Religion, Culture and Mr. Hitchens

If not anything else, religion seems to have managed very well in poisoning Christopher Hitchens’ mind, who is the the author of the book titled God Is Not Great, and subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything. As he goes on and on with his seemingly endless ribaldry on how religion poisons everything, I wonder how many of the empirical evidences he has presented are fabricated, manipulated or depicted without a detailed research or deeper understanding of different religions (Hinduism in specific).

Now, I am not a big fan of religion myself (am an atheist, and an agnostic) but the attitude and the amount of honesty with which Christopher has tried to bash religion is quite cringe-worthy if not outright deplorable. He comes up with myriad examples about how we humans have acted inhumanly and often violently because the religion instructed or guided us to do so. The chapters in his book are filled with such examples: the burning of “witches” (previously “blessed” by Christianity), the disgusting and unhygienic way of circumcision of Jewish children of Hasidic tradition by rabbi (called mohel), the hypocrite mullah in Iran who conveniently marries with the prostitutes before having sex and then divorcing them after the business is done (again conveniently with the simplistic “Talaq, Talaq, Talaq”!) because extramarital intercourse is prohibited in Islam but polygamy is not, the nonsensical claims of the parents who believe in “Christian Science” and hence refuse urgent medical care for their offspring, and how newly-wed Hindu girls are burned alive or murdered because they didn’t bring enough dowry. Wait, come again? Anyone who is a Hindu or has some knowledge about Hinduism will attest to the fact that there’s nothing religious about expecting dowry from a female  spouse and murdering her if she didn’t bring enough. This is a despicable tradition that probably stemmed out of, and along with sati pratha (burning of a widow on the pyre of her dead husband – another shameful tradition) became a symbol of, subjugation of women in Indian society which happens to be predominantly Hindu. Mr. Hitchens is either confusing correlation as causation, or just being plainly dishonest by presenting many such social or cultural phenomena as purely religious ones.

Digressing from the topic briefly, these deplorable traditions thrived in India for several centuries. Now, the blame should fall completely on Indian society but there are other factors that helped these traditions to survive over such prolonged time. Majority of India was under the Mughal rule for over three centuries (early 16th century to 1858), and then British ruled India for another couple of centuries (from 1757: Battle of Plassey to 1947). Both Mughal and British rulers were foreign to Indian masses. An obvious strategy for avoiding big troubles for them was to implement and practice a strict criminal law but leave the traditional and religious things on their own. By not interfering into the socio-cultural  matters of the Indians (among other things) they managed to keep the masses somewhat, if not completely, calm. The Indians hence remained devoid of a secular, independent public courts that can impeach those ugly traditions of a society that was male dominant and heavily laden with caste based discrimination.

Back to Christopher’s poisonous book. So far I have completed four chapters filled with shoddy provocations and I think I’ve had enough. I was looking for intellectual arguments against religion and in favor of atheism/agnosticism, but all I found was a book filled with empirical evidences that are often botched conveniently to prove the point. I don’t think I am going to finish reading the entire book unless I ever have a desire to find out how low Mr. Hitchens can sink to prove his point, but what made me wonder after reading first few chapters, is this:

  • I don’t know how true it is for some of the other ancient religions, but in Hinduism, it often becomes very difficult to separate out a religious practice from a traditional/social/cultural one. After centuries of intermingling between religious and cultural practices, there are many things that Hindus do today that can not be traced back to their origins and identified accurately as a religious or socio-cultural phenomenon. One reason of this could be that unlike the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism doesn’t have a strict “rule book”. And that takes me to the second point.
  • Not having a “rule book” is a boon, I think. Muslims have their Qur’an, Christians have their Bible and Jews have Torah (which literally means ‘instructions’ in Hebrew). Hindus do have the Geeta, the Vedas and the Puranas – but they are more like “guide books” rather than “instruction manuals”. (Also, note the plural noun.) This allows some flexibility and openness to change, at least in theory. How much this helped in practice, is a big question, but for example, Hindus did not have any trouble accepting the Darwinian theory of evolution. Compare this with the attitude of many Christians who, to this date, refuse to believe in evolution because that stands in contrast with the creationist theory that was written in Bible thousands of years ago. (Factoid: According to Gallop poll conducted in 2001, 45% Americans believe that God created humans in their present form.) When Ram Mohan Roy ran a strong and effective campaign against sati pratha in the 19th century and eventually convinced many Hindus that this tradition had to be abolished, the Hindu society didn’t have to go back to their religious book(s) for guidance. There was no need to amend a particular passage from the Geeta, the Vedas or the Puranas. Abolishing the sati pratha made sense and after some initial resistance the society accepted the change and moved on. [Claims were made by some that the Puranas approves sati pratha. But a justification that was purely based on scriptures had limited impact when people decided to abolish a ghastly tradition.] It’s difficult for me to imagine if a campaign to abolish polygamy, for instance, would face a similar reaction from the Muslims.
  • I think that not having a Book also came with a cost – a lack of unity – as there was (relatively) a weaker cohesive thread that tied all Hindus together. Though one could argue that having a “manual” did not completely help The People of the Book much, as they stumbled upon different interpretations of the same text and ended up segregating ideologically.

