As I prepare my classes for Spring 2012 I am interested in a group of critics called the “new atheists” who argue that religion is a toxic social force and corrosive of public discourse, in a phrase, that religion kills.  Their argument is that theological hate-speech is a cancer in the body politic of Western and American democracies.  Wouldn’t it be better if we banned all public expressions of religion altogether?  Biologist Richard Dawkins, essayist Sam Harris, and, most prominently, critic and journalist Christopher Hitchens make up a loose confederation of anti-religious critics whose books are now selling in the millions.  With the sad news of Hitchens’s death, I want to focus on his recent book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and ask, What is the promise, and the perils, of the new atheism for contemporary civic life?

In his 1844 commentary on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the 26 yr old Karl Marx wrote that “the criticism of religion has been largely completed . . . . The basis of religious criticism is this: man makes religion; religion does not make man.”  Hitchens agrees with Marx and cites numerous examples of how socially constructed religion is a dangerous influence in human society.  From blood libel accusations against medieval Jews and Christian preachers’ sanction of slavery, to Calvinist Afrikaaners’ support of apartheid and the practice of circumcision in the Abrahamic religions and clitorectomy in African Animist communities, religion is a social force used to legitimize state power and oppress women, minorities, children, and many others.  If this is the case, why then does religion have such a hold on the human imagination?  165 years after Marx’s pronouncement that the criticism of religion is now complete, religion continues to cast a long shadow over human affairs.

In this respect we live in a post-secular society.  While the intellectual moorings of religion have rotted away for many secular elites, religious belief retains it power for elites and everyday folk alike.  Indeed, as mainstream society becomes more secular and open-minded it is this very tolerance of difference that is the seedbed of religious growth and development.  Consider my home institution, Swarthmore College, in this regard: while the college has moved away from its institutional Quaker roots, the Quaker spirit lives on in openness, among other trends, to the revival of religious thought and life at the college, from the establishment of the religion department in the 1960s to the strengthening of the various religious ministries on campus today, with Muslim and Buddhist groups joining the ranks of the older Jewish and Christian groups.  Strangely, as the campus becomes less religious it is also becoming more religious.

One of the many strengths of Hitchens’s book is his recognition of the vitality of religion in the lives of moral exemplars who are theologically motivated to do the right thing.  Ironically, while he denounces religion in general, he showcases various religious persons as “moral tutors of America and the world,” from theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was hanged by the Nazis for conspiring to kill Hitler to Martin Luther King Jr. who used the Bible to undergird his life and talk about nonviolent resistance to white oppression.

One example of this irony is his telling story about a Muslim cabdriver.  “In my own recent life in Washington, I have been bombarded with obscene and menacing phone calls from Muslims, promising to punish my family because I do not support a campaign of lies and hatred and violence against democratic Denmark.  But when my wife accidentally left a large amount of cash on the backseat of a taxi, a Sudanese cab driver went to a good deal of trouble and expense to work out whose property this was, and to drive all the way to my home to return it untouched.  When I made the vulgar mistake of offering him 10 percent of the money, he made it quietly but firmly plain that he expected no recompense for performing his Islamic duty.  Which of these two version of faith is the one to rely upon?”

Which of these two versions indeed?  Perhaps unknowingly, Hitchens provides a model for dialogue between non-religious and religious alike about the conditions for healthy liberal societies.  Far from dismissing religion, or any other socially valorized practice, as inherently toxic, Hitchens offers an opening for a true believer, in this case a Muslim, to enter into mainstream democratic life.  Instead of denouncing religion as poison he creates civic space for believers to make morally significant decisions based on theological principles.  Is, then, a world where appeals to reason and religious authority alike are the basis of sound morality and social policy the ideal world Hitchens envisions for his readers?

One of the joys of teaching religion at a secular college is that some of my colleagues and students actively dislike what I do.  If Christopher Hitchens were on our faculty, I am afraid, at first blush, he might be one of those persons.  People tend not to have strong feelings about whether chemistry or political science or anthropology should be taught, but many of my friends and colleagues of the new atheism ilk cannot fathom why anyone would study something as intellectually flabby and morally dubious as religion.

But the human quest for self-transcendence is perennial.  We are not fully at home with ourselves, there is something radically discontinuous about the human condition.  Religion – along with poetry and dance and film, but also alcohol and sex and drugs – is one of the many ways that people transcend existence and enter into an alternative reality that gives everyday life zest and meaning and color.  Religion can no more be stamped out with intellectual critique than, say, music or art.  Indeed, in the same passage where Marx says that the criticism of religion is complete he also wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.”  To be human, for many persons, is to exercise one’s right to self-transcendence through spiritual means, to nurture within oneself, if I understand Marx correctly, the “soul of soulless conditions.”  As such, it behooves some of us to study and even practice religion – this odd and dangerous phenomenon – as a model of human well-being, in spite of its intellectual strangeness, moral and anti-moral excesses, and potential for political co-optation.


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