Religion is Totalitarianism

Christopher Hitchens debates Alister McGrath



Let me start out saying that I am not a fan of Hitchens' politics. However, there is a reason why he does this for a living, while I am a mere amateur.

I would like to use this video to kick off the discussion of one of Hitchens' points. Religion is totalitarianism; it requires complete obedience to the figurehead, even to the point of outlawing certain thoughts. It utilizes a pervasive surveilance system to ensure obedience--God is always watching, always judging. It demands loyalty to the leader as the supreme in morality, over and above all other moral dictates. It has been previously argued, here and elsewhere, that religion is no worse than atheism from a moral stance, as many of the most despotic regimes of the modern world were atheist (Stalinist Soviet Union, Mao's China, Pol Pot's regime). I argue that all forms of totalitarianism are morally wrong, including religion.

Totalitarianism supercedes all moral constraints with a duty to the leader, whether that leader be god (who makes his wishes know via fallible humans or fallible revelation) or man. The Bible is full of atrocities (genocide, slavery, infaticide, etc.) performed out of loyalty to a totalitarian God, and also full of punishments for those who dare revolt against the regime. Loving Jesus himself brought about the ultimate totalitarian notion of eternal punishment for thoughtcrime--you must believe or you will burn in everlasting fire.

Stand with me in condemning totalitarianism in all its forms. Be it service to the Fuhrer or to a supposed god via his prophets and priests, it is evil and an affront to your human dignity.

25 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

Very good points about totalitarianism, especially the ancient idea of a "thought police," the notion of which is absolutely barbaric and something still practiced most notiably in many Muslim countries.

This was the first time I saw Hitchens in action. He's brilliant confident and funny. I found McGrath respectful and intelligent. However, if this is the best defense of Christianity, then it is doomed. McGrath resorted to stating his conclusions without the supporting arguments. The questions Hitchens asked, McGrath didn't have good answers for. McGrath never actually specified how Jesus' death on the cross helps us, and he ended by saying what he believed was because of faith, even if he claimed that Hitchens too accepts what he does by faith.

Christianity will have to do better than that.

Chris said...

You Americans just love our atheists huh?

This Christian is loving Hitchens opening statement, his humour is fantastic (and remarkably similar to my own, if better executed)

Andrew said...
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Shygetz said...

You Americans just love our atheists huh?

If there's one thing the Anglican Church has been eminently successful at, it is producing erudite and eloquent skeptics.

Stargazer said...

It seemed like a lot of McGrath's energy went into being "civilized," gracious, while Hitchen's main concern was to make his points very clear, regardless of how they may have come across. This made McGrath seem more detached except for a couple of points--first, where he was defending the loving of one's enemy, and second, near the end where he defends his belief on the basis of faith. He seemed really engaged there, and it was easier to become drawn in to what he was saying. Hitchens seemed much more engaged overall. It does seem hard for him to stop commenting, though, once he is on a roll! :-)

WoundedEgo said...

Yes, Hitchens has a John Wayne "swagger":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLxBBl1a0JU

...which contrasted well with McGrath's "mama's boy" manner. One would definitely be tempted to "pants" McGrath!:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSGgwAlkBmQ

What Hutchins said about religion being "totalitarianism" was not what I expected. I expected him to refer to religion's role in oppresion, but instead, he said that the Christian **God** related to men in a totalitarian fashion. Ie: that God himself was a dictator. He expressed resentment that God would overlook his own (Hitchens') say in the relationship between God and himself. "Maybe I don't want a dying savior." I thought that this was one of his two weakest points.

I would describe the debate as Hitchens identifying bad things about religion and saying that it was both stupid and horrible, and McGrath trying to show that religion was actually quite benign, over all, and actually quite nice and even beneficial. While I found McGrath doing an excellent job of "defending his client's character," at the end of the day, his eloquent homilies could not produce evidence that his religion was true, moral, sensible, coherent, good or even benign.

McGrath is slippery, because he asserts so little. He sticks his neck out this little:

* religion does not intrude on science - it concerns itself with the origin of the universe, the definition of good that is beyond us, feeling good and comforted, and the meaning of Christ;

* he never said "you must..." but always "as a Christian, I see things through Christ.."

This is very different from the true claims of religion which claims a clear revelation with a "you must" message. Because the aspect of religion he brings into the ring is so vague, it is hard to falsify. It is like trying to knock over a hot air balloon. He always has the out of moving from reality into the La La Land of faith, the unknown, "Christ" and subjective experience.

