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As a believer in a Supreme Being, I try really hard to understand and appreciate those who have different views.
At the end of the last essay in this series, I observed that “when I encounter intelligent people whose beliefs differ from my own, it always gives me pause … and a desire to understand what has caused them to be so different.” Case in point—the “New Atheist” philosopher Christopher Hitchens.
Mr. Hitchens and I had very similar experiences in Christian communities as children. We both encountered dogmatism, meanness, irrationality, ignorance and hypocrisy. Each of us had a signal Moment that encapsulated those things. Of course, I also experienced a profoundly Christian family, a keen sense of relationship with Christ, and one church where the individuals had bonded deeply. Perhaps Hitchens never experienced that, which might explain our differing reactions to the negatives we encountered.
Hitchens imputed the vices of individual Christians to Christianity as a whole, yet still had some awareness of the boundaries in which his particular atheism existed. “Mine is a Protestant atheism,” he wrote in God Is Not Great, meaning that he rejected a particularly Protestant conception of God. Still, he concluded—on the basis of the behavior of some believers and their interpretations of doctrine—that all religion, not just a particular sect of Christianity or even just some individuals within it, should be denounced. He believed that—as the subtitle of his book says—“religion poisons everything.”
Hitchens did not, according to his own testimony, investigate the scriptures himself to see if they were supportive of the dogmas he found so disturbing. I did, which led me to conclude—on the basis of the teachings of Christianity and the other faiths I studied—that human beings were capable of incredible flights of self-deceit. We could even poison the sacred and beneficial. We could profess a faith, then behave in ways that empirically rejected its teachings.
I also realized that where we lived up to those professions, we were transformed—and transformative. We were capable of bringing light out of darkness and turning dark clouds inside-out to reveal silver linings. You need only look at the behavior of most human beings in the face of disaster or great need to know this is so.
Had I read the Qur’an at that point in my life, I would have seen that Muhammad remarked on this propensity when he said:
Hast thou observed him who belieth religion? That is he who repelleth the orphan, and urgeth not the feeding of the needy. Ah, woe unto worshippers who are heedless of their prayer; who would be seen (at worship) yet refuse small kindnesses! – Qur’an, Surah 107:1-7
At the time, I had the words of Christ to the believers of his generation:
Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ – Matthew 15:6-9.
More painful yet, Christ foresaw a time when people would profess empty belief:
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ – Matthew 7:21-23.
Here’s the irony: If Christopher Hitchens had applied the test of reason and rationality to his experiences with professing Christians (as Christ suggested in a passage just prior to the one quoted above), he might have noticed that those Christians who caused him to reject faith had already turned away from it themselves:
… religion which was destined to become the cause of friendship has become the cause of enmity. Religion, which was meant to be sweet honey, is changed into bitter poison. Religion, the function of which was to illumine humanity, has become the factor of obscuration and gloom. Religion, which was to confer the consciousness of everlasting life, has become the fiendish instrument of death. As long as these superstitions are in the hands and these nets of dissimulation and hypocrisy in the fingers, religion will be the most harmful agency on this planet. These superannuated traditions, which are inherited unto the present day, must be abandoned, and thus free from past superstitions we must investigate the original intention. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 161.