Does religion poison everything, as the sub-title to Christopher Hitchens' book suggests it does? On the face of it, this seems absurd. Irrespective of the persistence and pervasiveness of religion, life goes on, and much of it is good. Religion does not take all the juice and joy out of life, even if that often seems like its purpose.
Hitchens, of course, means something rather specific when he talks about religion poisoning everything. While the claim seems hyperbolic, he explains it in terms that are far less so. In particular, he is concerned that religion insults us deeply when it suggests that ordinary human decency is not enough, or that we lack adequate naturalistic resources to sustain it. It wounds our integrity, for Hitchens, when religion claims that we need supernatural support and some vision of a good that goes beyond ordinary human flourishing.
I should let Hitchens speak for himself - something he's done in many forums. Without wishing to interpret exactly what he means, I'll simply suggest that there is truth in the vicinity of his hyperbolic claim that religion poisons everything. All too often, in all too many ways and times and circumstances, religion may not succeed in spoiling things for us, exactly, though it can do that to, but it does succeed in disparaging - in doing dirt upon - everything genuinely good.
Consider Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "Spring", which I linked to above. Hopkins has written a lovely sonnet in praise of the spring season, which he depicts in some detail within the vivid lines of the octave: here birds sing; flowers bloom; trees and sky appear to reach for other; lambs race and gambol. The world is rich and happy, and the speaker lays it all out for us in joyous language: the sentences appear to revel in their own imagery, alliteration, and a partly irregular rhythm that plays a merry dance around the half-expected march of traditional iambic pentameter (though these lines are nothing like Hopkins' more extreme experiments with his trademark "sprung rhythm"):
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
Read this aloud and savour it: "weeeds in wheeels shoot loong and lovely and lussshh..." The language is full and sensuous, delightful to our tongues and ears. Some critics will find hints, even here in the octave, that all is not well - when the lambs "too" have fair their fling, does this "too" suggest "too much"? - but I suggest we set that aside, at least for now. Yes, there are sinister interpretations available, once we look for them, but poetry can always be read against the grain (can't it?), and at least on first inspection the grain all runs the same way. Joy and wonder dominate our attention.
Even if we reconsider when we reach the sestet, for now let's take the lines of the octave at face value and enjoy their sweet ripeness.
But then, in the sestet - the final six lines of the sonnet - the speaker asks for the source of the juice and the joy, and now Hopkins' religious motivation appears more explicitly. The spring tableau, we are told, is "A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning/In Eden garden." So far, so good, we might think - the poet invokes the story of Eden and the Fall metaphorically, with spring seen as a strain of earth's paradisal beginning such as described in Genesis.
A secular poet could have used that metaphor, I don't doubt, but not the appeal to Christ ("O maid's child") that comes next:
[...] Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
The speaker calls on Jesus Christ to seize spring, and/or its "juice" and "joy", before it can "cloy" and "cloud", and "sour" innocent minds with "sinning". The language retains its strength - the rather heavy, if uneven, rhythms, alliteration and internal rhymes, the powerful, concrete, evocative words and phrases. Whatever your religious beliefs, or mine, or whatever our lack of them, we can experience the momentum of the poem at this point, and can buy into its resolution.
But there's more going on here, and in particular, once we take a step back ... isn't there something pathological about this? Confronted by the joy, beauty, and sensuality of the natural springtime world, the speaker expresses no wish to be part of it, or, indeed, to relish the cycle of which it, in turn, forms part. Rather, he calls on God the Son to stop it in its tracks, to take it - "Have, get" - before it cloy, cloud, and sour into sin, before it can somehow corrupt the innocent (and there must, in a poem full of blossoming flowers and birdsong, be an unhappy sexual implication here).
Imaginatively, we can be onside with the speaker, but the speaker is misguided, and at one level even Hopkins must know this: there is no prospect that Christ will somehow stop the process of the seasons and "Have, get" spring while it is fresh, clear, sweet, and innocent. That is the way of things, and perhaps one reason that the poem works is that it is written against such a factual background. The speaker calls for ... not so much an impossibility as something that simply does not happen and will not happen, and we all know this, perhaps the speaker as much as the reader. The speaker's fears get expressed, but of course Christ does not act.
We have a great poem on our hands. It's a poem to cherish, but not one to trust entirely. For all that I've said, the poisonous thought does get expressed. Even in writing about the juice and joy, the sensuousness and richness, of springtime, Hopkins turns to troubled thoughts of the corruption of youth, and a wish for the whole thing to stop while it is still innocent. He cannot simply affirm spring for what it naturally is. Hopkins is a Catholic priest, and for him an awareness of sin cannot be far away.
In the end, alas, in one of the most joyful poems in the English language, a worldly affirmation of spring and everything it stands for can not be allowed stand alone and unchallenged. At the very same time, the entire world of experience is disparaged from a viewpoint focused upon corruption and sin. Via our imaginations, we can enter into this aspect of the poet's vision - surely this is not beyond us, even if we are not religious ourselves - but we can also step back and see part of an unwholesome pattern. Religion all too often disparages the good things of our world.
Hopkins' sonnet does not lose its greatness because of this. Perhaps the doubleness of its vision strengthens the poem in a way. The sestet sends us scurrying back to the octave, looking for possible hints of what was to come (and if we overread in doing so, as we're likely to do, surely there's a sense in which even this is almost invited). And yet, what if Hopkins could have reached a final affirmation that simply stays with nature, rather than turning to God's relationship with it? The final note is an adoration of Jesus, far removed from the opening depiction of a purely worldly beauty. Why did it have to be thus?
Tomorrow, I want to take this a bit further. The point today is that a glorious poem in praise of nature still disparages nature. It still portrays the natural world as incomplete - and even corrupt, or trembling on the verge of corruption - when viewed in isolation from an imagined God. This is a leitmotif running through Christianity and many other religions: this belittling and denigration of the good things that the world offers. Tomorrow, I'm going to focus on one of the speeches from the theist side in the recent "Atheism is wrong" debate, to show how easy it is - how rhetorically and imaginatively seductive - for religion to do dirt on everything good.