I wish Eric MacDonald would stick to Anglicans, Catholics, and other Christians, and leave the rabbis to me. I noticed that, at Choice in Dying, Eric took down Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who wrote a dire piece at PuffHo called “The sad, naive atheism of Christopher Hitchens,” referring to Hitchens’s wonderful letter to the American Atheist convention. (We’ve seen Yoffie before, arguing that a god must exist because it gives our lives meaning and purpose.) Curious to see what is sad and naive about Hitchens, who doesn’t usually evoke such adjectives, I vowed not to read Eric’s piece until I wrote my own. After all, Yoffie is nominally one of my people.
Yoffie’s piece is short and can be disposed of quickly. It makes two untenable claims about Hitchens:
- His view of religion was naive, for he neglected the benign and sophisticated faiths. Yoffie sez:
In his missive, Hitchens equated religion with the actions and proclamations of bullies, tyrants and “nuclear-armed mullahs,” all of whom promote “sinister nonsense” and carry out unspeakable crimes while claiming that God is on their side. Hitchens has done this many times before. There is nothing new in these claims and neither do they have any merit. He is not attacking religion but extremism carried out in religion’s name, often as a cover for political and ideological radicalism.
Any system of belief or action can be distorted or carried to extreme lengths. But if one washes oneself a hundred times a day, one is not discrediting soap; rather, one is raising questions about its obsessive and inappropriate use.
This is an extremely common argument against Gnu atheism. We’re only attacking the “bad faiths” (usually taken to mean Southern Baptists and radical, jihad-bent Muslims), not the “good ones” (presumably including everyone else). And even the bad ones aren’t religions, they represent “extremism carried out in religion’s name.” But, as I’ve argued before, religion often enables bad behavior, and much of that behavior wouldn’t occur without religion (see my earlier post on “What does it take to blame religion?”)
I do think there’s a lot of truth in Steve Weinberg’s claim that “for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” I won’t recount the list of religions whose adherents practice nefarious, faith-based behavior, but they include Catholicism, mainstream Islam, Mormonism, many evangelical Christian sects, and yes, Eric’s own old faith, Anglicanism (Eric left the church because it resolutely opposed the assisted suicide of his terminally ill wife). And I’ve already listed the malfeasances, which include repression of women, sexual fear and loathing, opposition to divorce, refusal to sanction condoms and birth control, leading to the spread of AIDS and the proliferation of unwanted children, instilling guilt and terror in the young, opposition to gays and lesbians, as well as stem-cell research, and many more.
This is not, contra Yoffie, “extremism carried out in religion’s name, often as a cover for political and ideological radicalism.” These are views and actions that come straight from religious doctrine. Hitchens had it right. Yes, there are almost completely benign forms of faith, like that practiced by the Methodists I visited this January, and I don’t spend a lot of time grousing about them. But it’s absurd to claim that only a tiny minority of faiths have pernicious doctrines, or inspire pernicious behavior.
- Contrary to Hitchens’s claim, there is no “innate solidarity” of humans—a solidarity that gives strength to Hitch during his illness. Any intra-human solidarity comes from religion. The Yoffster:
As a religious person, I believe that human beings have a tendency toward solidarity — and indeed, that it is divinely implanted. Nonetheless, it is no more than a tendency, and a rather weak one at that. (The word used by Judaism is “inclination.”) By itself, it is incapable of impacting our behavior in a significant way or of creating strong moral bonds. The purpose of all major religions is to cultivate and strengthen this tendency and to develop it into compassionate concern; compassion, after all, is the basis of moral thinking and the foundation of that fundamental decency to which Hitchens refers. But the point is that it is a mistake to speak of solidarity as “innate.” Solidarity is not the starting point; it is the result of systems of belief and behavior that have been developed and practiced by communities of common concern — and without question, it is religious systems of belief and religious communities that are the most effective vehicles for developing solidarity and offering compassion over time.
For a rabbi, Yoffie is deeply muddled. He argues that it is “a mistake to speak of solidarity as ‘innate'”, but then argues in the same paragraph that some of it is innate, and that was implanted by God. Second, Yoffie seems oblivious to the fact that humans are social animals, and we’ve evolved to be so. In a very real way we need the cooperation of our fellows, and have evolved to feel solidarity with them. But we’re also evolved to look out for ourselves (for example, we favor our children and our tribe over others), so there will be constant conflict between our social and selfish tendencies, particularly in modern societies that are very different from the environments in which we evolved. (Bob Trivers’s ideas on the evolution of parent-offspring conflict are only one example of the war between solidarity and selfishness). Solidarity with a broader humanity can come from secular moral reasoning that takes off from our tribal instincts; Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle makes a persuasive case for this expansion.
And religion creates human solidarity? Don’t make me laugh—religion is one of the most divisive human institutions ever devised. Think of Sunni versus Shia, Muslim versus infidel, Catholics who think everyone else will burn in hell, Southern Baptists versus Methodists—the list is very long. It is inherent in religion to think that you alone have the eternal verities, and everyone else is wrong. Not a great recipe for “solidarity and compassion.”
Once again, a mush-headed rabbi has made me ashamed to be a Jew. Still, I’d be interested in readers’ answers to this question: to what extent has Gnu Atheism hurt itself by conflating all faiths, including the “benign ones”, as being harmful?