A Book Review – Christopher Hitchens – god is not Great

This has been a long time in coming, both in terms of activity on this blog and in finishing and posting this review itself.

I picked up Christopher Hitchens’ book “god is not Great” quite some time ago.  Its bright yellow cover bound and determined to call attention to it no matter how little of the book was visible on the shelf.  From the blurbs on the back of the book, I was expecting somewhat of a well argued thesis on, well, “How religion poisons everything.”

First off, I am sorry that I did not get my book review done before Mr. Hitchens died.  I had a hard time finishing it, because I couldn’t continue reading it.  It was bothering me immensely, and I had to make one last push to finish the final 33 pages in order to honestly complete this review. Tomorrow, I will donate it to the library or leave it somewhere. To allow some other seeker to read it and make their own decisions on it.  Sorry for the spoiler alert, but I disliked this book.

Aside from my personal issues with the writing style he used, which to me sounded condescending and insulting, my primary problem with the book is that he does not argue his thesis statement at all.

His thesis statement is “god is not great, religion poisons everything”.  At least, that is what I understood from the introduction to the book.

He covers a lot of the expected ground for a book with this sort of thesis, which can be summed up by the chapter titles:

Chapter 2 – Religion Kills
Chapter 3 – A Short Digression on the Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham
Chapter 4 – A Note on Health, to Which Religion Can Be Hazardous
Chapter 5 – The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False

And so on…

Unfortunately, page after page, chapter after chapter, Hitchens utterly fails to show that it is *religion* which is poisoning everything.  Each argument he makes can be easily summed up in one phrase:

“Humans suck.”

To perhaps put a finer point on it:

“Humans use religion to control, suppress, justify, mutilate, oppress, and kill other humans and destroy other things too.”

But notice, religion isn’t what is poisoning everything.  It is those particular peoples’ use of religion, like any other system that can be bent to someone’s will, that he is holding up as an example of how religion is terrible.

One could argue the same thesis using any other system that humans have come up with.

“Democracy poisons everything”
“Fascism poisons everything”
“Capitalism poisons everything”
“Environmentalism poisons everything”

Each one of these examples can hold that same roster of arguments.  Hitchens isn’t critiquing the system, in this case religion.  He is critiquing how people use it.  He is undermining his own premise, but ignoring that he is undermining it.  Perhaps I’m ignoring his equation of the religion to the practitioner, but as I state in my premise, I think that he should have been more clear in his thesis statement if he was really critiquing the religious people rather than the religious system the people operate in.

Now let’s look at some of his premises – I’m not saying that I disagree with them all.  Some of his arguments are compelling, and his statements seem insightful.

“There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.” (page 4)

From a completely scientific standpoint, the creation story is not supported at all.  But put it into context – the creation story is how man at that time explained how everything came to be.  Religion was humanity’s science at one point.  Now, science is humanity’s science.

As far as combining the maximum of servility with solipsism, well, I feel like he’s basically saying that following a religion makes you a slave in your own mind, because you internalize something that is not externally provable. It is often an argument that faith is a matter of faith, that it does not require proof.  By definition that does enter into solipsism territory.  And certain religions do encourage service, meekness and humility as virtues, which could result in slavish-type behaviour.

That religion is the result and cause of dangerous sexual repression.  There are ample examples of religion causing and enforcing sexual repression, such as his examples later of the edict told to so many Christian children that masturbation will make you go blind, etc.  Frankly, that is again an attitude from those who are using the religion, and not necessarily an edict from the source material itself.  And as far as being a result of sexual repression… Perhaps a case of “If I can’t have it, neither can you and I will become the best religious enforcer of purity”?  I find that assertion a bit more tenuous.

Finally, religion is grounded on wish-thinking.  The language in this assertion is unfortunately a bit childish, and this begins his use of language to belittle the religious folk.  This doesn’t set us up for a rational discussion, this is belittling and dismissive.

But there are other, more incisive statements:

“Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.” (page 56)

Indeed, I cannot argue with Hitchens on this laundry list of sins because I myself have made many of these arguments. Many evils have been perpetuated in the name of religion – by the people using religion as their tool. Even in a section running from p.158-160, where he outlines how a young boy was turned into an evangelical superstar, and later revealed how it works, he still is just showing how people can use religion and the mythology of religion as their tool for whatever end they have in mind. That still does not prove the thesis that religion is evil.

One of my main issues with Mr. Hitchens’ writing is his use of language, as I mentioned before. So much of it contains a sneer.

