The oblivious tribalist

May 3, 2011

As usual lately, I can hardly go wrong looking for examples of blinkered religious thought on Huffington Post. The latest one I found is an attack on Christopher Hitchens. He released a letter recently, in lieu of an appearance at the American Atheist convention, where he was scheduled to appear but had to cancel on account of he’s dying of cancer.

Hitchens’ letter is nice enough. I still dislike the man for his neo-con views, but on the subject of atheism he is on point. Certainly his commitment to skepticism in the face of death must sting the religious vultures, who are always on the lookout for a prominent non-believer they can try to convert under duress. I’d like to think that my ornery skepticism will endure if I go through that sort of extended demise.

And I don’t think Hitchens would care about the petty attack of some rabbi on HuffPo, or suggest the guy should lay off on account of the cancer. He can take it, and he gives as good as he gets. My point of objection isn’t there. It’s on the argument of the rabbi itself, such as it is.

Ill with cancer, outspoken “unbeliever” Christopher Hitchens was unable to appear at the American Atheist Convention, and instead sent a letter attacking the “lethal delusion” of religion. This letter was both unspeakably sad and distressingly naive.

Now, having read through his article a couple of times, I never did find where he explained the ‘unspeakably sad’ part. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to title his article ‘The Sad, Naive Atheism of Christopher Hitchens’. I am left with the conclusion that he did so only as an insult. Fallacious rhetoric of course, and I could say I expect better of a preacher, but I would be lying.

Wherefore the naivete, then?

Facing the specter of death himself, he assures us that he has not sacrificed his principles by embracing the “false consolations of religion.” Rather, he draws strength in his illness from humankind’s “innate solidarity,” which — rather than religion — is the source of both our morality and our sense of decency.

But this idea of “innate solidarity” is deeply problematic. Everywhere we look we see the exact opposite of “innate solidarity.” Tribalism — blind, unquestioning allegiance to one’s group — haunts the world; it has nothing to do with solidarity, morality or decency.

Being a preacher, of course, he is obliged to put the quotes around the false consolations of religion, although he has nothing with which to demonstrate that they are true. And although he attacks this idea of ‘innate solidarity,’ commenters on the article have already pointed out the qualities of empathy that have been investigated by science, and identified in other species than just humans, for that matter.

But it is rather amusing to me that the rabbi points out tribalism and attacks it, even as he represents it himself. What is the primary issue skeptics have with religion, if not its focus on blind, unquestioning obedience? Where does his own religion come from, if not tribalism? Do the Twelve Tribes of Israel ring a bell? It is painfully obvious that where this notion of ‘innate solidarity’ is defeated by tribalism, it is religion that has been organized to do so.

No, the rabbi is too busy trying to score points on Hitchens to realize his own-goal in the midst of it.

As a religious person, I believe that human beings have a tendency toward solidarity — and indeed, that it is divinely implanted.

So, while attacking Hitchens’ belief in ‘innate solidarity’ as sad, naive, or otherwise un-evidenced (even though it is), the rabbi’s counter-argument is…religious belief. Based on his religious faith, in the end based on nothing. And it’s the skeptic who is supposed to be naive? Don’t make me laugh.

Oh, all right, go ahead. Do.

The rabbi may sense the flaw in his argument, though; he tries to gloss over the tribalist history of his and other organized religions, as if we could mistake his for anything else. As if his organized religion naturally evolved (ha!) into its present-day form and was destined to improve. Naturally, he does so through the old standard, baseless claims.

Solidarity is not the starting point; it is the result of systems of belief and behavior that have been developed and practiced by communities of common concern — and without question, it is religious systems of belief and religious communities that are the most effective vehicles for developing solidarity and offering compassion over time.

Oh, I’ll go ahead and question. After all, it’s not as if children are unregenerate monsters up to the point when they are exposed to church. It’s not as if I didn’t learn any ethical behavior from, say, my parents. We start learning these things before the mere idea of a god even enters into the argument. Psychologists have tracked the development of empathy, researchers have scanned the brain to find where it originates. Religious systems of belief are simply prevalent, they are the majority — this says nothing to their effectiveness. They may be adequate (most of the time).I wonder, how the current state of the world can be said to be an expression of religion’s effectiveness in promoting this sense of solidarity. Never mind the jihad over there, folks, just a quirk in the data…

And in closing with a fallacious appeal to the masses, the rabbi unwittingly points out what organized religion is really good at: making people dependent on it. Out of a need for consolation in the face of illness, or grief, or injustice, religion offers its fix, and people accept it.

I suggest he remember that for the bulk of humankind, consolation in the face of illness and grief comes from a solidarity that specifically emerges from religious communities, creeds, rituals and liturgies. And thank God for that.

I make no suggestions about the rabbi remembering the growing ranks of non-believers. I don’t particularly care whether he chooses to acknowledge which side of this argument is growing, and which is shrinking. It will become evident to even the most self-blinded, unquestioning and ignorant preachers, soon enough.


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