Mary Arline (queen_of_kithia) wrote,
Mary Arline

Christopher Hitchens, I suspect you do not know what you're talking about

Chris...may I call you Chris? Well, I will anyway.

Okay Chris, you don't like religion. That's fine. I understand that, and I respect your right to believe or not believe whatever you choose. And I will concede that there are a lot of horrible, horrible, unspeakable things done in the name of religion. This is a good and a fair point, and I believe any decent religious adherent will concede it. But while I can see where there could be an argument against a particular religion, or a particular viewpoint within a religion, or certain expressions of some religious beliefs, I think that the contention that "Religion as a whole concept is destructive in and of itself," is a little too broad to sustain with well-reasoned and well-researched argument. And if what I saw in that interview is any indication, your book falls far short of that.

I haven't read your book and perhaps you do a better job of responding to your opposition than you did in the above interview, but I'd just like to respond to some of the things you said in this interview that were misinformed. At least, I hope they were misinformed and not disingenuously misrepresentative.

1. It seems to me an overly broad statement to make that all religions are bad for everyone. What about Unitarianism, which isn't even sure it is a religion? In fact, if we wanted to get really semantically picky, we could even argue about what religion actually is. Is any group bound by a common philosophy a religion? Or what about a common ideology? Is capitalism a religion? Is Marxism a religion? Could even secular humanism be considered a religion?

2. No one except for the extremist and/or devotedly ignorant factions of any given religion thinks that their given religious texts are written by God himself*/theirselves. Now, that seemed to be more Jon's point than your point. However, I would like to speak for myself and my fellow reasonable Christians (arguably a small group, I admit) and point out that our faith applies to primarily to that which cannot be explained by rational means. In other words, yes, we believe despite a lack of evidence, but we do so because that evidence is not to be found. Yes, granted, there are a lot of stupid, crazy Christians who literally believe in the Genesis creation account (although, I suspect, not so many as it sometimes seems; it's just that they are so vocal that it seems like more), but many of us realize that it's not to be taken literally. To paraphrase some very wise and ecumenical newspaper columnists, whom unfortunately I didn't take the time to cite properly, science attempts to explain how things came to be; religion attempts to explain why things came to be. I know that the many religious scientists and doctors would assert that science and faith can and do peacefully co-exist and may perhaps even complement each other, although I suppose such an assertion wouldn't carry much weight with you since you believe (and I respect your right to your own beliefs) that religion ruins everything. If that is indeed the case, I wonder how much of Gregor Mendel's work on genetics was corrupted by his religious beliefs. Perhaps we should throw out everything we've built on his findings and start at square one.

3. Even if you were right about all religious/supernatural beings coming about through virgin births and religion eschewing sex and the birth canal, blah blah blah, that doesn't necessarily inform a particular religion's morality. For example, ancient Egyptian mythology recounts the gods engaging in a lot of crazy behavior, but that doesn't mean that such behavior was encouraged or even condoned for its religious adherents. According to their mythology, the gods do the things they do because they're gods, and they exist on a different plane than humans; they're more powerful and they have different rules of behavior. The stories of Egyptian gods, unlike the Judeo-Christian sacred texts, were never meant to be taken as a blueprint or prescription for human morality.