“…his yokel creationist fans…” (p. 85)
“Even supposing this version of events to be correct…” (p.131)
“But given infinite power, one might have thought that a more striking or less simpleminded miracle could have been confected.” (p.141)
“…two equally stupid schools or factions…” (p. 162)
“Remember that we are examining the childhood of our species.” (p.267)

(That final line was being an apologist for some early atheists’ interest in clearly irrational pursuits such as Freemasonry and alchemy.)

I’ll end with this note – it is a book worth reading. Even though I disagree with how he presents it, Hitchens has undertaken some great research, some good story telling, and reports interesting findings. However, he does not prove his thesis that it is religion that is the problem. Rather, he shows that is it people and their ability to use a religious system to inflict harm and oppression on others which is the problem.

Hitchens is an atheist, and like many I have come across, takes a very superior attitude over people with religious or spiritual beliefs. I would have found the book to be far more convincing and compelling if he had minimized that attitude, and written in a convincing way rather than a belittling way.

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On prayer

Morrigan, show me strength so I may model strength;
Mannanan, show me fluidity so I may model fluidity;
Brighid, show me creativity and practicality so I may model both.

I was praying to my gods while on the bus, on the way to work this week.  I was not looking forward to my day and thought that perhaps a quick prayer to the gods would help.  Perhaps it would remind me of the traits that I know I need.  Perhaps it would bring the thought of my gods to the front of my mind so that I could more mindfully enter my workplace and do the work that I am expected to do with the skills I know I have, but that sometimes get buried under all the associated junk of peoples’ emotional baggage and stress.

But as I was sitting there, looking out the window, crafting the prayer in my mind, I was struck by something.  The way that I could pray and the way that I was intentionally crafting my prayer was different.

I could have prayed in this way:

Morrigan, give me strength so that I can make it through my day;
Mannanan, give me fluidity so I can pass over my problems;
Brighid, give me creativity and practicality so that I can apply both to my issues.

You see how that is different than the  prayer above?  Not only is it more negative, focusing on the problems and what I need help for, but it also externalizes all the good qualities as something I inherently need.  It makes it seem like if I don’t get the results of my prayer, then the gods weren’t listening, or they have some mysterious reason for not fulfilling my request.  It’s like a test.

And that’s not how one should be approaching this.  At least, not in my spirituality. The gods aren’t like Santa.  You don’t send them your wish list and hope to get the shiny new bike under the tree at the predetermined time.  The gods are inspiration.  They guide us by being the example.

In my final version, I am asking for examples of what strength, fluidity, creativity and practicality look like, so that I can emulate it.  It’s asking for my ability to build that in myself.  I’m not assuming that I can’t do it.  In fact, even my prayer is flawed in that I am not sparking it in myself, but sometimes one needs to look to their archtypes for help.  Sometimes, that’s why we’re praying because we can’t see it in ourselves, and we need the reminder of what it looks like to be able to find it.

I wrote an interesting prayer poem years ago that I recently unearthed in a quick cleaning of one of my boxes of papers.  In it, I do ask for Strength, Wisdom, Prosperity, Courage and Favours, but the Goddess doesn’t give me any of them.  She gives me Difficulties, Problems, Brains and Brawn, Danger and Opportunities.  Thus She requires me to build these things within myself.

Praying for a deity to give you something easily is a cop-out.  It externalizes the help and the blame.  It absolves you of the responsibility to do it for yourself, and allows you to continue to blame outside forces for you not achieving, not getting what you want, not having a happy life, not marrying the guy of your dreams, not loving your job, not having that baby.  It allows you to continue to be a victim of circumstance and it prevents you from growing to deal with these problems.  If you pass all your problems on to God to handle, you don’t learn how to handle them yourself.

And so, why not pray to whatever deity you wish to help you grow, help you to build skills, build strength, develop the abilities to deal with your own problems, to chase your own dreams, to live your own life? Why not remind yourself of the example and emulate it, rather than making a wish list and hoping to receive it someday. Pray actively. Live actively.

(Originally posted on December 4, 2012)

Let there be reason

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” – post made by an old friend to his diocese on Facebook, from facebook.com/StopPlayingChurch

(The sidebar notes “We acknowledge that this is a general statement and that there are not statistics to back up this claim.  However, we hear this a lot from our atheist members.  It is our hope that we can begin to change this perception – or at least begin the conversation. […]  By Christians Tired of being Misrepresented”)

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed this afternoon and stumbled upon this post by an old friend.  He was not someone I would have pegged to become a priest, but he did.  He actually gave me one of the most interesting explanations of anyone I’ve known to the question of “Why did you choose this job?” Although I suppose in his case it’s more of a vocation.

