What Christopher Hitchens and the New Atheists Can Learn From Malcolm X
As one of the most prominent public voices resisting the culture of Christian and religious dominance Christopher Hitchens earns himself a comparison to the freedom fighter who nearly fifty years ago urged the civil rights movement to "stop singing and start swinging." Responding to a culture of white supremacy, the vicious legacy of colonialism and the hypocrisy of American democracy Malcolm X became one of the strongest voices for black resistance and identity. For much of his life, before his break with the Nation of Islam and his shift toward racial inclusiveness he framed the race problem in an absolutist manner claiming that all white people are devils. He believed that white people could never do any good. Malcolm X publicly made his case by deconstructing the white mindset, analyzing the white power structure and describing the vicious history that has accompanied the Euro-American legacy. It was this fierce resistance against assimilation into white culture that set him apart from the strategy of integration pursued by Dr. King and many others. Despite their shift towards each other's positions near the end of their lives it is still accurate to describe them as James Cone did: Malcolm X saw America as a nightmare while Dr. King saw it as a dream.
Christopher Hitchens is perhaps the most well known voice amongst the new atheists; Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet. With books like "The God Delusion," "The End of Faith," and "God is Not Great" and with bold personalities they have a reputation for being fierce critics of all things religious. For them religion is most certainly a nightmare.
But even amongst a group of vigilant, passionate and hardcore atheists, Hitchens stands out. Perhaps this is because of his prolific career as a journalist, author and popular media commentator on a variety of subjects. But he is also known for being a contrarian; taking unpopular positions and defending them against anyone who will put up a fight. And he claims he has never refused to debate anyone. His "God is Not Great" book tour presented the opportunity for numerous media appearances, lectures and debates with religious defenders. He even ventured into the Christian Book Expo and debated four well-known evangelical and conservative Christian apologists at the same time. Like X, Hitchens systematically deconstructs the logic of that which he is resisting by pointing out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies within many religious institutions and their texts. He also does a brilliant job of describing the inevitable and disturbing conclusions that must be reached if many of the religious doctrines are taken to be as literally true.
Both men are also known for their fiery rhetoric. Malcolm's most infamous public statement came when he said "Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they've always made me glad," in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Just two days after the death of Ronald Reagan Hitchens called him a "cruel and stupid lizard." He refers to Mother Theresa as "The Ghoul of Calcutta," and wishes "there was a hell for the bitch to go to." And in reference to her beatification he said, "The old bitch got it anyway." Al Sharpton is a "vulgar clown," and Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright is a "racist thug." These sorts of remarks and both of their tendencies toward absolutism appeal to the emotional, knee jerk instincts within many of us.
Towards the end of his life Malcolm X parted ways from Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, abandoning his separatism for a more complex, reasoned understanding of race. After visiting Mecca and worshiping with people from many different ethnic and racial backgrounds who practiced the Muslim faith he said he had met "blonde-haired, blued-eyed men I could call my brothers." In his 1965 speech in Rochester, NY entitled Not just an American Problem but a World Problem Malcolm demonstrated his more complex understanding of the race issue:
"We don't judge a man because of the color of his skin. We don't judge you because you're white; we don't judge you because you're black; we don't judge you because you're brown. We judge you because of what you do and what you practice...So we're not against people because they are white. But we're against those who practice racism. We're against those who drop bombs on people because their color happens to be of a different shade than yours."
Christopher Hitchens and the new atheists have framed religion with a very similar type of absolutist language that Malcolm X began with. However, I believe they can make a similar ideological evolution. Just as X claimed all white people were devils Hitchens claims that religion poisons everything. And just as X met blond haired, blue eyed men who he could call his brothers, Hitchens had his moment of revelation as well.
