I’ve been impressed recently by the intelligence, articulateness, and unapologetically rakish character of Christopher Hitchens, and curiosity about and respect for the man prompted me to take a look at the fashionable atheist books of the day, beginning with his God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As is always the case with modern corporate titles, it should not be held against the contents. The book is not much about God, really, and the thesis of the book is more that religion is an irrelevant impediment to progress rather than something that poisons everything. In support of this thesis, Hitchens marshals a great deal of verbal artillery and is provocative at opportune moments (as in the title), but these provocations are obviously the product of the man’s journalistic combination of showmanship and spite. As in a domestic argument, the easiest route to an irrelevant response is to take the actual words too seriously.
I found two reasons for reading the book. One is Hitchens’ writing. He is a real writer and a true professional, a member of the guild and a citizen of the respublica litterarum (he once described religion in general as “sinister and infantile,” an adjectival pair which for expressiveness, sonic effect, breadth of argument, and startling juxtaposition can be admired over and over again), and it can be a real pleasure to watch him operate. The fact that he is so negative and hateful, for us postlapsarian primates only makes the pleasure more acute. (Hitchens shows no signs of being a nice person, but he has a boldness in bastardy which is something at least; he left his first wife while she was pregnant with their second child. In his defense I see no way in hell that she could have imagined he was anything other than a self-interested bastard to begin with.) He is a professed admirer of Paine, and while he does not have Paine’s gift for lucid exposition or immortal phraseology, he is his equal in cantankerous rancor and his superior in intellectual aplomb. To judge the tree merely by the fruits, Hitchens appears to have been classically educated, and the echoes are very pleasing. He uses words like “confect” as only a Latin man can: “The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected” (283; of course to me sacred texts are literature and poetry, but if we make objections like this our review will be thrice as long as his book). He knows how to use his Anglo-Saxon words too, pleasingly describing the letters of Paul as “a wasteland of rant.” The end of the first chapter could have been modeled on Cicero’s First Catilinarian:
The argument with faith is the foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning – but not the end – of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning – but by no means the end – of all disputes about the good life and the just city. Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other. For this reason, I would not prohibit it if I could. Very generous of me, you may say. But will the religious grant me the same indulgence? I ask because there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it. I would be quite content to go to their children’s bar mitzvahs, to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to ‘respect’ their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations. And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition, which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this, religion is incapable of doing. As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything. (12-3)
Insert “Catiline” for “religion” and you’re back in Latin III. It’s pleasing to beguile a few hours with an author who can handle his periods.
The other reason for reading the book is as a cultural record. Hitchens may be smart but he is not the sort to be ahead of his time. When a man like him – somewhat flawed but also an outspoken moralist and deeply cultured – finds absolutely nothing in religion but a waste of his time this is a bad sign. It is terribly ominous. Critics of Hitchens have complained that he hardly even constructs an argument – he does not – but instead just delivers himself of a clever rant and exits the stage. It’s as if you got stuck at a wedding table with a well-spoken but somewhat conceited man who pontificated all night about his favorite topic and no one got to say anything else. There is nothing epoch-making in this book: the anecdotes are interesting, but the arguments are utterly familiar. Hitchens is a journalist. He is merely writing down what so many people are saying and feeling. Being disappointed that this compendium of cocktail party memes is not a profound philosophical challenge to belief is missing the point. Belief has always come down to an either/or. A friend once complained to me that the entire universe was arbitrary – it was all just random and stupid and blind. I did not agree with him, but it is utterly impossible to determine – within a system – between the conditions of everything being arbitrary and nothing being arbitrary. The “nothing is arbitrary” condition would depend on a standard of meaning existing outside the system. This problem will last forever. Hitchens and the new atheists have not come up with a new proof that everything is arbitrary. They are just saying that they – a larger and larger number – do not really care if there is any meaning outside the system. Human beings working under various inspirations, some religious and some not, have created a set of customs called modern Western society which generally satisfy them. Now it is a matter of getting the rest of the world to embrace these customs, tweaking social institutions along lines suggested by social science, and letting technological innovation do the rest.