Anyway, I read the little picture and thought little about it.  But then I actually did think about it, and it struck me as not a valid logical statement.

I would suggest that very few true atheists are atheist because of one or even many Christians’ hypocrisy.  In fact, I suggest that other people have very little to do with someone’s loss of a concept of deity in the world.  At least, not in that way.

If anything would happen through the observation of hypocrisy, I think it would be the leaving of a church or community, distancing oneself from that group of people who are silently accepting that hypocrisy and perpetuating it.  I find it difficult to believe that someone would up and say, “Oh, Martha is an embezzling, gambling gossip and unChristian – that’s it, I’m giving up on God if He can allow a woman like that not to immediately burn in Hell for her behaviour.”  One could consider that kind of a reaction a bit much, and potentially the person wasn’t all that attached to their Christianity anyway.  But the real measured response would be to leave that group and seek out a community of more like-minded spiritual folks who one could agree with.

The next step is potentially to become agnostic.  This is far more likely to occur in observing the hypocrisy of religious types resulting in some suffering or racism/sexism/etc., or potentially due to watching the news and seeing all the horrible things going on in the world, or personally suffering some great loss or calamity.  It sparks questioning, soul-searching, anger against the deity in question.  How could a God that is supposed to be all about love allow so much suffering in his children?  How can His plan involve the murder of innocents, of loved ones, of the millions of people who die through disease and famine?  Even the most steadfast in their faith must question when something bad happens.  When, say, a priest is found to have assaulted some children, and the church covers it up.  That’s when one could drift not just from the bosom of Mother Church, but from the teachings themselves.  Something doesn’t add up, they say.  I believe there must be something, but I don’t know that it can be what is described in this book.  Or if they just find an essential schism in the philosophy that develops over time, with experience.  They still retain a vague concept of deity, but they don’t identify with the Christian teachings any more (or insert any other religion here – I’m simply using Christian as an example because it was the premise of this discussion).

The final step to true atheism comes from inside a person.  Atheism is no belief in any form of deity.  None.  There is the Earth, revolving around the Sun, in a manner that can be described by astrophysicists.  There is life continuing due to oxygen inhalation, food consumption, blood pumping and neurons firing.  And then, when these processes cease, there is nothing.  Nothing mystical, no continuation of the soul (or ego), no ghosts, no spirits, no angels, no Heaven, no Judgment, no Hell.  This sort of a change in mindset from Christian has to happen because the person themselves loses or divests themselves of the belief in deity.  Somehow they have reached a point where they do not need to believe in a deity, in some guiding force, in order to be able to make sense of the world.  This is kind of a big deal, as far as someone’s personal philosophy is concerned.  And to belittle it by saying that it comes about because someone observed Christians being hypocritical?  Give me a break.

Also, by assuming that someone divests themselves of a concept of deity due to the observation of hypocrisy, one infers that they can regain it by observing good Christian behaviour.  And not just regain their belief in deity, but regain their belief in the “One True God”, the Commandments and all that.  And frankly, that’s just insulting.  And a little egotistical on the Christians’ behalf.  Sure, the atheist could be fantastically impressed by someone living by the Christian virtues vaunted in the Bible.  But I find it hard to believe that a real atheist, not just someone professing a lack of belief in God because they are currently in a fight with God (hint – if they’re in a fight with God, they still believe that there’s a God to have a fight with), would do anything but applaud someone for being a decent human being and looking out for their fellow human.

So, you know how I would change the statement that began this post?  Like this:

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is people thinking critically about their religious beliefs and finding that they do not measure up to how they observe the world to work.  It’s not the hypocrisy, and it’s not the community of the church or the management of the church.  It comes from within the people themselves, and they will be hard-pressed to return to an unquestioning or even a questioning belief simply because you’re a better Christian.  And frankly, that’s a terrible reason for someone to practice their religion better anyway.

And that is what a believer simply finds unbelievable.

(originally posted August 13, 2012)

Flakiness

In the next couple of posts, I’ll deconstruct some of the ideas that I introduced in my previous post.  The first one I’d like to attempt to tackle is the flakiness idea.

Imagine, for a moment:

She looked up from where she was kneeling, eyes falling on the carven image of the man hanging from the cross.  His expression is one of pain but peace.  She prayed in his name – asking for help, for guidance, for some way of knowing the right thing to do.  She left the church feeling peaceful – perhaps not knowing exactly what she needed to do, but feeling that she could try.

A simple story of communing with one’s God.  Seemingly acceptable – one prays for guidance, for help.

