Martin Marty Responds to Christopher Hitchens

I must admit that I have grown very tired of all the articles, blog posts, etc. on the so-called New Atheism." So I was not very enthusiastic when I heard that the Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" blog was devoted to a response to the following claim by Christopher Hitchens:

"Religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children."

Not surprisingly, Chicago professor Marty Martin actually had something interesting to say:

Most societies and polities throughout history were shaped or influenced by some form or other of religion: Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Native American, etc. They were all mixed bags, since everything human is some sort of mixed bag.

We in the United States lucked out because we live in a republic that used religion (of the Enlightenment=Deism and some forms of Christianity variety) to give us a "less violent, more rational, more tolerant, eventually less racist, less tribal, less bigoted, less ignorance, less hostile to free inquiry, less contemptuous of women, less coercive toward children" society than most other and earlier ones -- which were also, in part, religious.

It's out of place to overplay this point: I always quote a page of Pogo on my study wall: "We have faults which we have hardly used yet." Still, in that mixed record there are many elements to affirm.

So far as the historians I have read can find, no society-wide polity founded on atheism appeared until the French Revolution and, then, the 20th century. In a choice between Revolutions, I'd take Madison-era religion-and-philosophy to Volltaire-era religion-and-philosophy as a base.

Most of the time, polities mix religion, philosophy, practical necessity, indifference, agnosticism, and somehow make it work.

The atheist regimes of the 20th century were different: They were efforts, at last, to expunge all religion and found the polity on atheism. Think of Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, for starters. (I know, we can be a bit definitionally cutesy and not entirely wrong to see Nazism, Fascism, Maoism, and Soviet Communism as bearing quasi-religoius features: ritual, myth, sacrifice, messianism, ultimate concern. But the fashioners of these did not think they were being religious and did all they could to say and show they were not.) And out of their experiments, scores and scores of millions were tortured or killed.

I think at heart the proposition about "religion is . . . " does not work because in some senses there is no such thing as "religion" because there are only "religions," and "sub-sections of religions," and they are highly diverse, made up of people who are highly diverse. Thus there are many atheists and cells of atheists who made positive human achievements, alongside agnostics and many kinds of religious folk.

I have yet to see anything positive in either the "religion is . . ." approach or my playful "atheism is . . . " approaches. Efforts by people in both camps to do in the other are wasteful of energies which could better be summoned for common good. I do not know whether or not organized atheism -- the only kind that dream of "abolishing religoin" -- will survive. It is clear that the robust growth of religious communities in Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. is not going to be blunted or slowed because in the luxury of our book stores, salons, campuses, and parsonages we read and write books about how awful the other is.

Both atheisms and religions deserve criticism, and they are getting it. That should be all to the good.

Read it here.


Anonymous said…
"Religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children."

So what exactly isn't true in the above claim made by Christopher Hitchens?

The right always points to various "isms" as atheistic examples. Let's start with the poster boy of the right, Hitler and Nazism. Hitler was raised Catholic, and spoke of religion in many of his speeches. Why exactly did Hitler go after the Jews? Well, let's see, the Jews killed his savior - JC. I'm sorry, but all religions need to take a good look in the mirror. If they really did, they might not like what they see.

Of all the conflicts/wars happening in the world today, can you name one not based on religion, tribal rivalry or religious cleansing? Even if some conflicts seem to be tribal, those tribes involved are of differing religions.

Contrary to claims by the religious, atheism is not a religion. What it is, is a complete lack of need for any supernatural being or belief system with a man made deity. Poeple are people, and can be good and moral with or without religion.

Religion has been used to justify far to many disgusting, violent and degrading actions.

The Christian south back in the day, used the bible to support their practice of slavery. How delightfully compassionate of those good Christians.
Chuck Blanchard said…

Thanks for the comment, and welcome to my blog. As a starting point, as I hope you will see as you read the rest of my blog, I am hardly part of "the Right." And Marty Martin isn't either.

You say "Poeple are people, and can be good and moral with or without religion." I agree. That is why I think that religion is not the cause of all the wars and horror done in its name--human nature is the cause, and religion is merely the excuse. For the same reason, I don't think that "atheism" has caused the death and destruction caused by the actions by atheists such as Stalin, Pol Pot or Mao.

The bottomline is that religion is often an excuse for something else--such as a grab for power, and non-religious ideologies are now used as often as religion.

In asnwer to your question about whether I can think of any recent wars that did not have a religious component, it seems to me that most of the major conflcits in the 20th and 21st Centuries fall into this category--World War I, WW II, the Korean War and the Vietnamese War were largely the clash of ideologies removed from any religious conflicts. WWI and WWII involved conflicts between countries with the same religious beleifs, and the Korean War and the Vietnam War did as well.

I will concede that there are and perhaps will always be religious conflicts--such as the shia versus Sunni conflict now raging in the Middle East, but again, I think this conflict is a struggle over political power that uses religious conflict as a fig leaf.

Finally, as to Hitler--while raised as a Catholic, most scholarship shows that he was no fan of Christianity. He viewed it as alien to the German people. He was no atheist, but Chrisitianity should not get the blame for his actions. (Although many church leaders and Christians in Europe have a lot to answer for because of their own actions).

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