December 4, 2007

Bah, Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens spreads a little holiday cheer today with an essay denouncing Hanukkah. Like all Hitchens' work on religion, it's smart, witty and totally frustrating. Hitchens, you see, is at heart a fundamentalist. I don't mean that in the way people usually do: that he is so dogmatic and evangelistic about atheism that he's the equivalent of a religious fundamentalist. Hitchens has countered that attack persuasively -- or mostly persuasively -- in several outlets since the publication of his book God is not Great.

Rather what I mean is that Hitchens' ideas about the religious faiths he rejects are based entirely on fundamentalist interpretations of those faiths. For him there is only one true form of any religion -- the one handed down by God as transmitted by ancient religious authorities. Any variation on that is a false or deluded form of religion worthy only of dismisal. That's just what the fundamentalists say.

So when it comes to Hanukkah, Hitchens tells the true and rarely heard, during this season, story of the Maccabean revolt and concludes that, "The display of the menorah... has a precise meaning and is an explicit celebration of the original victory of bloody-minded faith over enlightenment and reason." [emphasis mine] He outright rejects liberal rabbi Michael Lerner's reinterpretation of the holiday.

But here's where Hitchens' own powers of reasoning fail him. Hanukkah has never had a single precise meaning. No religious holiday -- hell, no religion -- ever has. As an atheist, Hitchens must affirm that religion is a human construct that evolves according to human needs. To traditionalists who say, "but that's not what God meant," the response is simple: God doesn't make the rules. Hanukkah provides an ideal demonstration of this phenomenon. It began not as Hitchens claims, with the Maccabees, but earlier, as a winter solstace celebration, Nayrot, that was probably little different from the celebrations of the surrounding cultures of the era. Later, this merged with the celebration of the Maccabees' victory and became Hanukkah. Six hundreds years after that, as Jewish society had become more theistic and introspective and less militaristic, the supposed supernatural intervention of Yahweh became the most important thing about the holiday-- as seen in the newly evolved story of the miracle of the lamps. In the 19th century, Zionists adapted Hanukkah to their nationalistic idea of Judaism. In 20th century America, Hanukkah became, for all intents and purposes, the Jewish Christmas -- or more precisely, the secular Jewish alternative to a secular Christmas. In some ways it came full circle -- a winter solstace celebration once more -- but the millennia of history now attached to it made it all the more rich and more meaningful.

It is still common to hear some Jews (even secular ones) say that Hanukkah is "not a major holiday." But that is experientially false. It may be a minor holiday for Orthodox Jews, but it is a major one for the rest of us, and there is nothing inauthentic about that. If there is no God, how can a religious holiday, or any religious custom, have an external meaning outside of human culture and discernment? Meaning must be conferred by our observances and our celebrations. Obviously, this is not a matter of individualistic, conscious redefinition -- though that can play a part. Nor am I saying that holidays "can mean whatever we want." Rather, customs evolve along with the human cultures and societies that nurture them. Only an organic change that reflects the needs and values of large groups will resonate in our hearts.

And Hanukkah has undergone that kind of organic change, as has everything else about the wonderful, awful, human-created phenomenon of religion. Humanists should light their menorahs proudly tonight. Say an extra secular blessing for Christopher Hitchens.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Oh, thank you for writing this. My thoughts exactly when I read that stupid piece by the author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Except My Liver, I Did That Myself.)"

That's all well and good, but perhaps you are talking more about humanism than religion, in this instance, humanism being the social evolution of faith. I was raised Catholic and find much of value in what I was learned, even as I shy away from the dogmatism that is, like it or not, the basis of the institution.

Given the very real impact of our respective institutions' orthodoxy (militant settlers invoking Masada at every turn, or the Pope preaching against condoms for Africans), maybe if we want to lay claim to the baby, we should do more to reform the bathwater.

What I'm talking about is humanistic religion. Which, as you correctly note, carries with it an obligation to look clear-eyed at its own often miserable historical roots and expend every effort to challenge the fanaticisms of its fundamentalist cousins.

By the way, I cross-posed this at HuffPo and holy crap, are the commenters there a bunch of morons. Half of them are attacking me for things I never said and don't believe. It's bizarre, and makes me appreciate my readers here at home, who read before they post and don't post at all if they don't have anything to say (though I always like to hear from you guys, at least).

The nuns at the Catholic elementary school I went to explained Hanukkah to us as "Jewish Christmas." Why do you have to make it more complicated?

I enjoyed his piece, not for its possible philosophical over-reaching but for the sheer pleasure of watching the glee with which Walter the Refrigerator Perry might body slam Eddie Deezen.

It left me remembering vaguely from my schooling the claim that Christianity was the force which finally repaired the rift between Oriental (Jewish) mysticism and Greek rationality. Which healing led, they say, to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Free Speech, Vanity Fair, and finally the Internets and Slate. Good on ya, Jesus!

Thank you, Daniel- I learned something today.

Long-time reader, first time non-lurker. I think the main problem with Hitchens' piece is that it's not as if religion and secularism are competing in some zero-sum cultural game, where the mass recognition or celebration of one side's signifier---however fossilized, dormant, or obscured its constituent parts---represents a debit on the other side: as you say, it's the co-evolution of these forces that define us and often progress us. It's never a smooth step forward (or even always forward), but it's not football, either.

The important issue his article raises though I think is the inertial mass that traditions like this represent for loathsome ideas, sort of a subsidization by habit. It's perhaps too much to burden each of us with unpacking our all of our rituals for meaning (especially when you just want to spend time with your family and eat), but it's worth reflecting on the notions we reinforce, however passively, when we participate in them.

I don't follow the Hitchens religion beat closely -- how has he countered the accusation of fundamentalism of the sort you mention in your first paragraph? Some sort of flying kick?


Daniel, in this post I sense the influence of the Oberlin College religion department. Big up!

That's not to detract from the credit you should get for a really nice post. You nail it.

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