Friday, June 01, 2007

Making shit up and calling it true

Chris Hedges takes Christopher Hitchens to task for Hitchens' attack of a "childish brand of religious belief."
Hitchens sees only one form of religion, the chauvinistic, bigoted and intolerant brand that was embodied in the idiotic pronouncements of evangelist figures such as the late Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. He assures us that religion "spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago". "It may speak about the bliss of the next world," he writes, "but it wants power in this one." Religion is a product of "the bawling and fearful infancy of our species", and all attempts, he assures us, "to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule".
I don't think Hedges understands the literal meaning of childish. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have millions of followers, all of them adults. Why should this brand of religion be exempt from criticism, by Hitchens or anyone else?

Hedges excoriates Hitchens for talking about this brand of religion for only the trivial and unimportant reason that billions of people actually practice religion this way, and is astonished that Hitchens fails to criticize the "true" religion: A brand of religion that is immune to criticism because it cannot, by definition, be written down without corrupting its message. In a particularly self-contradictory passage, Hedges writes,
The problem is not religion but religious orthodoxy and the form it takes in human institutions. Throughout history, most moral thinkers - from Socrates to Christ to Francis of Assisi - eschewed the written word. Once moral teachings are written down they become, in the wrong hands, codified and used to enforce conformity, subservience and repression. Writing, as George Steiner has recognised, freezes speech. The moment the writers of the gospels recorded Jesus's teachings, they began to kill their message. There is no room for prophets within religious institutions - indeed within any human institution. Tribal societies persecute prophets; open societies tolerate them at their fringes. Today, our prophets are usually found not within the church but among artists, poets and writers who follow, as Socrates or Jesus did, their inner authority, an authentic religious impulse.
If it would make Hedges happy, I'd be glad to criticize Tillich, Barth and Niebuhr as well: They're purveyors of fuzzy-headed mystical bullshit, in the same camp as Deepak Chopra and Rhonda Byrne.

Yes, Hedges, we get it: Otherwise sensible people can wrap God in so much bullshit that it becomes impossible to recognize as the parasitism and propaganda from whence it came. But this sort of mystical mumbo-jumbo is no more "adult" than the religion of Falwell and Robertson. In some ways it's more childish, reminiscent of children's "just so stories" and naive rationalizations. At least Falwell and Robertson have some respect for the notion of truth; they're at least definite and specific enough to be wrong.

Hedges, on the other hand, sucks all the juice out of truth with some sort of vague epistemic subjectivism: It is true because you believe it, the elevation of the "inner authority". Hedges complains about "those who misuse the Bible to persecute homosexuals, Muslims, women, artists, intellectuals and those they brand with the curse 'secular humanist' [emphasis added]". But on what basis does he determine that such people are misusing the Bible? Clearly not any sort of rational analysis: Religion is non-rational,
a reality that is not a product of rational deduction and not accounted for by strict rational discourse... It seeks a spiritual truth, not a scientific or historical fact. It allows us to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty, with the ultimate mystery of human existence in this morally neutral universe.
A non-rational reality? A mysterious truth? This is egregious bullshit, just making shit up and calling it true. And it is not God per se, but making shit up and calling it true that is the real essence of "religion". That's why Soviet- and Chinese-style Marxism is just as much a religion as Roman Catholicism. Atheists also have to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, and mystery. And we deal with it in a similar way as the religious: We make shit up. But we don't then call it true, we call it fiction. There's nothing wrong with fiction per se; what's wrong is to call it true.

Hedges makes one good point: Hitchens is mistaken to label King and Bonhoeffer as non-religious. I think they were religious and it was their religiosity that diluted and undermined their humanist values. By tying values to God, they imply those values could not be justified rationally or humanistically. By tying values to scripture they tie those values to what Hedges himself calls the corrupted, written down religion; and by contradicting the plain meaning of the text, they appear weak and foolish next to the literalists. Its worth noting that for all King's efforts, we still have a huge problem with racism and civil rights for black people in this country, and the black Baptist churches form an important force holding back civil rights for gay people.

Religion—making shit up and calling it true—poisons everything, even humanism.

1 comment:

  1. Sheesh, does Hedges have some sort of psychic connection with Jesus? Even in the fictionalized universe of first century Palestine, our good buddy Jesus loved his scripture. We can catch snippets of possible Cynic and Stoic influences, but, as written, Jesus certainly liked the Hebrew prophets. I doubt Jesus existed, but if Hedges believes he did, all he has is the "written" gospels.

    What is maddening is how many moderates like Hedges. Sometimes it is just easier to deal with the honest orthodox or fundamentalist theist than one of these preening moderates. His ramblings have the same weight as Chopra with an added Christian veneer.


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