Religion is probably not a major obstacle in any of this – Islam perhaps being an exception, but even Islam will probably only retard the development of Muslims and not the world as a whole. To Hitchens religion is sometimes revoltingly barbaric and sometimes degradingly idiotic, but mostly it is a purposeless atavistic annoyance, like male-pattern baldness or having to get a new driver’s license if you move from one state to another. You won’t stop molecular biology by teaching Creationism in American schools – you just increase the world’s stupid factor, and Hitchens feels he has enough stupid people to deal with as it is without religion making people even dumber. He gives a fairly convincing catalogue of religious stupidity, because, quite frankly, there is an even greater supply of this item than his brief book demands.
But it is only fair to point out that in part this is because religion is a broad topic. Convincing books can be written about almost any topic of comparable breadth. “Man is not great: how masculinity poisons everything” would have plenty of material, from wars to spousal abuse to a long history of male chauvinism. “Woman is not great” could be written just as effectively. “Government is not great” would show how we need to get rid of governments; “science is not great” could tackle science (I want to take this up again a bit later, because when religion is cast as the villain, science usually gets drafted to play the hero, and I want to explore this further). “Alcohol is not great” – I mention this because the sauce is supposedly one of Mr. Hitchens’ pet pleasures – would list the horrible unhappiness, the abused children, the rapes, crimes, and general holocaust of wasted human life alcohol causes, supposedly 75,000 deaths per year in America alone, a number which positively dwarfs the figures for religion and puts the whole argument into perspective. Alcohol poisons everything.
The problem with this thinking is obvious enough, which is that it is Manichean and admits no gradations. Alcohol does not poison everything. But perhaps we should take a look at certain drinking cultures, which seem to misuse the stuff more than others. Perhaps we should try to keep certain people from drinking. In other words, there is room for improvement, alcohol culture is composed of separable and reformable strands, and the issue is not merely one of love it or leave it.
And so though there are many places where Hitchens and I diverge, I take no interest in responding to him in kind, with a kind of Atheism Is Not Great or Hitchens Is Not Great response. Nor do I have much respect for his religious critics who have treated him this way. (He has the further justification, of course, that religions have a powerful tendency to treat themselves as immutable packages insusceptible to criticism. They started the Manichean dialogue by proclaiming themselves as entirely good.) David Hart’s criticism of his logical arguments is entirely true, and I will reproduce Hart’s samples just to show you the method:
Major Premise: [omitted] Minor Premise: Evelyn Waugh was always something of a bastard, and his Catholic chauvinism often made him even worse. Conclusion: “Religion” is evil. Or: Major Premise: [omitted] Minor Premise: There are many bad men who are Buddhists. Conclusion: All religious claims are false. Or: Major Premise: [omitted] Minor Premise: Timothy Dwight opposed smallpox vaccinations. Conclusion: There is no God.
This is only a light satire – Hitchens really does argue this way in paragraphs – but this is in part because Hitchens’ organization is emotional rather than logical. We know what he is saying in all of these instances, even if the logic is not good. And oftentimes he omits his major premises because religious people themselves supply them. I will tackle four such premises here: that the Bible is an inerrant guide for conduct, that Christians are supposed to follow God’s Law as proclaimed in the Bible or by an ecclesiastical hierarchy, that enacting God’s Law into legislation is the goal of the good society, and – one of Hitchens’ implied premises – that science should take religion’s place as a guide for human life. I will not quote Hitchens much here, because I found little in the book truly quotable or unusually well-argued, though in general I enjoyed the book. But Hitchens brings up questions on all these points which deserve consideration, especially from the religious.
