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To Error and Back Again, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Christopher Hitchens, Part 1

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Since atheists are also generally less authoritarian than the religious, they tend to be less credulous towards corporate media propaganda and towards the masters of war, who, as US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson noted in 1918, tend to make truth their first casualty. Atheists seem more likely to embark on adventures of information-gathering; asking heretical questions like, "does that really make sense?", "might our esteemed leaders be lying?" and "cui bono?"  Thus atheists presumably end up considerably better informed by their endeavors to gain knowledge than do professed God-lovers who watch Fox News slack-jawed and numb.

In addition, atheists appear less afraid to be called traitors, and are not particularly concerned about having their patriotism besmirched or their souls damned for disobedience to the supposedly God-appointed human authorities who break laws, bodies and dreams to increase their wealth and power. The many known historical acts of atheist-led (or foot-soldiered) resistance to unaccountable power are markers of this ideology's potential nobility.  Christopher Hitchens himself used to be among those footsoldiers, and in some ways he still is.

In the United States at least, the irreligious are generally more supportive of humane public policies than are the religious.  Most reputable U.S. polls find that salt-of-the-earth freethinkers are the vanguard of opposition to war, torture, occupations, and other atrocities committed by their own nations.  People cloaking themselves in a halo of religious intensity, on the other hand, are more likely (on average) to be sanguine about such horrors.  Indeed, the most vibrant and fastest-growing Christian churches are fundamentalist megachurches that embrace the fantastical and the medieval--contrast the rapidly emptying pews that compose "Mainline Protestantism" and other liberal churches and synagogues.  These thriving fundamentalist institutions generally support our nation's slaughter-happy inversions of patriotism and applaud our collective atrocities as cosmically necessary acts of error-destruction.

I should note, however, that the raw correlation between religious intensity and support for atrocity (a) is very inconsistent between studies, measures, and populations and (b) is misleading even when the relationship is positive.  Religiosity tends to be confounded with rigid conservatism (including dogmatism, authoritarianism, etc.)--i.e. those who are more religious also tend to be more dogmatic and authoritarian.  This means that when religiosity correlates with support for atrocity it is unclear whether religiosity (belief in a deity or deities, praying regularly, seeking to make one's life accord with religious teachings) is the active ingredient in motivating such support or whether it is rather the conservatism that tends to accompany religiosity that motivates this moral indifference to the suffering of others.

Studies bothering to statistically tease apart religiosity from conservative rigidity are very rare, however, in spite of the fact that ignoring this confound often results in misleading or contradictory data while relatively clean and consistent data emerges when the confound is eliminated with statistical controls.  In my own work I have found that rigid conservatism and religiosity make opposing predictions of support for group-based hatred and atrocity--with rigid conservatism positively predicting endorsement of these stances, and religiosity negatively predicting this endorsement or being unrelated.  I found this pattern across diverse religions, cultures and nations.  Recent work by social psychologists Ariel Malka and Christopher Soto shows that support for torture also follows this pattern--among those equally conservative, the more religious are more opposed to torture; among those equally religious, the more conservative are more supportive of torture [5] .  

Thus the greatest differences in self-reported support for tolerance and humane treatment of others tend to be between two oddball combinations of traits--those who manage to be both (psychologically) liberal and religious at the same time vs. those who manage to be both irreligious and conservative at the same time.  The religious conservatives and irreligious liberals with whom we are all more familiar tend to be more ordinary or "average" in their tolerance and humaneness, while religious liberals tend to be above average, and irreligious conservatives tend to be below average.  Think of religious liberal abolitionist William Wilberforce and irreligious conservative Iraq War hawk Karl Rove as the two extremes with regard to tolerant peace-loving concern for human dignity.  Between these two poles you will find irreligious liberal Thomas Friedman and religious conservative Mitt Romney, both more towards the middle of the distribution (and note that the middle can still be pretty brutal).

Religious liberals and irreligious conservatives are in relatively short supply, though, and so the better-known conflict between religious conservatives and irreligious liberals tends to dominate people's dualistic conceptions of the political universe.  In the U.S. context at least, irreligious liberals (as liberals) tend to be reliably more tolerant and humane than religious conservatives (as conservatives) on most affairs of society and state.  All bets are off, of course, if either side is ever granted unaccountable totalitarian power over life and death--and some would argue that the totalitarian irreligious left tends to rack up a higher body count and leave a bigger crater in the cultures it ravages than the totalitarian religious right.

In any case, religious liberals have little cause to brag about how they (on average) lead the ideological field in tolerance and love for humanity.  Such self-aggrandizement could only lead to a pointless alienation of many political allies on the liberal left (i.e. all the nonreligious ones), and would do nothing to endear moderates who lean religious right either.  Also, self-aggrandizing individuals and groups of any kind quickly fall behind in whatever they congratulate themselves for achieving.  And while there are big humanitarian differences between religious liberals and irreligious conservatives, the differences between religious liberals and irreligious liberals are typically slight, and sometimes only statistically detectable in large samples.

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Aware, perhaps, of how close they are to freethinking liberals on most issues that matter, religious liberals are typically not bothered by the fact that most other liberals are relatively irreligious, nor do they tend to be bothered by the fact that the smartest and most effective liberal-leftists are often atheists.  For this among other reasons, religious liberals reject atheism personally, but do not begrudge anyone else their inclination to adopt that worldview.  Yet religious liberals do have some issues with the New Atheist phenomenon more specifically (including the post 9/11 incarnation of Christopher Hitchens), but it is not the atheism in New Atheism that they object to--the objection is rather to the new political and moral polemics that got added to popular atheism after 9/11.

