Testament to the power and mastery of a movie that, nearly 60 years on, still feels as modern, complex and cutting-edge as any film released…
From Marty Carpnter in Lititz PA:
I'm writing to say how disappointed I was when I read your near-worshipful journal entry on Christopher Hitchens. I'm sorry about his illness and I hope he gets better. But I can't admire him, and his being ill doesn't change that. I've only read one article by Hitchens, and it destroyed any urge I might have to read more. It was a piece about Mel Gibson, and although Gibson's bigotry was no surprise to me, what did strike me was Hitchens' own intolerance toward the Catholic Church, which he is apparently still blaming for the Crusades, the Inquisition and what he perceives as collaboration with the Nazis. (That last item is still being disputed, but you'd never know it from Hitchens' article.) He doesn't blame Gibson's bigotry on personality issues or on a possibly abusive parent, both of which are probably major factors. Instead, Hitchens places the blame firmly on Gibson's religion, which isn't even representative of modern Catholicism. Hitchens reviles the whole Church anyway, and in my book that makes him as much of a bigot as Gibson. (I thought it was funny that he would become a citizen of a nation which had slaughtered and uprooted Native Americans, and enslaved Africans, but apparently those peccadilloes pale in comparison to the Inquisition. He doesn't seem to mind this country's strong religious roots, either, even though one colony was actually founded by Catholics.)
Hitchens uses the word "gauleiter" to describe Gibson, and I had to look it up. Hitchens may have been thinking of Nazis, but the broader definition of "an arrogant and overbearing person" could have been created for Hitchens himself. I can gather little evidence that he is a nice person, to paraphrase something you wrote about Coco Chanel. He does seem to be quite a showman--the Billy Sunday of the anti-religion crowd. I have seen him described as an "intellectual bully" who encourages other people's freedom of expression so that he can have the fun of demolishing their opinions. I've read that he wants to be called an anti-theist rather than a plain old atheist. He thinks he can take down God, no less. How does this man get his head through doorways? Somehow, I suspect God will be going strong when Hitchens is a vague memory.
You applaud Hitchens for still avoiding religion in the face of death (although he already seems to be making excuses for possible moments of weakness). Why are you so impressed by that? It's not as if he was being tortured and killed for his beliefs (like, say, Jesus Christ). Or do you think God is figuratively waterboarding him to get a confession of faith? It's more likely that his fellow intellectuals would crucify him for saying he DID believe in God. And it's not as if he has more FACTS about God and the afterlife than anyone else. Death isn't The Great Unknown for nothing. Hitchens mentions "irrationality" as something he's not normally guilty of and wants to avoid at all costs. LOL. It always cracks me up when people, usually male, describe themselves as perfectly rational; they're only kidding themselves. You too seem to want to see everything in terms of rational, preferably scientific explanations; you make a fine pair of Gradgrinds. I doubt if you'd enjoy a purely rational world even in the unlikely case that you found one. As a professional malcontent, Hitchens would probably have to find something to attack. You wouldn't be able to find any purely rational movies and would go into withdrawal.
Like Hitchens, lots of ordinary people face terrible health problems with courage and dignity. Unlike Hitchens, they face death and suffering without calling attention to themselves (and without similar financial resouces to deal with the medical bills). Some of these folks are even "religious". Where is your praise for them? A short time ago, a Mennonite doctor from my area was shot and killed in Afghanistan, where he was part of a mission of mercy. Why don't you blog about people like that? I think it's because you don't like people displaying their faith, in spite of your faint praise of the "rare" people who actuallly live their faiths. I came to the conclusion that you wrote about Hitchens' situation because his views on religion coincided with your own. Taking advantage of someone's suffering to promote your own views on religion--isn't that what you accused Ben Stein of doing? And didn't it fill you with contempt?
Considering your righteous indignation when Stein tried to claim Darwinism "inspired" Nazism, where do you get off making a statement like "religion in its many forms has been the greatest single inspiration for man's inhumanity to man"? Are you practicing incendiary remarks in preparation for taking up Hitchens' anti-religion mantle? You could easily and more accurately have said that religion has been used as an excuse for all sorts of terrible things. People have never needed "inspiration" to be cruel to other people. Sometimes the plain fact of other-ness is enough to cause it. You yourself state that some "religious" people's actions don't agree with the actual tenets of their religions. So why blame the religions? You can't be forced to join any of them. Why such venom?
A good plot for a science-fiction movie would be about an alternate universe where religion had never existed. But it would take a computer to delete every reference to religion from history, and even the most powerful computer couldn't identify everything that was influenced by religion. The recent film "The Invention of Lying" claimed to show such a place and failed miserably. It started with the silly premise that mankind could have lived for countless millennia without ever learning to lie, and that the "inventor" of lying was not a bold, bad player looking out for Number One, but a sweet-natured middle-aged nerd who Used His Power For Good. In your review you seemed rather taken with the film's treatment of religion as a comforting fiction (hardly a new charge) and wondered if audiences realized the "implications" of what they were watching. Some other reviewers thought the film itself ignored these implications. The Village Voice reviewer (hardly a religious zealot) wondered what important event the movie's 13th century (identical to our own) had been dated from, if Christianity had never existed. He accused the film of "smug secularism" and noted that "The casual introduction suggests you shouldn't think too hard about the premise's inconsistencies, but maybe the filmmakers should've thought harder." They, and you, don't want to admit how religion in its many forms permeates Western culture.
