Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hitchens v. Blair: A Buddhist Perspective

I am not,  as regular readers might know, an apologist for all religion in general.  I do think there are moral differences between religions, and that some claims of some religions are not defensible morally, ethically, logically, or in any other way.

With that in mind, I was intrigued to read of a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair in Toronto.

Hitchens,  dying of esophageal cancer,  wrote "God is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything," and Blair  was George W. Bush's lapdog, and a convert to the Roman Catholic Church.   I have not been able to find a transcript of it, but I wish to discuss  the issue of religion as a force for good or evil as brought up in a pre-debate interview with Christopher Hitchens,  and a roughly corresponding part with a pre-debate interview with Tony Blair


Well, should I start [discussing religion and evil by considering the subtitle of his book, especially] ‘poisons everything?’ Perhaps I should. Ok, I’ll ask for trouble if I put on a provocative subtitle, but I mean by it, not of course it poisons Chinese food or tantric sex or Niagara falls or something but it does attack us in our deepest integrity. It says we wouldn’t know right from wrong if it wasn’t for divine permission. It immediately makes us, essentially, slaves. And it has to be opposed for that reason. And such a radical frontal attack on human dignity, it seems to me, that it does leach into everything. And it has the effect of making good people say and do wicked things. For example, a morally normal person when presented with a new baby would not set about its genitals with a sharp stone or a knife. He would have to think God needed that. No, it wouldn’t occur to him otherwise. It make intelligent people say stupid things, commits them to saying stupid things such as they are objects of a divine design. As well as being stupid, very conceited by the way. They claim believers to be so modest. That’s what I mean by the poison. And because of that, I do tend to think it applies in general. My younger daughter goes to a Quaker school in Washington, the same one as the president’s children. ... There was a time when the Quakers ran the most sadistic prisons in North America and were fond of excommunicating people for the smallest things such as supporting the American Revolution, for example. If they’d been more powerful, they might have been worse. ... any surrender of reason in favour of faith contains the same danger it seems to me. Fluctuates over time. Before, I’ve been asked in the 1930s what I thought was the most dangerous religion I almost certainly would have said Roman Catholicism because of its then pretty much undisguised alliance with the Fascist parties in Europe, for which it has not yet succeeded in apologizing enough, in my opinion. But has, least admitted it was true. It was very dangerous then. I now think obviously, or rather self-evidently, Wahabbi fundamentalist Islam and its equivalents in messianic Shiism , the Shia equivalent of that Sunni theory, practice, are as dangerous especially because they could get a hold of weapons, or a weapon of mass destruction. So we would find out, with a little speculation, we used to have after lights out when we were young, what would really happen if a really wicked person got a hold of a nuclear bomb and now we’re going to find out. When the messianic meets the apocalyptic, watch out. 

 And Blair:

I believe [religion can  provide a common value and an ethical foundation]. I mean, first of all, I think the place of faith in the era of globalization is the single biggest issue of the 21st century. I mean, it’s not an issue like climate change is an issue, for example, or the global economy in its present crisis. But in terms of how people live together, how we minimize the prospects of conflict and maximize the prospects of peace, the place of religion in our society today is essential. And basically what is happening, is that in the process of globalization people are being pushed closer together, so are people of different faiths. Canada is a classic example, it’s a melting pot of people of different faiths, and races and nationalities and we’re all pushed together. The question in those circumstances: does religion become a force for bad, pulling people apart because religion is seen as a badge of identity and opposition to others. Or is religion essentially seen as being about certain values that guide your life and what is common to all the major religions is a belief in love of neighbour as yourself and actually in human solidarity and human compassion. So in that sense, I think religion could be, in an era of globalization, a civilizing force.

As a Buddhist, as a Buddhist who considers Buddhism a religion, I feel closer in spirit to Hitchens than to Blair; but on the other hand,  different religious beliefs or lack thereof should not pull people apart. Religious identities are identities if you make the religion the identity and the religion posits itself as distinct from other religions and lack thereof.

Buddhism does make assertions of separateness, at least in the Mahayana variety,  but does this within and by its very denial of logic of separation and inclusion.   In the way then, the Mahayana Buddhism separates itself from other religions, it gleefully makes the assertion of non-separateness, that there is no real "-ism" that separates you from me. 

