Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Hitchens’

Angry Atheist Syndrome

May 1, 2016

wwwangry

 

The following exchange from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five takes place in a  WWII POW camp between a German guard and an American prisoner.  It highlights the arbitrary and capricious nature of human existence.

An American had muttered something which a guard did not like. The guard knew English, and he hauled the American out of ranks, knocked him down.
The American was astonished. He stood up shakily, spitting blood. He had meant no harm by what he had said, evidently, had no idea the guard would hear or understand.
“Why me?” he asked the guard.
Vy you? Vy anybody?” he said.

“That’s not fair” is a common kid complaint, to which parents in Southern California sometimes respond “If you want fair, go to Pomona.” (Pomona is where the LA County Fairgrounds are.)  In other words, “Life ain’t fair, kid; you better hurry up and get used to it.”

Human beings (and at least some of our poop-flinging primate cousins) are hardwired by evolution to seek fairness and equity. So a big part of the human struggle consists of coming to terms with a world where, as poet Robert Pinsky notes,  “nobody gets what they deserve more than everybody else.

This is something that Christian and nonbeliever alike must deal with. Theosophy is the branch of theology devoted to answering the following question: How can a just, merciful, and loving God allow so much suffering to exist in the world? Here are some stock answers: God is a mystery beyond human comprehension; God will mete out perfect distributive justice in the afterlife; humanity is “fallen” (it’s Eve’s darn fault for eating that blasted apple.)

As a devout deist, I also believe that God is beyond human comprehension. But unlike Christians, I refuse to anthropomorphize God in order to reduce the incomprehensible chasm between God and humanity. And I think it’s extremely unlikely that God gives a rat’s patootie about me or about anything else for that matter. (Caring about things is a function of possessing a physical body; I really can’t imagine that God has one. Besides, the universe was around for a long, long time before humans showed up, so existence obviously isn’t about us.)

So how do I face life each day despite all of the suffering and injustice in the world? By constantly reminding myself about everything that is good and beautiful in this world, especially Love.

Unfortunately, not all atheists are as well-adjusted as I am. And many atheists fall into the trap of hating God and religion because it’s so much easier than confronting the font of anger which dwells within their breasts.

Such God-hating atheists as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Wright, and Bill Maher come off as pathetic, bellowing fools.

The subtitle of a book Hitchens wrote about organized religion is How Religion Spoils Everything.  Everything?  Talk about your unsubstantiated sweeping generalizations.

Like Hitchens, Richard Wright is incapable of appreciating anything that is good or beautiful about organized religion. In his memoir Black Boy, Wright heaps scorn on the African American church, a great and lovely institution which, in addition to offering succor to so many in pain, has also been at the forefront of the heroic struggle for civil rights.

Wright is “disgusted” by the “snobbery, clannishness, gossip, intrigue, petty class rivalry, and conspicuous displays of cheap clothing” which he encounters in church. Of course, with the possible exception of “cheap clothing,” these phenomena are apparent in all human institutions. It is disheartening that Wright’s quest to slay all dragons prevents him from experiencing the virtuous aspects of organized Christianity. He is absolutely blind to the worldly fellowship, charity, comfort, hope, and spiritual fulfillment religion has to offer. And the immense beauty of religious art and music are completely lost on him. As Wright sees it, “(t)he naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn”.

Bill Maher called religion a “neurological disorder” Of course, Bill Maher also said that children are “assholes” (presumable because they disturb him on airplanes.) And Maher also said that women are liars because he once gave his date twenty dollars to pick up something at the store and she forgot to give him change. Critical thinking is obviously not Bill Maher’s strong suit. (Arianna Huffington suggested that her friend Bill Maher needs to start dating a better class of women.)

 

by Richard W. Bray

Life Remains a Blessing

March 20, 2014

galaxy

Sentient consciousness is a marvelous gift; I’m really glad I exist.

I would be happy to thank Someone for every glorious breath that life grants me; I just can’t quite figure out whom to thank. God? Which one?

I’m a devout deist because my Creator has endowed me with the type of brain which renders me incapable of experiencing a connection to an anthropomorphized God. I can’t imagine ever giving myself over to the God of the Christians, for example. First of all, a God who wishes to be exalted by the likes of me would be all too human for me to take seriously. Moreover, there are billions of people on Earth who believe in reincarnation while billions of other people believe in heaven. These are two mutually incompatible outcomes of existence. Maybe billions of people are right and billions of people are wrong. Who knows?  Fortunately, it’s not my task in life to figure these things out.

To be clear, I am not one of those New Atheists who hates God for not existing. On the contrary, I encounter many things in Christianity that are good and beautiful. I’m all for fellowship, good works, humility, and forgiveness; furthermore, the Peace Christians are my heroes. (And I really don’t think grownups should have heroes.)

But the universe got along just fine for a long, long time before human beings came onto the scene, so it’s obvious that Existence really isn’t about us.

For some reason or another, human beings have developed the capacity to appreciate the fact that we exist. At any rate, for me, life remains a blessing, as W. H. Auden notes in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” his bleak and lovely meditation on Christianity

This brings me to the Christian concept of grace. Although there is much bickering over the theological specifics of grace within and between Christian denominations, grace is basically the notion that human beings have done nothing to deserve the love and mercy bestowed upon us by God. Instead of arguing about how loving and merciful God actually is, I will simply concede that our existence is unearned. Life is a mysterious take-it-or-leave-it proposition. And griping about how life should be different is a silly waste of our precious time on Earth.

