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  • Archive for February 13th, 2009

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XXXI

    Friday, February 13th, 2009 by Elgin Hushbeck

    Listen to the MP3

    In  my extended review of  Christopher Hitchens book “God Is Not Great,” I have come to chapter 18, A Finer Tradition: The Resistance of the Rational.  The chapter struck me as a very strange chapter, for it left me with the feeling that Hitchens lives in somewhat of a fantasy world, where atheists are a small but noble underground valiantly fighting in the face of great odds against some dark and evil empire.

     Hitchens view of history is a very black and white one, where everything bad is in some way connected to religion and anything good must be the result of something other than religion.  Thus Hitchens writes, “When we read of the glories of ‘Christian” devotional painting and architecture, or ‘Islamic’ astronomy and medicine, we are talking about advances of civilization and culture.” (p. 254)

    As much as he likes, Hitchens cannot have it both ways.  He cannot have religion “at all times and in all places” subjecting non-believers to “ruthless suppression” (p. 254) on the one hand, but a completely absent force when it comes to the “advances of civilization and culture”  on the other.  People are much too complex to allow for such a nice, neat compartmentalization of their various and diverse aspects of their lives.

    A good example of this is Galileo, whom Hitchens mentions as one who “might have been unmolested  in his telescopic work if he had not been so unwise as to admit that it had cosmological implications.” (p. 255)  Hitchens contrasts this with those  did kept “their innermost thoughts from the scrutiny of the godly.” (p. 255)  Yet the story of Galileo is not so straight forward and simple as atheists like Hitchens seem to believe. 

    As Dava Sobel has written in her excellent book “Galileo’s Daughter,”  Galileo “remained a good Catholic who believed in the power of prayer and endeavored always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul.”  (p. 11-12)  As I point out in Evidence for the Bible “Rather than a conflict between science and religion, or even between science and Christianity, the conflict was at best a conflict with the Catholic Church”  as his works “were published and studied by protestants without conflict.” (p. 85)

    Rather than the titanic struggle between faith and reason that atheists like to claim, this was more an issue of a bureaucracy attempting to maintain its hold on power, as this occurred during the Protestant Reformation.  Even within the Catholic church Galileo had many supporters.  His primary opponents were the Aristotelian professors who were driven more by conflicts between Galileo’s discoveries  and the teachings of Aristotle than any conflict with the Bible.

    Similar problems plague many of Hitchens’ other examples.  Hitchens sees “the original collision between our reasoning faculties and any form of organized faith” in the trial and death of Socrates.  For Hitchens the matter is simple he was “indicted for godlessness and knew is life forfeit.” (p. 255) But like Galileo, things are not quite so simple. 

    In the decade  leading up to his trial, the democracy of Athens was twice over thrown for short periods by pupils of Socrates. When the democracy was restored for the second time in order to resort peace a general amnesty was issued; an amnesty that many must have been unhappy with given the numbers that had been killed. 

    Rather than religion as the driving force, the trial of Socrates was driven more by a mixture  of an attempt to prosecute Socrates despite the amnesty that had been granted and fear that his continuing to gather young students around him without any change in his teachings would spawn yet more attempts to overthrow the democracy of Athens.  

    Much of  Hitchens’ accounts are so vague as to be hard to judge.  For example, writing about Gibbons, and his monumental work “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” he simply says that Hume “warned him that there would be trouble , which there was.” (p. 267)  Exactly what he means by “trouble” and what kind of  trouble Gibbons faced is not stated.

    One source of the problems was the fact that Gibbons argued that Christianity was a cause of the downfall of Rome, a view that other historians have since questioned.  Frankly it is much more likely that the growth of Christianity was a result, rather than a cause of the downfall of Rome. Yet it would seem that in Hitchens’ world, while atheists are completely free to attack, criticize, and ridicule the views of theists, theists must not respond less they be seen as part of some “ruthless suppression.” 

    Again this is not to argue the opposite, that the history of Christianity is all good.  But Hitchens’ black and white approach to these questions hardly supports his claim to be on the side of the rational.

    This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.