Man or Beast
It is hardly surprising that one of the most outspoken evangelists of atheism would have less-than-kind words about a man who empowered religion in American politics. But writer Christopher Hitchens went even beyond his usual eloquent obnoxiousness by commencing his comments in Slate about the late Jerry Falwell by asserting that “the discovery” of the Baptist minister’s “carcass” has significance mainly for “credulous idiot[s].”
The word chosen by the petulant writer to refer to Reverend Falwell’s mortal remains is telling. As a self-declared and proud “antitheist” whose most recent book carries the subtitle “How Religion Poisons Everything,” Hitchens has no reason to view human beings as different from animals in any essential way. It is a stance that can lead to things like Princeton ethicist Peter Singer’s support for killing severely disabled babies and the unconscious elderly. As Professor Singer has explained: “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.” If antitheist Hitchens asserts some inherent human specialness, he is not only insufferable but inconsistent.
Reverend Falwell, by contrast, made his reputation by forcing the American body politic to consider that the human sphere, by virtue of a Divine plan, is uniquely, meaningfully different from all else on earth. The idea that men and women possess a spark of the Divine, that our lives hold the promise of holiness, is the beta-point – after the alpha affirming God – of religious belief.
Which is why Falwell, who coaxed religious Americans to raise a voice they hadn’t known they possessed, focused largely on issues that spoke to the holiness of human life. Like the preciousness of even its potential, and how the act able to create new human beings should be regarded as something more than a meaningless equivalent of its analogue in the animal world.
Predictably, such ideas make people like Hitchens crazy. The writer was rendered apoplectic by the reverend’s daring to voice opposition to the societal sanctioning of feticide, or of intimate relationships considered immoral by traditional Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist believers alike. Hitchens decried the “puddl[ing]” of the reverend’s “sausage-sized fingers into the intimate arrangements of people who had done no harm.” Hitchens’ hatred is so fervid it extends to Falwell’s very digits.
Nor is the cantankerous Divinity-denier content to just damn the late reverend (so to speak; Hitchens, of course, denies any ultimate reward or punishment). He insists on smearing him, too, with the tar of anti-Semitism.
Associating the Moral Majority founder with an assortment of unsavory characters on the sole basis of their common commitment to Christian belief, Hitchens sneers that Falwell must have hated Jews. The tar, though, doesn’t stick. I don’t know what Falwell may have held in his heart of hearts, but a verdict of guilty on a charge of Jew-hatred needs something more than guilt by the remotest association.
Ah, though, Hitchens points out, Jews are “unsaved” in the reverend’s theology.
Well, yes, some Christians’ beliefs entail a rejection of Judaism. Jewish belief, no less, rejects Christianity (at least for Jews). Theological affirmations, however, need not bespeak animus.
It is odd, in any event, that an atheist would be so exercised by a Christian’s belief about the spiritual merit, or lack thereof, of non-Christians. It certainly doesn’t bother this Jewish believer (who, well, believes he knows better).
I am not oblivious to how religions can beget – and have begotten – hatred and violence. Nor am I certain that there is no future (or even present) for Christian Jew-hatred. There are, after all, rabidly anti-Semitic groups in the American heartland that claim a Christian mandate for their hatred. Nor, to be honest, can I help but wonder what prejudicial lusts might yet lurk in the heart of former president Jimmy Carter and other similarly myopic defenders of populations pledged to drive Jews into the Mediterranean.
But the vast majority of contemporary Christians – including even those like Falwell who believe Jews can get to heaven only by becoming Christians – do not menace members of the tribe these days; and I respect a Christian’s right to his belief just as I wish that he or she respect mine to my own.
And so, while, as a believing Jew, I was not a Falwell-follower and was not always enamored of some of his pronouncements , he deserves credit not only for his support of Israel against her sworn enemies but for his determination, whatever else he may have said or believed, to call attention to the idea of the Divine.
Some, in the spirit of the Yiddish proverb that describes the best of worlds as one filled with “religious Jews and irreligious Goyim,” might prefer a horde of Hitchenses to a flock of Falwells. There is ample evidence, it cannot be denied, for the spawning of evil in the name of faith.
But let us also recall some historical wages of Godlessness – like Stalin’s “Great Purge” or Mao’s massacres or the Cambodian killing fields. And so, I am not convinced that the proverb has it entirely right. While religion can, and often is, misused, there is much to be said for a society pledged, however imperfectly, to the Divine, over one that regards human beings as nothing more than quickened carcasses.