Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Opp on Hitch

My brief and infrequent visits to The Huffington Post have never impressed me much. It seems like a place where unqualified C-list celebrities and minor political figures write humorless, often mindless rants that have been ranted many times before. (Jane Smiley is particularly good at this. But I cut her a lot of slack because she's a horse racing fan; not to mention a more graceful writer in other realms.)

But via Andrew Sullivan, I read this review by Mark Oppenheimer of Christopher Hitchens' new book, God Is Not Great, and it offers some food for thought (the review, not the book; the book might, too, but I haven't read it).

Oppenheimer writes:
...I especially admire Hitchens for The Missionary Position, his brave 1995 book explicating Mother Teresa's hypocrisy, sadism, and opportunistic alliances with bloody dictators. I am a fan of The Missionary Position because I believe that religion needs to be held up to frequent ridicule, even parody. It needs to be exposed to the light of reason, where it will sometimes wither, even die. As a man who loves religion and attends Jewish religious services, I fervently believe that we have too few Menckens, too few Tom Paines, too few Hitchenses.
Someone who expresses religious sympathies and still believes we have too few Menckens is OK with me. Of course, I don't necessarily agree -- Hitchens, Dawkins, seems like an army of Menckens is on the rise (at least vis a vis their stance toward religion -- to compare Dawkins' style with Mencken's would be a category mistake).

The review wraps up:
(Hitchens') book is useful as a primer against fundamentalism and zealotry, but most religious people are neither fundamentalists nor zealots. ... Hitchens seems to have done none of the reading on religion that might have broadened his thinking--no Wittgenstein, no Rudolf Otto, none of the phenomenologists who help explain why thoughtful, even intellectual people may be religious. I expected better from Hitchens, and I expect better from the rest of us.
The first question I have, and feel free to jump in here, is: Do you believe him, that most religious people are neither fundamentalist nor zealous? It's a sentiment I've been reflexively agreeing with in recent years, but I'm swinging back toward skepticism. It seems to me that any religious person with the courage of his or her convictions is automatically a step (or several steps) closer to fundamentalism.

In any case, I'm mostly amazed that, after so many thousands of years, otherwise intelligent hardcore atheists seem to believe more strongly than ever that all we need to eradicate religion is a few well-promoted polemics from major publishers. It's mystifying -- almost as much as the strictest religion is -- in the way it so thoroughly and stubbornly refuses to engage one of humanity's most expansive psychological territories.



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