During my recent interview with Christopher Hitchens, which occurred without his knowing, we—or more accurately, I—discussed his most recent book: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I originally titled this article “Hooray for the Hate-Monger Christopher Hitchens,” but my colleagues eventually nixed that idea. Still squeamish about my recent Copenhagen foray into political cartooning, I heeded their advice. I do, in all sincerity, applaud Christopher Hitchens, as both a journalist and a thinker. I have thoroughly enjoyed the vast majority of his acerbic ruminations on any number of subjects. It is hard to argue with a rationalist, because they, by their very nature, tend to be…er, rational. However, I cannot endorse the views he espouses in God Is Not Great, nor do I intend to stray into the dubious realms of irrationality.
From the perspective of Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics theory—wherein various levels of human consciousness are color-coded—Hitchens is cheering the move from blue (fundamentalism) to orange (entrepreneurial/rational). From the perspective of human development, this is a move in the right direction and—perhaps more importantly—better matches my vest. Hitchens reports, in damning detail, the overwhelming short-sightedness of certain organized religious endeavors, namely, all of them. He champions the exposure of that which is dogmatic and dangerous, and I agree that the world would indeed be a better place without all of today’s endless Faith Based Stupidity (FBS).
In college I would have heeded his clarion call, ditched my Jesus-shaped air freshener, and sported my atheistic animosity with pride. In my 20s, I, too, discovered the inherent illogic and endless contradictions riddling Catholicism. I should point out that made me a late bloomer by Hitchens’ standards, as he was already pointing out Old Testament inconsistencies at age nine (the erudite little shit). Not to be outdone, I managed to trick a DJ into playing “Hell’s Bells” at my church confirmation dance (true story). We will let you decide, fair reader, which accomplishment is more important to humanity.
I find Hitchens’ omission of a segment on enlightenment and spirituality very telling. On that front, he offers nothing, nada, nichts! Not even a cursory glance at the possibility of something beyond his curmudgeonly cosmopolitanism. “Our place in the cosmos is so unimaginably small,” Hitchens asserts, “that we cannot, with our miserly endowment of cranial matter, contemplate it for long at all.” First off, leave my apartment and my brain capacity out of this! Second, here is where millions may beg to differ: What about meditation? Or gnawing on Amazonian roots during a nude Yoga session? Oh wait, I promised not to do this…
Let’s stick to rationality. Hitchens profusely thanks Peter and Rosemary Grant—two Princeton-based evolutionary biologists following in Darwin’s footsteps—by saying, “We are in their debt. Their lives were harsh, but who could wish that they had mortified themselves in a holy cave or on top of a sacred pillar instead?” I found his rhetorical question quite interesting, considering that mankind’s first art surfaced via tripping primeval cave-dwelling shamans (TPCDS). In fact, such troglodytes not only created the world’s first art, but arguably lifted humanity from the Neolithic realms outright. These postulations are being embraced not only by crackpots like The Daily Discord’s Ghetto Shaman, but by mainstream archeologists, using that pesky scientific method of theirs. Perhaps if the Grants squatted in a cave long enough, they would have gained even deeper insights into the animals they studied. The latest research in physics, consciousness studies, and emotional intelligence are compelling, but hardly reductionist.
The real heavyweight round came when Hitchens turned his grievous Gatling gun on Buddhism. (In all fairness, he did give the Dalai Lama a ten-second head start.) It’s actually fairly short chapter. The first half can be summarized as “My Terrible Experience in Some Buddhist Rip-Off Retreat,” while the second half portrays the Dalai Lama rolling around in defeat, cupping his nads. I do believe, Mr. Hitchens, that a weekend at Bangkok Bernie’s does not a religion make.
Hitchens takes exception to the claim that the Dalai Lama is preordained to rule, and chides the exiled leader of Tibet for hanging around with the likes of Richard Gere. I have to say, I am in complete agreement with Hitch on this one…I mean, come on, Richard Gere? The book does shed considerable light on some of the historical problems that Buddhism had faced. At his best, Hitchens is exposing the vast array of history’s faithular faux pas (“Faithular” is a word; I saw it on The Colbert Report).
Hitchens concludes with a scathing assessment of Nirvana-seekers (the spiritualist kind, not the band groupies), proclaiming that they “may believe that they are leaving the realm of the despised materialism, but they are in fact putting their reason to sleep and discarding their minds along with their sandals.”
He is simply wrong on this point. The Buddhist debate is legendary and logical. Believers following the dharma typically counted their breaths, meditated, and attained a deeper understanding of the world and the Universe (not to mention Thai hookers). The Dalai Lama is not afraid of scientific discourse. In fact, it is an interest of his (science, not hookers). He welcomes Western scientific knowledge and its capacity to prove or disprove Buddhist assertions by putting them through the rigors of scientific testing. In fact, the Dalai Lama proposes that any aspect of the dharma to be proven false should be stuffed in a small sock and mailed to the Pope.
Hitchens, like most men of Western science, has always placed the objective on a pedestal and the subjective in the shitter. But beware “rationalists,” for these turd-crusted subjective realms are no longer so easily flushable, especially in the wake of certain “enlightening” studies. The work of Daniel Goleman follows the discourse between a group of Western scientists and Tibetan Buddhists on the subject of destructive emotions. When you have a well-trained objective interviewer and a well-trained subject hooked up to a neuro-imaging machine, we go beyond what is commonly dismissed as “subjective.”
Hitchens, apparently oblivious to such endeavors, at one point railed against scripture for imploring its disciples to banish any impure thoughts: “If God really wanted people free of such thoughts, he should have taken more care to invent a different species.” The latest neuro-imaging techniques on the brains of habitual meditators and Buddhist monks are finding this “new species.” These individuals seem to possess an almost superhuman ability to avoid common negative emotional pitfalls on a neural level! They are not faking it.
Hitchens himself admits that the human brain is a “work in progress.” So why discount the beliefs of those whose brains seem to be more disciplined, more organized, and functioning more efficiently? A bevy of other recent studies suggest meditation increases blood flow to the brain and even thickens the cerebral cortex itself (but in a good way)! Meditative practices can also combat pain, reduce stress, and boost the immune system. Introspection and subjective techniques have produced observable/objective improvements in the function of the brain. Looks like the William James gang rides again!
“What does this have to do with religion?” I can almost hear Hitchens mutter. Well, Mr. Mutterer, the vast majority of these new and improved sapiens tend to catch glimpses of an ordered universe in these “subjective” states. They see further and clearer; and, although much of their visions are inherently ineffable, a vivid picture of the universe emerges—an order almost ubiquitous amongst this brand of meditators, or Meditoranians, as Dr. Sterling Hogbein calls them.
This movement is growing and not, as in the case of Islam, by sheer numbers alone. It is perpetually improving itself by incorporating Western thought to encompass and transcend what has come before it. A person with an enlightened perspective would agree with many of this book’s claims and conclusions, for they are historically accurate and, therefore, irrefutable. But I might suggest approaching this issue from a more integral perspective. In other words, I’ll bring the booze, Hitch, and you bring the Thai hookers.