Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How Hitchens Poisons Logic

Christopher Hitchens's international bestseller god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is a poignant but embittered look at the effects and influence of religion in history, and the modern world.  I commented briefly about the book a while ago in an article called "The Muppets and Christopher Hitchens".  Still, I think Eric Reitan gives voice to one of the major flaws of Hitchens's work in the following quote:
But to say these things requires an account of what I mean by "religion." Instead of offering his own account, Hitchens' strategy seems to be this: if it is good, noble, or tends to inspire compassion, then it isn't "religion." It is "humanism" or something of the sort. With no clear definition to guide him, Hitchens is free to locate only what is cruel, callous, insipid, or banal in the camp of religion, while excluding anything that could reliably motivate the heroic moral action exemplified by Bonhoeffer and King. When "religion" is never defined, but in practice is treated so that only what is poisonous qualifies, it becomes trivially easy to conclude that "religion poisons everything."
IS GOD A DELUSION? A REPLY TO RELIGION'S CULTURED DESPISERS (WILEY-BLACKWELL: DEC. 3, 2008), P. 19.
Essentially, if you set out to state a thing is bad, and then remove all the good from it, you're left with the bad.  Hitchens's logic on this count is rancorous and amounts to nothing more than affirming the consequent; that is, if religion poisons everything then religion is bad; religion poisons everything, therefore religion is bad.  Hitchens does nothing to either define religion, or allow for any of the good that religion provides (that fellow atheists like Dennett and Dawkins freely admit) to be part of his definition of 'religion'.  He simply removes everything that stands in the way of his assumed conclusion that 'religion is poisonous' and works from there.  A very disingenuous move to say the least.

Thanks to Afterall.net for this one.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Chris,
I loved the crotchety old men in the Muppet show. I actually enjoyed their humour.
Hitchens has come up with a formula -- his own embittered one, by the sounds of it. I haven't read this book, but after reading this, I would be interested. Right now I am reading The Left Hand of God.
So, atheists do not believe in God (as opposed to anti-theists who at least acknowledge His presence, but have a "bone to pick with Him).
No God = a godless society.
Godless society = no morality.
No morality = Uncivilized.
All atheists are uncivilized.
Good reasoning?
It sounds like Hitchens has found some blinders that he is going through life with that keep him from seeing what is good in spiritual people.
And, we're all spiritual people. We all worship something -- even Hitchens.
I wonder if he could have stood face to face with Mother Teresa and said these same things?
J

Christopher said...

Jo-Anne,

"I loved the crotchety old men in the Muppet show. I actually enjoyed their humour."Me too. They were my favourite characters when I was a kid. Some episodes didn't include them, and I remember being sorely disappointed when they aired.

"Hitchens has come up with a formula -- his own embittered one, by the sounds of it. I haven't read this book, but after reading this, I would be interested."Yes, you could say that Hitchens has come up with a formula. But it's a formula that is rather like doing geometry without angles. That is, his formula is incomplete. If Hitchens were bold enough to include the surpassing good that religion has endowed on humanity, even from an evolutionary standpoint, his book would lose much of its impact. In fact, it would read more like a wishy-washy attempt to juggle his confusion on issues of religion.

I own the book, so you can borrow whenever you're ready. Just be prepared for my notes and underlinings.

"So, atheists do not believe in God (as opposed to anti-theists who at least acknowledge His presence, but have a "bone to pick with Him)."I think this would be inaccurate as far as anti-theists are concerned. You're right that atheists do not believe in God. However, anti-theists do not acknowledge God's presence. Essentially, what you have with an anti-theist is a hopped up, politically motivated atheist ready to find a solution to ridding the world of religion. If that includes warfare, it's a tragic necessity. An anti-theist is a warrior for the cause of atheism and against the cause of theism. You can find a more civil distinction between atheism and anti-theism here.

