I have been reading Christopher Hitchens book “God is Not Great” over the last week, and I must concede that he has raised for me a great question concerning religion: Is it useful? That is, does religion provide us with something impermeable and necessary for our well being? Hitchens seems to think so. Arguably, there is no greater critic of religion in the Western World. He speaks and writes with a terrific force of assurance and expertise, utilizing his eloquent comfort and familiarity of the English language, his fanatical devotion to the truth and accuracy in his reporting; citing from his veritable menagerie of experiences and sources to finely illustrate his observations, his words cutting through prejudiced and preconditioned assurances like the moon piercing an overcast night to illuminate a path in the darkness for a ship far adrift in the icy seas of the North Atlantic. It is difficult to ignore his words, and harder still to reject their validity. He strikes at the most intimate of relationships we all posses; that of our fear and apprehension facing our own mortality.
Never one to minimize these thoughts, he graciously argues in the Humanistic value of religious tradition. While not making concessions, he does revel in the beauty of religious art and music; he stands in awe at the great monuments of religious architecture; embraces the richness of the religious community, and respects the value of religious traditions in our lives. I agree with him on all these points. I challenge anyone not to be soothed by the rhythmic and uplifting chants of medieval monks, or the divinely inspired masterpieces of greatest classical composers. There are few greater images of strength and beauty than the images of angels, clad in flowing white, wings stretched out, their swords and words serving to guide us out of danger and misery into the light of compassion, faith and love. What greater totem exists to embody all that is wrong with the world than Satan- a dark figure, who takes the form of our weakness to earn our trust, only to lead us to destruction in the end? Even the staunchest Atheists, such as myself, Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Samuel Clemens, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Hawkings, Albert Einstein, and Voltaire soundly reject everything that Satan represents, and with good reason. All people wish to be good. While the details of good are not always clear, evil is much easier to define. It is the reason why there is so vast a sea of difference between what the religions of man consider good, but so much in common when it comes to what we call bad. Our struggle to reach the heights of justice in our lives is a long and weary one, mired with pitfalls and temptations, figurative demons intending to lead us astray with offers of instant gratification and power.
What greater sin is there than the lust for power? Grey area permeates every action and choice we make, yet the consequences of our worst acts are noticeably clear. There is no good to be derived from rape, torture, murder, abuse, humiliation, degradation, wanton destruction, betrayal, greed, theft, pestilence, selfishness or slobishness. Even the most twisted, imbalanced mind must alter it’s own definition of good just to cope with these atrocities. No lucid mind has ever looked at there sins with reason and concluded that they are right. There is, then, one universal in a world built without them; that there can be no good where there is evil, and there is no evil that can ever be good.
This brings me back to Hitchens and the point he makes early in his book. Paraphrasing it as best I can (I most certainly will succeed better in the future), I take his meaning as this; our society, and nearly every aspect of it owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to religion, both for better and for worse. There is not a single aspect of our lives that is not imbued with the ideas and acts of faith. It would be remiss of us to cast aside our torch when it has guided us this far. Our journey, both in our physical realm; but also in our spiritual realm, our scientific and cultural and artistic realms; indeed in every realm we have come across, and every realm we have yet to come across; our path is not fully illuminated and as we move on, as we examine our surroundings, as as we look nostalgically and mournfully back, our path can and should still be aided by religion. We do not need it as fully as we once did, but I can come to no other conclusion that we have much to gain through keeping religion in our lives in every place that it works. I am an Atheist, but I will celebrate Christmas and the holiday season as I once did; I will share our traditions with my children as my non-religious parents did with me. I will teach them to respect and embrace the traditions of others as readily as our own. I will revel in religion’s language, art, culture, and wisdom as fully as I do that of my Atheistic beliefs. Taking the best of an imperfect entity is the best anyone can do. And I will strive to teach the religious to do the same, because it is the right thing to do. It is up to each of us whether we choose the path of righteousness and reason, aided by the trials and lessons of the past; or choose to fester in the imposturous mirth of religion and drive ourselves to the frigid depths of delusional, selfish sin.