JR'S Free Thought Pages
Belief in Belief
by Christopher Hitchens
Free Inquiry: Jan 2008
A question that interests me very much (and always has) is this: I know that I do not believe in either any god or any religion, and I can give my reasons in a manner that the other side can at least understand, but can the same be said for those who claim that they do believe? A shorter way of putting this is to ask whether our antagonists in this ancient argument truly mean what they appear to say.
The recent disclosure that Mother Teresa had for almost half a century been unable to feel the presence of Christ in the Eucharist or the ear of God listening to her prayers, is of great importance here. (See the recent book of despairing letters, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.) Not even her most fervent admirers regarded this woman in any sense as an intellectual, and she evidently struggled to combat her doubts a highly traditional way—namely, by making ever-more extravagant and even masochistic professions of "faith." This would be superb confirmation of Daniel Dennett’s hypothesis about "belief in belief"— the strange idea that, though faith itself may be ludicrous and incoherent, the mere assertion of it may possess some virtues of its own.
Even though I have sometimes described Mother Teresa as a fraud (for her collusion with rich oppressors of the poor like the Duvalier family in Haiti and for her other corrupt dealings); I would now hesitate to put her in the same category as a Falwell, Haggard, Sharpton or a Robertson. These men have never done a day's real work in their lives and are or were simple parasites who pinch themselves every morning at their good fortune at living the easy life by exploiting the vulnerable and the gullible. For them, religion is nothing more than a trade or a racket.
The same, I think, can be said of the numberless clerics convicted of child-rape (why on earth do we allow ourselves the silly euphemism of "abuse"?). Their foul crime is not one of hypocrisy. No priest who sincerely believed even for ten seconds in divine judgment could conceivably endanger his immortal soul in this way, and those in the hierarchy who helped protect such men from punishment in this world are equally and obviously guilty of a hardened and obscene cynicism.
But the racketeering and exploitative side of religion, as with its no-less-marked tendency to generate ignorance, persecution, wars, atrocities, and repressions, isn't the whole story.
What of those who try their best to help others and lead a decent life, attributing this conduct to their belief in a virgin birth, a prophet, resurrection from the dead, or to the story of Exodus, or any other such fabrication? I never cease to wonder, in dialogues with such people, whether they are really saying what they mean or meaning what they say
To any humanist, for example, it's perfectly obvious that the city of Calcutta would benefit from an influx of volunteer nurses, doctors, inoculators, sewage experts, and others, just as it would not benefit from the attentions of people who regard poverty and death as a second hand share in the "mystery" of the Crucifixion. There are actually quite a good number of activists of the first type (I spent some time there once, watching the great Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado do his work for UNICEF documenting the massive campaign for vaccination against polio), but for some weird reason the only person anyone can name is a woman who spent her entire life campaigning against birth control—a stupid campaign that Bengal most definitely did not and does not need.
Is it not possible that the missionaries of "faith" regard the objects of their charity as mere raw material—human subjects for a tortured experiment in their own psyches? It seems that, the more Mother Teresa lost conviction in the teachings of her religion, the more energetically she silenced her doubts by ostentatious crusades against divorce, abortion, and contraception using "the poorest of the poor" as her backdrop and her excuse. And does this not degrade such work as she actually did? For her, the helpless beggar was just that—helpless, to be sure, yet for that reason easily available for her own exhausting propaganda. The case for assisting starving Bengalis is complete on its own terms, but most of the money raised for the "Missionarie of Charity" went—as Mother Teresa herself happily admitted—to the building of convents that were consecrated, in effect, to her own ambition and her own very extreme teaching of Catholic dogma. This preaching went dead against the only certain cure for poverty—the emancipation of women from the status and condition of breeding machines—that the human race has ever discovered.
In other words, "faith" is at its most toxic and dangerous point not when it is insincere and hypocritical and corrupt but when it is genuine. At that point, its energy of certainty and self-righteousness can be used, not only to reinforce the Church but also (as Mother Teresa’s continuing reputation demonstrates) to impress even the secular. The evidence now is that this is how she and her confessors squared the circle. Repress your misgivings, overcome your despair, re-double your efforts, and we will make you a saint and later claim that you cured the sick even after your death. It’s at this point that the cynical loops round to meet the naive and say anything is permissible as long as it keeps the illusion alive. Again one has to stand amazed before a clergy who can use, as a recruiting sergeant, a wretched old lady whose own faith they well knew, had worn to a husk.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of God Is Not Great.