Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Irreligion poisons everything - more from Hitchens

Well, The Weekend Australian of May 19-20, 2007, has another extract from Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and this one, while mostly consisting of ridiculous assertions, actually has an argument or two in it. Are they good arguments? Let's take a quick look.

He starts off with some silly assertions that aren't even worth addressing, they're so clearly invalid. He throws in a nice bit of double standards (criticising religious people for not leaving him alone in a book that viciously attacks religious people), and moves on to a vicious attack.

"As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of hard-won human attainments. Religion poisons everything."

That's a pretty strong assertion. The way he expresses it, "people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction," makes it sound like "people of faith" are simply inimical, by their very nature, towards people of non-faith. He casts his net very wide. Don't believe me? Well, read on, he presents evidence for his claim:

"Take a single example, from one of the most revered figures that modern religion has produced." He then goes on to explain how in a 1996 referendum in Ireland, to decide whether to remove a constitutional prohibition against divorce, the evil Roman Catholic church rolled out its big guns: Mother Teresa.

Good grief! Why didn't I see it? Mother Teresa is just plain evil, and campaigning against divorce is bringing about the destruction of people of non-faith. It all makes sense now!

I don't think so.

Hitchens seems completely ignorant of reality on almost every count here:
  • He gives "two excellent reasons" for the referendum: "It was no longer thought right that the Catholic Church should legislate its morality for all citizens, and it was obviously impossible even to hope for eventual Irish reunification if the large Protestant minority in the north was continually repelled by the possibility of clerical rule."

    Neither of these are sufficient reasons to change something in a constitution, since, if they were, they would apply to anything. Imagine that the Irish constitution had a prohibition against slavery, and the referendum were attempting to overturn that prohibition. Would those two reasons still be good reasons? Sure, the Catholic church is against slavery, but should it not attempt to legislate its morality? Even if the north were pro-slavery, would that be a sufficient reason for the south to accept it? The answers are clearly, "no", since we know that slavery is a bad thing, independent of what the Roman Catholic church or Northern Ireland think about it.
  • Hitchens has smuggled a (huge) assumption in here: prohibiting divorce is destructive, allowing divorce is good. His "two excellent reasons" only make sense if his assumption is correct (but it still won't make them excellent reasons, merely pragmatic ones). The question is, is Hitchens's assumption correct? The answer is, once again, no. See discussion and links here, this website, or just do a google search yourself. The evidence is well and truly in, and it speaks strongly: liberalised divorce laws hurt the divorcees, but more profoundly, the children.
  • Mother Teresa and the Catholic church weren't the only ones trying to impose their morality on others here. Those who believe it is immoral to limit divorce were trying to impose their morality on the whole country (and they succeeded). In fact, Hitchens gives a moral argument for why divorce should be allowed, and he clearly thinks that his morality has precedence over the Catholic morality. At the same time, he is (with breathtakingly ignorant hypocrisy) criticising the Catholic church for imposing its morality. Quite extraordinary. (And very sad, especially when the church turns out, unsurprisingly, to have been right.)
  • Hitchens seems to think that people can live in a country where morality is up to the individual, he says, "There was not even the suggestion that Catholics could follow their own church's commandments while not imposing them on all other citizens." It's pretty obvious that there are some things that are simply so destructive that they need to be legislated against. As it turns out (and as almost every society in history has understood), divorce is one of those things. In Australia we have legislation against preparing food for strangers with your bare hands. Yet we allow the massive destructive impact of divorce to continue unabated. This is the twisted illogic of Hitchens and co.

So, in summary, Hitchens claims the church is "planning your destruction" by trying to limit divorce, which imposes a restriction on the freedom of adults to do what they want when they feel like it without thought of any consequences (help, I'm being destroyed!). The reality is that the church was attempting to prevent the wholesale destruction of many relationships, and the incredible harm it causes to children. So, rather than a monster, Mother Teresa turns out to have been someone who was very concerned for the most defenceless members of society: children. Who would have thought! Mother Teresa concerned for defenseless members of society -- that's just so out of character, isn't it? (BTW, Hitchens has written a whole book attempting to portray Mother Teresa in as bad a light as possible. There is an agenda here, which doesn't mean he's wrong, but is worth bearing in mind.)

Hitchens follows this lamentable attempt at an argument with more silly assertions about the origin of religion, thus committing the genetic fallacy -- the incorrect attempt to argue that an idea is wrong because of where it comes from. He then displays his bizarre reading of the Bible. He claims that the gospels are out of sync on the Sermon on the Mount (despite the fact that one of them is actually a different sermon: the Sermon on the Plain), as well as passion week (neglecting that a synthesis of the gospels has been around for, oh, almost 2000 years). He also shows how carefully he reads his assumptions into the Bible with his discussion of Jesus' fulfilment of prophecy.

Even his criticism of Islam, which centres around the idea that the Koran only makes sense in Arabic, misses the mark. If God had chosen to express himself in Arabic alone, that hardly implies that he's a monoglot, which is Hitchens's ludicrous claim.

He shows a complete lack of historical knowledge by talking about the Protestant reformation's struggle to "have the Bible rendered into 'the Vulgate'". The Vulgate was actually the Latin translation that had been around since the fifth century, as even a quick Google search will show. Perhaps he means "the vernacular", or the local language.

Hitchens then, bravely, attempts to address the counterpoint Christians give when atheists point to the terrible wars and persecutions performed in the name of religion, namely the criticism of the terrible destruction wrought by the atheist nations on their own people. (This point is more strongly made by pointing out that Christian wars are against the character of Christianity as represented in the Bible, while the atheist purges were a natural outcome of that worldview -- Hitchens doesn't even bother mentioning the stronger form of the argument.) He attempts to deflect this by arguing that these leaders claim the role of god, and therefore it's still actually religion that's the cause of the problem (although he never says it that succinctly -- succinctness is not one of Hitchens's strengths, it seems). However, this doesn't address the fact that the governments of the USSR and China were explicitly atheistic. The rulers did not set themselves up as gods (unlike the Roman Emperors) or as divinely appointed (unlike the medieval courts of Spain, France and Russia, which Hitchens' attempts to use as a diversion).

In fact, it seems clear that, unless Hitchens answers this counter-criticism in the book and the editor of this extract neglected to include that answer and instead included all the sleights and dodging and weaving, he has no answer to this criticism. Since I find it hard to believe that an editor would allow the counter-criticism to be raised, and then fail to include the refutation of it, it seems very likely that Hitchens can only raise bluff and bluster in his defence against atheism's inherent destructiveness.

The extract finishes with further assertions about science invalidating religion, and further straw men of religion. For example, "religion offers either annihilation in the name of God or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskins, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be saved." Christianity makes none of those claims, though Hitchens is clearly trying to misrepresent it with that last one (ingesting pieces of wafer to be saved).

So, with a further, independent extract from God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, it is even clearer that God is Not Great is not great, and furthermore, that anti-theism appears to have poisoned Hitchens's reasoning capabilities.


Bill Muehlenberg said...

Well done Malcolm.
Hitchens is good on some things (eg the threat of radical Islam) but he, like Dawkins, is quite off when it comes to Christianity. One wonders what personal experience may have so embittered him.
Bill Muehlenberg

Malcolm Lithgow said...

Thanks, Bill.

I did actually agree with a lot of what Hitchens said against Islam in that extract. But since I was critiquing his logic, the monoglot jibe was impossible to ignore.

It is very weird to see Hitchens struggling to conflate Mother Teresa with the likes of the 9/11 terrorists, but I guess that's radical secularism for you ("everyone who disagrees with me is a potential terrorist").