FaithWorld

from The Great Debate:

Hitchens was an atheist who believed

By James Ledbetter
The opinions expressed are his own.

It seems entirely possible that Christopher Hitchens will be primarily remembered in America for his public atheism. I suspect Hitchens himself was surprised at how wildly popular God Is Not Great became, giving much-needed voice and ammunition to thousands of godless heathens in the land of the drive-through church.

Yet it's an inadequate way to remember the man, and not because Hitchens did little more in that book than to lay some tracing paper on the Enlightenment's best thinkers and draw giddily (though with acidic and often very funny ink), or because—this is not an exaggeration—the American public regards atheists on about the same level as rapists.

The problem is that splitting the atheism away from the body of Hitchens's work debases it into a kind of rascally parlor trick—"Uncle Christopher, say the mean thing about Mother Teresa again!"—and distracts from the thorny paradox at the heart of Hitchens's thinking. Which is: While certainly an enemy of superstition and an eager chronicler of the sins and idiocies of the world's religions, Hitchens was actually a lifelong believer, if strictly in man-made gods. It is impossible to contemplate his prodigious and passionate writing without recognizing that it was always animated by crusades, holy men, and devils.

Indeed, the Hitchens universe was long populated by notions of absolute good and evil, stretching back to his days as a student Trotskyite. This tendency was tempered by a love of literature and the cocoon of irony that writers wrap around themselves. But Hitchens himself spoke of the struggle between the literal and ironic minds, and it is an aptly Hitchensian contradiction that the episode, I think, that created his own brand of fundamentalist was in defense of the ironic mind—in 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for the supposed blasphemy of The Satanic Verses.

The importance of the Rushdie saga on Hitchens's thinking cannot be overstated. "I felt at once that here was something that completely committed me," he wrote in his splendid memoir, Hitch-22. "It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved." This is of course a functional definition of evil and good. And there were obviously implications for the future, once Hitchens learned that among the Western left, it is entirely possible for well-meaning people, in the name of multicultural "understanding" or "tolerance" of non-Western societies, to overlook and even excuse atrocities and barbarism that would never be acceptable if perpetrated, say, by the Republican Party and its allies.

“No religion” segment of U.S. population profiled

At the “Values Voter Summit” of conservative Christian activists I attended last week in Washington, more than one participant lamented the “secularization” of America.

That will come as a surprise perhaps to more than one foreign reader of this blog, given America’s famously high rates of religiosity which set it apart from much of the rest of the developed world. And the evangelical tradition which much of the U.S. “religious right” comes from has been fast growing in recent decades.

spire1But Americans who claim no religion are fast growing and Trinity College in Hartford offers a detailed portrait of this group in a new report released this week called “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population.”

Cognitive science gaining ground in U.S. academic religion studies

teehanThe academic study of religion has come a long way from the days when knowledge of scripture, history and a few ancient languages were the main qualifications a scholar needed. Psychology, sociology and other social sciences have been applied to the field for over a century. Over the past 20 years, cognitive science has been edging into the field, especially with the explosion of neuroscience research. Some of the hottest research into religion is now being done with brain scanners searching for data on what happens inside believers’ heads when they pray or feel a special connection to God. (Photo: John Teehan at the Neuroscience Boot Camp, 6 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Among the participants at the University of Pennsylvania’s Neuroscience Boot Camp I’m attending this week and next is John Teehan, an associate professor in the religion department at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. He’s seen how cognitive science has brought new tools and insights to the study of religion and may eventually challenge the ways religions justify their beliefs. He is writing a book about how many moral teachings in the Bible fit with the moral psychology that cognitive science says evolved naturally. I asked Teehan for an overview of what’s happening in the religion studies field in the United States.

“At the end of the 19th century, there was a real interest in looking at religion from a psychological perspective,” he said. “Sigmund Freud and William James were the major figures. The Freudian paradigm was not a scientific one, even though Freud thought it was, and our understanding of the mind and the brain was primitive then compared to what we have now. What’s happening now is that the science of the mind has advanced to the point that we’re actually developing a scientific understanding of the mind. With the cognitive revolution involving cognitive science, neurological science and evolution studies, a more empirical approach to understanding the mind and morality is developing. Over the last 20 years, some of these scholars have started to look more particularly at religion. This field of the cognitive science of religion started in the early ’90s looking at religious behavior and rituals and how emotions mediate or reinforce religious experience.”

Atheist bus ad campaigns stalling in Germany

god-bus1

The Atheist Bus Campaign, launched in London by the best-selling biologist Richard Dawkins, has been copied in 10 countries, mostly but not always with success. It seems to have stalled in Germany. The campaign there, which has its own website called www.buskampagne.de, reports that the transit authorities in Berlin, Cologne and Munich have turned down their requests to run the ads. The campaign will continue trying to run the ads in other German cities.

The campaign asked contributors to choose among different suggested ad formats and the one below won. All three say in the first line “There is (almost certainly) no God.” It’s interesting that they add that qualifier,  which literally translates as “with a probability bordering on certainty.” Could it be they’re not that convinced after all?

The second lines vary and they translate as (1) “A fulfilled life doesn’t need faith.” (2) “Values are human — it’s up to us” and (3) “Enlightenment means taking responsibility.”