Religion: The ‘first and worst’ explanation


Until about 1832, when it first seems to have become established as a noun and a concept, the term “scientist” had no really independent meaning.

“Science” meant “knowledge” in much the same way as “physic” meant medicine, and those who conducted experiments or organized field expeditions or managed laboratories were known as “natural philosophers.”

To these gentlemen (for they were mainly gentlemen) the belief in a divine presence or inspiration was often merely assumed to be a part of the natural order, in rather the same way as it was assumed — or actually insisted upon — that a teacher at Cambridge University swear an oath to be an ordained Christian minister.

For Sir Isaac Newton — an enthusiastic alchemist, a despiser of the doctrine of the Trinity and a fanatical anti-papist — the main clues to the cosmos were to be found in Scripture. Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, was a devout Unitarian, as well as a believer in the phlogiston theory. Alfred Russel Wallace, to whom we owe much of what we know about evolution and natural selection, delighted in nothing more than a session of ectoplasmic or spiritual communion with the departed.

And thus it could be argued — though if I were a believer in god I would not myself attempt to argue it — that a commitment to science by no means contradicts a belief in the supernatural. The best known statement of this opinion in our own time comes from the late Stephen Jay Gould, who tactfully proposed that the worlds of science and religion commanded “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

How true is this on a second look or even on a first glance? Would we have adopted monotheism in the first place if we had known:

That our species is at most 200,000 years old and very nearly joined the 98.9 percent of all other species on our planet by becoming extinct in Africa 60,000 years ago, when our numbers seemingly fell below 2,000 before we embarked on our true “exodus” from the savannah?

That the universe, originally discovered by Edwin Hubble to be expanding away from itself in a flash of red light, is now known to be expanding away from itself even more rapidly, so that soon even the evidence of the original “big bang” will be unobservable?

That the Andromeda galaxy is on a direct collision course with our own, the ominous but beautiful premonition of which can already be seen with a naked eye in the night sky?

These are very recent examples, post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian, and they make pathetic nonsense of any idea that our presence on this planet, let alone in this of so many billion galaxies, is part of a plan.

Which design or designer made so sure that absolutely nothing (see above) will come out of our fragile current “something”? What plan or planner determined that millions of humans would die without even a grave marker, for our first 200,000 years of struggling and desperate existence, and that there would only then at last be a “revelation” to save us, about 3,000 years ago, but disclosed only to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?

To say that there is little “scientific” evidence for the last proposition is to invite a laugh. There is no evidence for it, period. And if by some strenuous and improbable revelation there was to be any evidence, it would only argue that the creator or designer of all things was either (a) very laborious, roundabout, tinkering and incompetent and/or (b) extremely capricious and callous and even cruel.

It will not do to say, in reply to this, that the lord moves in mysterious ways. Those who dare to claim to be his understudies and votaries and interpreters must either accept the cruelty and the chaos or disown it. They cannot pick and choose between the warmly benign and the frigidly indifferent. Nor can the religious claim to be in possession of secret sources of information that are denied to the rest of us. That claim was once the prerogative of the pope and the witch doctor, but now it’s gone.



Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens will debate religion and faith on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books



This is as much as to say that reason and logic reject god, which (without being conclusive) would be a fairly close approach to a scientific rebuttal. It would also be quite near to saying something that lies just outside the scope of this essay, which is that morality shudders at the idea of god, as well.

Religion, remember, is theism, not deism. Faith cannot rest itself on the argument that there might or might not be a prime mover. Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will. Physics and chemistry and biology and paleontology and archeology have, at a minimum, given us explanations for what used to be mysterious and furnished us with hypotheses that are at least as good as, or very much better than, the ones offered by any believers in other and inexplicable dimensions.

Does this mean that the inexplicable or superstitious has become “obsolete”? I myself would wish to say no, if only because I believe that the human capacity for wonder neither will nor should be destroyed or superseded. But the original problem with religion is that it is our first, and our worst, attempt at explanation. It is how we came up with answers before we had any evidence.

It belongs to the terrified childhood of our species, before we knew about germs or could account for earthquakes. It belongs to our childhood, too, in the less charming sense of demanding a tyrannical authority: a protective parent who demands compulsory love even as he exacts a tithe of fear.

