Susan Brooks on Christopher Hitchens


Susan Brooks of the Chicago Theological Seminary has written in her blog a spot-on characterization of fallacies underlying the militant atheism of people like Christopher Hitchens. Among other things, she writes:

The chapters in God is Not Great on biblical interpretation, “Revelation: The Nightmare of the ‘Old’ Testament” and “The ‘New’ Testament Exceeds the Evil of the ‘Old’ One,” are so ham-handedly literalist as to make a fundamentalist blush. I looked in the index to be sure I hadn’t missed any encounter with modern biblical scholarship. I looked for some reference to the mind-searching biblical interpretation of “Marcus Borg,” but found instead only an index reference to “Klaus Barbie.” I looked for some engagement with the depth of scholarship and breath of biblical interpretation of “John Dominic Crossan”, but found in the index only a reference to “Crusades.” Feminist theology? Forget it.

The kind of religion Hitchens chooses to make the target of his wrath is indeed violent, narrow-minded and out of touch with the real world. This is why we in the Congregational tradition abandoned it in the nineteenth century in favor of a faith that wrestles with the contradictions and genuine mysteries of human life, that both understands and confronts modern science (Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, anyone?), and that does not understand the power of God as a big puppeteer in the sky pulling all the strings of existence. Grownup faith actually grapples with the contradictions of the finite and the infinite; “When I was an adult, I put away childish things.”


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

This sort of reading of religion is common to all the major Neo-atheists, but Hitchens is probably the worst offender.

It's pretty easy to make your point when you haven't a clue about what your speaking.

But this is true -- they like their religion as literalistic as possible, because such a straw man burns much more rapidly than the real thing!

Livingsword said...

I read Hitchens book and if I was religious I would have found it extremely full of toxic hate. As I am a follower of Jesus I didn’t find it offensive, Hitchens is so far of the mark of what a genuine relationship with God looks like and how God transforms us with His Scripture that I sat their looking over my shoulder trying to see who Hitchens was talking about. He was it seemed talking about his characterization of “fundamentalist Christians”, but even with them he seemed to have bad aim.

It is sad to see a person like Hitchens in such turmoil, but hate can be a blinding force for ALL of us.

Susan Cogan said...

Hitchens has said that in order to address the objections of "My version of Christianity isn't so bad!" he'd have to write dozens of different versions of his books. "You take your religion a la carte," he says. "You take the bits you like and reject the rest."

As a UU I would answer "Of course! I don't live in the Bronze Age!"

People don't like Hitchens because he examines Christianity warts and all. People who've been to the plastic surgeon to have the warts removed get all huffy. "I don't have those warts any more!" It's like someone tacky enough to mention you had a nose job.

Christ does condemn sinners to eternal torture. If Ms. Brooks doesn't believe that, good for her. But it's in there and I don't see why it's "toxic hate" to point out that Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild invented Hell.

Mystical Seeker said...

Bob, I agree with you that those who hate religion kind of have to stereotype it in the most extreme way, because it would destroy their argument to concede that there is a variety of thinking within the faiths that they characterize.

Susan, I don't disagree at all with pointing out the flaws that one finds within Christianity. Certainly John Spong does that in many of his books. But Hitchens can't on the one hand make sweeping generalizations about the inherent characteristics of religion and then claim on the other hand that he doesn't have to take into account the variety that exists. If you make a comprehensive characterization about a subject, then the analysis that you make have to take into account all the diversity that exists within that subject matter.

It seems to me that an objective look at Christianity would not just point out the warts, but also the beauty. In other words, "warts and all" includes the "and all" par as well. But militant atheists generally seem to think that religion is nothing but the warts. It isn't. I would also contend that progressive faith isn't just what's left of ancient religion with the bad parts removed. There has always been something sublime about faith as well.

When you go from criticizing literalistic faith to expressing an active hostility to faith per se, that goes way beyond merely pointing out that religion has warts, in my view. It insults progressive people of faith. Instead of making allies with those people of faith who might want to join you in opposing literalism and fundamentalism, militant atheists have instead gone on the warpath against them as well.