Hitchens was very specific. He even set forth a challenge twice that McGrath never responded to. Hitchens left nothing unaswered.

Simply put, McGrath invites us into a vague, insipid, senseless and non-reason based fantasy game called "faith" and Hitchens points out that while this stuff claims to be benign and even moral, it can be shown that it is baseless, useless, misleading and ultimately evil.

Bill Ross
http://bibleshockers.blogspot.com

PS: Hitchens appears to have bad eyesight. The lenses of his eyeglasses looked like they were borrowed from Hubble. His hair seemed to be paying homage to Jimmy Neutron.

Caleb Wimble said...

McGrath is as slippery as they come, which indeed seems to be a rather common trait among those tracing their religious grounds to the Anglican church.
Never once did he respond to Hitchen's numerous assertions of the cruelty of hell. He refused to even admit or acknowledge its existence, choosing rather to completely avoid the embarrassing issue and focus on his trite little set of "Christ-lenses" through which he apparently "interprets" Scripture (we certainly heard that enough).

This is, essentially, the weakness of any non-fundamentalist form of Christianity. If one rejects (or remains in denial of) such an obvious theme of the Bible as the doctrine of eternal torment in hell, then why does one bother adhering to other claims of the Bible? I would very much like to know just how McGrath picks and chooses which portions of the book are actually inspired by God, seeing as he obviously doesn't believe the Old Testament account of God commanding genocide and the like. Rather, he skirts around (or just outright ignores) every mention of the Bible's more horrifying bits, even failing utterly to address the central New Testament principle of Christ's sacrificial death. I must say that I was appalled that he went so far as to (heavily) imply that he does not even consider the death of Jesus to be a sacrificial atonement; my apologies, but it takes a great deal of either blindness or idiocy not to realize that the New Testament very clearly describes Christ's death in such a fashion. Furthermore, virtually every evangelical believer I know would consider it pure heresy to suggest that Christ' death was anything but sacrificial atonement. The simple and very plain idea of the entire Gospel story is that God allowed the brutal murder of his own son on the behalf of humans in order to appease his own wrath at our "sin." This is the only reasonable interpretation of the Jesus narrative in the New Testament, as far as I (and most Christians around the world) am concerned.

The entire debate followed this format. Unlike his fundamentalist counterparts, McGrath truly is as meek as a dove, to the extreme that he is utterly incapable of actually engaging in debate. He rarely (if ever) postulated a cohesive argument of any kind, and came close to completely ignoring the point of nearly all Hitchens's arguments.

I never thought I would say this, but I found myself actually missing the charming, abrasive arrogance of good ol' fashioned American fundamentalists. At least they (generally) believe in the Christianity they attempt to defend. Give me a delusionally self-assured apologist such as Josh McDowell over a side-stepping, impossible-to-pin-down-on-any-actual-belief Alister McGraw. At least someone like McDowell seems to know where he stands.

Divided By Zer0 said...

Absolutely agree. Not only that but I honestly believe that without monotheistic religions, totalitarianism would find it much harder to take root.
I've written my thoughts on exactly this subject here .

Stargazer said...

I have found myself wondering at times if those people whose need for certainty outweighs their desire for individual freedom find in religion something that is, for them, an 'acceptable' form of totalitarianism. In the case of the multiform nature of Christianity (not alone among religions in having this fractured state but the form with which I am most familiar) it allows you to live under the dictatorship of your choice, allowing one to at least assert the guise of freedom in the making of such of choice.

Shygetz said...

I have found myself wondering at times if those people whose need for certainty outweighs their desire for individual freedom find in religion something that is, for them, an 'acceptable' form of totalitarianism.

I hope you are wrong. I would like to have a higher opinion of the strength of human dignity than that of a slave grateful to choose his master. However, me hoping you are wrong doesn't make it so.

Stargazer said...

I hope you are right, shygetz, and I hope it is something that will only improve with time. I just know too many people, some in my own family, who don't read, literally don't like to think deeply about anything ("It makes my brain hurt!") and who will go for security and certainty as long as it maintains the status quo. When people are comfortable, it can be hard to place principle over that comfort.

