I haven’t always been an admirer of Christopher Hitchens, but I became one during my stay in Saudi Arabia. Prior to my time in purgatory Riyadh, I had been rather indifferent towards religious beliefs and found outspoken atheists such as Hitchens and Richard Dawkins to be unnecessarily vicious and in a sense hypocritical. At the time, I saw their attempts to push their belief system (atheism) onto others as being equally offensive to the proselytization undertaken by fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.
But living in Saudi Arabia changed all that. I was anything but a religious person before I moved there, but I refrained from labeling myself an “atheist.” I used to enjoy stating that I was a “gnostic,” having redefined the term in a manner that made it the antithesis to agnostic. I saw agnostics as being somewhat cowardly and atheists as being too dogmatic. Instead, I called myself a “gnostic,” based on the Buddhist-inspired notion that everything one needs to know about existence can be found within oneself and within one’s immediate surroundings. My use of the label gnostic was further influenced by my extensive readings of the Gnostic Christian texts found in the Nag Hammadi Library, particularly the Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas, for those who may not be aware, is a collection of 113 sayings attributed to the historical Jesus. This Jesus has nothing to say about being a deity, or the son of a deity, but instead imparts revelations along the lines of “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you and all around you,” and “what you look forward to has already come, but you do not see it.” An enormous breath of fresh air after being raised in a fundamentalist, Protestant household.
Being unwilling to label myself either an atheist or an agnostic, I found people’s obsession with labels to be somewhat frustrating. I have always preferred discussing the ideas and principles behind the words, but unfortunately many people I’ve encountered become so caught up in labels they ignore these larger issues. So, for instance, a conversation about a belief in god eventually becomes nothing more than an argument about labels:
“So you’re an atheist.”
“No, I’m not an atheist. I’m not willing to say that.”
“So you’re agnostic.”
“No, because being agnostic is a cop-out.”
“So you’re atheist!”
Now as I mentioned earlier, living in Saudi Arabia changed all of this. I saw firsthand the damage that is caused by fundamentalist religious beliefs. I witnessed a nation enslaved by a primitive set of laws devised more than 1,400 years ago, in the midst of the Dark Ages. Men and women are completely segregated; women are virtual slaves, covered from head to toe in black, in the blistering desert sun, not allowed to venture outside the home without a male relative to accompany them. People are beheaded in a public square for crimes as trivial as apostasy; men and women are stoned to death for committing the ghastly offense of adultery.
Living in such an environment drew me to the atheist polemics of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and I hungrily consumed both god is not Great and The God Delusion. I re-watched the documentary “Jesus Camp” and had flashbacks to my own fundamentalist upbringing, and suddenly I was not just prepared to call myself an atheist, but genuinely excited to do so.
Religion is a parasite that has plagued the human species for at least as long as written records have existed. It is a remnant of our primitive and barbaric past, and it is high time that we as a society recognize it as such and leave it permanently behind in our evolutionary nursery, along with our stone tools, bows and arrows and earth-centric views on the universe.
Which brings me back to Hitchens. Although I do not agree with every stance held by Hitchens, I am a great admirer of the work he has done battling the illness that is religion. And so it greatly saddened me when I learned that Hitchens had developed esophageal cancer, and that he, quite likely, did not have many months left on this earth.
Since his discovery that he had cancer some three months ago, Hitchens has continued to write his regular column for Vanity Fair, and the three since that grim discovery have been among his best. His latest, “Tumortown,” details the heartbreaking ups and downs he has experienced thus far in his improbable quest for a cure, and concludes with the outrageous realization that the most promising avenue for future treatments – stem cell research – has been hindered yet again by Christian fundamentalists. To quote Hitchens:
“These embryos [those left over from in-vitro fertilization] are going nowhere as it is. But now religious maniacs strive to forbid even their use, which would help what the same maniacs regard as the unformed embryo’s fellow humans! The politicized sponsors of this pseudo-scientific nonsense should be ashamed to live, let alone die. If you want to take part in the “war” against cancer, and other terrible maladies too, then join the battle against their lethal stupidity.”
A potentially effective treatment – perhaps even a cure – for the most brutal epidemic facing humankind today is hindered simply because one particular religious group has decided, based on a 2,000-year-old belief system, that a blob of reproductive cells is more important than the millions killed by cancer each and every year. And that, folks, is just one example of many of the disease of religion casting its grim shadow across humanity. The sooner we can shed this hideous vestige of our past, the better for all.