After reading Christopher Hitchens' latest book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, I'm almost ready to throw in the towel on my Catholic faith. Given the recent scandals and papal revivals of "that old-time religion", quitting Mother Church would be the easiest thing in the world for me to do. However, that's not going to happen.
Religion constantly betrays itself and bids its believers to follow its precepts with a blind faith, says Hitchens over and over throughout his deliciously artful prose. The Bible, for example, does not merit the authority it is given because it is a patchwork of bits and pieces from different authors without a context or and in no particular order. The stories originally come from an oral tradition and are then retold with the authors' biases and ideologies of the times.
While this criticism of the Bible is valid, it is important to recognize that the Bible's basic message is that God wants a relationship with his people in order to advance a vital engagement with the world in two ways: (1) to act justly toward the poor, forgotten and oppressed; and (2) to act according to the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." That most people, including self-proclaimed religious people, don't always follow these teachings doesn't negate or dilute the Bible's message. While there are yahoos who use the Bible for their own evil ends, saints and ordinary people have also been inspired to do good and to be comforted by the Scriptures throughout the ages.
Hitchens deftly anticipates the reader's questions throughout the book. For example, half way through the book I wondered if Hitchens would consider nonviolent giants like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., as models of men who lived the principles of their religions. Nope. Hitchens dismisses them by pointing out their political wiliness (Gandhi's manipulation of British law) or their human failures (King's womanizing). But again I say, why can't we be inspired by such people anyway? Hitchens doesn't answer that and this is the major glitch in his argument. As an atheist he simply is not moved or inspired by faith.
Well, you may say, look at what religious inspiration has wrought. George W. Bush claims to have been called by God to be president and to start a war with Iraq. The Religious Right has been inspired to "take back America" from the "Leftist evil-doers" whose loose morals and lack of family values are tearing our country apart. However, let's not confuse political ambition and manipulation with religious faith. Bush and the Right are using God to appeal to those people who seek to live faith-filled lives. They are taking advantage of them in a simple power play.
And speaking of power, isn't that what religion is all about-at least ORGANIZED religion. I sure discovered that on my first visit to the Vatican last summer. The imposing columns, majestic dome, stately obelisk, and the priceless treasure trove of paintings, sculptures, ceramics and gold are all ways to make the Vatican look like a bona fide institution of power. Frighteningly so. However, one only has to spend an hour or two at the Vatican to discover that God isn't there.
The Church's quest for power came about for a good reason. After Rome fell, the Church took the empire's place and then provided some kind of order during a chaotic and confusing time. The pope donned the mantle of emperor and bishops took over old pagan temples and basilicas (a.k.a. law courts) and converted them to churches, just as the priests and conquistadors would do to the pagan temples in Latin America nearly 1,000 years later. The Church even adopted familiar images of Jupiter, the Roman sky god, as its own. You know him, he's the old man with the long white beard who flies through the air.
OK, so organized religion is corrupt, scandalous, hypocritical and all about power, like any human institution. We need to remind ourselves of this and we need to remind our religious leaders, too. (I know, the pope claims infallibility but that is just legalistic dogma cooked up at the First Vatican Council in 1870. You don't have to believe it!)
So why do people believe in religion? Why do they go week after week to Sunday services and participate in retreats, missions and other church activities? Well, some people are searching for the spiritual life, a legitimate facet of human life that complements the physical, emotional and intellectual parts of us. Other people are looking for direction or protection and comfort from their fears and insecurities. These may be human frailties and I doubt that Hitchens would blame people for them. Well, maybe he would.
As a substitute for religion, Hitchens advocates enlightened thinking and reason, which he contends can effectively run our society and serve as a counterweight to blind faith. I'd agree with him on that but good thinking and reason don't necessarily guarantee enlightenment. Let's not forget that Hitchens, who is an erudite thinker, supported the war in Iraq in 2003 while many people opposed the war on religious grounds. For example, Pope John Paul II pleaded with Bush NOT to go into Iraq-and to get out-several times. U.S. mainline churches openly opposed the prospect of war. On the other hand, some people claim that Bush never consulted a minister, not even from his own Methodist faith. I just can't believe he made that decision to go to war on faith.
Yes, religion is a pain and it can be a poison, as Hitchens' book title suggests. However, I would argue that religion goes sour when it is united with politics. That's what Reagan and Bush II did to secure votes from the Religious Right-and that's why progressives need to make sure that the country maintain a separation of church and state.
Hitchens is a controversial and provocative fellow. Throughout my reading of his book I found myself challenged by his arguments. This book is worth reading and it would be a good book club selection for lively discussion and thought-provoking reflection about one's own faith-or the lack of it.
Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com . Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.