In the rather limited spare time I've had in the last few weeks, I've been working my way through some of the material that has come to be known as "The New Atheism", though I'm not sure what is supposed to be so new about it.
I've just read Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. What does one say about Hitchens? He's an implacable controversialist with a gift for powerful, memorable phrases; he's steeped in literature, high culture, and the societies of all the world's trouble spots, each of which he knows intimately, and at first hand, and describes with vivid detail and total confidence; he seems like a decent, generous, warm-hearted man, but when it comes to a verbal battle he fights to win, with no inhibitions holding him back.
I don't agree with Hitchens' every opinion. I disagree with him, for a start, about the disastrous war in Iraq, always a dumb idea, always a can of Dune-sized worms. Though he is pro-choice, he seems to me to concede too much to the enemy on the issue of abortion (though I think I now understand his position somewhat better, and I can respect it). I don't even especially like the sub-title of his book; surely religion, whatever its faults, does not poison everything. There are moderate, sophisticated religious positions with which I have no terrible quarrel; there are moderate, sophisticated, good religious people whom I count as friends. Some of the positions we're talking about here are not even supernaturalist, but draw on holy books and long-sustained traditions mainly as a source of inspiring metaphors. I can certainly live with that, and with much more than that.
But even the most moderate and inoffensive religious leaders will sometimes poison the day with spurts of unwanted, unhelpful, unimpressive moralising, so it's always salutary to challenge their assumed authority over our consciences and our minds.
Getting back to Hitchens, he's not infallible, and perhaps not exactly "great", depending on your standards of greatness, but he's pretty good. Let's say it people, he's pretty damn good. His new book mercilessly exposes the primitive, parochial, uncivilised thinking that dwells in the very heart of traditional religious belief as we inherited it.
If religion is ever going to morph into something truly beneficial, something plausible and positive that is worth retention in modern societies - or is at least worthy of our respect for as long as it lingers and shares our social space - it will need to look deeply into its own heart and find a way to change from within (where change must always come from, according to one of Hitchens' little jokes that I'll let the reader find for herself). I don't doubt that the good old Church of England, in which I was raised, and which has never bothered excommunicating me for my sparse attendance of its rituals, has gradually been doing this, living down its persecutorial past and its origin in depotism and kingly greed (not to mention lust). But even my poor, dear C of E has a way to go in consciousness-raising, as evidenced by its occasional acts of moral pusillanimity. See, as a fine example, its current mishandling of the issue of gay clergy.
Religion may not poison absolutely everything, and even Christopher Hitchens can't prove such a sweeping claim, but it sure needs to get its own intellectual and moral house in order before it presumes to lecture the secular world. We can respect it when, but only when, respect is due - I'd respect the current Archbishop of Canterbury, if he'd show us a bit of Hitchens-like tenacity and courage. But its institutions and dogmas continue to attract all too much respect from contemporary secular intellectuals. For God's sake - or whoever's - give religion some contempt, when contempt is due ... as it so often is.
Once we pan out from the well-meaning waverings of nice Anglican bishops, to survey the whole miserable empire of organised religion - the anti-human teachings of the Vatican, under its current and recent stewards; the egregious displays of American fundamentalist televangelists; and the still largely-unreformed world of Islam, with its lush outgrowths of suicidal fanaticism - the scene becomes that much uglier. It then looks all too much as if religion, in its generality, is what Hitchens sees it as: not a living cultural treasure to fuss over and preserve, but an intellectual and moral enemy to be engaged and defeated by all peaceful means.