Slate has started publishing excerpts from Christopher Hitchens' new book (so very cleverly titled God Is Not Great), the first of which is here. The argument he advances is certainly not new, nor does Hitchens say that it is. He takes some satisfaction that his objections have been recycled time and again. His "mildest" criticism that religion is man-made is supposed to be the stab to the heart, the "most devastating" thing one can say about religion. If this is the case, the religious people of the world can rest easy and return to quarreling with one another, leaving the pestiferous atheist to abuse someone else's patience with his tedious declarations of enlightenment.
At the heart of every freisinnig appeal is a lie. They want free inquiry, Hitchens says, but there is no such thing. Every inquiry must at least have a purpose or a reason. Inquiry is never really free--it always has a cost, it always has limits and definitions and it always entails assumptions. To assume one thing is to exclude another; the freedom of choice, strictly speaking, is likewise not really free, because it presupposes the denial of myriad choices, the acceptance of the costs of the paths not taken, the constant constraints and finitude that limit the range of choice. The atheists and freethinkers say they want openmindedness, but their minds are plainly shut off to the fountains of wisdom of thousands of years because the wisdom contained in scriptures and hymns--from which virtually all great Western art and literature derive and to which all of it pays often unwitting tribute--is expressed in an idiom and attributed to a source that they reject out of hand because they cannot confirm in their wretched narrowness of spirit that the Author of life has spoken to men on the doubtful basis that He has never spoken to them (though it seems they would not listen to Him if He did).
Freethinkers supposedly want "the pursuit of ideas for their own sake," but no one pursues ideas simply for their own sake, but in order to understand, to act or to believe, or to have some combination of these. Men pursue ideas so that they may understand the world, and they seek to understand the world to have wisdom. Men desire wisdom in order to live well, and part of living well is to pursue and know the Good, and the Good is that which fulfills human nature and causes it to flourish. The desire to know is a natural desire, one implanted in us as part of our created being; we yearn to know and to enter into the unknown because we yearn for unity with the One Who desires that all things be united in Him. If no religion had ever caused men to live virtuously and flourish, religion would have disappeared ages ago. If no religion had produced saints and cultivated the finest aspects of human nature, very few would adhere themselves to it and even then it would only be the mad and obsessive. There is nothing interesting in rehearsing the catalogue of crimes that religious adherents have committed against each other, since men have always been slaughtering and oppressing one another and they have tended to do more of it when they are less in thrall to their religious tradition than when they are strictly obedient to it. What is remarkable is how much at least some religions have contributed to the civilisation and edification of men, which would hardly seem probable if they were not much more than elaborate exercises in self-deception and nonsense.
I know that when Hitchens says "'man-made," he means that he thinks religion is purely and completely the product of the human mind, an invention, a fraud. He thinks he has the religious fellow cornered by saying this, as if religious people are unaware that the history of the religions of the world is also the history of man. The inextricability of religious practice from human experience over the millennia is supposed to be proof that there is nothing true in any of it, as if it were not the remedy for that which ails man or as if it did not provide something that man requires by nature. But, of course, religion is man-made. Men build the temples, write the prayers, organise the rites and offer the oblations and sacrifices. That does not mean that there is no divinely inspired and true religion. It means that it is not always immediately self-evident and clear which is the true religion, and it means that those who have opted for the sterile, sad path of "freethinking," which is simply to inhabit a particularly wearisome set of prejudices, have simply lost patience in trying to discern the truth of the matter. They do not want free inquiry--they want easy inquiry, an inquiry that never leaves one in aporia, but always promises explanation and resolution. The typical freethinker believes that he is at home with uncertainty, and that it is the religious man who is in dire need of certainty, but the opposite is quite obviously true: the freethinker cannot really stand to have loose ends, puzzles or paradoxes. If this, then that is impossible, the freethinker says. The religious man not only assumes that paradox will occur, but he takes the paucity of reason to explain paradox as an indirect confirmation that there are realities that not even reason, as estimable and valuable as it is, can penetrate or comprehend. Freethinking can only desecrate, despoil and ruin. It can create nothing, because it has no vision of the Good, and it will always be judged as wanting on account of this.