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Guest Column

The God Conspiracy: A Confirmed Agnostic Probes the Mind of a Devout Catholic
By William Fankboner
Aug 25, 2013 - 12:50:16 AM

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It is often said, in defense of religion, that we all live parasitically off of its moral legacy, that we can only dismiss religion because we are protected by the work it has already done on our behalf. This claim has been debated ad nauseam since at least the middle of the 19th century. Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular. Just compare the treatment of prisoners in the 14th century to today, an advance due to Enlightenment reformers. A secularist could as easily chide today's religious conservatives for wrongly ignoring the heritage of the Enlightenment. -- Heather MacDonald, "The American Conservative"

The victims of the holocaust will, no doubt, be happy to learn how compassionate and humane were the Nazis running the death camps. Not to mention the inmates of Prison S-21 in Phnom Penh, where over fifteen thousand Cambodian men, women and children were tortured, raped and murdered by another humane and compassionate secular regime--the Khmer Rouge. (Pol Pot was, of course, an ardent student of Rousseau, one of MacDonald's great 'enlightenment reformers.')

But when it comes to historical revisionism, no one can top the late Christopher Hitchens. Posing a moral equivalence between the Roman Catholic Church and the police state depicted in George Orwell's 1984, he wrote in a recent Atlantic book review:

Part of the greatness of Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four," it has always seemed to me, is its conscious analogy to the English Reformation. The Inner Party is the holder of a secret book, on which profane eyes may not gaze, and the public language of the dictatorship is a jargon designed to obliterate the very possibility of free thought. Regular rituals of execration denounce the infidel and the Evil One. Over the scene rules an Eternal Father, or rather Big Brother. The struggle of the dissenter is to find a tongue in which to speak: a vernacular that is, as the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England so quaintly yet memorably put it, one "understanded of the people."

Now, I grant you the Roman Catholic Church was a pretty rum and seedy institution by the sixteenth century, what with an uninterrupted line of corrupt popes, venal and slothful clerics, complicit in a farrago of exquisite hypocrisies, all of which made it ripe for reform; but I doubt that George Orwell would agree with Hitchens's gratuitous association of the nightmare police state he depicted in 1984 with Holy Mother Church even at the peek of its corruption, let alone that he wrote the novel as a 'conscious analogy to the English Reformation.' That is entirely a Hitchens invention, and one that does not bear much scrutiny--only notice how cleverly Hitchens frames the matter, almost as though it was an established fact, an old debater's trick.

Why is Hitchens straining so mightily to put the Church in the same corner as the fascist regimes of Europe and Soviet Russia, the targets of Orwell's book? When Freud analyzed dreams the first hint of concealment by the ego was something he called 'dream work': a furious attempt by the psyche to insulate itself from painful memories by cloaking them in symbolism. Like a mason who discovers a crack in a foundation and works feverishly to cement over the fissure with trowel and mortar, Hitchens is backfilling to cover up an egregious flaw in his argument against religious faith.

Some time ago, while strolling through the byways of cyberspace, I happened upon a vintage video of a public forum on the existence of God ("Is Christianity the Problem?" hosted by King's College, New York City) and witnessed something I never thought I'd live to see: Dinesh D'Sousa soundly trounce Christopher Hitchens in debate. Not that this would be particularly remarkable to a member of the true faith--but I happen to be a confirmed agnostic.

None of the old Hitchens magic seemed to work: the erudite charm and wit, the polished dialectic, the devastating ridicule of the Church, the scathing contempt for the self-referential and narcissistic personification of a putative higher power, the personal disgust and fierce indignation at the blind faith of true believers--all of it delivered with Hitchens's signature showmanship. He did not cast the hypnotic spell over his audience he once would have.

Hitchens's dilemma is that rather than an original thinker, he is a man-of-letters and polemicist, the most engaging since H. L. Mencken; besides the encyclopedic recall of a savant, he is a writer of such facility and authority one hardly notices how philosophically shallow he is. And like a dog gnawing on a rubber bone, a polemicist is in constant need of fresh material to masticate. Failing to find anything on the contemporary scene worthy of his incandescent intellect or sensational enough to sustain a best- selling book, the Vanity Fair columnist dragged the old 'God Is Dead' game out of the toy box. (Many are the uses of ennui.) This might have been a worthwhile undertaking had he contributed some new wrinkle to the discussion, but he only parroted (and popularized) the tired old arguments of logical positivists like Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer--and wound up sounding less like Comte and Spencer than the village atheist.

