TCSDaily seems to be on a real tear against Christopher Hitchens’ book-length jeremiad against religion: The lastest attack there blasts Hitch for neglecting to grapple with the theological ideas of some of his favorite literary giants. He says not a word, for instance, about Shakespeare’s Iago as a critique of atheism.
What’s that you say? You hadn’t especially noticed that Iago was presented as a critique of atheism? Well, you see, he’s an amoral sociopath, and atheism leads people to be amoral sociopaths. Duh. I’m not sure whether to be more appalled at the vacuity of the argument or the reduction of one of the Bard’s most interesting characters to some sort of shallow parody.
Dostoevsky, by contrast, can indeed be read as a critic of atheism; it’s just that the critique isn’t a very good one. Consider this “send-up,” which purportedly “exposes the self-delusion of the atheistic revolutionaries who presume themselves bold and more intelligent that the God-fearing around them”:
I mean, we know, for example, the superstition about God derived from thunder and lightning . . . It’s only too well known that primitive man, terrified by thunder and lightning, deified his invisible enemy, conscious of his own weakness with regard to them.
This is meant to show that “dismissal of religious faith as something that arises from primitive fear and ignorance of the workings of nature is not clever or new. ” Perhaps not. But as an account of the origins of religious explanation, it’s also, you know, true. It doesn’t become less so for being put in the mouth of a silly fictional character.
Addendum: The definite article in that penultimate sentence was probably ill advised: Obviously, religion has many “origins” and serves many functions. But equally obviously, a large part of its appeal is its claim to explain aspects of the natural world, and of human existence, that primitive peoples had no other means of investigating. The openly expressed fear of creationists that the teaching of evolution will undermine religious faith is grounded in a recognition of just how important this explanatory factor still is in cementing people’s convictions. It’s not some kind of massive coincidence that the major religions (arguably excepting Buddhism) all contain such origin stories.