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.
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.