Christopher Hitchens's Mecca Moment
Despite his fiery anti-religious rhetoric and fundamentalist attitude Christopher Hitchens does understand that religion is capable of being a force for good in the world. Just as Malcolm X's Mecca experience transformed his view on race relations Hitchens had an interaction with a religious person that was powerful enough to transform his one-dimensional view of religion (even if it was for a brief moment). He writes in God is Not Great that a Muslim cab driver went to great lengths to return a large sum of money that his wife had left in his cab. The cab driver told him that it was his religious duty to return the money and refused the reward that Hitchens had offered. In response to the Muslim cab driver's act of selfless service Hitchens states, "And if all Muslims conducted themselves like the man who gave up more than a week's salary in order to do the right thing, I could be quite indifferent to the weird exhortations of the Koran," (p. 188). This is a remarkable confession for someone who has waged such a vigilant battle against all things religious. He is stating that if religion were to simply produce compassionate acts like the cab driver's then he wouldn't have a problem with religion at large or the various doctrines despite their basis in the irrational, supernatural and mythical. In effect Hitchens is stating that he doesn't have a problem with "good" religion despite "strange" theology. I wonder if his friend and fellow new atheist Richard Dawkins will criticize Hitchens for supporting moderate religion. Dawkins did say afterall, "The teachings of "moderate" religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism." If Hitchens is indeed in favor of "good" religion then he needs to explain why he can simultaneously believe religion (good and bad) poisons everything. What constitutes good religion?
When faced with overwhelming evidence of the positive impact of religion Hitchens freezes up. One of the less known and perhaps least contentious debates that Hitchens engaged in was with Marvin Olasky. Despite its lack of fireworks common in many of his other debates this one was the most interesting that I have come across. Olasky's strategy was simple. He spent most of his time naming very specific and tangible examples of how religion has impacted the lives of people in positive ways. I had never seen Hitchens receive this challenge in such a thorough way. But I wasn't surprised by his response. He completely punted and rather than acknowledging that yes religion is good he starting rambling about some awful religious movement.
Hitchens has made statements that suggest he doesn't really care about what people believe as long as they keep it to themselves. In a talk at Starlight books in 2007 he said, "You can believe it if you like, but it's optional. You can see it everyday in Dupont circle; people who want you to be spiritual. Well, I don't mind. I do not mind, just leave me out of it and babble all you like, it's fine by me. Whatever floats your boat." At Politics and Prose bookstore Hitchens said "Spinoza was not a deist he was a pantheist. What he said was God is everything and everywhere. I don't mind people saying this. I don't mind people saying that at all."
However, Hitchens contradicts both himself and the work of the new atheists with such a tolerant, inclusive or indifferent attitude towards the cab driver's Muslim faith and religious beliefs that he finds less offensive. His book and writings are a no-holds barred assault on all forms of religion. "Religion kills," and it is a "menace to society," which has "run out of justifications." "We need to know the enemy" he states. In his talk at the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2007 he suggested that we need to relentlessly bomb Muslims because for every Muslim killed it means one less to fight. And teaching young people irrational and superstitious religious beliefs is the equivalent to "child abuse." He asks, "How can we ever know how many children had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by the compulsory inculcation of faith?" In an interview with Atlantic Magazine he references Albert Camus book La Peste to make a point about his beliefs on religion, "But he ends by saying that underneath the city, in the pipes and in the sewers, the rats were still there. And they'd one day send their vermin up again to die on the streets of a free city. That's how I feel about religion." And NPR quoted Hitchens as having said at the University of Toronto, "I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right." Is he talking about the religion of the cab driver who did the selfless act of service? Or the religion of all of those other Muslims whom he hasn't shared a moment of humanity with? Perhaps Hitchens can go to a Native American reservation and start ridiculing their beliefs. I wonder if Hitchens would want to ridicule the Muslim faith of the cab driver in his presence. Just like the Christians who believe the unsaved are going to hell, but seem unable to proclaim this in the face of a 7-year old dying Jewish girl, I doubt Hitchens wants to heckle the cab driver's faith in person.
I am in agreement with Hitchens on this point. I would have less problem with religion if everyone acted like the Muslim cab driver did. The point here is that Hitchens should judge religious people based on their actions. Again, as Malcolm stated, "We judge you because of what you do and what you practice...So we're not against people because they are white."