You probably would like to date things Before & After Darwin, but how do you know when Darwin would have come up with any theories, if he was ever born at all? (What if his parents had met in church, God forbid?) In Western society, schools were first started by churches and then gradually became secularized. One in particular I noted was Oxford's Balliol College, officially founded In the Year of Our Lord 1263 at the request of the (Catholic) Bishop of Durham. The college had strong clerical ties for centuries and still apparently owns the livings of various parishes. Among Balliol's alumni have been John Wycliffe, famous Bible translator, and Christopher Hitchens. Imagine that. The Catholic-hater owes his alma mater to the Catholic church.
You say someone would've started schools eventually, but who, and when? Whose agendas would have been promoted? Perhaps those of the strong-men who had clawed their way to power and would do anything to keep that power. (I don't buy into "social contracts" because contracts can be broken if the "fittest" party is strong enough to get away with it.) Imagine a whole world resembling Communist China or the Soviet Union, and without the internet to boot. How long would it take radical ideas such as democracy and individual freedom to take hold in such a society? The idea of a Creator who endowed all men with certain unalienable rights, for instance, would be missing from that world.
Incidentally, which religion was it that inspired the Communist atrocities in the last century? And the drug cartels, whose god do they worship? Which religious principles are invoked by the leader of North Korea? I have heard claims that Hitler thought he was practicing Christianity, but he thought a lot of things that weren't so, and warped everything he touched. I remember my college history professors telling us to "distrust the single cause" because nothing in history is that simple. Even so-called "religious conflicts" such as those in Ireland and the Mideast are about a lot more than religion. Politics and economics generally trump religion as causes of war. I recently re-read your review of the movie "Luther", which showed the princes of Germany standing up for the Protestant faith against the Pope and their own Emperor. You quite correctly mentioned that the princes had powerful political motives for defying Rome, and Luther's rebellion was a convenient rationale. You don't want religion to get credit for admirable deeds, but you blame it for terrible ones. Why won't you admit to all the non-religious factors that influence people for evil, as well as for good? (And whose ideas of good and evil are they, anyway?)
Besides, people are prone to mis-interpret and mis-use ideas, religous and otherwise--even your precious Darwin's. From your review of "Rabbit Proof Fence", about the relocation of mixed-breed aboriginal children based on the social-Darwinist theories of the government offiicial played by Kenneth Branagh: "That Australians could have accepted thinking such as his, and indeed based government policy on it, indicates the sorry fact that many of them thought aborigines were a step or two down the evolutionary ladders from modern Europeans." You wouldn't say that means Darwin's theories inspire racism, would you? Religous principles can be twisted the same way, sometimes unknowingly and sometimes deliberately to meet desired ends. There's a bumper sticker that says, "When Jesus said to love your enemies, he didn't mean kill them." Or torture them, either. Obviously the Bush/Cheney government chose to ignore that small detail about their religion. Bush's religion, anyway. Cheney's religious credo seems to be "Anything is OK as long as WE'RE doing it." (Apparently Christopher Hitchens agrees.)
I could state with some justification that practically all atrociites are dreamed up and committed by males. Some scientists even say that males are "hard-wired" for aggression, which could lead to violence. Thus I could conclude that males are the single greatest source of man's inhumanity to man. I might even bring up "Inglourious Basterds" in which history was altered not so much to avoid barbarism but to provide more of it. (Why didn't QT kill off Neville Chamberlain i& have Churchill made PM earlier, if he really wanted to save people from Hitler? Because then he wouldn't have had an excuse for his own special brand of gore, which is not usually a result of humane actions.) You would not be buying it, just as I am not buying your claims about religion. The reviewer at Salon.com quoted a character in "The Invention of Lying" whose comment might unwittingly be the rallying cry for anti-religious sentiment. The hero's rival tells him that "I've always been threatened by you because there are things about you that I can't understand....And I hate things I can't understand."
After reading your Hitchens entry, I needed an antidote to all the anti-religious virulence. I found a quote by Canadian author David Adams Richards from his book "God Is." He remarks that there has been a tendency among liberals to think that a belief in God can't go hand-in-hand with intelligence and education. Richards is a Catholic and he acknowledges the failings of his Church, but stands up for his faith: "... if Tom Hanks can save the world from Catholicism every two years, I can remind myself that there is still much good in my religion. If Bill Maher can tell me my faith is silly, I can at least answer and say it is not. If Christopher Hitchens can courageously take on Mother Teresa or declare the Ten Commandments meaningless – as if he bore false witness in any other universe he wouldn't be known for exactly who he was – I can at least say I disagree, and face the ridicule if I have to." His words moved me to take my own stand, however you may despise me for it.
Now THAT's inspiration.
Ebert: I do not despise you. Anyone who knows what he believes and defends it eloquently has my admiration.
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