Among the Disbelievers
Christopher Hitchens's new book, God Is Not Great, is another example of atheism as an empty vessel, one he manages to fill with an intellectual justification for George W. Bush's "war on terror." Hitchens, of course, is the former left-wing journalist who astounded friends, colleagues and readers alike by coming out in support of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since then, with everyone from Richard Perle to Peter Beinart busily backpedaling as the dimensions of the disaster have grown more and more glaring, Hitchens has dug in his heels. Like John McCain strolling through the Baghdad markets, he is more defiant of reality than ever, more insistent, as he put it in a March 26 article in the Australian, that the occupation has made the world a better and safer place. In God Is Not Great, he has something unpleasant to say about nearly every believer under the sun--except one. He trots out John Ashcroft's infamous remark that America has "no king but Jesus" and reminds us that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson both welcomed 9/11 as payback for America's tolerance of homosexuality and abortion. He informs us that Hamas has talked about imposing the old Al-Jeziya tax on Christians and Jews in the West Bank, while in Gaza in April 2005 Muslim militants shot and killed a young woman named Yusra al-Azami merely because she was sitting unchaperoned in a car with her fiancé. For those inclined to think of the late Saddam Hussein as a Third World dictator in the secular-nationalist mold, Hitchens points out that Saddam found religion after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, inscribing the words "Allahuh Akhbar" (God is great) on the Iraqi flag, building a huge mosque as a showcase for his new piety and producing a handwritten version of the Koran allegedly with his own blood.
Yet one person is conspicuously absent from Hitchens's list of religious evil-doers: George W. Bush. Yes, the man who said Jesus is his favorite philosopher "because he changed my heart" and, as governor of Texas, proclaimed June 10 as "Jesus Day," goes unmentioned. How can this be? The explanation has to do with Hitchens's subtitle. If "religion poisons everything," then it must be responsible for most of the evil in the world, since belief of this sort is currently so widespread and pervasive. If a political leader is religious, he or she must be bad, and if he or she is bad, he or she must be religious. This is why Saddam gets slammed for his cynical exploitation of Islam and why Bush, author of the Global War on Terror and the war on Iraq, both of which Hitchens supports, gets a free pass. If he is to be believed, our faith-based President is defending rationalism against religious intolerance. Despite Hitchens's anti-Stalinist credentials, arguments like these are so unscrupulous as to call to mind the Comintern of the late '30s and early '40s. Somewhere, Andrei Vyshinsky is smiling.
Hitchens's historical sense in God Is Not Great is perhaps even more stunted than that of Dawkins. Here he is, for example, attacking the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates the Maccabean revolt in 168 BC against the Seleucid effort to de-Judaize the Jerusalem temple and consecrate it to Zeus:
When the father of Judah Maccabeus saw a Jew about to make a Hellenic offering on the old altar, he lost no time in murdering him. Over the next few years of the Maccabean "revolt," many more assimilated Jews were slain, or forcibly circumcised, or both, and the women who had flirted with the new Hellenic dispensation suffered even worse. Since the Romans eventually preferred the violent and dogmatic Maccabees to the less militarized and fanatical Jews who had shone in their togas in the Mediterranean light, the scene was set for the uneasy collusion between the old-garb ultra-Orthodox Sanhedrin and the imperial governorate. This lugubrious relationship was eventually to lead to Christianity (yet another Jewish heresy) and thus ineluctably to the birth of Islam. We could have been spared the whole thing.
If only the Maccabees had stood by as Antiochus IV Epiphanes looted the temple treasury, the world could have skipped 2,000 years or so of religious fanaticism and proceeded directly to the founding of the Council for Secular Humanism. Needless to say, there is no sense here of historical progress as necessarily convoluted and complex, with lots of back eddies, side currents and extended periods of stagnation. But just as it takes a child a long time to mature, it takes a long time for society as well.