Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Sermon Preached in Response to Christopher Hitchens and god is not Great

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida
11 Pentecost - Proper 14 - Year C - August 11/12, 2007
Genesis 15: 1-6; Ps. 33; Hebrews 11:1-3, (4-7), 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
Preacher: The Reverend William H. Stokes, Rector

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen... Hebrews 11:1

If you go into a Borders Book Store or a Barnes and Noble, you will, no doubt see, prominently displayed, a book with a yellow dust jacket titled god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.1 Lots of people are reading it. This book is currently number three on The New York Times Best Seller List for non-fiction hardcover books.2
The author of god is Not Great is a Washington D.C. based intellectual and writer named Christopher Hitchens. Christopher Hitchens’s book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is a rant against organized religion. It bristles with anger....Let me add, that in many ways I share this anger and that there are many parts of Hitchens’s rant with which I agree. It is clear to me, and I think to us all, that religion can be poisonous and oppressive and even dangerous; history has proven that over and over again.
Still, in the end, while I have some sympathy with a lot of his critique of religion and some empathy with his anger about many of the things that are done by and in the name of religion, I found Hitchens’s book philosophically weak and intellectually unsatisfying.
To begin with, he spends very little time in his book actually wrestling with the question of God per se. When he does attempt to address the question and matter of the existence of God, he assumes only the most primitive and simplistic arguments so that he can easily dismiss them.3
Generally he has written a lampoon, which caricatures believers and their beliefs. When he comes across religious figures for whom he has some admiration, such as the 14th century theologian William of Ockham,4 German pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer5 or American preacher and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.6 he crudely twists and turns their lives in an attempt to separate the people and their actions from the faith and beliefs which animated them....It is a clear exercise in reductionism.
At other times he simply takes cheap shots, as he does, for example with Mother Theresa, whom he skewers for taking a trip to Ireland to oppose that nation’s consideration of amending the divorce law while neglecting to say anything at all about her work with the world’s poorest of the poor.
In his book, Hitchens makes many arguments. For example, he argues that "religious faith wholly misrepresents the origin of man and the cosmos…”7 When, in his intellectual “trash talking” Hitchens makes the sweeping statement that religious faith, “wholly misrepresents the origin of man and the cosmos,”8 we need to ask what he means? Is he lumping together the creation myths of all the world’s religions and just dismissing them? Is he speaking specifically of the creation myth in the early chapters of Genesis?
If he is dismissing the creation myths of all of the world’s religions, is he being so literal in his approach that he is blind to the truths they attempt to convey through story? If he is referring specifically to the first chapter of Genesis, in what ways does he feel this misrepresents the origin of man and the cosmos? How does he read it?
I understand the opening of Genesis to be a poetic story told to assert a theological truth: a truth which holds that at one time there was chaos and disorder in the universe; that out of this chaos and disorder was brought order and behind this order there is an Orderer who people of faith refer to as God.
Hitchens says of himself and his co-thinkers, “Our belief is not belief. Our principles are not faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason.”9 There are a lot of flaws in his argument....To begin with, despite his protests to the contrary, he does uphold science as an object of faith and he assumes that science is capable of absolute objectivity. This is problematic.
A couple of years ago, I went to The National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. They were running a special exhibit about the collusion of science and medicine and the Nazi’s final solution to exterminate the Jews. Throughout the exhibit, countless examples were given of the scientific and medical community’s use of science to prove the superiority of the Aryan race and the inferiority of the Jews to justify the Jewish extermination.10
I celebrate science.....I believe God gave us brains and calls upon us to use them but, as with all forms of human knowing and knowledge, science and scientific knowledge has its limits. When it fails to acknowledge this, and when society fails to acknowledge this, science can be dangerous, just as religion can be dangerous. Let’s face it, religion may have declared the Crusade, but it was science that invented the nuclear missile.
Yes, there are Christians, lots of Christians, who are absolute literalists about the Bible and believe that the Genesis account is a factual, historical account of what happened at the origin of the universe. I am not one of them. I can both read Genesis for the truths it offers and also accept the Big Bang Theory of the Origins of the Universe and also Darwin and his theory of evolution and be open to all forms of knowledge and knowing, scientific and artistic. As one of our Episcopal Church ads once stated, “there’s a difference between being baptized and brainwashed!”11
It is my conviction that religion is about the pursuit of truths and truth – absolute truth....One problem for Hitchens and anyone who holds a similar position, is that they cannot definitely account for what is behind all that is....What is the absolute cause?.... To them, it has all happened by chance. There is no cause or design or purpose....Though it is of a different type, it takes an enormous amount of faith to uphold and sustain this belief.
Attempting to characterize the position he and his co-thinkers hold, Hitchens writes, “We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”12
It is striking to me that Hitchens cannot hear his own internal contradictions. He respects free inquiry, open-mindeness and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake, but his respect and openness is qualified....It ends at respect and open-mindedness where religion and religious inquiry are concerned.
In his younger years, Hitchens was strongly influenced by the thinking of Karl Marx and aspects of this show throughout his book.13 When I was in college I took a course in modern philosophy and read a lot of Karl Marx’s work. A short, but very memorable article of Marx’s that I remember reading was one he titled, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.”
