Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Riding Coattails on Religion

Apparently Peter Hitchens is trying to ride the coattails of his brother's success, with his own book in support of religion. I haven't read it, but unless this is a really bad paraphrase of his ideas I don't expect that it would be worth my time:
When it comes to his brother's blast against God, he makes a number of points. On the "good without God" question, he argues that morality must make an absolute demand on you, so that even though you constantly fail to reach its high standards, you are not able to ignore it, as he believes people and politicians now do every day: witness everything from common rudeness to the suspension of Habeas Corpus. If there are no laws that even kings must obey, no-one is safe.
It's difficult to imagine that Hitchens, being British, is that ignorant of the history of monarchy. Belief in God is convenient when it explains why a particular "royal family" is on the throne - God's will - and I suppose no shortage of monarchs have believed that to be true. But who, absent perhaps a few members of the House of Windsor, presently believes that?

Meanwhile, over the course of history, how well did religion do in reigning in excess by the various kings, queens, princes, and potentates of Europe? For all of its faults, would Hitchens not concede that modern secular rule is not objectively superior in pretty much every respect?

How did we come to have the right of habeas corpus? Does Hitchens believe that an angel appeared before King John, handed him a divinely scripted Magna Carta, and that King John signed it out of his respect for God's will thereby beginning the transformation of habeas corpus from the right of the king to a right belonging to the people? (King John... another glorious example of the divine right of Kings.) What sort of alternate history does Hitchens embrace, and is it available in something other than comic book form?

Hitchens truly believes that prior to the 1960's, people were nicer and more honest because they feared eternal damnation? No surprise, before the 1950's Hitchens was a child. I recently read a commentary taking a somewhat tongue-in-cheek perspective on the various laments about how awful the world is, pointing out that in each case the speaker was reminiscing of the warm and wonderful world they enjoyed when they were pre-adolescent children. I think there's a bit more to the nostalgia than that, even if "the good old days weren't always good", but the shoe very often fits.

In any event, history is replete with kings, queens, lords, ladies, titans of industry, and others who professed to worship God yet lived lives of cruelty and debauchery. Despite the flaws of modern society and government, and the parallels between modern leaders and those of history, I can't join with Hitchens (at least as paraphrased) in nostalgia for a past that was often dismal to dreadful for ordinary people.

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