I’ve borrowed this title from the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’s book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything that I espied in the window of a second-hand bookshop this morning. (Remind me never to go there again: my pieces become long as a result.)
Atheists treat both logic and facts as malleable clay their nimble hands can knead into any shape they wish. In that spirit, Hitchens clearly neglected to ask himself a simple question: Do I really mean everything?
Since the late hack wasn’t without cultural pretensions, he must have heard the odd bit of Bach, visited a Gothic cathedral or two, and perhaps even admired some Giotto frescoes. Are they part of the everything that religion poisons?
How about all those hospitals, orphanages, hostels, soup kitchens and countless charities that had never existed, nor could have existed, until the early Christians founded them, as they later founded universities? Still poisonous?
Also, what specific religion are we talking about? That of the Masada defenders or that of their pagan attackers? That of the Byzantine emperors or that of their Muslim conquerors? That preached by Christian missionaries to African animists or that practised by the animists who ate the missionaries?
Hitchens is no longer with us to answer such questions, and I admit I couldn’t read his puerile book beyond the first few pages. But I suspect his reply would have been that, though all those admirable artefacts were produced within Christendom, that happened not because of Christianity but almost in spite of it.
On the other hand, it goes without saying that any violence perpetrated during the same period was a direct consequence of Christian doctrine, what with its blood-curdling emphasis on love, charity and mercy.
As to the second question, there’s no valid need to differentiate among religions: they’re all equally toxic, especially Christianity. The minute differences among them pale into triviality before their shared monstrosity.
Conversely, the infinitely greater and indiscriminate violence perpetrated by secularists, especially by Hitchens’s fellow socialists, had nothing to do with the underlying doctrine, other than being its lamentable perversion.
I’m reducing Hitchens’s thinking to a caricature, but the job isn’t unduly hard: whenever atheists try to substantiate their atheism, they draw a vicious caricature of themselves. God punishes his detractors by making them sound idiotic on this subject, even if they make some sense elsewhere.
Yet all those wonderful things created in Christendom I’ve listed need to be put into perspective too. Seen in isolation, they can no more vindicate Christianity than indict it.
For they all – buildings and hospitals, cantatas and orphanages, frescoes and soup kitchens – derived from a new, revolutionary understanding of man, reality and the universe that had overturned the existing notions the way Newton’s astronomy overturned Ptolemy’s.
Man especially took a fresh look at himself and saw something hitherto obscured: a person.
The word has gained much currency these days, what with sex-specific nomenclatures having fallen into risible disrepute. Yet its pedigree in the West goes back to times immemorial.
However, in pre-Christian times ‘person’ meant something different, and the Russian language, closely aligned as it is with Greek, gives a clue to just how different.
The cognate word persona does exist there, and Yuri Tynyanov (d. 1943) put it in the title of his novelette Voskovaya [wax] persona, where the eponymous ‘person’ was Peter the Great’s death mask.
That, now archaic, usage broadly hints at how the word functioned in Hellenic antiquity. It originally meant a funerary effigy reflecting the social standing of the deceased.
Only those who had a conspicuous social presence rated one – only such precious men (more rarely women) were genuinely seen as persons, and their value depended on their status, wealth and achievement.
On the other hand, though slaves were regarded as fully human (unlike, incidentally, in some American states as late as the mid-nineteenth century), it would never have occurred to anybody to see them as persons.
The concept was strictly contingent and not intrinsic to humanity as such, a perception that Christianity ousted in one fell swoop. God became fully human for a while so that man could become partly divine for ever, which instantly elevated every human being, no matter how lowly, to personhood.
Everyone acquired unearned dignity and sovereign value simply because everyone was created and saved by the same God. Having the same father made all men brothers, even if some of them were indigent, ill, old, deformed, retarded or depraved.
Hence, say, eugenic euthanasia (often dispatching unwanted children, usually girls, via the agency of wild beasts and rubbish heaps) that was widely practised in pre-Christian Greece and Rome became unthinkable: any child’s life was sacred because it carried a particle of God within it.
That the Christian revolution didn’t affect everybody goes without saying, and God-given free will continued at times to lead man to wicked choices. But it equally goes without saying, or should do, that Christianity elevated man to a plateau not only unseen but even unimaginable in antiquity.
The Christian revolution changed the perception not only of man, but also of his world. The prevailing mood in late antiquity was that of despondency. The world was seen as a prison of the spirit, an evil or at least unpleasant place to escape from, not to rejoice in. Christianity changed that view as well, by shifting the vantage point of vision.
The world was seen as a glorious creation of a loving God, his generous, plentiful gift to man that, like any gift, entitled the donor to gratitude. Moreover, not only was the world beautiful and fecund – it was also rational, created as it was by divine reason.
Therefore it was knowable, open to study, experimentation and general inference. Knowing a priori that nature was created by a universal, rational lawgiver, man could deduce that it was therefore governed by universal, rational laws. That knowledge created the preconditions for all the scientific discoveries for which Christianity has been larcenously denied credit.
By fusing Athens with Jerusalem, and touching both of them with its own revelation, Christianity created by far the greatest civilisation in history – one that people have been destroying at an accelerating pace over the past few centuries.
The easiest way of bringing down a structure is to undermine its base, and this is what has happened to Christendom. Nietzsche, that great coroner to divinity, diagnosed the condition: God was dead, in the sense that educated people could no longer believe in him.
Nietzsche gloated at this demise but, being a serious thinker, he was also saddened. Christian civilisation had died when its founder had lost his wide credibility. But what will replace it? Nietzsche correctly surmised that the possibilities gave cause for fear: God’s morality would be buried with him.
T.S. Eliot later echoed that concern: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready-made… You must pass through many centuries of barbarism.”
We are living through these centuries of barbarism now, and those great men were right to be concerned. For post-Christian civilisation, such as it is, has stifled creative imagination, while letting moral imagination run wild.
Things that were unimaginable for centuries are now seriously debated and often practised. Euthanasia, for example, eugenic or otherwise, is moving to the forefront of modern conscience. People like Peter Singer, who barely a century ago would have been considered insane degenerates, express touching concerns about the deterioration of our genetic stock, which is badly in need of weeding out.
Progress is now seen in strictly material terms, which ignores the calamitous potential of physical growth if unaccompanied by a moral discipline. The same energy that can heat our houses can also incinerate them; the same machine that enables us to fly on holiday can rain bombs on our heads; the same company that gave us aspirin also gave us Zyklon B.
What was the stuff of dystopic science fiction but a generation ago, mad scientists creating monsters in their labs, has now become, or is about to become, a reality hailed in mainstream papers.
Christian morality does survive in our still extant ancient laws and, suitably perverted, in the ethos of human rights nauseatingly shoved down our throats by the same people who bemoan the poisonous effects of Christianity.
The concept of innate, non-contingent rights with which every person is endowed, regardless of his position in life, would have been unintelligible to Plato, Aristotle or Seneca. It springs from the Christian reassessment of man, and only in the wake of Christianity could the concept appear.
Yet the secular ethos of human rights relates to the Christian sanctity of every person as secular economic levelling relates to Christian equality of all before God. Wielded by Hitchens’s ideological twins, this post-Christian notion is turned into a hoe uprooting the last remnants of past grandeur.
And atheism is the herbicide then sprayed on the soil the way Roman legionnaires once scattered salt over the fields of Carthage to make sure nothing would ever grow there again.