Having Faith: What Both Hitchens and Fundamentalists Don't Get About Religion

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David Caton owes me one. I interviewed the head of the Florida Family Association last week during his bigoted but successful crusade to get companies like Lowe's to pull ads from All-American Muslim, the Learning Channel reality show about a community of Muslim Americans. Before Caton hung up on me — he gets angry when you question his complaint that the show presents Muslims in too positive a light and not as crazed radicals plotting to impose Islamic shari'a law from Maine to Monterey — I corrected his pronunciation of imam, a Muslim cleric, from Eye-mam to the proper Ee-mawm. Later that day, I heard him say it properly on CNN.

But that's all he got right. I concern myself with Caton — who also likes to hire small planes to haul banners over Orlando warning people that homosexuals visit Disney World — only for two reasons. One is that a major corporation like Lowe's actually caved to the Evangelical's ugly Islamophobia. The other is that he got his 15 minutes of fame at about the same time that Christopher Hitchens died, on Dec. 15. Hitchens was best known as one of the "angry atheists" for his 2007 best seller God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and narrow-minded fundamentalists like Caton made his work a lot easier. So of course did extremist Muslims, as well as extremist Roman Catholics, Jews, Hindus and all the fanatics who ruin religion the way drunks ruin driving. Which is why Hitchens' attacks on faith, while brilliantly written, could also feel gratuitous.

So it's fitting, at least for the silent majority of Christians who aren't hatemongering zealots but who derive hope and humane inspiration from our beliefs, that Caton and Hitchens should both be in the news during the Christmas season. The holiday's anticommercialization critics are right to argue that Christians spend too much time on outdoor lights at the expense of the inner light kindled by the story of God's incarnation in a manger. I'm as guilty as anyone in that regard. But Caton and Hitchens at least give us Christians a convenient place to start. They prod us on the one hand to assess what isn't Christian — like demonizing gays and Muslims — and on the other hand to reaffirm why Christianity and religion itself are a positive and not always poisonous influence in the world.

The crux of the Florida Family Association's campaign is Caton's preposterous claim, as he told me, that "every Eye-mam in this country wants to put the U.S. under shari'a law." Every imam I know here in Miami rejects the idea. "Muslims are only 6 million out of 300 million in this country," one reminds me. "We rely on U.S. law to protect our rights as a minority." They're also a minority who wish Christians well at Christmas: the Koran reverently mentions Jesus and the Virgin Mary almost 60 times.

One way, then, that Christians can practice Jesus' teachings of love, tolerance and charity this yuletide is by resolving to reassure folks like Muslims that we're not like the Florida Family Association. That we're committed to the code of Christmas — "Peace on earth to people of goodwill" — trumpeted by the same angels we place atop the trees in our living rooms.

That's also one of the best ways to answer Hitchens as well as other angry atheists like Richard Dawkins and quite a few members of my own hypersecular profession. It's a fairly widely accepted maxim that atheist fundamentalists, as I call them, can be just as intolerant as religious fundamentalists. And the problem they share is that both take religion way too literally. Just as Christian fundamentalists insist on a literal reading of the Bible, angry atheists tend to insist that belief in God qualifies you as a raving creationist.

Here's what they refuse to get: Yes, Christians believe that Jesus' nativity was a virgin birth and that he rose from the dead on Easter. But if you were to show most Christians incontrovertible scientific proof that those miracles didn't occur, they would shrug — because their faith means more to them than that. Because in the end, what they have faith in is the redemptive power of the story. In Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited, an agnostic says to his Catholic friend, "You can't seriously believe it all ... I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass."

"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea."

"But you can't believe things simply because they're a lovely idea."

"But I do. That's how I believe."

I'm willing to bet it's how most believers believe. Before Hitchens died at 62 from esophageal cancer, he made a point of declaring he was certain no heaven awaited him. But that swipe at the faithful always misses the point. Most of us don't believe in God because we think it's a ticket to heaven. Rather, our belief in God — our belief in the living ideal of ourselves, which is something even atheists ponder — instills in us a faith that in the end, light always defeats darkness (which is how people get through the wars and natural disasters I cover). That does make us open to the possibility of the hereafter — but more important, it gives us purposeful inspiration to make the here and now better.

With all due respect to the memory of Christopher Hitchens, making the here and now better would be difficult without religion. But it's also hard enough without the un-Christian antics of people like David Caton. As Christmas ought to remind us.