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Is Christopher Hitchens a Religious Apologist?

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Crossposted on  Tikkun Dailyby Be ScofieldThe popular atheist writer/blogger Greta Christina calls one of Hitchens' ideas about religion a "terrible argument."

You know that Christopher Hitchens is not a fan of religion. If you had any doubt you can read his best-selling book  God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, watch him debate leading Christian and religious theologians (on one  occasion four of them at a time) or read any of the numerous articles he's written on the subject. Yet, despite his public outcry and comparison of religion to child abuse and labeling it a "menace to society" readers may be surprised to discover that he is actually indifferent to religion as long as it produces good behavior. Shocking I know. Furthermore he's admitted that he's not arguing "religion should or ever would die out in the world."

InGod is Not Great Hitchens describes a story of how a Muslim cab driver went to great lengths to return a large sum of money that his wife had left in his cab. When the the cab driver told him that it was his religious duty to return the money and refused a generous reward that Hitchens had offered it seems to have sparked a unique moment of shared humanity for Hitchens with a religious person. In response to the Muslim cab driver's act of selfless service Hitchens makes a shocking admission, "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). Hitchens is essentially saying that as long as religion produces good behavior the strange and peculiar commandments, beliefs and ideas are not a problem. He could have said as he has said elsewhere that religion is not needed to do good or to know right from wrong. Or he could have acted on his statement, "I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right." But he didn't. There was no ridicule for the cab driver. Instead, like many of us progressive religious people Hitchens demonstrated tolerance and a level of respect to this religious person and his beliefs.

The irony here is that when religious people make the same arguments as Hitchens they are attacked as religious apologists and face scorn from many in the atheist community. Why the double standard?

Being surprised by Hitchens' response I asked the popular Alternet.org atheist writer and blogger  Gretta Christina to comment on his line of thinking that if religion produced good behavior it's ok to be indifferent to the "weird exhortations of the Koran" (without telling her it was Hitchens who actually said it). She stated,

It's a terrible argument. People do act on their beliefs -- and when those beliefs are mistaken, the actions are more likely to be problematic. Garbage in, garbage out.

What's more, the very idea that it makes sense to believe things we have no good reason to think are true, in itself, does harm. It leads people to rely on wishful thinking in other areas of their lives - not just religion. And the more moderate and tolerant versions of faith lend credibility to the more extremist and intolerant versions.

Having watched just about every debate with Hitchens and written extensively about him and the new atheists (see the bottom of  this article for links to my work on the subject) I would have initially suspected his thinking would be more along the lines of Christina's. For certain, Hitchens has advanced many of her same arguments as he's called the teachings of religion child abuse and has compared even the liberal and humanistic tradition of Unitarianism to rats and vermin. But, the more I listened to him, the more confused I became about what he actually believed about religion.

Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair debated in Toronto in November of 2010.

In his  debate with Tony Blair, Hitchens answers the question of what it would take to make a good religion. He states, "It would have to give up all supernatural claims, it would say no you are not to do this under the threat of reward (heaven) or the terror of punishment (hell), no we can't offer you miracles. Find me the Church that will say forget all that. Faith healing? No." First, there are many religions and variations of them that already meet this claim such as Buddhism, Taoism, Unitarian Universalism, and progressive Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions just to name a few. All along Hitchens has incorrectly claimed that "to be religious is to be theist" i.e. to believe in a supernatural god. Not knowing that there are already religions that aren't based on supernatural claims proves that Hitchens has a very limited understanding of the religious landscape or intentionally lies about his knowledge of it. Second, this is a  different requirement than he stated in reference to the Muslim cab driver. In that case all that was required was good behavior. All of the "weird exhortations" i.e. threat of hell, supernatural claims or miracles in the Koran he could be indifferent too so long as people were nice and generous. In the same debate with Blair he stated yet another requirement for religion being acceptable. He said, "As long as you don't want your religion taught to my children in school, given a government subsidy, imposed on me by violence you are fine by me." Does this mean he's ok with a "celestial dictator" (the term he uses for a supernatural god) as long people keep it to themselves? Granted, Hitchens may have different distinctions for what qualifies as a good religion as opposed to one that it is ok to be indifferent to. This deserves further explanation on his part. But, Hitchens gives at least three different reasons for religion getting a pass.

It's fine if Hitchens wants to provide excuses for religion but he shouldn't hide from the fact that he is doing so. The major thrust of his work has been to attack all things religion. Only on occasion does he slip in a statement that seems to suggest he's less of a fundamentalist than he appears. These usually come out when he's up against a liberal defender of religion like Tony Blair or Chris Hedges. But the remarks generally go unnoticed or are ignored because he's never made them a recognizable element of his work. If he had, he simply couldn't have written in the same either/or tone that he has. He'd be forced to confront the reality of what a more nuanced position towards religion would mean.

Hitchens is most likely well aware of the liberal and progressive expressions of religion that already meet his criteria for a "good" religion but he consistently chooses to ignore them and lump them together with the most dogmatic. It serves his purpose well. He also knows that religion inspires millions of people to do good and charitable acts like the Muslim cab driver who returned the money. Yet there is a lack of acknowledgment on Hitchens' part of the already existing religious expressions that meet his criteria. And furthermore there is virtually no recognition by Hitchens or any new atheist of the long lineage of progressive religious reformers and theologians who have done  way more than any atheist to make religion less dogmatic, less reliant upon supernatural claims and more inclusive and tolerant. Why not mention their contributions? Hitchens after all  claims to be a "protestant atheist" as he recognizes the benefit of this historical reform movement. Or why not mention the current religious traditions that meet his criteria for being good or in the least worthy of being indifferent to?

I'd like to hear from Hitchens himself on which of the three excuses he's made for religion is the one he subscribes to. Or perhaps it is a unique combination of them? Apparently, unlike other anti-religious atheists Hitchens doesn't think religion per se is a danger despite his often contradictory remarks. Otherwise how could he give excuses for it? If he thought it was inherently bad he also wouldn't be able to claim as he did in his debate with Blair that, "No one was arguing that religion should or would die out of the world. I'll I'm arguing is that it would be better if there was a great deal more of an outbreak of secularism. We need a great deal less of one and a great deal more of the second." If religion were truly dangerous why wouldn't Hitchens want it to die out? What we need more of is not secularism but rather people who are generous, kind and compassionate like the Muslim cab driver regardless of their religious affiliation.
Religion isn't going anywhere anytime soon so it makes sense for Hitchens and other new atheists to acknowledge and support those progressive religious strains which challenge the dogmatic, fundamentalist and bigoted dimensions of their traditions. If you're worried that this type of support for liberal or moderate religion may justify the extremes have no fear because the idea is  simply fiction.As a prominent leader amongst atheists Christopher Hitchens has a responsibility and unique opportunity to clarify his stance on religion, especially if he's willing to admit he's ok with certain expressions of religion. Doing so could help us get beyond the false good/evil binary that defines so much of current thinking on the subject and lead to genuine dialogue between atheists new and old and the religious. Be Scofield is a writer, founder of  www.godblessthewholeworld.org and a Dr. King scholar. He writes and blogs for TikkunMagazine and his work has appeared on Alternet.org and Integral World among others. Be is pursuing a Master's of Divinity in the Unitarian Universalist tradition with a dual certificate in women studies in religion and sacred dance with a concentration in Buddhism.For more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Daily’s  email digest or  visit us online. You can also like Tikkun on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

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