There are a lot of causes for Christianity’s decline in the places where it has been historically strongest, and it’s hard to sort them all out, but post-printing-press-Protestantism’s exaggerated claims for the importance of the Bible should be numbered among them. For a long time I saw the Catholic Church’s centuries-long effort to suppress the Bible (the Council of Toulouse made it illegal for any layman to own one, and the Church acceded to allowing translation several centuries later only under duress) as a horrible, incomprehensible, “unchristian” thing, but the older I get the more I see the reasons for concern. Christianity was most emphatically not meant to be a “Biblical” religion: all the accounts of Jesus’s ministry agree that he never passed out Bibles or distributed tracts or formed Bible study groups. Nor did he even write a book. The earliest Christians were Christians without Gospels – the books had not been written yet. Hitchens points this out: “His illiterate living disciples left us no record and in any event could not have been ‘Christians,’ since they were never to read those later books in which Christians must affirm belief.” This is a stupid comment, but it derives from a stupid premise which certain stupid Christians themselves have proclaimed: that being a Christian means “believing in” the Bible. The reason why I bring this up is because there is so much in the Bible which is such a potential liability to Christianity (Hitchens deals with Christianity almost entirely by attacking its scriptures). There is much that is astonishing and amazing as well, and I am happy with the Catholic Church’s official way of teaching the Bible, but many many many more Christians need to know it, live it, and throw it in petulant atheists’ faces at every cocktail party. I will let St. Augustine – some of whose books should be canonized themselves, as they are superior to many already canonized, and I see no reason why the canon cannot be enlarged – speak on this topic, since he represents the official church position:
Quisquis igitur Scripturas divinas vel quamlibet earum partem intellexisse sibi videtur, ita ut eo intellectu non aedificet istam geminam caritatem Dei et proximi, nondum intellexit. Quisquis vero talem inde sententiam duxerit, ut huic aedificandae caritati sit utilis, nec tamen hoc dixerit quod ille quem legit eo loco sensisse probabitur, non perniciose fallitur nec omnino mentitur.
Whoever thinks he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them, but whose interpretation does not build up the twofold love of God and neighbor, has not yet understood them. Whoever has drawn from the scriptures an interpretation that does fortify this love, but who is later proven not to have found the meaning intended by the author of the passage, is not wrong in a harmful way, and he is guilty of no untruth at all. (De Doctrina Christiana, I.36)
Homo itaque fide et spe et caritate subnixus, eaque inconcusse retinens, non indiget Scripturis nisi ad alios instruendos. Itaque multi per haec tria etiam in solitudine sine codicibus vivunt. Unde in illis arbitror iam impletum esse quod dictum est: Sive prophetiae, evacuabuntur, sive linguae, cessabunt, sive scientia, evacuabitur. Quibus tamen quasi machinis tanta fidei et spei et caritatis in eis surrexit instructio, ut perfectum aliquid tenentes, ea quae sunt ex parte non quaerant, perfectum sane, quantum in hac vita potest.
And thus a man who is sustained by faith, hope and love, and who keeps a firm hold upon these, does not need the Scriptures except for the purpose of instructing others. Accordingly, many live by these three things in the wilderness without books. So that in their case, I think, the saying is already fulfilled: “Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” Yet by means of these instruments [lit. machines or cranes], so to speak, so great an edifice of faith and love has been built up in them, that, holding to what is perfect (meaning perfect insofar as is possible in this life), they do not seek for what is only in part perfect. (De Doctrina I.39)
The Bible is not perfect, as the above so clearly says – a judgement which textual criticism has only confirmed – and not even truly necessary. Of course it’s not perfect – it’s a book. If you wanted to find out what Christianity is, I would point you to a person who has lived it – not to any book. This is incarnational theology and a good explanation for the mission of Jesus. God’s children are people, and his revelations to people, and their transcriptions and explanations can only be one further step removed from him. If a book was the way to do it he could have given Adam a copy on the way out the door. Jesus showered his contempt on us scribblers – and oh so justly – the most satisfactory way of all, by not joining our number.
But this has not stopped Christians from putting the cart before the horse on the Bible issue. Let us be perfectly clear: the Church is older than the Bible. Indeed in its codified-by-authority form the Bible is almost four centuries younger than the Church. The Church – i.e., the Christians – made the Bible to be its servant, not its master, and interprets it according to its own principles (which are found in the Bible, to be sure, but the history of Biblical interpretation indicates that people have a great deal of trouble finding this treasure in so large a field).
