Christopher Hitchens new book, God is Not Great, is making quite a splash. It is the most damaging and moronic thing he's written to date.

Now, I don't believe in God. Not even a little bit. But what I do believe in is not being a smugly dogmatic asshole. Hitchens' polemical "antitheism" is just as exclusionary rigid in its orthodoxies as any religious extremist position and is, even worse, its based on the same misunderstanding of intellectual history as much of the rest of his work.

It's a point almost too obvious to make, perhaps, but when the nation and the world are being threatened by tyranny, absolutism, and a resurgence of imperialism, it may not be the right time to drive wedges between those who stand together in opposition.

The coalitions between religious and secular opponents of war, corporate greed, and the violations of civil and human rights, need to be fostered, not weakened. Just as it is commonly noted that only Nixon, as a Republican, could have made overtures to China, so too I think that in the struggle against religious totalitarianism it will be the religious moderates who will ultimately be the most successful (it's a shame our policies are systematically destroying or radicalizing the Muslim moderates, but perhaps that's best left for a different post).

But what annoys me most about Hitchens' position is his refusal to analyze or historicize his own idols. Hitchens bases his attack against religion--or rather, against belief--in the values of the Enlightenment. He has said that since 9/11 his mission is "to defend the Enlightenment, to defend and extend the benefits of rationalism. By all and any means necessary."

Hitchens poses these values of "enlightenment" and "rationalism" against the superstitions of religion. But while he is eager to argue that religion is part of an historical moment, his historical understanding is too impoverished to see that his own values are historically conditioned and carry with them their own myths and superstitions.

In a recent interview, Hitchens had this pseudo-anthropological nonsense to say about religion:


Religion is an attempt at philosophy. It's what stood in for philosophy in primitive times, and it does raise some quite important questions, for heaven's sake. You can't deny that, right? So where it ends, I think, real philosophy does begin, just as where alchemy ends, chemistry begins and so forth. Astrology with astronomy and all the rest.

Where to begin? First of all, Hitchens engages in a bit of question-begging, with his falacious (or at least uninterrogated) presumption that the human sciences are progressive in the same way the natural sciences are. This, on the face of it, is bullshit.

Tony Kushner is great. He isn't better than Shakespeare. He isn't better than Sophocles. Wittgenstein is great. He isn't better than Hegel. He isn't better than Empedocles. There just isn't progress in the humane disciplines in the same way that there is in the hard sciences.

But even overlooking this error, Hitchens' assertions are just plain wrong. Chemistry doesn't have its genesis at the termination point of alchemy, but within alchemy. Many natural philosophers of the Early Modern period, such as the great scientist and occultist Paracelsus (who posited a chemical understanding of the body, overturning the Galenic model of the four humours), considered their work alchemical. Likewise with astronomy and astrology.

And for Hitchens, who is so enamored of the Enlightenment, to say that "real philosophy" begins only at the end of religion is utterly preposterous. The Enlightenment was not a godless intellectual phenomenon by any means and what Hitchens means by "reason" is not a stable and timeless concept.

First off, if the only real philosophers are those who reject religion, the philosophical underpinnings of both the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution collapse:

~ The thinker from whon we get Hitchens' beloved term "Enlightenment," Immanuel Kant ("Aufklarung") did not reject God, but rather thought that presuming his existence was a practical necessity for a philosopher.

~ The father of experimental science, Francis Bacon, rejected the idea of a "Mosaic physicks"--i.e. one that was grounded in the Bible--and advocated keeping science and religion separate. But this is not a rejection of religion--he thought that the "unwholesome mixture of things human and divine" makes not only for bad science "but also a heretical religion."

~ Rene Descartes, the great mathemetician whose programmatic doubt in everything but reason provides the model for radical skepticism, was deeply religious and he saw his work as fulfilling a spiritual and worshipful purpose.

~ Pierre Bayle, one of the first organizers of an encyclopedia (a very Enlightenment project) argued that God could not be known by reason. And as much as Bayle advocated reason, it didn't stop him from being a Catholic.

~ John Locke, the great popularizer of empiricism (which, while very unlike Descartes' Rationalism, was nontheless part of a continuing trend), the sine qua non of the Enlightenment was utterly devout.

~ The one true atheist among the Enlightenment philosophers, David Hume, was no proponent of the rationality that Hitchens' promotes: "Reason," he wrote, "is and ought only to be a slave to the passions."

The list, of course, could go on forever. Hitchens wants to delegitimize any philosopher who has not repudiated religion, but this leaves us with a scant handful of philosophers and even less math (take away Newton, Leibniz, Pascal, and Descartes and you're left without analytical geometry or calculus or probability. I guess being a math major would be easier at the University of Christopher Hitchens).

What's even more maddening about Hitchens' pompous dismissal of the "primitivism" of religion in favor of the more evolved "rationality" is that it presumes that "rationality" doesn't have its own range of meanings and its own set of myths.

Like all fundamentalism, rationalist fundamentalism is dangerous. Because like all fundamentalism, rationalist fundamentalism asserts its own infallibility. It's stunning the religious fervor with which Hitchens praises reason as the answer to everything.

Now, I'm all in favor of reason, but I think that there's something important to be learned from that place where religion and science intersect: both tell us that there is more to the universe than the phenomenal world, than the world of perception.

This is true for the moral universe, as well. Shutting people out because they don't agree with you isn't rational or reasonable. Trying to fight the violence of religious fanaticism with secular fanaticism is not reasonable. Churchill once said something about the cure for what ails democracy being more democracy. And I think that the cure for what ails religious tolerance is more religious tolerance.

And as far as the Enlightenment goes, I think Theodor Adorno says it a lot better than I ever could:


In the authority of universal concepts the Enlightenment detected a fear of the demons through whose effigies human beings had tried to influence nature in magic rituals. From now on matter was finally to be controlled without the illusion of immanent powers or hidden properties. For enlightenment, anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion. Once the movement is able to develop unhampered by external oppression, there is no holding it back. Its own ideas of human rights then fare no better than the older universals. Any intellectual resistance it encounters merely increases its strength. The reason is that enlightenment also recognizes itself in the old myths. No matter which myths are invoked against it, by being used as arguments they are made to acknowledge the very principle of corrosive rationality of which Enlightenment stands accused. Enlightenment is totalitarian.

Originally posted to Feemus on Mon Jul 02, 2007 at 02:30 PM PDT.

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