Part 10 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
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Christopher Hitchens loves science. Rightly, he understands that science has enabled human beings to understand our world in astounding ways. In many ways he sees science as replacing religion in human experience. For example, he writes: “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important” (p. 282).
Scientific inquiry is noted for its effort to be objective, to study the data carefully, to put aside prejudice, and to seek the truth, whatever it might be. (Yes, yes, I know some scientists don’t do this, but the best ones try, and with considerable success.) One can approach life scientifically even if one is not studying natural phenomena. You see this sort of thing among anthropologists, for example, who study tribal peoples through careful observation, seeking to “get inside the heads” of peoples quite different from themselves in order to make sense of their particular customs.
One of the things I find curious about Christopher Hitchens is the contradiction between his love of science and his unscientific approach to the study of religion. To be sure, he has gathered some data about religion, most of it having to do with religion’s failures and oddities. But absent from god is not Great is anything like a scientific approach to religious phenomena.
During my interview with Hitchens I said, more than once, that it seems like he and I inhabit alternative universes. I said that because, among other things, his view of what Christians believe and experience is so contrary to my view, and I’ve been a practicing Christian for 44 years. For example, in one place Hitchens writes that believers claim, “Not just to know, but to know everything” (p. 10). Now even allowing for a good bit of hyperbole, this statement reflects nothing of my experience as a believer. I do claim to know certain things, but I freely admit the fallible nature of my knowledge. Has Hitchens ever spent any time with thoughtful Christians (or other religious folk) who wrestle openly with matters of faith, who sometimes struggle with doubt, and who freely admit their own ignorance? If not, I could introduce him to dozens of such people. Moreover, I can’t even begin to think that I know more than a tiny percentage of what can be known. Know everything???? If Hitchens thinks this is what the average religious person claims, then he knows little about the average religious person, at least in my experience.
One of the more biting reviews of god is not Great appreared in the Washington Post. It was written by Stephen Prothero, a highly regarded scholar of religion, the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and the chair of Boston University’s religion department. Near the end of his review Prothero writes: “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject.” Ouch!
On the way to earning my PhD in New Testament, I did a MA in the study of religion. I had the privilege of learning from some of the finest scholars of religion. They represented a wide range of religious traditions, including agnosticism. These people had devoted their lives to the careful, objective, and critical study of religion. They were more than willing to accept the premise that sometimes religion is harmful. In fact, several of my professors were particularly unhappy with my breed of Christianity (evangelical). But in all of my years in graduate school, not once did I hear even one professor come anywhere near the claim that “religion poisons everything.” This particular claim stirs up emotions and sells books, to be sure. But it reflects an utterly biased approach to the study of religion, something that plainly contradicts Christopher Hitchens’s love of science. His writing would have far more credibility and, in the end, much more to contribute to the world, if he would take the time actually to understand actual religious people. Of course then he couldn’t truly claim that religion poisons everything, because he’d know that this simply isn’t true from any sort of objective, scientific perspective.