Sunday, December 30, 2007

On Tolerance: Christopher Hitchens and "God is Not Great"

The title of a book I'm currently working on is (something like) "Toward a More Tolerant Constitution - Of, By, and For the People" basically arguing that governmental TOLERANCE of individual rights is a (if not the) core animating principle of the U.S. Constitution.

In a related context, Christopher Hitchens hits the nail on the head in his 2007 National Book Award finalist, "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (one of my holiday wish-list books):

"[T]he mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did. Still less can they hope to tell us the 'meaning' of later discoveries and developments which were, when they began, either obstructed by their religions or denounced by them.

And yet - the believers still claim to know! Not just to know, but to know everything. Not just to know that god exists, and that he created and supervised the whole enterprise, but also to know what 'he' demands of us - from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality. In other words, in a vast and complicated discussion where we know more and more about less and less, yet can still hope for some enlightenment as we proceed, one faction - itself composed of mutually warring factions - has the sheer arrogance to tell us that we already have all the essential information we need...."

"[F]aith ... is the beginning - but not the end - of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning - but by no means the end - of all disputes about the good life and the just city. Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.

"For this reason, I would not prohibit [religious faith] even if I could. Very generous of me, you may say. But will the religious grant me the same indulgence? I ask because there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it. I would be quite content to go to their children's bar mitsvahs, to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to 'respect' their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations.

"And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition - which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing. As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments.... Religion poisons everything."

How, then, does this passage from Hitchens' new book relate to my own book project? It relates in that the U.S. Constitution was specifically designed as nothing more than a device to prevent others, who claim to know everything under the guise of governmental authority, from destroying all "the hard-won human attainments," whether they be matters of religious freedom of the sort Hitchens speaks, or, more broadly, other precious individual liberties. As Justice Brandeis said in 1928, “The makers of our Constitution … conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone - the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”

In other words, so long as my beliefs and actions cause no direct harm to others, the Constitution requires the government to "respect" - i.e., to tolerate - those beliefs and actions; in short, any law, regulation, or other government action that fails to so tolerate me and my beliefs and actions is unconstitutional.

The religious focus of Hitchens' book is relevant as well in light of the increasingly dominant - and inappropriate - role religion has come to play in American politics. For evidence, we need only look so far as the disastrous courses on which our evangelical president has steered the nation largely on the basis of his own religious dead-reckoning; and sadly, if the groveling comments toward the religious right of most of the current presidential candidates are any indication, it appears the situation is not soon to change. If this is so, it will be all the more incumbent upon ordinary Americans to speak out loudly and forcefully in protection of the hard-won constitutional liberties.