Hitchens and the Speculative End of Religion

There have been several online articles in recent days about Christopher Hitchens, author of god is not great [lower cases intentional], who died just two years ago.

Jerry Coyne checks in on rival takes on Christopher Hitchens, both on Salon, including this one by an editor for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Tayler, criticizing an earlier essay (which was critical of Hitchens) by Sean McElwee.


McElwee calls for a “truce” between believers and nonbelievers. But he stands on the losing side of both public opinion trends and history. According to a Pew poll conducted in 2012, a record number of young Americans – a quarter of those between the ages of 18 and 29 — see themselves as unaffiliated with any religion. Atheists’ ranks are swelling, and believers are finding it increasingly difficult to justify their faith.

McElwee then tendentiously defines religion so as to paper over its often decisive role in precipitating conflicts. Though he allows that it might “motivate acts of social justice and injustice,” “[r]eligion is both a personal search for truth as well as a communal attempt to discern where we fit in the order of things.” Religion first and foremost consists of unsubstantiated, dogmatically advanced explanations for the cosmos and our place in it, with resulting universally applicable rules of conduct. A good many of these rules – especially those regarding women’s behavior and their (subservient) status vis-à-vis men, and prescriptions for less-than-merciful treatment of gays – are repugnant, retrograde, and arbitrary, based on “sacred texts” espousing “revealed truths” dating back to what the British atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell justly called the “savage ages.” (Islam by no means has a monopoly on such rules – check Leviticus for its catalogue of “crimes”: working on the Sabbath, cursing one’s parents, being the victim of rape – that merit the death penalty.) Just how such “holy” compendia of ahistorical, often macabre fables are supposed to help anyone in a “personal search for truth” mystifies me.

“The impulse to destroy religion will ultimately fail,” McElwee claims. Just what he means by this is unclear. Hitchens spoke out tirelessly against religion but never believed it could be eradicated; rather, he likened it to Camus’ plague-infected rats, scurrying about in humanity’s sewer, ever awaiting a chance to reemerge.

Despite the unpleasant allusion to rats, I would endorse Hitchens’ take on the futility of eradicating religion, simply because human psychology is what it is, and ignorance of the world and the universe is the default, requiring constant effort (i.e. education) to overcome. Back to my reset-the-world scenario: humanity would recreate culture and language and religions and science, and while science would be more or less the same — because it’s grounded in reality — cultures and languages would be different, and so would religions, because they result from psychological biases of the human mind in attempting to understand how the natural world works.

An SF writer influential when I was a teenager was Arthur C. Clarke, not just for the scales of space and time he evoked, and humanity’s small place in it, but for his calm assumption that, as humanity matured and moved out into the universe, the old superstitions of religion would fade. You don’t see much in the way of institutionized religion in Star Trek, to take a pop culture example. But I’ve changed my mind over the years about the likelihood of the Clarke assumption, without a species-wide leap toward more comprehensive education. And how would that happen? If anything the past decade or so has shown is that increased access to information – i.e. the internet – only creates self-reinforcing communities clinging to one ideology or another, the very opposite of any possible shared culture or comprehensive education about the real world. It demonstrates that most people can, in fact, ‘get by’ not knowing much of anything, and ‘believing’ lots of things that aren’t real, and still conduct themselves functionally as human beings. And there doesn’t seem to be much reason for thinking how or why that should ever change.

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