Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Christmas Slash Hanukkah Essay

I enjoy unfair invective. Other people's, I mean. I would never dream of being unfair. I have too much integrity for anything like that. Perish the thought. I should sully this temple of righteousness with the slimy serpent bile of wrath? I laugh the very idea to derision. Ha, ha, I say, and ha again. Never.

But someone like Christopher Hitchens, sodden with his iniquities, must of course be expected to indulge in such low and shameful practices. And I enjoy it. So when he wrote, several weeks ago, on one of his favorite subjects, religion, it was a spectacle to behold. He's a prominent atheist, you see. Let's take a peek, what? More specifically, let's examine his use of the only asset to which he can honestly lay claim in his attack on faith: logic.

"High on the list of idiotic commonplace expressions is the old maxim that 'it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.' How do such fatuous pieces of folk wisdom ever get started on their careers of glib quotation? Of course it would be preferable to light a candle than to complain about the darkness. You would only be bitching about the darkness if you didn't have ­a candle to begin with."

Logical? Alas. The point of the maxim is not to lament the lack of candles, or the presence of darkness. It is to point out that sometimes people with candles will still insist on remaining in the dark. How is it that Hitchens misses this elementary point? It surely cannot be merely to link candles, menorahs and Hanukkah with "the imposition of theocratic darkness." Perhaps he's using a bit of rhetorical leverage? -- rather than himself failing to understand self-evident meanings? In which case the failure of intelligence wouldn't be in him, but imputed to us, his readers. Seems a bit rude, don't you think? Surely his invective shouldn't be aimed at us, but at, in this case, the Jews.

Hitchens refers to the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, and how its influence undermined the sundry "reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith" -- Judaism. No logic there, but the indictments are too familiar to need enumeration. The term "reactionary" is instructive, though, of Hitchens' teleological bias, by which he must suppose newer is better -- an Evolutionist to the core, then. Hellenism represents art and science and all things humane, while the Hebrew Maccabees exult in "fundamentalist thuggeries". His grasp of history may not be as thorough as his confidence suggests. Or perhaps it's his understanding of human nature and its need for dignity.

The Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes -- punningly called Epimenes, the "Madman" -- attacked Egypt, then conquered Judah, pillaging the temple and butchering the Jews, making Jerusalem into a garrison and heavily taxing the population. He then set about suppressing religious expression -- approved of, no doubt, by Hitchens -- by outlawing circumcision and the Hebrew scriptures on pain of death, turning the Holy of Holies into a pagan shrine, sacrificing pigs on the alter, forbidding worship on the Sabbath, and so on.

Hitchens may dismiss the Hellenist oppression as he pleases. He is inconsistent in doing so, since he refuses to allow any excuse for the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty that replaced it in Jerusalem. That regime "soon became exorbitantly corrupt, vicious, and divided, and encouraged the Roman annexation of Judea [sic]. Had it not been for this no-less imperial event, we would never have had to hear of Jesus of Nazareth or his sect -- which was a plagiarism from fundamentalist Judaism -- and the Jewish people would never have been accused of being deicidal 'Christ killers.' ... Without the precedents of Orthodox Judaism and Roman Christianity, on which it is based and from which it is borrowed, there would be no Islam, either."

His objection would then be to religion, not to oppression. For shame. His excuse for the oppression is a finger-wave at the future: something worse than oppression happened ... more religion. As I say, teleological. Does he then believe in prophecy after all? -- the insurrectionists should have known, but the dastards went ahead anyway? His logic remains murky, for all the determination of its predicates.

A Jew honors Hanukkah "because it gives his child an excuse to mingle the dreidel with the Christmas tree and the sleigh (neither of these absurd symbols having the least thing to do with Palestine two millenniums past)". Oh. Is that the reason. Well, maybe. Not being a Jew, I wouldn't want to be dogmatic on the matter. I'd like to think there is real faith involved, and the honoring of one's heritage and identity. Perhaps Hitchens knows better though. He thinks he does. I can speak with a bit more authority regarding Christmas trees and sleighs. Hitchens appears befuddled by such symbols. What, he seems to wonder, do coniferous species indigenous to more boreal climes have to do with the Levant? He seems to have rather a literal mind, don't you think so too?

He mocks the Hanukkah miracle. One day's lamp oil lasted for eight days. "Wow! Certain proof, not just of an Almighty, but of an Almighty with a special fondness for fundamentalists. ... Epicurus and Democritus had brilliantly discovered that the world was made up of atoms, but who cares about a mere fact like that when there is miraculous oil to be goggled at by credulous peasants?"

If his point were that multiplied oil is not on a par with, say, the Christmas miracle, Hitchens' levity would have some weight. It isn't a comparison of miracles however with which he concerns himself, but the very possibility of miracles. Oh my. Such an easy target. He's an atheist, you see, who believes that life arises from randomness. The greatest miracle of all. After such a wonder, all things are possible. He should be less free in applying to others such epithets as "credulous peasants". And just to be accurate, Epicurus and Democritus did not discover anything. They supposed it, and assumed it was true, dogmatically. You know, like religion, or atheism.

Regarding public displays of Christmas symbols, Hitchens asserts that the "fierce partisanship of the holly bush and mistletoe believers convicts them of nothing more than ignorance and simple-mindedness. They would have been just as pious under the reign of the Druids or the Vikings, and just as much attached to their bucolic icons." That last may well be true. I think there is a predisposition toward temperamental steadfastness, as there is toward free-thinking. But why is it only the believers who are ignorant for fighting over what is worthless? If such public displays are meaningless, why oppose them? The secularists are just as fiercely partisan, or they could evoke no such passion from the simpletons. He unwittingly charges his own side, and convicts it by his own blindness.

"Everybody knows, furthermore, that there was no moving star in the east, that Quirinius was not the governor of Syria in the time of King Herod, that no worldwide tax census was conducted in that period of the rule of Augustus, and that no 'stable' is mentioned even in any of the mutually contradictory books of the New Testament."

All this is unanswerable. How blind we've been. Now that the clever atheist has pointed these historical facts out, I must wonder how 80 generations of Christians could have been so deluded. Faith is truly a poisonous drug, and toxic to truth and reason. Of course. Of course. The "mutually contradictory books of the New Testament." Of course. But I won't remain enlightened for long. Such is the nature of faith. I will be blinded by it again by the time this sentence reaches its period.

Being blind, he should evoke our compassion. You've heard him, perhaps, on the radio. I like him. He reminds me of an artist I knew in Australia. Dick Larter. Richard. So much so that in the middle of reading Hitchens' article I googled Dick to see if he's still alive, after 25 years. He is. Old, now. Pat's dead, but I knew that. Then I googled my wife, to see if she's alive. She is. Then I emailed my son, to tell him to write to his mom, or to visit her. Then I came back to the article. What are we to do with such partisans? Shoot them in the head? But we want them alive, not dead. Alive and thinking. Thinking more clearly than such shoddy pieces of well-written and poorly-reasoned tripe reveal. What have we to fear from such people? Only the volume of their arguments -- the power of which is nil.

We have nothing to fear. The universe is indeed teleological, working toward a purpose. It will get there regardless of our efforts. This tells us that our actions, though not meaningless, are meaningful, ultimately, only on a human level. But that's the meaning of the universe itself. What else are we to suppose, of a creation in which God himself becomes a man?

Indeed. I never ever say it. But I will say it, this once. Merry Christmas. Easter is more powerful, but we shouldn't neglect beginnings. So, then, happy, happy, happy Christmas. May your light shine always, with an eightfold brightness. May it push back the darkness that no candlelight can pierce.


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