Imagine again:

She looked up from where she was sitting on the cold stone.  The vast expanse of the sky shining above her with millions of stars and the darkness in between.  She whispered her call to the night and flicked the lighter to illuminate and then ignite her message, sending its essence into the air through the smoke and destruction of the paper which bound it.  She bowed her head and touched her fingertips to the middle of her forehead in a salute and then lifted her eyes to the sky once more.  Her intention sent out to the universe, she poured an offering of whisky out onto the ground before returning to her home, prepared to work on her intention.

The unfortunate part of my spirituality is that I often feel awkward trying to explain it in terms that won’t bring up the potential flakiness issue.  This is the power of language.  The difference between a prayer and an intention, for example.  Consider asking God versus asking the universe, or the life-force, etc for help.  Even the actions speak volumes – the difference between praying with hands clasped and sitting in a field, on a rock, looking up at the sky and burning a scrap of paper which has an intention written on it.

The strength of the language and the meaning of the words will cause certain reactions.  Even amongst the extended pagan tribe there is judgment against ‘fluffy bunny’ by the more ‘serious’, against the ‘fashionable’ by the ‘down-to-earth’.  It’s all very reminiscent of any other human interaction.  Someone, for whatever reason, believes that they are superior/are following the ‘right’ way, and those who don’t seem as studious/serious/ get-down-in-the-dirt-and-muck-about enough are judged.  And I don’t want to come off as anti-judgment.  Clearly if we weren’t critically thinking people then anything would be acceptable, nothing would be wrong and there would be a raft of other issues to deal with.  Yes, we need to apply critical thinking.

However, when it comes down to a ‘more pagan than thou’ argument, or a judgment about someone’s dearly held beliefs because what you hear makes you want to change them, correct them or cure them, then we have a problem.  Because that isn’t dialogue, that’s judgment and a ceasing of listening.  To be able to converse, we first must be brave enough to listen and set aside our little internal judges.

I stumble because I have an internal censor sitting right beside my internal judge as well.  In addition to the concern that my explanation be well-received because of the word-usage, I have to dance through my own mental minefield.  I will judge myself as I use words, second-guessing the way I’m explaining something and wondering whether a certain term will set off someone’s internal judge.  So I try to be careful with my language.

For example, a good friend of mine once asked me how my beliefs interacted with my scientific background.  It’s a fair question, and one that I think most scientists receive regardless of their spirituality.  He was interested in the beginning-of-life question.  I thought about it for a moment, and said something along these lines:

My spirituality does not really impact my perspective of the beginning of ‘life’ on Earth.  To me, evolution explains how life developed to the present day.  The energy around life just is – it is a network.  I don’t really have a Creation story.  That’s the Big Bang and evolution story.  My gods and whatnot exist within it fairly happily because I don’t need them to have Created the world.”

He was intrigued by my answer.  I should say that he and I share a similar spirituality, so speaking of ‘energies’ with him didn’t necessarily frighten me, as I figured he would know or guess close enough to my meaning (depending on what ‘energy’ means to him.)

In trying to explain my beliefs to a non-pagan friend, I stumbled more because I was describing my concept of the gods as forces of nature, and feeling no need to worship, per se, but perhaps appreciate and respect being better descriptors of the veneration aspect.  Mainly because I have a feeling that worship doesn’t matter as much to forces of nature – why would a force of nature be concerned with the adoration of a human?  (This concept was first introduced to me when I was reading a book by Emma Restall Orr and I had an “ah-ha!” moment.)  My friend was able to relate to the idea of worship not being strictly necessary because why would a god/God care?

I also attempted to explain why I felt that it was  important to have female deities within my pantheon.  Firstly, I am a woman so I can relate to a female archetype.  Secondly, to encompass the natural generative force, or more simply, because females give birth and it makes sense to me that they have a hand in the constantly renewing world.  But here comes the internal censor and judge saying, “But gods don’t need to give birth actually, right?” to which I reply, “All is symbol anyway.”  In addition, the archetypes that these goddesses stand for resonate with me.  “Isn’t that cherry picking?”  Not at all, one honours all gods, but can be drawn to certain ones because of what they stand for.  I know I need to rein in the internal censor.

So where does the flakiness come in?  Is it flaky to believe in unseen energies, forces of nature, or god and goddess archetypes that symbolize important things in one’s life compared to one big-g god who runs the whole thing?  Is it flaky to revere the amazing things that the Earth and nature can produce and do?  To get goosebumps at the sheer force of a thunderstorm or the surging ocean?  Or is it flaky to think that crystals may have different vibrations and energies that can be tapped to create change in one’s life through a spell?  I will address that question in an upcoming post (or two).