Foremost among Hitchens's complaints is Christianity's claim of moral superiority. When, during the Q&A sessions following his speeches, his interlocutors opine that there would be no morality without religion, he challenges his audience to name a single virtue that did not precede advent of religion:

"My challenge: name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever. I have since asked this question at every stop and haven't had a reply yet."

Or, conversely, to cite an evil utterance that could not be attributed to a prelate of the church, an ayatollah or some other prominent religious figure.

Hitchens has accumulated an impressive store of mordant anecdote that could be called The Most Embarrassing Moments of the Catholic Church, e.g. the sale of indulgences and religious relics, the persecution of Galileo, complicity in the holocaust, pederast priests, etc., and a treasure trove of cruelties and idiocies found in Catholic and Islamic catechisms, such as sexual mutilation and the prohibition against prophylactics. In a typical syllogistic flourish, Hitchens extrapolates that the Pope would sooner see a million Africans die of AIDS than approve the use of condoms; then, citing a remark by the Archbishop of Canterbury that a "nuclear war would involve nothing more than the transition of many millions of people into the love of God, only a few years before they were going to find it anyway," Hitchens concludes that organized religion has become a sclerotic and callous institution hell-bent on harvesting souls.

Thus Hitchens can use logic like a nightstick when applying it to the incompetence, hypocrisy and turpitude of the Church, but he is a good deal more indulgent when snared in the toils of his own double think. D'Sousa observed that the number of people who have been killed in the name of godless ideologies like Marxism, Fascism and Nazism exceeds by an order of magnitude all religious wars combined, which is a pretty astute argument for the practicality of religion, if nothing else. Hitchens airily dismissed this by remarking that Hitler and his underlings were Catholic, that Stalin (listen up) was the beneficiary of the divinity conferred on the Czar as head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and that Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot and Kim Il Sung were gods in all but name.

This is, to use one of Hitchens's favorite words, casuistry. Hitler's religious leanings, if he had any at all, were closer to the Teutonic deities than to Christianity: after all, in Hitler's worldview Jesus was just another subhuman Jew. And to equate the Communist cult of personality with religious worship constitutes a remarkable leap of faith for a professed empiricist and skeptic. While it is historically correct to observe, as George Orwell did, that man is susceptible to hero worship and groupthink in totalitarian police states ruled by charismatic psychopaths, it is pure sophistry, and a gross slander, to sully the world's great religions with the twentieth century's most depraved mass murderers; just as it was nonsensical for H. L. Mencken to group the gods of Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism with the savage Aztec god Huitzilopochtli.

And why are secular utopian movements, like fascism and Communism, driven to such apocalyptic violence? Arnold Toynbee was the first historian to address the paradox in a general way, observing that utopian movements almost always set in motion an 'avalanche of violence' because they impose a wholesale reversal of the status quo; such was the amoral wilderness of Pol Pot's 'year zero' and Mao's 'cultural revolution,' where traditional religious values were abandoned in the headlong pursuit of secular social goals.

The Old Testament, it is often observed, is rife with violence and intolerance. But this is nearly always true of the first iteration of a faith. Like the national epics from which they are nearly indistinguishable (e.g. The Edda and The Iliad), religions often take on a militaristic form in their early stages when they are most vulnerable to reaction. The Bhagavad-Gita ("Song of God"), the most revered passage in the Mahabharata, consists of a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna that takes place on the battlefield before the start of the Kurukshetra war. But like other social institutions, religions evolve and mature, and just as the New Testament enjoins us to reject violence and love our fellow man, militant Hinduism morphed into quietism: Mahayana Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. The Tao Te Ching is a clear advance on Confucianism, and even that medieval religion of the sword preached by the Prophet, with its barbaric fatwas and peasant pieties, manifests a mystical side in Sufism.

A Case of Identity Theft

As for those worldly Popes--wasn't this a simple case of identity theft? Like any social institution, religion has always attracted its impostors, impersonators, apostates, Antichrists, fakes, frauds and fools, and false prophets like Jim Jones. There will always be thugs, like Tamerlane, who put whole cities to the sword in the name of Islam, waiting in the wings to hijack a religion and use it to justify the most monstrous and depraved acts. Shakespeare was succinct on the subject: "The devil can cite scripture for his purpose."

