nothing beyond rock and stone and air — only the cold dark universe staring at us with dispassion.


    Our idea of the divine has changed a lot. We have gone from crediting statues with everything under the Sun to questioning whether we are alone. It is easy for some to look at the decline of God and claim He that will eventually converge at zero. It’s called the Fallacy of the Unbroken Trend. But there is just as much reason to believe that the decline of God will aymptote. That we will discover questions that have no scientific answers or a spiritual existence so subtle or so different from what we experience in life that we have not been able to see it.

    Science is filled with such precedents. To use just one, that atom was speculated to exist during the classical Greek civilization. It would be thousands of years before we not only proved that atoms exist, but that they control unthinkable energies.

    Or how about a favorite whipping boy of the devout atheists — the geocentric universe. One of the reasons it was supported was because of the scientific evidence that showed no parallax to the stars. Tycho Brahe, not exactly a religious dogmatist, specifically rejected the heliocentric model for this reason. With the evidence in existence, Galileo was actually wrong (not that this stopped him). It wasn’t until 1838 that we measured the first parallax and discovered a Universe vast beyond our imagining.

    Or how about string theory? There is no more proof of string theory than there is of God theory, but papers get published in refereed journals on this seeming nonsense.

    I’ve been working in science for 15 years. One of the few things I’ve learned is that what we know is on shaky ground at best. To posit a grand theory — atheism — upon this ground is fine. To insist that it is the only answer and that all other answers are barbaric superstitution is . . . barbaric superstition.