"No God = a godless society.
Godless society = no morality.
No morality = Uncivilized.
All atheists are uncivilized.
Good reasoning?"
I would be interested to know how you moved arrived at "no morality" from "Godless society". That's where I get hung up when trying to work through your paradigm. Could you explain a little more, please?

"It sounds like Hitchens has found some blinders that he is going through life with that keep him from seeing what is good in spiritual people.
And, we're all spiritual people. We all worship something -- even Hitchens."
Hitchens, I think, is a brilliant, if not ingenious political, and social commentator. He's also a superb writer. Unfortunately, his perceptions on religion are disasterously tainted by long, exhausting exposures to fanatical religionists, and grievously narrow apologetics. His intimate familiarity with religious horrors has catapulted his psyche, in my opinion, into a place of confusion and sometimes hate toward people he (and other celebrity atheists) call "god-heads". That is, religious folks. And his moral disgust with religion certainly wasn't helped by George W. Bush's religio-political myopia for the mid-East. For Hitchens, the only thing that should remain from religion is the cultural memory that they once existed, and some of their edifices still stand. Moderates are equally as rotten as fundamentalists, and liberal theologians are simply skirting the core of their beliefs. Hitchens is not a fan of religion in any way, shape, or form.

"I wonder if he could have stood face to face with Mother Teresa and said these same things?"Oh, I'm sure he would've! If you read his book, you'll eventually find out that he believes Mother Theresa deconverted to atheism by the end of her life. ;)

Anonymous said...

Interesting, and thank you for the delineation between atheist and anti-theist.
My idea of a formula just goes to show how far short formulas come.
My idea about morality is that there wouldn't be morality without religion.
I may be way off base with that, and that's OK.
It seemed to me that Hitchens' formulaic view of religion falls apart quickly -- because it is a formula not based in reality or fact, but based on his own perception of religion.
It could be where mine falls apart too, and I added it because it sounded equally ridiculous.
I think that overgeneralizations or whitewashing is usually inaccurate at best and ridiculous or even damaging at worst.
I do see what you mean when you say that "if you set out to set out to state a thing is bad, and then remove all the good from it" you are left with only one conclusion -- the one you wanted, of course.
It is contrived.
I say that knowing that we do the same thing, at times, in what we believe. We "work the angles" until we prove our point.
I wonder if it isn't just human nature to do this ... if there isn't more of a desire to be right, at times, than there is a desire for the truth.
In fact, I know that that is true. I have been guilty of it myself at times.
J

Anonymous said...

Not believing in God and not acknowledging God's presence seem pretty much the same to me.
J

Christopher said...

Jo-Anne,

"My idea about morality is that there wouldn't be morality without religion.
I may be way off base with that, and that's OK."
I think at this juncture it becomes important to define what you mean by 'religion'. For without a working definition, we end up with the same difficulty so many of these celebrity atheists have: a buckshot view of religion that encompasses, and even incorporates contradictory beliefs as equal. That is, not all religions are equal claimants on reality. Thus if I agree with you that a religionless society is a moral-less society, I am only agreeing based on the term 'religion' but with no real understanding as to what you actually intend. However, if we set out a definition for 'religion', say, the Christian religion, I may not agree with you since, according to Christian Scripture, the law of God is written into the hearts of all people (Rom. 1:18-2:16).

"It seemed to me that Hitchens' formulaic view of religion falls apart quickly -- because it is a formula not based in reality or fact, but based on his own perception of religion.
It could be where mine falls apart too, and I added it because it sounded equally ridiculous."
Hitchens's view of religion does fall apart quickly. In fact, at the beginning of his book he reminisces about his quaint school-boy days citing his burgeoning awareness of the falsehoods of 'religion', and pins his realization of the truth of anti-theism (essentially) on the missteps of an elderly school teacher. Right away then, we see that Hitchens began is oblique criticism of religion based on his dislike for the teaching tactics of a certain instructor. Talk about shifting the blame!