This unalterable and eternal despot is the origin of totalitarianism and represents the first cringing human attempt to refer all difficult questions to the smoking and forbidding altar of a Big Brother. This, of course, is why one desires that science and humanism would make faith obsolete, even as one sadly realizes that as long as we remain insecure primates, we shall remain very fearful of breaking the chain.

Christopher Hitchens is the author of “God Is Not Great” and the editor of “The Portable Atheist.” This piece was commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation as part of an essay series that can be found at http://www.templeton.org/belief.

Welcome to the Orwell Olympics


Now that every dissident within a hundred miles of Beijing has been intimidated, jailed or internally exiled; now that the Chinese communist party has shut down formerly legal means of citizen redress, like petitioning the government; now that free assembly has been banned, unsightly small businesses have been bulldozed, hotel computers have been bugged, and the foreign press has been bamboozled, the “quiet diplomacy” favored until this week by President Bush and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has given way to Mr. Bush’s “>Washington Post, spokesmen for Beijing’s Olympic Organizing Committee and for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said at a recent press conference that “reporters did not actually need to visit blocked Web sites to do their jobs.” Sure enough, journalists arriving at the Olympic media center last week found that their Web browsers could not connect to sites like Western news outlets, human rights organizations, Wikipedia and Chinese dissident groups like the Falun Gong and Free Tibet.

Ever since Beijing won the venue for the games, M. Rogge has been telling everyone who’ll listen what a swell development this will be for free speech and human rights in China. Instead, foreign news crews have found their access to Tiananmen Square sharply curtailed – lest those images remind viewers of the tank crackdown of dissidents in 1989 – and thousands of non-violent protesters across China, according to a new Amnesty International report subtitled “Broken Promises,” have been persecuted, punished and jailed.

Last week Sen. Brownback (R-Kan.), whose rages I have previously not shared, released documents showing that international hotel chains have been required by the Chinese Public Security Bureau, under threat of harsh punishment, to install Internet spyware designed to capture Beijing’s hotel guests’ Web browsing history, their Googling, even their keystrokes, which means their e-mail.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the keystrokes of foreign tourists, athletes’ families and NBC executives were being captured today by the Chinese security apparatus. Nearly 30 years ago, soon after the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing, I went to China as part of the highest-level official U.S. visit to date. The Chinese housed us in a campus-like compound of guesthouses, where we took walks between events. One member of our delegation, a National Security Agency staffer, pointed out to me a picturesque bridge where Henry Kissinger had often paused to chat privately with aides during his visits. Turns out that bridge, like all the places we stayed, was bugged. The upside of this was getting to go to a meeting in the new U.S. embassy in Beijing, where confidential conversations were enabled by entering a floating clear-sided room-within-a-room that totally reminded me of the cool cone of silence in the television series “Get Smart.”

China has come quite a distance since 1979. Economically its story is breathtaking, and freedoms like travel and property ownership have made demonstrable gains. But China’s human rights record remains depressing, its tolerance of dissent and minorities is minimal, its environmental damage to the planet is terrifying, its intransigence on the genocide in Darfur is unconscionable and its cheap exports are candy to American consumers.

The $900 million that NBC paid for the rights to broadcast the Olympics, like the billions that China spent to get ready for the games, have created a Potemkin village for the world to admire.

From Rupert Murdoch’s kowtow to the Chinese police state, which enabled him to crack the Chinese market by eliminating BBC News from his satellite television programming; to the complicity of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco with Chinese Internet censors, the rationale has always been the same: The more we engage with China, the more free their people will be. Once those 1.3 billion people develop a taste for openness, there’ll be no stopping them.

Why do I have the feeling that if hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese imports and of American business investments in China were not at stake, “quiet diplomacy” wouldn’t have become the slogan du jour?

President Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” wasn’t particularly quiet. President Bush doesn’t have to ask Mr. Hu Jintao to tear down the Great Wall of China, but the least he can do—now that the opportunity represented by the years running up to the Olympics has been squandered—is to use in public, in China, some of the lovely human rights language he claims he’s been saying in private.

Our president never let the bully of Baghdad crimp his freedom-agenda rhetoric. Why did it take him so long to send some public pro-democracy love to the Big Brothers of Beijing?

Marty Kaplan has been a political speechwriter, a movie studio executive, a screenwriter and producer, a radio host and a blogger. Today he directs the Norman Lear Center for the study of the impact of entertainment on society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly and