Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

Christopher Hitchens not great, says this “atheist”

It depressed me a bit to write the title for this column, playing on one of the late Hitchen’s book titles, God is not Great.

I think nothing can ever be achieved by slamming other people’s religious beliefs. Those people are going to continue holding on to their beliefs. Perhaps even more dearly. The attack just creates more division.

Don’t get me wrong: there are things I am not happy with in religions, especially the ridiculous taboo on sex. If adults are having consensual sex, that’s nobody else’s business. I dislike the hype of various happy clappy movements and the ability of their leaders to con sickening amounts of money (called tithes and offerings) out of spellbound people. I know of people who have lost their retirement plans this way.

But there are also a lot, and I mean a lot, of Christians and people of other religious persuasions who are very good people, salt of the earth, with deep (and often quiet) convictions about their beliefs. I know this as I went through a long Christian phase and have befriended people of other faiths.

I have listened to a number of Hitchen’s debates with Stephen Fry and religious people and read a number of his articles.

I glanced through books like God is not Great but they do not interest me. (I realise I can be attacked for not reading the book “properly” but believe I got the boring gist.)

Judging by the title alone, God is not Great, the obvious direction the book will take the reader is that he is going to attack Christianity and say it contains a cistern full of fairy tale stories.

In other words, I know the book has no new idea, or even a scintilla of a new idea. The majority of people who would read a book like that surely have no interest in dialogue with people of other beliefs. They are just sneering at other people’s faiths.

Hitchens rammed into other people’s beliefs like a killer whale into its prey. With statements like “Jesus Christ is Santa Claus for adults” all he really did was create more rifts.

What did Hitchens actually achieve? Did he contribute to world peace and harmony? I don’t think so.

He landed on people’s convictions like a parasite instead of focusing on solutions. To me, there is only one potential solution, dialogue among world religions and even other belief systems, and know I am stating the obvious in saying so. Dialogue, and thus transformation, is the quest of organisations such as that led by that great Catholic monk, Father Thomas Keating.

Instead of being intellectual, the work of organisations like this is experiential, which enjoins dialogue and cultivating relationships, not more gall between groupings.

Dialogue is my key argument here.

Not intense, egotistical debate like that offered by Hitchens. When I showed an interest in the Buddhist experience as a pose to Buddhist thinking when living in Johannesburg, I went to retreats conducted by Buddhist monks … on the property of Catholic churches. A number of Christian churches will never allow that.

However, a number of Catholic leaders worldwide will allow Buddhist gatherings in their churches (probably frowned on by the Vatican), as evinced by the likes of Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton and Anthony de Mello.

Hitchens was a formidable intellectual, with a Wildean turn of phrase. However, his knowledge of mysticism is not experiential, as anyone will know IF they have spent some time in meditation and observed other “spiritual practices”. I have. It opens up doors to enormous, inexpressible peace and harmony in oneself and, therefore, in our relationships with others, which brings me back to my key point: dialogue. Not acid, sarcastic debates which amuse the crowds, invite sneers of derision.

We need to seek mutual understanding and transformation, which our planet sorely needs, a planet that is a home for us all, in our care, and which we have screwed up.

Hitchens developed a personal niche market and a career out of attacking religions and various spiritual leaders. He did this too much so for my “atheist” liking. His cutting critiques do not open up true dialogue as, for example, what many Catholics and Buddhists have done in retreats together.

See the Dalai Lama’s Good Heart or An Open Heart: Practicing compassion in everyday life. But reading the stuff is nowhere good enough. That risks being purely the intellectual, even the discursive. I am not knocking intellectualism: it just isn’t enough.

As Einstein once famously said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” That is to say, intellectualism created our many problems; it won’t solve them. Ever. We just get deluded into believing more thinking will solve our problems because waffling along is just such a nice activity. It appears productive.

Learning to practice what the various spiritual leaders above speak about is — in my opinion — our only hope of transformation, of saving our planet, and us.

Hitchens offered little towards this; he knocked spiritual belief systems which actually do carry many transformative treasures in their story-myths* of self-sacrifice (such as The Christ) and compassion. These are beyond the scope of this article to go into. We focus too much on the (at times) cruel histories of religions and not on their many treasures.

Often I get labelled an atheist. But that is just a very limiting, distorting label. All the accuser is seeing is the label, not the person, and hence the need for us to get rid of labels and experience a bit more of meditation and the compassionate, contemplative life. I know, I sorely need to myself.

Yes, I admire Hitchens’ turn of thought many times but I don’t think his legacy is that great and I know this blog could get me into a spot of trouble.

*When I use the word myth I do not mean something anywhere near as simplistic as a lie. A religious belief contains story-myths that have evolved to hold together harmoniously a society and give it meaning. It also explains human existence and purpose and offers consolation for suffering. Myth points to the ineffable miracle of every day, of creation, but is not “it”, just as the lotus is not the muck from which it blooms, but the muck is how it gets to be a lotus. As many spiritual masters will say about the inherited wisdom they teach, “I am just offering you the raft. Once you can swim in the ocean, you abandon the raft.”

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