I am continuing in my extended review of Christopher Hitchens book “God Is Not Great,” and his defense of atheism in chapter 17. As I pointed out last time, given how he has attempted to attack religion in the first sixteen chapters, this is pretty much a no win situation for Hitchens, as he has put himself into a box he cannot now escape. Still that does not deter him from trying, and what follows is a highly selective view of history, in which he attempts to justify his claim that these secular regime, hostile to at least traditional religions and boasting of their scientific foundations, were in fact actually religious rather than secular.
Much of Hitchens’ supporting evidence is inconsistent and is at best little better than “grand conspiracy theory ” type thinking that attempts to find the sinister hand of religion pulling the string behind these otherwise benign atheist fronts. But some of the problems that run throughout this chapter can be seen in a couple of revealing quotes. On page 241, Hitchens acknowledges that “Many Christians gave their lives to protect their fellow creatures in this midnight of the century, but the chances that they did so on orders from any priesthood is statistically almost negligible.”
This sentence alone is would be enough to fatally damage Hitchens claim. He attempts to write off these Christians who died to protect others, not to mention the many others who likewise risked their lives without dying, as acting “in accordance only with the dictates of conscience,” hoping thereby to exclude the influence of religion upon their actions. But does religion consist solely of following the orders of a priesthood?
It is just a fact that many Popes throughout history have condemned persecution of the Jews by Christians, and that within Christian Europe , the further a Jew lived from Rome, and thus the influence of the Church, the more they were at risk from persecution. This does not absolve Christianity from guilt when it comes to the persecution of the Jews, nor should it. But if Christians acting in direct contradiction to the dictates from the Rome, can still be seen as religious in their persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages, how can Christians risking their lives to save Jews in the 20th century, be seen as secular, simply because they were nor explicitly ordered to do so by a priesthood? The double standard implicit in Hitchens’ argument is staggering.
Ultimately, Hitchens’ argument ignores the role of religion in shaping one’s conscience, and one’s sense of duty to our fellow creatures. Are we really to believe that these Christians who risked their lives to save others, did so completely independent of Biblical teaching such as Lev19:6’s, command not to stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, or Jesus’ teaching concerning the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
And of course, in a nice little sleight of hand, Hitchens deftly diverts attention away from just whom these fellow creatures needed to be protected from. So what we have here is Christians risking, and in some cases sacrificing, their lives to save their fellow human being from atheist regimes that sought their extermination, and Hitchens wants us to conclude from this that atheism is free from blame and that religion was actually the culprit. Talk about turning things upside down.
From here Hitchens further attempts to make his case by claiming that “those who invoke ‘secular Tyranny in contrast to religion are hoping that we will forget two things: the connection between the Christian churches and fascism, and the capitulation of the churches to National Socialism.” (pg 242)
This is a classic example of a seemingly devastating point that is really quite meaningless. Fascism, in the mid-1930s was a large an popular movement with many supporters even in the United States. Given the size and popularity of Fascism and number of Christians in Europe, it is hardly surprising that there were some connection between some Christians and Fascism, and in fact there were some Christians who were strong supporters of the fascists. But that hardly makes fascism a religious movement or Christianity responsible. To put this in perspective it is also a fact the same could be said about Jews, but would anyone seriously claim that Fascism was therefore a Jewish movement?
The simple fact is that if you look the major leaders of fascism, and communism for that matter, they were atheists who were seeking to apply the principles of science to the governing of society. The intellectual roots of these movements were solidly grounded, not in religion, but in the dialectic materialism of Karl Marx, the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, and philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly on the death of God as an idea that should have any influence us. These leaders, both political and intellectual, saw religion at best as merely a tool to be exploited to achieve their aims, and at worst a competitor to be eliminated.
As for the capitulation of the churches, this sadly is true, and it is a major mark against the church that it did not do more to resist such evil. But however bad the churches failure, and it was bad, it was still a failure of omission. Thus Hitchens argument is in reality that the Christians, not atheist are responsible, because the Christians did not do enough to stop the atheists. A very strange argument indeed.