Religious liberals would generally acknowledge the low dogmatism of atheists mentioned earlier, and thus recognize that most atheists are distinctive in their embrace of what philosopher-psychologist William James, in his essay "The Will to Believe," called "a hope for the truth."  A hope for the truth is an inclination to do what it takes to prepare oneself to advance in truth: open one's mind to a new point of view, examine an ideologically "dangerous" question, or consider a possibility that one had not previously contemplated.

If I go back to my readings in God is Not Great with this spirit of self-overcoming adventure in mind, I discover more things about Christopher Hitchens that I like, that I look up to even. It speaks well of Hitchens that he does not regret the religious training of his childhood and sees it even as an introduction to "practical and textual criticism" (p. 2). In his introduction, he frankly admits that "other nonreligious organizations have committed similar crimes" as religious organizations "or even worse ones." (p. 4). This counter-polemical nod to the sometime validity of the views of the other suggests that Hitchens maintains some temperamental affinity with the liberal-progressive atheist-on-the-street and has not entirely swallowed the pill of neoconservative rigidity.  In fact, Hitchens sounds a bit like an atheist protege of William James when he writes:

What we respect is free inquiry, open mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.... We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe; we have music and art and literature, [which] sustains the mind and--since there is no other metaphor--the soul.... We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room. We speculate that, once people accept the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse.... To us no spot on earth is or could be "holier" than another: to the...plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to the other, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth and beauty. Some of these excursions to the bookshelf or the lunch or the gallery will obviously, if they are serious, bring us into contact with belief and believers, from the great devotional painters and composers to the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman. (God Is Not Great, pp. 6-7)

Here Hitchens paints atheists as lovers of truth, art and peace, more interested in going to museums than killing civilians.  Of course, for the sake of protecting truth, beauty and peace from dictators like Saddam Hussein, sometimes a few hundred thousand civilians must be killed (and museums and libraries of an ancient civilization laid to waste).  But Hitchens, though he has taken the bait of the wealth and fame that promised to accrue to him if he became a high class war propagandist, has not completely elevated his new allegiance to neoconservatism over his lingering inclination to approve of social justice.  He distances himself from the dovish left in general (most notably Gandhi), but he cannot bring himself to repudiate the dovish figure of Martin Luther King.  Hitchens' admiration for King is unimpeded by the fact that he was an unusually religious figure in the pantheon of liberal-left heroes (or that he was an unusually liberal-left figure in the pantheon of religious heroes).  Hitchens writes, "It is quite impossible even for an atheist like myself to read his sermons or watch recordings of his speeches without profound emotion of the sort that can bring genuine tears." In fact, the way Hitchens opens his discussion on King is a concise and beautiful memorial to the power of what King and the movements he worked and died for brought to the U.S. and to the world. I quote Hitchens' words almost in full here:

Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," written in response to a group of white Christian clerics who had urged him to show restraint and "patience"--in other words, to know his place--is a model of polemic. Icily polite and generous-minded, it still breathes with an unquenchable conviction that the filthy injustice of racism must be borne no longer.

Taylor Branch's magnificent three-volume biography of Dr. King is successively titled, Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan's Edge. And the rhetoric with which King addressed his followers was designed to evoke the very story that they all knew best--the one that begins when Moses first tells Pharaoh to "Let my people go." In speech after speech he inspired the oppressed, and exhorted and shamed their oppressors. Slowly, the embarrassed religious leadership of the country moved to his side. Rabbi Abraham Herschel asked, "Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America."

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Most eerie of all, if we follow the Mosaic narrative, was the sermon that King gave on the last night of his life. His work of transforming public opinion and shifting the stubborn Kennedy and Johnson administrations was almost done, and he was in Memphis, Tennessee, to support a long a bitter strike by the city's ground-down garbage collectors, on whose placards appeared the simple words "I Am a Man." In the pulpit at Mason Temple, he reviewed the protracted struggle of the past years and then very suddenly said, "But it doesn't matter with me now." There was silence until he went on. "Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I have seen the Promised Land. And I may not get there with you, but I want you to know, tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land!" Nobody who was there that night has ever forgotten it, and I daresay the same can be said for anyone who views the film that was so fortunately taken of that transcendent moment. The next best way of experiencing this feeling at second hand is to listen to how Nina Simone sang, that same terrible week, "The King of Love is Dead." The entire drama has the capacity to unite elements of Moses on Mount Nebo with the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. The effect is scarcely diminished even when we discover that this was one of his favorite sermons, and one that he had delivered several times before, and into which he could slip as occasion demanded.

". His most imperative preaching was that of nonviolence. In his version of the story, there are no savage punishments and genocidal bloodlettings. Nor are there cruel commandments about the stoning of children and the burning of witches. His persecuted and despised people were not promised the territory of others, nor were they incited to carry out the pillage and murder of other tribes. In the face of endless provocation and brutality, King beseeched his followers to become what they for a while truly became: the moral tutors of America and of the world beyond its shores. He in effect forgave his murderer in advance: the one detail that would have made his last public words flawless and perfect would have been an actual declaration to this effect. (God Is Not Great, pp. 173-175)

Like Hitchens, I was also haunted by King's "Promised Land" speech the first time I encountered it in high school, and I had until then much preferred Malcolm X. It is eerie when people appear to be predicting their own death, and in King's case it was especially eerie, since his death was less than 24 hours away. It is odd that Hitchens gravitates to this more mysterious and uncanny moment in King's oratorical record.  Reflection on King's "Promised land" speech would incline most readers to begin dwelling on spiritual and supernatural considerations.

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Ian Hansen is a social psychology professor specializing in cultural and political psychology and a part time activist on behalf of the good things in life.

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