Rieux (dr_rieux) wrote,

A Response to Philocrites

Somewhat against my will (or at least my better judgment), I've been jumping into the fray to defend Christopher Hitchens in a several UU Web discussions within the past week or two. Perhaps the most prominent such discussion (though probably, also, the least baselessly derogatory toward Hitchens) has been this thread at big-time UU blog Philocrites, on which I commented last night. Philocrites replied, and I put together a rejoinder. However, said rejoinder got far too long for a mere comment thread (not to mention a several-day-old one), so I'm moving it here.

If you're interested in the discussion, you should probably catch up on the thread over at Philocrites.


As I think you understand, Philocrites, you and Hitchens are operating from fundamentally different notions of what it means for a person or an idea to be "religious." For my historical cite, I can offer John Dewey's A Common Faith (1934), in which the author recognized that "[i]t is not easy to find a definition of religion in the substantive sense that wins general acceptance." Dewey went on to defend a conception of religion and the religious that is by-and-large congruent with your (and modern UUism's) broad view, but he nonetheless conceded that the discourse about religion in his time and place was dominated by two accounts of religion--one pro, one con--and that "[t]here is one idea held in common by these two opposite groups: identification of the religious with the supernatural."

The starting point of Hitchens' analysis, I think it's obvious, is the common contention from the irreligious that no one has provided an adequate reason why this "identification" should be taken as inaccurate when forming a conception of the word "religion." To your comments about the evolution of liberal religious traditions, I think Hitchens makes it quite clear that, as far as he's concerned, to the extent that a given tradition has abandoned supernaturalism, it has as a mere logical consequence become irreligious.

Hitchens adds another narrowing factor to his account of specific religions (viz., Christianity and Islam) by contending that, as far as he's concerned, every ounce of acceptance of (as you put it) "the authority of reason and experience" or of "limiting uncritical appeals to the Bible, church offices, or tradition" is just a step across the spectrum from religion to secularism. As far as he's concerned, liberal Christianity isn't Christianity at all, but just a form of (basically secular) humanism that has a particular affection for various Christian stories and traditions.

Obviously that's an entirely challengeable point, and I should express my gratitude that you are willing and able to challenge it substantively rather than entirely derisively. Defining Christianity as "only those beliefs that mesh with the most authoritarian interpretation of the Bible" doesn't make the most sense to me, either.

I do think there's much more to be said, however, for the more limited contention that (contra Dewey) there is plenty of reason to limit the word "religion" to belief systems that include supernaturalism. At a minimum, I think it needs to be pointed out that the “religion requires supernaturalism” notion is central to the semantic systems of the vast majority of the millions of us who consider ourselves "non-religious.” Indeed, I would assert that (as Dewey recognized) the clear majority of speakers of English (and, I suspect, speakers of every closely-related language) on the planet understand "religion" to require supernaturalism. That poll data won't settle the question (no argumentum ad numerum here; I recognize semantic minorities can have the better of the argument), but it seems to me very relevant, given the basic function of language. The poll data also, I think, render it more than a little aggravating that so many UUs greet narrow understandings of "religion" with--at best--gaping incomprehension. Apparently it's easy to get used to life in our ivory tower.

Quoth Philocrites:
But what you seem to see in Buehrens (and in Church, your other bete noir) is not the appreciative, critical engagement with the Bible, but rather the potential for abandoning appeals to reason and experience altogether.
That's a bit overstated. I think both Buehrens and Church are willing to tap "reason and experience" when those are helpful to bring a scripture-reader to the liberal ("liberating") conclusions that they rabidly deman--er, that they advocate we come to.

My two main complaints about Buehrens and Church (though, ahem, there does happen to be at least one other "bete noir" of mine, one who even graced that comment thread) are as follows: first, that their approval of "reason and experience" is entirely conditional--they demand that we abandon any "reason and experience" that bring readers to any conclusion that conflicts with their (I think absurdly rose-colored) readings of scripture. "Reason and experience" are fine, so long as they bring you to the same place as John and Forrest. If they don't...

...Which brings me to my second central complaint. If you are crude and uncultured enough to disagree with Revs John and Forrest about religion or its “sacred” texts, then there is no end to the disgusting insults that those men are willing to heap upon you. I think I’ve compiled a huge amount of evidence (such as the passage from the UU World essay I quoted in my previous comment) that these men utterly disregard our Principles whenever they write about skeptical and irreligious people and our ideals; they insult us, lie about us, and generally take joy in dehumanizing us at every turn merely because of the destinations to which our free and responsible searches for truth and meaning have brought us. I don’t understand how any UU can stand for this, and I’m at a loss why you print it in your magazine. (Wow, that 2006 Church article cited in earlier comments is a doozy, too. Did you catch where he blames me for the religious strife in the world--because I’ve committed the heinous sin of not revering certain scriptures? I’m afraid no slander against nonbelievers is too low for these men. For their editors...?)

As for The Plague, in my reading, Camus has no love for liberal religion. Read Father Paneloux’s final sermon (an obvious extended Kierkegaard reference), composed in the aftermath of Paneloux’s harrowing brush with the Problem of Evil. Camus did indeed appreciate the human work done by religious folks of good will (perhaps you can compare Hitchens’ laudatory remarks about Dr. King), but he kills Paneloux off immediately after that sermon. As he writes, “for those others who aspired beyond and above the human individual toward something they could not even imagine, there had been no answer” during the plague year. As several commenters have noted, Paneloux's is the only death during the epidemic that comes with no plague symptoms; it's something else that kills him.

Meanwhile, the exchange that occurs shortly before Paneloux’s second sermon--immediately after he and the doctor with the funny name have watched a young boy die after an agonizing night spent battling the disease--might as well be between me and Forrest Church, or Christopher Hitchens and Philocrites:
Rieux turned toward Paneloux.

“I know. I’m sorry [for shouting at you]. But weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.”

“I understand,” Paneloux said in a low voice. “That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.”

Rieux straightened up slowly. He gazed at Paneloux, summoning to his gaze all the strength and fervor he could muster against his weariness. Then he shook his head.

“No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”
I accuse Church and Buehrens--and I think Hitchens accuses liberal religionists--of advocating love for, and indeed collaborating in, just such a scheme. And I think I picked the right username.
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