Monday, May 26, 2008

Does religion bring out the best or worst in people?

Repulsive but right

by Guardian

Thanks to Linda Ward Selbie for the link.

Repulsive but right

Hay festival 2008: On religion, you can't help but agree with Christopher Hitchens, and you can't help but admire Gene Robinson

By Martin Kettle

Does religion bring out the best in people, as Bishop Gene Robinson so passionately believes? Or does it set off the worst in them, as Christopher Hitchens argues so coruscatingly? I have just spent the past three hours at Hay in the company of the pair of them. Both are men of unbending certainty on opposite sides of the argument - in the first session, the clergyman who was introduced as "the most controversial Christian in the world today" and, in the second, the world's most anti-Christian controversialist.

If I was in the slightest bit vulnerable to being converted to Christianity, which I'm not, Bishop Gene would be the man to hook me and reel me in. He is so patently kind, caring and sincere in his decency towards all, his foes included. He talked of the need for Anglicans to stop obsessing about the Church and about religious doctrine and to embrace a God whose love is, as he put it, profligate. He would see his greatest critics in heaven, he promised. Love like that makes opponents seethe.

Robinson's essential argument against the Church that seeks to exclude him, as a gay bishop in a stable same-sex relationship, is that Anglicanism has constantly changed its views over history. In the past it defended slavery; now it is wholeheartedly ashamed of what it once defended. In the past it outlawed divorce; now it rightly embraces those who seek a second marriage. In the past it disallowed women from the priesthood; now it welcomes them, though not yet fully or warmly enough. In time, there will be shame too about the exclusion of open gays and lesbians from the ministry. I may not live to see it, the Bishop of New Hampshire said (echoes of Martin Luther King) but it will happen. It was impossible - and improper - to disagree with him. In a way, he is a historic figure. Hard not to admire.

Those are not words that come naturally after listening to Hitchens. He was, of course, in many ways brilliant, in most ways unanswerable and in the best sense, a wholly compelling act. He is also, in the big sense, absolutely right in a way that, to me, a Christian bishop is absolutely wrong. You simply cannot believe in virgins having babies, dead men coming back to life and human beings spending 98,000 years on the planet before some supreme being decides that a human sacrifice is needed to get the species back on track. These things are literally unbelievable.

Yet Hitchens, like Richard Dawkins, has absolutely no knack of persuading those he lambasts. Just like Dawkins at Hay last year, he may be right, but he comes over as deliberately arrogant and sometimes childishly offensive. He makes his supporters cheer, but he has no intelligent ability to persuade the doubter. He makes his audience laugh, but he can also be a bully. He is rude to those who doubt him. He is combative to those he thinks have insulted him - though in at least one case he clearly misunderstood the question he was being asked - though he has no qualms about insulting them. I agree with Hitchens (and indeed with Bishop Robinson) that conflict is necessary and productive and must not be shirked. Yet having listened to their two utterly different world views, I felt, as the authors of 1066 and All That did about the English civil war, that one side is wrong but romantic, while the other is right but (sometimes) repulsive.

No comments:

Post a Comment