Christopher Hitchens and Malcolm X

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Be Scofield's Tikkun piece "What Christopher Hitchens and the New Atheists Can Learn from Malcolm X" describes Hitchens as having a "fundamentalist attitude," likening it to the pre-Hajj militancy of Malcolm X.

He writes in God is Not Great that a Muslim cab driver went to great lengths to return a large sum of money that his wife had left in his cab. The cab driver told him that it was his religious duty to return the money and refused the reward that Hitchens had offered. In response to the Muslim cab driver's act of selfless service Hitchens states, "And if all Muslims conducted themselves like the man who gave up more than a week's salary in order to do the right thing, I could be quite indifferent to the weird exhortations of the Koran," (p. 188). This is a remarkable confession for someone who has waged such a vigilant battle against all things religious.

Scofield writes later that "NPR quoted Hitchens as having said at the University of Toronto, 'I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right,'" and wonders "Is he talking about the religion of the cab driver who did the selfless act of service?" The distinction overlooked here is that religion is synonymous with neither honesty nor charity--and especially not with morality in general, however much its adherents may wish it were so. Scofield goes on to pillory Hitchens for rhetorical imprecision

...despite having written a book about religion, participated in numerous debates on the matter and given several interviews Christopher Hitchens has never provided a consistent definition of religion. [...] The result is an intellectual carelessness that demonstrates just how misinformed his understanding of religion is.

while committing the same blunder himself:

Religious scholars, professors and anyone interested in the study of the world's religions knows that religion is an incredibly diverse category which includes theists, deists, pantheists, agnostics, atheists and everything in between. And of course there are liberal and fundamentalist interpretations as well.

To say that "religion is an incredibly diverse category" and then not reveal the larger group of which this category is a part is nothing if not careless--and including agnostics and atheists among religious believers is ludicrous. (As the old saying goes, "If atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color.") Scofield later attempts a definition:

The word religion stems from the Latin "religio," meaning to bind. And it connotes nothing more than a socio-cultural phenomenon of meaning making which includes values, beliefs, rituals, traditions, morals, ethics and is often accompanied by texts.

Religion may denote nothing more than the items on this list, but the things it connotes are much more varied, including a range of views from Scofield's rosy opinion to the more hard-edged one of Hitchens. Scofield concludes:

I'm not trying to make a substantive or nuanced comparison of Christopher Hitchens and Malcolm X. Rather I am interested in merely juxtaposing two men who have approached an important social issue in similar ways. By placing side by side X's idea that all white people are devils and Hitchens's that religion poisons everything I hope to illustrate the shared strain of fundamentalism and irrational thinking among them. [...] The question for Hitchens and the new atheists then becomes, is religion only a nightmare or can it become a dream?

Whichever view you prefer, remember that neither nightmares nor dreams exist once dawn has broken.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on July 11, 2010 2:31 PM.

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