If we identify institutions, civil or religious, by their worst exemplars, none pass muster. This is the grand strategy of militant atheists to discredit religion across the boards--to taint Christianity with the burning of heretics, Hinduism with the Thuggee, and Judaism with the extermination of the Canaanites. The temptation for secularists must be irresistible, but were we to apply the same exclusionary logic to other imperfect institutions, like constitutional government, based on (say) the performance of the Iranian parliament or the People's Assembly of North Korea, we would forswear civilization itself. The institution of religion is not maintenance-free: like democracy and free market capitalism, it is a work in progress. It makes as much sense to purge society of religion because of corrupt clerics as it does to discard capitalism because of a few greedy investment bankers.

Hitchens is equally scornful of the ecumenical spirit and believers who harbor secret doubts about literal interpretations of the Gospels. Many otherwise devout Christians consider the supernatural events in the Bible little more than convenient allegorical handles for the child-like minds of the peasant class. Against the received wisdom, that the early Christians accepted the miracles in the Gospels on blind faith, there is increasing evidence that the Gentile converts, living in the so-called golden age of the faltering Roman Empire, were not as naive and credulous as history portrays them, but sophisticated and cosmopolitan enough to appreciate the Biblical miracles on a symbolic level; and it is rather to the intellectual vacuity of modern day fundamentalism that we owe scriptural literalism.

Theism for Skeptics

Another shortcut Hitchens has taken slouching towards secular paradise is his choice of adversaries. With the exception of D'Sousa, most of his interlocutors have been TV evangelists, fawning talk-show hosts and unctuous divines from the Bible-belt like reverend Al Sharpton and Jerry Falwell. Has Hitchens never heard of George Santayana, Arnold Toynbee and Marshall McLuhan? If you purport to engage the soldiers of the faith in Socratic dialog, it might be more persuasive if you were to take on some of Christianity's more reputable champions, rather than celebrity hosts and knee-jerk fundamentalists. Santayana, Toynbee and McLuhan were intellectual giants, three of the greatest minds of twentieth century, with profound and subtle rationales for embracing the Christian narrative. Truth arises from the collision of opinion. To learn how a militant atheist like Hitchens or Richard Dawkins would fare against one these eminent Catholic thinkers let us try to enter the mind of one, Marshall McLuhan, and discover the coordinates of his faith.

A Catholic convert, McLuhan was careful to exclude any mention of religion in his works. But a belief in the absolute is implicit in every page of his writing. In an illuminating passage in Understanding Media, he says:

Every culture and every age has its favorite model of perception and knowledge that it is inclined to prescribe for everybody and everything. The mark of our time is its revulsion against imposed patterns. We are suddenly eager to have things and people declare their beings totally. There is a deep faith to be found in this new attitude--a faith that concerns the ultimate harmony of all being. Such is the faith in which this book has been written. It explores the contours of our own extended beings in our technologies, seeking the principle of intelligibility in each of them.

There is much to ponder here, but for the moment let us consider 'the ultimate harmony of all being.' The world is not chaotic and random, but coherent and intelligible. Though we cannot perceive God through our senses we can infer His existence analogically by contemplating the perfection of the creation. The creation consists of the natural world, man, and all his works, i.e. his 'extended being.' Art is the extension of his sense of beauty, religion the extension of his moral life, language the extension of his memory and cognitive powers. It is in man's intellectual mastery of the world, his perception of the 'harmony of all being' and understanding of the machinery of existence, that he achieves the highest state of consciousness. The deeper and more complete man's understanding of the world around him, the more compelling is the presence of God. In fact, man witnesses God in the cognitive process: the moment of cognition is a supernatural event, a sacred epiphany, in which man himself partakes of godliness. McLuhan would be the first to admit that the intelligibility of the world is the product of evolution. Man's spiritual aptitude, his instinct to worship a higher power, is as much a part of the human genome as are his hunter-gatherer skills, and as critical to his survival as his capacity to breathe air.

Obviously this is not an empirical proof for the existence of a supreme being, but it is a kind of proof. Consider the two most important scientific discoveries of the modern era, Relativity and Evolution. Because the process is so protracted over time, we are unable to observe evolution in situ. Natural selection is a daily and hourly process, but says Darwin

We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.

Even though we observe only end-product of the process (not the process itself), we accept the principle of natural selection because it is the most compelling explanation for the prodigious diversity of nature. Likewise, when Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity in 1915, there was no experimental evidence for the theory until the observation of solar deflection some years later; nevertheless, the scientific community accepted the theory because of its internal cogency, mathematical elegance and because it solved unexplained anomalies of Newton's law of gravitation. May not religionists, therefore, make a similar argument for the existence of God--that, though there is no empirical evidence for an omnipotent universal spirit, it is a plausible explanation for the origin of the universe?

