Monday, April 30, 2007

Rubbing hands in glee

I came across this very interesting review of God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens in the LA Times. The reviewer is Jack Miles, a distinguished professor of English and religious studies at UC Irvine. He is the general editor of the forthcoming "The Norton Anthology of World Religions."

But this does not imply that he is a terrible bore who is out to throttle ideas of theism down our throats. Perhaps that's the whole charm of atheism. To present a picture devoid of piety. Piety is uncool, eh? But what if a member of the Church of Piety turns out to be an intelligent, well-read master of the stylized phrase. It stumps the atheists. Count Miles in that category.

Really, Miles's initial arguments are quite similar to what the NBCC has been saying with regard to the declining status of book review sections: forces of the market, tired to the hilt of the process (atheist polemics seeing success, in this case), so on and so forth:

How dispiriting it must be for the neo-atheist pamphleteer to pick up "The Cambridge Companion to Atheism" and read even Chapter 1, "Atheism in Antiquity." To be sure, several recent works of anti-religious polemic have had heartening success in the marketplace, but even reliable allies are beginning to show signs of market fatigue.

Consider this:

Here is an example that I find both typical and thrilling:

"By all means let an observant Jewish adult male have his raw-cut penis placed in the mouth of a rabbi. (That would be legal, at least in New York.) By all means let grown women who distrust their clitoris or their labia have them sawn away by some other wretched adult female. By all means let Abraham offer to commit suicide to prove his devotion to the Lord or his belief in the voices he was hearing in his head. By all means let devout parents deny themselves the succor of medicine when in acute pain and distress. By all means — for all I care — let a priest sworn to celibacy be a promiscuous homosexual. By all means let a congregation that believes in whipping out the devil choose a new grown-up sinner each week and lash him until he or she bleeds. By all means let anyone who believes in creationism instruct his fellows during lunch breaks. But the conscription of the unprotected child for these purposes is something that even the most dedicated secularist can safely describe as a sin."

As the orator mounts through that withering, seven-fold repetition of "By all means," imagine excitement building in the audience and erupting in a roar of applause at his righteous climax: "But the conscription of the unprotected child…. " The strength of this book is the undeniable eloquence of its indignation — in Alexander Pope's famous phrase, "What oft was thought but ne'er so well express'd." Its weakness is that the thinking in it has indeed oft been thought. Rhetorically, Hitchens, a repentant and affectingly rueful Marxist, could rally a band of timid schoolboys to storm the Winter Palace. But did the paragraph just quoted tell you anything you did not already know or change your mind about a single thing you did know?

One can almost see Miles rub his hands in glee as he deflates another high concept that the atheists take such pleasure in presenting. After all, there is a charm in shunning sweetness. But more is the charm in killing hubris and reclaiming the sweetness.

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