Still, we are all limited to our perceptions of, well, everything, including God. But it's because God is not limited -- in the same way -- in His perceptions of us that we can coddle the assurance that we are taken care of, and are able to have faith that God exists and loves us. Even if we can't rationalize how that can be.

"I think that overgeneralizations or whitewashing is usually inaccurate at best and ridiculous or even damaging at worst.
I do see what you mean when you say that "if you set out to set out to state a thing is bad, and then remove all the good from it" you are left with only one conclusion -- the one you wanted, of course.
It is contrived."
Nicely stated!

"I say that knowing that we do the same thing, at times, in what we believe. We "work the angles" until we prove our point."I agree: we all 'work the angles'. We have to, really. It's the only way we can work within our human limitations. Science is not an escape from that reality, even though it claims 'objectivity'. Objectivity, when pursued as an end, is simply the means by which we achieve a greater distance from ourselves but a closer proximity to a prescribed ideal. Hence an angle. Why should any of us cede the necessity of the scientific angle, in that case, if what it means is depersonalizing, and dehumanizing the dynamic interactions we have with the reality we participate in? It's insane, in the classic sense of the word.

And because of that, nothing is ever 'proved', only made 'persuasive'. People are persuaded by evidence, but that evidence requires interpretation by however many people it takes to communicate it to you. Or, sometimes it takes interpretation only by you since you are the one examining the evidence. In either case, what was once supposedly 'objective' is now deliciously 'subjective' straight through from experiment to interpretation. Accordingly, we all 'work the angles' in an effort to persuade each other.

"I wonder if it isn't just human nature to do this ... if there isn't more of a desire to be right, at times, than there is a desire for the truth.
In fact, I know that that is true. I have been guilty of it myself at times."
I think you're entirely right that people often want to be right more than they desire the truth. But that, in itself, is a nasty, sticky, ball of conundrum to unravel. For example, someone wants to be right because what they understand is truth; but it may be wrong to share that truth, even though in doing so, that person would be right. Concentricity, anyone? ;)

"Not believing in God and not acknowledging God's presence seem pretty much the same to me."You're right insomuch as the result is the same: God is not part of that person's considerations. However, not acknowledging God is not the same as disbelieving in him/her/it. I can attend a party with you and refuse to acknowledge you, but I can't disbelieve in you. Logically, I would have to believe in you on some level to not acknowledge you. But in the case of God, if I disbelieve God is there, then not acknowledging God doesn't factor into the equation. Not acknowledging God would be a total irrelevance to my worldview.

Anonymous said...

It will probably take a little time for that last paragraph to soak into my addled wee brain, but it may and I can come back to it.
Already it brings up questions. How can you believe in the reality of God but not acknowledge him?
If you believe yet do not acknowledge, there is not true belief -- at least no transformational belief.
By religion, I mean a relationship with God -- one where transformation takes place by the renewing of your mind.
It is possible to be religious, but not experience transformation. God does not zap us; we choose to follow Him and in putting one foot in front of the other, we are transformed. I believe it begins with salvation and a desire to follow, but that the largest part of transformation takes place as we submit ourselves to him, our minds are yielded to him, and our actions follow "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Proverbs 23: 7) and Romans 12:12.
Transformation requires a commitment to action.
I don't believe that just because you are religious or adhere to a particular religion -- even Christianity -- that you are necessarily transformed.
I believe that God partners with us in transformation. It is his desire for us and his work in us, but we are also responsible for our part in it.
I do believe that the desire he puts in our hearts is infused supernaturally and that there is power to carry out what he desires for our lives. It is our job to "plug in" to that power.
Morality is a tall order without a relationship that transforms us.
I do not understand or really know anything about God writing his law in our hearts, except to believe that we are created in the image of God and that he pursues a relationship with us.
I think that is why so many turn to different religions -- the desire is inherent to have a relationship (we are spiritual beings), but it is often misguided desire.
I hope some of that made sense.
It is impossible, isn't it, to believe or do anything in this life apart from our perceptions.
Our perceptions are being transformed as well.
I cannot imagine my life without a relationship with a living Lord and without desire for transformation.
That humbles me. I am so thankful that my journey in life is accompanied by faith and joy in a living Lord.
J

tag-photos said...

