Happy Solstice to Hitchens

I admit I’ve not read Hitchen’s “God is not Great” but that has never stopped me pontificating before, so here goes.. I might though, on the basis of a really well-written review by Johann Hari that appeared in the Independent on Monday 20 June.

Hitchens has passed through many phases in his political life, from Trotskyite leftist to Wolfowitzian neoconservative, but there has always been a single animating core to his thought: an intense loathing of religion. He is not merely an atheist. He is an anti-theist, deeply convinced that the idea of God has been a disaster for humanity, leading us up a hundred blind-alleys of sexual repression, hallucination and sectarian slaughter. Here, he redefines organised superstition – ‘religion’ – as humanity’s real “original sin”.

Well, granted he lost me there a bit with “Wolfowitzian neo-conservative.” Who is/was Wolfowitz? Although linking his name with “neo-conservative” doesn’t inspire me with much confidence that I want to know. Still, it’s pleasingly novel to find a neo-conservative who isn’t in thrall to the Big Guy’s rules.

All the same I like the idea of anyone being anti-theist. And I am impressed by this bit:

The answer, to Hitchens, is obvious, and derived from Ludwig Feuerbach’s great insight: God did not create man. Man created god, cobbling him together from a string of half-understood events and rumours.

Impressed because I have heard of Feuerbach and because it gives me the opportunity to recommend Terry Pratchet’s ideas about Gods, which express this idea in so much more of an enjoyable read.

On Pratchett’s “The Lost Continent” there is a god so beneficent that even he provides a tree bearing such pleasures as roll-ups for the lost Unseen University academics. It’s only this god’s interest in cockroaches that impels the Lecturer in Recent Runes (or something) to decide not to be his assistant.

In “Small Gods” it is made quite explicit that gods draw all their power from their acolytes. Those with hardly any believers end up being insignificant “small” gods of things like “the bit of plastic round a roll of sellotape that is supposed to let you break off a piece.” (I made that one up, being too lazy to do the research.)

Great quotes from the Hitchens book in Hari’s blog include that the Church of England is what you get when you “build a religion on the family values of Henry VIII.”

However, I have to argue the toss over religion being bad because it’s organised superstition. Well, fine on the “organised” bit.

But I will admit to being as superstitious as the next person – if that person is touching wood while counting magpies after washing their face in the May dew……

Superstition seems to me to be a based on an intrinsically magical view of the world, which is pretty illogical but not taken seriously. So it’s just one of many poetic and metaphorical ways of looking at the world.

Some superstitions are based on observations over centuries, some even fed into science and became proven knowledge. Most are made up on the spot and discarded at will.

Noone really believes in “superstitions”. Even the most rabidly superstitious person is well aware that they have no impact on non-believers. They are a sort of kneejerk spirituality, evening out our joys and sorrows by keeping us aware that the Universe does indeed operate on chance.

A religious world view is quite distinct from a magical one. Superstition puts the individual at the illusory centre of his or her destiny.

Religion puts the organisation at the centre. Religion is nothing if not authority and organisation and power. In return, it sucks out our awareness of how we are subject to chance, as well as our innate sense of wonder at the universe. It redirects them to a magical super-being whose ineffable ways and laws can be got round through devotion, mediated through the priestly caste with preferential access to the big ear.

[tags]atheism, christopher-hitchens, magic, religion, small-gods, superstition, terry-pratchett[/tags]