For McLuhan, the celebration of the Eucharist is the central Catholic sacrament. When Christ says "This is my body" and "This is my blood," he is signifying His commitment to the spatiotemporal world, that it is real, coherent and ultimately knowable. He is telling his disciples that the ultimate reality of God is immediately available to us here on earth, and is not some unseen noumenal entity obscured by a veil of mystery to be made known to us in a blinding moment of transcendence on the day of revelation. McLuhan believed that analogy was the engine of understanding, the very basis of cognition itself, a tool with which we can understand the world; and that the wonders of the creation are 'analogical mirrors' wherein we glimpse the divinity of God vis-a-vis our human nature in the here and now. Thus the transcendent is not concealed behind the material world as the Gnostics taught, nor does it exist as the thing-in-itself as Kant thought, but is discernable in the phenomenal world.

McLuhan does not postulate an anthropomorphic God but a benevolent intellectual agency whose presence is implied by man's instinctive love and reverence for the creation. One symbol of this creation is the person of Christ, the personification of love, who is understood analogically in man's worship of the natural order. This reverence and wonder, which guides man throughout his life, is manifested in Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem, The Windhover:

Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem The Windhover

The Falcon is Christ and blue-bleak embers that gash vermilion figure His suffering on the cross. The poet's emotional wonder at the perception of Christ in nature is not esthetic, but metaphysical in that it is the analogical reality of God, and existential because it supervenes upon our lives, which is the definition of religion. To answer Hitchens's challenge--to name a single virtue that did not precede advent of Christ: a religion cannot invent moral virtues that do not already exist in our humanity (what would be the point of that?); religion, or our collective sense of goodness, is only the social extension of man's intuition of moral justice; but what religion can do is discover, codify, ritualize, memorialize and glorify natural law in inspired liturgy and in imaginative works of literature, art and music. In this sense artists like Hopkins carry on the work of the twelve disciples, and are authentic heirs of the Apostolic succession.

One such virtue is found is Christ's message of love, love of the natural world and the creation. McLuhan's faith is a purely intellectual doctrine, one based on the belief that there is no limit to human understanding--but it is an understanding informed by love (i.e. the perception of truth, beauty and goodness). In fact, love and understanding of the sensible world are one and the same thing, for we cannot apprehend the world around us without first embracing it with the joy and exaltation of love. The metaphysical resonance and efficacy of love can neither be proved nor disproved. But Hitchens professes to do just that: like some blinkered nineteenth century positivist, he denies the metaphysical meaning of religious experience out of hand, implying it is, like poetry, solely esthetic. Thus, fanatical atheism has religious overtones of its own: in declaring that 'religion poisons everything' Hitchens stands guilty of the very intolerance and missionary zeal he claims to deplore in true believers, the compulsion to proselytize and impose their faith on others.

And what does Judeo-Christian love have to do with the Greco-Roman innovation of democratic government? Christ's dispensation of individual freedom and the equality of all men under God is the spiritual foundation and metaphysical rationale for the establishment of democratic government. The Greeks and Romans may have invented democracy and republicanism, but their pagan gods did not sustain their political vision. Thus, while there is obviously no empirical proof for the existence of a Christian God, there is ample proof of the moral force and practical efficacy of Christianity and its amalgamation with democratic government. For it is indisputable that the Christian democracies, e.g. England and America, have saved the world from social and spiritual catastrophe at several pivotal moments in history. The difference between hero worship and religious worship is that the latter deifies transcendent personalities. Ideal beings like Christ and Buddha represent a moral perfection to which we can all aspire, and democratic government, which is postulated on the equality of all men, is the civil institution that most closely mirrors that moral perfection.

Enlightenment is bestowed upon the few blessed with the intellect and predisposition to seek it. McLuhan's version of Christianity is strenuously proactive: it demands that we apply ourselves intellectually, emotionally and spiritually to understanding the world around us, to rouse ourselves from passive faith to a determined search for knowledge and truth, and in this, it has much in common with Buddhism. The Buddha is not smiling because he is a nice guy: his smile is the joy and bliss of comprehension--he sees and understands all. And that is the moral imperative imposed on all those who worship the Christian God. Though such a state of grace is not easily attained, the effort is well within the grasp of all.

William Fankboner
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