Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Kresta Commentary: A Hitch in Evidence

A Hitch in Evidence
April 8, 2009
Al Kresta

I’ve never gotten use to shameless manipulation of the truth, but I’m getting better at it after spending a half-hour this week with anti-theist bad boy Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Like his fellow atheist and Englishman, Richard Dawkins, whose documentary movie about religion is called Root of All Evil, Hitchens claims that all of society’s ills can be chalked up to religion, while all social progress stems from materialistic thinking.

I thought it was Christians who get accused of dividing the world up into good and bad guys, of holding a naïve belief in angels and demons. Apparently, materialism doesn’t bring the cure. Hitchens demonstrates that materialists can be as guilty as any believer of demonizing his opponents.

So I accused Hitchens of special pleading i.e., employing a double standard or claiming omniscient insight into a topic and thereby exempting oneself from the normal rules of evidence or logic. Why? Examples could be multiplied, but in this instance I went after him because he wrote that Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist pastor, was not a Christian in any “real sense” but was rather merely a “nominal Christian.” As per Hitchens, King’s historic civil rights leadership and achievement should be attributed to more secular humanitarian impulses than fidelity to the Gospel. So here’s the equation: civil rights=good=secular origin. But the book gets worse. Joseph Stalin, who led an atheistic regime responsible for slaughtering up to 40 million of his countrymen achieved his place in the annals of brutality, according to Hitchens, through the inspiration of a quasi Russian Orthodox czarism! Murderous regime=bad=religious origin.

When I chuckled at his chutzpah, he took pains to instruct me: “[The Russian Orthodox Church]… is now producing new icons [which] show Joseph Stalin with a halo around his head…They (the Russian Orthodox Church) are selling them…Stalinism is a religion and is thus recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church.” My instincts assured me that this was nonsense. But like many urban legends, there was probably some morsel of fact buried in the dung heap. What in the world could he be referring to?

Sure enough, Hitchens had pulled a bait and switch. Paul Globe, a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia and, until recently, the director of research at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, had posted a story in late November of last year. I borrow liberally from his November 27, 2008 blog post.

A dissident Orthodox priest in a town near St. Petersburg had sparked controversy by putting up an icon of Blessed Matrona of Moscow. Stalin was portrayed on the icon but without any of the attributes of sainthood. He was simply standing next to her. Thus, technically, it was not an icon of Stalin at all.

According to an unconfirmed legend, Stalin secretly visited her at the house of a friend where she predicted that Moscow would not fall to the Nazis. This is how Stalin ends up on an icon of Matrona of Moscow.

In posting the icon, the priest, who has a history of provocative actions, stepped outside his authority and was denounced by the Moscow Patriarchate. According to one report, he was so severely reprimanded by his superior that he became physically ill. Many of his parishioners forced him to remove the icon from the altar calling it blasphemy.

I emailed Paul Globe to see what had developed since his November post. First, the original "Stalin" icon was taken down. Second, the priest was transferred. Third, copies continue to show up at various Russian nationalist meetings. But even the dissident priest specified that “this is not an icon glorifying Stalin. This is an image of Matrona of Moscow and [Stalin]… is one of those people whom she blessed. She blessed many people.”

According to one Russian Orthodox blogger, “all this fuss about canonizing Stalin comes from two marginal groups but gets spread around because it sounds funny to journalists.” One group is a dissident Orthodox faction. The other is a restorationist communist group whose size may not be above double digits. The Weekly Standard, whose name Hitchens’ threw out as a source, reports it this way: “[O]n the fringes of Stalin worship, a small, bizarre cult regards the Communist dictator as a closet Christian and even advocates his canonization.”

Rather than produce and sell these icons, the Russian Orthodox Church has spoken out against them. Nor has it recognized the saintly origins of Stalinism.

Perhaps Hitchens’ socialist and revolutionary past- he greatly admired Che Guevara- renders him more susceptible to telling lies about the Russian Orthodox Church or seeing haloes around Joseph Stalin. St. Paul warns that those who refuse to give thanks to their Creator “become fatuous in their argumentation…” Sin in the heart is often the source of error in the head.

"Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood…Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who line their pockets with bribes from the guilty and deprive the innocent of his right!" (The prophet Isaiah 5:18ff).

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