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Thursday, September 27, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

The Subtle, Lethal Poison of Religion

By Christopher Hitchens, from the Washington Post blog.

On Sunday the New York Times reported on the recrudescence of "faith-based" teaching in Russian public schools:
"A teacher named Irina Donshina set aside her textbooks, strode before her second-graders and, as if speaking from a pulpit, posed a simple question:

"Whom should we learn to do good from?"

"From God!" the children said.

"Right!" Ms. Donshina said. "Because people he created crucified him. But did he accuse them or curse them or hate them? Of course not? He continued loving and feeling pity for them, though he could have eliminated all of us and the whole world in a fraction of a second."

This grisly vignette, which almost perfectly summarizes the relationship between sadism and masochism in Christian teaching, probably wouldn't delight all those who think that morality derives from supernatural authority. After all, the Russian Orthodox Church was the patron of Czarist autocracy, helped spread The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the West, and compromised with the Stalin regime just as it had been allied with earlier serfdom and chauvinism. It is now part of Vladimir Putin's sinister exercise in the restoration of Russian supremacism and dictatorship: an enterprise that got off to a good start when our President admired Mr. Putin's crucifix and "looked into his soul". (Question: has Putin ever been seen wearing that crucifix again, or did his cynical advisers tell him that the Leader of the Free World was such a pushover for the "faith-based" that he would never check?)

So, and as with Salafist madrassas, it's easy to see how wicked it is to lie to children when it's done in the name of the "wrong" faith. But Ms Donshina's nonsensical propaganda is actually a mainstream statement of what the truly religious are bound to believe. Without god, how could we tell right from wrong, or learn how to do the right thing? I have never had a debate with a religious figure of any denomination, however "moderate, where this insulting question has not come up.

Yet is it not positively immoral to argue that our elementary morality and human solidarity derive from an authority that we must simultaneously (and compulsorily) love, and also fear? Does it not degrade us in our deepest integrity to be told that we would not do a right action, or utter a principled truth, were it not for fear of punishment or hope of reward? Moreover, we are told that we begin sinful and must earn our redemption from an authority whose actions and caprices (arranging a human sacrifice in Palestine in which we had no say, for example, and informing us that we are all guilty of it) were best summarized by Fulke Greville when he remarked ruefully that we are "created sick; commanded to be sound". This abject attitude, of sickly love for the Dear Leader combined with dreadful terror of him, is in fact the origin of totalitarianism. And there is nothing ethical about that.

I should like, for the continued vigor of this discussion, to repeat the challenge that I have several times offered the faithful in print and on the air. Can they name a moral statement or action, uttered or performed by a religious person, that could not have been uttered or performed by an unbeliever? I am still waiting, after several months, for a response to this. It carries an incidental corollary: I have also asked large and divergent audiences if they can think of a wicked action or statement that derived directly from religious faith, and you know what? There is no tongue-tied silence at THAT point. Everybody can instantly think of an example.

I don't rest my case but I have stated it as concisely as I can.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist and author whose latest book is entitled “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."