Last week there was a debate at the New York Public Library under the curious title "Is God Great?" Representing the case for the non-greatness of God was Christopher Hitchens, who just published the anti-religion tract God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Representing billions of believers worldwide was Rev. Al Sharpton, the preacher and civil rights bon vivant. Like many advocates whose passion derives primarily from anger, Hitchens is a formidable opponent in a debate. Sharpton managed to land a couple of punches, but Soren Kierkegaard would've swatted Hitchens like a fly.
Hitchins' thesis is pretty simple, and it rests on a stubborn common sense. The concept of God originated in a period of human history when people have no other means to explain natural phenomena, so it's illogical to continue to believe in God in a scientific age. But Michael Kingsley observes, "it sometimes seems as if existence is just one of the bones Hitchens wants to pick with God -- and not even the most important." What really irks Hitchens is the mayhem believers in God are causing throughout the world, from rioting over some cartoons in a Danish newspaper to using deceitful tactics to get Creationism taught in American public schools. One could add the legacy of Jerry Falwell to this dismal catalog.
One of Sharpton's main objections was that one cannot conflate the idea of God with the actions of some of his believers. Sharpton flashed his wit by reminding Hitchens that he subscribes to some misbegotten beliefs himself, declaring, "any man that at this point has faith that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has more faith than any religious person I know." However, Sharpton ran aground on the assertion that without the existence of God we couldn't make ethical decisions--that if God is dead, then everything is allowed. Slavoj Zizek likes to cite Lacan's inversion of this position: if God is dead, then nothing is permitted. We now have to make up our own minds, and there are prohibitions everywhere--"The Father, or worse" as Kafka had it. We're free to commit the sin of gluttony, but everywhere we turn there are warnings about how the food we eat will either make us fat or kill us, most likely both. One cannot order a Wendy's triple cheeseburger without a sense of shame that is more troublesome than the ire of a minister. It was a lot simpler when we had Leviticus to tell us what we could and couldn't eat.
It's unfortunate that Sharpton reverted to a very conventional view of the ethical, because it is in the ethical dimension that Hitchens' argument is really focused. There's no better crutch, no better alibi for one's own actions, than absolute authority. There is such a thing as the evil of excessive good. But Hitchens' insistence that God is somehow in the actions of his believers and in religious texts could readily be answered with Kierkegaard's radical desubstantialization of God, a repudiation of Hegel's "Spirit is a bone." In a journal entry Kierkegaard stated simply, God is "beyond the order of Being." Absurdity is written into the entire relationship with a divine other, which is why Either/Or, that testimony to human anguish, rings with the laughter of the gods.
(Thanks to Andrew for calling my attention to the Hitchens/Sharpton debate.)