Book; Counter-book 3: Philosophical -isms from "athe" to "zion"

Even beginning to compare two texts with two different goals and two disparate-but not diametrically opposed-arguments incorporating religion, reason and humanism, written by authors/philosophers with very dissimilar styles of voice presents a daunting task. Luckily, like Rudy's empowering love for Notre Dame football, my love for a good Book; Counter-book knows no challenge too great. And with that supercilious boast I intend to pit God Is Not Great by the great atheist/journalist Christopher Hitchens and Straw Dogs by John Gray. [The philosophical text, rather than the classic Sam Peckinpah western. (An idea perhaps more intriguing for a blog than this one, to be sure.)] The challenge in refereeing a duel between these two books is that each wants to say essentially the same thing about humanity, leaving me torn in an almost parental trap because Gray and Hitchens posit their arguments in disagreeing (at times) ways.

Hitchens' God Is Not Great has a telling subtitle "How Religion Poisons Everything". Without even a cursory knowledge of his other works, writing for Vanity Fair, editing The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer, etc., this most recent work bludgeons you over the head with a two-by-four. It's clear what he'll be getting at, and intriguing to ask "how?". The "how" for Hitchens comes through reason and historical analysis. He breaks down the arguments and tenets of each major religion with a dry wit starting with contemporary "arguments" from the religious side. Pointing out the fallacy that one would feel safer when confronted by a group of religious men leaving a bible study, church or mosque event at dusk than a group of men who had no religious leanings comes from example. He cites the violence in Ireland, India, Iraq and other major world cities. This is only his beginning.

Moving through the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and other crimes performed in the guise of religious guidance and right, Hitchens compels his readers to use reason and value humanism as guides for their existences rather than following the archaic institutions first established to control the population and now continually perverted. Morality for Hitchens exists, but truly as part of our social subconscious, insofar as murder, theft and the like do not appeal to us inherently. He decries the belief that we need a "creator" to know right from wrong, and to act right despite "free will". God Is Not Great is such an honest and knowledge read that additional summary on my part would only detract from the power of Hitchens' words. His aim is to awaken us, all people to the ways that science and scepticism (mentioning Hume often) guide us to more valid conclusions about our lives. We are ultimately and ideally objects of pure reason, rather than supplicants to superstition and our liberation begins in acknowledging the perennial failure of the institutions to which we've grown accustomed.

While Hitchens intends to compel us to see the inherent value of humanity and science, plucking at our heartstrings with wit and example, John Gray does something nearly opposite but not quite. Gray lays out in Straw Dogs a stream of consciousness philosophical "riff" designed to illustrate the ways in which we have taken on humanism as a new religion and focused our lives on progress through science and work that he doesn't seem to believe inherently valuable. For Gray, we are essentially our most basic design: animal. Our drive to exalt morality and logic is one of the hindrances that prevents us from realizing how simple our existences can be. Gray, too, turns to Hume as an example of quality reason, but does not embrace the way he views our current societal view of science as a new advancing form of pseudo-perfection.

Through Straw Dogs, Gray is set on showing us, but perhaps not prescribing to us, that we need not exert all of our mental effort on becoming something or advancing society. He states that we are temporary and that our progress despite all of our efforts will not ensure our culture or our world eternal existence. Certainly it is bleak to consider that the efforts of a lifetime have no meaning, and that since we are merely animals there is little point beyond understanding our short time in life. Gray at times seems to boil humanity down to simple stock. And yet through all of that he calls for the embrace of reason and believes, it seems to me, that through reason we can all see and understand the fruitlessness of a life of endless struggle. Gray decries religious belief, but also the belief that humanism is a solution to it because he sees humanism as more or less a reaction to the existing error.

Gray's rambling writing/thinking style is often infuriating. It's as if he is dangling candy just out of the reach of a child for much of the book, and by the work's conclusion he has not offered a solid theory. Hitchens structure, knowledge and wit are infinitely compelling and result in a call to arms for thinking people around the world to give birth to a new Enlightenment in their individual lives. Only on one matter do both men blatantly agree. One of our greatest constraints on knowledge and human success is our need to beat death, citing Freud in each work. If we are able to let go of this desire for immortality we will be instantly and wholly unfettered in the present. Truly, we waste large chunks of our lives seeking to create a legacy or striving for science to bring us an eternity that need not come to pass.

For Hitchens and Gray, there is another (complicated!) common ground: reason. Gray understands, respects and desires its expansion, but does not see it as a solution. Hitchens exalts reason and humanism the greatest course for humanity's growth. I agree with both men for their own strengths. Reason is infinitely valuable, but as Hitchens--not at all naively--wants reason to guide us out of the present religious dark age we are regressing into, Gray does not see a solution as possible, or for that matter necessary.
Hitchens believes we are responsible for the betterment of society through reason, hearkening to Enlightenment icons like Hume, Kant, etc., but Gray feels that our interest/"need" in bettering society is individually damning. We should instead just learn to love existing as animals and be happy with the life we have. These arguments are so close to one another and yet also so far apart. Mathematically speaking, it is as if Hitchens and Gray are plotted with X, Y coordinates of 1, 1 and 2, 1 respectively, but on the Z-axis they are infinitely distant from each other.

I have found this distance hard to mitigate and wondered if it is possible to reconcile their differences. Can we? Is it better to hope for reason to bring us a solution to human failings and religious superstition? Should we dismiss our lives as finite and see reason as the best course, but not a course to any endpoint? Gray's sense of realism is valuable. We need the guarded thinking he posits to keep us from believing so deeply that humanism, science and reason are all answers to our world's many problems. There is an episode of South Park from 2006 that exaggerates the err of leaning too hard
on (read: believing in pseudo-religiously) reason and science as truth. Cartman, unable to wait for a Nintendo Wii to come out, freezes himself and awakens in the year 2546 to find that religion is gone, atheism is standard, and the three powerful societies of atheists are at war: over the best name for their atheist group. South Park wants us to see that when any idea becomes an ideology, we humans are bound to fuck it up. (Come to think of it, Kevin Smith's film Dogma has Chris Rock's 13th Apostle saying something similar, "I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier.") Were we all to jump on board with Enlightenment, some of the people regardless of good intention will become just as absurdly dangerous and dogmatic as those people greatly perverting religion. This is not to say that Hitchens is wrong, but the offspring of his and Gray's arguments would be more evolved and more attractive than the individuals initially contributing.

Despite their incongruities and disagreements (and I would love to see these two men on a panel together discussing their viewpoints face-to-face and side-by-side) both texts implore us to cast off what religion and society have pressed upon us for thousands of years to sit up, open our eyes and minds, and think deeply about the potentials of human existence. Though what those potentials constitute is a point of contention.

I would compel anyone with philosophical, religious or ontological interests to read both of these books. Gray and Hitchens are exemplary minds and great examples of how philosophy did not end with the likes of Kant, Sartre and Nietzsche. Any ultimate agreement among the populous regarding religion, a creator, or the point of human existence is unlikely, but continuing to expand our knowledge and unleash our minds onto new challenges is an essential part of existence.

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