Before he passed away, author Christopher Hitchens (see here, here, and here for more archives of his work) explained the main point of his book “God Is Not Great” in an interview found here. From the opening of the interview:
Hitchens: The theme of the book is that it is going to be a choice between Civilization and Religion, and that the enemies of civilization, the theocrats, the religious fanatics, really mean it this time. If you look at the way the ‘parties of God’ are destroying Iraq, or the way that people who believe in the Tooth Fairy called the ‘Hidden Imam’ are about to get nuclear weapons in Iran, all the nutcase settlers on the West Bank who think they can bring on a Jewish messiah and bring about the end of the world, whose best friends in the United States are people like the late Reverend Falwell, and the fanatical Christians who also think it would be clever to teach Creationism in schools and stultify American children, you see what I’m talking about now.
Interviewer: “Are you surprised we’re still having this debate now?”
Hitchens: “I think there’s a change in the zeitgeist, I really do… I think people have had enough of this. They thought they could take for granted the secular values, the Enlightenment values. They thought that people would go to church and leave us alone, now we can’t be so sure of this, and I think people want to push back.”
Christopher Hitchens was one of my favorite writers. I always found his work very insightful and in the areas where I disagreed with him, refreshingly challenging. Unlike many polemicists, he backed up his ideas with cogent arguments and could never be waved off as anyone’s partisan hack.
What Hitchens and others object to about modern Christianity is the threat of a return to the days when Church and State worked together to dominate both the state and the church, i.e. the daily lives of all of the rest of us including making political demands regarding our spirituality.
One of Hitchens’ themes goes as follows: “Name a moral act done by a believer that would not have been done by a non-believer. Thought of anything yet? Now think of an act of violence done by a believer because of his faith. You’ve already thought of one, haven’t you.”
Why is a born-again, daily-praying Christian bringing all this up? Because these are legitimate points. If this is what others see in Christianity, then Christianity is bringing the wrong message to the world and we need to take a hard look at what Jesus’ message really is.
Christians who call for religion-based civil or criminal law are making a huge mistake. Legislating the kinds of laws you would find in a theocracy is not what Jesus’ message was about. Not at all, his message was to individuals, not to any local or national authority, nor to any religious authority or any specific church. The kind of transformation called for by his message was for every individual heart to change from within through the power of Love and Spirit, and not by external pressure to obey laws enforced by others.
Jesus’ primary antagonist during his time on this earth was the established state-sponsored priesthood that ran ancient Israel’s system of worship, and enforced some of the kinds of laws being called for by some modern Christians. Jesus was a threat to Hebrew authority because he actively opposed and even contradicted their laws, and his one and only act of aggression was against their money-changing cronies in the Temple.
A state trying to force spirituality or morality or any other internal value on other people is like trying to make plants grow by pulling on them. Behavior can be legislated, morality cannot.
The Enlightenment was the recognition that mankind can establish moral values outside the dictates of state or religion. In other words, we are rational human beings, we are mature adults who understand right and wrong, and we can come up with a much better system of self-government than the Theocracies of Bible times or the Church-State Monarchies that have dominated Europe since the time of Christ.
One of the most important outcomes of the Enlightenment was the Constitution of the newly formed United States of America. Written by a Christian and Deist assembly and approved by overwhelmingly Christian states, the first item in its Bill of Rights was the guarantee that this newly formed State would have nothing to say about religion. It guaranteed the private and personal right of each of us to establish our own spirit-to-Spirit relationship as we see fit. We are free to evangelize, but we are not free to impose.
That simple clause denied government a huge amount of power that governments throughout history had claimed for themselves. It was a giant leap forward in social and cultural maturity, a step that had been brewing for a long time, and had been anticipated 2000 years ago with the message of direct, individual bond with Spirit that was the true message taught by Jesus. Spirituality is an individual thing, it is not something that can be legislated or controlled.
I have never heard anyone, atheist or otherwise, object to Jesus’ actual teaching. That teaching was simple: to love, and to believe in love. In other words, to believe in God, which is the same as saying to believe in Love, and to live that love yourself. The real God really is real love, love for all of us no matter what.
Love is a unifying, energizing, creative energy, a power that leads us to extraordinary things. It is far more powerful than petty self-interest, and even more powerful than important self-interest such as your own life – the news is full of stories of people of any religious background (or none at all) spontaneously risking their lives for others in crisis situations. That is instinctive in all of us whether we’re aware of this capacity inside us or not.
The message of Christianity should be exactly that kind of love. Making others aware that its source is real and genuine should be Christianity’s top priority. Love comes first, no matter what else a person might believe about creationism or sexuality or whatever else is on that laundry list of legislation that some Christians wish to impose on others. Without love, all of that is a distraction.
Teaching the love that has the power to transform a life from within is the most important message we have, and we should not let any other issue get in the way of that message. Love comes first.