It’s not that it wasn’t obvious from the title of his weirdly vindictive book God Is Not Great, itself a deliberate poke in the the eye to the world’s Muslims, who, of course, affirm that God is great every time they pray.
And sure, I read him. It’s entertaining, in a gruesome way, when he goes after popular icons like Mother Teresa. And I don’t mind keep an eye on his column just to know what an unrepentant Iraq war hawk thinks about things like attacking Iran, because it’s useful to know what arguments crazy people will soon be presenting you with.
But his column this week in Slate, titled “The taming and domestication of religious faith is one of the unceasing chores of civilization,” is an even more bilious stew of pomposity and historical blindness than his usual stuff. This column makes it more clear than ever that Hitchens, often wrongly lumped into the New Atheist camp with the genuinely areligious Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, is in fact nothing more than a bigot whose atheism seems driven largely by a desire to rationally justify his visceral loathing of certain religious groups.
Hitchens starts the article by asking, in light of recent discussions about the Park 51 center and American Islam in general, whether he supports the “free exercise of religion.”
The unsurprising answer: No. No he does not.
The reader may well hope that this is a rhetorical device, that Hitchens will say something like, “Of course, what I mean is that there are certain inherent constraints on religious practice that even a free society must adopt, just as there are certain inherent constraints even on free speech. ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater, and so on. But naturally outside of actual harm people are free to practice whatever they are called to and believe whatever they find convincing, because the free marketplace of ideas — both practical and metaphysical — is worth whatever number of wrong and foolish ideas it necessarily permits.”
Nothing like that is ever said.
Hitchens does sporadically find real harm done by actual religious beliefs, and he properly points out that, for example, we do not generally allow Christian Scientists to deny their children medical care. Hitchens notes that parents who do so “can be taken straight to court.” Fair enough — the standard is applied: real harm is met with legal limitations. But he then goes on to add, “Not only that, they can find themselves subject to general disapproval and condemnation.” Here I am no longer sure what his argument is. The very phrase “free exercise of religion” is a legal term, a slice of the First Amendment. What do “general disapproval and condemnation” have to do with anything?
We find out in another paragraph, this one dealing with the Mormons:
[I]n 1963, the Mormon church had not yet gotten around to recognizing black people as fully human or as eligible for full membership. (Its leadership subsequently underwent a “revelation” allowing a change on this point, but not until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.) This opportunism closely shadowed an earlier adjustment of Mormon dogma, abandoning its historic and violent attachment to polygamy. Without that doctrinal change, the state of Utah was firmly told that it could not be part of the Union…. Thus, to the extent that we view latter-day saints as acceptable, and agree to overlook their other quaint and weird beliefs, it is to the extent that we have decidedly limited them in the free exercise of their religion.
See, then, the line from Hitchens’ “disapproval and condemnation” to the legal restriction of religious liberties. Mormons are racists and practice polygamy; therefore we must use the power of the law to bend them to something Hitchens finds more acceptable. Of course, polygamy (at least, consensual polygamy) harms no one — the “violent attachment” Hitchens refers to was seen by Mormons as the vigorous defense of their liberties, and they were at least partly right. Mormons were victims of violence over the issue of polygamy at least as often as they were perpetrators. And if modern intellectuals (including, I assume, Hitchens) take the matter of gay marriage as a settled point of social equality, it’s hard for me to see how anyone can justify using legal force to exclude a faith community from the union because it advocates for alternative family arrangements.
Harm, then, is something of a floating target in Mr. Hitchens’ world. It can mean actual harm, or it can simply mean things he finds weird or discomfiting.
In the vein of actual harm: A professional titillator, Hitchens does not fail to bring up sexual crimes against children, because nothing wins an argument faster than averring that your side is against child abuse, and therefore the other side — those wacky “free exercise of religion” people — must be for it. A few ultra-radical Orthodox mohels use direct oral suction to stop the bleeding after circumcision. So barbaric! So icky! And they give the children herpes!!! (Or maybe they don’t. The New York Times article he links to is less certain.) Also, did you know that some Catholic priests engaged in pederasty?! Because Christopher Hitchens knows it. HE THINKS ABOUT IT ALL THE TIME.
Of course, clerical pedophilia is not an actual doctrine of Catholic Church, and foreskin-sucking is about as much a part of Judaism as snake-handling is of Christianity. There are some valid points buried in these paragraphs somewhere about the legitimate role the state can play in correcting institutional excess in faith communities. But mostly it seems Mr. Hitchens is interested in reminding you of THE TINY PENISES AND THE CRIMES AGAINST THEM. Because if you dare to stand against his program of sectarian cleansing and “taming,” you must be in favor of rabbinical cock-sucking.
Hitchens seems to live in a world separate from the actual mainstream of political debate: “We talk now as if it was ridiculous ever to suspect Roman Catholics of anything but the highest motives,” he writes, as though anyone has ever said any such thing. “[Y]et by the time John F. Kennedy was breaking the unspoken taboo on the election of a Catholic as president, the Vatican had just begun to consider making public atonement for centuries of Jew-hatred and a more recent sympathy for fascism.” It’s not at all clear what this sentence is supposed to mean, or whether the “centuries of Jew-hatred” somehow justify the social and legal oppression of Catholics for most of this country’s history by Protestants who were not, themselves, exactly Jew-boosters.
