Friday, August 3, 2007

Without apology

I like this passage from Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great for its frank acerbity and refusal to apologize for religious dogma, for which apology* has traditionally rationalized justifications:
This pathetic moral spectacle [exemplified by "temporary marriages" and "remissions of sins" in an earlier excerpt] would not be necessary if the original rules were ones that it would be possible to obey. But to the totalitarian edicts that begin with revelation from absolute authority, and that are enforced by fear, and based on a sin that had been committed long ago, are added regulations that are often immoral and impossible at the same time. The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey. The resulting tyranny is even more impressive if it can be enforced by a privileged caste or party which is highly zealous in the detection of error. Most of humanity, throughout its history, has dwelt under a form of this stupefying dictatorship, and a large portion of it still does…
      …The order to “love thy neighbor” is mild and yet stern: a reminder of one’s duty to others. The order to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is too extreme and too strenuous to be obeyed, as is the hard-to-interpret instruction to love others “as I have loved you.” Humans are not so constituted as to care for others as much as themselves: the thing simply cannot be done (as any intelligent “creator” would well understand from studying his own design). Urging humans to be superhumans, on pain of death and torture, is the urging of terrible self-abasement at their repeated and inevitable failure to keep the rules. What a grin, meanwhile, on the face of those who accept the cash donations that are made in lieu! The so-called Golden Rule, sometimes needlessly identified with a folktale about the Babylonian Rabbi Hillel, simply enjoins us to treat others as one would wish to be treated by them. This sober and rational precept, which one can teach to any child with its innate sense of fairness (and which predates all Jesus’s “beatitudes” and parables), is well within the compass of any atheist and does not require masochism and hysteria, or sadism and hysteria, when it is breached. It is gradually learned, as part of the painfully slow evolution of the species, and once grasped is never forgotten. Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it. [pp. 212-214]
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* apology. A formal justification or defense.
apologetics. The branch of theology that deals with the defense and proof of [a religion].
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

On a personal note, when I left the divinity school in Edinburgh University in December 1965, I did so with a powerful sense that what had done me in there had been the nausea I experienced in my study of Christian dogmatics.

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