Another semi-cohesive piece on religion
by Christopher Hitchens. Even though it doesn't hold up very well as a whole, it definitely has some gems.
The moral superiority of atheism (and also of what I prefer to call anti-theism and has been called miso-theism) is less often stressed than its intellectual superiority. The intellectual advantage hardly needs elaboration: we do not normally accept unprovable assertions at face value, however devoutly they are maintained, and we possess increasingly convincing explanations of matters that once lay within the province of the supernatural. Skepticism and inquiry and doubt are the means by which we have established such a civilization as we possess; professions of sheer faith are a hindrance to investigations both moral and material.
I actually think this intellectual advantage is more of a moral advantage than the two he actually mentions. Robust skepticism has the potential to keep quacks of all sorts in check. Steady, informed, rational questioning of the world around us leads to not only better technology, which may help increase both the quantity and quality of our lives, but steady improvement in social and political institutions.
On inspiration and meaning:
We live in a time when physics is much more awe-inspiring than any faith or any man-made deity, and when Galileo's realization - that the solar system is not earth-centered - has itself been eclipsed and re-eclipsed, so that we can see the solar system itself as a dim and flickering bulb in an unimaginable sweep of galaxies and constellations. Paradoxically, it is those who calmly recognize that we are alone who may have the better chance of investing human life with such meaning as it might be made to possess.
Carl Sagan often argued the same point. That there is much more to inspire awe in what we've learned through science than in all the cheap, tawdry, recycled baubles of the world's religions.
More on this same theme:
If Karl Rahner really said that "the mystery enfolds [me] in an ultimate and radical love which commends itself to [me] as salvation and as the real meaning of [my] existence," then why should he not be asked how anybody can know this? His statement is inoffensive enough: it does not propose a jihad or a crusade or an Inquisition. But it is circular and meaningless. So is his related claim that "The world receives God, the infinite and the ineffable mystery, to such an extent that he himself becomes its innermost life." This is just as interesting as being told by some saffron-cloaked mendicant that all things are part of the great whole. Few of us have not had some moment of 'transcendence': a feeling that there is more to life than the strictly material. And few of us have not been tempted by harmless superstition: a sensation that something may have happened for a purpose. However, nobody has proposed any nontautological reason to suppose that this is more than an emotion, and it is quite possible to survive cheerfully enough, once having recognized that the problem of interpretation that superstition proposes has no resolution.
Exactly right. Invariably, every religious adherent I've never spoken to has talked about some sort of direct experience of god. Is it not possibly delirious hubris to think god took time out of his busy schedule to talk to you or meld with you while you were watching that sunset? Isn't it much more plausible, as Hitchens notes, that it is simply emotion, albeit very strong emotion?
I've had experiences where I've felt buoyant, elated, or in awe. Those moments are rare, but they are definitely powerful, and you are probably not human if you haven't had a few yourself. But they are hardly anything near proof or even suggestion of a powerful superspirit touching your soul. Rather, they demonstrate the power and depth of our emotional states.
Religion, however, is not the recognition of this private and dutiful attitude. It is its organized eruption from the private into the public realm. It is the elevation and collectivization of credulity and solipsism, and the arrangement of these into institutional dogma and creed. It is the attempt to decide what shall be taught, what shall be allowed by way of sexual conduct and speech and even thought, and what shall be legislated. And it is the attempt to make such decisions beyond challenge, through the invocation of a supernatural authority.
In many places, the attempt to do these things has been implicitly accepted as a resounding failure as well as a historical outrage, and it will be noticed that those societies that honor pluralism and liberty the most are those that have learned to keep religion in bounds. However, there are constant efforts to undo the secular state and it is important for us never to forget what happened, and what happens, when these attempts are successful.
Again, Hitchens is right. We have to be continually vigilant against those who wish to replace freedom of religion with their own particular brand, ironically in the name of freedom of religion.