Speaking of Judeo-Christian sacred texts, admittedly Old Testament writings can come across as very misogynist, and I unfortunately don't know enough about them to argue against that. I do, however, know a little bit about New Testament and other Christian sacred and religious-themed texts. And indeed, there's a fair share of misogyny in a lot of Christian texts, Paul being only the most prominent example. On the other hand, in the Roman Catholic tradition, even though the sexist practice of not allowing women to be priests unfortunately continues even to this day and is likely to continue for many years to come, many of our most important writers, philosophers, and theologians have been women. But anyway, I think the point you were trying to make in bring up the virgin birth is that Christianity, or at least Christians, are against sex. I don't think any but the most extreme of fringe cults would say such a thing. Admittedly, the medieval church seemed to view it as an evil, albeit a necessary one, but the medieval church held a lot of views that are no longer mainstream. Again, being a Roman Catholic that's the perspective that I know best, and our belief is that sex itself is not wrong, it can just be used for the wrong purposes. According to our Catechism, sexuality is to be used for procreation and for the consummation of marriage between a man and a woman. For the record, that latter part is where my personal beliefs differ from mainstream Catholicism because I believe that the singular and devoted love between a same-sex couple is just as sacred as that between a man and a woman (and yes, I'm quite prepared to be condemned eternally to hell for my beliefs if it is required). But the virgin birth of Christ (which, by the way, should not be confused with the Immaculate Conception, as it sometimes is; the Immaculate Conception refers to that of Mary, not Christ, and it simply means that she was conceived without sin, though no one with any theological credibility would suggest that she was conceived in a non-sexual way)...sorry let me back up a bit...the virgin birth of Christ is not meant to disparage sexuality; it's just meant to show that Christ is special, Christ is divine, because he was conceived and born of a virgin, which nowadays we can achieve through the miracle of artificial insemination, but at the time would have been impossible except through divine intervention. More on that in a minute.

At this point I would like to briefly address your mention of the birth of Buddha. I know very, very little about Buddhism and even less about the personal history of Buddha (most of what I do know comes from reading Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, which of course is a work of fiction rather than a historical account). However, I believe it's entirely possible that such a story was built up around him after he became a famous and respected philosopher and teacher; we tend to build up legends around those we respect. Perhaps there was a tiny grain of truth to it; perhaps he was a Caesarean birth and people later took this to be significant of the great man he would become, and then built up a story that he was born out of his mother's side to make it even more special. And indeed, I will admit that the same is entirely possible of Christ. After all, we have no definitive scientific evidence that he was conceived asexually and born of a virgin when such a thing would have been impossible. That's why it's called faith. Now, as I said, I don't know about Buddhism, but I know enough about it that I feel pretty secure in saying that the point of Buddhism isn't the fantastic and mystical origins of Buddha (if so they are) but Buddha's teachings and what he had to say about the human condition and the ideal of spiritual enlightenment. And, speaking for myself, I would say the same thing about my Christian faith. Even if they could conclusively prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus Christ was nothing more than a human being (although I fail to see how they could prove such a thing, being as I don't believe divinity would leave DNA evidence) and that his remains are indeed laying in a tomb somewhere instead of being resurrected, I would still be a follower of Jesus. In the first place, as I've already pointed out, the fact of his humanity wouldn't disprove his divinity, since our faith has them existing simultaneously and complementarily, and the disproving of Christ's resurrection wouldn't negate the possibility of eternal life because, again, there's no way to definitively know what happens to the soul, if indeed it exists, after the death of the body. Moreover, the belief in an afterlife in some form of another in every major religion lends the idea some credibility to me. In the second place, I personally believe that the point of Jesus and his sojourn on Earth has less to do with his divinity and his promise of salvation and everlasting life and more to do with his teachings and his ministry and his ideas about how we human beings should treat each other. I think he had some really good ideas about that, and I think Christians and Christianity as a whole sometimes focus overly much on Christ's divinity and his promise of salvation and everlasting life...I don't mean to diminish those things because I believe in them and I think they are important, but I don't think that they should diminish his teachings of how human beings should treat one another. Personally, and this is just me, I think Christ's death was significant less because of him taking on our sins and earning us salvation from hell (not to diminish it, but if we believe in an omnipotent God surely we have to believe that he could have done it without putting on the passion play) but because of his willingness to walk the talk he was talking by giving himself up in self-sacrifice. And those ideas, those good ideas transcend faith, spirituality, metaphysicality, and dogma, and those good ideas would endure even if the metaphysical claims of Christianity could be definitively disproved. Now I know that the inevitable argument is that, if one looks at the atrocities and crimes against humanity that are committed in Jesus' name those ideas don't look so good, but I would counter that if you actually look at the bare-bones teachings of Jesus, outside the context of Christian hegemony, the atrocities and crimes against humanity have very little to do with the teachings of Jesus and those who commit them in his name are painfully, woefully, grievously misguided...and it is so painfully, woefully, grievously unfortunate for the rest of us that these individuals and organizations are the ones who get all the attention and give the rest of us a bad name.

3a. Now your contention that (all) religions have something against menstrual blood...I don't know, and I won't know until I read the book (and I don't intend to so I'll probably never know), if you're being disingenuous or just lazy. For example, did you not research traditional Lakota culture? That might be forgivable except that your argument is that all religion everywhere is bad for everyone and everything; therefore, leaving any religion out can be viewed as nothing less than sloppy scholarship (leaving aside the unscholarly ramifications of such a broad and ill-defined thesis). Or did you just misunderstand their culture and beliefs, thinking that their exclusion of menstruating women from certain religious rites, etc. ought to be construed as a gesture of disrespect? I'm hardly an expert on traditional Lakota beliefs, but I know enough to say definitively that nothing could be farther from the truth. Menstrual blood is much respected and revered in Lakota culture as the only tangible evidence of creation, by which I mean of creative spirits, the spirit world, and humanity's connection to the spirit world; by extension, women as the vessels of creation and children as the new creation are also respected and revered in Lakota culture, because they are considered to be closer to the spirit world. If I understand correctly, children are closely to the spirit world than adults because they came from it the most recently, and women are closer to the spirit world than men because, again, the are the vessels of creation and of that life-giving menstrual blood. I can't say that I'm crazy about the matriarchal and possibly sexist implications of that belief, but I respect their beliefs just as I hope they would respect mine. So having menstruating women leave the home or the larger community during that time of the month should not be construed as shunning them because of their inferiority; rather it should be looked at as a time to rest and rejuvenate oneself; a more fitting analogy would be comparing it to sick leave, vacation time, or a spa weekend (and personally, I think we could do with a little more of that mindset in our wider American culture). And speaking specifically of the Lakota, I mentioned earlier their exclusion of menstruating women from certain religious rites (or, as I understand it, the omission of certain smaller ceremonies from a larger rite) is not and should not be construed as disrespect, but rather as profound respect. Again, this is just my understanding, but those ceremonies and those rites are intended to bring the participants closer to...English really doesn't have a good enough word for it; if I'm using it correctly, the Lakota word is Wakan, which can mean the spirit world and spirits (gods, beings, entities, or what have you), or an abstract concept such as holiness. And since menstruating women are closer to Wakan, there's not so much a point to performing those ceremonies and rites. The way it was explained to me was that it's like shining a flashlight in the noonday sunshine. It's not so much that it's bad, it's just unnecessary. But no matter how you explain it, it's certainly a gesture of profound respect, so your broad contention of religious disregard for menstrual blood is really unsupportable.

I respect your beliefs in the hopes that you would extend the same respect to me and my fellows (though perhaps not so much the violent extremists). I respect your belief that religion is a destructive influence in the world, even though I do not entirely agree with it. I would agree, however, that the expression of some religious beliefs (though, perhaps, not the beliefs themselves) have indeed had a detrimental and even destructive effect on the world and the societies that populate it. Speaking for myself, I believe that there is one single, transcendent, all-encompassing, undeniable truth, but I don't believe any one religion has the exclusive rights to it. In other words, I don't believe that any one religion, even my own, has the one and only truth, that one religion claim to be "right" and anyone who believes differently wrong. On the contrary, I believe that all religions (well...there are a few religions that I don't consider legitimate, although I do try to give them the benefit of the doubt) have a little piece of the puzzle, so that while none are entirely right, neither are any entirely wrong. I belong to a specific church, I profess to a specific faith, but only because it's the philosophy (does philosophy count as religion? is philosophy also destructive?) that makes the most sense to me, that most helps me to understand that transcendent, all-encompassing, yet unknowable truth. I don't claim that my religion and my denomination has all the right answers (on the contrary, I believe it has many answers that are wrong, wrong, wrong), but it has the most answers that are the most right for me. And what's right for me may not be right for everyone, and I'm okay with that.

Now, you may call me disingenuous for challenging your thesis without actually reading the book, and you may call me hypocritical for criticizing your research methods when I clearly did not do much research for my little response here. So be it.
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