Friday, August 27, 2010

Hitchens: Religion, Dr. King,, and the Civil Rights Movement

In God is not Great Christopher Hitchens attempts to explode the notion that religion causes people to do good things. The chapter entitled "Does Religion Make People Behave Better?" looks at the story of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the United States. While King was a religious man and used biblical imagery in his speeches, especially the story of Moses and the liberation of the oppressed people of Israel from their Egyptian masters, "the examples King gave from the books of Moses were, fortunately for all of us, metaphors and allegories."

While employing biblical rhetoric to inspire his followers, King was trying to throw off the "heavy burden" of southern Christian racism:

The southern churches returned to their old ways after Reconstruction, and blessed the new institutions of segregation and discrimination. It was not until after the Second World War and the spread of decolonization and human rights that the cry for emancipation was raised again. In response, it was again very forcefully asserted (on American soil, in the second half of the twentieth century) that the discrepant descendants of Noah were not intended by god to be mixed. This barbaric stupidity had real-world consequences. The late Senator Eugene McCarthy told me that he had once urged Senator Pat Robertson - father of the present television prophet - to support some mild civil rights legislation. "I'd sure like to help the colored," came the response, "but the Bible says I can't." The entire sefl-definition of the south was that it was white, and Christian. This is exactly what gave Dr. King his moral leverage, because he could outpreach the rednecks. But the heavy burden would never have been laid upon him if religiosity had not been so deeply entrenched to begin with.

Hitchens points out an interesting fact about the people around Reverend King:

As [King biographer] Taylor Branch shows, many of King's inner circle and entouraage were secular Communists and socialists who had been manuring the ground for a civil rights movement for several decades and helping train brave volunteers like Mrs. Rosa Parks for a careful strategy of mass disobedience, and these "atheistic" associations were to be used against King all the time, especially from the pulpit. Indeed, one result of his campaign was to generate the "backlash" of white right-wing Christianity which is still such a potent force below the Mason-Dixon line.

Hitchens concludes:

Anybody, therefore, who uses the King legacy to justify the role of religion in public life must accept all the corollaries of what they seem to be implying. Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out the best. The chance that someone's secular or freethinking opinion would cause him or her to denounce the whole injustice was extremely high. The chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small. But the chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to uphold slavery was statistically extremely high, and the latter fact helps us to understand why the victory of simple justice took so long to bring about.

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