But if you don’t know what’s in King James (Bible) and how it sounds, you won’t understand a lot of what’s in Shakespeare or Milton or John Donne or George Herbert, to name only a few examples. Enormous numbers of phrases in common use would be opaque to you. You wouldn’t know where they came from. They would be empty.
Look, religion was our first attempt at philosophy. It was the first and the worst, but it’s still part of our history and tradition. As it is, children don’t know where anything comes from—they don’t know the literary canon or the historical record. So I think to be religiously literate is very important.
I still agree with Norm here and here and here that there is sufficient empirical evidence to question any notion that religion is necessarily a force for evil. Those who are driven by religion to virtuous and courageous acts may really be acting on a universal and fundamentally secular moral conscience, but their rationale is religious and religion may have been a key factor in transforming them from passive dissidents into active resistors. However Hitchens is absolutely right about language, literature and culture.This is illustrated by a recent article by Madeleine Bunting. Despite her remarkable tolerance for radical Islam, she is less forgiving of Christianity in politics. Writing about Gordon Brown, she gets it spectacularly wrong when she says, 'religion has re-emerged as a central inspiration of political rhetoric'. Sorry Madeleine, It has never gone away.
Probably the most original and impressive piece of social history I have ever read is Jonathan Rose's wonderful The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. The book is a celebration of working class autodidact erudition and also discusses the political significance of literary language. If you were to identify the sources of popular literary tastes they would lie with Shakespeare (and Rose documents the vast working class enthusiasm for Shakespeare in the 19th Century) and the King James Bible, both masterpieces of poetic English language and, amongst much else, moral discourses. Lyrical language fired the popular imagination and embodied a morality which found its expression in early socialism. Rose argues that the failure of the Communist Party to gain much of a foothold was due to its abandonment of literary language in favour of the obscure jargon of a middle class elite that had no resonance with a working class schooled in Milton and Bunyan. "Where Marxists defined exploitation in purely economic terms, Labour socialists, brandishing their Everyman's Library volumes, promised beauty in life, joy in work, a moral vision in politics" (p.299). Ironic when you think how much Marx himself, and his children, adored Shakespeare.
In terms of contemporary mainstream politics, whereas Blair was all New English Bible, written in ugly modern English for Anglicans who actually believe in God, Brown's language is closer to the King James version, a bible for people who just like the sound of religion rather than religion itself. Whether Brown is trying to merely recover the sound of ethical socialism or ethical socialism itself is a moot point.
And, of course, we need that language, that emotional and ethical engagement with beauty. Compare the lyricism of Blake with the barbarities of post-modernism and see where each will lead you. And what do those who apologise for terrorism do? What do those who see the oppression of women as acceptable in different cultures do? They overwhelm our emotional moral revulsion with carefully constructed rationalisations that twist what we know to be wrong into something that can be accepted as right, or at least convenient. Language misused can be egregiously deceptive.
If this emotional, lyrical and moral language is rooted in religious traditions, it doesn't mean that religion is the sole possible vehicle for morality. I haven't read Hitchens' book yet but from the interviews I have seen he seems to be right in the tradition of the 19th Century Freethought movement, in that he is arguing that what is damaging is the religious mode of thinking. Given the quality of his prose he is well placed to contribute to the development of a secular ethical language and to address the issue raised by Sam Harris in his book, "The End of Faith".
We live in societies that are still constrained by religious laws and threatened by religious violence. What is it about us, and specifically about our discourse with one another, that keeps these astonishing bits of evil loose in the world? … Mitigating this problem is not merely a matter of reining in a minority of religious extremists; it is a matter of finding approaches to ethics and to spiritual experience that makes no appeal to faith, and broadcasting this knowledge to everyone. (pp. 223-224)
So what would such an ethic look like? Harris again;
We do not know what awaits each of us after death, but we know that we will die. Clearly, it must be possible to live ethically – with a genuine concern for the happiness of other sentient beings – without presuming to know things about which we are patently ignorant. Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person you will pass in the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would anyone want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime? (p.226)
A secular politics that celebrates life is more lyrical and beautiful than a religious one that worships death and seeks to impose a state of utopian misery by the use of extreme violence. In reality, the devil most certainly does not have the best tunes.