From the combox a quote from Christopher Hitchens:
“Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody…had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion… and one would like to think… that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.”
Hitchens was a good and passionate writer, and I always rather liked him better than Dawkins. Hitchens was a gruff, hard drinking, hard smoking character who was likable in a manly disagreeable way. Dawkins always comes across as a querulous, fussy and petty person.
Nevertheless, Hitchens’ comment illustrates how the atheist’s attack on religion is rather like the color blind person’s critique of art.
He begins with a total red herring, “Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody…had the smallest idea what was going on.” Yes and no. They didn’t know how to do open heart surgery and make iPhones and they didn’t have the scientific knowledge we now have, but they were certainly just as smart as we are, but smart in other ways and about other things. I expect they understood the natural world in a way that was different than scientific knowledge. Indeed, if Christopher Hitchens were plopped down in the primeval forest ten thousand years ago with our ancient ancestors and asked to survive for forty eight hours I expect they would be saying that he didn’t have the smallest idea what was going on.
He goes on revealing his total misunderstanding of what religion is all about: “It (religion) comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs).”
His chronological snobbery is incredible. Why does he suppose that modern man is not in need of comfort, reassurance and knowledge and that there were not people in primitive times who got along quite nicely without any extra comfort, reassurance and knowledge? Had he met a tribal warrior in the primeval jungle who was about to spear him and eat him for dinner I doubt whether Mr Hitchens would have recognized someone who was suffering from an infantile need for reassurance and comfort. In fact people then and people now are pretty much the same deep down. Some need knowledge, reassurance and comfort. Some do not.
The point is, these needs (or the lack of them) are not the reason for the development of religion. Instead human beings–both ancient and modern–sense that there is something else “out there.” They see the beautiful, ordered world around them and deduce that there is a mind behind the order and beauty. Within the human heart (whether it is in need of reassurance and comfort or not) there is a religious instinct.
Human beings are not so much homo sapiens as homo orans. Finally, Hitchens makes the common sophomoric mistake of thinking that the primitive religious quest was about knowledge, reassurance and comfort. This is because modern Christianity is mostly about knowledge, reassurance and comfort. Has Hitchens actually studied the primitive religions he pontificates about?
There was not much knowledge in them at all. Primitive religions are not about theology or philosophy or arguments for the existence of a Triune Deity. There is no theodicy or argumentation. Neither is there much reassurance and comfort. The primitive religions were attempts of frightened human beings to placate gods who were irrational, capricious, cruel and unpredictable. There was little reassurance from a god who demanded human sacrifice. There was little comfort from a god who was as likely to consume you as he was to bless you. Only a partially educated, elitist, intellectual and cultural snob like Hitchens write such a thing.
The idea that religion could provide knowledge, reassurance and comfort was a much, much later development. Even the earliest teachings of the Christian church did not offer much in the way of knowledge, reassurance and comfort. Jesus Christ was not your buddy who walks with you the beach and has golden hair and cuddles little lambkins. He was, instead, the fearsome judge of all–the King of the Universe and the Almighty Son of the Father. Neither was God the Father the warm and cozy, kindly sort of Colonel Sanders in the sky we modern soft Christians have imagined. He too was the Lord God–the Creator–to whom one day you would have to give account.
Finally, Hitchens makes the mistake most atheists make in concluding that because we have advanced scientific knowledge of the natural world and advanced technological achievement that we are therefore advanced in everything else. It only takes a brief look at one medieval cathedral or a cursory study of the knowledge of the ancient world to realize that we may be smart where they were dumb, but they were very smart and accomplished in areas about which we are totally stupid.
The key area in which we moderns are hopelessly dumb is in the realm of spirituality and religious knowledge.
Not only are we stupid, but we exhibit the mark of all stupid people by being scornful about that which we are ignorant.
An atheist like Hitchens is not only like the color blind man in an art gallery, he’s like a color blind man in an art gallery who thinks all the pictures are stupid and should be destroyed.