Wednesday, May 30, 2007

On Jacobins and theocrats: an open email to Christopher Hitchens

Via Will I see Christopher Hitchens is inviting questions relating to the essentially Marxist proposition that the criticism of religion precedes all criticism.

I've got a question: why is your criticism of religion so one-dimensional? I understand the point that you and Richard Dawkins, amongst others, make about religion. For what's it's worth, I share your dismay at the idea that faith is a virtue, that one can in these times insulate your views from criticism simply by saying before them, "This is what I believe".

But it forms part of a critique of membership of the faithful that is - whilst essentially true - too narrow for my liking, too cerebral. Protestants, of a certain disposition, more or less equate salvation with the mental assent (forget conduct) to a certain set of doctrines. This is the tradition we come from - secular unbelieving protestants the lot of us. But with others this is not so. I would say mental assent to doctrinal positions forms but a small part of some people's religion - but my experience would suggest that this would be too generous.

I recall conversations I had with a fifth form class in a Catholic school in Lanarkshire. I thought their religion was, in the protestant fashion, a matter of believing certain doctrines. How wrong I was. The Pope is infallible. He doesn't, as his predecessors didn't, approve of premarital sex, oral sex, anal sex, contraception, or abortion. My students didn't agree. You could go as far to say they didn't, if you'll forgive the profanity, give a fuck what the Pope thought about any of these issues. This they showed by their deeds. Yet they were Catholic - maybe not in a way that would impress their parish priest - but Catholic nonetheless. They still went to mass and took communion in the most - how can one put it? - religious fashion.

This is possible because their religion was a celebration of community, of identity - not of ideology. I'd argue, therefore, that the whole understanding of religion has to be broadened. It's not that I'm not with you. Forced to choose, I'm with the Jacobins rather than those who would couple their claims to cognitive infallibility with political power. But I don't appreciate the choice being imposed on me like this because I think y'all just don't get it. Take the present penchant for the hacking-off of heads. This is not a good thing, sane people agree. But a more rounded explanation has to be found than simply referring to the Koran. Yes it says if you meet your enemy on the battle-field, hack his goddam head off - or something like that. But the overwhelming majority of Muslims, even those who feel they have enemies, have historically managed to avoid the whole hacking off of heads thing.

This has nothing to do with wishy-washy fence-sitting liberalism, which I've been accused of in the past: it has to do with the certainty that the historical evidence suggests there's one or two other variables that you've failed to consider here.

The other problem I have is you could enlist some of the religious to our cause - so what's the point in being so rude to them? It is simply false to suggest that all religion is theocratic in nature. As Max Weber pointed out, there's three ways the religious can cope with the fact that, in their estimation, the world is evil: they can retreat from it monastically; they can engage with it ascetically; or try to take over it theocratically. Given it's only the last of these that is the problem, why bother pissing off the first two? Because with that attitude you're not going to win any converts - you're just preaching to the choir.

I hope none of this will be misunderstood. I'm essentially on your side. But while my control over the English language isn't as good as yours, I'm younger, better looking, and much nicer to people when I'm drunk than you are. You can't do much about the first two but with regards to the last I'm arrogant enough to think you could do worse than take a leaf out of my book.

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