The Chronicle Review

Secularism in the Elimination Round

June 01, 2007

Christopher Hitchens closes his subtly titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything with the following directive: "It has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it." The enemy in question would be religion. All religion, all manifestations of religion — Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and all their sundry denominations, too. It's all bad! And unless Hitchens's grand strategy is to taunt religion so mercilessly that it packs its bags and storms, red faced, out of the cosmos, his book provides little of use for the coming struggle.

That is unfortunate because Hitchens brings to the table skills rarely found among the current crop of best-selling village atheists. He is not an academic sequestered in some God-forsaken college town, but a well-traveled journalist. He is not a philosopher or ethicist making windy proclamations about "the good," but a Washington insider.

To wit, he has certainly glimpsed enough global and Beltway carnage in his day to offer his co-antireligionists sound advice on how things really work in the caves and corridors of power. Wise political counsel, as we shall see, is what secularists need more than anything. Were Hitchens to weigh in about Bible-literacy programs in public schools or federal support of faith-based organizations, his input could be valuable.

And entertaining. A contributing editor to Vanity Fair, he not only appreciates the literary arts but is himself a capable prose stylist. Compared with a magazine like Free Inquiry, the flagship journal of American secularism, which makes its contributors, no matter how learned and lettered, pitch their ideas at a ninth-grade reading level, Hitchens's crisp writing and rapacious musings are a delight. Appropriately awed by literature and the value of humanistic inquiry, he does not overindulge in that most titillating of atheist fantasies: that science and rationality can provide all the answers to all our problems.

Yet Hitchens is unable to capitalize on his assets and advantages. In lieu of reasoned discussion, he luxuriates in crude polemic. A catalog of religious grotesquerie constitutes no small percentage of God Is Not Great. Yes, jokes about pedophilic priests are on tap. Yes, scads of massacres committed in the name of assorted deities are discussed. And he would be remiss if he neglected to dwell on Orthodox Jewish mohels (mohels are trained in the prayers and surgery of ritual circumcision) who apply their mouths to the members of newly initiated infants and infect them with herpes.

Crude polemic, I would be the first to admit, has its charms. But if Hitchens truly believes his warning that "as I write these words ... people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction," then sobriety and informed discussion would seem more suitable. God Is Not Great fails in precisely the same way that a spate of recent, ear-piercing works written by militant nonbelievers fails. The author so simplifies and underestimates his "adversary" as to obviate useful analysis. His misconceptions about religion, however, do reveal some of the questionable assumptions that secular elites make about their fellow citizens. With American secularism about to enter one of the most challenging periods in its short history, those assumptions will need to be re-examined.

God Is Not Great is a somewhat disheveled work. Systematic exposition of its basic premises occurs infrequently. If a definition of religion had to be extrapolated from its pages, it would be a thing that "must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers"; poisons "our faculties of discernment"; multiplies "tribal suspicion and hatred"; distorts "our whole perception of the world"; is "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children"; and "teaches people to think abjectly of themselves." Just in case readers did not get the point, we are later reminded that religion is "the accomplice of ignorance and guilt as well as of slavery, genocide, racism, and tyranny."

Hitchens's conception of his subject matter — could I possibly belabor the obvious more? — is essentialist in the extreme. Religion is construed as a thing, and a really odious thing at that. Now, I would never deny that the indictments cited in the previous paragraph apply to many religious groups, past and present (and future, undoubtedly). But the claim that the telos of all forms of belief is intolerance, tyranny, violence, what have you, strikes this nonbeliever as absurd. It is rivaled in absurdity by the insistence of apologists that faith (usually their particular faith) is an unmitigated good destined to redeem the species.

A type of moral equivalence, or more accurately immoral equivalence, pervades God Is Not Great: All religions are seen as equally depraved. I am at a loss to explain why Hitchens, who must be able to tell the difference between, let's say, liberal Catholics' running of soup kitchens in Greenwich Village and the Taliban's beheading translators in Afghanistan, cannot find a way to incorporate such distinctions in his analysis. Moderate forms of religion seem to be an irrelevant exception to the rule, not worthy of his scrutiny. For Hitchens, as for many contemporary nonbelievers, religion not only poisons everything, but everything religious is poisoned.

The lack of nuance in Hitchens's thinking could be explained in terms of a deficit of knowledge or a surplus of ideological fervor or, most likely, both. As for the former, Hitchens's tendency to focus on sacred scriptures while virtually ignoring the interpretations of those scriptures mars his analysis considerably. Three chapters of God Is Not Great are devoted to the Old Testament, New Testament, and Koran. Each section rehearses a handful of well-known arguments concerning the dubious authenticity of those scriptures. The author is quick to draw our attention to the nasty bits — the many verses in the texts that appall modern sensibilities. Those "original precepts," he claims, have cast subsequent religious development in a "positively immoral" direction.

