Saturday, May 24, 2008

# Posted 10:38 AM by Patrick Porter  

GOD IN THE DOCK: I have just read Christopher Hitchens' fierce atheist manifesto, God is not Great: How Religion poisons everything.

Hitch's other works, especially on Orwell, have been great reading and rich, provocative stuff. But though passionate, this one is at times a sloppy polemic.

And it reflects a disturbing tendency amongst some of the 'new atheists' (such as Richard Dawkins), of sounding a little too cocksure, a little too self-congratulatory, and just a touch militant. Ironically, these are things they claim to dislike in godly folk.

I'm not going to challenge Hitchens' overarching theological (or anti-theological) case. Those who want a sophisticated debate between him and various divines and other authority figures can flick over to Youtube.

Instead, I'll just note three factual problems:

the Church of England did not take part in the Crusades, given that it didn't exist during the Crusades(page 17),(unless he means in the sense that the Church of England claims to be the unbroken continuation with the true Catholic faith, but given that Hitchens rejects all beliefs like this, he can't then use it as counsel for the prosecution);

In 1929, when Benito Mussolini signed the official treaty with the Vatican, he had not just 'barely seized power', given that he launched a coup d'etat in 1922 and had consolidated a dictatorship by 1925 (p.235);

the Tamil Tigers, who frequently resorted to suicide bombing and helped refine the technique, may be full of Hindus (p.199), but it is a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist movement, an unmentioned fact that rather spoils Hitchens' claim that suicide bombing is essentially a religious phenomenon.

Most of us make factual errors, being mere mammals. But most of us aren't accusing everyone with a different cosmology of being dangerous, delusional or annoying. If we are to pursue a 'New Enlightenment', as the Hitch calls it, then we are also entitled to hold atheist secularists to the same standards of care with the facts.

In his review of Richard Dawkins' 'The God Delusion', Terry Eagleton caught something of this contradiction (hat-tip, Rob Saunders!):

The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism.
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Mr. Hitchens is normally quite coherent but in this book he attempts a monstrous fraud. His premise is that because religions are not a good as they should be then a priori there is no God. This is patent nonsense.
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