Thus we Mahayana Buddhists have a "why" we can all get along, as well as a "how" we can all get along.    The problem with Hitchens is the same problem as the problem of Blair: if Hitchens is right, (and I think his point about some religions' attack on reason is from the moral high ground, and one I think Buddhists should support)  then what should be done?   Shouldn't we support the dis-indoctrination of people away from religion? Well, but uh, Buddhism's a religion.  It just doesn't attack reason though.   At least those flavors that don't have people pledging loyalty to a guru and crap like that.   But that quibble aside, I haven't answered the question, really. 

Hitchens says that  common values and an ethical foundation cannot be provided by religion, period:

Religion can’t provide that. Moral values come from innate human solidarity. They’re the values we need, have needed to survive as a species. Knowing we have responsibilities to other people, for example, knowing that certain types of behaviour are worse than antisocial. Religion, to an extent believes that, but it doesn’t always. It takes it from us. No, it couldn't provide it. All it could do is lay claim to it, a claim that I would deny. And because it’s not in the nature of faith to be really universal -- it’s quite extraordinary the number of claims that are made by people of faith to be the holders of the only faith, It’s not enough for them to say they believe in God, or get values from it, they have to say God revealed to us. And the wars of religion alone would be enough to negate this claim. .... also to show what we already know, that religion is manmade. So it’s one of our artefacts, along with, fortunately with, genuine humanistic morality. And I think it’s essential to choose between the two.

I think we need to find a way to dissuade people away from an irrational position based on unreasoned arguments from authority, but we need to do so in harmony with where people are found, and skillfully.   And that skill, I submit, is only found in the cultivation of a discipline that involves dealing with people harmoniously.   And I am afraid that it's absolute bull that "moral values come from innate human solidarity."  Moral values are nascent in people, and can be made to grow and be expressed and realized with skill and training.   But "moral values come from innate human solidarity" is just a slogan.  I guess that which Hitchens would admit is "human solidarity" would include or denote  that which makes humans characteristically human.  And that "that" would therefore have to include not only wisdom, generosity, compassion and mercy, but greed, hatred, ignorance and bloodthirstiness.   While most babies are born, evidently with the capability to develop empathy, yet a small percentage seem to develop into psychopaths, based on what we know about the brain today.   Hopefully that percentage may decline in the future, but as of today, it seems a small number of children do develop into psychopaths.  The rest of us surely can feel empathy and compassion, but we do indeed suffer and do indeed indulge in acts that aren't from anyone's better angels or better Void.  So I think training is necessary in the same way that refinement of ore is necessary in order to get a pure metal.  Both Hitchens  and Blair would say, each for different reasons,  "it's all gold."   But it's not.

I'm sure therefore, from this position all kinds of folks could call me a religion hater or a religious bigot or an ignorant so-and-so.   But I never see my position represented in these debates anyway.


Paul Garrigan said...

Personally I just view Hitchens as an intellectual bully who belittles anyone who would dare challenge him. It seems to be all about debating skills and scoring points. I feel that blaming religion on the world's problems is just picking the easiest target.

You will often hear people like Hitchens use Ireland as an example of religion causing problems. I grew up in Ireland and don't think the problems were anything to do with religion - just people fighting over scarce resources. I think the same argument could be used elsewhere – if people feel their ability to achieve their aspirations is blocked they will be a willing participant in any cause that seems to help them. You could just as easily blame unequal distribution of wealth for the world’s problems but few want to really consider this as it could make them part of the problem – far easier to blame other groups like religions.

If you look within most religions there will usually be a group of contemplatives that devote themselves to spiritual development. These people go back and describe to everyone else what they discover in the best way they can within the context of their own religion. I watched a documentary recently on Christian monks describing what happens during their "silence retreats" - it sounded so similar to Buddhism.

I worked as a nurse and had quite a lot of contact with palliative care. I saw many people die and those that seemed to find the process easiest were those who had a religion to give them strength. A prolonged death can involve a lot of fear and pain; people need something to get them through. I dislike the way this new breed of Atheist tries to belittle such people – shame on them.

Mumon said...

I think Hitchens and Blair are both somewhat narcissistic and detached from reality.

There are people who practice good things in all religions, of course, as you note, but the issue of the bad stuff done in the name of religion really ought to be front and center for all.

I was raised as a Catholic; I experienced first hand some of these abuses.

In addition, I have seen just the opposite with regard to the gods that people have for themselves: when very religious people die that have been trained to believe in the angry gangster dysfunctional parent god, their deaths are permeated by fear and guilt.