Now if someone were to say that when the author of the book of Exodus wrote, he hardly intended to “build up the love of neighbor”: look at the deaths of all those neighbors of the Hebrews, the Egyptians! (Something like this is, by the way, the argument found over and over and over again, filling the anti-Christian cocktail party chitchat and the anti-Christian books. The job was best done by Tom Paine in the Age of Reason, which, by the way, every intelligent Christian should read, because it shows that Biblical literalism must be false and we can do away with it immediately. Hitchens’s best arguments are borrowed from Paine and are by no means as thorough). In response to this, we will say: this is the way we use Scripture. It doesn’t have to be the way the author of Exodus intended it, because the Scriptural principles of Jesus are more important to us than the author of Exodus’s intentions. We look for an interpretation consonant with Christian principles. And so, for example, the Exodus story is interpreted spiritually: the crossing of the Red Sea is baptism, in sacrament or suffering, and the drowning of Pharaoh’s chariots and charioteers is the death of pride, and the Promised Land is not geographical but a state of union with our fellows and with the Creator of all in justice and peace. This is how we are to use the Bible. We need to get away from the literalism, and if we Christians can’t get our act together to do that, we need to start pulping these Bibles people have been printing, because they will militate against the Gospel itself, which is love. As Leo XII said, “In virtue of our apostolic office, we too exhort you to try every means of keeping your flock from those deadly pastures…. Convince them that to allow holy Bibles in the ordinary language, wholesale and without distinction, would on account of human rashness cause more harm than good.” The Church’s general strategy – ban or control the books via legislation – was stupid and immoral, but it had an intention not entirely irrational. (I see that there is a new book advocating something similar to this correction of Biblical idolatry.)
That brings us to the topic of ethics. Christian ethics need to be revisited. Hitchens quite rightly and obviously shows a great number of flaws and irregularities in Christian ethical thought, and then quite oddly launches into this as the sum of ethics:
The so-called Golden Rule, sometimes needlessly identified with a folktale about the Babylonian Rabbi Hillel, simply enjoins us to treat others as one would wish to be treated by them. This sober and rational precept, which one can teach to any child with its innate sense of fairness (and which predates all Jesus’ ‘beatitudes’ and parables), is well within the compass of any atheist and does not require masochism and hysteria, or sadism and hysteria, when it is breached. It is gradually learned, as part of the painfully slow evolution of the species, and once grasped is never forgotten. Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it. (213-4)
And yet the summa of Christian ethics is Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Yet Hitchens is able to go through Christian ethics without even connecting the Golden Rule to Jesus. Admittedly, it is not Jesus’s invention, but he was smart enough to put it at the center of his ethical system, and any number of Jesus’s ethical statements can be shown to be related to it. So then how can Hitchens mention it as a sober antidote to religious ethical systems? Probably because Christians do not use it as the centerpiece of an ethical system, and replace it with a bastardized version of the Law of Moses, in which Moses’s sexual ethics are preserved, minus divorce which Jesus removed and polygamy which was not a Greco-Roman custom, and everything else is identical to whatever the prevailing ethics in Western countries are. My recommendation is to go back to the Golden Rule and the two commandments Jesus gave us. Everything else is subject to review. Jesus spent a great deal of missionary effort attempting to liberate people from the Law, which Paul realized, leading to the showdown with Peter, James, and John over circumcision. Intriguingly, circumcision is one of the things Hitchens also finds particularly offensive, and while I would say the matter is more complex than he puts it, I find him consonant with the Gospel of liberation from the tyranny of religious law – often more so than so-called Christians, who rather deserve the name Pharisees.
This brings up the topic of religion’s relationship to law in general. In keeping with Hitchens’ admiration for the 18th century (besides Paine, Jefferson is one of his favorite writers), he insists on a rigorous separation between church and state. All Christians should support him in this. The religion probably would not have survived infancy were it not for the sublime indifference of the Romans in the matters of Near Eastern religious cults, and the execution of Jesus is supposed to have occurred as a result of Pilate’s listening to religious authorities, who might well have taken care of things much more thoroughly if things had been in their hands. Christianity’s glory days were its first three centuries when it held no political power and was often persecuted – the time of the saints and martyrs. Hitchens goes to some length to distance Martin Luther King from religion, because King – despite flaws which we all know well by now – has that same halo around him which the early Christian martyrs had, from suffering unjustly (this halo, by the way, which is utterly irrational – why should suffering be a badge of honor? – Hitchens does not investigate). But establishment Christianity has not impressed anyone, really. In fact, Christianity is weakest where it was once most aligned with political power. For Christianity, political power poisons everything. “My kingdom is not of this world” is a phrase which must check all Christian utopianism or legislationism.