Scholars who teach about religions of the book spend entire semesters trying to get undergraduates to realize that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam cannot be reduced to their scriptures. Put differently, familiarity with the "original precepts" does not assure that one will understand a given religion across its entire subsequent civilizational run. Interpretation, not foundational scripture, is the whirling armature of religious life. An inability to come to grips with hermeneutics has prohibited today's popular atheist critics from understanding at least three crucial components of religions: why they stay the same, why they change, and why they display radical internal diversity.

Throughout history, authoritative interpreters have done great violence to the "original precepts" found in their beloved foundational texts. They tend to tweak, modify, radically alter, or completely ignore them. (That they tend to see themselves as obedient and faithful servants of the text, while remaining oblivious to the aggression inherent to their exegesis, makes for an exquisite study in depth psychology.)

In so doing, they set their religions off on completely different trajectories, only to have some subsequent generation of interpreters hurl it off into another. Hitchens confuses the fact that a religion has produced interpretations about proper belief and behavior which he does not like with the certainty that it can produce only such interpretations. But religion is neither poison nor panacea. Better to see it as a potentiality. The forms a given religion can take are as numerous as the words in the Babylonian Talmud or Muslim hadith literature.

In his ninth chapter, Hitchens makes passing mention of the importance of stimulating an Islamic reformation. Hitchens's view of religion's potential is so overdetermined that he dispenses with the question in a few paragraphs. But the issue is of great importance and is taken seriously by figures ranging from liberalizing Muslim intellectuals to officials at the U.S. State Department. If such a reformation is to come, one precondition will be the ability of Muslim interpreters around the world to interpret their sacred scriptures as they see fit, and to publicize their findings without fear that they will be thrown into dungeons (or worse) for their labors. There is no need to be naïve about this. Every possibility exists that the opening up of safe and sundry interpretive spaces for Muslim exegetes might catapult various Islamic societies even further from ideals valued by liberal Western democracies.

Conversely, one could argue that hermeneutic freedom and expansion can have unforeseen and positive effects. Consider the case of the inimitable Jewish heretic (and then apostate) Sabbatai Zevi, who proclaimed himself Messiah in 1665. While Hitchens's bemused treatment of Zevi calls attention to the essential imbecility of messianism, it somehow neglects to mention the single most famous interpretation of his doomed eschatological endeavor: Gershom Scholem's contention that Zevi's 17th-century encounter with the mystical Lurianic kabbalah pried open a space of inquiry and contestation that eventually spawned the rise of a robust Jewish rationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Neither panacea nor poison. Religion is a potentiality.

In most circumstances, the expansion of interpretive markets that I am endorsing serves the interests of secularists. Tactically speaking, the more religious diversity (hence the more religious dissent) there is within a society, the better it is for the nonreligious. To the Machiavellian secularist, I say, Loosen the hermeneutical spigots!

Loosening the hermeneutical spigots is clearly not on Hitchens's agenda. It is hard to grasp what he envisions as the proper place and function of religion in a democratic polity. At points he seems to argue that as long as religious groups refrain from trying to compel others to share their views, then they have a rightful place in society. Fair enough. Yet given the depth of Hitchens's suspicion, if not untrammeled abhorrence, of religion, I can't help but detect a whiff of the old Marxist sulfur in the air.

Let us consider his remarkable 17th chapter, titled "An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch 'Case' Against Secularism." Polling his secular and atheist friends, he learns that in their debates with believers, the latter tend to use Hitler and Stalin as devastatingly effective rhetorical trump cards. "Is it not true," asks Hitchens, playing devil's advocate, "that secular and atheist regimes have committed crimes and massacres that are, in the scale of things, at least as bad if not worse" than those committed by religious ones?

Ever eager to lend a helping hand, Hitchens sets out to tackle this conundrum. He tries to prove — why he would take this on is beyond my powers of comprehension — that the crimes against humanity committed by nonreligious regimes say nothing about the proclivities of nonbelievers in general. While he's juggling that bowling ball, he must also keep aloft his extremist position that religion is the fount of all evil.

As best as I can follow it, his argument seems to be that nonreligious totalitarian regimes, unbeknownst to themselves, were simply replicating the logic of previous religious ones. According to God Is Not Great, the common features of totalitarian rule — an absolutist state, the notion of perfecting the species, the desire to subject others and to be subjected — are religious ideas. From there, Hitchens careers inexplicably to a discussion of Protestant and Catholic churches that supported the Third Reich. That is all well known. But how does religious support for a quasi-pagan dictatorship in any way undermine the claim that nonreligious forms of tyranny can be just as bad as, if not worse than, theistic forms?

Turning to the communist theater, Hitchens keeps trying to demonstrate that the death camps and gulags do not point to certain genetic traits of nonbelief. "Communist absolutists," he avers, "did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it." He views crimes against humanity perpetuated by nonbelievers as evidence that "the religious impulse ... can take even more monstrous forms if it is repressed."

The implications are staggering. It would mean that no less a historical agent than Joseph Stalin was just an unwitting dupe of faith-based worldviews. It would elevate religion to something like what Judaism is in the mind of anti-Semites: an all-pervading evil trawling the cosmos bent on malice, pulling all the diabolical strings, responsible for every imaginable calamity, behind the machinations of all enemies no matter how mutually antagonistic they might be. Religion really does poison everything!

