Hitchens returns to bosom of Left to denounce God


Hitchens returns to bosom of Left to denounce GodFor all of the claims that Christopher Hitchens has abandoned his earlier Leftist proclivities, there is at least one point at which he remains an orthodox Marxist. His recent book, God is not Great, is a straightforward reiteration of Marx’s own critique of religion, albeit in the most splendidly bombastic fashion.

"God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilisation … Thus the mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made."

Hitchens here evokes one of philosophy’s most defiant veins: the reduction of the religious impulse to the product of our basest human instincts. He thus places himself within an intellectual tradition that stretches from Kant ("we cannot conceive God otherwise than by attributing to him without limit all the real qualities which we find in ourselves") through Feuerbach ("man — this is the mystery of religion — projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself"), until it finally reaches Marx himself ("the foundation of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion, religion does not make man").

But, as one might expect, Hitchens gives this tradition his own contemptuous twist. He is not content just to strip religion of its nobility, to dislodge it from its pride of place as the founding gesture of civilisation — the moment when Homo sapiens, driven by its emerging thirst for transcendence, takes the first step out of the domain of primates by investing certain ritualised practices with meaning.

He goes further, and dismisses religion as little more than the invention of hucksters and frauds who, at every occasion, aim to exploit our innate fears and profit from our listless servitude. Here, again, Hitchens invokes Marx’s authority, citing his famous anti-Darwinian quip that "human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape" (though he misattributes it to Engels).

His point is that, even as the later manifestations of a process disclose the true nature of its origin, so too the most notorious historical examples of religious fabrication and plagiarism — from Muhammadism and Mormonism to the preposterous ‘cargo cults’ of Melanesia — provide a window onto religion’s murky beginnings.

For Hitchens, the history of religion remains a sordid tale of outright fraudulence preying on a fearful species still trying to master the use of its opposable thumbs. Both sides are thus implicated in the sweeping verdict, "Religion is man-made".

The basic problem with this depiction is not that it is unnecessarily pessimistic, reducing religion to a quasi-Darwinian universe of predators and prey, but that it is not pessimistic enough. It fails to go to the heart of the matter, quite literally, and identify the full reach of the religious impulse. And it is at this point that Richard Dawkins is at his best.

The great (and perhaps only enduring) achievement of The God Delusion is to have radicalised the definition of "man-made", by transferring the driver behind the religious impulse from those vulgar, primitive instincts — say, fear or predation — to the solipsism of the meme itself. In this book, Dawkins gives his fullest, though by no means best, account of the operations of the "God-meme", which he first proposed in the final chapter of The Selfish Gene.

Hitchens returns to bosom of Left to denounce GodThe meme, according to Dawkins, is a kind of replicating unit of cultural evolution, capable of adapting and spreading from one brain to another. Its logic is its own and its aim is its own survival, even at the expense of its host.

Much like a virus, the meme “parasitises” the brain, “turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation.” This is indeed a strangely speculative notion — which Daniel Dennett describes as properly “philosophical” — to find developed by so hard-shelled an empiricist. For, in effect, Dawkins is ascribing to religion a life of its own, transforming it from mere fiction to malignant idolatry. The meme is, as Marx put it, "full of theological subtleties and metaphysical niceties".

In fact, it was Marx who first identified the enigmatic operations of the meme within economic and social life. In that most bizarre passage that concludes the first chapter of his Capital, Marx insists that in order to understand the existence and function of the commodity-form:

"...we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race."

It is this idolatry — which courses like poison through our veins, accentuating the egotism of the life-instinct and parasitising our mammalian drives — that is the real object of Marx’s and Dawkins’ attack on religion. Theirs is a powerful demonstration of the truth of Marx’s dictum, "the criticism of heaven becomes the criticism of earth": the fight against evil in our time must begin with the opposition to every idolatry, whether religious or economic. And this is the task to which Christian theology must devote itself today.



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Existing comments

What every reviewer of this book has overlooked...despite the fact that it's not just one but an entire herd of elephants in the room....is that Hitchens falls into his own trap as did Nietszche before him who claimed God is dead...a contradiction in terms.

Hitchens...gentle readers and reviewers alike...does the same thing by declaring that God is not great. Except, he adds insult to injury by poking the Muslims in the eye with their own mantra.
Brian Haill | 31 May 2007

Just imagine if a man with a long beard set up a box on the corner today and said he was god, he was our saviour and we should follow him to salvation.

Would we lock him in the loony bin or jump off the cliff like unthinking lemmings?

I suspect it would be the former as all the religious "leaders" of the world tried to defend their right to believe in their own imaginary friends.

Cynical about religion of all descriptions should be the way to live our lives, after all who ever proved that any of the fables in the new or old testaments were ever true?
Marilyn Shepherd | 02 June 2007

There is no need to directly assault religious belief on the basis of its devastating consequences, since one can readily surmise how social groups of evolving hominids developed religious beliefs in conjunction with emerging self-awareness.
Religious belief now approaches its zenith with the science that liberates us from the need to hypothesise a Creator altogether.
David Arthur | 19 August 2007

I cannot comment on Hitchens, as I have not read him yet. But it is ironic that Marx's followers (or some of them) produced a classic "opium of the people". bolshevism! I speak as someone who has been a "bourgeois" (non-Marxist) atheist for fifty years (and am a former editor of the British atheist magazine, The Freethinker). Kind regards, N.S.
Nigel Sinnott | 20 September 2007

I am a little surprised by the state of present day atheism. Poetry, I confess, was my first religion, and that lingering faith forbids me to pick up any book called 'God is not Great' (yes I am aware of the joke on Islam - tell it to anyone, Muslim, Christian or Druid, and see if you get a laugh). I only wonder how long the man deliberated between that title and 'God Sux' or, perhaps, 'Dude Where's my God.' Nonetheless, I have heard Hitchens speak on the radio. The last time, in conversation with Philip Adams, when he commented that the idea of God giving his last utterance on earth to an illiterate Arab was totally absurd. I wondered which Hitchens thought was Mohamed's most damning quality: his lack of formal education or his race?
What has happened to atheism? Nietzsche, though he created an intellectual environment that nurtured fascism, was at least a powerfully creative thinker, capable of dreaming memorable other worlds such as that which was subject to 'eternal recurrence' and the world inhabited by the future's Supermen. Camus extended himself valiantly trying to find a moral system better suited to the world than the Christian, yet all this new lot seem to do, (there is no other word) is bitch and self-promote. The atheist writer/philosopher has been usurped by the pop pamphleteer. These new darlings of the masses and the evangelist tv Bible bashers are two sides of the same coin. Both sing to their respective choirs and are applauded. Both refuse any dialogue with those whom they make enemies of. Both, in some awful way, are what our society deserves. We must open our hearts and try to do better.

Patrick Holland | 19 October 2007


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