And what is worse, Christianity (and all other religions not born under the expectation of secularism), from centuries of this alignment, has a host of terrible habits. Its negativity – expressing itself in terms of prohibitions – reflects a long adulterous affair with the legisperiti who are mentioned time and again in the same breath as the Pharisees – the “experts in the law.” You can get a Westerner to think again about celibacy when it is espoused by Gandhi as a source of an energy which can be used for pursuits grander than sex – but when put in the Christian legalistic-moralistic context of a prohibition, you will not get anyone’s ear. And this is not because they are a stiff-necked people: there is really something inherently wrong with the legalistic approach, incompatible with human maturity and dignity. Thomas Monaghan, billionaire-founder of Domino’s Pizza, wanted to start a new religious town, the town now called Ave Maria, Florida. Fine, no problem. Gravesend in Brooklyn was started the same way. I wish him luck. He himself is dedicated to Catholic teachings on sexuality, including the ban on contraception. But his vision was not a town where condoms would sit unsold in stores, because no one would want them: no, he wanted a town where selling condoms would be illegal. I consider Hitchens and all others who oppose this legalism to be far closer to the Gospel than the Theodosianists they are campaigning against. Christianity for centuries had no effect on legislation anywhere in the world. This was in keeping with the original thrust of the movement, which subverted a religious code and proclaimed over and over, that the Law is powerless to oppose the flesh. One must take a different route.
Christians have returned to this again and again: from Jesus’s own distinction between “the things belonging to Caesar and the things belonging to God,” through Dante who argued for the independence of government and religion in De Monarchia, and as a White Guelph fought against papal rule. The 18th Century solution – disestablishment of churches and confinement of their practices within civil-rights boundaries determined by civic authority – still strikes me as the best available, and again, within this context Hitchens is an ally for all reasonable men and women. An American is liable to think that disestablishmentarianism has advanced more in the world than it has; a fair number of countries even in Europe have state religions, and in the Islamic world it is the rule. The United States toppled two Islamic governments and after a great deal of talk about democracy helped establish constitutions that establish Islam as the official religion in both countries, both with provisions indicating that “no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam.” Perhaps if Hitchens had been cantankerously complaining about this the results would have been better.
The last thing I wish to discuss is science. I would contend that the ubiquity of religion indicates its necessity, and even Hitchens himself, in describing the clearly religious tendencies of communism – Hitchens was a Trotskyite in his youth, and to his credit he left it, finding it to have all the irrationalities of a church – speaks of a “need to worship”: “All that the totalitarians have demonstrated is that the religious impulse – the need to worship – can take even more monstrous forms if it is repressed. This might not be a compliment to our worshipping tendency” (247). It is curious that this does not more explicitly shift his focus from attacking religion to reforming it, to make it less dangerous. But I presume that is not his work, but rather ours who are religious. And anyway, there is sometimes a gap between means and ends which is forever as curious as it is true: a robust attack may be more effective at achieving moderate goals than a moderate attack.
My own religious perspective is that religion, like government, is merely a necessary evil, deriving from mankind’s dissatisfaction with his own existence, or, in religious terms, his alienation from his Creator. And so we may borrow the language of Paine: religion, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of popes are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. Some people need no religion, as they need no government; but they are the exceptions. Most people will worship something, be it art or power or nature or God or a religion.
And the most common object of worship for the new atheists is science. I do not mind this in its limited current form; science is a good religion for a certain class of brainy people. It produces scientific discovery, among other things. But there is a strong correlation between the things people worship and the ethical systems they construct for themselves. It must be noted, that Darwinism filtered through the human mind bleeds very quickly into an ethical system which is particularly dangerous, notably “social Darwinism” or eugenics, the idea that the culling of unsuccessful genetic variants (i.e., people) is desirable and generally tends toward the progress of the species as a whole. I am not accusing Hitchens of this. But there is nothing scientifically wrong with it, which argues for having a lot more than merely science among our motivations. Even Hitchens falls into this line of rhetoric, all the more striking as he is talking about a religious Jew he dislikes:
Sniffing this insanitary barbarian, I had a real pang about the world of light and color that we had lost so long ago, in the black-and-white nightmares of his dreary and religious ancestors. The stench of Calvin and Torquemada and bin Laden came from the dank, hunched figure whose Kach Party goons patrolled the streets looking for Sabbath violations and unauthorized sexual contacts. Again to take the metaphor of the Burgess shale [a geological stratum filled with organisms both extinct and extant], here was a poisonous branch [of our evolutionary lineage] that should have been snapped off long ago, or allowed to die out, before it could infect any healthy growth with its junk DNA. But yet we still dwell in its unwholesome, life-killing shadow. (275)
Hitchens previously had used the metaphor to discuss intellectual ideas which should die out, not races of people, but as he points out, he is taking a natural phenomenon – extinction – and making a metaphor of it. He does not want anyone to read his book and then go find and destroy this “junk DNA,” i.e. this rabbi and his children. And yet his primary mode of analyzing religion is to take metaphors literally, or at least to point out that the texts are so written that their literal meanings will be a temptation and should thus be jettisoned entirely. But surely it is fair to note that people find Darwinism just as frightening if not more so, for the same reasons? Here is a way of understanding all life which really does justify war, rape, murder, and the like, particularly of people who are different from you. Unless, of course, you consider biology utterly alien from concepts like justice, which begs the question, where does that justice come from and on what basis do we adjudicate disputes about its nature?