And make no mistake about it that's a very "popular" deity in places like the United States, and even, I'm told other English speaking places.

Paul Garrigan said...

Hi Mumon, perhaps the bad stuff should be discussed but this should occur in a respectful and honest way. I don't think this is happening; people like Hitchens are making it even less likely to happen. Dawkins and Hitchens have cherry picked their arguments and use manipulative debating tactics so much that it makes reasonable discussion less likely to happen. Religion is something that gives meaning to people's lives and you can't just treat it with contempt. I hope one day that we can have a reasonable debate about what is wrong in religions, but this can't be with people who are only interested in the bad stuff. The discussion of the right and wrong of religion should not just be left in the hands of those people who were fortunate enough to go to a good school where they could learn debating skills - it is too important for such elitism.

Although I've visited the US on a couple of occasions I can't really comment too much on the religions there. Many of my views come from the media and so are distorted. I do believe though that there are many Christians (and members of other religions) in the US who are after the same thing that I am; a meaning to it all. People get carried away by their beliefs but this can happen with any belief and not just religion.

In Europe you are just as likely to be killed for which football team you support as your religion; in fact in most parts of Europe you could say that Christianity is a spent force. If we were to remove all religions tomorrow we would still be left with all the petty jealousy and hatred – people would find another outlet. Just blaming it all on religions is naive or disingenuous – in my opinion.

Mumon said...


I do believe though that there are many Christians (and members of other religions) in the US who are after the same thing that I am; a meaning to it all.

I'm sure that's true.

But when you say:

[P]erhaps the bad stuff should be discussed but this should occur in a respectful and honest way. I don't think this is happening; people like Hitchens are making it even less likely to happen. Dawkins and Hitchens have cherry picked their arguments and use manipulative debating tactics so much that it makes reasonable discussion less likely to happen.

Respectfully and honestly, churches' clergy have engaged in physical and sexual abuse, and in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, they have acted as an organization to protect the perpetrators, and shelter people who in any other walk of life would have been a convicted felon by now.

That is the truth, and it is respectful - anything less is disrespectful to the victims.

And even all that aside, there is the issue of raising kids to believe they will suffer torment for eternity if they do not give assent to the existence of a chosen religion's deity. Truly and respectfully, this is nothing short of emotional abuse, and it is disrespectful to the victims to try and sugarcoat it.

And that is the sum of Dawkins' main argument from a moral standpoint. I can't speak for Hitchens, frankly. There are other arguments in Dawkins as well. Those arguments I can agree with - they are borne of authority run amok.

As I said, I take issue on the need for the cultivation of discipline and skill. But as someone who was on the receiving end of some of this abuse (thankfully not the sexual abuse).

It is important that right speech be right speech, and that speech should be truthful and respectful.

While I think we do have to be respectful to all regardless of their beliefs, it is also disrespectful to willfully overlook abuse.

Paul Garrigan said...

I was brought up as a Catholic in Ireland and saw abuse by Catholic priests. I once had a Franciscan monk try and touch me up on a train when I was a kids. I have also seen Buddhist monks here in Thailand do shameful things. Religions attract the wrong people into power; so those politics and business and every other organisation where power is on offer. This does not mean that the religions themselves are bad it just means that where there is power there will be bad people trying to use it for their own ends. The idea that sex abuse or any other abuse would be less because of religion is just a joke as far as I'm concerned. Religion does not make people perverts or abusers - these people will always find a way to their victims.

When I was a child I too was told that doing bad could send me to hell. Does this mean my parents abused me? No, it didn't and for me to say so would be a bit shameful. I was more frightened by the idea that you live and you die and that's it. Perhaps Dawkins and his flock are equally guilty of abuse; spreading the word that belief in anything other than science means you’re ignorant. I saw a recent documentary on Faith schools where Dawkins openly mocked young Muslim children on their beliefs. If he went into schools telling young children there was no Santa Clause people would be outraged yet here he is allowed to ridicule their belief in the Koran - and he is claiming he wants to help children.

I gave up Christianity in my early teens but I still respect that others have a right to believe what they want. I don't see myself as a victim of religion or anything else, but each to their own.

Paul Garrigan said...

The idea that sex abuse or any other abuse would be less because of religion is just a joke as far as I'm concerned.

This should read;

The idea that sex abuse or any other abuse would be less by getting rid of religion is just a joke as far as I'm concerned.