I am tempted to that place at times and in certain contexts myself, when it would be much easier to go with the flow than to buck the current. And of course, here is my own hypocrisy staring me in the face--I continue to work for a church-related organization because I cannot afford to quit and lose insurance coverage (my husband has multiple health issues); while my mind can't be controlled here, What I say and do is definitely within certain boundaries. So, I don't say much anymore, and since ethical behavior remains the same for me pretty much both in and out of this context, that's not a huge issue.

I have taken some positive steps toward applying for work in non-religious settings, and hope to see something develop there. In the meantime, I live in the hypocrisy as best I can.

Looking forward to the future integrity of being!

WoundedEgo said...

Caleb wrote:

>>>>even failing utterly to address the central New Testament principle of Christ's sacrificial death. I must say that I was appalled that he went so far as to (heavily) imply that he does not even consider the death of Jesus to be a sacrificial atonement; my apologies, but it takes a great deal of either blindness or idiocy not to realize that the New Testament very clearly describes Christ's death in such a fashion...The simple and very plain idea of the entire Gospel story is that God allowed the brutal murder of his own son on the behalf of humans in order to appease his own wrath at our "sin." This is the only reasonable interpretation of the Jesus narrative in the New Testament, as far as I (and most Christians around the world) am concerned.

Caleb, I actually have to side with McGrath on this one. (Remember I said that Hitchens had 2 weak points?) McGrath, as an expert in religious history, is aware that Anselmism dates only as far back as the 11th century CE. Prior to that it had not been invented as was unheard of. The Catholic version prior to that was a "ransom paid to the Devil." But before that - in the NT - the death of Jesus was never said to be an atonement at all. I go into this in the chapter "Sins are forgiven, not paid for" in my book "Bible Shockers!" Paul's rationale for the death of Jesus is way deeper than the inane "perfect sacrifice" silliness. But as you point out, Christ as human sacrifice is the only view of the Catholic-Protestants out there today, so it needs to be shown to be ridiculous, because it is. It just also happens to be unbiblical!

Bill Ross
http://bibleshockers.com

John W. Loftus said...

Bill, I'm interested in reading your book, but I usually refrain from telling professing Christians what they should believe. What I do instead, is to listen to what they believe and then critique it. I let other Christians argue among themselves over what to believe about the Trinity or the incarnation or the atonement or hell itself. Why should I enter that debate? I merely wait till the dust settles and critique the various positions they offer. I rarely say to them what they should believe, although I will ask them to explain certain passages in the Bible, which, I suppose, is what you do in your book. But theologians have dealt with these passages over the millenia, and they are satisfied with their conclusions. Okay, I say, let's look at these conclusions and see if they make sense, or if there is any evidence for them.

Cheers.

WoundedEgo said...

I understand your priorities, John, but don't share them, so I often come at things slightly differently. In this case, I consider Caleb's criticism of McGrath's "theory of the atonement" to be misguided. I do, however, consider Hitchens' criticism of Anselmism as basically sound. "Payment" for sin via human sacrific of one's son is an absurdity. Imagine...

"Sorry I raped your daughter, sir... how about if I kill your son and we'll call it even?"

I mean, it makes no sense whatsoever.

But, to his credit, McGrath did not champion that view. To his shame, he did not champion **anything** except "we religious people like to think about Christ, and this very often DOESN'T result in a dreadful impact on society!"

ISTM that Christians derive a great deal of certainty that they are on the right track from the idea that their religion has remained constant from the first century. This, in fact, is not the case. EVEN THE CROSS as understood by today's Protestants can be shown to be an 11th century interpretation! A quick Google of "Anselmism" or "theories of the atonement" will verify this. I think that anyone who takes a minute to confirm what I say will no longer be able to smugly say that theirs is the faith that was "once delivered to the saints." It is a relative new-comer.

Bill Ross
http://bibleshockers.blogspot.com

John W. Loftus said...

Actually, I like your approach Bill, for Christians who have never seriously looked at what the Bible says. You meet them there. I'll meet them where they are today. I think it doesn't do much good to attack the ransom theory of the atonement, for instance, if no Christian believes in it today. For you to argue that they should indeed accept that theory (not saying you do) won't get you too far, although that approach is worthwile, even if less effective in my opinion.

Caleb Wimble said...