New Atheism's Achilles Heel
The weakest area of Christopher Hitchens' and the new atheists' arguments about religion is their inability to adhere to any consistent sociological or scholarly definition of the term. I've never heard Dawkins, Harris, Dennet or any other new atheist accurately define religion. And despite having written a book about religion, participated in numerous debates on the matter and given several interviews Christopher Hitchens has never provided a consistent definition of religion. It is an oversight that would penalize any college freshman in a religion 101 course, but for Hitchens the consequences affect his entire project. The result is an intellectual carelessness that demonstrates just how misinformed his understanding of religion is. This of course was the same mistake Malcolm X made in regards to whiteness. While his understanding of white skinned people was in many ways true it left out the complexity of white people across the globe. Let's look at how Hitchens defines religion. He speaks of it as a single personified, anthropomorphic thing with an identity and will.
Violent, intolerant, irrational, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive towards children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience...Both in theory and practice, religion uses the innocent and the defenseless for the purposes of experiment...Religion has never ceased to proclaim the Apocalypse and day of judgment...There are indeed several ways in which religion is not just amoral but immoral...Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and microscope, it no longer offers anything important...All religions have a tendency to feature some dietary injunction or prohibition...Since religion has proved itself uniquely delinquent...The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile...Religion kills...Religion poisons everything. As well as a menace to civilization, it has become a threat to human survival... [Religion] must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one...It does not have the confidence in its own various preachings even to allow coexistence between different faiths...Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago.
The irony here is glaring. After spending years chastising "believers" for the "impossible task of interpreting the will of a person unknown" Hitchens has personified the abstract and unseen socio-cultural concept of religion, given it an essence, reduced it to a monolith and claims to have discovered its will. It wants power, hates certain foods, is delinquent, likes to interfere in people's lives, dislikes women, corrupts children, lacks confidence in its own preaching abilities and is ignorant. These traits sound more like a description of a distant in-law than any definition of religion. According to Hitchens religion is an entity which has the metaphysical power to carry out acts of sinister destruction, perversion and corruption. After all, religion can kill and it is a menace to society he claims. Hitchens has made the equivalent of an ever present and personified cosmic devil out of religion by projecting all of those diabolical elements onto religion and then suggesting that it has a will of its own. The only thing he left out was the red cape and horns. This is quite a surprising a feat for such an ardent atheist. But his careless use of the term serves his purpose of caricature and attack well as he has reduced religion to its most distasteful expressions.
A second and perhaps more intellectually careless claim by Hitchens is his statement during a debate with Lorenzo Albacete that "to be religious is to be a theist." And in the intro to The Portable Atheist he states, "The religious person must go further and say that this creative force is also an intervening one: one that cares for our human affairs and is interested in what we eat and with whom we have sexual relations, as well as in the outcomes of battles and wars." Thus, by theist Hitchens means someone who believes in a personal, transcendent and omnipotent God. Another and simpler way to put it is that a theist believes in a God who involves "himself" in human affairs. Hitchens states, "Religion is saying that you know the mind of God and you want to obey His revealed commandments, on pain of losing your soul, at least." This is a superficial understanding of religion which probably finds some resonance in pop-culture. However, Hitchens would again be penalized in a freshman level religion 101 college course for his incorrect use of the term. I just picked up a used copy of a World's Religions textbook at the thrift store for one dollar. To Hitchens's chagrin it contains chapters on Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism, Buddhism and other non-theistic religions. Religious scholars, professors and anyone interested in the study of the world's religions knows that religion is an incredibly diverse category which includes theists, deists, pantheists, agnostics, atheists and everything in between. And of course there are liberal and fundamentalist interpretations as well. But perhaps Hitchens recognizes this diversity to some degree. He includes an entire chapter called "There is No Eastern Solution" in his book about religion. While this is accurate-eastern religions deserve mention in a book about religion too-it contradicts his statement above. Why include them in such a book if religion is defined by theism? Hitchens' confusion and ambiguity regarding the definition of religion are further evidence for his misinformed understanding of the subject.