In this article, written in 1844, Marx was trying to imagine a new future for European society. He wrote that current intellectuals did not have any idea what the new future should be. In Marx’s words, the advantage of the new trend was “that we do not attempt dogmatically to prefigure the future, but want to find the new world only through criticism of the old....a ruthless criticism of everything existing, and that this criticism would be ruthless in two senses - that it must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.”14
Marx’s thought here is really quite intriguing but, as history has proved, and especially with respect to Marx and Marxism: it is much easier to criticize and tear down, than it is to propose and build up.
The same holds true for Hitchens. It is easy to offer a ruthless criticism of religion and attack it; it is much more difficult to propose a framework for values and understanding and build a civilization on it.
After Hitchens has a 275 page temper tantrum, he gets to his last chapter which is 7 pages long in which he proposes his solution to the problem of the “poison of religion.” In this last chapter Hitchens calls upon human beings to choose “doubt and experiment, skepticism and inquiry” over “faith and dogma” Again, I find myself puzzled at his need to understand these ideas and concepts as exclusive of one another.
Traditional religions are communities of revelation....That is, it is our belief that God has revealed God at particular times and places to and through particular people and events. In these particular times, places, people and events we believe sacred and timeless truths have been revealed. But these revelations have never been understood as frozen and static. Moreover, the timeless truths of the infinite God have been revealed to very finite human beings.
Theology has, as a consequence, always been a living and on-going conversation and argument. Often, the best and most lively thinking about the nature of God have come when we have questioned and doubted old assumptions and been led to a new understanding about the nature of God and the nature of God’s creation. Our reading of the Scriptures today has been richly informed by a spirit of skepticism and inquiry that have led us to see the old texts in new ways.
In his 7 page grand summary, which makes up the final chapter of the book, Hitchens calls for “a renewed Enlightenment” which will base itself “on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man and woman?”15 It calls for, “The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by easy electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development.”16
“Very importantly,” he writes, “the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse”17 and here we discover both that Hitchens is not for openness and free inquiry at all, and we also discover that his primary problem with religion has been with its attitudes toward sex! How Freudian!
He concludes his book with these words, “Only the most naive utopian can believe that this new humane civilization will develop like some dream of ‘progress,’ in a straight line. We have first to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection. ‘Know yourself,’ said the Greeks, gently suggesting the consolations of philosophy.”18
And in the last sentence of the book, Hitchens writes, “To clear the mind for this project, it has become necessary to know the enemy and to prepare to fight it.”19 In these last angry and inflammatory words Hitchens betrays that he is as narrow minded and dangerous as any religious ideologue he criticizes and this, I think, is regrettable. I think it is regrettable because, as I indicated earlier, I am sympathetic with a lot of what Hitchens has to say and with a lot of his critique of the world’s religious....I believe religious extremism or fundamentalism in any form - Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist – is dangerous and oppressive. I feel threatened by any person or groups - religious or not – who claim they have an absolute corner on truth.
Again, I am thankful that I am part of a church, the Episcopal Church, that is open-minded and upholds scientific knowledge and free inquiry. The late Paul Moore, former bishop of New York and one of my heroes in the faith, once described the Episcopal Church as a “catholic church in love with freedom.”20 It is an apt description and one I completely agree with.... It is also why I am saddened by those who are working now to undermine our openness and freedom...
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to those around him, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). In Jesus’ preaching, the kingdom is the realization of God’s purpose, of God’s hopes and dreams for creation and the kingdom is intended to be realized in this world.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we constantly pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It is a prayer that God’s hopes and dreams might be realized by us in our world today and with our participation in helping to bring it about.....We are not there yet....And as Christopher Hitchens and many others make clear, religions and the religious are too often a part of the problem rather than the solution.....
Nonetheless, human beings are religious by nature....Religions are not man-made as Hitchens mistakenly argues21 ....While the form of religions have been shaped and constructed by human beings, religions are first and foremost a human response to the holy, to the divine....They are a human response to revelation, the revelation of Truth - upper case “T”....They are a response to that ineffable mystery we call God, whom we can only know because God stirs in us a desire to know him.
Following Freud, Hitchens reduces this to mere “wish thinking and projection”22 and perhaps he is right, but this dismisses the experience of hundred of millions of people over thousands of years. And how is he so certain that all of this does not have an external source or cause by design? Hitchens conclusions require a leap.....
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) it says in today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews. How true this is....It is often not easy to see signs of the kingdom in our world...our world which so often seems threatening and dangerous....We need to hear Jesus words over and over again, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). More important, we need to work with God to bring help bring the kingdom, the peaceable kingdom, the kingdom of love, about.....It is not easy work....
Like Abraham of old, God calls us to journey together to a place we long for but do not know (See Hebrews 11:8)...We are not yet there and so we obey and continue to journey because a promise has been planted in our hearts and a longing in our souls....We desire a better country (Hebrews 11:16), a better world....We yearn for that state of existence promised as our inheritance...the heavenly city that God has prepared for us and for all people....We yearn for the kingdom, that it is God’s good pleasure to give us, if we will only continue to have faith and the will to persevere and see the journey through.....