As Robert Pinsky notes in “Family Values,” his bleak and lovely poem about resentment and cupidity,

nobody gets what they/ Deserve more than everybody else.

Does anyone deserve to have an unhappy childhood? Of course not.  But this world is not about fairness.

The universe wasn’t built for us. But it’s a spectacular privilege to be granted the slight and brief glimpse that our limited consciousness affords.

I don’t “hope for higher raptures, when life’s day is done.” The physical world is sufficiently marvelous for me.

I’ll leave the final word on grace to Kris Kristofferson.

by Richard W. Bray

The Hemingway Defense

July 7, 2012

William Faulkner

According to William Faulkner, it is permissible for an artist to engage in all manner of malfeasance and loutish behavior because “An artist is a creature driven by demons.”

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates)

It is common for supermacho bibulous writers such as Faulkner, Kingsley Amis, Ernest Hemingway and Christopher Hitchens to confuse self-avoiding cowardice and self-destruction with courage and an intrepid dedication to art. Amis, for example, wrote entire books celebrating the wonders of alcohol. Hitchens thought that crawling into a bottle every day was something to boast about and he was dismissive of people who lack the requisite foolishness to become nicotine addicts. In the sick, sad world of Christopher Hitchens, teetotaling joggers are the real losers.

Stephen King, a man who knows a thing or two about both writing and substance abuse, has a name for the hyper-masculine variety of denial celebrated by various dipsomaniacal American authors: The Hemingway Defense.

as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give into their sensitivities. Only SISSY-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.*

King explicitly rejects all such poppycock. He argues that “[t]he idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”

Unlike writers such as Faulkner who lack the necessary self-awareness to confront their “demons,” when given the choice, Stephen King wisely selected his health and his family over the bottle. Thus he has no use in mythologizing the inebriated scribbler.

Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers—common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.

Faulkner asserts that it is perfectly natural and wholly acceptable for a writer to be a scoundrel because a true artist “is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.”

Sadly, people who think like Faulkner have gotten existence precisely backwards. As King notes, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

William Faulkner notwithstanding, no art is essential to humanity, and no poem, not even one as lovely as “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” is worth the well-being of a single old lady. Humanity will grope along with or without any particular work of art, and Earth will continue to abide long after we’re gone no matter what we do. It is expressly because everything we do is ephemeral that the artist’s humanity is of far greater value than anything he could possibly create.

Perhaps it is a longing for a false sense of immortality that leads people to engage in such diseased thinking. But it’s important to remember that although Hamlet will continue to live on for as long as humanity is extant, William Shakespeare is just as dead as the fellow buried next to him. As Groucho Marx pithily noted: “What has posterity ever done for me.”

Only love conquers death.

*All Stephen King quotations are from his marvelous memoir On Writing

by Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on The God Delusion

April 22, 2010

Richard Wright

Some Thoughts on The God Delusion

After patient and painstaking work he convinced his friend that his former beliefs were untenable, that science was indeed queen. But to his horror, Krummie had to confess to me, he soon discovered that he had succeeded only in making his friend supremely unhappy. He thought at first that this might pass, but when, after a year, the man remained miserably depressed, Krumwiede resolved, he told me, never again to tamper with a man’s hereditary convictions (89).

The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams

I’m a devout deist, and I’m generally happy about the recent trend of books promoting atheism. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is an erudite argument cogently delivered with much wit, and Dawkins is less overtly hostile to religion than many of the other purveyors of Atheist Manifestos recently on the bestseller lists.

Here’s Dawkins quoting Einstein (a great deist who is often mischaracterized as a theist):

I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings (18).

If I could pick any creed, I would be a Liberal Secular Jew, but I’m not sure how to make that conversion. This brings me (sort of) to a friendly argument the author had with Robert Winston, whom Dawkins describes as a “respected pillar of British Jewry.”

When I pressed him, he said that Judaism provided a good discipline to help him structure his life and lead a good one. Perhaps it does; but that, of course, has not the smallest bearing on the truth value of its supernatural claims (14).

Goodness, Gracious, Sakes Alive, Mr. Dawkins! People, even scientists, believe all sorts of wacky things, so I’m not even sure how we could ever come to a consensus on what a “truth value” is. Mr. Winston’s personal beliefs about a deity neither pick my pocket nor break my leg. I’m glad to hear that he’s a decent bloke.

When Dawkins looks for “Direct Advantages of Religion,” he doesn’t see much, although he does concede that it has inspired much great art. But Dawkins does not believe that people should be comforted by mere beliefs which are obvious poppycock to the trained scientist. Dawkins quotes ardent atheist George Bernard Shaw:

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one (167).

Dawkins makes no effort to hide his condescension, which is a common trait among the New Atheists. Denis Dutton, another God-wrestling scientist, believes that nonbelievers should refer to ourselves as “brights,” an appellation which clearly implies that those who don’t agree with us are stupid. (And there’s nothing wrong with the word Freethinker.)

Lots of good and wonderful and beautiful things come from organized religion, and I’m not just talking about Verdi, Take 6, and El Greco. Organized religion promotes fellowship and improves people’s lives in various ways.

But some people just can’t stand it. Richard Wright, for example, was “disgusted” by the “snobbery, clannishness, gossip, intrigue, petty class rivalry, and conspicuous displays of cheap clothing” which he encountered in church (151). The beauty of the music and rituals is completely invisible to him. As Wright saw things, “[t]he naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn” (136).

I’ll bet Christopher Hitchens wishes he’d said that.

by Richard W. Bray