12 responses to “Religion, Culture and Mr. Hitchens

  1. myminddroppings

    Hello Vishal,

    I agree with you that while several practices within the Hindus/Indians are retrogade (dowry, sati…) , they are cultural in nature and not religious. But I think that is a feeble and semantic distinction because religion is what the religious do.

    For instance, Islam (Koran) explicitly prescribes horrendous penalties for adultery (stoning etc) but it does not prescribe honor-killings or honor-rapes or FGM. However, the people who perform such atrocities are acting under the conviction that this is a part of their religious legacy. They resist scrutiny and change specifically because of socio-religious dogma. Hence such a practice is eligible for criticism as a religious conviction.

    As you have noted, the practice of religious doctrine evolves over time and after a sufficiently long period (hinduism has had over 5000 years), they may morph in into cultural practices that is almost un-recognizable from the original instruction. That does not mean that they are not dogma. And so long as it is dogma it is as good or bad as religion.

    Hitchens has similarly criticized the Japanese mindset about the Emperor being a demi-god and doing his bidding was considered an absolute and undeniable duty. This led to Japanese misadventures during WWII. Such mind-set is also a political-religion and worthy of criticism.

    I think the bottom line is: So long as any practice is protected and perpetuated solely on the grounds of dogma or tradition, it satisfies the criteria of being called a “religion”.

  2. Vishal

    @ MyMindDroppings,

    >> “Religion is what the religious do.”

    I partially agree with that… But again, this can potentially lead to confusing correlation as causation. For instance, as opposed to what many theist have argued (in support of theism), Hitler did NOT do all those things he did *because* he was an atheist. If he were a religious devout, he would have found justifications from scriptures for his plans and actions.

    A distinction has to be made between (a) people who believe in A, do B; and (b) people do B, because they believe in A.

    However, the religion does offer an easy platform for justifying many evil acts (such as jihad against infidels, FGM etc. as you’ve mentioned) – owing to the vast possibilities of interpretations from the often ambiguous verses, phrases and mere poems that were written before the dawn of (modern) science.

    >> I think the bottom line is: So long as any practice is protected and perpetuated solely on the grounds of dogma or tradition, it satisfies the criteria of being called a “religion”.

    Again, I agree with you only partially here. Going back to Hitler again – he found justifications for Holocaust in (social) Darwinism. Granted, that he misinterpreted Darwinism and adapted a version that suited his purpose — but would you call that “religion” as well?

    Thanks for sharing your comments!


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  5. ashok

    All well said but picking negatives in any big systems is easy for me anythng in the world is not perfect as the rules and regulations tends to make it perfect ,nw pointing out a fault as dowry system and saying whole hinduism is sects od nonsense is impratical on rationals . Hitechen needs to realise ttht point and making people is just a starting stage of his implications but 90% of finding solutions and dsicussing them makes his arguments valiid ..thank you

    • Vishal

      Religion is, indeed, a big system, and as with any other big systems, it has flaws. That’s a moot point (at least to a non-believer like me).

      The bigger and more important question is – whether these flaws and the price that we pay (for subscribing to religious systems) are higher than the benefits. I think so. And the number of people – who think that diminishing returns have set in a long time ago for belief in religion/God – is increasing like never before…

  6. Dhrashtu

    I have been viewing Hitchens lately on Youtube and I have found him rather articulate in his arguments about all topics he chooses to speak about. One of his personal values it seems to me is free speech. As much as that is welcome in this century, it must be followed up with credible substantiation of views.

    I have not read his book “God is not..”. Being a believer, I am not offended by his views on God. God to me is a personal concept and if Mr Hitchens does not have one, it is upto him. This view of mine is of course influenced by Hinduism. In my religion, I am free to choose a name and a form in which I worship Him. I am even free to worship a Goddess or both at the same time. I wish that to all other human beings as well. I live in a country that provides this freedom under the constitution. I also choose not to call my methods superior to others and there by avoid hurting their belief.

