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How People Poison Everything

Nathan Jacobson » Reflections on Christopher Hitchens' god is not Great.

Right out of the gate, Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great is at once colorful and poignant, a great pleasure to read. It’s also clear that it benefits from the accounts and extravagant details of Hitchens’ many assignments as a journalist in exotic ports of call. Before I read any further, I’m recording how I now see the problem Hitchens addresses: the pervasive ugliness and evil in the name of God and religion. As I read, I want to consider how well my current take on this undeniable reality can bear the weight of Hitchens’ experiences, insights, and arguments. The title (God is not Great) and subtitle (How Religion Poisons Everything) of Hitchens’ volume are immediately provocative. If, in the end, I’m going to be persuaded that religion ruins everything it touches, is it then rational to conclude that God is not Great? Or, just that religious people suck? Is there a non-sequitur here? And, is all religion malignant? Or, might there be some rare strains of benign or even benignant religion? As it stands, if I had tackled the subject in book form, I’d have titled it: Humanity is not Great. How People Poison Everything. Considering the evident fact that human evil, both the trivial and the atrocious, is found in all places and at all times, I’m inclined to think that the blame should be pinned first and foremost on me, myself, and I… and on you as well. The problem with people manifests itself in every human context, whether religious or irreligious. I believe that any judgment on the impact of religion, for well-being and ill, hinges crucially on one’s appraisal of the human condition more generally. So, let’s begin there…

The Problem with People

I’m not an especially, “Woe is me!”, type. I suppose my innate guilt complex falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Nonetheless, I think it is difficult to deny that there is something profoundly awry about individual human persons. As a member of the species, I take no joy in saying this. The heart of the problem is summed up most succinctly by the band who amusingly, but perceptively, named themselves: “Me First and the Gimme Gimmes”. We humans are fundamentally disposed to pursue our own interests, even at the expense of others. Thankfully, most of the time people are pretty decent, or at least they are decent when the situation rewards decency. And most of us consider ourselves to be “good people”. When we’re less than perfect, we take comfort in comparing ourselves to others whom we judge less virtuous. In a pinch, we can always console ourselves in at least being better than the rapists and the murderers, a couple of the last undisputed “sins” because they are so egregious. But how, if we are all such good people, have we managed to make such a mess of this world of ours?

There is an inescapable dichotomy here. If ours is a world inhabited by basically good people, from where on earth is emerging the genocide, racism, slavery, war, misogyny, corruption, and… I could go on. Before we excuse ourselves from these particularly loathsome evils, committed, hopefully, by other people in other places and times, we must confront a terrible truth. They were and are people just like us.

If you’re reading this, it’s likely you were born into a society that has powerful systems in place to reward good citizenship and punish bad. It’s likely that you were educated both formally and informally to view life as precious, to be honest, to regard all people as equal no matter their sex, race, or creed. In the best societies, in most cases, it is in your best interest to be good. Indeed, this is the secret to strong societies, making it in one’s selfish interest to be a good and productive citizen. And so, many of us are lucky enough to never face the temptation of a heinous crime, because in such cases, “crime just doesn’t pay”. But, what if it is the very same instinct that in our society leads to bitter partisan strife, that in another, unrestrained, leads to brutal sectarian violence? What if our petty jealousy, pride, dishonesty, and spitefulness are the root of the great injustices which we all regard with moral outrage, not to mention those who suffer our sins at arm’s length? I say it is naive to look in judgment upon whites in apartheid South Africa, upon the Hutus who exterminated Tutsis in Rwanda, upon the lynch mobs in early America, upon soldiers of The People’s Liberation Army in Tibet, upon the Janjaweed in Darfur, and upon the gangsters in our own cities without also trembling at our own possible course had we been born in their shoes. I dare say, only the best amongst us possess the kind of moral courage it would have required to fight the evil tide in Nazi Germany when it was decidedly not in one’s best interest to do so. Most of us are not intrinsically better than those whom we condemn, though perhaps we have been blessed to have lived in a time and a place where the possible outworkings of our selfishness are curtailed.

The problem with people is that we find in ourselves a deep selfism that is, in turn, the seed of all the incivility and injustice we find all around us. You may recognize in this statement some similarity to a certain Christian doctrine. I am not, however, drawing here from that tradition, but rather from my own life experience and my efforts to understand myself and the human condition.

The Problem with Religion

The problem with all religions, then, is that their adherents, in all their variety, are the very people whom we have seen to be deeply flawed. Any institution comprised of the likes of us will manifest at best fallibility and foibles, and at worse, every kind of human evil. But religion does not get off the hook so easily, merely by being equally troubled by its membership as other human institutions.