J...

Since I am an Atheist, does that mean I am immoral?

In my opinion, joining a church and believing in their practices means I have to do some things that I feel are immoral.
Mostly things such as dedications or baptisms.

I wish to educate my children on all possibilities and help them find their own path.
If I were to follow a Christian path and dedicate my child. Or a catholic path and baptize my child then I would be forcing them to follow my path.
Again in my opinion that amounts to forcing religion on them. Removing their right to freedom of religion. Which is immoral...

Forced religious beliefs = religious doctrine
Forced religious beliefs = immoral
Religious doctrine = god's will
therefore....
God's will = immoral


I just added that last part to be cheeky :)

Christopher said...

TP,

"Since I am an Atheist, does that mean I am immoral?"I dealt with this when I wrote the following to 'J': "...if I agree with you that a religionless society is a moral-less society, I am only agreeing based on the term 'religion' but with no real understanding as to what you actually intend. However, if we set out a definition for 'religion', say, the Christian religion, I may not agree with you since, according to Christian Scripture, the law of God is written into the hearts of all people (Rom. 1:18-2:16).""In my opinion, joining a church and believing in their practices means I have to do some things that I feel are immoral."Simple solution: don't join a church. Simply attend. Churches set up membership for statistical reasons. You're not forced or required to be part of that statistic, or roster.

Other than that, I agree with you that taking on membership can lead to immoral requirements. For example, when I was a card-carrying Lutheran, I was expected to hold to doctrines that are demonstrably untrue, one of which is the 'man only' policy for preaching and teaching. The fact that I didn't follow my instincts that that policy is wrong made me immoral in two ways: I was decidedly passive on the issue for the purpose of maintaining the good graces of the church, and I was denying the validity of women in teaching positions while accepting it from my own wife, in my own home, privately. I was, on this issue, effectively, a hypocrite. And all because I had sworn to uphold the teachings of the Lutheran church for the purposes of being a member.

So I agree with you that the use of membership can bring about situations where a person can choose to act immorally all the while thinking it justified because maybe they 'just don't understand enough yet'.

"I wish to educate my children on all possibilities and help them find their own path."Do you know all the possibilities? And where will you draw the line? Are you intending to educate them in Satanism? Just curious.

"If I were to follow a Christian path and dedicate my child. Or a catholic path and baptize my child then I would be forcing them to follow my path."Hmm. It's kind of the point of being a parent, isn't it, to bring your children along with you on your path? Or does parenting look more to you like a psychological Spartan back-field: littered with the bodies of children who were destined to not have a part in their parents's path? That is, if you don't find your own path having enough merit that you would decidedly bring your children down it with you, aren't you just tossing them out into the social, and intellectual wilderness? And what does that say about what you believe about your path? These questions are all within the same context.

"Again in my opinion that amounts to forcing religion on them. Removing their right to freedom of religion. Which is immoral..."Let's say that you're right for a moment that it amounts to forcing religion on your kids. Would you be willing to boil that same sentiment down into your homelife where your kids have forced on them your decision to watch zombie movies? Aren't you contravening their right to choose their own entertainment? Or their right to freedom from violence, and the appearance of it? Even if you answer 'no' to my questions, you still have your work ahead of you. For how can you suggest that a parent who invites a child into the intimate world of their beliefs and values is therefore being forced in a direction they might otherwise choose against? In the animal world, in evolutionary theory, mammal offspring 'follow' their parents's lead in everything until they are capable of fending for themselves and propagating their line. Then, they pass on the same set of skills and values to their young. If we grant an evolutionary scheme to humanity, are we any different when we pass on our beliefs by inviting our children into them? Or are we acting along the same evolutionary psychology? Again, these questions are all within the same context.

