Thursday, September 4

My friend, John Hardy, took up with Hitchens' opinion in a much more respectful way (to me and other believers) over on Finches' Wings. Rather than sending you to the comments over there, which get in some funky order, why don't I just copy them here (though if you want John's links you'll have to go over there, and the commenting system is funky with single quotations, so if I don't get them all changed, you'll know why.).

John: Well there's the funny thing, normally I disagree with everything Hitchens writes.

Sean: so does that mean that you agree with at least some of what Hitchens says this time, John?


Absolutely. In fact I agree with all of it.

The main difference is that I wouldn't have written an article about it because I know that it would offend a lot of people''s religious view (although I might argue it over a nice meal with a couple of wines in me The reason why I wouldn't write an article is because I have learnt that people come to their most deeply held convictions through processes which have little to do with rational thought and therefore argument is generally a pointless exercise. Religious people are far more likely to admit that their premises are fundamentally irrational than non-believers, readily invoking concepts such as spirituality, faith or a sense of mystery as a counter-influence to reason and rationality but it is a point that is just as true for non-believers. So in summary, if you really believe something and I really believe something else, there's no point trying to sway the other through the exercise of mere reason.

The big exception, of course, is when the person to be swayed is already suffering a severe crisis in their own convictions. In other words if they were already at the point of giving up their faith or philosophy and just waiting to embrace another. Every proselytiser intuitively knows this, a polemicist like Hitchins preaching from a highly influential pulpit might interested to score a few converts as well. It's not really my interest to try and sway anyone.

But I'll admit I did leave a comment along the lines that implied my agreement with Hitchins and you did ask... please accept this as just my personal view. It is not intended to inflame, offend or convince anyone to change their minds or beliefs.

So what do I agree with? I agree with Hitchins that, when looked at from the outside the Bible, especially in its early chapters reads like an inherent depository of Bronze Age legends. The the main character, Yahweh comes over as a somewhat insecure and immature adolescent. That the Ten Commandments on closer inspection do look like a fairly patchy list with some pretty serious omissions. This might be a problem if they were held up as being universally significant in this day and age (which I don't believe they really are) but not if one considers them as a cultural artifact crafted in a cultural backwater by a tribe of uncouth Bedouins. It's not really up there with the considerably older Code of Hammurabi, for example.

Of course, if I was starting from the point of view that these were the utterances of my father, well, of course I'd probably view them differently:

"So Dad was a bit of a brat in his youth, threw tantrums, flooded the world, smited, cursed, destroyed, blamed his own creation. Okay but he's still my father, show some respect.

AND he's a lot more grown up now, a regular transcendental Supreme Being, an Unmoved Mover no less".

But like Hitchins, I do not think of Yahweh as my father so any talk about showing him "humility" is to my mind as preposterous as showing humility to any of his contemporaries, Baal, Amon or Marduk. Also any argument that expects respect for "4,000 years of history and faith" I find equally unconvincing. Mere numbers don't do it for me, I'm afraid, how much respect is due now to the religion of ancient Sumer? For four thousand years people built temples and came to worship the gods at the Southern Mesopotamian holy city of Nippur. Today nothing remains, just a few mounds of mud in the desert and few broken tablets. The only echoes that remain withus in our culture are in the form of the horoscope in the daily newspaper and, ironically enough, the Old Testament.

But it doesn't matter, perhaps the point where you and I disagree most, Sean, is in the notion that somehow our morality and the morality of our society really rests on these religious underpinnings. First you say that without humility before God it is "it's no surprise that we have no morality." Well, I consider that, beyond using this as a rhetorical device, to imply that we have no morality is patently false.

>> religion is not just incongruent with morality but in essential ways incompatible with it

> Wrong. Religion is necessary for true morality.

Both wrong. Morality is an essential ingredient of any society. All societies have moral codes, all societies have taboos on theft and murder, all societies have narratives and myths to explain them. Sometimes these take the form of religious stories at other times they take the form of reconstructed histories (such as the myths surrounding the glorious founding of the United States of America for example).

As way of demonstrating the point, China is an ancient society which has always found its source of morality in the teachings of the sage kings and of philosopher like Confucius. Even though the Jesuit missionaries of the seventeenth century spent a great deal of effort and tried their dardest through the meticulous translation and interpretation of these texts, they could find no place in them for their interventionist deity.

Instead they found a moral code that was based completely on the rights and responsibilities of people living beneath an all pervasive but essentially disinterested Heaven. It was the influence of these text flowing back to the West that helped to create the conditions that led to the Enlightenment and to the establishment of secular and religiously tolerant societies throughout the world. This side-lining of religion in favour of freedom was, I believe, a very good thing but I don't believe it made people who lived before or after this evolution any more or less moral.

So there you have it, that's my contribution to the global supply of digital crap.


dear John

first of all, thanks for commenting.

then, what to say, what to say?

the most disgusting thing about Hitchens is his lack of respect for those of us who value faith. in this regard i put him in the same category with Richard Dawkins.

believe it or not, my main goal is not to sway anyone, either. i do want to present the reasoned side of my faith. believe me, i have met a lot of people who just assume a person of faith has checked her braon at the door. i''m fond of saying ''i'll match my smart people to theirs any day.''

thank you for your senstitivty, John. i don't feel enflamed at all :-)

(the Code of Hammurabi is much older according to the conclusions of secular and liberal scholars. there are good arguments for the Ten Commandments dating to ca. 3500 BC.)

i still maintain that the Judeo-Christian faith deserves better than to be summarily dismissed by the likes of Hitchens. what distinguishes them from most other ancient faiths is that they are still living and still practiced by people who are deeply committed to them. these people find sane, self-consistent, contemporary ways to practice faiths which have ancient origins.

i may have overstated on the whole ''no morality'' business, but part of what i was saying comes out of an unexplained technical definition. we can define ''morality'' basically as ''values'' and then, of course, everyone has them.

part of what i'm alluding to, coming specifically from a Christian context, is the assertion that no person can really do good without being changed by God. being ''born again'' is one of the descriptions that's well known, along with things like ''regeneration''. of course most people will disagree with me and other holding to historical Christianity in this regard. that''s no surprise.

ultimately, historical Christianity comes across as arrogant in some ways: ''we're right and you're wrong''. i don't know of any way around it. we feel God has revealed Himself with some strict delimiters. how should we be different from Hitchens? by engaging others'' beliefs without demeaning them.

and now i have exceeded my limit of sermonizing.

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