    For the sake of argument, let me continue to “split hairs” on his favourite topic.

    Mr Hitchens should read Patanjali if he really wants to understand better. Patanjali has indeed made the spiritual path a science by dwelling into the nature of the mind and its relationship to the Divine. There is indeed a need for something higher and pure to turn man from his baser instincts. We could call that God. This indeed was the original purpose of religion until the “pope types” as Mr Hitchens calls them, got corrupted by power and got lost in pomp and politics. As the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Hinduism in my view has had a great lineage of saints like Shankara, Ramanuja, Kabir, Alwars, Nayanmars, Siddhas and Ramakrishna who made it their purpose to find God first and then use debate as a means arrive at conclusions.The sages of India were indeed scientists in this area. Yogic methods like deep meditation made their quest posible. The fact that they were non-violent, never showed interest in matierialistic ways proves that they were onto something superior. They had no need for pomp or publicity let alone the need to lie to humanity.

    Faith, belief, trust, love et all are more in the realm of heart and so is God. While debate, reason, logic, science are all in the realm of the mind. Reason lies in both realms and so do liberty.While the inner struggle in man is always between the heart and the mind, Yoga in my view defined the methods to align them. Some of these Yogis succesfully had a glimpse of God. They were spiritually strong and evolved into sages. The awe inspiring experience removed these people from all the failings of the matierial world. They were succesful in destroying their own egos and illusions.They had sharp intellect and gained true knowledge.Then chose to speak, debate and preach for the benefit of mankind.I don’t see how else the idea of Ahimsa could have introduced to this world.

    Being a critic himself, Mr Hitchens should be open to criticism as well. His angry and frustrated views are more influenced by the religious politics in Europe and Arabic world and he has chosen to generaly apply that to India and the orient.
    People of every religion have had a violent past but if one has to kill another human being to make a point, he or she has only proved it to be a weak one already.Free speech, debate and criticism are not new to Hinduism.

    If he decides to see God, religion, faith, belief, culture, social models, traditions, politics,power, law, ethics, churches, Godmen, prophets as all distinct topics he is likely to write a sequel to this book as a believer. While the “pope types” of all religions, would want everyone to keep these entities together to serve their purposes, the more rational mind would try not to. Mr Hitchens is trying to be as rational as possible but anger and frustrations are not helping. If the anger is removed he will realize more objectivity and perhaps choose to be silent, blissful in the bosom of the new found knowledge.

    God bless Mr Hitchens and a speady recovery from cancer.Afterall he must have uttered the G word more times than the un-Godly “pope types”.

    • Thanks for a long and interesting comment! Here’s few quick thoughts:

      The “original purpose of religion” (that you mentioned) is perhaps impossible to find, as the religion that we see today probably evolved from a proto-religion (or what we can call a folk religion) in pre-historic times. We don’t even know, for instance, if the advent of religion predates the development of language and culture. In his engaging and illuminating book “Breaking the Spell”, the cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett argues that our belief in God is probably rooted in what’s called agency detection device.

      Anyways, I have actually grown quite fond of Mr Hitchens lately. His recent articles and talks – especially after the diagnosis – have been quite impressive and intellectually fulfilling. Kudos to Mr Hitchens for proving — with gusto — that there are atheists in fox-holes! And quite an audacious ones at that!

      Your comment about differentiating the matters of mind versus of the heart, are, in my opinion, meaningless. Everything is the matter of the mind — more specifically — of brain. As much as we would like to believe so, the heart does not have any vantage point. If there were such a thing, the heart would have to had a mind/brain of its own!

      Regarding the anger and frustration that Hitchen — and several other prominent atheist nowadays — seem to possess and exhibit, the only thing I would say in their support is: it’s difficult to repudiate and refute what religion is doing to our world today without being a tad impatient. However, a lot of times, a mere disagreement (of an atheist) is perceived as irreverence, and insult, and even arrogance. Dennet said it best “Each reason for belief in God is defensible up to a point, but we need to weigh the indirect side effects of going along with tradition. First, there’s the systematic hypocrisy that poisons discourse, and even more important, our vulnerability to those who abuse the “reverence” with which we are supposed to respond to their indulgences. We can continue to respect the good intentions of those who persist in professing belief in God, but we’ll be doing them a favor if we stop pretending that we respect the arguments they use to sustain these fantasies.”

      Finally, you’re spot on about the differences of Hinduism from the Abrahmic religions. This is even true for Buddhism and Jainism as well — to some extent. But the core idea of religion — that there’s a God (or gods and goddesses) and we know what he wants from us — are same across all religions. You may define your “god” differently that how the majority of the world thinks about when they hear the word ‘God’. From what I understand, you seem to be a pantheist. And Hinduism, in all its glory, does accommodate pantheists, deists, polytheists, monotheists. Heck, one can even be an atheists and still a Hindu! (like the great Carvaka.)

