Hitchens: Hanukkah like, totally sucks. December 6, 2007Posted by Evil Bender in Atheism, Religion, wingnuts.
About a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth (another event that receives semiofficial recognition at this time of the year), the Greek or Epicurean style had begun to gain immense ground among the Jews of Syria and Palestine. The Seleucid Empire, an inheritance of Alexander the Great—Alexander still being a popular name among Jews—had weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith.
Oops. Some of those details are right, but as Chet Scoville points out, Hitchens is glossing over some important details:
By “weaned,” read “banned in favor of the official state religion.” Not that Hitchens wants you to think about that.
Scoville’s interpretation isn’t completely accurate either, as much of the Athenian “religion” was, by that time, more of a community-building exercise. It was certainly Imperialistic in its aims, and religion took a back seat to cultural goals. But the fact remains that they were essentially attempting to force Jews to practice their religion.
Not that Hitchens is all wrong: it’s hard for me to imagine a worse offense then murdering people for the crime of worshipping a different God, which is exactly what the Macabees did. And as Jennifer Hecht explains in Doubt: A History, it’s possible to see those slain Jews as either apostates–in the traditional interpretation–or as martyrs for the cause of doubt, Jews who were attempting to participate in a larger, cosmopolitan culture.
So the first strike against Hitchen’s argument is that things weren’t nearly as clear-cut as they seemed. Offenses to morality were committed on both sides. But what’s worse is Hitchens is unable to distinguish between how Hanukkah is celebrated today and what supposedly happened more than 2000 years ago.
As an atheist, Hitchens must affirm that religion is a human construct that evolves according to human needs. To traditionalists who say, “but that’s not what God meant,” the response is simple: God doesn’t make the rules. Hanukkah provides an ideal demonstration of this phenomenon.It began not as Hitchens claims, with the Maccabees, but earlier, as a winter solstace celebration, Nayrot, that was probably little different from the celebrations of the surrounding cultures of the era. Later, this merged with the celebration of the Maccabees’ victory and became Hanukkah. Six hundreds years after that, as Jewish society had become more theistic and introspective and less militaristic, the supposed supernatural intervention of Yahweh became the most important thing about the holiday– as seen in the newly evolved story of the miracle of the lamps. In the 19th century, Zionists adapted Hanukkah to their nationalistic idea of Judaism. In 20th century America, Hanukkah became, for all intents and purposes, the Jewish Christmas — or more precisely, the secular Jewish alternative to a secular Christmas. In some ways it came full circle — a winter solstace celebration once more — but the millennia of history now attached to it made it all the more rich and more meaningful.
Hanukkah, for the vast majority of Jews–religious and secular–is not about slaughtering people who disagree. And today it has become a secular holiday, more important to non-religious Jews than to the more orthodox sects. In fact, beginning–probably–in the 19th Century, Hanukkah was brought back to prominence by secular Jews who used it as a symbol of their strong and diverse culture even in the midst of oppression and hatred.
If Hitchens wants to condemn Hanukkah’s origin, he could at least have the decency to understand what the holiday means to the vast majority of those who practice it. Instead we get non sequiturs like this:
The display of the menorah at this season, however, has a precise meaning and is an explicit celebration of the original victory of bloody-minded faith over enlightenment and reason. As such it is a direct negation of the First Amendment and it is time for the secularists and the civil libertarians to find the courage to say so.
That’s just embarrassing. Hanukka has a precise meaning because that was one meaning associated it thousands of years ago? Hitchens would be wise to talk to any of the many secular Jews who light the menorah, who could tell him about how Hanukkah has become a symbol of cosmopolitan culture, historical awareness, and community. For the vast majority of its practitioners–this secular Jew included–the meaning of Hanukkah is not fixed just because some people 2000 years ago liked to slaughter each other over which God would get to use their altar.
You’d think Hitchens, who (rightly, in my view) sees religion as a human invention, would welcome the reinterpretation of a sacred tradition into a reflection of humanist values. But that would require nuanced thinking, and Hitchens has repeatedly proved that he is incapable of that.
We’ve got plenty of intelligent, thoughtful atheists out there: it’s too bad that Hitchens, with his reductionist views, belligerent failures of reason and general foolishness has become seen as a spokesperson for atheism.
Tonight I’ll head home and light my Hanukkah candles and for me they will serve as a reminder both of what humans, at their worst, can do to each other, and how much we can overcome through tolerance, respect, love and knowledge.
And if you’re looking for thoughts appropriate to this secular holiday, I’d recommend you pick up The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan, as eloquent a defense of the principles of reason and science as one could ask for, and a work by a great secular thinker who understood why rationality was important. I guarantee you’ll find it more satisfying than anything Hitchens has to say.