Most religions claim to be able to transform the characters of the faithful for the better, and thereby they set a higher standard for themselves, a standard by which it is fair to judge them. Personally, I’m not primarily interested in evaluating the contributions to human flourishing of religion in general. There are many who believe that religious sentiments themselves are edifying, whether or not they correspond to reality. It’s what Richard Dawkins calls “belief in belief”. I’ll leave it to them to make that argument. Besides, I think it’s impossible to deny that many strains of religion not only do not improve their followers but make them positively insufferable. Religion should not receive a passing or failing grade en masse. But what, then, are the criteria by which we should judge a particular religion with respect to its impact on its followers and on society?

  1. What are its ethical ideals? Are they ideals worth esteeming?
  2. Does it provide the means to pursue its ideals?
  3. Are its contributions to human flourishing directly connected to the content of its beliefs.
  4. Conversely, are its transgressions the outflow of the content of its beliefs?
  5. How successfull is it in realizing its ideals in the lives of its followers?

The validity of asking questions (3) and (4) is a matter of contention and no doubt it will be an area of interest in Hitchens’ book. Must not every ideology be responsible both for its highlights and lowlights. As for myself, I think these questions are critical. Is it fair, for example, to blame Christianity for violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland when Jesus modeled a life of non-violence and enjoined us to “love your enemies, and treat them as your friends”? Wouldn’t it be more rational to blame just these practitioners of Catholicism and Protestanism. Of course, if Christianity consistently fails to realize its ideals in its followers, then it should be judged in virtue of criterion (5). I suspect that Hitchens’ view will be that the content of beliefs is ultimately irrelevant; it is the very possession of sectarian beliefs — supposedly from the mouth of God — that leads inevitably to enmity between adherents. This is where one’s starting point, one’s presuppositions, are so important. When I survey the world, I see divisiveness and enmity in every form, finding expression in sports rivalries, politial contests, ethnic prejudices, and a thousand other ways. What is exceptional is to find people who have overcome these universal tendencies. I look at places like Northern Ireland and I see the failure of a couple strains of religion to elevate their members beyond their natural selves. I don’t see a conflict that is caused, at its root, by religious differences. Take away the Catholicism and Protestanism and the divisive impulse would find another expression, particularly considering the political history in this case.

I myself am an often stumbling, often doubtful, follower of Jesus. There is no greater source of doubt for me than the lamentable disparity between the life to which Christians are called and the actual lives of those who claim to be Christians. We are assured that the life of a follower of Jesus will be characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control. I know Christians whose lives are indeed exemplary, but most fall far short, and none perfectly exemplify every ideal. It has been suggested that where you find the absence of hypocrisy, there you will also find the absence of ideals. This is a fair and important point. By its nature, any ethical system with a high bar will have its hypocrites.

But the question remains: Does the religion in question generally make its adherents better or worse, or is it merely impotent to make any difference at all? To be honest, I think this is a difficult judgment to make on a wide scale. What am I to make of “Christianized” sub-saharan Africa and its inability in many parts to sustain peace and stable governments; what of the general oppression of women and religious minorities in Muslim Arabia; what of the bellicosity of Buddhist and Shintoist Japanese in the 1940s? Examples could be offered ad infinitum for every people group and every religious affiliation. Should we pin the sins of the world on its idealogies or on its inhabitants? What is the fundamental problem? Which is the egg, and which the chicken? To me, the universality of the problem does suggest an answer. In fact, Hitchens must agree that humanity is the poisonous root since, in his view, all religion is man-made. Unfortunately, he does not follow the logic, and does not see that every institution, then, will also be plagued by human imperfection. Though it is unintentional, to be sure, Hitchens’ bracing catalog of the grievous misdeeds of humanity underscores the religious belief that humans do actually need to be saved from themselves.

Ultimately, my own judgment comes down to the content of Christian belief and to Jesus in particular. For one, considering my diagnosis of the human problem, selfism or me-firstism, the Christian cure or rehabilitationdeath to self so that we might live for others — gets it exactly right. And Jesus led the way in this repect, both in life and death. I see in Jesus of Nazareth an example of wisdom, virtue and moral courage that I do not see in Abu al-Qasim Mohammed, Sidhartha Gautama, or even Bertrand Russell or George Orwell. I know this is not true for everyone, most certainly for Hitchens, who, I anticipate, sees mostly ugliness in Christianity’s supposed revelations. But if I’m right that the heart of the problem is our recalcitrant selfishness, neither reason (by itself) nor the Materialist’s grand evolutionary narrative have the necessary resources to encourage in us greater kindness and selflessness and thereby cannot alleviate, much less solve, the human problem.

Well, that’s a lot of words before completing the first chapter, but I look forward to measuring these thoughts against Hitchens’ own views. No matter what the case, I’m sure that his thoughts will incite in me an even greater desire to excel in kindness and goodness toward others. After all, if my Christian faith is impotent in my own case, all the arguments that can be mustered in its favor will inevitably ring hollow.