      BUT that all doesn’t mean that Hinduism is “more right” in any absolute sense. It’s just more accommodating.

  7. Anonymous

    This was an impressive takedown of Hitchens. I often describe myself somewhere between agnostic and new atheism as well as a cultural Hindu. You certainly do a great job highlighting some of the arguments New Atheists consider to be attacks on all religions but are in reality geared solely towards Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    • Exactly!

      Those New Atheists do attack all religions in general – but their fury is more directed towards the “people of the book”. Their blanket refutal sometimes ignores the wide differences that exist among religions – especially in the case of Eastern religions.

      Having said that, I am not implying that Hinduism (and other Eastern religions) are better than the Abrahamic religions. The folly of religious dogma is all prevalent and widespread in Hinduism as well. It’s just that the nature of these follies is sometimes quite different than than the Abrahamic religions.

  8. Vishal

    Your argument is a decent one but I have a few concerns-

    You call yourself an atheist and an agnostic. Now, I guess one could argue it comes down to semantics, but I don’t see how one can be both. Atheism precludes the possibility of a god while agnosticism is really middle ground position suggesting that the presence of a god is unprovable, thus accepting that there is a possibility that there is a god.

    Being raised a Hindu is quite different from being raised a Christian or any Abrahamic religion. The problem being that Hinduism is much older, so people are ready to dissociate from the details of the stories and scripture. The scripture has kind of faded and takes a different interpretation in each group, unlike the Bible for example. Now this is definitely a good thing, as it does reduce the dogmatic effect on people, but dogma is still prevalent amongst Hindu, just as with any other religion. I agree this leads to a lack of unity in a sense, but is unity centred around religion really something to aspire to?

    The guidebook vs instruction manual distinction isn’t a clear one for me as the lines blur with the zealotry with which people blindly follow ritual, religious dogma and integrate it into the ‘social norm’. I would counter that large parts of the scriptures act as instruction manuals for rituals, that they have ingrained in us, MUST be done. They ‘guide’ us on how we should live our lives, but still do this rather firmly, with concepts of punishment that are not as well defined as those in, say, the Bible.

    I would say that it is easier to discount the effect of the scripture because it is so fragmented and sinceThe Gita reads more like a philosophy book. I guess also that a lot of the younger generation was raised understanding that MYTHOLOGY is a big part of Hinduism, thus not taking that too literally, or at least dissociating it from their day to day lives.

    Either way, it comes down to whether you can accept the religion, to whatever extent you choose, and whether you can personally accept the concept of a god. Hitchens might be a little extreme for your tastes, and certainly, his area of expertise is not Hinduism, but I personally have no problem with his words. I would like to see some more comments of his on Hinduism specifically, once he has delved a little deeper into it.

    It has been wonderful to find another atheist Vishal out there,

    • Vishal,

      >> It has been wonderful to find another atheist Vishal out there


      >> You call yourself an atheist and an agnostic. Now, I guess one could argue it comes down to semantics, but I don’t see how one can be both. Atheism precludes the possibility of a god while agnosticism is really middle ground position suggesting that the presence of a god is unprovable, thus accepting that there is a possibility that there is a god.

      I think this is a very commonly held yet flawed understanding of what atheism and agnosticism actually mean. A common perception is that atheism is a dogmatic position (“How can you be 100% sure that god does not exist?”), in the same way theism is dogmatic. Agnosticism is considered the middle, rational, open-minded way out. “I am not sure – and don’t claim to know – if god exists or not.”

      However, both atheism and agnosticism belong to different spheres/paradigms. The word agnosticism is based on Latin root ‘gnosis’ which means knowledge, and being an agnostic means that one does not claim to *know* for sure if god exists or not. On the other hand, atheism (and theism) is about *belief*. A theist believes that God exits, and an atheist lacks the belief that such entity does indeed exist. These two positions are all-exhaustive. There’s no third way out. And agnosticism certainly does not belong somewhere in between these two poles (belief and lack thereof).

      Once you understand this distinction — that atheism is about belief, and agnosticism is about knowledge – it’s clear that one can be an atheist (disbelieve in God), and an agnostic (don’t claim to know for sure if god exists or not). On the other hand, one can choose to believe in God (theist) in spite of having doubts about the certainty of such entity (agnostic).

      I don’t think this is just semantics – it’s an important distinction. Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive.

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