TCS Daily

Hitchens Is Not Great: An Atheist's Defense of Religion

By Karl Reitz - June 8, 2007 12:00 AM

Religion has been under more fire than usual lately. Daniel Dennett wrote "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon", Sam Harris wrote "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason", Richard Dawkins wrote "The God Delusion", and Christopher Hitchens wrote "God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything", to name just a few attacks.

Most reviews of these books and interviews with the authors have raised the not-so-hot record of atheistic societies. The authors, of course, promptly dismiss these concerns. As The Economist review of Mr. Hitchens "God is not Great" puts it:

"To the objection that irreligious fascists and communists found plenty of non-religious reasons for murder in the 20th century, Mr Hitchens retorts that these beliefs were types of secularised religion, and as such do not count."

However, it is not clear at all why "secularized religions" should not count. A world in which everyone stopped believing in God would likely provide fertile ground for such secular faiths. These secularized religions are what we would really have if we somehow got everyone to stop believing in God. Realistically, atheists (and we atheists take pride in only thinking realistically) may only have a choice between living in societies that are traditionally religious or ones that have adopted secularized religions.

So, far from "not counting," secular religions must be taken very seriously, and their implications understood, before we preach the benefits of godless society.

The obvious examples of secularized religions are communism, socialism, and fascism, each of which generally involves worshipping government by slightly different rituals or for slightly different reasons. As these convictions faded, faith in the welfare state, and especially environmental protection, has risen to take their place for reasons government should be worshipped. Environmentalist devotees claim that we will experience the apocalypse disasters, for which some people are rebuilding Noah's Ark. These disasters can be prevented if we take the advice of prophets people who understand, like Al Gore. Of course, if we sin pollute a little too much, well, we can always buy indulgences carbon offsets.

The fundamental difference between traditional religions and these secular religions is that secular religions promise us that perfection (heaven) is possible here, on earth, in present times. Conservatives, starting with Eric Voegelin, have long warned against buying into these secular religions by warning us not to "immanentize the eschaton." As Jonah Goldberg explained:

"Immanentize means to make part of the here and now. Eschaton, like eschatology, relates to the branch of theology which deals with humanity's destiny. You know, the end times, when all of that wacky, end-timey, Seventh-Seal stuff happens (oceans boil, the righteous ascend to heaven, Carrot Top is funny, etc). Hence 'immanentizing the eschaton' means, in effect, trying to make what is reserved for the next life part of the here and now."

I am atheist because I don't believe in faith, which I believe is the common dogma shared by traditional religion and secularized religions. This means that my atheism is somewhat foggy; because you can't prove that there isn't a God any more than you can prove that there is one, both are un-testable. By railing against God, especially the Christian God, these authors are missing the real target, faith.

Many reviews of these books have missed this point, which should be obvious to Conservatives. For example, the New Yorker reviewed these books and noted that "unbelievers" might be "the fourth-largest persuasion in the world, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism." The flaw here is that there are very few true unbelievers. They may not believe in God, as a bearded man in the sky, but they do believe in god, in some other-worldly sense.

For the same reasons that I don't want religion taught to my [theoretical future] children in public schools, I don't want Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth to be a requirement for graduation. If the First Amendment prohibits the teaching of religion in public schools, shouldn't it prohibit showing that movie? After all, what's the difference between that movie and one that presented a traditional religion in the same way?

Even if the secular authors' ire is well-justified, we are never going to live in a world in which the vast majority of people don't have faith in something, whether that something is God or Government. As an atheist I feel much less threatened by someone who is willing to put off perfection by relegating it to another place than I do by someone who thinks they can create it here and now. In other words, I think that the chance that a religion will "poison everything" is indirectly proportional to the length of time the proponents of the religion think it will take to perfect this world. Therefore, nothing scares me more than the demagogue who promises to immediately do just that. Without traditional religion, I think we would have a lot of demagogues in this mold.


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