Hitchens ends this extraordinary chapter by noting that the "chimera of secular dictatorship" must be avoided, in favor of what he calls the defense of secular pluralism: "the right not to believe or be compelled to believe." But if religion is as poisonous as Hitchens alleges, then what place is there for it in a tolerant, pluralistic society? Having forgotten Marx's call for the abolition of religion in "On the Jewish Question," Hitchens declares, "There is nothing in modern secular argument that even hints at any ban on religious observance." Yet if we were to accept all of Hitchens's assertions about religion's toxicity, then why wouldn't we be morally obliged to ban religious observance, if not religion altogether?

Hitchens's book engages many subjects but says little about contemporary American politics. In light of its author's D.C. address, his premonitions of impending doom, and his lack of reluctance to comment on current events, that is a curious omission. Stateside, at least, I don't think that people of faith are planning the destruction of secularists. It might be more accurate to observe that various religious groups have organized themselves — with astonishing efficiency — to advance a political and legislative agenda that is anathema to many nonbelievers and church-state purists.

Secularists in the United States, unlike those in some quarters of the Islamic world, are not faced with annihilation. Political obsolescence is a more apt description. The closer we get to the Iowa caucus, the more their clout diminishes. I can think of half a dozen presidential hopefuls who are reaching out to evangelical voters in particular and religious ones in general. I have a hard time, however, naming a major presumptive candidate who is aggressively courting the atheist and agnostic vote. Nor do the front-runners appear intent on shoring up support among the ACLU contingent.

In light of their recent electoral triumphs, and popularity among white evangelicals, it is not surprising that Republicans have little interest in secularists. That the Democrats seem to be giving them the cold shoulder as well may be one of the most intriguing developments of 2008. The party of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis and John Kerry has clearly done the electoral math. The results indicate that candidates who seem suspect in the "faith and values" department have great difficulty attaining high office.

Puzzling campaign tactics are no help, either. In an informative recent study, The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War (St. Martin's Press, 2007), the journalist Dan Gilgoff uncovers a most interesting statistic. While the 2004 Bush team conscripted "three hundred thousand conservative religious volunteers by Election Day," the Democrats "had a national volunteer list of seven hundred." That would be just one of the missteps committed by a Kerry campaign that wrote an instructional manual on how to alienate religious voters.

The Democrats, one would imagine, are learning from their mistakes. It therefore makes perfect political sense that Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean — dubbed by The New Republic "one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history" — appeared on Pat Robertson's 700 Club last year. Hillary Clinton's somewhat unexpected remark that abortion "represents a sad, even tragic choice" is a clever rhetorical gesture. The establishment of the Democratic Faith Working Group, originally headed by Nancy Pelosi, is yet another understandable attempt to burnish the party's image among the faithful.

I am not yet predicting a purge of secularists at the 2008 Democratic National Convention reminiscent of the post-1972 expulsion of McGovernites. Rather, it strikes me that higher-ups may have identified nonbelievers and those who advocate rigid separation of church and state as a potential liability. The party, whether rightly or wrongly, is widely perceived as a bastion of godlessness. But since the godless make up a scant, and atomized, 10 percent of the American populace, it may be necessary in the coming election season to either move them backstage or give them the old heave-ho.

The Democrats in all likelihood will adopt a more nuanced tack with a larger secular constituency within the party: believers, non-Christian and Christian alike, who advocate rigid church-state separation. A platform of "God? Yes! Theocracy? No!," or some such thing, might provide the best way of holding on to them. It would have the added advantage of not alienating undecided religious voters who previously voted Republican.

Loud, brash, in-your-praying-face atheists have always grabbed the spotlight in American secularism. Religious secularists committed to maintaining the wall of separation have quietly come along for the ride. The result is that the movement tends to look far more extreme than it actually is. There are, I surmise, nonbelievers out there who hold positions far less unrelenting than Hitchens's. There also exists a significant bloc of voters that I have elsewhere referred to as the "secularly religious." They are at peace with modernity, repelled by religious fanaticism, beholden to an ethic of tolerance, and more than willing to privatize their faith commitments. And they are shunned, and mocked, by Hitchens and other celebrities of nonbelief.

Secularism as a political movement will fade to obscurity if it clings to the facile mantra that religion poisons everything. It will need to learn how to draw distinctions between religious extremists and moderates. Coalition building is an absolute necessity, and secularists could learn something from a far more mature and wily evangelical movement, which often speaks of "co-belligerency" — making common cause on certain issues with groups that you might otherwise disagree with. Of course, making common cause in politics often consists of masking one's contempt for those who are potential allies. A cultural rebirth of secularism, what Hitchens calls "a New Enlightenment," will occur only when secularists themselves learn how to think about religion in a critical, albeit reasoned, manner.

Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor and director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is author of The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (Cambridge University Press, 2005). His forthcoming book, tentatively titled "Thumpin' It: The Bible and the White House in 2008" (Westminster John Knox Press), is scheduled to be released in January. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 53, Issue 39, Page B6