Woundedego, I have read your book, including the chapter you mentioned, and I simply happen to (strongly) disagree with you on this issue. I have studied the New Testament quite indepth numerous times on my own accord, and the theme of Christ' sacrificial atonement comes across to me as blindingly obvious from a hermeneutical standpoint, regardless of the history of the actual beliefs of Christians.
However, seeing as I myself no longer place any bearing on the Bible to begin with, I have no particular reason to debate with a fellow atheist/agnostic on its specific points. After reading John's post, I do have to conclude that my time would be better spent attacking the beliefs of Christians themselves, rather than historical or biblical doctrine.

Regardless, it still appears to me that McGrath holds virtually no actual Christian belief to begin with, other than a vague idea of a "Christ-filled life," or something to that effect. Again, he skirts around the issues, refusing to directly answer any actual questions, and flat-out ignoring Hitchens's attacks on the cruelty of both Yahweh and the God of the New Testament.

WoundedEgo said...

I just got back from a lovely walk in the magnificent autumn air. On the walk I thought of two things on this debate.

McGrath's position could be characterized like this:

"The wonderful thing about this imaginary microscope (faith) is that it allows us to explore this imaginary organism (God) through this imaginary lens (Christ)."

What I found to be Hitchens' best point was that if you legitimize this epistemology you don't do so "a al carte" but, like Pandora's box, you legitimize all that religion brings. You open the door for the good feelings, the wish fulfillment, but you also lose your grip on reality, common sense and true morality. Suddenly your living room is full of Hell, genocide, suicide bombings, slavery, subjugation of women, etc... while you are chatting idly about "the meaning of Christ."

Bill Ross
http://bibleshockers.com

Caleb Wimble said...

An excellent point, WE, which sums up one of Hitchens's larger arguments rather nicely.

Shygetz said...

While I certainly find the conversation on the nature of Christ's sacrifice to be illuminating, I have noticed that it is unfairly one-sided. Thus far it has smacked of atheists debating atheists over the color of a fairy's wings.

I must say that I fully expected that, by provocatively titling this post "Religion is Totalitarianism", I would draw in some theists either saying "no it isn't" or saying "Well, totalitarianism isn't so bad."

I know I'm new to this whole demagogue business, but I thought for once I could rile up the mob and start a discussion on the presumed morality of religion. Could someone insert a picture of Jesus with a toothbrush mustache or something?

Caleb Wimble said...

Perhaps the truth is simply that most believers don't take issue with totalitarianism; it certainly would be nice to see some feedback. As for me, Yahweh's horrific leadership and God's terrifying "sovereignty" comprised one of my initial reasons for questioning my faith in the first place. As such, I'm interested in knowing if any believers frequenting this blog have the given the subject much thought.

Stargazer said...

The discussion on witches speaks a little to this--whether one sees the OT law as binding or the supposed new law of Jesus, the rules rule, according to those who argue for them. And if past discussions are any indication, no questions asked.

WoundedEgo said...

I listend to more Hitchens since this one and see more what his concept of totalitarianism is that bothers him. He says that he is an "anti-theist" rather than just an "atheist" since an atheist might *wisth* that there was a god. As an anti-theist he is glad there is not one, since the god concept involves living in the ultimate police state - one is watched 24x7, and failure to conform on any point, including one's thoughts, will bring reprisals. He sees religion akin to living under Saddaam Hussein in that regard.

Bill Ross
http://debunkingislam.blogspot.com

Steven Carr said...

'must say that I was appalled that he went so far as to (heavily) imply that he does not even consider the death of Jesus to be a sacrificial atonement; my apologies, but it takes a great deal of either blindness or idiocy not to realize that the New Testament very clearly describes Christ's death in such a fashion'

Actually, one quarter of the NT is made up by Luke/Acts which has a quite different theology.

For example, Luke deliberately drops Mark's line about one man dying for many.

In Luke/Acts , Jesus is the first Christian martyr and it is repentance at the injustice of his death which brings salvation.

Heng said...

Hitchens, for those who don't know him is a very eloquent and funny guy. This doesn't even scratch the surface. You ought to look up you tube on his book tour conference which I think is split into 6 parts. The guy is very well spoken.

Tymn2010 said...

Caleb:

You said you were "interested in knowing if any believers frequenting this blog have the given the subject much thought" regarding the subject of the "terrible leadership and terrifying sovereignty" of Yahweh in the OT. I have and would be interested in discussing this with you via email (I am set up to receive comments in my inbox). There are reasons why He acted the way he did and I would like to share with you what my own research has revealed, if you are interested.