Hitchens further complicates the issue when he tries to lump Hitler, Stalin and the Emperor of Japan during WWII under the category of religion. Hitler for the widespread Catholic support of the Nazi movement, Stalin because the Russians had been told for hundreds of years that the head of state was divine and the Japanese emperor because he was believed to be a God by the citizens of his country. But none of these examples meet Hitchens own definition that "to be religious is to be a theist." Is Hitchens saying that people believed that Hitler, Stalin and the Japanese Emperor were personal, omnipotent and transcendent Gods that could intervene in human affairs however they choose? If not then how do they meet his definition of being religious? In his interview with Al Kresta Hitchens makes some wildly erroneous claims that Stalin was not secular, but rather religious. Kresta corrects him. Hitchens said the Russian Orthodox Church is producing and selling new icons which show Joseph Stalin with a halo around his head and that Stalinism is a recognized religion by the Orthodox Church. It turns out that one dissident and provocative Orthodox priest put up an icon of a blessed Russian saint standing next to Stalin (with no halo). As a result he was severely reprimanded by the Orthodox Church, and transferred, and the icon was taking down. This story was then spread around by two small groups. Hitchens directs Kresta to a story in the Weekly Standard but it says, "On the fringes of Stalin worship a small bizarre cult regards the communist dictator as a closet Christian and even advocates his canonization." The Russian Orthodox Church is not behind the selling or promotion of icons of Stalin.
Any sociological or scholarly definition of religion immediately questions the entire foundation of Hitchens' project and the philosophical grounding of the new atheism. Without the ability to waffle back and forth as to the meaning of religion his job of setting up and knocking down straw men would be much more difficult. Likewise Malcolm X would have lost his absolutist appeal if he had embraced a more nuanced approach to whiteness.
The word religion stems from the Latin "religio," meaning to bind. And it connotes nothing more than a socio-cultural phenomenon of meaning making which includes values, beliefs, rituals, traditions, morals, ethics and is often accompanied by texts. Emile Durkheim the prominent sociologist defined religion as "A unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things...beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, all those who follow them." There are numerous definitions of the term but they are all general sociological understandings that do not fit the reductionary methods of Hitchens or the new athiests. Thus the Achilles heel of the new atheists is the inability to adhere to any sociologically accepted definition of religion and their persistent efforts to shift the meaning to suit their rhetorical strategies.
Because of Stalin and Hitler we do not conclude "government has run out of justifications." Nor do we say that "science poisons everything" because of eugenics or the invention of Napalm. And as Malcolm X eventually concluded we don't say that whiteness determines racism simply because many white people participated in genocide, slavery and segregation. Thus, we do not conclude that religion poisons everything because of the Catholic Church abuse scandal, religious doctrines or Islamic terrorism. Certainly some members of particular governments are guilty of war crimes, some religious leaders and movements are guilty of horrific acts and many white people are guilty of racism and genocide. And there are of course harmful things legislated by governments, there are toxic religious values and ideas embedded within secular culture and widespread racism found within institutions. But still we do not conclude that government, religion, science or whiteness poisons everything even though there are radical anarchists, anti-religious fundamentalist atheists, fundamentalist Christians and black nationalists, respectively, who make such claims. If Hitchens were to apply his logic consistently he would have to side with those radical anarchists who really do believe that government poisons everything.
I'm not trying to make a substantive or nuanced comparison of Christopher Hitchens and Malcolm X. Rather I am interested in merely juxtaposing two men who have approached an important social issue in similar ways. By placing side by side X's idea that all white people are devils and Hitchens's that religion poisons everything I hope to illustrate the shared strain of fundamentalism and irrational thinking among them. And I hope Hitchens and the new atheists can learn something from Malcolm X's move toward racial inclusiveness. The resisting of injustice, bigotry and fundamentalism is a much better criteria for choosing potential allies than a simplistic one based race or religious affiliation. And the humanness that Hitchens discovered in the Muslim cab driver complexifies the either/or dichotomy that the new atheists use to attack religion. This shared moment of humanity is a great starting point to begin a dialog between atheists and the religious. The question for Hitchens and the new atheists then becomes, is religion only a nightmare or can it become a dream?
This first appeared on Common Sense Religion