Michael Medved Questions Christopher Hitchens

In today's Townhall.com, Michael Medved has written a piece extremely critical of Christopher Hitchens and his new book, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, entitled Hitchens v. God. Medved unloads on Hitchens for sloppy scholarship and stawman arguments. For example, Medved states:

The sly distortions and grotesque errors that appear in every chapter of his work demonstrate the author’s carelessness and arrogance. In one especially appalling example (on page 100), Hitchens writes of “the pitiless teachings of the god of Moses, who never mentions human solidarity and compassion at all.” He thereby ignores the most celebrated commandment in the Five Books of Moses, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), identified by Jewish sages (and in Matthew’s Gospel by Jesus himself) as the very essence of the Hebrew Scriptures. Hitchens also fails to acknowledge the innumerable Old Testament injunctions to show loving-kindness and mercy in dealing with widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor. Whether one imputes these teachings to God or to Moses, they hardly qualify as “pitiless” and most certainly emphasize “human solidarity and compassion.”

Beyond its factual errors and obvious misstatements, “god is not Great” (Hitchens makes a point of never spelling the word “God” with a capital “G”) provides a frequently primitive and juvenile characterization of religious belief. Near the conclusion of his book he suggests that “religion offers either annihilation in the name of god, or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskin, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be ‘saved.’” This breezy dismissal obviously misrepresents Christianity (with most denominations considering a relationship with Christ more important to salvation than consumption of magical wafers) but also misses the entire thrust of Judaism, which never mandated circumcision for non-Jews nor limited a share in the afterlife to members of the House of Israel.

Medved then continues by pointing out five things that he believes lead someone to recognize that Hitchens' major thesis (that religion poisons everything) cannot possibly be true or that, at minimum, present a rather jarring inconsistency in this thesis. I think all five are pretty good, but I want to focus for a moment on Medved's point number four:

In describing himself and his fellow atheists near the opening of his book, Hitchens declares: "We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and –since there is no other metaphor- the soul." Ironically, all the literary giants he describes as ethical guides were themselves guided, or at least informed, by their deep belief in God—in fact two of them (Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky) were full-out religious mystics. How can Hitchens unblushingly look to these writers as the right source for handling “serious ethical dilemmas” when their lives and work showed the unmistakable influence of religious teaching which he elsewhere holds in rank contempt?

First, I agree that it is interesting that from an entire world of classic literature, he chose two obvious Christians as examples of people from whom he would rather learn morality forgetting that these two individuals received their morality from a study of the Bible. Interestingly, he also chooses Shakespeare as another person from whom he would rather read literature where dilemmas are better handled than in the Bible. Was Shakespeare a Christian? It appears so. Consider the following from Christian History: Death of William Shakespeare:

[A] month before his death, he wrote his will, which he concluded by saying, "I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour to be made partaker of life everlasting."

He instructed that his tombstone to be inscribed:

"Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones."

Shakespeare also seems to have been a faithful member of the Church of England. Though he never wrote a play on a Biblical story, the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were the most frequently quoted sources in his work. He quotes or alludes to passages from at least 42 books of the Bible; and phrases from the morning and evening prayers in the Book of Common Prayer are frequent. Of the books of the Bible, Shakespeare quoted from Matthew 151 times and from the Psalms 137 times.

Moreover, as we have argued here about atheism in general, even George Eliot and Friedrich Schiller lived in a Christian environment and adopted Christian morality as their base of ethics. While Eliot (which was the pen name for a woman) modified Christian moral standards to meet her personal desires (as is often the motivation for those who reject Christianity), she still adopted and accepted such a broad base of morality from Christianity that Frederick Nietzsche criticized her for it in his book Twilight of The Idols, where he wrote:

G. Eliot.—They have got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality: that is English consistency, let us not blame it on little bluestockings รก la Eliot. In England, in response to every little emancipation from theology one has to reassert one’s position in a fear–inspiring manner as a moral fanatic. That is the penance one pays there. With us it is different. When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality.

(I have not personally read and Schiller, so I will decline to comment on him.)

The point is this: of the five writers identified, at least four of them were either Christian or, at minimum, adopted most of Christian morality as their moral base. If Hitches is right that religion poisons everything, and Christianity is certainly a religion, yet Hitchens points to writers who are either Christian or who work from a Christian base as people who, through their writings, have better handled "serious ethical dilemmas" than the Bible, then how can it be that religion poisons everything? Religious teachings and principles (especially, Christian morality and ethics), it seems, is the base for the examples he cites of people who can give what are in Hitchens' opinion good answers to ethical dilemmas.

I think this is an excellent point, and one that I would be interested in hearing how Hitchens resolves it.


Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
BK said…
I am removing (or have removed by the time this is read) the comment immediately above because it was off topic and an appeal by the comment author to come to his website to read his work. The comment was totally unrelated to my post.

Since this is not a blog that will serve as a link center for anti-Christian works without relevance to the post involved, I have deleted it.
Anonymous said…
I didn't write it and you obviously don't have an answer to it.
BK said…
The wording of your comment led me to believe you wrote it (I didn't visit the site), but it was obviously off-topic.

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