But all this is just the warm-up for talking about the religion that freaks Chris Hitchens out most of all: Islam. (Oogie-boogie!)
Some of its adherents follow or advocate the practice of plural marriage, forced marriage, female circumcision, compulsory veiling of women, and censorship of non-Muslim magazines and media. Islam’s teachings generally exhibit suspicion of the very idea of church-state separation. Other teachings, depending on context, can be held to exhibit a very strong dislike of other religions, as well as of heretical forms of Islam. Muslims in America, including members of the armed forces, have already been found willing to respond to orders issued by foreign terrorist organizations. Most disturbingly, no authority within the faith appears to have the power to rule decisively that such practices, or such teachings, or such actions, are definitely and utterly in conflict with the precepts of the religion itself.
Now, I happen to agree with Hitchens that many very disturbing concepts are floating around the idea pool of Islam. But to complain that there is no centralized Muslim authority seems to me to betray a fundamental distrust of democratic processes. If there can be many toxic and foolish ideas about, for example, what America ought to be (or the Netherlands or Uganda) without the idea of free political speech being cast into the sea, then surely we ought to be able to concede that there can exist in the world many terrible ideas about what Islam ought to be, without our pining for some sort of autocrat to banish the bad ideas and uplift the Hitchens-approved ones. Personally, I’m glad of the wild range of opinions within Islam, and I hope that the more we encourage the free exchange of ideas in American Islam, the more Muslims will feel they can embrace humanism and modernity without betraying their faith. (For an excellent example of how a centralized theological authority in Islam would actually work, please see Saudi Arabia or Iran.)
But Hitchens believes that Islam is more-or-less irredeemably murderous, and while he has found much of the debate surrounding the Park 51 center in Manhattan distasteful, he nonetheless fundamentally shares with the “Ground Zero mosque” protesters a belief in the collective culpability of all 1.4 billion Muslims for the crimes of a few dozen:
Reactions from even “moderate” Muslims to criticism are not uniformly reassuring. “Some of what people are saying in this mosque controversy is very similar to what German media was saying about Jews in the 1920s and 1930s,” Imam Abdullah Antepli, Muslim chaplain at Duke University, told the New York Times. Yes, we all recall the Jewish suicide bombers of that period, as we recall the Jewish yells for holy war, the Jewish demands for the veiling of women and the stoning of homosexuals, and the Jewish burning of newspapers that published cartoons they did not like.
This paragraph is sort of astonishing for a number of reasons — foremost because it implies that if the Holocaust had happened a few years later, when Zionist Jews in Palestine were absolutely carrying out terrorist attacks against British and Arab targets, that it would somehow have been justified. Anyway, depending on your definition, Mossad could be seen as carrying out state-sponsored terrorism even today. As for stoning, well, as recently as last year ultra-Orthodox, erm, activists were organizing stoning attacks against a bus line in Israel for the crime of not enforcing sex-segregation on their vehicles. That these Orthodox wingnuts are the fringe of the fringe is exactly the point. The number of Muslims engaged in purely religious terrorism, as opposed to politically motivated terrorism bound up in disputes over territory, is fantastically small.
(The longstanding dispute over Palestine is perhaps the clearest example of a dispute over territory that has over time become a “Muslim” cause. No less a figure than David Ben-Gurion admitted as early as 1936 that “The fear [among Palestinians] is… of losing homeland of the Arab people, which others want to turn it into the homeland of the Jewish people. There is a fundamental conflict. We and they want the same thing: We both want Palestine.” Palestinian terrorists have by no means all been Muslim — George Habash, who organized the Dawson’s Field hijackings, was a Christian — and, indeed, Israel initially supported Islamist Hamas as a counterweight to the secular PLO. Hitchens knows all of this perfectly well, of course, but it’s much more fun to paint Islam as a religion of suicide bombers than it is to acknowledge that terrorism is a tactic employed by practically everyone, everywhere.)
Hitchens glumly concedes at the end of his essay that “Globalization, no less than the promise of American liberty, mandates that the United States will have a Muslim population of some size.” But, he says, in order to be fully integrated into American society Muslims must “abandon certain presumptions that are exclusive to themselves.” This is very odd phrasing indeed. To ask every American citizen to forswear terrorism and violence against civilians is, I think, uncontroversial — but to insist that they give up their “presumptions”? Why? Should Straussian anti-tax libertarians, who believe as firmly as any caliphate-seeking Islamist that their views and methods ought to prevail worldwide, similarly be forced to conform to the dictates of Hitchens’ “civilization”? Should secular polyamorists, who presumably offend Hitchens’ moral sensibilities as much as Mormon polygamists, be forced to give up their ideas as well? What about Arthur Jensen, the social scientist whose work largely goes toward legitimizing racism?
As long as the answer to any of these questions lies in the power of eloquent speakers to influence opinion against ideas they find immoral or incorrect, so be it. But Hitchens seems suspicious of and displeased by the raucous marketplace of competing philosophies. His tendencies are authoritarian and distinctly monoculturalist, and his celebrated “idiosyncracies” read every day more and more like sheer prejudice and crankery.