Friday, March 26, 2010

Bookclub last night.

The reviewers on the back cover use words such as: merciless, trenchant, witty, zingers, impassioned. Yes, it's a good book for discussion groups.

Obviously, Hitchens is incredibly well-traveled, and his knowledge is encyclopedic. He discusses everything from The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson ("an Australian fascist and ham actor") to Japanese Buddhism. The thrust of the book is that everything has been poisoned by religion, with its patched-together texts, apocryphal stories, and spurious claims based upon immature pseudo-science (before the discovery of the existence of other planets and bacteria). Religion is a lying narrative; and it is poison.

The difficulties I have with this book are three-fold.

First, CH makes the claim that religion poisons everything. But in some cases, when a country or group seeks to sustain economic or political power, it uses religion as a cloak, a justification for atrocity. The religion, in this case, is not the original sin, as it were. The desire for power is. This may seem a small point, but I would have been more willing to jump on CH's hard-driving train had he acknowledged this from the start.

Second, I think this would have been a far more interesting book had it more frequently engaged the question, why? For example, CH makes the point that the founding tales for different religions have many elements or tropes in common--an exodus, a scene of denunciation, etc. However, while CH uses these similarities as proof that the religions borrow and steal, that their origins are not true originals, and (hence) that the religion itself is a lie, I find myself wondering why, at particular historical moments, are these types of narratives created? What particular cultural stresses do they address or attempt to sublimate? What does this tell us about narratives, and beginnings, and anxiety?

Third, CH's biggest gripe seems to be that while he is willing to allow others to have their beliefs, he wants them to "leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing." But in taking this desire to coopt others, to draw them to our way of thinking, as part of religion, he is completely eliding that this desire--based on anxiety and rigid, power-based, binary thinking--operates much more broadly--and, I would argue--needs to be taken even more seriously than CH does.

Here's a minor example. I decided to pull my daughter out of a small charter school here in AZ, where she'd been for several years, to place her in a larger, public elementary school with some special programs. The parents of the children at the charter school were angry. One of them even said, "Well, I guess you think you're too good for us." I couldn't even answer I was so stunned (I was surprised anyone even noticed!). The bottom line was that this parent felt threatened--that she believed that my decision undermined the validity of her own. But--and this is the important part--her feeling of being threatened is predicated upon the belief that there is only one good school, and that all children (who, in temperament and character and needs, are, of course all exactly alike) should go there. If they do not, you, the parent, are bad and have made a bad choice.

Obviously, this is crazy thinking.

But I am profoundly uncomfortably with this rigid and false belief that imprisons us in either/or thinking. It lacks capacity for many things--understanding, empathy, consideration, time, and change.

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