Monday, August 20, 2007

Hitchens Lays an Egg

I confess to a bias against Christopher Hitchens. In his latest column for Slate, "God is Still Dead," he summarizes and reviews Mark Lilla's forthcoming book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West, with what seems to be general approval, aside from a modest chastisement that Lilla does not give atheists enough credit for the progress they have made in the world. This endorsement was enough to negate any interest I might have had in the book.

Later this afternoon, however, as I was surreptitiously reading The New York Times online (behold the power of sizing your Explorer window to make it look like part of the spreadsheet you're "working" on), I came across an article entitled "The Politics of God," and after a few sentences, I thought to myself, "Wow, this is really interesting, who wrote this?" Answer: Mark Lilla, summarizing his own book. Once again, in the service of his own bizarre agenda, Christopher Hitchens had, as he does with my own faith, selectively reduced someone else's point of view to something unrecognizable.

As is the case with fundamentalists of either stripe, Hitchens ignores (or is blind to) anything that runs counter to his essential argument. In this case, he leaves out that Lilla's ultimate conclusion is that Hitchens' prescription for saving the world -- education and modernization, particularly for the middle east, so that no one is so incredibly stupid as to believe in God anymore -- won't work.

Principally, Lilla compares and contrasts arguments about the nature and role of religion in society and government from Hobbes and Rousseau; like Hitchens, Hobbes saw religion as detrimental superstition, the myths to which man flees when anxieties and unknowns overwhelm him, and the systems through which the powerful and skillful manipulate the dull and trusting. (You won't hear me argue that there's no truth to that.) It is through Hobbes that western democracy derived the notion of a "wall of separation" between church and state: the only way to circumvent the effects of messianism is to insist upon a secular government.

Rousseau, on the other hand, acknowledged -- and Hitchens does, too, though he does so with distinct lament -- that human beings are theotropic, or naturally inclined toward faith. (Here enter questions about religion as a product of evolution, which, to my mind, argue in favor of an Intelligent Designer.) "While Hobbes beat the drums of ignorance and fear," writes Lilla, "Rousseau sang the praises of conscience, of charity, of fellow feeling, of virtue, of pious wonder in the face of God’s creation. Human beings, he thought, have a natural goodness they express in their religion." (And right now I am feeling very angry that the brief overview of philosophy that I was given in school was tied to economics -- the only way they could have disinterested me more was to put an algebra equation in the middle of it.)

What Lilla chronicles, then, in western history from the middle ages to the present, is the way in which these competing ideas cycle to keep each other in balance: that we, as a culture, have a benevolent tendency to attempt to enforce higher ideas through governance which leads inexorably to perverted, and failed, totalitarianism. For a classic example, compare Marx's intent with the Soviet Union.

What he also notes -- and this is the coup de grace for Hitchens, though like the chicken he is he keeps running after his argument has been cut off -- is that scientific modernization does not, in fact, weaken religious belief. If history is any guide, what happens is that the human tendency toward faith is so strong that inevitably a movement will begin and eventually dominate, one that accommodates the new reality. A side effect, however, is that "liberal theology" -- a distinctly 19th century Protestant movement which Hitchens attempts to claim is merely a polite term for "liberation theology," a distinctly Catholic 20th century movement -- gave rise to Zionism and American Christian Fundamentalism; i.e., attempts to harmonize traditional beliefs with modern reality simultaneously created a new countermovement seeking "authenticity" rather than accommodation. Then Lilla points our heads in the direction of the Middle East.

Essentially, Lilla argues that western democracy, and the relative end it brought to centuries of bloody Christian internecine warfare is less the product of the technical and intellectual modernization of the 18th century than it is of a unique set of historical circumstances in which a culture collectively decided the best way to control the excesses of religious totalitarianism was to have a secular, pluralist representative government. We don't have a secular democracy because people stopped believing in God, but rather because people's understanding of God at the time made a secular democracy a virtuous ideal. In conclusion, Lilla strongly cautions us that we can't educate Islam out of its present crisis, again because the human tendency toward faith is so strong that rather than taking new, conflicting, contradictory information as evidence that there is no God, we incorporate it into a deeper, renewed belief.

Says Lilla: "The dynamics of political theology seem to dictate that when liberalizing reformers try to conform to the present, they inspire a countervailing and far more passionate longing for redemption in the messianic future. That is what happened in Weimar Germany and is happening again in contemporary Islam." (I think one can also strongly make a case for the American South and Midwest.)

So what can we do about the threat of radical Islam, according to Lilla? Not much. "What happens on the opposite shore will not be up to us. We have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful political theology to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique crisis within Christian civilization. This does not mean that those societies necessarily lack the wherewithal to create a decent and workable political order; it does mean that they will have to find the theological resources within their own traditions to make it happen."


David in KC said...

I read the same article, Andy. There's so much in it that I'll probably read it again - or buy the book. Lilla's conclusions make sense to me - we can't impose our solutions or paradigms on the Muslim world. It's up to them to work it out (or not) within their own tradition. That's very hard for most Americans (including me) to accept. It confronts our exceptionalism and our missionary impulses.

Hmmm. I not sure that I understand what I wrote.

Andy said...

Damn, Anderson Cooper is hot.

Jere said...

While I think it's a fine idea to basically leave the Muslim world alone to solve their own problems or not as they see fit, it does become an issue when Muslims, in the name of their religion, start causing death and destruction in the western world. I don't think many people would have a problem with Muslims expressing themselves by blowing up buildings or bombing buses in Riyadh or in Tehran or wherever. And perhaps they do. But once religion-based violence is exported elsewhere it does start to become an issue in the west.

If Muslims in France or the Netherlands are rioting over some perceived slight or insult, French or Dutch authorities may not have the luxury of letting these folks work it out for themselves.

Sometimes it seems to me that what Muslim need to do is simply develop a thicker skin, so that every questioning of the religion is not an offense to their God. With this might come more of a live-and-let-live attitude, which might lead to more secular government simply because people would no longer be threatened by or feel the need to threaten other groups who belive differently.

Jess said...

So what can we do about the threat of radical Islam?

I suppose nuclear weapons are out?

Kidding. Just kidding. :D

And I noted your mention of an intelligent designer. So you're pushing your Flying Spaghetti Monster theory again? Hmmm.

Andy said...

Well, if ever there was an argument against intelligent design, George W. Bush is it.