Monday, September 6, 2010

So apparently Christopher Hitchens is at it again. I'm constantly surprised at how many publications seem to view this hack as a genuine thinker, having seen his hatred spilled on the pages both of the Washington Post Religion Section and also on Slate. It is on Slate that I found this particularly objectionable bit of atheist rambling. Not content to satisfy his superiority complex with internal derision of us foolish theists, apparently Hitchens feels that it is his duty to neuter those of us who dare to believe in what he doesn't. Never mind the fact that he is dead wrong, Hitchens feels he has the right to dictate to religious groups what of their doctrines can and cannot be carried forward into the future. Perhaps he can call it the "Bright" Man's Burden, his obligation as an intellectually advanced person to bring enlightenment to us pathetic throwbacks who haven't gotten it through out heads to abandon religion and embrace hedonistic naturalism. Personally I just call it hubris, and I pray to God that he gets over it before he goes to meet his maker. I'll bring attention to the more egregious statements that he makes below, along with my responses.

Take an example close at hand, the absurdly named Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints...Thus, to the extent that we view latter-day saints as acceptable, and agree to overlook their other quaint and weird beliefs, it is to the extent that we have decidedly limited them in the free exercise of their religion.

It is true that the Mormons have had some strange beliefs in the past, beliefs that were framed as eternal dogma right up to the point where prophetic revelation exiled them to the dustbin of history. Still, the elimination of these objectionable doctrines had more to do with the internal decisions of the hierarchy than it did with any kind of governmental intervention. The US government may have made it clear that a continuation of polygamy would have doomed Utah's chances at statehood, but Utah could have carried on as an independent country if Mormons really wanted to keep things the way they were. In a like manner, they could have very easily maintained their beliefs against black people just as many small religious groups have to the current time and while it might have made them unpopular it probably wouldn't have lead to governmental intervention. Plenty of religions do things that are considered discriminatory against one group or another, the Catholic Church's exclusion of women from the priesthood being one example, and none of them have the police knocking on their door for it. Hitchens, who is British, may not fully understand what freedom of religion means, but it is solely limited to governmental action. Mormon beliefs about homosexuality may make them unpopular with the "No on 8" crowd, but that doesn't mean that their freedom of religion is being limited unless the government starts arresting them or otherwise impedes their free exercise. In other words, they limited themselves to be popular and weren't really forced to do so by the government or even by society.

One could cite some other examples, such as those Christian sects that disapprove of the practice of medicine. Their adult members are generally allowed to die while uttering religious incantations and waving away the physician, but, in many states, if they apply this faith to their children—a crucial element in the "free exercise" of religion—they can be taken straight to court. Not only that, they can find themselves subject to general disapproval and condemnation.

Hitchen's argument in this case conflates two very different things, the governmental prevention of faith-based violence against children and what he advocates as the societal neutering of faith in general. Later on in the article he brings up non-Christian examples, such as the disgusting practice of metzitzah b'peh in Orthodox Judaism and female circumcision in Islam, as examples of cases where religious exercise is limited. Of course, what he misses is that public safety has always been a limitation to most of the rights granted in the Constitution. Freedom of speech has always been thought to exclude "yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater" or other such threats to safety, and all but the most rabid NRA supporters would agree that limits on gun possession in certain buildings and areas are perfectly reasonable. On the other hand, when public safety isn't affected the law is quite clear in granting religion a wide latitude. The government can stop a church from performing human sacrifice, but current interpretation doesn't even allow them to force religious groups to abide by zoning and historical preservation laws as recent cases in Pemberton, NJ and Washington, DC attest.

We talk now as if it was ridiculous ever to suspect Roman Catholics of anything but the highest motives, yet by the time John F. Kennedy was breaking the unspoken taboo on the election of a Catholic as president, the Vatican had just begun to consider making public atonement for centuries of Jew-hatred and a more recent sympathy for fascism.

Always one to appeal to base emotion and hatred, Hitchens once again brings up the idea that the Church was a big fan of fascism. One must wonder what he thinks of Mit brennender Sorge and the other cases where Popes Pius XI and Pius XII spoke out against nationalism. I guess that he could be talking about Franco's Spain, which was supported by the Vatican, but I'm not sure what he expected when Franco's opposition was extremely anti-clerical and wanted nothing more than to burn the Pope at the stake. It would be akin to Hitchens allying himself with fundamentalist Christians who want to kill him for not believing in God. At any rate, the Church still has many views that Hitchens hates (like, for instance, being the Church in the first place), so I guess our socialization isn't quite finished.

t is generally agreed that the church's behavior and autonomy need to be modified to take account both of American law and American moral outrage.

I don't know if I'd call this "generally agreed." It is obvious that Church leaders can be held accountable for breaking civil laws, as the Church has admitted and is assisting in the cases of child sex abuse. Still, "moral outrage" is vague and could apply to anything from forcing the Church to turn over abusers all the way to compelling the Church to accept women priests and stop believing in the Real Presence. I doubt that most Americans support the latter, in fact I'd guess that it's only popular among cynical atheists like Mr. Hitchens.

The Church of Scientology, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, and the Ku Klux Klan are all faith-based organizations and are all entitled to the protections of the First Amendment. But they are also all subject to a complex of statutes governing tax-exemption, fraud, racism, and violence, to the point where "free exercise" in the third case has—by means of federal law enforcement and stern public disapproval—been reduced to a vestige of its former self.

First of all, the KKK isn't a religious organization. At best it's a fraternal order like the Freemasons or the Elks and is therefore protected under Freedom of Speech rather than of Religion. Still, it is not a limitation of free exercise to force people to abide by legitimate laws. Preventing violence isn't a violation of religious freedom any more than preventing speech that endangers public safety is a violation of free speech.

There's an excellent chance of a healthy pluralist outcome, but it's very unlikely that this can happen unless, as with their predecessors on these shores, Muslims are compelled to abandon certain presumptions that are exclusive to themselves. The taming and domestication of religion is one of the unceasing chores of civilization.

There is a huge difference between forcing religion to abide by laws on the one hand and on the other forcing religion to become assimilated to the moral sensitivities of the majority. The first is perfectly reasonable, the second is not. Hitchens seems to want both, but if the Catholic experience is a sign then the second part will never occur. Catholics have plenty of beliefs that are objectionable to the world, and yet we still believe them centuries after we came here. Hitchens wants to neuter religions by forcing them to get rid of things that are "exclusive to themselves," removing its potential by removing its distinctiveness. While this may have worked on mainstream Protestants, making it almost impossible to tell between a Lutheran and a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian and a Methodist, it will never work on the Catholic Church and certainly not on Islam. We are all different, and while he'd like to subjugate us to secular control he'll always be disappointed.


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