Friday, 3 May 2013

Does Religion Poison Everything?


Let's start with a disclaimer.

I'm a big, big fan of the Hitch.

Books like God Is Not Great were sources of information and inspiration to me when I first came to identify as a non-believer, far more so than any works by Dawkins or even Dennett, so it's safe to say that the late and great Christopher Hitchens remains someone I admire to this day. I'm not keen on hero worship, but he'd be a strong candidate if I was. I sure as shit didn't agree with a lot of his politics, but I greatly respected his willingness to speak up on matters he considered important, and to hold to his beliefs even when they made him unpopular.

So yes, big fan of the Hitch, love his work, miss his insights on matters.

I still cannot help but disagree with him on one of his major arguments, however.

What I'm referring to is this idea put forward in the very subtitle of God Is Not Great, “religion poisons everything” (unless you live in the UK like me, in which case the subtitle had to be changed to “the case against religion”, likely due to the bullshit libel laws of the time). You might say that this was just a catchy little phrasing used to garner attention to the book, but it comes up frequently throughout and is referenced in many of his speeches (which are master-classes in oratory skill, by the by, and you should watch as many as you can get your hands on).

Hitchens liked to cause a stir, to trigger debate and discussion, and this could partly account for what he was trying to achieve with this statement. But I do believe that he thought there was merit in this idea of religion as the source of the world's problems and issues.

Yet the tutor for my dissertation this year (writing on the topic of non-belief in early twentieth century Britain), a man I have come to admire and respect considerably, who has aided me time and time again and provided considerable support with what was a difficult task to complete, is a deeply religious man. He holds convictions that are completely different my own, but this did in no way poison the rapport we built up over the last year or the help me gave to me; if anything my dissertation benefited from it, for he offered a different insight onto the matters being discussed, something that I could never hope to provide.

Religion causes problems, yes. I don't think anyone could look at some of the events occurring across the globe today and come to any other conclusion. Does it cause all the world's problems, though?

No, it doesn't.

Christopher Hitchens was on to something with this idea of religion poisoning everything; I just think he needed to go a step further. Ignorance is what we should all be concerned by, whether we are religious or not, for it is the root cause of many of the world's current predicaments. Religion can indeed be considered an off-shoot of ignorance, but not always. To say that religion has had absolutely nothing of value to contribute to the world would be an over-statement so massive you'd be able to see it from orbit; the great Islamic nations of the Middle Ages helped to preserve texts of antiquity, and anyone who sees nothing beautiful or inspiring about a centuries-old Cathedral, steeped in history and a monument to ages past, needs to have their heads examined.

This isn't a criticism of Hitchens, and I am not another parasite in the guise of a commentator scuttling out from the shadows now that he is unable to retort to leech of his reputation and memory. This is merely a disagreement. I'd like to think that atheists are capable of respectfully disagreeing with one another, of debating matters that are important to us all.

We can disagree about things but still respect one another, and that's exactly how I feel about Hitchens on this topic.