Friday, March 14, 2003

Religion of Peace?

In an article for MSNBC.com yesterday, (now to be found here), entitled "Religion of Peace?", Christopher Hitchens takes aim at the "hypocritical Christian case against war." I suppose that he is, as an atheist, somewhat obligated to do so, or what's an atheist for? His prose is usually a pleasure to read, his sense of irony debilitating to its recipients. The risk, of course, is that when a writer engages his most despised opponent, the irony might degenerate into a series of cheap shots, as when he says of Tariq Aziz's meeting with the Pope that the "Holy Father really ought to have asked to hear Aziz's confession. But perhaps he couldn't spare the time for such an arduous undertaking." And my question is: how does Mr. Hitchens know that such a request was not tendered? The meeting was private, after all. And if the request was not made, could it be that the Pope, more readily than Mr. Hitchens, recognizes a lost cause, or a hypocrite, when he sees one? One senses that Mr. Hitchens' real complaint lies with the fact that the Pope met with Mr. Aziz at all, though if he had not, the possibility of confession would have vanished.

Hitchens goes after the Pope's functionaries as well, such as Cardinals Etchegaray and Solano, whose pronouncements have been equally displeasing to the ears of many pro-war Catholics, and then proceeds helter-skelter into a time-worn litany of Catholic hypocrisies, such as Rome's support of "Gen. Franco’s invasion of Spain, at the head of an army of Muslim mercenaries who were armed and trained by Hitler and Mussolini. And everybody knows of the crusades, which were launched against Christian heretics as well as against Muslims and (invariably) the Jews." He might have a point here, though as history it's rather skeletal in form. And then, as predicted, the irony devolves into a cheap shot: "I suppose if Saddam came out for partial-birth abortions or the ordination of women or the acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle he might be hit with a condemnation of some sort. (Until recently, one might have argued that his abuse of children would get him in hot water with the Vatican, too. But even that expectation now seems vain.)" I will insult my readers' intelligence by pointing out that that last parenthetical shot was a reference to the Vatican's disdain for the abuse suffered by victims of pedophile priests here in America.

One hopes that the true object of Hitchens' ire is the seemingly endless stream of pacifistic sentiments emanating from religious figures of institutional significance, and not the religious commoners who happen to be his fellow citizens. For most of those are with him on this matter of ousting Saddam, if the polls are to be believed. But somehow I doubt it. Something in his tone betrays him. He does mention that George Bush's own United Methodist church, in the company of "the Archbishop of Canterbury, many rabbis, [and] most imams," does not agree that "God is on the side of the United States." But then he homes in on former president Jimmy Carter - "peanut czar, home builder, Nobel laureate, and Baptist big mouth." Now, I rather enjoyed this part because Carter is a healthful reminder of what happens when we elect a president who swears an oath to protect and defend, by force of arms if necessary, this nation and its constitution, but who turns out to have been a pacifist at heart and an incompetent one at that. But it's also useful to remind ourselves that Carter holds no position of religious authority nor does he bind any man's conscience save his own. His clerical responsibilites extend no further than the threshold of the latest Habitat he has constructed for some less fortunate member of Humanity. Hitchens' picking on an individual gives the game away. He might have traveled over to Zenit.org, probably not his favorite hang-out, and found one Father Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic priest, religious believer, and nobody's mouthpiece, holding forth on the probable justice of the coming war. But perhaps Hitchens "couldn't spare the time for such an arduous undertaking."

In the end, Hitchens' honesty forces him into forthrightness: "As a member of Atheists for Regime Change, a small but resilient outfit, I can’t say that any of this pious euphemism, illogic, and moral cowardice distresses me. It shows yet again that there is a fixed gulf between religion and ethics. I hope it’s borne in mind by the president, next time he wants to make a speech implying that God is on the side of the United States (and its godless Constitution)." The historical idiocy of calling our Constitution godless is an argument for another day. But the "gulf between religion and ethics" did get my attention. If I'd only known that my Catholicism makes ethical consistency impossible, I'd have been rid of it long ago and looked instead to the paradigm of ethical trenchancy given us by various regimes of the atheist religion, of which there have been no shortage. Joseph Stalin, for example, founding figurehead and member in perpetuity of Atheists for an Unchanging, All-Devouring Regime, was an atheist, and renowned for the ethical system that made him the most prolific mass murderer in history. Need I go on with Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, and the various Kim-Ills of North Korea? Atheism has bequeathed us many oddities, such as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but none more wondrous than the pile of bodies left in its wake. I'm not saying that Hitchens worshipped Stalin, but he has held deeply socialist sympathies. Whatever political or moral entities form the icons of his veneration, it seems only fair that he point them out, as he has been kind enough to point out the "hypocrisies" of religion, though I must say that, when compared to Buchenwald, Franco's victory (and his saving of many Jews at a Pope's behest) is a cause for daily gratitude; that, when set beside the killing fields of Cambodia or the Ukraine or the Cultural Revolution, the sacking of Constantinople more likely gave a Pope cause to weep than to rejoice even though the carnage was far less.

Hitchens concludes with this final cheap shot: "The Almighty seems, if anything, to have smiled on Saddam Hussein for a quarter of a century. If we want to assure ourselves of a true 'coalition of the willing,' we might consider making a pact with the devil." This is nonsense, of course, as any coalition will be made up of political entities, not religious institutions. He's only pretending that he needs them, or would like to have them come along. As one who has also been distressed by the lack of moral clarity coming out of the Vatican on this matter of war with Saddam, I have seen that Mr. Hitchens is a good man to have on your side...when he's on your side. But if our "side" would be better formed by a confederation of atheists, then he's on our side only for convenience, and only for the time being. I haven't figured out what ethical principle makes this war such an urgent necessity for an atheist. In this area of inquiry, I think Mr. Hitchens is one devil I'm not going to make a pact with.





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