Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Richard Harries on Christopher Hitchens

D. R. Khashaba

Yet another adverse review of Christopher Hitchens’ apparently provocative book God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion, but this time the attack from the Christian camp is staid and soberly reasoned, as befits a former Bishop of Oxford and honorary professor of Theology at King’s College, London: http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2109068,00.html

I’ll set down my thoughts and reactions as I jotted them down while reading the review without much editing or refinement.

First I must say that I am not defending Dennett or Dawkins or Hitchens whose “diatribes against religion” Professor Richard Harries is concerned to counter. In my view the onslaughts of recent advocates of atheism while satisfying confirmed atheists fail to win over any believers.

Professor Harries admits that the evils perpetrated in the name of religion are real enough. He also admits that the intellectual crudities of some of religion’s defenders are obvious enough. I would say that the theological subtleties of some other defenders of religion while the reverse of crude are still as absurd as the crudities of the first group.

Then Professor Harries poses a good question: “But how is it that the majority of the world’s great philosophers, composers, scholars, artists and poets have been believers, often of a very devout kind?” This is a very good question and I think that the major fault of the advocates of atheism is that they direct their energies to the easier task of showing the crudities and absurdities of common religion instead of addressing the harder question posed by Harries.

My answer in brief to the question – the brief answer I give here can be no more than a rough sketch; all my writings can be seen as an attempt to give a fuller answer – is that the religion of an Einstein, a Whitehead, a Schleiermacher, a Shelley (to throw in some names at random) has nothing to do with the religion of even the best of ‘ordinary’ Christians, Jews, or Moslems. Shelley’s poetry reveals a deep devotion to the all-pervading, all-encompassing spirit of Nature, yet he was expelled from Oxford for defending atheism. Whitehead defined religion as what one does with one’s solituude. Schleiermacher said: "Religion's essence is neither thinking nor acting, but intuition and feeling … religion is the sensibility and taste for the infinite … to accept everything individual as a part of the whole and everything limited as a representation of the infinite is religion. But whatever would go beyond that and penetrate deeper into the nature and substance of the whole is no longer religion, and will, if it still wants to be regarded as such, inevitably sink back into empty mythology."

These are specimens of ‘religion’ with which no observing Jew, Christian, or Moslem can identify. Let us remember that many a profoundly ‘religious’ mystic was murdered by his co-religionists. I need only mention Giordano Bruno among Christians and Al-Hallaj among Moslems. Personally, I wish Schleiermacher, Whitehead, Einstein, had not spoken of religion or of God; that only makes for confusion, for what these words meant for them was utterly diferent from what they mean for the followers of established religions.

Professor Harries writes: “Religion is rooted in our capacity to recognise and appreciate value; in our search for truth; in our recognition that some things are good in themselves.” I am all for that, except for my reservation as to the use of the word ‘religion’. Harries goes on to say that “it is in this capacity to recognise, appreciate and respond to what is of worth that religion has its origin.” The roots in their natural soil and without external manipulation flower in Kant’s “ever new and increasing admiration and awe” that fill the mind when we reflect on “the starry heavens above and the moral law within”, but no further. They certainly do not bear the fruit of “submission and surrender” which Hitchens rightly rejects and Harries tries to justify. But how does that support belief in a personal creator? The weakest link in Kant’s majestic critical system is his jump from the Ideas (in Kant’s sense) or ideals of reason to a justification of belief in God and the immortality of the soul.

Harries says: “If ‘submission and surrender’ have a place, it is only in the final insight that, if there is an ultimate goodness, it will by definition make a total difference to the way we view life.” I believe in “an ultimate goodness”, and this is a point where I part company with some of my atheist or anti-religion friends. (Incidentally, this is also what makes my position so unpopular, angering both the theists and the atheists equally.) But then my position differes from that of Professor Harries in two ways: (1) Mt idea of “an ultimate goodness” in no way leads to belief in a personal creator over and bove and beyond Nature (which includes human beings and human minds). (2) My idea of “an ultimate goodness” is my idea, is a vision that lends intelligibility to the dumb appearances thrust by the world on my apprehension but that in no way justifies me or anyone else in making an objectively valid judgement of the world.

I also agree implicitly with Professor Harries’s penultimate paragraph. I agree that secular ideologies can be as pernicious as religious ones. Materialism, consumerism, cut-throat competitiveness are such ideologies. A humanity where abundance exists side by side with poverty, a humanity where scientific and technological miracles rub shoulders with deprivation, disease, and starvation, is a very sick humanity. But the cure is not in the unreason of established religions; the cure of reason gone astray is in yet more reason.

Professor Harries is certainly right in maintaining that the real problem of humanity resides in human beings being “organised in groups of various kinds, still beset by … lack of self-knowledge, viciousness and moral weakness.” He is right in saying that “all people of wisdom need to cooperate, whatever the springs of their moral outlook.” But are the followers of established religions prepared for such cooperation? The politicizing of religion not only by fundamentalist Moslems but also by fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Jews is ominous.

Besides, supposing we could have a world where all the major religions, not only the monotheisms but also Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., agreed to a policy of peaceful co-existence, would it really be a good thing for humans to live under x different dogmatic belief-systems where x-1 systems are necessarily false and no one can decide which is the one that is the exception? That would be the final surrender to unreason.

Harries concludes that “Hitchens has written a book that is seriously harmful.” I beg to disagree. I would say that Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and others have written books that fall short of the mark. They do not do enough to free people from the bondage of dogmatism and superstition. Kant wrote a book entitled “Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone”. What recent advocates of atheism failed to do was to address the need for “Spirituality Within the Bounds of Reason Alone”.

D. R. Khashaba


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