I don’t have the answer.  Flakiness is subjective.  But by creating a dialogue to foster understanding of different viewpoints, I think we can go a long way to breaking down the potential judgments on all sides.  An open mind can create more opportunities for learning.

(originally posted April 24, 2010)

Writing about spirituality

The challenge of writing about a spirituality that is wholly personal, is that basically you’re putting *yourself* out there.  There are no generalizations.  You can’t speak on behalf of your brethren.  You speak on your own behalf.  Perhaps through these words, I can give a glimpse into a personal spirituality that many may consider flaky, strange, alien or even something worse (and I have been called worse).

I self-identify as pagan, with a small p.  That lumps me into a large and eclectic group that spans many different cultures, from the Heathen/Asatruar, to Egyptian, Italian, Greek, even technically Hindu pagans.  I could narrow it down further to say that I am drawn to Celtic mythology, partly through it “feeling” right and partly through heritage.  I am, by blood, a UK mutt for all intents and purposes (although my family tree has not been rooted in that soil for several generations).  Narrowing down to the Celtic pagans does reduce the population of the group I claim.  But not fully.  You see, we seem to be a group of like-minded, completely independent folks.  So my way of seeing things may not reflect the opinions of *any* other Celtic pagan-y type person.  There are also many different ways to approach Celtic paganism.  There is the Wicca-inspired Celtic Faery Faith, the Celtic Reconstructionists, the Druids (which may or may not be the same thing, depending on who you speak to)… the list is as long and varied, especially since there are a few pantheons that can be identified in the Celtic realm – the Irish, the Welsh, the Scottish, the Gallic, the German… Personally, I am drawn to the Irish pantheon, and there is enough overlap in concepts that I don’t feel left out in the cold if, for example, the Welsh pantheon is being referred to.

Now, I will introduce the concept of my being drawn to the practices of the druids of old.  This is where it gets tricky from the perspective side (i.e. flaky or worse), because mentioning the d-word can bring up mental images of the old bearded guys in the white robes with flashing knives, human sacrifice and mobs of people descending on Stonehenge for Summer Solstice so they can drink and party and be weird together.  *sigh*  Yes, I have a cloak.  It’s green.  But no, I haven’t gone to Stonehenge, and if I did, I’d try to choose a day that I thought would have the smallest crowds.  Mainly because I’d want to experience the environment of it, not the ritual.  I’m definitely not a Romantic Ceremonialist, and am a little more on the Hedgewitch side (oh, darn, I just said the w-word…)

Okay, so witch… right… I knew this was going to be a slippery slope.  Witch is a loaded term, and I don’t necessarily self-identify as a witch, per se.  But the natural-knowledge part of what I like to do does fit into the witch side of things, I suppose.  The little charms, herbal work, the crafty side of things.  I’ve a long history of doing that sort of thing.  But no, it’s not like Practical Magic or The Craft – man, if we had special effects like that, it would be way sexier to self-identify as a pagan-witch-druid-thing.  As far as discussing the charm/herbal work/crafty side of things, perhaps I’ll leave that to another post.

But, but, but!  While I may self-identify as an Irish Celtic pagan with druid interests, I don’t restrict my spiritual influences to only Celtic sources.  I greatly enjoy learning about other religions/spiritualities.  I’m highly influenced by the ideas in Buddhism, for example.  I’m currently reading the Koran, as well as a pagan philosophy book on moral living from a Pagan perspective.  Comparative theology and understanding other faiths perspectives and how they evolved are very important pursuits for me.  So much so, I almost started a comparative theology graduate degree.  I may still – time will tell.

Not all Celtic pagans feel this is a good practice.  They feel that it is too eclectic, and that it introduces foreign concepts into a not-yet-fully-recovered ancient faith system.  I accept that they wish mainly to study and tease out the details of the Celtic faith system that was practiced in the British Isles pre-Roman invasion (and conquest).  My perspective is that the Celtic faith system would have evolved since then.  And as I mentioned above, I prefer to also study comparative theology.

I’m not “active” in the physical community of paganism in my city.  A part of me doesn’t want to share my experiences physically.  Another part of me doesn’t want to do the ritual aspect of it.  I was, at one point, part of a community.  I was even one of the leaders of that little community.  I think perhaps my spiritual development needed it then, and right now I have a different focus.  Perhaps I will rejoin it.  I know of one effort currently underway that I would like to be a part of, potentially.  We shall see.  It might just take me following up on it.  If I’m able to, I will blog about it.

(originally posted April 12, 2010)