Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Review of a book that I haven't read

Here is a very interesting excerpt of God is Not Great by polemicist Christopher Hitchens.
I have noticed that there are several books that defend atheism lately. This is obviously connected to the fact that religion nowadays has become not only monstrously perverted in some cases, but in most cases hugely irrelevant to human reality. However, I think that being an atheist and hating religion can be two separate things, though they are not easy to detach from one another.
The first one concerns a simple question: is there a God? Frankly, at this point I think we can all agree that nobody knows for sure. Faith is no proof of anything.
I am reading a book called The Essential Kabbalah, which is a collection of actual kabbalistic sources and has nothing to do with Madonna or red thread bracelets. The way the Kabbalists depict God and his emanations, sounds remarkably similar to the theory of the Big Bang and the Black Holes.
The Kabbalists say that God is better described by what it isn't, than by what it is. It is not a man, nor a woman, nor a human, nor anything. It is anywhere and everywhere. It is total absence and total presence, and too complex for us to grasp or describe. They describe how at one point its immense darkness exploded into an emanation, in a way that sounds very similar to the theories of the beginning of the universe by modern scientists. This makes sense to me. In their philosophical and mystical wanderings, the kabbalists tried to explain the nature of the universe, just as physicists do but without the math.
To me, this means that perhaps God is Nature. God is Creation itself, in all its complexity and paradox. I think this is what science says that God is. So we come full circle and everybody lives happily ever after. This I can buy. The angry God with antropomorphic tantrums, petty grievances, authoritarian pronouncements, total apathy to human suffering and terrible manners, no dice.
Now, apparently Hitchens berates all the world's religions. This is where he and I differ (and in the Iraq war, and in thinking that women are not funny). Certain parts of religion have been civilizing forces. The concept of the Sabbath, or the Ten Commandments, for instance. But obviously these are man made laws and have little or nothing to do with God. People who think the Bible is divinely written can think whatever they want, but it is like lunatics enforcing their loony beliefs on the sane part of the population. It's as if we were all forced to lead our lives by the daily horoscope. Can't be done. And for all his protestations about art and literature, I think it is safe to say that without the Bible or the Greek religious myths there would be no Shakespeare, no Cervantes, no Western art or literature, no nada. So let's give credit where it is due. Hitchens says atheists hate ritual. He should speak for himself. Ritual can be magnificent and nurturing to the soul, even the soul of an atheist.
It is unfair and reductive to compare Moses' puny burning bush to what you can see through the Hubble telescope, or to the DNA ladder, like Hitchens does. The Bible is a stunning work of literature and a pretty amazing law tract, among other things. And in contrast to pure science, it offers psychological insight into the human condition.
So we cannot say everything about religion is evil. What we can say is that religion, because of its absolute pieties and its zealous, simplistic grip on morality, is very easy to abuse. Like political power. When abused (most of the time), religion simply becomes superstition and snake oil marketing, which clerics use to further their power and influence in the world. The worst abuse of power can come from clerics from every persuasion everywhere who exploit the blind faith of other mortals. I have seen this with my own eyes: people think that a cleric has some special communication channel with God and even perhaps some whiff of infallibility or sainthood because of his proximity to God. Armed with this arrogant knowledge, the cleric then spins these poor, gullible innocents like a top.
I don't need to get into the kinds of unfathomable evil this has unleashed in the world. From inquisitions and pogroms and ethnic cleansing and civil wars, and endless murder and persecution, to the molesting of young children with impunity, and the enforced ignorance of the impoverished masses. Marx was being polite, I tell you. The poison of the people is more like it.
Of course, there are clerics here and there who are truly decent and pious and who became clerics in order to do good. They can probably be counted with the fingers of two hands and the toes of two feet.
It's the people who appropriate and institutionalize and misinterpret the sources of religion that deserve hanging.

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