1. Hitchens, Christopher god is not Great: How Religions Poison Everything (Boston and New York: Twelve Books – Hachette Book Groups, 2007)
2. See Best-Sellers – Non-Fiction in The New York Times Book Review- August 12, 2007
3. Chapter Six, “Arguments from Design” provides an array of examples of Hitchens addressing only the most simplistic silliness, but failing to grapple with serious contemporary systematic theologians such as Karl Rahner, David Tracy or Paul Tillich to name a few. Hitchens also fails to acknowledge that critical approaches to the Scriptures are a part of mainstream Judaism and Christianity and that the “historical-critical method” is taught as normative in today’s mainline seminaries.
4. See Hitchens pp. 68-71, 85-87 – Hitchens adapts “Ockham’s Razor” for his own purposes even as he diminishes Ockham’s own Christian faith and beliefs. Even though Ockham opposed the Avignon papacy, he was a faithful Franciscan throughout his life and was first and foremost a “theologian” which would necessarily puts him in opposition to Hitchens’ thinking.
5. See Hitchens p. 7 and 241. Here, in a clear display of arrogance, Hitchens dismisses Bonhoeffer’s Christian faith and understanding of “costly grace” and reduces his actions as something that was only in accordance with “the dictates of conscience” (see page 241).
6. See Hitchens, pp. 173-176,179-184. Hitchens where after his own peculiar summary of the New Testament, Hitchens declares of King that “In no real, as opposed to nominal sense…was he a Christian” (p. 176). In instances where he approves of a Christian for their actions, Hitchens separates the person’s actions from their Christian faith. This is clearly convenient for his argument but misrepresents both the individuals and presents an extremely prejudiced view of the Christian faith and other faiths.
7. Hitchens p. 4
8. Hitchens p. 4
9. Hitchens p. 5
10. The exhibit was titled “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” – An on-line version of the exhibit can be found at
11. This ad was developed by the Church-Ad Project in Green Bay, Wisconsin
12. Hitchens p. 5
13. See Hitchens p. 151 - 152
14. Marx, Karl “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing” in The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd Edition ed. Robert Tucker (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978) pp.12-15.
15. Hitchens p. 283
16. Hitchens p. 283
17. Hitchens p. 283
18. Hitchens p. 283
19. Hitchens p. 283
20. Moore is quoted saying this in a two-part video “The Story of the Episcopal Church.”
21. Hitchens p. 54
22. See Hitchens p. 4

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