There is a further irony in Hitchens’ attack on the rabbi above. He describes religion as black-and-white, as opposed to the colorful world which it condemns. I cannot second this on empirical grounds, as it seems to me that in any place where human beings dwell in number the most remarkably beautiful and colorful and extravagant things they will do and make will be religious in nature. Oswald Spengler, in noting that all great religious ages are also deeply dedicated to art and beauty, states:
The cathedral, on the other hand, is not ornamented, but is itself ornament. Its history is coincident with that of the Gothic style, and the same is true of the Doric temple and all other Early Culture buildings. So complete is the congruence, in the Western and every other Culture whose art we know at all, that it has never occurred to anyone to be astonished at the fact that strict architecture (which is simply the highest form of pure ornament) is entirely confined to religious building.
Everywhere throughout the world the things people will travel to see are religious, and for good reason: worship is beauty which does not compromise. The more purely secular a building’s inspiration is, the more reliably functional and unornamented it will be. We can see this everywhere around us, and it stands in symbolic relation to our interior lives. In Europe the phenomenon is starker, where everyone seems to agree that the best way to have beautiful cities is to preserve old buildings, because the things we make today cannot equal them. Why is this? We are far richer than our ancestors, at least materially. What are we lacking? Do we really admire the most secular societies on earth, places like Germany or Sweden? A German friend of mine – a filmmaker – was telling me of the crisis of confidence in the artistic community there. He said that many people there believed that there were no stories anywhere in Germany anymore, except among its immigrants. Otherwise, the society had reached stasis – a kind of cultural heat death. To me this is in part because the religious faculty – the part of the mind that deals in questions of ultimate purpose – had been numbed or killed. I will proffer a quote from Mr. Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. I tell you, if this is his idea of human culture, I am opposed:
Francis Crick, Watson’s co-founder of the whole molecular genetics revolution, resigned his fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, because of the college’s decision to build a chapel (at the behest of a benefactor). In my interview with Watson at Clare, I conscientiously put it to him that, unlike him and Crick, some people see no conflict between science and religion, because they claim science is about how things work and religion is about what it is all for. Watson retorted: “Well I don’t think we’re for anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say, ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.’ But I’m anticipating having a good lunch.” We did have a good lunch, too. (100)
Men like this miserably prove Dostoevsky wrong. I look upon Mr. Watson with the kind of terror one would feel at seeing one’s loved ones die slowly of Alzheimer’s. The physical processes seem to be not only breaking down their health but robbing them of their humanity. I think about Mr. Watson every time I look on Facebook and see intelligent people reduced to posting pictures of things they have eaten during the day – I hope that Mr. Watson’s fate will not be ours as we age. I will close with Dostoevsky, who articulates the religious position for us, and why there are some people at least – though perhaps far fewer than he thought – who simply cannot abide with Mr. Watson’s (non)solution.
The one essential condition of human existence is that man should always be able to bow down before something infinitely great. If men are deprived of the infinitely great, they will not go on living and will die of despair. The Infinite and the Eternal are as essential for man as the little planet on which he dwells. My friends, all, all, hail to the Great Idea! The eternal, infinite idea! It is essential to every man, whoever he may be, to bow down before what is the great idea. Even the stupidest man needs something great. Petrusha… oh how I want to see them all again! They don’t know, they don’t know that that same Eternal, Grand Idea lies in them in all!