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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Christopher Hitchens and the missed opportunity

by Jamie Lutton
Christopher Hitchens wrote God is Not Great, a blistering attack on the belief in and the worship of God. It was published in  2007, and has been a steady seller ever since.  I read it a few years ago and thought it was ok, but not great... This book missed a wonderful opportunity to teach a some important intellectual history that has been suppressed, i.e. the long honorable history of atheism, deism, and agnosticism or -free thought. .
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Free-thought has always been associated with philosophers and scientists. In more than one age, a scientist or philosopher has been executed for alleged atheism.  One of the reasons Socrates was executed in 399 B.C., was that he accused  of teaching 'impiety, or not believing in the gods of the state*(Wikipedia),  to the young men of Athens. 
Giordano Bruno, the astronomer, in his book, "Infinity, the Universe and the World"  proposed that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and that the lights in the sky were stars, with planets circling them, with life on it like ours. For this he was imprisoned in chains for 8 years by the Inquisition, , then when he would not recant, he was tortured and burned at the stake. Atheism was implied by Brueno's teachings or at least a God and universe very different than that revealed by the Bible.  This was too much for the Catholic Church of the late 16th century, threatening their authority, so they had him murdered.
There is no mention of the martyrdom of Socrates or Giordano Bruno in  God is not Great :  And their were many, many other martyrs for free-thought, like Thomas Akinhead, the last man executed in England for saying there was no God, was executed in 1697.
Atheism/free thought  has always been the idea that dares not speak it's name    .
  
The 19th century American gadfly and Republican speechwriter Robert Ingersoll is a famous free-thinker.   He was a ardent and fiery Republican orator of the  post Civil War era, (when the Republican Party stood for Lincoln's ideas instead of Strom Thumond's) with great charisma and wit. He was a great recruiter into free-thought all of his life, pointing out the religious hypocrisies of his age..
 
We have forgotten the struggles over slavery of the mid-19th century, ; where there was a huge fraction of the US population that was God-fearing, church going, but held slaves and defend slavery, and denied the humanity of the slaves in the name of God. 
This is what reading the bible literally was associated with in the 19th; with the antebellum South, the chains of slavery and entrenched thinking. Mark Twain points that out in his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when the child hero notices that the Southern adults around him, church-going, God fearing, supported the enslavement and the mistreatment of blacks.
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The Bible was used to defend slavery, because there is slavery in it,  forgetting the beginning of Exodus where there is a strong anti-slavery passages about the hideous suffering in bondage of the Jews in Egypt.

It would be see again questioning spirit that flourished in 19th century humanism that existed along with that agnosticism, that looked for the good in humans, cherished education and learning, and sought the light. Nowadays, atheism has come back, but not the humanism.
There are more comical atheists. One of the wittier, more angry, funny little books that has ever crossed my desk was The Bible Unmasked by Joesph Lewis, first published in 1926 by The Freethought Press, and then on to many, many reprintings.

This book goes through the entire Old Testament, from one end to the other, examining each fable  for sexual and ethical immorality. The charming ink illustrations in the book, which show scantily dressed women, (sometimes nude women!), in vaguely Middle Eastern clothing, with (dressed) men in shocking but accurate vignettes from the story of Lot, Joesph and Potiphar's wife, Judah and Tamar, etc, etc.

The witty little book had been carefully researched, and was written in a non-academic style. It was aimed at an audience that would know the Bible well.. It prods the reader to examine the stories according to modern morality of 1926, and whether these stories, are 'fit for children'. The author clucks over the awful, terrible goings on of the Patriarchs in each book of the Bible, and their selfish, perverse and immoral behavior..

If it takes a 88 year old handbook from this 'dirty-minded' atheist to get you to read the Bible, pick up this book from online (it will run you about $12) and have a go; and read it with a King James Bible at hand.  Not to be missed by any atheist, agnostic,or free-thinking Christian who perhaps has never taken the time to read the Book cover to cover.

The Bible Unmasked a product of its time. . It used to be O.K. in this country to be an atheist, and to announce so loudly, just as it used to be O.K. to be a Leftist or a Socialist, or some other strain of humanist free-thinker. There were a lot more 'open' atheists in this country before we went to war against Hitler in the late 1930's.
Hitler's Aryan paganism gave Godlessness a bad name. And Stalin's was even worse; The Russians  proclaimed the Church in Russia to be the enemy of the state and reason, and tried to suppress worshiping God.

After, say, 1948, being an American atheist was pretty difficult to defend politically. Atheism began to be associated with Stalin and Communism, and was therefor Un-American.   . Being an freethinker openly could get you fired from your job or even blacklisted, Government workers, etc, drifted into silence, or went  to church again, keeping  their doubts to themselves.
    
In  the late 1950's and 1960's, when young people, discovering the East and Eastern religions, rediscovered free=thought as if they had invented it themselves. 
  
In the end God Is Not Great could have been a much better book. It could have been a book that led readers to deep history, and the memory of martyrs to intellectual freedom. Hitchens 'dumbed down' God Is Not Great. . 
Hitchen's book should not be the last word on the subject. 
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