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Christopher Hitchens to God: Drop Dead

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If I were sitting in the pews listening to Christopher Hitchens delivering a sermon on his new book, a denunciation of religion, I would roll my eyes, perhaps doze off, maybe even walk out. This is what believers in houses of worship do when confronted with overblown, out-of-touch, and insulting words from the pulpit. But as Hitchens imagines it, we sit docilely to even the most inane homilies from our religious leaders, listening and absorbing. Then we go off, clutching our sacred texts, to abuse, oppress, and murder.

Unlike most preachers, admittedly, Hitchens is entertaining and erudite, and he studs the pages of his book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, with golden nuggets of rhetoric. But as an observant Jew myself, who also happens to be involved in the movement for women's meaningful participation and leadership in Orthodox Judaism, I read this book feeling as if I were watching the local news with its endless worst-case scenarios and hyperreal depiction of daily life.

Hitchens calls all religions --not only Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-- to task for being transparently man-made ("the 'revelation' at Sinai and the rest of the Pentateuch was an ill-carpentered fiction, bolted into place well after the nonevents that it fails to describe convincingly or even plausibly"). They are foolish and delusional ("The real 'miracle' is that we, who share genes with the original bacteria that began life on the planet, have evolved as much as we have"). They're not even functional ("Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important"). They're stupid (in 2005 in Nigeria, a group of Islamic religious leaders "declared the polio vaccine to be a conspiracy by the United States" against Muslims. Believers refused the vaccine and within months, polio was back and spreading fast).

And of course, they are abusive --witness the Vatican's complicity and cover-up of "a huge racket of child rape and child torture, mainly but by no means exclusively homosexual, in which known pederasts and sadists were shielded from the law and reassigned to parishes where the pickings of the innocent and defenseless were often richer." And murderous --"I leave it to the faithful to burn each other's churches and mosques and synagogues, which they can always be relied upon to do"; "Conceivably, some readers of these pages will be shocked to learn of the existence of Hindu and Buddhist murderers and sadists. Perhaps they dimly imagine that contemplative easterners, devoted to vegetarian diets and meditative routines, are immune to such temptations?"

Yes, yes. Atheists and believers alike know that religion has lubricated mass acceptance of misogyny, slavery, and tyranny. But so have secular, non-religious leaders and regimes. Even after reading Hitchens' catalogue of atrocities committed in the name of religion, I am still unconvinced that religion, in and of itself, is the problem.

Fundamentalism, not religion per se, is the real culprit. Hitchens confuses the part for the whole: not all believers are fundamentalists. In fact, most of us aren't. Believe it or not, for all of his influence in creating the "religious right" as a formidable political force, even the late Jerry Falwell did not represent all evangelical Christians (those who consider themselves "born-again" and embrace a personal relationship with Jesus). Millions continued to find Tinky Winky of the children's program Teletubbies adorable despite Falwell's trashing of the character's gender-bending, and cringed when he blamed political liberals for September 11. Millions of evangelicals today defiantly align themselves with the political left, are appalled by religious attempts to control their votes, and want nothing to do with the Bush administration's hypocritical born-again political agendas.

Likewise, when the Ayatollah Khomeini put a hit on novelist Salman Rushdie, the ayatollah did not speak for all Muslims. (Hitchens once had Rushdie spend the weekend in his Washington apartment, an act of bravery and friendship; Hitchens and his family consequently became potential targets themselves.) Over 97 percent of U.S. Catholics reject the Vatican's ban on contraception. And let's face it: how many Jews support "metzitzah b'peh," a disgusting act committed by very few ritual circumcisers that involves sucking off the foreskin with the mouth?

Using these examples and others like them, Hitchens bases his argument on the lowest common denominator. But millions of believers wrestle with their faiths and don't take doctrine at face value. Around the world, there is a growing movement of devout women across religious lines standing up for their rights. Many of them call themselves "feminists"; others avoid the term like they wish Eve had spurned the serpent's fruit. No matter what you call them, these are women who want to maintain their tradition, only make it better. They are Catholics --including nuns, supposedly the most obedient of the faithful-- active in the movement for women's ordination; evangelicals who reject the "headship" belief, traced to the New Testament, that husbands should rule over their wives; Orthodox Jews who find no obstacle in Jewish law to women's ordination or reading the Torah in synagogue; and Muslim women who refuse to pray behind the men in mosque and who denounce last year's attempt in Ontario to adopt sharia-based law to settle Muslim family disputes.

Feminists certainly don't have a monopoly on religious dissent. Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong titled his 1998 call for reformation Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Every faith and denomination is confronted with supporters of gay rights. And as the pope reminded us last week, liberation theology --which fuses religious belief with social action for the poor-- is alive and well in Latin America.

To Hitchens, religion is all theology, all the time. But one of the main reasons that religious feminists, gay-rights activists, and others refuse to leave their faiths is that theology isn't always what it's all about. In fact, mainline Protestantism and Conservative and Reform Judaism are often derided for not adhering to traditional doctrine. Religion offers community, a framework in which to celebrate lifecycle events and mourn loss of life, distinctive recipes, and a code of values for moral living, among many other positive things.

We all know that religion often leads to oppression. But instead of ditching their faith, millions of believers are doing something much more challenging and worthwhile: working on reform. Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and tireless lecturer and writer, asked 3,000 Catholics assembled in Milwaukee last November celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the reform organization Call To Action: Why should Catholics speak up for reform? Her thunderous answer was that "What happens in the world and in the Church does not depend on God. It depends on us. It is not God's fault if things we have done already do not change. It is our fault!... We cannot blame God for what we do not do to save ourselves." Whether or not God is great is not the issue. Reforming our institutions, including but not limited to our religious ones, is the task before us.