International columnist and atheist advocate Christopher Hitchens has a new syndicated column in Slate, which also ran in my local Las Vegas Review Journal today. As always, his writing is passionate, clever, and lucid. And, also like much of his writing, it is very, very wrong.
Now, I actually agree with his ultimate thesis: that the freedom of religion, like freedom of speech, is not an absolute: speech is limited by not being able to yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and religion is limited by, for example, not being able to deny emergency medical care to children (one example that Hitchens uses). Hitchens discusses this to make his main point in the article: that Islam, as it comes into increased contact with the West, must reform some of its aspects, such as its hostility to criticism. If it doesn’t happen voluntarily, Hitchens implies (referring to the first half of the article), it must be done by force.
Well, sure, this is an important conversation to have now, and many others have already said as much. The general agreement that as new cultures increasingly interact, there must be adaptation, is so common, in fact, that one wonders why Hitch feels compelled to repeat it. It’s not like him to be unoriginal.
But the first half of the article is where he shines, and where his heart clearly is. This article is just a platform for him to do his favorite thing in the world: bash religion.
However, Hitch reveals his own lazy prejudices when he does this: his evidence and arguments against religion are sloppy, to say the least.
Consider the religion that takes more heat in the article than any other, even Islam itself: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yes, Hitch has some opinions about the Mormons. In his tirade against the LDS faith, he says the following:
“[I]n 1963…the Mormon Church had not yet gotten around to recognizing black people as fully human or as eligible for the priesthood.” Wow, Hitch. Really? Not “fully human”? One could easily cite dozens of quotes refuting such a, frankly, stupid claim, but once someone’s irrational hatred has let anything this puerile sink in, logic just can’t shake it anymore.
As for the priesthood charge, Hitch, like countless others, suggests it was a manifestation of racism. The lack of evidence for this is no barrier to the accusation–hey, if you think it looks like racism, then it automatically must be, right?–and the mountain of stories, testimonies, facts, and logic that contradict the “racism theory,” well, those just don’t count, I guess. Bottom line, the origin and purpose of the priesthood ban is mysterious, but understanding that would be inconvenient for those who see an easy target. (This is a good resource for the reality, though.)
“(Its leadership subsequently underwent a “revelation” allowing a change on this point, but not until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.)” So how do you know it wasn’t a revelation, Hitch? Or is that a can of worms you’d rather not open? You imply it was political expediency, but where’s the actual evidence? If the change of policy was due to pressure, wouldn’t it have happened many years before? (The LDS Church and BYU had endured vocal protests for many years before the ban was lifted.) If the ban was just a racist, man-made policy, then why change it at all? Weren’t the same old racists as always still in charge? The only explanation offered is, perhaps, the Civil Rights Act…which had been passed 14 years before. That’s a pretty tenuous cause and effect.
Second in Hitch’s arsenal is plural marriage: “abandoning its historic and violent attachment to polygamy.” Violent? How so? Were women being clubbed over the head and dragged back into some troll’s cave? Also, “historic?” That’s way out of proportion. But the method to Hitch’s madness here is to insinuate ulterior motives, again. He says that the Church did this so Utah could join the Union. Even from a critic’s point of view, that’s simplistic. A lot of other factors could be seen in play, but the fact remains, Hitch has no evidence that this policy change, either, resulted from outside pressure or anything else other than divine command. But we won’t seriously investigate any possibility that we don’t like right away, will we, Hitch? Such thinking is uncool. We scoff at rubes who do, don’t we, Hitch?
Finally, Hitch notes how Mitt Romney, in his presidential run two years ago, “had to assure voters” that he wouldn’t be taking marching orders from the prophet in Salt Lake City. Yes, Hitch, it is sad when people still actually have to defuse cheap religious bigotry in this day and age, isn’t it? But what’s your point here? Are you even suggesting that Romney, or any other LDS politician, would be in thrall to sinister, behind the scenes Church leaders? Mormons have served at the federal level, as senators, cabinet members, and federal judges, for a century; where have you seen a case of such puppeteering? You set up a straw man of shadiness, then knock it down with another straw man of guilty denial. Strange.
Hitch then dismisses our “quaint and weird beliefs.” That’s OK. I don’t mind my beliefs being called quaint and weird. Really! I understand how they can be seen that way. All that matters to me, again, is that those beliefs are literally, objectively accurate–that the description of reality they propose is authentic, even in their supernatural aspects. Such a “fundamentalist” outlook often elicits jeers in our society today, but, nonetheless, one would think that it’s the only view that a scientist like Hitch would respect–I only care about facts and truth. Now, if Hitch would like to talk about that…
He wraps up this section of the article thusly: “we have decidedly limited them in the free exercise of their religion.” This is the single biggest failure of the article because…um, Hitch, no you haven’t. Not a one of the examples you cited was due to government fiat or even, conclusively, cultural pressure. Neither lifting the priesthood ban nor ending polygamy nor denying a reliance on Church leaders in civic, elected positions was the result of legislation or debate or diplomacy or any outside channel at all.
Sad that after all those examples, and all that invective, your tirade still rests on thin air. If your ideas are right, shouldn’t they be easy to prove?
The next few paragraphs of the article go on to slam Jews and Catholics, with equally shallow assumptions. Hitch chastises Jews for a circumcision ritual that may have infected several babies once–this is still controversial. However, even if things played out exactly the way Hitch implies they did, is this really a condemnation of religion in general or, for his more specific purpose here, an example of government controlling religion? In the fallout from this scandal, local Jewish leaders in New York presented more changes and regulations than the government did. (See the “medical controversy” section here.) Such voluntary self-regulation would seem to fly in the face of Hitch’s penchant for claiming religion must be forced to be decent.
Hitch seems to pick and choose his evidence according to what suits his biases. Full stories, shades of gray, and any degree of decency for the guys on the other side of the debate, are all left on the cutting room floor.
Geez, Hitch, are there any ugly rumors and stereotypes about any organized religion that you don’t believe? No? How gullible.