I don't necessarily take the view my questions can lead to, but I want you to flesh out your thoughts some more. If we're going to have a discussion, we have to get past mere assertions of "forcing" this-or-that, and blah, blah, blah. I know that's your opinion, but I'm sure you've arrived at it through some kind of reasoning process; I'd like to know what it is.

"Forced religious beliefs = religious doctrine
Forced religious beliefs = immoral
Religious doctrine = god's will
therefore....
God's will = immoral
Even though you were just being cheeky with your syllogism, I think there was a measure of sincerity in your presentation. That is, I think you believe what you wrote. But I can't help but notice that you're equating human religious thinking with the express will of God. Thus the reason why you wrote (but don't necessarily believe) that God's will = immoral. Let me just say this: What God wills, and what people say He wills are rarely ever in accord. Hence religious doctrine is at best a progressive discipline that helps people to understand abstractions in more concrete, applicable ways. They are guides, not dictates. Frames, and not the whole picture. Provisional, but not absolutes. They represent what we think we've understood, not necessarily what God absolutely intends.

tag-photos said...

"Do you know all the possibilities? And where will you draw the line? Are you intending to educate them in Satanism? Just curious."

Of course I do not know all the possibilities. Also of course I will try my best to sway them away from any activity that is harmful, immoral, violent, hateful, etc...
Such as if they decided they wanted to join a suicide cult, or the KKK I would of course do everything in my power to stop them. Either try to educate them, in the case of the KKK, or physically restrain them and seek professional help in the case of a suicide cult.
But with of course due moderation and talking mainly of mainstream religion, or lack thereof, I will wholeheartedly support them in their decision.

"Hmm. It's kind of the point of being a parent, isn't it, to bring your children along with you on your path?"

You and I have, in my opinion, an understandable difference in thinking on this point.
It is NOT my job to choose my childs path. I am here to help them find their own path.
Whether that path be religious, social, sexual (straight,gay), career, etc...
I am here to help them find their path, not to force them on a path of my choosing.

"Would you be willing to boil that same sentiment down into your homelife where your kids have forced on them your decision to watch zombie movies?"

A little far fetched here aren't we?

Watching a movie while cuddling is a far cry away from forcing a belief system on them that will dictate the way they live the rest of their life.
20 years from now lets ask our kids. You ask your if they remember you teaching the lessons of the bible to them. I will ask mine if they remember watching "flight of the dead" with me when he was three.
Also, just to note. I do not FORCE my children to be watch zombie movies.


of course I do not believe god=immoral. That was indeed tongue in cheek and meant to be humourous.
I do agree that people are immoral, all of us to some degree. As you would say, no man is without sin.

My issues with religion or not based in the belief of god, but in the practices of those that believe in god and act with the justification that it is gods will.

tag-photos said...

"We all worship something -- even Hitchens."

Sorry. I do not worship anything.

Anonymous said...

Tag,
I don't know if you'll see this. I was away and just read your question.
No, I would never presume that you were immoral because you weren't a believer in Jesus Christ.
Just as there are believers who can be immoral or unloving ...
I do believe that God's promises are true, though, that He gives us power to walk in this life. With the promises come peace and joy.
All that is meaningless unless you believe that Jesus was a historical figure, that his claims were/are true and have decided to follow Him.
Not that you can't have a degree of peace and joy in this life (not the peace and joy that comes from relating to Jesus, obviously, if you don't believe in Him ... if that makes sense).
I do believe that having that relationship with Him encourages morality, just as it encourages the other things he taught/teaches: to love one another, to serve one another, to pray for one another ... and on and on. Basically, to do all that we do with love.
We fail miserably at times because we are human beings living a spiritual life in the flesh. But that relationship always challenges us to get back on track and keep loving.
If there were no eternity to look forward to with Him, this life with Him would still be more than worth it.
As I said, formulas don't work well.
J