By TOM KRATTENMAKER
I’ve always wondered if Christopher Hitchens — he of militant atheism, religion-poisons-everything fame — would soften his anti-religion heart if he had a glimpse of the kinder, brighter face of faith emerging here in “Jesus’ favorite city.” I found out this month when Hitchens came to speak in Portland and engaged with some of the city’s religious leaders before and after his well-attended lecture at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Hitchens’ verdict could not have been clearer or more damning: More rubbish!
And the feeling, from all appearances, was mutual.
A native of Great Britain, Hitchens is a Washington-based writer on politics and culture and author of the best-selling 2007 tome “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” By virtue of that book and his frequent speaking and media appearances, Hitchens has become the unofficial leader of the pack of militant anti-religionists whose books and barbs have shaken up the religion debates.
Progressive Jews, Muslims and Christians have generally found themselves in agreement with much of Hitchens’ criticism against hostile and violent forms of religion. But they’ve bristled at his commitment to lumping in their nuanced, compassion-focused faith with the kind of “religion” that blows up innocents and protects child-molesting priests.
What better place than Portland for Hitchens to finally see the pieces of the picture he’s managed to miss? There has been a growing national buzz about the service-first, love-your-neighbor form of faith modeled by Portland’s most visible Christians, a phenomenon all the more fascinating given the region’s reputation as a great unchurched mecca. Some have even taken to calling Portland “Jesus’ favorite city” — with a wink, but also with a confidence that there’s something to it.
This is, after all, the home of the hugely respected liberal theologian Marcus Borg, whose books on Jesus are enough to make a secularly inclined progressive think twice before dismissing this Christianity thing. This is where edgy pastors such as Rick McKinley and Bob Hyatt have launched thriving congregations in a rented high school auditorium and beer hall, respectively. This is the place where famed evangelist Luis Palau has followed the lead of his son, Kevin, and launched the nationally emulated Season of Service.
This is what “poisons everything,” as Hitchens would have it?
Portland Monthly set the table for his visit, featuring a spread in its January issue on Portland’s liberal and emergent Christians and a conversation/debate between Hitchens and Marilyn Sewell, a recently retired minister from Portland’s First Unitarian Church and a national voice for liberal religion.
In his encounter with Sewell, and in further exchanges with Sewell, Borg and others at a dinner organized by the magazine and Literary Arts, Hitchens wasn’t buying it. Any of it.
Dismissing Sewell’s explanation of her nonliteral Christianity, Hitchens sounded like a Christian fundamentalist in letting her know: “You’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.” Reacting to Borg’s grateful descriptions of his several mystical experiences, Hitchens doubted they were anything uniquely religious, anything distinct from the rapture one can experience in the presence of beautiful music or poetry.
After listening to Rev. T. Allen Bethel of Maranatha Church of God wax passionate on ways spiritual music and the Bible have sustained African Americans, Hitchens tossed off a fragment from the poetry of Shelley. He then informed the African American pastor that Shelley’s lines provided uplift superior to “any of that Gospel stuff.”
I asked the guest of honor a question of my own: If he held religion accountable for the hideous deeds committed in its name, wasn’t Hitchens likewise obliged to concede a measure of credit for the uplifting, compassionate acts of its followers?
No, Hitchens responded. Anything good done in the name of religion isn’t really religious, he said. There’s always an analogous (and superior) principle to be drawn from humanism, in which he irrevocably places his faith. Hitchens states plainly that his dyed-in-the-wool atheism is the rock on which his writing is built — his political work as well as his polemics on religion. Understanding that his atheism is indeed his starting point — his first principle — one begins to see a circularity in his argument.
Hitchens has apparently set up a dynamic that makes religion an absorber of blame and a reflector of credit. Never mind what a religious doer might claim as his or her inspiration and motivation. Good deeds committed in the name of faith cannot be religious, because religion is bad and capable only of bad.
As the dinner was winding down, Hitchens made one of his most accurate assertions: When it comes to “true believers,” he said, there’s just no reasoning with them.
True believers? Hitchens may be one of the truest I’ve yet to meet.
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of the USA TODAY board of contributors. He is the author of the new book, “Onward Christian Athletes,” about religion in professional sports.